There is a lot of debate about protein supplements and their effectiveness for athletes who are looking to gain muscle size, power and strength. Unfortunately a lot of the results that are advertised are exaggerated for profit purposes. In this article I hope to shed some light on the real truths behind protein supplementation. Supplementation is not huge in the acrobatic world but I see more and more athletes using them every year.
Protein being the basic building block of muscle is very important for all athletes who require strong muscles to achieve high levels of athletic performance. The daily required intake (DRI) of protein for an average person is about 0.8-1.0 g/kg of body weight. However for an athletes who is constantly doing a lot more physical activity on a regular basis, the body requires a lot more protein to keep building muscle. How much you ask? Well it really depends on the athlete. A very physically demanding sport such as foot ball or power lifting would obviously require more muscle and therefore more protein compared to ping pong or tennis. One article shows that women cyclists require 1.6 x the amount of the daily required intake of the general population (1). For a football player carbohydrates are more of the focus and they are required to have about 1.2-1.4g/kg of body weight a day (2). An average intake is about 0.8g/kg. So you may be asking yourself, how much do I need? The answer is that there is no right or wrong amount. Everywhere I look I see articles saying protein supplementation does work and other articles saying it does not work. It comes down to your personal body type and preference. A trampolinist for example would most likely not find a large increase in performance with a high protein diet. Maybe a creatine supplement may help a trampolinist, but that is a topic for another day. The reason it will not provide huge benefits is because a trampolinist does not need to be bulky. Sure a few are but the best athletes are the skinny ones that have a good bioenergetic training program rather then a muscle mass based program. You do need both as I have mentioned for safety reasons but as far as supplimentations go it would be more of a placebo effect. I also have tried for a few summers to ingest Whey protein and I felt absolutely no difference. But I hear others notice a big difference.
The basic concept of a protein supplement is to keep the nitrogen balance from being in the negative state. During exercise nitrogen balance decreases and is considered to be negative meaning amino acids, which contain nitrogen in the structure of the molecule are being used up to fuel the exercise. Protein ingestion during exercise is supposed to help prevent nitrogen balance from decreasing as much as in a protein-free workout. This would allow the muscle to build back up after the work out quicker. Here is a simple analogy that may help to picture what is happening.
Say you are walking up the stairs but for every three steps you climb you have to go down two steps. This would mean that you are constantly back tracking and only gaining one step of improvement at every cycle. Now imagine if you only had to go back down one step for every three steps you go up. You would help increase the amount of steps you go up because you are not going back down as much as before. That is what protein does before and during and after a workout.
After a workout protein is suppose to help increase the amount of muscle actually being built rather than decreasing the amount that is broken down. So it makes sense that both before and after workout protein ingestion would be beneficial (3). This article shows that amino acid ingestion does increase performance however this article says it does not (4). The bottom line is this:
If you have money to spend then it is worth a try because there is not any scientific evidence that shows extra protein ingestion has a negative effect on the body. If you are not a millionaire then do not waste money on it because you can get a lot of protein from meats and brown rice and peas etc. Buying supplements will not make you have astronomical adaptations and cause you to increase your bench press from 150 lbs to 300 in a month. Nor will it increase your Time of Flight to above 19 seconds. The actual gains of extra protein are not what people think. Some fitness magazines will say that you can build one pound of muscle per week or 20 lbs of muscle in 2 months and this is simply wrong. The muscle gains of protein are much smaller. A beginner body builder would roughly expect to gain maybe around 20 lbs of muscle due to extra protein in a YEAR. As you know, adaptations do not just increase at the same rate, they plateau. A seasoned body builder would be expected to gain about 2-3 lbs of muscle in a year due to extra protein. That is not what the advertisers would ever tell you because obviously that does not sound as impressive (5). I have seen other articles that say the gain in muscle mass is actually even less then that but unfortunately i don’t have it so i won’t reference it. I believe the above website will re-enforce the point I am trying to make even if the numbers are not 100% correct. With this said, extra protein cannot hurt you (6). There has not been any real scientific evidence that shows that too much protein will hurt you. Even consuming up to 4g/kg/ day has been shows to have no negative side effects.
So in conclusion, protein is not the be all and end all of training and strength gains can be attained the same way with a proper periodization plan and a well balanced diet and maybe a bit of extra protein per day. You cannot overdose on protein based on the scientific evidence that is available currently so give it a try and see if you think it helps you. I would start off by working out for a month and then recording the muscle gains and anthropometric measurements and then try protein for a month and compare the results. I hope that this has helped and shown some of the truths behind the protein supplementation myth. Gymnasts would benefit probably more then a trampolinist but it is simple. You have to look at your sport and your own body proportions. Generally speaking many athletes were very strong and got amazing results before protein supplementation ever existed. It is not necessary but maybe worth a try. ONE thing it can do is re stimulate a plateau in your training. Having an off month and feel lazy, put your self on a protein supplementation program as a way to force yourself to get back on top of things. Sometimes simple changes in training regimen can re awaken the athlete.