Protein is good for you, especially if you’re trying to gain muscle mass. Fun fact: it’s also really good for you even if you’re not. Whether you’re lifting for gains, hitting the treadmill for cardio, or cutting for tone, indulging in a little post-workout protein is great for a whole mess of reasons. What they add up to is pretty simple:
Protein speeds up recovery and increases strength.
The benefits of protein: A snapshot
Proteins are naturally occurring chains of amino acids — the same stuff that makes up your DNA.
They can have the following benefits for your body:
- Proteins increase strength and muscle mass.
- Proteins keep appetite and hunger levels balanced.
- Proteins promote healthy bones.
- Proteins can boost metabolism and increase the rate at which your body burns fat.
- Proteins can lower blood pressure.
- Proteins make it easier to maintain weight loss/gain.
- Proteins help the body heal from injury.
- Proteins can keep you feeling fit as you get older.
While “bulking out” is the primary reason that many people swear by proteins, that’s far from their only plus.
That means you can gym harder, faster, and more often. Neat.
With shakes, bars, powders, gels, and natural sources available, you may feel a little overwhelmed by choice. Don’t worry! We’re going to break down the available protein sources, from the benefits they have to which is best!
Keep reading for everything you need to know about harnessing the post-workout power of protein.
Yes, consuming protein after you work out can boost your results. And there’s a fair bit of research supporting it, too.
These athletic science peeps gave pre- or post-workout protein a thumbs up for supporting muscle synthesis in their 2018 review. Muscle protein synthesis is the process by which your muscles and bones heal.
Why is this important? Because working out builds muscle by wrecking it a little. Don’t be alarmed, this is a good thing. That infamous “burn?” It’s you feeling the muscle damage. After taking minor damage from your gym sesh, they’ll heal back stronger than they were before.
How much stronger depends on — you guessed it — muscle protein synthesis. Having more protein in your body allows more synthesis to take place. The outcome? Your muscles build back faster and help your body get better at gym stuff.
Your muscles work during exercise, fueled by glycogen (a kind of glucose). Muscles use proteins to refill their glycogen tanks. Consuming extra protein post-workout speeds this up and increases the amount of muscle mass post-recovery in the process.
However, it’s not as simple as snorting a line of pure protein powder and turning into the Hulk. As the same 2018 review also points out, the real boosts to your muscle mass and ability to exercise come from your total intake of calories and protein.
In short? It might be better for you to seek out dietary sources of protein, rather than supplements.
Here’s a look at the science behind protein’s benefits.
1. Protein increases muscle mass
This is protein’s big bonus as far as the lifting heads are concerned — and a 2019 review supported the notion that consuming enough protein every day supports increased muscle mass.
There isn’t a direct “X grams of protein = Y bicep inches” equation, unfortunately. Your overall gains depend on all the factors, including your overall diet, the types of exercises you do, and how much exercise you do. For example, the review found that consuming extra protein leads to muscle mass gains after resistance exercise.
How much protein should I be eating daily?
For protein intake, the US Food and Drug Administration suggests a recommended daily value of 50 grams (g).
Post-workout protein won’t provide many additional benefits if your regular diet doesn’t provide enough protein for your body to operate.
2. Protein helps your bones stay healthy
It’s not just your muscles that will thank you for a little protein power. Your bones are also super dependent on proteins, and upping your protein intake has the exact result you’re imagining. According to a 2020 review, protein accounts for one-third of your bone mass.
The same paper found that there’s moderate evidence to support the benefits of a protein-rich diet for increasing bone mineral density (BMD), although more research is necessary to confirm this.
Higher BMD means your bones are less likely to fracture. The current theory is that dietary proteins improve your bones’ ability to absorb calcium.
3. Protein boosts metabolism and aids weight loss
Protein’s link to fat burning and weight loss is well documented.
A 2020 review concluded that a high protein diet can help you lose weight and improve body composition, as protein makes the body better at burning fat.
There really is no shortage of research supporting the “high protein consumption = boosted metabolism + weight loss” statement. There are entire eating plans based around it. (Remember always speak with a doctor, dietitian, or nutritionist before starting any new eating plan).
Protein supplements alone aren’t quite the ticket for weight management. A 2017 randomized, controlled, double-blind trial of 151 people aged 18 to 60 found that protein supplementation did not result in improved success when it comes to weight management.
Exercise and a high protein diet help with weight loss. If you’ve already got those going for you, protein supplements may boost your bounty — but you can’t whey shake your way to your target weight.
