by Chad Kerksick PhD February 07, 2011 5 min read
You mean with all of the information currently available, you haven’t found something that clearly spells out how to take something?! I can understand exactly how you feel, as the way some companies market their products it takes fifteen minutes or more just to get a clear handle on what’s in the product itself.
A tremendous amount of focus continues to be placed on what to take and rightfully so. Without such efforts, we’d still be slugging down Gatorade and wondering why we can’t recover … and forget about even asking why we can’t grow. For the same reason, protein types wouldn’t have been fully developed so while I’m sure you get lost (and maybe even a little pissed off) in the battle between protein types, the interest in the topic certainly leads to a greater understanding. With that greater understanding, recommendations continue to get more accurate and refined.
The topic of essential amino acid supplementation and their impact of muscle protein synthesis while resistance training is likely one of my favorite areas, as well as one of the most important for an athlete to fully understand.
Before I dive too deep into “the when and how”, remember that amino acids are like the individual bricks in a house. Add the bricks together, you eventually get a house. Amino acids added together make up the proteins found throughout every cell in our body. Our body uses approximately twenty different amino acids to make proteins. Of these twenty, the amino acids that our body cannot produce are called essential amino acids (EAA) and thus it is essential that we get them in our diet or through dietary supplements.
A few other key facts include that only animal sources of protein contain all of these essential amino acids and are called complete protein sources. Examples obviously include milk, chicken, beef, poultry, fish and eggs, while plant sources of protein are considered incomplete because they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids. Lastly and likely the most important thing to sit back and think about, research has shown that only the essential amino acids are needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis which is what directly equates to how much muscle protein is built [1-2]. (Remember, protein synthesis and muscle protein synthesis are two different things)
As you can see, this is why people like myself and others who regularly supplement with protein sources like whey protein go on and on about the benefits to be derived from regularly adding it to your diet. Why whey protein and not egg protein or casein protein? Well that’s because whey has a higher percentage of its mass coming from protein (and not fat, lactose, etc.) and also that it contains the highest amount of the essential amino acids (not to mention it’s proven in countless studies to work best).
Elevated levels of amino acids in the blood is the most critical factor which signals changes in muscle protein synthesis , which is a point that makes the quality and bioavailability of the protein source critically important. So, how many hours do you think amino acid levels stay elevated in the blood after you ingest your protein shake? One hours? Two hours? Three hours? More? Less? The answer is around two to three hours. Some very well done studies have clearly shown that amino acids levels stay elevated for this amount of time and that this increase occurs to the same level no matter if it’s one dose or two doses [6-7].
They key to optimal muscle growth is keeping these amino levels elevated ALL the time … or as much as is practically possible. In order to do this, you will have to be giving your body some sort of essential amino acid dose every 2-3 hours throughout the day. Whether this dose comes from solid food, whey-based protein shakes or direct essential amino acid supplementation is up to you.
All of the things I’ve mentioned are important and relate to HOW you should be using your various sources of supplementation. It’s critical to remember essential amino acids directly equate to muscle growth, so make sure the food sources of protein in your diet come from animal sources so they will have all of the necessary essential amino acid levels.
This is where those people who think you don’t need to supplement are not looking at the entire picture.
Certainly, I’m a huge advocate of eating a well-balanced healthy diet. Getting adequate levels of fiber, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and fats are all very important and for this reason, no one should ever regularly replace all of their meals with a protein shake. So with a good diet, a person should certainly be able to provide good sources of nutrients a minimum of three times a day. But remember I said amino acid levels only stay elevated for two to three hours before going back down (going catabolic) and this is where adding an essential amino acid supplement can be very convenient. Add a dose of essentials with a whole wheat bagel, a granola bar or a piece of fruit and you have a nice healthy snack that will help keep essential amino acid levels elevated in the blood and keep you in an anabolic state.
The development of small, compact doses of essential amino acids (such as capsules) are super useful for this purpose as a handful of them can be thrown into a desk drawer, gym bag or vehicle and quickly consumed. Of course, a dose of your favorite whey protein powder also works just fine, but you do have to worry about cleaning it out and keep it from stinking like soured milk. Within the confines of a person’s normal daily routine, I really like the production of essential amino acid supplements as a solution for convenience.
If you want to grow, improve your body composition and respond positively to your training program, you need essential amino acids in your diet…consistently. As part of your meals, focus on animal sources of protein. After a few hours pass, you’ll need another shot of essential amino acids. A whey protein shake or a handful of essential amino acid capsules with a carbohydrate source are good choices. The main point being that you are hitting your body with a solid dose of muscle protein synthesis stimulating essential aminos every 2-3 hours to make sure you are making the most of your muscle building opportunities. Diligently following this pattern will apply all of the recent research surrounding the essential amino acids and exercise, and put you on the way to seeing the improvements in your body you work so hard to accomplish.