Contrary to popular myth and wishful thinking, you can't build muscle just by eating a lot of protein. It is clear, though, that the combination of resistance training and protein is a powerful stimulus for muscle growth. Plus, studies in recent years have shown that the most effective way to trigger muscle growth is to spread your protein intake throughout the day, in several doses of about 20 to 25 grams. Taking in more than that at once doesn't seem to produce any further benefits. (Unfortunately, while most of us get plenty of protein, we tend to get most of it in one big lump at dinner.)
If you really want to spread your protein intake out, one option is to take a dose right before bed so that you'll have an elevated rate of muscle protein synthesis overnight. Or will you? Your body shifts into dormant mode while you're asleep, so it's not immediately obvious that taking protein before bed would be helpful. So a few years ago, researchers in Luc van Loon's group at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands tested out the hypothesis, and found that muscle protein synthesis was indeed 22 percent higher overnight following a pre-bed protein boost.
Now the same group has published a new study in the Journal of Nutrition in which they tested the idea out in a double-blinded, 12-week training study. 44 volunteers lifted weights three times a week, and they drank either a placebo drink or a protein drink before bed. The protein drink (Peptopro) contained 27.5 grams of protein and 15 grams of carbohydrate.
The results? The protein group had significantly greater improvements in muscle strength, muscle size and muscle fibre size.
An important point to note is that the subjects were already consuming diets that were fairly high in protein (1.3 g/kg), and receiving an additional snack with 10 grams of protein after each workout. The benefits of the before-bed snack seem to be more than just correcting a deficiency in protein.
So how much protein is involved? Well, a cup of low-fat milk has about eight grams of protein, so it takes more than that. Maybe a big glass of milk and some toast and peanut butter would do the trick. More generally, think in terms of getting four to six distinct doses of protein throughout the day and evening. And, most importantly, don't forget to do the workouts too: you can't eat your way to fitness.