People often ask us should I take Protein Shakes Before or After Workouts? It’s easy to get obsessed by the world of supplements. There’s a minefield of crafty marketing and misinformation out there to make you think you can’t do without them. This article aims to dispel the myths to help you get the most out of your hard earned cash on your quest to building your dream body.
What is protein?
Let’s start by getting back to basics. Protein is not some miracle substance that will immediately make you huge and muscular! It is amazing how many people believe that just by consuming protein they will build muscle, and the more protein they consume, the more muscle they will develop.
Proteins are long-chain amino acids vital to the development and correct functioning of the body. When you consume a source of protein, your body breaks down the proteins into individual amino acids.
Your body needs twenty amino acids to function effectively, and your body can only produce eleven of these itself. The other nine amino acids are referred to as essential amino acids, as you have to source these from the foods you eat. Different foods contain different proteins, so you need to eat a varied diet to ensure you are getting all the different amino acids your body needs.
The reason you hear so much about protein in the context of fitness is that protein is used for recovery and building muscle. Supplementing protein may be beneficial to ensure you are able to meet your nutritional requirements, but there is a limit to how much your body needs, so more protein is not necessarily better.
Eating a balanced diet with the correct macronutrient ratios for your goals will have a much more profound affect on your physique than taking supplements ever will. We recommend worrying about supplements only once you have got your diet and training on point.
What type of protein should I take?
Making sure you take in some protein pre or post-workout is more important than where that protein comes from – the main advantage of a protein powder is not having to take cooked food with you to the gym!
There are two major protein sources used to make protein powders:
- Whey protein: protein extracted from whey (whey is a byproduct of cheese production)
- Casein protein: protein extracted from milk
Whey protein is fast-digesting, which means it acts rapidly to increase protein synthesis. This makes it perfect for post-workout nutrition. Protein synthesis is simply the formation of new muscle proteins, and when this happens on a large scale it is referred to as skeletal muscle hypertrophy – building new muscle to you and I.
Casein protein is slow digesting. This means it is more suitable for preventing muscle breakdown over time, as it will slowly be absorbed in your stomach over a number of hours. This makes it unsuitable for pre-workout or post-workout nutrition, as you are aiming for a rapid increase in protein synthesis immediately, rather than a long and slow release.
There are also types of non-dairy protein powders available (pea, soy, hemp, brown rice and egg protein to name a few), but these two are the most common so we will focus on these two most prevalent forms for the purpose of this discussion.
Should I take protein shakes before or after workouts?
This has trigged many heated debates, but the truth is the timing is not critical. If you had to pick between the two, recent research suggests that taking protein prior to working out may have some benefits over post workout.
Taking protein before your workout is thought to start protein synthesis sooner and reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone that leads to muscle breakdown, so reducing it will definitely be beneficial for maximising your muscle gains.
However, the benefits are likely to be minimal and for that reason I prefer to take whey protein after workouts; approximately 30g with water immediately after finishing. This is to to avoid feeling full or sick during the workout so I can train harder which is likely to outweigh the benefits of taking a shake beforehand.
Realistically, the difference between taking protein before or after the workout is minimal — we are talking about the final few percent here. Unless you are training harder than Mr Olympia and eating all your calories with perfect macros, I wouldn’t be too concerned about whether you take your protein shake before or after working out.
How much protein do I need to take?
Pre or post workout, you should take in at least 0.16g of protein per lb of bodyweight (25g for a 155lb person). You can always split this between the two, so you could take 10g before your workout and 15g afterwards. I would generally recommend taking less protein pre-workout to prevent the risk of stomach cramping.
Should I take carbs post workout?
Ideally yes! When training with heavy weights, your muscles use glucose (readily available energy) and glycogen (stored energy). After working out these energy sources are depleted, and when they are depleted your body releases cortisol. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning that it causes muscle breakdown. Cortisol breaks down your muscle tissue and converts it to glucose for your body to use as energy, but we want to stop that from happening!
Taking carbohydrates post-workout will help prevent muscle breakdown. Simple carbohydrates are best, as these are quickly absorbed. The amount of carbs you take in should be enough to replenish muscle glycogen lost during training without spilling over into fat gain.
Although it is not essential, post workout is the only time that you can consume sugars and get away with it. If you are training anaerobically and want to take in high GI carbs post workout, you should add 0.20-0.37g of glucose per lb of bodyweight (30-55g for a 155lb person) to replace muscle glycogen lost during exercise.
It’s important to take in glucose and not fructose – glucose is used by the body to replace muscle glycogen whereas fructose is only used to replace liver glycogen. We want to replace muscle glycogen to aid recovery and growth. Glucose on its own can be obtained from supplements such and dextrose and maltodextrin. If you want to avoid sugars, there is nothing wrong with eating a plate of rice or potatoes post workout.
Important! Shakes are included in your daily calories
Taking protein shakes before or after workouts will contribute to your daily nutrition targets, in terms of both calories and macronutrients. Make sure you count everything you put in your shakes. This is especially important if you are on a calorie-restricted diet.
If you are struggling to fit all these calories into your day, sacrifice the shakes first, not your meals! If you want to reduce the calories but prevent muscle breakdown when working out, use BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) as they are very effective and are far lower in calories than a mixture of protein and carbohydrates.
To conclude, take your protein shake pre- or post-workout – whatever suits you best. Protein powders are a great source of pre or post workout protein, but they are not a replacement for a proper diet. Take in carbs post workout if you’re training with weights and want to improve your recovery.