by Dr. Marcus R. Jones
What if I told you that bodybuilders eat too much protein? What if I told you that the key to perpetual growth, without plateaus, was within your reach and all you had to do was to cut down on your protein intake? Would you petition the AMA to revoke my license to practice medicine, or would you hear me out? Hopefully, it's the latter and not the former. With that in mind, let me dive right into my seemingly preposterous concept.
Protein metabolism is complex and a truly complete overview is beyond the scope of this article but I'll deliver some relevant highlights so that you'll have a general idea of why cycling protein intake is so rife with possibility. Protein has many physiologic roles.
The most important to us, as bodybuilders, is that protein is the substrate for the synthesis of muscle. It's also important for muscle hypertrophy and remodeling. These mechanisms, again, do not warrant discussion in detail at this juncture (it would take too long, and it would undoubtedly put you to sleep).
Protein also serves as a precursor for gluconeogenesis (carbohydrate creation) and ketogenesis (fat and ketone creation). You knew that already, of course, because many of us obtain a large portion of our energy needs from protein—but this is not necessarily a beneficial or intelligent thing to do—and we'll discuss that in greater detail in a minute.
Protein has a plethora of other roles, too. It's an important player in the modulation of immunity as well as being a precursor for plasma protein synthesis (SHBG, THBG, etc.). And, protein also is the substrate for the synthesis of many cell components as well as being the precursor for peptide hormone synthesis, among other things. Whew! Now let's talk more about the down side of protein consumption and metabolism.
There are several toxic metabolites of protein that damage multiple organ systems. This includes damage and functional compromise of the central nervous system (brain), circulatory system, as well as renal functions. The most important and well-understood toxins are ammonia, homocysteine, and uric acid. Ammonia is a product, formed in large quantities, during amino acid deamination (the process, which modifies aminos to become substrates for carb and fat synthesis—referred to earlier) and is very, very toxic—especially to the brain. Ammonia is the reason people with liver failure get encephalopathic (brain damaged) and is an etiologic factor in their deaths.1 Normally, the liver converts ammonia to urea but this conversion subjects the liver to a great deal of stress under many circumstances and can cause liver hypertrophy. The liver may also commonly be subclinically overwhelmed such that there are no overt symptoms of encephalopathy, just slow brain damage—but we bodybuilders are supposed to be dumb anyway, right? Yeah, maybe in more ways than one. Needless to say there are many, many more sequelae of ammonia but you get the idea.
Another toxic metabolite of protein is homocysteine. This metabolite is a free radical of sorts and is notorious for scarring blood vessels and thus predisposing us all to atherosclerotic plaque formation.2 Just think, we all thought it was only the fat and cholesterol responsible for our early heart attacks and strokes! One thing I've learned is that science and medicine will always throw you a curve ball when you least expect it. Although there are many other protein-derived toxins, the last one I'll discuss is uric acid. This chemical is the culprit in gout (you know—the "swollen, red big toe" disease). Anyway, uric acid can also get deposited in the kidneys as crystals, which cause poor function, damage, and occasionally, in those predisposed, kidney stones. We won't even begin to discuss the link between excessive protein and cancer because it would take up too much space...3
By now, you must be saying" What the HELL is this guy's problem—there is no way I'm giving up MY protein!" Well I don't want you to give it up—for too long. And, even though I think giving up protein for awhile would be a good idea, health-wise, it could also have some really, really, dramatic effects on your overall physique. Haven't you ever wondered why so many guys claim that a protein intake of greater than 400 grams/day is the only key to growth? Well, the reason is that they aren't all that smart. You see, most of us take in so much protein that our bodies have gone into a constant state of panic! I just illustrated how physiologically stressful a huge protein load can be.
The body has had to up-regulate every protein destroying and detoxifying enzyme it can synthesize to keep from getting poisoned—literally. In the face of a chronically high protein load, the body also becomes entirely too efficient at disposing of and shunting protein as waste rather than utilizing it for anabolism. One of the shunting pathways of protein just happens to be muscle synthesis but overloading your system with protein has to be one of the most archaic and unintelligent ways to achieve growth ever used.
The key to intelligent protein use is forcing the body to become efficient at protein storage (muscle is the prime storage depot) rather than protein shunting and disposal (muscle is a secondary shunting destination).
This is easily done with a little manipulation— which is the whole point of this article. First of all, before proceeding, I must say that I'm at a definite advantage with respect to understanding and applying anabolic theory for at least three reasons:
• I'm one sharp cookie (and modest too).
