Protein shakes are to bodybuilding what helmets are to soldiers—a tool that’s inextricably linked to their trade.
After all, you’ve probably heard that you should eat more protein if you want to build muscle, and what easier way to consume said protein than drinking a few protein shakes throughout the day?
If you’ve dug around the world of bodybuilding nutrition for, oh, more than about 10 seconds, you’ve also probably heard that you should drink your protein shakes at specific times to maximize their benefits.
Some say you should slam a protein shake before and after your workouts, others say first thing in the morning, others right before bed, and some even say you should wake up to drink protein in the middle of the night.
The truth is, you do need to eat a high-protein diet if you want to build muscle effectively, and drinking protein shakes does make hitting your daily protein target easier. That said, when you drink a protein shake isn’t half as important as many people would have you believe, and might not matter at all depending on your eating schedule.
In it you’ll learn the answers to questions like:
- Why drink protein shakes?
- What does protein do for your body?
- Should you have protein before or after your workout?
- When is the best time to drink a protein shake if you want to build muscle, lose fat, or if you’re a woman?
Table of Contents
To understand why people drink protein shakes, you first need to answer the question: what does protein do for your body?
A protein is a compound that the body uses to create tissues, hormones, enzymes, and various other chemicals essential to life.
It’s made up of chains of smaller molecules known as amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of your body.
Your body requires twenty amino acids to form proteins. It can produce 11 on its own but must get the remaining 9 from the food you eat.
The primary reason you eat protein is to provide your body with adequate essential amino acids to build and repair the various tissues that make up your body.
Regular exercise—and weightlifting in particular—increases the body’s demand for protein.
Specifically, research shows that you generally want to eat at least 0.8-to-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day to maximize muscle growth and repair.
Many people balk when they realize how much protein they need to eat per day, and although you can get all of your protein needs from whole foods, this can be impractical for a few reasons:
- It can make balancing your macronutrient intake tricky.
- High-protein foods often don’t store well and can be difficult to transport (e.g. baked chicken breast or yogurt).
- Getting most of your daily protein from just a few food sources, as many people do, can get old very fast.
And that’s where protein shakes come in.
Protein shakes are . . .
- Perfect for fast-and-easy snacking
- Often preferable to eating yet another meal
- Usually low in carbs and fat, which makes meal planning easier
- Affordable (in terms of price per gram of protein)
. . . which is why most people agree they’re a convenient and practical addition to any gym-goer’s supplement regimen.
You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.
Find the Perfect Supplements for You in Just 60 Seconds
You don't need supplements to build muscle, lose fat, and get healthy. But the right ones can help. Take this quiz to learn which ones are best for you.Take the Quiz
Many people worry unduly about whether it’s better to have a protein shake before or after their workout.
The truth is, provided you eat regular high-protein meals more or less evenly spread throughout the day, it doesn’t matter whether you eat before or after your workout.
You see, it takes your body several hours to digest and absorb protein (and perhaps even longer if the protein you eat is part of a large meal that also contains carbohydrates and fat).
For example, if you ate just 26 grams of steak (a small amount of steak by most people’s standards), it’ll take at least 6 hours to be fully digested and absorbed by your body. If you add vegetables, fat, and starch to the meal, the release of amino acids will probably continue for closer to 10 hours.
Thus, if you eat around three-to-six high-protein meals each day, it’s highly likely that you’ll be digesting protein continuously throughout the day.
Dr. Eric Helms, a researcher, natural bodybuilding coach, and member of Legion’s Scientific Advisory Board, describes this better than anyone: “There is a veritable conga line of food, even just a meal or two into the day, backed up far enough that changes in amino acid release in the the bloodstream, and the subsequent delivery to muscles, becomes much more steady than you might think. This reality makes many of the micro-manipulations of protein timing pointless.”
That is, you don’t need to slam a pre-workout shake to avoid “going catabolic” during your workout, and knocking back a post-workout shake won’t help you take advantage of the “anabolic window.” Eating high-protein foods throughout the day (on your normal eating schedule) provides all the “pre- and post-workout protein” you need to build muscle.
