*How Much* Protein Matters More Than *When* You Drink Your Protein Shake

young woman drinking protein shake after workout at home
Protein After A Workout Can Minimize Sore MusclesVioletaStoimenova - Getty Images


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One of the great fitness debates is the timing of protein around your workout. Some say pre-workout protein is the key to a strong training sesh and others say post-workout is the ultimate muscle builder. And while there's no doubt that fueling your sweats with protein is important, it’s time to shake up the debate and clear the blender once and for all. (Puns very much intended.)

So, is a protein shake before or after your workout better? In all honesty, the choice is yours. It really depends on your needs, lifestyle, and goals. “You want to prioritize hitting your daily protein goals from a variety of protein sources and supplement with protein shakes when it suits you best,” says India McPeak, CSCS, is a personal trainer and former competitive gymnast.

Meet the experts: Jordan Hill, RD, is a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching. India McPeak, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and former competitive gymnast.

There's no reason that protein has to be in the form of a shake, either. “It’s more about fueling your body with the right nutrients,” says Jordan Hill, RD, of Top Nutrition Coaching. “The two big hitters are carbohydrates and protein, and you do want to eat something before and after a workout.”

And while protein is necessary for peak performance and muscle enhancement, it’s more about your daily consumption and less about exact timing, research has found. That said, there are pros to drinking a protein shake before and after a workout.

Here, experts weigh in on the benefits of a protein shake before and after a workout—and how to meet your daily protein needs.

Should you drink a protein shake before or after your workout?

Again, the answer is really up to you and depends on your goals. Protein shakes are a great way to up your overall daily protein intake, but when you actually drink them is less important than you probably think. “What matters is that you’re getting enough protein throughout the day and that your pre- and post-workout meals are no more than four to six hours apart to maximize muscle building,” says McPeak.

Fueling up before your workout will help your muscles activate and adapt to your training, minimize potential mid-workout tummy rumbles, and help reduce muscle breakdown and soreness, says Hill. Snacking after your workout will build muscle, repair any breakdown, reduce inflammation, and give you a boost of energy if you’re wiped.

  • For high-intensity workouts (long distance running, CrossFit, and HIIT classes), it’s in your best interest to eat protein *and* carbs 30 to 45 minutes before and after, explains Hill.

  • For less strenuous workouts (yoga, walking, and body weight training), you don’t necessarily need to pound a protein shake before or after a workout because a normal daily diet with three meals and a few snacks is likely sufficient, she adds.

In other words, there’s no right or wrong answer to this legendary question because it’s a personal decision. Plus, the effects of pre- and post-workout protein intake had similar effects when it came to increasing muscle size, boosting strength, and overall body composition, studies have shown.

Benefits Of Drinking A Protein Shake *Before* A Workout

For a pre-workout protein boost, Hill suggests aiming for 15 to 20 grams of protein (and 25 to 30 grams of carbs) about 30 to 45 minutes prior to your workout.

  • Fuel your workout. Your brain, body, and muscles need protein to function and give you energy, says Hill. “If you’re depleted of protein (and carbs), you're not going to have as great of a workout.” Not to mention, a pre-exercise protein intake is critical for optimizing physical performance and making the most of your sweat session.

  • Minimize muscle breakdown. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you work out you are technically breaking down muscle fibers (yep, that’s why you might feel sore the next day). “So, you want to focus on a protein plus carb combo snack pre-workout,” explains Hill. Because protein contains essential amino acids (the building blocks of muscle fibers), consuming a protein-packed snack before you train helps fast track protein absorption in the body and transfers it to repair muscle cells, studies show.

  • Feel satiated. If you haven’t eaten in three to four hours, or you don’t have time for a full meal before your workout, a protein shake can curb hunger and help you feel full, says McPeak. “If you have less than an hour before your workout, protein powder is a good option since it can be absorbed very quickly,” she explains.

