If you’re willing to put in the effort to hit the gym, it’s worth it to pay attention to your nutrition as well. Studies consistently show that nutrition plays a fundamental role in training outcomes, impacting everything from how fast you recover to the amount of muscle and strength you can gain from a training program.
For example, we know that certain foods can boost exercise performance or improve recuperation of strength after a tough workout. Both watermelon and beets contain bioactive compounds that improve blood flow and oxygen delivery to working muscles for increased time to exhaustion. The caffeine in coffee dulls pain and may impact the central nervous system, reducing the sensation of post-workout muscle soreness that can force you to limp up and down the stairs after a tough squat workout.
Then there is protein. Studies consistently show that supplementing with protein can improve strength and muscle gains with training. A 2012 review of studies found that people who used protein powder in conjunction with resistance training had 38 percent greater gains in muscle and 33 percent greater increases in strength than those who did not. On average, protein supplementation increased muscle mass gains by 0.69 kg and maximal leg strength by 13.5 kg compared with placebo trials. The average amount of protein that was supplemented was 50 grams.
One thing that is important to note is that most of the subjects in this review were young—a population that is unique from older adults in regard to how they respond to training and nutrition. Younger trainees typically consume more total protein than older adults and experience higher rates of protein synthesis in response to smaller doses of protein. They also experience robust increases in strength and muscle in response to resistance training.
Older adults are anabolically resistant, which means that they require a higher per meal protein dose to achieve similar rates of protein synthesis. Therefore, researchers are keen to determine how protein supplementation can benefit this population and what the ideal protein intake is. Although a universal recommendation is premature, researchers are finding the best results come from protein doses in the 35-gram range with a total intake of around 1.6g/kg of bodyweight for maximizing strength and muscle in older adults.
One study found that older women with an average age of 61 who took supplemental protein in conjunction with strength training for 12 weeks increased strength, muscle, and gait speed compared to a placebo group that lifted weights without taking extra protein. A second study of frail, elderly individuals with an average age of 77 increased muscle size by 23 percent in type 1 slow-twitch muscle fibers and 34 percent in the fast-twitch type 2 fibers after 6 months of training and twice daily protein supplementation (15 grams at each serving).
Finally, a 2017 review of randomized training and supplementation trials found that among volunteers with an average age of 73, protein supplementation combined with strength training led to significantly greater increases in strength and muscle mass in the lower body compared to training alone. Researchers recommend protein supplementation to prevent aging-related muscle mass and strength loss.
Maintaining lower body strength and muscle is especially important because it correlates with longevity and survival from disease. For example, a 2005 study found that there was a close association between the degree of strength in the quadriceps and risk of mortality—that is, a population of elderly men and women, those with the strongest legs had the lowest risk of dying over a 6-year period. Conversely, those with the weakest legs had the highest mortality risk.
Besides strength and muscle, what are other benefits from supplementing with protein?
Protein provides amino acids, which lead to the release of gut hormones that blunt hunger and reduce appetite. This can make protein powder useful for avoiding cravings or heading off the munchies in between meals.
Protein may aid with fat loss. By stimulating protein synthesis, it maintains lean mass, the driver of your metabolic rate. It also has a high thermic effect, which means the body burns more calories processing it than it does carbs or fat. The body burns 25 percent of the calories of a pure protein meal during digestion.
Protein stimulates cognition and alertness. Amino acids in protein raise levels of stimulating neurotransmitters, improving brain function and motivation.
It’s safe to say that everyone should ensure they are getting enough protein. Here are some general guidelines for optimizing your protein intake:
#1: Pick A Daily Protein Goal.
The exact amount will depend on the individual, but scientists recommend between 1.2 and 2.2 g/kg of protein a day. A safe recommendation that will optimize protein for most people including older adults is 1.6 g/kg of protein.
What does 1.6 g/kg look like in real life? Remember that there are 2.2 lbs per kg, so 1.6 g is equivalent to 0.73 g per lb of body weight. Therefore, a 165 lb person weighs 75 kg (165/2.2); 75 kg X 1.6 = 120 grams per day of protein.
Here’s a very simple suggested rundown of protein sources to hit the 120 g mark:
Breakfast: 3 eggs = 18 g/protein
Lunch: 5 oz. chicken or turkey = 32 g/protein
Dinner: 6 oz. salmon or cod = 42 g/protein
Post-workout Whey Protein Shake: 25 g/protein
#2: Distribute Protein Throughout The Day.
Eating protein stimulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis and suppresses protein breakdown for several hours so that you end up with more lean tissue. Based on the availability of amino acids in the protein, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish that pool of building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development.
#3: Supplement Around Training.
Most important is to ensure you raise blood amino acid levels during and after training so that the muscle has the building blocks necessary to restore damaged tissue. Many people like to eat a high-protein meal a few hours before a workout (allowing enough time to digest) and then take their protein supplement after training, but you could just as easily take protein pre- and post-workout. Whey protein, free form amino acids, and branched-chain amino acids are all supplemental protein sources that have performed well in studies. Younger adults should get a minimum of 20 grams of protein post-workout, whereas older adults will likely benefit from 35 to 40 grams for maximal protein synthesis.
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Francis, P., et al. Twelve weeks' progressive resistance training combined with protein supplementation beyond habitual intakes increases upper leg lean tissue mass, muscle strength and extended gait speed in healthy older women. Biogerontology. 2017. 18(6), 881-891.
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