When not pumping iron or working up a sweat on the treadmill, exercise enthusiasts are often seen drinking protein shakes before or after a workout.
The science of sport has advanced in recent years, meaning even amateurs are now aware of the importance of these amino acids when working out.
However, there is also a growing understanding that the timing of your intake of protein can be crucial.
Newsweek Spoke to fitness experts about when it is best to drink protein shakes and whether you should use them at all.
Should You Drink Protein Shakes?
Protein is part of every cell in the human body, making this macronutrient crucial to functions ranging from immune response and hormone production, and—most famously—building and repairing bodies’ muscles.
As a result, Americans spend billions of dollars annually on protein supplements, such as shakes, to build muscle mass and help bulk up.
Recent research indicates regular gym-goers and athletes may require roughly doubling the recommended daily allowance of approximately 0.72 grams per pound (1.6 grams per kg), to support muscle recovery and growth.
For optimal results, studies suggest this could mean spreading this amount over three or four daily meals, consumed every three or four hours, making protein shakes a convenient option for those that require such additional intake.
With protein powders typically containing 25 to 30 grams of protein per scoop, HeathLine.com describes protein shakes as “a good option between meals, either as a snack or around your workout.”
Fiona Hawker, a fitness instructor at Curves Gym, believes the subject has been under-researched, but suspects protein powder is unnecessary for many people who hit the gym.
She told Newsweek: “There hasn’t been much research on this subject and what research has been done suggests that it doesn’t make a significant difference whether it is before or after.
“For many people, consuming protein shakes before their workout affects performance as they feel a little sluggish, so they prefer to consume post-exercise within about 30 minutes to 1 hour after completing a workout.
Protein shakes themselves may not be necessary for the majority of people. They can certainly be good for those who are trying to gain weight, significantly increase bulk or are doing high levels of training and need a quick way to get protein or need more than they can consume from their diet.
“Most people who are exercising for health and fitness should be able to get sufficient protein from whole foods and should only choose a protein shake as a last resort if they are unable to meet their protein needs from whole foods.
“If you are choosing a protein shake, check the ingredients carefully so you know what you are consuming in addition to the protein.”
When Should You Drink Protein Shakes?
Elliott Upton, certified personal trained and Head of Online Training at Ultimate Performance, believes protein shakes should be consumed exclusively post-workout, “unless otherwise prescribed.”
He told Newsweek: “Whey protein, in its liquid form, means protein is rapidly shuttled to your muscle cells.
“These shakes have been designed specifically to contain amino acids that are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, so they can improve your recovery and improve the speed at which you build muscle.
“If you have a shake immediately before a gym session, it might sit very poorly on your stomach during a challenging exercise session.”
Upton adds there is sometimes a misconception that failure to consume protein shakes within minutes of their training session can result in lost muscle gains.
He said: “Yes, you should aim to get a good amount of protein after your training session, but there is no need for such urgency – getting some one-to-two hours post-workout is fine. So, we don’t ‘need’ a post-workout shake the second that we finish the gym.”
“If you’ve eaten sufficient protein within two hours of starting your exercise session, you should have a decent pool of amino acids – the ‘building blocks’ that make up protein—in your system and immediate, easily digested protein isn’t that important. You can wait an hour or two to grab a decent meal after your session.”
He adds how a perceived problem is how exercise enthusiasts lacking the resources of professional athletes can the lack level of control over their schedules to plan in a good meal two hours before the gym. This makes shakes an excellent compromise.
He said: “A nice protein shake post-training is a great way to get all the nutrients you need for recovery in an easily digestible form.
And, post-workout, it gives you the right amount of protein to shift your body from ‘catabolism’, which is the breaking down of muscle tissue to make new energy, into ‘anabolism’, which is a very simple way of saying that your body will now start using the new pool of amino acids you’ve ingested to recover, repair and build new muscles following a challenging gym session.”
Should You Drink Protein Shakes On Rest Days?
Arj Thiruchelvam, Performance Physique Running Coach and trainer of Olympian athletes, suggests protein shakes can—in moderation—form part of a healthy diet of regular gym-goers, even on their rest days.
He told Newsweek: “The average person needs to be more aware of their limitations and shouldn’t exercise excessively: one-to-two rest days per week is adequate to stave off overtraining.
“Remember that the time for your body to grow and adapt is during rest and recovery, therefore it’s important that you not only obey your rest periods and days off but also feed it nutritionally during this time. Yes, have your protein shake on days off. too.”
“Depending on how much training you’re used to, a rest day may be just a gentle walk or it may involve some yoga, gentle swimming or a mobility session to aid recovery.”