Protein and High-Intensity Exercise: A High-Powered Combo

The optimal ingredients for achieving your ideal body composition

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

If you want to lose fat, exercise and protein are your best friends. Precisely what kind of exercise should you do, though, and how much protein should you eat? Dr. Ormsbee reveals the specifics.

Woman exercising and eating protein bar and drinking protein shake
Research shows that a high-protein diet combined with resistance training and high-intensity interval training is optimal for reducing body weight and body fat. Photo by Vladee / Shutterstock

Protein and Exercise

Research has found that adding protein to your diet can help improve your body composition—reducing body fat while maintaining or adding muscle mass—even without exercise. However, the impact of a high-protein diet when combined with an exercise program can provide even better results for improving metabolism and body composition.

“In fact, I collaborated on a research project with lead investigator Dr. Paul Arciero from Skidmore College and found that a diet high in protein, which was about 40 percent, combined with exercise training that included both resistance training and high-intensity interval training, was optimal for reducing both body weight and body fat in obese men and women between 40 and 60 years old,” Dr. Ormsbee said.

This protein and exercise combination also helped to maintain or even improve muscle mass. In 2014, Dr. Ormsbee and Dr. Arciero teamed up to see what sort of exercise was best with a higher protein diet.

They found that the greatest improvements in body composition of middle-aged overweight and/or obese men and women occurred when they ate a high-protein diet and included a high-quality variety of exercise in their weekly schedules. 

They completed four days of exercise per week: one day of weight training, one day of sprint interval training to get the heart rate going, one day of stretching and yoga, and one day of slower endurance exercise. Dr. Arciero and Dr. Ormsbee called this program the PRISE program, which stands for protein, resistance exercise, interval training, stretching or yoga, and endurance.

The PRISE group was compared to two other groups—one group had a higher protein diet but no exercise program and the other group had a high-protein diet but also lifted weights. All three groups lost fat and improved body composition. Lifting weights improved things further, and adding the variety of exercise was the best overall.

Calculating Protein Needs

You might be wondering exactly how much protein you need. The standard recommendation is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight per day. 

If you weigh 150 pounds, that would give you a daily protein requirement of 55 grams of protein per day. This is equivalent to about two eggs for breakfast, which would give you roughly 12 grams, one chicken breast for lunch, which would give you about 40 grams, and one Greek yogurt, which would be about 10 grams of protein.

However, we need more protein to have optimal body composition as the response. The most recent research recommends that we consume up to about double the current recommendation for protein. 

That would be around 0.73 grams per pound of your body weight—or higher—if your goal is weight loss. This will give you your best shot at maintaining your muscle mass while also losing fat.

If you weigh 150 pounds, your new protein requirement would come in close to 110 grams of protein—or possibly more—per day. You could add another lean cut of protein to a salad and have a glass of milk and a large serving of vegetables. 

Practical Suggestions

Most people don’t like to remember these numbers, and sometimes getting bogged down with them makes adding more protein difficult to put into practice. For most women, the best option is to aim for about one palm-sized portion of protein every time you eat. 

Most men can aim for two palm-sized portions of protein at each meal. This will come close to your optimal needs for protein without having to count and weigh everything you eat.

“I don’t typically suggest weighing foods, but sometimes it does help in the short term,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “For example, you could weigh your foods to start out and get an idea of the weight and content of the foods you eat most often.” 

After some time, using the hand method is much more convenient. One note is that these and any recommendations should be discussed with a qualified professional for you to get specific recommendations. You want information that best suits your lifestyle and health status.

“But one point I want to make clear is that eating more protein will not change things so drastically that it will automatically make your body fat melt off or make your muscles big and strong,” Dr. Ormsbee said. “In short, it will not magically give you your optimal body composition.”

However, eating protein at every meal, combined with other health strategies like exercising right, might set you up with the ideal scenario to begin to see changes if you’re searching for them. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.