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Do You Have to Take Protein Supplements to Get Big Arms?

By Andrea Boldt

Big arms define a strong physique. Developing muscular biceps and triceps requires quality nutrition and a solid weight-training ethic. Additional protein in your diet helps encourage the muscle-building process, but it can come from whole foods; it doesn't have to come from supplements. Consume a protein-rich snack after workouts, to take advantage of the window during which your muscles are particularly receptive to hypertrophy, or growth, and use heavy weights to get results.

Protein and Muscle Growth

While a relatively low protein intake is enough for someone living a sedentary lifestyle, you'll need more protein when you're fit and following a strength training routine. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends between 0.64 and 0.91 grams of protein daily, per pound of body weight, for physically active people. If you're trying to build muscle -- in your arms or elsewhere -- should aim for the higher end of this intake range.

Protein supplements give you a concentrated dose of protein, but it's sometimes more than you can absorb in one sitting. A study published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that consuming more than 30 grams of protein in one sitting does not notably increase protein synthesis -- the process by which muscles grow -- compared to simply getting around 30 grams of protein.

Whole Food Protein Best

You can reach your recommended daily protein intake by eating a 20- to 30-gram serving of protein from whole foods at each meal, in addition to another serving or two at snacks. A 3-ounce serving of meat, poultry or fish provides 20 to 30 grams, as does 1 1/2 cups of cubed, soft tofu and 2 eggs mixed with 3 egg whites. Animal proteins are considered complete, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids important to stimulating muscle growth. Plant-based proteins, such as nuts and beans, do not necessarily supply all the essential amino acids, but they can still be beneficial as they offer other phytonutrients. As long as you're eating a varied diet, you can still get all the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet.

Protein supplements can serve as a convenient source of protein. However, some powders and pre-mixed shakes contain unwanted additives and sugars or artificial sweeteners. They aren't tested for efficacy by the Food and Drug Administration, so you have to be diligent in purchasing them to make sure whey sources don't come from cows that have been given artificial growth hormones and that plant sources aren't genetically modified. Consumer Reports performed tests in 2010 on 15 different protein drinks and found that many brands contained high levels of arsenic, mercury, cadmium or lead, enough so that multiple servings of these supplements daily could cause you to overshoot safe levels of intake of these heavy metals.

Maximizing Arm Size With Protein

In addition to consuming quality protein throughout the day, taking a dose as close to the end of your workout may help muscle protein synthesis -- or the growth of thicker, stronger fibers to create size. Protein right after a workout also helps you recover faster, so you can hit another arm workout soon. The more workouts you perform, the better results you'll achieve. Do leave 48 hours between working your biceps, triceps and any other muscle groups to allow for repair and recovery.

A meal-size serving of protein equal to 20 to 30 grams following a workout is sufficient. That's a 3-ounce filet of cooked wild salmon with 23 grams of protein; 2 1/2 cups of low fat milk with 22 grams of protein; or 3/4 cup of roasted chicken with 26 grams of protein. A serving of carbohydrates along with the protein post-workout helps refuel your energy stores, too. Try sweet potato, a banana or brown rice, for example.

Gym Workouts Essential to Big Arms

All the protein in the world won't get you big arms if you skip the gym. A consistent comprensive weight-training routine at least two times weekly helps you build muscle. At those workouts -- or during a split routine during which you work back and chest one day, legs and abs another and arms and shoulders a third -- do at least two to three exercises that emphasize the triceps and the biceps. For example, a full arm workout might include concentration curls, preacher curls and cable curls for the biceps and triceps dips, triceps overhead extensions and triceps kickbacks. Include compound exercises in your workouts that use the arms for assistance too, such as pull-ups for the biceps and chest presses for the triceps.

To build size, do between eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise for three to six sets. Use a weight that's about 80 to 85 percent of your one-repetition maximum, so it feels heavy and fatiguing by your last couple of efforts, and rest just 30 to 60 seconds between sets. Once 12 repetitions is easy to perform, increase the weight so you continue to challenge the muscle fibers.

Keep in mind that some people grow muscle more readily than others; it's dependent on your genetic body type. Lean and lanky people can put on muscle and look fit, but may not acquire the thick, beefy arms of a professional body builder.

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