Slugging protein shakes is a typical post-workout ritual for many, but is the powdered stuff really superior to regular food?

What’s the Best Source of Post-Workout Protein?

After pressing, curling, sprinting, and crunching, the next logical step for many is shaking (and no, we don’t mean with a Shake Weight). Shakes, bars, and gels are marketed to be as essential as anything for an effective workout. But are these packaged and powdered foods really necessary for super recovery, or do the whole-food alternatives have them beat?

Building a Case for Protein — The Need-to-Know

Downing protein after a workout is often just part of the routine, and for good reason — consuming protein has been shown to speed up recovery time and increase strength before the next gym session Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Beelen, M, Burke, LM, Gibala, MJ, et al. Department of Human Movement Sciences, Maastricht, Netherlands. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2010 Dec;20(6):515-32. Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Cooke, MB, Rybalka, E, Stathis, CG, et al. Exercise Metabolism Unit, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010 Sep 22;7:30. Nutritional supplementation and resistance exercise: what is the evidence for enhanced skeletal muscle hypertrophy? Gibala, MJ. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 2000 Dec;25(6):524-35. . The magic results from amino acids (tiny parts of proteins), which act as a building block for muscle. After pumping iron, eating (or drinking) foods high in protein supplies the body with amino acids to start repairing the damaged tissue (mainly muscles) Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. Tipton, KD, Wolfe, RR. Metabolism Division, University of Texas Medial Branch-Galveston, Galveston,TX. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2001 Mar;11(1):109-32. . Protein shakes offer one method of getting in some muscle-building nutrients after a workout. But are they really more effective than high-protein foods like the chicken or the egg?

Pitting powder against whole food, research indicates that the supplements may provide a slight advantage Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion. Paddon-Jones, D, Sheffield-Moore, M, Aarsland, A, et al. Department of Surgery, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, TX. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2005 Apr;288(4):E761-7. Epub 2004 Nov 30. . The quick source of amino acids increased the fractional synthesis rate of muscle (a fancy term for rate of muscle building) more than just a regular meal. In addition to adding size, it proves to be effective at increasing workout performance. One study using whey protein found that supplementation did increase hypertrophy (read: muscle size) and strength in participants Effects of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle hypertrophy. Cribb, PJ, Williams, AD, Stathis, CG, et al. Exercise Metabolism Unit, Center for Ageing, Rehabilitation, Victoria University, Victoria, Australia. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2007 Feb;39(2):298-307. . A similar study showed that individuals chugging protein could jump higher following a training program than their shake-less counterparts The effect of resistance training combined with timed ingestion of protein on muscle fiber size and muscle strength. Andersen, LL, Tufekovic, G, Zebis, MK, et al. Sports Medicine Research, Bispebjerg Hospital, Copenhagen, Denmark. Metabolism, 2005 Feb;54(2):151-6. . Just remember: All powders are not created equal. Certain varieties are hydrolyzed (a fancy term meaning partially broken down) and are absorbed faster into the muscle (hence quicker recovery) Ingestion of a protein hydrolysate is accompanied by an accelerated in vivo digestion and absorption rate when compared with its intact protein. Koopman, R, Crombach, N, Gijsen, AP, et al. Department of Human Movement Sciences, Nutrition and Toxicology Research Institute Maastricht, Maastricht, Netherlands. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009 Jul;90(1):106-15. Epub 2009 May 27. .

Size also matters. Don’t look to shake up an entire jug. It appears that 20 grams of protein taken within two hours after exercise is the most effective amount to maximally promote muscle growth Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Moore, DR, Robinson, MJ, Fry, JL, et al. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009, Jan;89(1):161-8. Epub 2008 Dec 3. . A heavier dose likely won’t produce any major added benefit and may present potential complications in those with kidney problems.

Feel the Pow(d)er — Your Action Plan

Getting in some protein after a workout looks to be a definite way develop an Arnold-worthy physique, but the form and variety may come down to personal preference Nutritional strategies to promote postexercise recovery. Beelen, M, Burke, LM, Gibala, MJ, et al. Department of Human Movement Sciences, Maastricht, Netherlands. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2010 Dec;20(6):515-32. . Whole-food sources can provide all of the building blocks necessary for a full recovery, but lugging a turkey sandwich to the gym in a lunchbox isn’t nearly as fun as it was in grade school! Also, some gym-goers might find it hard to force down food after exercise. The reason: During exercise, blood makes its way from the stomach to the working muscles, making it hard to digest whole foods right away Is the gut an athletic organ? Digestion, absorption and exercise. Brouns F, Beckers E. Department of Human Biology, University of Limburg, Maastricht, Netherlands. Sports Medicine. 1993 Apr;15(4):242-57. .

Still, protein powder isn’t for everyone, and it certainly doesn’t replace whole food. While it can provide a convenient post-workout fix, whole foods should comprise the bulk of any diet. The most widely used variety, whey protein, may not be appropriate for lactose-intolerant folks or those living the vegan lifestyle (although different varieties like hemp, soy, and brown rice are now available). The key is finding the most convenient (and enjoyable) method for you — leave the hard work for the weight room floor.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Robynn Europe and Vicki Vara. What’s your favorite post-workout meal or treat? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo: Marissa Angell/Ben Draper

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