Protein Needs For Athletes: Getting The Bulk Without the Bulge

by Brooke on April 1, 2014

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Protein is an important nutrient for tissue and muscle building and repair.   Athletes wanting to gain muscle mass, while still keeping a lean physique will need to make sure that they consume enough protein and are consume the right amount of energy to support their daily training and other physical activities.  If basic daily energy needs are not met muscle mass can and will be used as an energy source.  The goal is to consume the right amount of fuel (both carbohydrates and protein) during training sessions to aid in muscle contraction, spare protein from being used as an energy source, and supply enough amino acids to assist with muscle building and repair.   However, if too much energy is consumed in the form of carbohydrate, fat, or protein weight will be gained and that won’t just be muscle mass.  

Here are the current Protein Recommendations:

  • Daily Reference Intake (DRI) for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day (0.36 g/lb/day)
  • For endurance athletes it is 1.2 to 1.4 g/kg/day
  • For resistance athletes it is around 1.6 to 1.7 g/kg/day
  • For athletes trying to increase lean muscle mass consume up to 2.0 g/kg/d
                                             Daily Protein Needs Based On Weight
Weight (pounds) Protein Needs (1.6 g/kg) Protein Needs (2 g/kg)
100 73 91
110 80 100
120 87 109
130 95 118
140 102 127
150 109 136
160 116 145
170 124 155
180 131 164
190 138 173
200 145 182
210 153 191
220 160 200
230 167 209
240 175 218
250 182 227

Use the above chart to help determine the minimum and the maximum amount of protein needed for building muscle mass.  For example, if an athlete weighing 150 pounds was trying to build muscle mass they would need to consume between 109-136 grams of protein a day.   It is not recommended to consume more than two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.  Consuming more protein than our bodies can handle could decrease kidney and liver function.

It’s All About Timing

The amount of protein we consume and time we consume it are both important factors for building muscle.  Within 15-30 minutes after a workout, snacks with a mixture of both carbohydrate and protein are beneficial for replacing energy stores and aiding in recovery.  A recovery snack or small meal containing 10-20 grams of protein should be sufficient enough for most normal weight athletes.   Consuming balanced meals rich in both carbohydrate and lean protein every three to four hours will also help to supply your body with enough energy and nutrient to build muscle mass. 

What To Eat

There are numerous animal and plant-derived protein sources that athletes can choose from.  Below is a quick table that can be used to determine the amount of protein found in both animal and plant-based protein sources.

Food Serving Size Protein (grams)
Chicken Breast 3 oz 26
Canned Tuna 1/2 cup 26
Boiled Egg whites 3 10
Cheese 1 oz 7
Milk 1 cup 8
Brown Rice 1 cup cooked 5
Oatmeal 1 cup cooked 6
Peanut Butter 2 Talespoons 7
Tofu 1/2 cup 10

To gain muscle mass your body only needs an extra 300-500 calories a day.   This can be done by adding in extra snacks or increasing portion sizes.  Below are some great snack and meal ideas for increasing protein intake and building muscle mass.

Protein Snack Ideas

  • Nut butter (peanut, almond) and whole fruit
  • Cheese stick and whole wheat crackers
  • Cottage cheese and sliced fruit
  • Protein bar or granola bar:  Choose one with less than 10 grams of sugar
  • Greek yogurt with granola
  • Homemade Trail Mix:  ½ cup unsalted almonds and ¼ cup of dried fruit

Protein-Rich Meals


  • Whole wheat English muffin with peanut butter and sliced bananas on top
  • Three egg white and vegetable scramble with whole wheat toast and a glass of low-fat milk
  • Homemade oatmeal made with low-fat milk and top with almonds and raisons


  • Grilled chicken with broccoli and sweet potato
  • Mixed greens salad topped with chickpeas, cheddar cheese, tomatoes, corn, carrots and served with sliced pineapple, and low-sodium soup
  • Chicken/tofu and vegetable stirfry with brown rice and an orange
  • Fish tacos served with brown rice and black beans
  • Whole wheat wrap with turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and hummus served with whole wheat pita chips