Some people say you absolutely need to eat protein before your workouts to maximize muscle and strength gains.
Others say eating before you train doesn’t matter, but eating after is vital.
Others still say neither of these “feeding windows” matter, and that you just need to make sure you’re eating enough protein on the whole.
Science isn’t exactly clear on this matter, either, because each of these people have studies that purportedly bolster their arguments.
And so you’re left wondering who’s right and what to do.
Should you “play it safe” and just eat protein before and after every workout? Or should you just ignore everyone and just eat on a schedule that you like most?
Well, in this article, we’re going to get to the bottom of all of it, and it starts with this:
As far as eating protein goes, eating enough every day is what matters most for gaining muscle and strength as quickly as possible.
That doesn’t mean these other factors don’t matter at all, though.
If you scoff at them, you’re overlooking an important part of natural muscle building:
Individually, the effects of each refinement may be slight, but collectively, they become significant over time.
Well, protein timing is one of those slight refinements, and it includes pre- and post-workout nutrition.
As you’ll soon see, eating protein before and after workouts isn’t as important as many people claim, but it’s not entirely without merit, either.
Let’s get started.
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- What Is Protein and Why Does It Matter?
- Should You Eat Protein Before Your Workouts?
- Should You Eat Protein After Your Workouts?
- What’s Kinds of Protein Are Best for Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition?
- The Bottom Line on Eating Protein Before and After Workouts
Table of Contents
Protein is a compound comprised of chains of smaller molecules known as amino acids, and it’s the basic building block of your body.
Your tissues such as muscles, ligaments, tendons, hair, organs, and skin as are all made from proteins, and so are hormones, enzymes, and various chemicals essential to life.
Your body requires twenty-one amino acids to form proteins.
It can produce twelve but must get the remaining nine from the food you eat. These are known as the “essential” amino acids and they are:
The primary reason you eat protein is to provide your body with the essential amino acids it needs to repair and build tissues in your body.
As you can imagine, regular weightlifting and exercise increases the body’s demand for protein, but adequate protein intake is important among the sedentary as well.
Now, physiologically speaking, eating protein does more than just raise plasma (blood) amino acid levels.
It also stimulates protein synthesis, which is the biological process whereby amino acids are used to create new proteins.
Muscle proteins are one of the many types of proteins that the body creates, and these are the proteins that are used to repair and enlarge muscle tissues.
The opposite of protein synthesis is protein breakdown, which is the biological process whereby the body breaks down existing proteins into their constituent amino acids.
Both of these activities are occurring in the body at all times to one degree or another.
In other words, when muscle protein synthesis rates outpace muscle protein breakdown rates, you gain muscle mass. When this happens, the body is in a state of “positive protein balance.”
And when muscle protein breakdown rates surpass muscle protein synthesis rates, you lose muscle. When this happens, the body is in a state of “negative protein balance.”
Now, under normal circumstances, these two states balance each other out, and your muscle mass remains stable. This is why people that don’t work out don’t gain or lose any muscle to speak of over time (they’re actually slowly losing muscle, but it’s too slow to notice day-to-day).
So, at bottom, everything we do to gain muscle faster–train hard in the gym, eat plenty of protein and calories, take the right supplements, etc.–accomplishes one of two things (or both, in some cases):
- It increases muscle protein synthesis rates.
- It decreases muscle protein breakdown rates.
Strength training, for example, spikes muscle protein synthesis rates, which is why it promotes muscle gain.
Fasting for long periods of time, on the other hand, spikes muscle protein breakdown rates, which is why it can promote muscle loss.
You know, things like.
- Eating enough protein every day.
- Eating enough calories every day.
- Focusing on heavy, compound weightlifting.
- Emphasizing progressive overload.
- Making sure you get enough sleep.
- Making sure you don’t train at 100% intensity/effort for months on end.
At least 80% of your muscle gain is going to come from these things alone, meaning that all the other strategies and advice that you could follow will always be less important.
Less important doesn’t mean worthless, though, and especially not as a natural weightlifter that wants to optimize his or her progress.
Individually, these things don’t move the needle much, but collectively, they can make quite a difference over the long term.
And that’s where eating protein before and after workouts comes into the picture…
The solution to this mystery is simple, actually, and is found in a minor detail: when subjects had last eaten before eating their pre-workout meals.
You see, it takes your body several hours to digest and absorb protein, and meal size and composition affect this greatly.
A small amount of a quickly digested protein, like 20 grams of whey protein, is usually digested and fully absorbed in about 2 hours. A steak with buttered potatoes and vegetables, on the other hand, might take up to 6 to 8 hours to fully process.
So, let’s say you’ve eaten a large meal containing a significant amount of protein a couple hours before your workout.
Your plasma (blood) amino acid levels are still going to be elevated from the meal, which would make eating more protein before you train unnecessary.
Let’s now say that it has been several hours since you last ate protein, and it was a small meal, like a cup of Greek yogurt.
In this case, your body is going to have more or less digested and absorbed all the protein from the yogurt by the time you’re ready to work out, in which case you could benefit from eating another serving of protein before hitting the weights.
What this means, then, is most people don’t need to eat protein before they work out.
Most of us have eaten a mixed meal containing a fair amount of protein 1 to 3 hours before we work out.
For example, you might have a protein shake with some fruit and nuts at 3 PM, and be in the gym by 6. Or you might eat a big breakfast at 8 AM, and work out at 12. Or a big lunch at 1, and work out at 5.
In all these cases, you probably wouldn’t benefit from another dose of pre-workout protein.
If, however, you train first thing in the morning, or 5 to 6 hours after eating a relatively small meal, then it’s probably a good idea to eat ~20 grams of protein before you work out.
It’s that simple.
Post-workout nutrition is more cut-and-dried than pre-workout.
The consensus among most respected, evidence-based fitness professionals is that yes, you should eat protein after you work out.
This makes sense for two reasons:
- After you train your muscles, they’re more responsive than usual to the muscle-building stimuli provided by protein.
- Protein breakdown rates begin to rise rapidly after you finishing training, and eating protein negates this.
Alright, so now you know when you’re supposed to eat protein before you work out and why, and that it’s probably always a good idea to have protein afterward.
What types of protein are best, though? Does it really matter?
Well, ideally, you’d have something that quickly raises plasma amino acid levels, and thus protein synthesis rates, and that’s rich in the amino acid leucine, which is what most directly stimulates muscle growth.
The protein source that best fits that bill is also the most popular protein supplement in the world: whey protein.
While any kind of whey protein supplement can get the job done, I’m partial to a 100% whey protein isolate because it’s as close to pure protein as you can get, and it has no lactose to potentially upset your stomach.
Here’s the product I personally use:
It’s called WHEY+, and it’s one of our most popular supplements for several reasons:
- It comes from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality milk.
- It comes from hormone- and antibiotic-free cows.
- It contains no artificial food dyes or other junk additives or fillers.
- It contains no soy, gluten, GMOs, MSG, or hormones.
- It’s 100% naturally sweetened and flavored.
- It’s not amino spiked.
The bottom line is if you want a clean, all-natural, and great tasting whey protein supplement that’s low in calories, carbs, and fat, then you want to try WHEY+ today.
Protein timing matters.
It’s no “biohack” or “secret” to muscle growth, and neglecting it won’t halt your progress, but you’ll probably gain muscle faster if you pay attention to it.
And that means, when appropriate, eating protein before you work out, and, most always, eating protein after.
(There’s a bit more to protein timing, as well. Check out this article to learn more.)