Having said that . . .
- If you train 3-to-4 hours after eating a relatively small meal, then it’s probably a good idea to consume ~20 grams of protein an hour or so before you work out.
- If you like to train fasted, make sure you get in ~20 grams of protein within an hour or so of finishing your workout to minimize muscle protein breakdown.
And if you find yourself in either of these situations, drinking a protein shake is probably the easiest way to get the protein you need.
Protein shakes make hitting your total daily protein target easier because they’re a convenient way to consume high-quality protein.
There’s nothing inherently special about them, though, which is why there’s no “best” or “worst” time to drink one.
In most cases, the best time to drink a protein shake is whenever you want to drink a protein shake.
That said, depending on your goals, there may be slightly better times to have protein shakes than others. Let’s take a look at some common scenarios.
When it comes to building muscle, consuming enough total protein each day is far more important than when you consume your protein.
Assuming you’re already hitting your daily protein target, however, research shows that . . .
- You’ll probably gain muscle faster eating four-to-six servings of protein every day than fewer.
- Having some protein within one-to-two hours pre and post training has—at best—a very small but positive effect on muscle growth. That said, this doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of a protein shake—you can also just eat a high-protein meal within a couple hours of the beginning and ending of your workout.
Thus, if you want to do everything you can to maximize muscle growth, consume protein shakes . . .
- Between meals (and possibly before bed) to make sure you evenly space out your servings of protein throughout the day
- One-to-two hours before you train if you haven’t had a high-protein meal within two hours of starting your workout, or one-to-two hours after you train if don’t plan on eating a high-protein meal within two hours of finishing your workout
In the big scheme of things, the timing of your protein shakes relative to your workouts isn’t overly important. Your first priority is always to consume enough total protein throughout the day, and your second priority is to evenly spread that protein out across about 4-to-6 meals per day. Once you’re doing those two things, you don’t need to worry about much else when it comes to protein timing.
For best results . . .
- Have a protein shake with breakfast.
- Replace snacks with protein shakes.
Basically, you want to follow the same guidelines while cutting as you do when trying to build muscle. The only difference is that you may want to slightly increase your total protein intake and consume more protein when you get hungry throughout the day.
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
When it comes to protein shakes, women don’t need to do anything differently than men.
If you’re a women, the only thing to bear in mind is that you’re likely to have a lower daily protein target than most men, and if you’re already eating three-to-four high-protein meals each day, you may only be able to to fit in one protein shake per day (while a man may be able to drink two or more).
If it helps you hit your protein target, yes.
Continuing to eat a high-protein diet on rest days ensures you keep muscle protein synthesis elevated and thus your body’s muscle-building machinery firing on all cylinders, and helps your muscles recover between workouts.
And again, if you feel confused about how much of each macronutrient, how many calories, and which foods you should eat to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.
It’s not always necessary, but it may be a good idea.
Research shows that having 30-to-40 grams of a slow-burning protein like casein (or low-fat cottage cheese or Greek or Icelandic yogurt) before bed may help to speed up muscle recovery. That said, more recent research shows there may be no additional benefit to eating protein before bed so long as you’re eating enough total daily protein and spacing your consumption throughout the day, so your mileage may vary.
If you’re interested in giving pre-bed protein a try and want a clean, 100% natural, delicious micellar casein protein powder that’s naturally sweetened and flavored and contains no artificial dyes or other chemical junk, try Casein+.
Whey protein powder is most people’s top pick—and for good reason.
Not only is it rich in the amino acid leucine—an amino acid that plays a vital role in stimulating protein synthesis—it’s rapidly digested and easily absorbed by the body. In other words, it kicks off the muscle-building process, then provides everything the body needs to get the job done quickly and easily.
What’s more, high-quality whey protein powder tastes good and tends to provide a lot of protein per dollar spent, so it’s convenient and cost-effective.
