We’re going to pump (clap!) you up

Shelly had a question: “My 14-year-old’s football coach wants him to take at least 120 grams of protein a day. Isn’t this too much? Is this the best way to ‘bulk up’?”

It is a good idea for adolescents looking to increase their muscle bulk to consume a diet rich in good quality protein. However, it sounds like this coach may be pushing this idea to the extreme, and may be over-emphasizing a very specific diet rather than encouraging a well-balanced, healthy regimen.

Growing adolescents need to consume about 50 grams of protein a day. The precise number depends on many factors, including the kinds of protein eaten and in what combination, but 50 grams is a pretty good estimate for most kids. It’s not very difficult to get that much protein, especially from meat sources—50 grams of protein can be found in six ounces of lean meat or fish. Rich plant sources of protein include soy (tofu), nuts, and beans. There are several good tables available showing more precise measurements of the protein content of foods.

Proteins are digested in a broken-down form, called amino acids, that are used in part to make muscle tissue. So it does make sense to adolescents looking to increase their muscle bulk, or “lean body mass,” to have a diet that offers plenty of protein building blocks for growing tissues. But there is no evidence that extra-high protein loading makes muscles grow any faster or bigger.

Super-high protein intake can stress the kidneys, and can lead to a loss of calcium and other nutrients in the urine. Though, again, the exact number depends on many factors, most exercise physiologists recommend a daily protein intake of no more than 2 grams per kilogram body weight per day. For an average 14 year old adolescent male (let’s say, 140 pounds), that’s about 125 grams. Larger kids could probably tolerate more than this, as long as plenty of water is consumed and the remainder of the diet is well-balanced. However, this is an expensive way to eat, and won’t really help build muscle any better than a good balanced diet with a more modest amount of protein.

There is absolutely no advantage to using hi-protein shakes or bars over good quality, protein-rich foods. Some vegetarians (or kids who just don’t like meat) may find it easier to get a high protein intake using these products, but they’re a very expensive source of protein. I would much rather encourage a teenager to consume lean meat, eggs, fish, and nuts at every meal rather than rely on a special, processed protein source.

Beyond diet, there are other essential elements to increasing lean body mass. One is resistance exercise—that is, weight training. Muscles must move against “extra resistance” in order to grow. I suggest that adolescent who wish to weight train do this with the help of a qualified coach or trainer, to teach them how to use the equipment safely and effectively. Maximum lifts should not be attempted until after puberty is complete. Younger adolescents should do exercises using small enough weights that at least 20 repetitions can be done at each set; older adolescents may wish to push the weights higher and reps lower than this to get maximum bulk. Resistance training should occur with a day of rest in between each session, using alternate muscle groups each day or using alternate days for cardiovascular training.

After diet and exercise, the third essential element needed for effective lean body growth is something that’s often overlooked: sleep. Muscle tissues grow most efficiently during sleep, and adolescents who skimp on sleep will find that even a vigorous exercise program will not get them the bulk they’re looking for. Teenagers need nine hours of sleep each night, and there is no short-cut for adequate sleep.

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