4. Protein *may* lower blood pressure
There’s lots of controversy around this, and not much evidence to support the idea that an increase in protein consumption brings down blood pressure.
It’s best put by this randomized control study from 2019. The 27 participants in group who took 30 g of whey per day did show a notable drop in blood pressure.
But the drop was most notable in those who are overweight or have obesity and experienced weight loss during the trial period (12 weeks). The study authors accepted that the drop in blood pressure was most likely linked to body fat loss, rather than direct action from the protein intake.
That’s what makes proving the link so tricky. When folks up their protein intake, they often do so alongside a kick-ass workout and dietary changes. These could also be working to bring down blood pressure.
So the science is unclear on this one — but who cares. If you’re grabbing some post-workout protein, it means you’ve worked out. Your blood pressure will thank you for the exercise regardless, and you still get all the science-backed benefits that protein brings.
5. Protein makes for strong muscles that can heal properly
A 2021 paper found that protein supplementation can be a nutritional strategy for helping people recover from surgery.
In a 2021 randomized controlled trial, a group of 27 post-childbirth peeps reported significantly less vaginal discomfort and a stronger pelvic floor 6 weeks of taking a daily supplement that provided the protein leucine, when compared to a control group who only took a prenatal vitamin.
There’s good potential for protein supplementation to back up all sorts of medical treatments and assist recovery.
6. Protein promotes healthy aging
Since your body uses protein to repair itself, a decent supply could support healthy aging.
A study that tracked 2,917 middle-aged adults across 2 decades concluded that a high protein intake helped them hold on to important bodily functions over time. The researchers also noted that this impact was especially prevalent in bodies assigned as female at birth.
More good news: it’s never too late when it comes to protein. A 2018 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of older adults who didn’t get enough nutrition yielded promising results for their muscle mass and how they functioned during physical activity.
Across the 12-week trial, all groups saw an increase in muscle mass, improved gait (meaning less likelihood of falls), and increased physical performance. The group on the highest daily additional protein (1.5 g) reported the best results. And, for the cherry on the cake, the researchers didn’t observe any harmful side effects. Nice!
Upping your protein intake won’t make you immortal, but it will increase your chances of remaining sprightly in your twilight years. If maintaining an active lifestyle long after you’ve gone grey is a concern, consuming more protein (especially after exercise) is definitely the way forward.
The answer depends on a few things, including:
- what “workout” means in this context (the type of exercise/intensity/duration)
- your body weight
While weight isn’t a super-reliable way to gauge health matters, it’s still the most widely used when it comes to recommended nutrient intakes. Post-workout protein is no exception.
General understanding suggests 1 g per pound of bodyweight. But different studies have found different intakes to be more effective for muscle-building (as long as you’ve already met your daily protein needs):
- Some scientists have recommend at least 0.7 g per pound (1.6 g per kg) of body weight.
- Some have recommended that at least 1.04 g per pound (2.3 g per kg).
- Some suggest that an intake higher than 0.8–0.9 g per pound (1.8–2.0 g per kg) yields no extra benefit.
So, WTF? Well, you can pretty much land anywhere in the 0.7 to 1.04 g per lb. (1.6 to 2.3 g per kg) range and see some kind of muscle gain. Your daily protein target is an intensely personal number. It will vary depending on your age, general health, level of exercise, and (of course) your body shape goals.
It might be best to avoid getting too hung up on the exact number.
The jury still seems to be out. According to this 2019 review, the science around protein supplements and their advantages over natural protein sources is still unfolding.
There are many gym bunnies out there who’ll try to tell you their powder/gel/shake is superior to a high protein meal. On the flip side, there are more than a few natural-protein enthusiasts who’ll claim protein supplements are exercise culture gone wild.
The truth is probably that using both in conjunction is the way forward. Protein shakes aren’t a shortcut to peak muscledom, but there’s plenty of evidence they do work.
One advantage supplements definitely have is ease. It’s not always convenient to whip up a high protein meal after a gym sesh. You can wolf down a bar, shake, or similar protein-infused supplement anywhere, making sure you don’t miss that important “maximum protein efficiency” window.
Don’t believe the Hollywood hype. There are plenty of ways to max out the protein in your diet without having to touch a single raw egg white.
Here are some of the best and most readily available whole food sources of protein.
