After pressing, curling, sprinting, and crunching, the next logical step for many is shaking (and no, we don’t mean with a Shake Weight). Protein 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 an effective recovery, or do the whole-food alternatives have them beat?

The Power of Protein

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. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2011, Feb.;20(6):1526-484X. Whey protein isolate attenuates strength decline after eccentrically-induced muscle damage in healthy individuals. Cooke MB, Rybalka E, Stathis CG. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2010, Sep.;7():1550-2783. Nutritional supplementation and resistance exercise: what is the evidence for enhanced skeletal muscle hypertrophy? Gibala MJ. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 2001, Feb.;25(6):1066-7814. 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. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2001, May.;11(1):1526-484X. 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 such as chicken or egg?

Pitting powder against whole food, research indicates that the supplements may have 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. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2004, Nov.;288(4):0193-1849. 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. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2007, Apr.;39(2):0195-9131. 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. Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental, 2005, Mar.;54(2):0026-0495.

Just remember: All powders are not created equal. Certain varieties are hydrolyzed (a fancy term meaning partially broken down), which means they can be 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. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009, May.;90(1):1938-3207.

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. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008, Dec.;89(1):1938-3207. 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 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. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2011, Feb.;20(6):1526-484X. 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. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 1993, Apr.;15(4):0112-1642.

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 a vegan lifestyle (although vegan-friendly varieties like hemp, soy, and brown rice are now available). The key is finding the most convenient (and enjoyable) method for you—and leaving the hard work for the weight room floor.

Originally published April 2012. Updated July 2015.