• I've authored and published legitimate scientific research and thus have learned how to objectively investigate a hypothesis.
• Most importantly, I am a legitimate bodybuilder, and I have a physique that many readers are still trying to achieve (approximately 230 lean, muscular pounds at a height of 5'10" while working 110 hours/week).
Now that I'm finished blowing my own horn, let's cut to the chase. Natural and assisted (a euphemism for "juiced to the hilt") bodybuilders will benefit immensely from cycling protein because of all the physiologic adaptations that can be achieved by "tricking" the body in the manner I am about to outline.
Protein cycling, by my definition, is the use of periods of low protein intake to cause the body to become extraordinarily efficient at storage, as well as tricking it to become very sensitive to protein's anabolic effects. If the body is chronically overloaded with protein it begins down-regulating protein storage enzymes secondary to anticipating excess protein. The body also initiates other adaptive changes including decreased absorption and increased excretion of protein (definitely counterproductive).
The body can be fooled into thinking that it is becoming protein deficient during periods of low protein consumption even in the face of normal caloric intake. Of course, when this idea is taken to an extreme it results in a condition of malnutrition called KWASHIORKOR. You're probably thinking that none of this sounds too great so far. Well, here's one major benefit that will get your attention. During these periods of decreased protein consumption the body's growth hormone production can increase to
TEN TIMES THE NORMAL LEVEL!
That's not a misprint. Ten times the normal level of GH! Do I have your attention yet? This level remains elevated for greater than a month after the readdition of protein to the diet. In some cases GH can remain at levels 100% above normal levels twenty-five days after increasing protein consumption.4 This is only one beneficial physiologic adaptation. There are other adaptations that occur during protein restriction that result in explosive growth during the high protein phase of protein cycling. One such adaptation to the low protein phase is decreased production of protein degrading enzymes and gluconeogenic enzymes. This decrease in enzyme production occurs along with an increase in protein storing enzymes. Think about this concept for a second. You can create an environment in which there is increased circulating GH, decreased protein degrading enzyme production, decreased enzymes for protein conversion to energy, and a huge increase in protein storage enzymes (where muscle is the prime storage depot). Are your eyes getting wide yet? Well, there's even more but it requires a little more explanation...
Gaining muscle through massive consumption of protein is a "live by the sword, die by the sword" kind of concept. Let me explain. The body, in an attempt to dispose of excess protein, will shift metabolic gears, so to speak, and preferentially use protein via gluconeogenesis and ketogenesis for energy. This may sound tolerable (even though we just discussed the associated toxicity) but what happens if, God forbid, you miss a meal or two? Guess what—all those enzymes sitting around chewing up all that excess protein for energy are still there, turned on full blast, using muscle for fuel at nearly the same rate that you were consuming your protein. Your gains will soon disappear via the adage "easy come, easy go." Most of us have experienced this, especially when dieting (Hey, didn't I just see some lights come on?) but couldn't figure out what happened.
Protein cycling eliminates that trap completely! What happens is that cycling protein minimizes the mechanisms for protein degradation during the low protein phase such that by the time the body begins to gear them back up again during the high protein phase (4-6 weeks later), you'll have already made enormous gains. Then, you can start dropping your protein again, thus avoiding the cascade of catabolism FOREVER.
You see, the reason I'm able to say "forever" is that each time you complete a cycle of protein manipulation you create a new "MUSCLE SETPOINT," so to speak, and become immune to the catabolic sequelae of a diet chronically high in protein. Other benefits of protein cycling include more efficient function of the liver and kidneys and a decrease in organ size. We all know that a smaller liver is great, especially to those of us with protruding guts secondary to liver hypertrophy.5
A diet with excessive protein is one of the major culprits in hepatic hypertrophy (along with exogenous GH and oral anabolic agents, etc.). The biggest benefit is the continual and exceptional gains that can be achieved while using a lot less protein (and spending a lot less money, too).
Let's recap the benefits of cycling protein:
• HUGE increases in natural GH production—up to ten times normal
• Extraordinary decreases in protein degradation
• Exceptional reductions in protein waste and use for energy
• Massive increases in protein storage as muscle
• Improved liver function—probably translating into increased IGF-1 elaboration and GH sensitivity
• Decreased liver size (with decreased gut protrusion likely)
• A new "MUSCLE SETPOINT" more resistant to catabolism
• Perpetual growth without plateaus.
