The 12 most-effective muscle builders on the planet.
Michael Roussell, Ph.D. 1 / 12
Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in dairy products, the other being casein. Whey makes up 20% of the protein found in milk, but it’s the superior protein for muscle building because it’s absorbed quickly and causes a large and fast spike in blood amino-acid levels, which is exactly what you want when your body is looking to repair and build muscle fibers after exercise. Whey protein is rich in both glutamine—the most abundant amino acid in muscle—and branched-chain amino acids, which can fuel working muscles during exercise. One of the best dietary sources of whey protein: ricotta cheese.
Casein makes up 80% of the protein found in milk. It’s found in higher concentrations in cottage cheese and Greek yogurt. Casein’s unique effects arise from how it’s absorbed and digested. Unlike whey, casein is absorbed slowly, increasing but not spiking blood amino-acid levels. Casein’s anti-catabolic properties result from these sustained increases in blood amino-acid levels, which is ideal for optimizing the balance between muscle breakdown and muscle building. Research shows that casein eaten late at night can improve muscle building and recovery from exercise while you sleep.
This popular plant-based protein is easily digested and contains high levels of essential muscle-building compounds such as glutamine and branched-chain amino acids. One cup of peas contains nine grams of protein. Unlike many other plant protein sources, pea protein doesn’t contain anti-nutrient compounds that can inhibit the uptake of vitamins and minerals during digestion. Pea protein is also available in supplement form, and, while a common complaint of plant-based protein powders is related to their grassy and earthy taste and texture, pea protein powder is mild in both taste and texture.
Chicken is the go-to muscle-building protein. It’s a lean source of all necessary amino acids and can be prepared in myriad ways. A six-ounce chicken breast yields 54 grams of protein and four grams of leucine, the amount needed to max out protein synthesis in a given meal. Chicken breasts and thighs have similar protein contents but different flavor profiles due to differences in their fat contents. Opt for boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs to minimize the time needed to cook and prepare this essential protein source.
Bison is a beef alternative that’s catching on more and more. Bison is markedly leaner than beef with a 3.5-ounce serving containing only 2–3 grams of fat compared with 8–9 grams in a comparable cut of beef. This also translates into bison containing 33% fewer calories than beef, making it a perfect protein source when you’re in the latter stages of getting lean and calories are at a premium. A study published this year found more favorable changes in cardiovascular disease risk factors when study participants ate 12 ounces of bison per day versus 12 ounces of beef.
Soy protein is one of the few plant-based proteins that contains all the essential amino acids. Some research studies have found soy protein to be equally as effective in building muscle as whey protein. However, soy protein contains around 15% less leucine, the primary driver of protein synthesis, than whey protein. Common sources of soy protein include tofu, edamame beans, and soy-protein supplements. Soy isoflavones, a class of plant-based compounds that can mimic estrogen, are removed from soy protein isolate supplements during the purification process. This makes them the soy protein source of choice for people looking to limit exposure to these phytoestrogens.
Beef is an excellent source of total protein and key amino acids such as leucine. Beef’s protein content is also complemented by other muscle-building nutrients such as creatine and zinc. Grass-fed beef is generally leaner, but that withstanding there’s no difference in terms of protein quality. Grass-fed beef is also touted for having more omega-3 fats when compared with conventional beef. in addition to beef grab your protein by the nuts steaks and roasts, beef protein isolate is now available to people who want to reap the benefits of beef protein in protein-powder form.
Quinoa is an ancient grain famous for its protein content. Unlike most grains, quinoa contains all nine essential amino acids—the amino acids that your body can’t make; they’re also key for muscle building. Quinoa contains three more grams of protein per cup than brown rice, and brown rice doesn’t contain all the essential amino acids. That said, quinoa still contains only eight grams of protein per cup, so it shouldn’t be considered a meal’s primary protein source.
Salmon contains slightly less protein per serving than chicken, turkey, or beef, but it makes up for this slight lack of protein by packing in the health-optimizing long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. Buying wild or farmed salmon doesn’t change the protein content but it does influence the fat content: Farm-raised salmon contains more pro-inflammatory omega-6s and fewer anti-inflammatory omega-3s than wild salmon. The protein and fat combination found in salmon makes it ideal for pairing with fibrous vegetables such as broccoli or asparagus for a simple, high-protein, carb-controlled meal.
Egg protein has long been considered the gold standard of protein in research studies due to its high bioavailability. When eating eggs, it’s important to eat both the white and the yolk as almost half of the protein is found in the yolk. One whole egg contains 1.3 grams of BCAAs and 0.5 grams of leucine. Eggs also contain the highest level of leucine per gram of protein compared with any other whole food protein source you’ll find. Eggs are a cost-effective, versatile, and convenient source of protein. in addition to its protein content, eggs also contain vitamin D and cholesterol, which can help support muscle building. Traditionally people have discarded egg yolks out of fear that the cholesterol-laden yellows will increase your blood cholesterol levels, however we now know that the amount of cholesterol you eat has very little impact on your blood cholesterol levels.
Cooked brown rice contains five grams of protein per cup, and compared with other similar plant protein sources, brown rice is the second highest in BCAAs after quinoa. Brown rice is missing the essential amino acid lysine. However, this is easily made up in other places in the diet and isn’t a limiting factor in the gym. Brown rice protein powder is another popular plant-based protein supplement. A soon-to-be-published study from the University of Tampa found that a rice protein supplement yielded similar muscle-building benefits to whey when taken after weight training.
Turkey—the white meat, that is—is the leanest animal protein source you’ll find. (Dark meat from turkey is fattier, but not by much, with a 3.5-ounce serving containing only 1.5 grams of fat more than white meat.) Turkey can be used interchangeably with chicken in many dishes when you need a change of pace. While turkey is known for making you sleepy due to its supposedly high levels of the amino acid tryptophan, turkey actually doesn’t contain that much more tryptophan than chicken. Low-sodium, extra-lean turkey deli meat is an ideal choice if you’re often on the move and require a high-quality, ready-to-eat protein source.