Protein is essential for building bigger and stronger muscles, but the timing of your intake depends on your own nutritional needs.

By Tiffany Ayuda
July 28, 2020
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Dedication to proper nutrition before and after your workouts is key to helping you move well and making them effective. If your plan for doing so includes a protein shake, the question naturally becomes...

Should you drink a protein shake before or after your workout?

The truth is, there isn't a right or wrong answer.

"It really depends on your goals and when you ate your last meal prior to working out," says Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., consulting sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Braves and lead author of Nutrition for Sport, Exercise, and Health. "If you want to maximally build muscle, you should have a protein-rich meal (or shake) every three to five hours throughout the day."

A 2014 study in The Journal of Nutrition shows that muscle protein synthesis (the process of using protein to build muscle) increases when you consume a moderate amount of protein—around 30 grams per meal—throughout the day versus eating the recommended daily amount (0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight) at once, like at dinner. So whether you work out in the morning or evening, it's best practice to evenly spread out your protein intake, and you can do it with a shake if it's more convenient for you.

That's because it's not so much about the timing of your protein consumption, but the total amount of protein consumed daily, says Mona Cabrera, M.S., R.D. "If you prefer your protein shake before your workout versus after, that will be just as beneficial to you. If you are trying to gain muscle and strength, drinking your protein shake before or after your workout doesn't matter like it was once believed," she says.

In fact, a 2017 study in PeerJ tested the effects of pre- and post-workout protein intake on hypertrophy (increase in muscle size), strength, and body composition. It found that both pre- and post-workout protein consumption produced similar effects.

That said, if you're still on the fence about the optimal time to take out that tub of protein powder, here are some pros and cons of drinking a protein shake before or after exercise to consider. (Related: 14 Post-Workout Snacks Trainers and Dietitians Swear By)

If You Want to Drink a Protein Shake Before Your Workout

The Pros:

If you haven't eaten in three or four hours, drinking a protein shake before a workout is a great way to ramp up the muscle-building process, says Spano. "In this case, it isn't really the timing of pre-exercise that matters as much as it is the fact that moderate- to higher-protein meals evenly spaced throughout the day is ideal for building muscle," she explains. Protein can also help curb hunger if you're starting to feel a little rumble in your tummy before your sweat sesh. In general, a protein shake before your workout can help you meet your total daily protein intake, says Spano.

The Cons:

The only real concern to consider with drinking a protein shake before a workout is if you have a sensitive stomach and can't digest protein powder well. "It could potentially make you feel too full, or if you are doing any jumping or bounding, it may cause an upset stomach," says Spano. A hydrolyzed protein powder might work better for you if you're prone to gut issues and want to drink a shake or smoothie before your workout. Hydrolyzed protein powders have been broken down into smaller-chain amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for easier digestion and absorption.

In case you're wondering what's an ideal carb-to-protein ratio for your pre-workout shake, Spano says there isn't one. Some people might not need any carbohydrates before their workout if they had some carbs within a few hours prior to exercise. "However, for the person who has not had enough carbohydrates during the course of the day before working out, they may want to add some as this is the top source of energy during moderate to higher-intensity workouts, which includes lifting weights," she says. (Here's more about why carbs are so important for your workouts.)

If You Want to Drink a Protein Shake After Your Workout

The Pros:

The faster you consume protein after your workout, the faster you'll begin the muscle recovery process. "The best time to consume protein is 30 minutes to two hours after working out," says Cabrera. "The protein will repair and rebuild muscle tissues that were broken down during your workout." Protein shakes are also a good choice for a quick post-workout snack because they are easier to digest than a full-blown meal, which you may not have an appetite for (or time to make) after exercising, says Cabrera. Moreover, drinking a protein shake after a workout can help replenish lost fluids from sweating things out.

The Cons:

There aren't any cons to enjoying a protein shake after your workout, and doing so will kick off your recovery sooner rather than later. Spano will sometimes tell athletes to get a protein shake right away because they may forget to eat or not get hungry for several hours. But the type of protein powder you choose to drink with your shake plays a large role too. "I recommend choosing proteins from milk, such as whey, casein, and milk protein concentrate and isolate over other proteins on the market because they're high-quality (the amino acids are bioavailable), complete proteins containing all nine essential amino acids the body requires," says Spano. (FYI, bioavailability is the extent to which your body can use the nutrient in question.)

Cabrera says the optimal carbs-to-protein ratio is 3:1 after a workout. This allows you to replenish your glycogen stores (energy) for your next workout and provides the necessary protein for muscle repair and growth. (Related: Your Guide to Pre- and Post-Workout Supplements)

How to Meet Your Daily Protein Intake

People should be having regular servings of protein every three to five hours throughout the day, regardless of whether they did an hour of strength training or 30 minutes of yoga. But those who are more active and are doing tougher workouts need to be consuming more protein than the average person.

"Heavy lifters do need more total protein during the day, and therefore, they might need their protein serving soon after lifting than a person doing yoga who doesn't have protein needs that are quite as high. It becomes a timing thing—fitting in servings of protein," explains Spano. "The heavy lifter will need more protein per serving and most likely more servings also. This depends on their total daily protein needs, which are based on body weight or ideal body weight." (For reference, the general rule is that you should consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily, according to Harvard Health Publishing by Harvard Medical School.)

For example, if your goal is hypertrophy, research shows that more protein is needed for muscle growth and repair after heavy lifting: According to a 2017 systematic review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which looked at more than 1,800 participants and their strength training goals, the ideal daily protein intake for increasing muscle size is 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Anything beyond that number doesn't contribute to building more mass and strength.

How many grams of protein is that per day? For example, if you weigh 135 pounds, you would convert your weight into kilograms by dividing it by 2.2. Then, you would multiply that number by 1.6. The result is you would need to consume 98 grams of protein daily for the best muscle-building results.

However, if you're looking to build lean muscle and lose fat, then a calorie deficit with higher protein intake is ideal, says Spano. "If someone wants to lose fat and build lean mass, they are cutting their calories, which means they need even more protein (to decrease muscle breakdown), possibly up to 2.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or more," she says. (Related: Your Complete Guide to Bulking)

Science backs this up: A 2016 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that, when combined with resistance training and HIIT, a daily diet containing 2.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight was more effective in promoting fat loss and maintenance of lean body mass (aka muscle) than a lower protein intake of 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

The bottom line? It doesn't matter so much whether you drink a protein shake before or after a workout—or if you even drink a protein shake at all. What is important is to consume protein throughout the day and vary your protein sources to ensure you're giving your body the proper nutrients it needs to rebuild your muscles and make them stronger. Adding a variety of lean protein sources, such as chicken, fish, grass-fed beef, dairy, eggs, and beans will help you reach your recommended daily protein intake. But sometimes, eating sufficient amounts of protein can be difficult, so using protein powders in your shakes and smoothies is a great way to ensure you meet your needs.

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