If you're smart, you're now drooling to hear the exact program. Well, here we go. It's simple!
First, protein is gradually decreased by 50% each week. As the protein is decreased, the calories are replaced by carbohydrate, but not completely. Only one half to two-thirds of the protein calories should be replaced (metabolically, protein and carbohydrate do not provide the same amount of energy, and this concept could take an entire article so just trust me on this point). The protein should be decreased each week until protein intake is only 40 grams per day (even though I suspect 20 grams per day may cause a more beneficial metabolic compensation). Keep the 40-gram/day protein intake for one month.
During the low protein period of the cycle, increasing repetitions can cause an increase in glycogen storage enzymes in muscle. This increase in repetitions (50% more than usual) is not necessary, but why waste the opportunity to teach the muscles to overfill?
Hey, don't be afraid of losing muscle and wimp out...many of our current ideas about building muscle are stupid and based on the ideas of peons and pencil necks.
For instance, I have discovered, in the literature and through self-experimentation, that muscle can be built during complete starvation...but that's another topic for another day.6
Anyway, after 4 weeks of 20-40 gm of protein per day it will be time to shock the body into growth explosion! Protein should suddenly be increased to 1 gram per pound body weight divided into four to six meals daily.
See? Nothing too radical or complex there, either. Hopefully, you'll have cash for some new clothes because I guarantee a growth spurt unlike any you've ever experienced. The high protein phase is the period that you'll realize that I have taught you how to use protein like a drug rather than just food.
When I first tried this cycle out after theorizing it, my attending physician (boss/evaluator/employer) ran a prescription check just to see if I had indulged in a little anabolic script writing...no joke. I actually made drug-like gains without drugs. If you do happen to be "juiced to the hilt", you might be doing the Nationals this year after adding this regimen to your stack...I'm not kidding. Oh well, you get the point.
Continue the high protein phase for four to eight weeks, depending on when you begin to plateau (usually around week .
Do not increase protein to overcome your plateau phase, it defeats the purpose of changing your metabolism. Cycle your protein down again and start over. The difference this time will be that you will continue to gain...trust me. I promise you eternal gains with less physiologic damage and more cash in the pocket...think about it, no one has anything to gain in any way with this program but you!
• Decrease protein by 50% per week until a goal of 20-40 gm of protein per day is reached.
• Replace only 1/2 to 2/3 protein calories with carb calories unless weight loss is noted.
• Remain at 20-40 gm or protein per day for four weeks.
• Increase protein to one gram per pound body weight per day immediately after four weeks of low protein intake.
• Continue this for four to eight weeks and then start over.
Here are a few pointers that I have found to be helpful through trial and error as well as solid research:
1) Consume your protein immediately after training to minimize muscle loss during the low protein phase.
2) Increase carbs during low protein phase if weight loss is noted to persist for more than four days.
3) AVOID YOHIMBINE LIKE THE PLAGUE!—IT'S A POTENT INHIBITOR OF GH SECRETION.7
4) Skip the vitamin B supplements during the low protein phase—many B vitamins increase protein use for fuel which could crush you during this phase.
5) DON'T PANIC IF YOU SMOOTH OUT A LITTLE during the low protein phase—the edema resolves after two weeks or so. The beauty of this program is that it appears basic but is grounded in an enormous base of research. Do me a favor and photograph your results. Don't forget, if you think I'm full of it, then write or call about seeing my pics...I'd be glad to prove I'm all that I claim to be.
References 1) Hyperammoniaemia. Batshaw-ML. Curr-Probl-Pediatr. 1984 Nov; 14(11): 1-69 2) Homocysteine and coronary atherosclerosis. Mayer-EL. J-Am-Card. 1996 Mar 1; 27(3): 517-27 3) Diet and nutritional factors in...CA. Sain-MS. Anticancer-Res. 1987 May-Jun; 7(3): 293-300 4) Guyton text of Physiology. 5) Differential effects...on visceral organs...in lambs. Wester-TJ. J-Anim-Sci. 1995 Jun; 73(6): 1674-88 6) Effect of food restriction on rat muscle hypertrophy... Brown-CR. Comp-Bioch- Physiol-A. 1990; 95(3): 321-4 7) Role of alpha-1 and alpha-2 adrenergic receptors in GH and prolactin response...in man. Tatar-P. Neuroendocrinology. 1984 Sep; 39(3): 275-80