Resistance exercise – like lifting free weights, using a weight machine, or doing bodyweight exercises – breaks down muscle. And, at the same time, stimulates it to get stronger and bigger.
The balance between muscle degradation and the stimulus to get bigger and stronger is delicate and can be modified by things like your diet.
It has been known for a long time that eating or drinking protein immediately after exercise tips the balance in favor of getting bigger and stronger.
A new area of research is looking at the effect ingesting protein before sleep has on lean muscle gains.
Lots of muscle recovery and adaptation happens while you are asleep. Pre-sleep protein is a strategic time to increase overall protein intake and prime your body for maximal strength and size gains.
The effect pre-sleep protein has on overnight muscle protein synthesis
The rate of muscle protein synthesis tends to be lower at night compared to in the morning. Taking a protein supplement right before bed increases overnight muscle protein synthesis, which may be a good way to boost your net muscle protein synthesis rate.
Especially if you do some resistance exercise in the evening too.
Two studies, both coming out of the laboratory of Dr. Luc van Loon at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, tell us what we really need to know to take advantage of this concept.
The first study was done in 2012. The researchers took sixteen healthy young males, got them to do a single session of resistance-type exercise (i.e. lifting weights), gave them proper post-workout nutrition (20g of protein and 60g of carbohydrates), and then split the participants into two groups.
One group got 40g of protein 30 minutes before bed and the other was given a placebo.
The group that took protein before bed had higher rates of muscle protein synthesis.
The second study came along in 2017. This time more participants were used and a different amount of pre-sleep protein was given to the participants.
The structure of the study was the exact same: single session of resistance-type exercise, post-workout nutrition, and split into two groups, one getting protein before bed and the other getting placebo.
The difference: 30g of protein this time around.
This time the researchers did not see an increase in muscle protein synthesis rates in the group given a protein supplement 30 minutes before bed.
The long-term effects of pre-sleep protein on muscle mass and strength gains
Increasing muscle protein synthesis overnight is good, but, if you’re anything like me, maybe your curious what the long-term consequences would be.
Dr. van Loon covered this too.
In his 2015 study he put 44 young men on a 12-week resistance exercise training program. One group got protein before bed and the other got a placebo.
The group that ingested protein before bed experienced greater improvements in muscle strength and greater increases in muscle size compared to the group that got the placebo.
How much protein do you need and when?
When figuring out how much protein you need before bed to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis, we really only have these three studies to rely on.
In the first study (2012) looking at muscle protein synthesis overnight, 40g of protein did the trick.
In the second study (2017), 30g of protein was not enough to increase muscle protein synthesis.
The long-term study used 27.5g of protein before bed and saw increased muscle strength and size.
What’s going on here?
The discrepancy between the 2017 study and the long-term study is a little confusing. Based on what we know, you can’t have an increase in muscle strength and size without having an increase in muscle protein synthesis.
However, the 2017 study and the long-term study seem to be suggesting just that. On the surface.
What may actually be happening here might just be due to math. Researchers must rely on something called statistical significance, which allows a person to attach a probability to the chances of them being right or wrong about something.
Just because the researchers in the 2017 study didn’t observe a statistically significant difference between the pre-sleep protein group and the placebo group doesn’t mean nothing was happening. The difference in muscle protein synthesis rate just might not have been large enough to reach that magic number.
If we choose to believe that pre-sleep protein before bed increases muscle protein synthesis rate, the results of the long-term study allow us to conclude that small increases over a long period of time will result in increased muscle strength and size.
Based on these studies, I would say you need at least 30g of protein 30 minutes before bed to experience muscle strength and muscle size gains.
30g of protein is about 4 ounces of lean ground beef or chicken breast. 5 ounces of salmon. Eight large egg whites. Or, a scoop and a half of a good protein supplement.
These studies conducted by Dr. van Loon in the Netherlands suggest that taking protein 30 minutes before you sleep will increase muscle protein synthesis and lead to increased muscle strength and size after at least 12 weeks of resistance training.
Based on these studies, I would say you need at least 30g of protein within 30 minutes of bedtime to experience these benefits.
What we still don’t know is the effectiveness of different types of protein (supplement versus food, for example) and how critical of a rule 30 minutes before bedtime is. Would an hour be better? Worse? The same?
As researchers look into this more and more we will get these answers one day. Until then, this is what we have to go on.
Have you tried protein before you go to sleep? Notice any changes in strength or muscle size? Let me know in the comments below.