Whether you're new to the world of exercise or well on your way to stardom, you'll have heard of protein supplements – particularly protein shakes. But how effective are they, and how do they work if you consume them after you exercise?
Let's start by looking at the theory behind it. Resistance training – which is any exercise that involves your muscles contracting against an external resistance (things like dumbbells, your own body weight, even a bag of sand) – works by increasing the amino acid delivery to your muscles, as well as the rate of absorption. If you add extra protein after exercise, it can stimulate extra protein synthesis which leads to added strength and lean body mass. Basically exercise followed by protein equals more muscle.
Or so the theory goes. The problem is that many studies show it has no effect – and many studies show it does. So what does this mean? An analysis of a few studies notes that it does indeed lead to increased muscle strength and lead body mass – it's just unclear as to whether it's timing or amount that matters more.
When should you be taking supplements – should you be organising your workout time around them? You may have heard 20 minutes, but the effects last for at least 24 hours – and possibly 48! There will be diminishing returns, but don't force yourself to take one straight after. You can cool off, have a shower, and even go home before taking a supplement, and it will still have the desired effect. It's not just after either – you could eat a couple of hours before – it's been proven to work just as well! The only downside is it can be unpleasant to eat before a workout, hence people favouring afterwards.
You can't just have protein supplements after exercise and assume it will work though. If you're not eating properly the rest of the time, your body won't make the most use of it. One study in Nurition and Metabolism found that eating around 20g of protein four times a day was better at helping build body mass than eating the same amount spread out more and into smaller amounts, or in larger but less often proportions. In order to maximise the benefits on the window after exercise, you'll want to consume protein regularly throughout the day to make sure you're getting enough in general.
There's a bunch of other effects that consuming protein after exercise can help with. 'Recovery' is the stage that comes after exercise, and it includes things such as muscle repair, replenishing glycogen stores, restoring fluid and supporting the immune system with any damage you've done. Protein is what helps with building/repairing the muscles, and combined with some carbohydrates, it also helps with the glycogen stores. As for the immune system, that's where you want a healthy diet overall. Finally, there is fluid. This is why many people have protein shakes as their supplement of choice, as you can be doing two things at once!
The Gold Standard
For many people, whey protein is the supplement of choice. It's a milk-based protein, and studies have shown that it gets to work much quicker than other supplements – in part thanks to how quickly your body can digest it. In addition, it contains leucine which is excellent at building muscle. However, it's dangerous to take by itself – so taking whey protein is an excellent way to reap the benefits. Three ounces of good quality whey protein are as efficient as eating sixteen eggs, so you can see the advantages
As with any supplement, always speak to a medical professional if there's anything you're unsure about. Risks are low with this sort of thing (after all, protein is vital to our diets) but there can be occasional medical conditions that may need flagging up. The major risk is taking more than the recommended dose – and this can be easily avoided if you follow the instructions on the label.