It is no secret that protein is the absolute essential component of muscle growth, since it is one of our body’s main components (it makes up 15-20% of our total weight) and around 60-70% of bodily protein is found in muscle.
That means protein is the raw material from which muscle is built. That’s why eating sufficient protein is absolutely key not only if you want to build more muscle mass, but also to preserve the preexisting mass if you want to cut and get lean.
I am sure you already know all that right? Well, what you might not know is that protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen. Nitrogen is a compound that can provide a direct measure of one’s amino acid status. All macronutrients contain carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, but only protein contains a nitrogen molecule.
Therefore, the nitrogen balance (that is, one’s nitrogen output vs input) gives an excellent indication of the body’s muscle building potential.
There are 3 different states of nitrogen balance:
1. POSITIVE: This balance is the optimal state for muscle growth. When nitrogen intake is greater than nitrogen output, shows you are consuming more than plenty of complete proteins and that the body is sufficiently recovering from your workouts. Your body is basically synthetizing more muscle protein than it is breaking down. This is the body's anabolic state. The ideal state.
2. NEGATIVE: A negative nitrogen balance is associated with malnourishment and catabolic processes overriding anabolic ones. This is the worst state to build muscle, since it literally can’t occur. When your nitrogen output is greater than your input, your body us breaking down more muscle protein than it is building. On this state, not only is nitrogen drawn away from muscle (where it’s needed to grow), it is also taken away from vital organs, which increases the risk of serious damage.
3. BALANCED/EQUILIBRIUM: This is the minimum, where nitrogen output and input are quite the same. There is no regression, but no progression either.
HOW TO ACHIEVE POSITIVE NITROGEN BALANCE
Consume enough protein
Obviously, the first thing you need to do is to consume sufficient complete proteins to make sure your nitrogen input is greater than your output.
There are different theories and rules about how much protein you should consume every day. However, most theories underscore the greater need of protein among strength athletes that want to gain muscle mass. Studies that do take into consideration strength training athletes/weightlifters suggest an increased protein intake of 1,8 to 3,5 gr/kg of bodyweight per day. To set yourself in a middle point, I would recommend you consume at least around 2,5gr/kg of body weight per day
Of course, the rest of your nutrition, aka your entire macronutrients distribution, is going to affect/contribute in this regard, but adequate protein consumption is the first step.
Rest is absolutely crucial if you want to build muscle mass, since it is precisely when we rest when protein synthesis takes place. Not providing your body with enough rest will lead to over training, which means your body will use protein as fuel rather than maintaining a positive nitrogen balance. Therefore, muscle loss is more likely to occur.
That’s one of the reasons why muscle loss may occur when cutting. Due to the lack of nutrients and the high intensity/frequency of the workouts, your body takes away nitrogen and protein from the muscles to help with other vital functions that can’t be properly executed with the nutrient deficiency created by the deficit, leading to a negative nitrogen balance and, therefore, to muscle loss.
So, make sure you provide your body with enough high-quality sleep and enough rest days. And only train a muscle group again once it is rested and it has fully recovered.
In other words, the key to build muscle is for your body to synthetize more muscle protein than it breaks, which happens only when there is a positive nitrogen balance.
As I said at the beginning, no, you don’t need to be on a caloric surplus in order to gain muscle mass. However, building some serious tissue is your main goal right now I would recommend to you go on a controlled surplus as that will create the best environment for muscle growth to happen (aka maintaining a positive nitrogen balance will be much easier).