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What to Eat When Lifting Weights


Strength training: How much protein is really necessary?

By John Hoeber, MS, RD, CSSD, CPT


There’s a lot of information — and misinformation — floating around about how much protein you need when lifting weights, and when is the ideal time to eat it. Because marketing claims for supplements don’t require scientific backup, it can be tough for the average exerciser to separate fact from fiction.

Let’s straighten out the recommendations here: Body builders need slightly less than 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day during the build-up phase, or 180 grams per day for the 200-pound athlete.

Both the average exerciser and the body builder in maintenance mode need about half a gram per pound of body weight, which works out to 90 grams per day for a 160-pound person. 

Protein intake should ideally be spaced throughout the day to increase absorption and utilization. The goal is to eat five servings of 20 to 40 grams of protein over the course of three meals and two snacks. One of those servings should be eaten right after your workout. There’s no evidence yet that eating during a workout helps rebuild muscle any better than eating protein afterward.

For recreational athletes, the timing and amount of protein intake are not at all critical. There are always proteins circulating through your blood stream, available 24 hours a day to help repair overworked muscles. So don’t obsess about your protein intake. The factor that most limits muscle building in the average exerciser is not a lack of protein, but rather a lack of training intensity (meaning you’re not pushing yourself hard enough), or a low level of muscle building hormones due to age and/or gender. If you are young and male, and you’re working out intensely, then you need to pay attention to your protein amount and timing to maximize muscle gains. The rest of us shouldn't worry about it.

Whole food protein sources will always be better than supplements (powders and bars), especially when it comes to the all important branched chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine and valine. Supplements are convenient and may be necessary if you can't fit that many meals into your schedule. The most digestible, highest quality protein supplements are made with whey, casein, egg or milk proteins. Vegan protein powders are also available.

Protein Comparison

Here’s a guide to the amount of protein (in grams) in common foods:

  • 4 large eggs: 24 g
  • 1 boneless chicken breast half: 28 g
  • 4 ounces top sirloin: 34 g
  • 4 ounces salmon: 31 g
  • 4 ounces pork tenderloin: 30 g
  • 1 large hamburger patty: 40 g
  • 1 cup cottage cheese: 27 g
  • 1 can tuna: 25 g
  • 8 ounces cow's milk: 9 g
  • 8 ounces soy milk: 6 g
  • 8 ounces almond milk: 1 g
  • 8 ounces rice milk: 1 g
  • 8 ounces plain, nonfat Greek yogurt: 23 g
  • 8 ounces plain, low-fat yogurt: 12 g
  • 4 ounces firm tofu: 9 g
  • 1 cup brown rice: 5 g
  • ¼ cup almonds: 8 g
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 8 g
  • 2 slices wheat bread: 7 g
  • 1 cup lentil soup: 8 g
  • ½ cup broccoli: 2 g


Published December 12, 2014.


John Hoeber helps people improve their health and athletic performance through diet, using practical and lasting solutions. He is a registered dietitian, certified specialist sports dietitian, personal trainer and wellness coach with more than 26 years of experience. Contact him at [email protected]

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