This post is sponsored by SFH Protein, but all my thoughts are my own.
Some of the most frequently asked questions I receive as a sports dietitian have to do with nutritional supplements for exercise. Many people wonder if they should be drinking a protein shake before or after a workout or if they need one at all to help them meet health and fitness goals. Depending on who you ask, you might get mixed answers.
Do you drink protein shakes before or after a workout? And is it better to drink a protein shake before a workout or after one? Let’s examine what science says about these questions, and the best ways to meet protein needs for exercise.
What are protein shakes used for?
Protein shakes are made using a protein powder mixed with water or milk, and may include some additional ingredients, like greens, fruit, or nut butter depending on personal preferences. They may also be purchased pre-made and ready-to-drink. Shakes are meant to be supplements, not necessarily meal replacements or staples of a real food diet.
Protein shakes can be made using a variety of powders derived from things like whey and casein (milk proteins), egg whites, pea, hemp, soy, or rice.
While post- and pre-workout protein shakes won’t give you six-pack abs, fix your diet, or solve health problems, they may be one way to support your exercise regimen and increase protein in your diet if you use them.
Some people use protein shakes to supplement their diet with protein and calories, for weight or muscle gain. They may also be helpful for those that are super active and need a quick way to get in their protein. The question is, do you really need to drink a protein shake after a workout?
How much protein do active people need?
Let’s start by reviewing some protein basics. Most people don’t consume enough protein to support their ideal body composition. The more physically active you are, the more protein you’re going to require.
Below are the bare minimum protein requirements for sedentary people:
- 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight
- 56 grams for males
- 43 grams for females
When you add regular, intense, resistance training or physical activity into the mix, your protein requirements increase. Generally speaking, research and personal experience with clients lead me to recommend that you should be getting about 15-25% of your total caloric intake from protein or around 1-1.5 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. For athletes training hard 5 days per week, or doing 2-a-day workouts, this amount increases to about 1.7-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram body weight.
I typically recommend planning your day out to get at least 10 grams of protein in a protein-rich snack, and at least 20 grams in a meal.
What science says about protein shakes for fitness
How do protein shakes fit into this? Usually people assume they should be prepping their shake in a to-go cup, ready to gulp it down immediately after working out so it does its job.
Some people believe in this “anabolic window”, or the ideal timeframe in which you’re supposed to consume protein after exercise because your muscles will soak it up the most. While this window has often been considered to be around 30 minutes post work-out, research suggests that it may actually last much longer. Furthermore, it may not even matter whether you consume protein before or after a workout to get the same benefit.
Not many studies have been conducted comparing the benefits of consuming a protein shake before versus after a workout on muscle strength and size. A 2017 study published in Peer J divided 21 men into two groups, all of whom participated in a whole-body workout three times per week for 10 weeks. One group consumed a shake containing 25 grams of protein immediately before each workout, while the other consumed the same shake immediately following each workout.
The researchers found that there was no significant difference in muscle size or strength change between the two groups, suggesting that it really doesn’t matter when you consume protein as long as it’s sometime around the time of your workout.
Furthermore, some researchers have wondered whether you even need to consume protein that close to your workout as long as you get enough overall. The evidence is largely mixed here, with some studies finding that it’s beneficial to do so, while others find no effect.
As such, researchers conducted a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2013 that reviewed evidence to date from 23 studies. They concluded that total protein intake was the strongest factor in influencing muscle size and strength, and it didn’t matter if people ate it close to the time they exercised or not.
So there you have it, the general scientific consensus is that protein shakes probably aren’t going to make any additional difference compared to eating protein throughout the day.
Should you drink protein shakes after a workout?
While it’s true that protein is an essential nutrient, and is needed for proper muscle repair and growth, that doesn’t mean post-workout protein shakes are going to make a difference for everyone.
Do protein shakes offer anything extra that whole foods won’t? Besides maybe convenience, not really, as long as you’re meeting your protein needs with food.
In fact, I usually tell clients to save protein shakes, bars, and powders as a last resort or if you’re unable to meet your protein needs with whole foods – even after a training session.
Protein-rich snacks for active lifestyles
I’m an advocate for basing your diet on whole, real foods as much as possible. The same rule applies when talking about the best protein sources to support your health and fitness goals.
Some of these sources include Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs, legumes, quinoa, nuts and seeds, and lunch meat. I will always recommend getting a wide variety of these types of foods before relying on protein shakes.
For a more comprehensive list of protein-rich snack ideas, as well as how to plan your protein intake for the day, see this blog post.
If You Decide to Drink Protein Shakes
Still, if you decide that consuming a protein shake before or after a workout makes sense for you, my best advice is to make sure you’re choosing a quality protein supplement.
If you’re a competitive athlete, it’s critical to know what you’re consuming in terms of ingredients and potential contaminants or adulterants. In addition to being potentially dangerous to your health, these substances can show up in drug testing.
Look for third-party, independent testing seals on products that indicate they have been thoroughly examined to make sure they’re clean and safe for athletes to use. I recommended looking for Informed-Sport and NSF Certified for Sport labels on premade shakes or protein powders you want to use to make your own.
My Favorite Brand of Whey Protein
I have been a long time fan of the protein powder by sfh. They have a line of whey protein, and not plant based protein that is third party tested, safe for athletes and it actually tastes good. I prefer the chocolate or the churro but they have other flavors for you to choose from as well.
Sfh is a brand I can trust, they’re transparent and I love the taste and digestibility of it. Try it out using my code “sassy” on their website.
Do you need a protein shake after a workout? The simple answer is, more than likely not. You can get enough protein from a real food diet, and downing a protein shake right after you drop the barbell isn’t going to make much difference, if any. But, if you struggle to get enough protein or like the taste, go for it!
Do you use protein shakes after exercising? Have you noticed a difference in how you feel and recover? Alternatively, do you find that you get enough protein-rich foods in your diet to support your fitness routine?