  • Boost muscle adaptation. “Fueling prior to your workout is going to help boost how well your muscles actually adapt to the training efforts,” says Hill. In other words, protein primes your muscles to put in the work. If you’re prepping for an extra tough or long workout, research suggests that protein supports muscle endurance to keep you feeling strong.

Benefits Of Drinking A Protein Shake *After* A Workout

Post-workout, Hill suggests trying to consume protein within 30 minutes (known as the anabolic window) to maximize muscle repair and recovery. But don’t panic if you’re behind because research shows the window of opportunity can be longer.

  • Repair muscle breakdown. As mentioned earlier, protein is going to help minimize muscle breakdown during your workout and speed up the recovery process. “Muscle fibers are breaking down while we work out, so if we consume protein after a workout, it’s going to help stop that process,” says Hill.

  • Build lean muscle. Post-workout protein is not the only reason for gains, but the essential amino acids in protein are major building blocks to maximize and grow lean muscle, according to a 2019 study. Remember that you should strive to consume protein within 30 minutes to an hour after your workout to maximize its impact, but it’s okay if you’re a little late. “Your workout won’t be wasted if you don’t have [protein] within 30 minutes of your last exercise,” stresses McPeak. “Just aim for a high-protein meal or shake within a couple of hours after your session.”

  • Boost energy. Sometimes after an intense workout you can’t even stomach the idea of a full meal. But if you’re feeling depleted or even a little nauseous, research suggests a protein shake can boost energy and replenish any lost fluid you sweat out. A scoop of protein is also easier to digest if you’re lacking an appetite.

  • Reduce inflammation. Intense workouts can cause tiny, microscopic tears in your muscle fibers, and your body reacts to this damage by increasing inflammation (also known as delayed-onset muscle soreness), according to the American College of Sports Medicine. But the good news is that high levels of protein can help minimize this breakdown and mitigate the inflammatory response, research suggests, that ultimately making you less sore.

How To Meet Your Daily Protein Intake

It’s more important to focus on your daily protein intake than the exact timing of a protein shake, so it’s crucial to understand your needs. “A woman should really aim for 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per one pound of body weight per day,” says Hill. (For example, a 140-pound woman would aim for 140-166 grams of protein.) If you are especially active and do power training, heavy lifting, CrossFit, or high intensity interval training (HIIT), then you should shoot for the higher end of the range. “For more endurance folks, protein intake can be around .8 to 1 gram of protein per one pound of body weight,” says Hill.

Pro tip: Aim to consume 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal across three to five meals a day.

And while daily protein is critical, don’t skimp on the carbohydrates! “The general rule of thumb is to consume a three to one ratio of carb to protein,” says Hill. “For someone trying to lose weight, they should do a two to one ratio.”

Protein Sources To Look For

Your protein sources should also come from a variety of foods with complete and incomplete proteins and adequate amino acid profiles. “There are 20 amino acids, and nine are essential, which means we have to get them from food,” says Hill. “Eleven are non-essential, which means our bodies actually create them.”

For complete protein sources (contain all nine essential amino acids), try animal products like lean meats, dairy, and fish, says Hill. For incomplete proteins (do not contain all nine essential amino acids) incorporate beans, nut butters, vegetables, and whole grains. For some healthy snack options, she suggests toast with nut butter, a turkey and cheese roll up, or high protein cereal with skim or one percent milk.

If you’re looking for a powder to maximize your complete protein intake, it’s best to come from animal sources, like whey or dairy protein, says Hill. “Whey protein is going to have distinct muscle building characteristics,” she explains. “It's also anti-inflammatory, and it helps to turn protein into lean active muscle tissue.” For a vegan alternative McPeak suggests pea, brown rice, or hemp protein.

In terms of specific brands, Hill recommends Optimum Nutrition, Muscle Milk, and Bodylogix for a whey based powder. Evolve, Garden of Life, and Orgain are Hill’s vegan go-tos.

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