Post Workout Protein Makes More Muscle … Right?

While eating protein is part of the building blocks for making more muscle, it is important to know that your body works in the long term and not minute by minute. With that in mind, how about the importance of the post workout shake (as we hear that eating right after a workout increases protein synthesis)? But that “microscience” ignores the overall bigger picture on whole body recovery that has us building muscle long after the “post workout” window. Here’s a study to help show that point:

Twenty healthy men were studied in the evening after consuming a standardized diet throughout the day. Subjects participated in a 2-h exercise session during which beverages containing both carbohydrate and a protein hydrolysate (C+P) or water only (W) were ingested.

During exercise, whole-body and muscle protein synthesis rates increased by 29 and 48% with protein and carbohydrate coingestion.

During subsequent overnight recovery, whole-body protein synthesis was 19% greater in the C+P group than in the W group. However, mean muscle protein synthesis rates during 9 h of overnight recovery did not differ between groups.

We conclude that, even in a fed state, protein and carbohydrate supplementation stimulates muscle protein synthesis during exercise. Ingestion of protein with carbohydrate during and immediately after exercise improves whole-body protein synthesis but does not further augment muscle protein synthesis rates during 9 h of subsequent overnight recovery. Source: Coingestion of Carbohydrate and Protein Hydrolysate Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis during Exercise in Young Men, with No Further Increase during Subsequent Overnight Recovery; Journal of Nutrition, doi:10.3945/jn.108.092924

Confused? Well I’m going to let my buddy Brad Pilon and author of the new ebook “How Much Protein” answer that one:

What you are looking at is two different measurements of protein synthesis in the human body. “Whole body protein synthesis” is a measurement of the protein synthesis happening in your entire body. This includes things like your liver, heart, lungs, brain GI Track and your muscles. This measurement does not tell you WHICH part of your body the protein synthesis is happening in, just that it is happening. “Muscle protein synthesis” is specifically measuring the amount of protein synthesis that is happening IN your skeletal muscle.

So from the example you posted above, it is obvious that the post workout protein shake increased whole body protein synthesis, but did not increase skeletal muscle protein synthesis. Most likely this means that the extra protein increased protein synthesis in your liver and gastrointestinal tract, but had no measurable effect on your muscles.

So if the point of taking protein before, during, and after your workouts is to build muscle, then the research you quotes seems to say that there would be no additional muscle building effect.

When you have the right kind of recovery and still eat enough during the day, it seems the “hype” about the post workout window goes away. Honestly unless you are a hard training athlete who needs immediate glycogen replenishment to train again the next day, trying to intake protein (with carbs) during or right after a workout is not necessary.

If people are going to insist on something around workouts, then I would say only a small intake of BCAAs PRE-workout would be most the average person would need. Whether you eat or not immediately after a workout can be up to you, but I wouldn’t base it on some extra muscle building theory.

Higher Protein and Weight Loss

The other part of the equation when it comes to why you eat protein, is about your goals and how many calories you are intaking. Many people use the higher protein intakes when they are looking to lean out and minimize muscle loss. Protein being a harder macronutrient to convert to fat (than carbs or fat), makes it an easy choice to eat more of while keeping carbs/fat low.

Protein will also help you to feel fuller and less likely to overeat on any other macronutrient (fat/carbs). So even if you are intaking more than enough protein to maintain muscle, you are really doing it from another strategy that may include just trying to avoid excess calories and lean out.

Wrapping Up

  • The amount of protein that you REALLY need to build muscle is lower than you think, but you still have to get in enough calories from some place.
  • Most people using higher protein based diets are usually trying to lose weight and maintain muscle (by limiting calories from excess fat and carbs). As remember, calories matter when you are trying to lose weight.
  • If your intake of carbs or fats is higher, then your need for protein (as a calorie source only) decreases. Also diets higher in carbs/fats tend to have more nitrogen sparing effect. The issue being making sure you are eating healthy (especially carbs) and not overdo it, as it could easily be stored as fat. This is why many just go the higher protein way, because of an easier route for body composition and they say “well I have to eat something…mine as well be more meat!”.
  • The more active you are, the more protein you probably should intake. Most average active people only need about 0.6g/lb of lean body weight. On the high end I would say only need to go 0.8-1.0g/lb bw, but that does not guarantee extra muscle especially when you can up calories from fat/carbs.
  • Using IF (intermittent fasting) is not going to make your muscle waste away, but will in fact actually utilize more internal sources for AA (amino acids) such as unused enzymes and junk proteins.
  • Skip the protein shakes and eat real foods….as the additional vitamins, minerals, and essential fats also play a role in building more muscle (and burning fat too). This is also an advantage to knowing you need less protein than originally believed…because you can focus on quality of the source (pastured eggs, grass fed meats) rather than quantity. Which leads to more natural vitamins, minerals and essential fats (including less Omega 6s, more Omega 3s and even some others like CLA proven to help burn fat/build muscle).
  • Unless you are needing immediate muscle glycogen replenishment for the next day of training (athletes), you don’t need that immediate post workout shake/meal.
  • Bodybuilders telling you to eat 300+ grams protein a day and train 5x a week…..are only getting results due to the best genetics (much higher than average protein synthesis capabilities) the world has to offer…or a little help from anabolic hormones (steroids) to increase protein synthesis with that higher protein intake (and frequent workout schedule). The average person could not do much with that strategy (except just burnout).
  • Seems that whether you eat in 2-3 bigger meals (and/or pulse 1 large meal), or 6 smaller meals… won’t matter for muscle building. In the long run, the results are the same as long as the total amount of protein is kept constant.

So there you go. Did it make you rethink how much protein you really need? I wish someone had this talk with me when I was around 16 because I could have saved $1000s over the next 10+ years from not buying all sorts of protein powders/shakes/bars. When it comes to muscle building, having enough protein matters of course….but the amount is smaller than most would think (especially when you can get enough calories in from carbs/fats and have adequate training + recovery).

More reading: If you want more studies to understand how much protein you really need, then I highly recommend Brad Pilon’s How Much Protein ebook, as it is one of the best straight forward and scientifically (and not bodybuilding hyped) based reads on protein out there.

@2MealMike Mike has been a personal trainer and health/fitness coach (for over 10 years), as well as a professional blogger/writer. Mike is also the author of the 2 Meal Solution.



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