If you want to enjoy a 100% natural grass-fed whey isolate protein powder made with milk from small, sustainable dairy farms in Ireland, try Whey+.
For most people, casein is the next most popular choice after whey protein. It offers roughly the same benefits in terms of building muscle, but has a thicker, creamier texture that many people enjoy, and releases amino acids over a much longer period of time, which may offer some muscle-building advantages over whey.
+ Scientific References
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/S12970-018-0215-1
- S, F., HC, D., MJ, D., EL, G., JG, C., F, Y., E, V., & BB, R. (2007). Nutrient signalling in the regulation of human muscle protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 582(Pt 2), 813–823. https://doi.org/10.1113/JPHYSIOL.2007.134593
- LE, N., GJ, W., DK, L., CJ, M., & PJ, G. (2012). Leucine content of dietary proteins is a determinant of postprandial skeletal muscle protein synthesis in adult rats. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-9-67
- PT, R., B, G., B, P., M, B., GA, W., AP, G., JM, S., & LJ, V. L. (2012). Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 44(8), 1560–1569. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0B013E31824CC363
- Joy, J. M., Vogel, R. M., Broughton, K. S., Kudla, U., Kerr, N. Y., Davison, J. M., Wildman, R. E. C., & DiMarco, N. M. (2018). Daytime and nighttime casein supplements similarly increase muscle size and strength in response to resistance training earlier in the day: a preliminary investigation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/S12970-018-0228-9
- SM, C., SJ, H., S, G., & PJ, M. (2015). Dietary whey protein influences plasma satiety-related hormones and plasma amino acids in normal-weight adult women. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 69(2), 179–186. https://doi.org/10.1038/EJCN.2014.266
- BL, L., T, A., & GH, A. (2007). Whey proteins in the regulation of food intake and satiety. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 26(6), 704S-712S. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2007.10719651
- Rains, T. M., Leidy, H. J., Sanoshy, K. D., Lawless, A. L., & Maki, K. C. (2015). A randomized, controlled, crossover trial to assess the acute appetitive and metabolic effects of sausage and egg-based convenience breakfast meals in overweight premenopausal women. Nutrition Journal, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/S12937-015-0002-7
- Leidy, H. J., & Racki, E. M. (2010). The addition of a protein-rich breakfast and its effects on acute appetite control and food intake in ‘breakfast-skipping’ adolescents. International Journal of Obesity 2010 34:7, 34(7), 1125–1133. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2010.3
- S, M., N, M., & KD, T. (2010). Increased protein intake reduces lean body mass loss during weight loss in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 42(2), 326–337. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0B013E3181B2EF8E
- TL, H., & FB, H. (2004). The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23(5), 373–385. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2004.10719381
- BJ, S., AA, A., & JW, K. (2013). The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
- JL, A., LM, B., ML, R., DM, C., DW, W., EM, B., NA, J., DR, M., T, S., SM, P., JA, H., & VG, C. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319–2331. https://doi.org/10.1113/JPHYSIOL.2012.244897
- D, P.-J., M, S.-M., A, A., RR, W., & AA, F. (2005). Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion. American Journal of Physiology. Endocrinology and Metabolism, 288(4). https://doi.org/10.1152/AJPENDO.00291.2004
- Pennings, B., Groen, B. B., van Dijk, J.-W., de Lange, A., Kiskini, A., Kuklinski, M., Senden, J. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2013). Minced beef is more rapidly digested and absorbed than beef steak, resulting in greater postprandial protein retention in older men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 98(1), 121–128. https://doi.org/10.3945/AJCN.112.051201
- DM, S., W, L., R, P., & C, W. (1993). Meal composition affects postprandial fatty acid oxidation. The American Journal of Physiology, 264(6 Pt 2). https://doi.org/10.1152/AJPREGU.1993.264.6.R1065
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2014 11:1, 11(1), 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-11-20
- SM, P., & LJ, V. L. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 Suppl 1(SUPPL. 1). https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2011.619204