Protease - Protein Enzymes for Bigger Gains?
Think back to your seventh-grade science class. During the intro portion of human biology, you might remember (or not) your teacher mentioning a little something called enzymes.
At the time, learning was a bore. You were more concerned about what the hot lunch was or not being picked last for kickball. Little did you realize that something mentioned all those years ago would play a major role in your ability to make gains and recover from training.
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It’s true, those little enzymes discussed during Ms. Newbury’s 7th-grade science class are major players in countless physiological processes, including the ones related to strength, power, and performance.
Let’s take a look at what the research has to say about these essential compounds.
What are Enzymes?
Enzymes are naturally-occurring substances produced by organisms that catalyze (accelerate) a biological reaction. In other words, enzymes are akin to lighter fluid to all of the various physiological processes that occur in your body. The processes could occur on their own, but with enzymes in the mix, they go a lot faster, several million times faster.
Enzymes are literally involved in everything that occurs in your body. Without enzymes, you couldn’t produce the energy to move, let alone make gains.
There’s not just one type of enzyme either, but multiple. In fact, there are an estimated 75,000 enzymes in the human body alone!
Enzymes are grouped into different categories based on each one’s respective function in the body - digestion, metabolism, etc. The ones we’re really focused on for the purposes of this article are a collection of enzymes known as proteases.
What are Proteases?
Proteases are found in all organisms, from single-cell prokaryotes like bacteria to eukaryotes (animals) and even viruses. Proteases are best known as the enzymes that help digest the protein in food. Of the countless number of proteases that exist, they’re grouped into seven broad categories: 
- Asparagine peptide lyases
- Aspartic proteases
- Cysteine proteases
- Glutamic proteases
- Serine proteases
- Threonine proteases
Together, the protease family of enzymes is primarily responsible for hydrolyzing the peptide bonds that hold protein molecules together. Dissolving these bonds liberates amino acids in order for your body to absorb them, and utilize them for its needs. But, that’s not all proteases do in the body, they’re actually involved in numerous other physiological functions including, blood-clotting, optimal immune system function, hormone production, and many more.
But could there be a way for you to hack your biology and enhance performance, strength, recovery, and mass using proteases?
Proteases and Muscle Gains?
For the longest time, you probably heard or read somewhere that the human body can only digest 30 grams of protein at one time. This fed into the belief that a lifter wanting to make gains had to eat multiple, smaller meals throughout the day and not cross the dreaded 30g of protein threshold, lest all that protein you consumed goes to waste.
While the idea of your body only using 30g worth of protein at one time has been disproven, there is a nugget of truth tucked away in there. It has to do with nutrient bioavailability.
You see, when you consume anything - protein, fat, carbohydrate - your body must break those foods down in order for absorption to take place. If you’re missing a key enzyme in the digestion and absorption process, your body will not utilize the nutrients contained in the food that you just ate.
Here’s where digestive enzymes, such as proteases, come into the question.
Let’s say you sit down to a nice eight-ounce sirloin steak and eat the whole thing. According to the nutritional facts, you should be getting somewhere around 55-60g of protein. However, just because the label says you’re getting that much protein doesn’t actually mean your body is absorbing all of that protein.
Without the proper proteases, those protein molecules aren’t broken down adequately, meaning your muscles aren’t getting the amino acids you think they’re getting - severely limiting your muscle building potential.
This all sounds very logical, but does this thinking actually hold up in the real world setting.
It sure does!
There have been droves of studies performed on proteases, but a few that are of particular interest are the ones that show their impact on performance and recovery.
The first study worth noting gave one group of subjects two tablets of digestive enzymes containing 325 mg pancreatic enzymes, 75 mg trypsin, 50 mg papain, 50 mg bromelain, 10 mg amylase, 10 mg lipase, 10 mg lysozyme, 2 mg chymotrypsin while the other received placebo.
Subjects consumed the tablets two times per day for four days. At the conclusion of the trial, researchers noted that the protease group experienced reduced DOMS and better recovery of “contractile function” (ability for your muscles to contract) than the placebo group. 
Basically, consuming proteases helped reduce soreness and sustain performance during a run downhill than the placebo group.
The next study we’ll delve into recruited twenty men and gave them either a supplement containing protease enzymes or placebo. All subjects performed the same one-armed isometric forearm flexion exercise.
The protease group demonstrated 7.6% greater strength than the placebo group, in spite of both groups having virtually identical mean strength values prior to the testing. 
The third study of note lasted for 21 days and had subjects consume either 5.83g of placebo per day or a mixture of fungal proteases, bromelain, and papain.
Subjects performed a series of isokinetic extension/flexion of the quadriceps followed by VO2Max testing. Researchers collected blood samples from both groups along the way and determined that the protease group had greater force production and reduced loss of strength following eccentric exercise. The team suspects this has to do with regulating leukocyte activity and inflammation in the body, as determined by the blood tests. 
So, are proteases the “magic pill” your body needs to transform from zero to hero? No, not even close. But, the studies discussed above do indicate that there is something to supplementing with protease enzymes, particularly if you consume a lot of protein and are set on making progress in the gym.
Proteases enhance your body’s ability to digest and utilize protein, meaning your body is better able to absorb the amino acids contained in the food you’re eating. This enhances nutrient delivery to your working muscles, therefore allowing for better recovery, repair, and growth.
It also appears that supplementing with these enzymes can help reduce inflammatory factors that contribute to decreased performance and muscle soreness. So, there certainly seems to be a number of things that protease supplementation can bring to the table.
Does this mean proteases will help you build muscle if you’re not already eating properly and training hard? No, not even close. But, if you are doing the basics correctly (diet, exercise, sleep), adding some digestive enzymes to the mix can certainly enhance your performance, enabling you to knock out more reps, ultimately leading to bigger, better gains.
References1) Oda K. New families of carboxyl peptidases: serine-carboxyl peptidases and glutamic peptidases. J Biochem. 2012;151(1):13-25. doi:10.1093/jb/mvr129.
2) Miller PC, Bailey SP, Barnes ME, Derr SJ, Hall EE. The effects of protease supplementation on skeletal muscle function and DOMS following downhill running. J Sports Sci. 2004;22(4):365-372. doi:10.1080/02640410310001641584.
3) Beck TW, Housh TJ, Johnson GO, et al. Effects of a protease supplement on eccentric exercise-induced markers of delayed-onset muscle soreness and muscle damage. J Strength Cond Res, 2007;21(3):661-7.
4) Buford TW, Cooke MB, Redd LL, Hudson GM, Shelmadine BD, Willoughby DS. Protease supplementation improves muscle function after eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009;41(10):1908-https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/197270221914. doi:10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181a518f0.
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