- Lean rotisserie chicken breast, no skin: 28 g protein per 100 g serving
- Lean pork chop, lean only: 29.1 g protein per 100 g serving
- Braised beef steak, lean only: 28.7 g protein per 100 g
- Lamb shoulder, lean only: 24.7 protein per 100 g
- Cooked bacon: 33.9 g protein per 100 g
- Hard boiled eggs: 12.6 g protein per 100 g. (To make life super easy, a hard boiled egg weighs about 50 g on average, so you’re getting roughly 6.3 g protein per egg.)
- Fresh raw tuna: 24.9 g protein per 100 g
- Smoked sturgeon: 31.2 g protein per 100 g
- Cooked whelk: 47.7 g protein per 100 g
- Cooked octopus: 29.8 g protein per 100 g
- Cooked cuttlefish: 32.5 g per per 100 g
- Firm tofu: 9.98 g protein per 100 g
- Soybeans, cooked without salt: 18.2 g protein per 100 g
- Sun-dried tomatoes: 14.1 g protein per 100 g
- Dried pasilla pepper: 12.4 g protein per 100 g
- Dried shiitake mushrooms: 9.58 g protein per 100 g
Nuts and beans
- Cooked, sprouted lentils: 9.02 g protein per 100 g
- Squash and pumpkin seeds: 30.2 g protein per 100 g
- Cooked lima beans: 6.81 g protein per 100 g
- Dry roasted peanuts: 24.4 g protein per 100 g
- Falafel: 13.3 g protein per 100 g
Yes, protein supplements do work. We mentioned a 2018 review that reached this conclusion, but it’s not the only research that has its back (muscles) though.
A separate review (also in 2018) found similar results. The team of scientists assessed the data of 1,863 participants from across 49 individual studies. Their findings? Protein supplementation significantly boosted both muscle strength and size.
Be wary though — not all supplements are created equal. Which supplement is best is a hotly debated topic. We’ve written a handy guide on some of the most common.
Because of ’90s/’00s size-0 diet culture, carbs and fats get a bad rep. Disregard it. Both are an essential part of any diet, but are especially important post-workout.
The truth about post-workout carbs
Carbs work alongside proteins to make sure your muscles absorb the fuel they need. They’re an essential part of the glycogen replenishment process. A 2018 panel of carb experts suggested eating 0.5 to 0.6 g per kg of carbs every half hour for 2 to 4 hours following intense physical exertion.
Thanks to studies like this one from 2018, we understand that carbohydrates play a key role in insulin secretion and glucose tolerance. Both of these are crucial mechanisms for healthy muscle growth and repair.
Fats aren’t all bad
The link between fats and post-workout gains is less apparent — but fats aren’t all bad for you, either.
Studies are limited. But examples like this one from 2004 suggest that while fats might not provide a noticeable boost to muscle gain, you might be able to add 1,500 calories’ worth of fats without affecting glycogen resynthesis.
That doesn’t mean you should throw out your diet knowledge and fill your belly with Big Macs — just that if you thought “healthy diet = zero fat/fat free only” then you should reassess. Healthy fats are an important part of any diet, even one geared towards weight loss, muscle gain, or both.
As with everything else, it’s best to take a careful, considerate approach when boosting your post-workout protein, either in the diet or through supplements.
When using supplements, always stick to the suggested dosage on the packaging. However, there’s no evidence that protein supplements are dangerous, despite the misconceptions some folks hold.
Either way, if you’re not exceeding the recommendations on the label or stuffing yourself to the point of bursting, there’s nothing to fear from post-workout protein. So moderation is key.
If you do start experiencing anything unusual after taking a protein supplement, speak with your doctor. While it’s pretty rare, it is possible to have allergies to certain kinds of protein supplements (whey being the most reported example).
Consuming protein directly after a workout ensures your muscles have enough fuel to heal. This can reduce cramps and pains and boost strength and muscle mass.
Plenty of protein-rich whole foods are available, and protein supplements like shakes, powders, bars, and gels can help you top up. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for post-workout protein consumption, research suggests aiming for 0.7 to 1 g per lb. of body weight (1.6 to 2.2 g per kg).
Dietary protein is the most important source of the macronutrient. Post-workout supplementation won’t do all that much unless you’re already getting your baseline dietary needs.
Protein isn’t the only foodstuff you should pay attention to when chowing down after a gym sesh. Carbohydrates are also important, as are fats.
While there’s no real risk associated with protein supplements, you should always follow the recommended dosage on the label. Stop and speak with a doc if you start to experience symptoms of an allergic reaction.