Protein – most bodybuilders are obsessed with it. No wonder! It’s the building blocks of new muscle tissue. Protein is made up of long strings of amino acids held together by tough bonds called peptide bonds. Once your digestive tract breaks it down, the amino acids travel to muscle tissue where they’re used to repair and increase the size of the muscle fibers you damage when you lift heavy weights. That’s important if you’re trying to change your body composition!
How Much Total Protein Do You Need and Does Timing Matter?
We know that people who weight train need more protein than a sedentary person, although the exact amount is debatable. Some experts believe athletes need as much as double the quantity of protein daily that an inactive person does. Since the dietary reference intake, or RDI, is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, an athletic individual may benefit from as much as 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For a woman of average weight, that’s 90 to 100 grams of protein daily.
But, what about the timing of the protein? You may have heard experts say you should consume protein as soon after a workout as possible. This is based on the idea that there’s an “anabolic window” after a workout, a limited time period during which your muscles can best take up amino acids and put them to work building new muscle tissue.
In other words, your muscles are primed to take up amino acids right after a workout, more so than at other times. So, you can theoretically boost your gains if you give muscles what they want, amino acids from protein, at the right time, shortly after a workout.
How long is this theoretical window period? Most fitness experts say it’s an hour, or at most, two hours after a workout. So, once a workout session is over, they recommend 20 to 30 grams of protein to give your muscles the building blocks to build new muscle tissue.
But, the idea of an anabolic window remains unproven. Studies looking at whether it exists have yielded conflicting results. For example, whether you need an additional dose of protein after a workout depends on your nutritional status before you began training. Were you in a fasted state or had you just eaten a meal?
If you ate nothing within 5 hours of your workout, then consuming protein right after a workout may give you a leg up as it will help you avoid a catabolic state where protein breakdown exceeds muscle protein synthesis.
Total Protein is Most Important
Recent research suggests that if you’re consuming enough total protein, you don’t need to rush to eat a protein meal or drink a shake within two hours of a workout. Studies using muscle biopsy show similarities in muscle protein synthesis even when subjects consume protein three or four hours after a strength-training workout. Some research even suggests that the theoretical window period extends a full day after a training session. Instead, it’s more important to make sure you’re consuming enough daily total protein and spacing that protein out across the day rather than consuming it all at once.
In a study published in The Journal of Physiology, researchers asked a group of guys to take part in resistance training sessions. Each was asked to consume a total of 80 grams of protein at various times over a 12-hour period after their workouts. One group consumed 40 grams of protein every 6 hours. The second consumed 20 grams every 3 hours while the third took in 10 grams every 1.5 hours. As it turned out, the middle group that consumed 20 grams every 3 hours had the highest rate of muscle protein synthesis.
So, it’s ultimately more important to consume enough protein and spread it out across the day than to focus on getting a big dose of protein based on a theoretical window period after a workout. So, the take-home message is to consume enough calories and protein and space it out so that your muscles have ready access to amino acids to use for growth and repair of muscle tissue.
If there’s an anabolic window, it’s probably not as short as previously thought. You don’t have to rush to consume protein within two hours after exercise, but you should take in in protein every 3 hours or so. If you went into a training session in a fasted state, then you do need to consume protein shortly after you finish. On the other hand, if you chowed down on a protein-rich meal, no need to rush to consume more right away.
Do you need a protein shake? No, you can consume any high-quality protein source throughout the day. There’s no need to invest in fancy shakes or bodybuilding protein supplements. Real food has protein too and in a form your body best recognizes. The time a shake might work best is for convenience when you don’t have time to eat.
Choose your shakes wisely. Be aware that independent research firms have analyzed protein powders and found heavy metal contamination in some. Surprisingly, organic protein powders weren’t exempt from contamination either. So, always buy from a reputable make if you go the shake route. Plant protein powders may have even higher levels of contaminants as they absorb heavy metals from the soil.
The bottom line? Consume enough protein and not in one meal. Include a source of protein with every meal and snack. Whole food sources of protein are best, but if you use protein powder, buy it from a reputable source and try to find independent testing data that shows whether the product contains heavy metals or other impurities.
Harvard Health Publishing. “How Much Protein Do You Need Every Day?
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 5.
U.S. News Health. “Do You Really Need Protein Right After Your Workout?”
Consumer Reports. “Arsenic, Lead Found in Popular Protein Supplements”