Protein powder is no different than any other food in your muscle-building, fat-building nutrition arsenal – because protein powder is a food.
Just as you’d be mindful of what type of chicken, beef, or fish to eat, and when and how much of it to eat, you should be the same way with your protein powder.
Not all protein powders are the same – not even close. And once you find the best one for your goals, you’ll need to know the best times to take it and how much to take per serving to get the best possible muscle-building results.
Sound complicated? It’s not. The ins and out of protein powder intake come down to three simple factors: type, timing, and amount (dose). Everything you need to know for the gains you want is right here…
1) Type – What Protein to Take
You may have heard that whey is the best type of protein because of how fast it digests and gets to the muscle. But while the speed of whey’s digestion is its advantage, it’s also its downfall.
Whey protein isolate (WPI) is digested and gets to the muscles so fast that it causes a quick and massive spike in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the process of repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue. However, as fast as MPS shot up, it drops just as quickly. Meaning, your “anabolic window” after drinking a whey protein shake is about 1 hour.
Now, compare that to casein protein, which increases MPS much slower than whey but keeps it elevated for several hours. Any time you drink a protein shake, your goal is to spike MPS and keep it elevated as long as possible to maximize muscle growth. Therefore, it’s wise to combine the digestion rates of fast and slow proteins. By taking whey and casein protein together, MPS stays elevated for longer.
You’re effectively keeping your anabolic window open for several hours by taking whey and casein together, versus only 1 hour or so with whey on its own. That’s what you want: To make that period of rebuilding muscle tissue last as long as possible.
Blends are Best
That extended anabolic window is exactly why I designed Pro JYM to be a protein blend, not just a 100% whey product. Pro JYM technically contains four different types proteins: whey (as WPI), casein (as micellar casein), egg protein (egg albumin), and milk protein isolate (which contains both casein and whey). In terms of digestion rate, egg protein falls in between whey and casein, so I consider it a medium-digesting protein.
Taking whey, casein, and egg proteins together is a no-brainer due to their difference digestion rates, but it’s also beneficial from a nutrient diversity standpoint – the three protein types all have different amino acid profiles. Whey is higher in branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) than the other two; casein is higher in glutamine (a recovery amino acid also found in Post JYM Active Matrix); and egg protein is high in sulfur-containing amino acids, which plays a role in various key bodily functions.
Best Ratio of Whey to Casein to Egg Proteins
The ratio of protein types you take is also important. I didn’t just haphazardly throw whey, casein, and egg protein into Pro JYM, nor did I put equal amounts of each into the product. With whey being by far the most common type found in protein powders, you would think there’s more whey than casein in the blend, right? Wrong. Pro JYM is actually 50% casein, 40% whey, and 10% egg protein.
When discussing protein powders, generally speaking, the source the protein comes from is milk. Whey and casein are both milk proteins. But you may be surprised to learn that milk actually consists of around 80% casein and only 20% whey, not the other way around. That’s why Pro JYM contains more casein than whey – to more closely mimic the protein ratio of milk, which is naturally a very good source for building muscle. The reason I changed the ratio slightly for Pro JYM, rather than going 80/20 (casein to whey), is because of the higher levels of BCAAs in whey, particularly leucine, which I discuss below in item #3.
What About Organic Protein Powder?
Organic and grass-fed products are popular these days for fitness-minded people. And personally, I’m all for it – depending on the food. I always make sure to eat organic dairy and grass-fed beef, because they contain more omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than non-organic and conventional (corn-fed) varieties.
But with protein powder, organic doesn’t matter. It’s just that simple. And I’m not saying that only because Pro JYM isn’t organic. If using organic milk proteins would have made Pro JYM a better product, I would have gone organic all the way. But it doesn’t.
Think about what I said above: Organic dairy and beef contains more omega-3s and CLA. When protein powder is made, what happens? The carbs and fat are stripped from the milk so that you’re only left with protein. Well, if the fat is stripped, so too are the omega-3s and CLA, because they’re contained in the fat! So why pay extra money for organic protein powder when the beneficial components of the organic milk have been left out?
For more on this topic, read my Organic Whey: Waste or Worth It? article. And for a list of organic foods I recommend eating, read my Best Organic Money Can Buy article. (Spoiler alert: Protein powder didn’t make the list!)
2) Timing – When to Take Your Protein
Now that you understand that a mixed protein blend is best for building muscle, let’s discuss timing. When you take your protein matters.
The first and most critical time is around workouts. This is one time of day where a protein powder is actually a better option than a whole food protein source like chicken, steak, fish, or eggs. The reason for this is what I discussed above: speed of digestion. I want the amino acids from the protein I consume to be delivered to my fatigued muscles as soon as possible after a workout. The aminos from whey protein in liquid form will get there in around 30 minutes, whereas it will take hours to break down a steak or chicken breast, at which point my anabolic window has closed.
The Anabolic Window is Real
Speaking of the anabolic window, you may have heard that it’s largely a myth due to one study in particular which showed that, in untrained subjects, MPS can be elevated for up to 24 hours after a workout. The theory, then, is that there’s no need to take your protein right after a workout – no rush, you have 24 hours! Right?
Well, not really. Remember, those were untrained subjects. In a follow-up to that same study, the researchers found that after 8 weeks, MPS could only be elevated within 8 hours after a workout. That’s after just 8 weeks! What happens after 8 months, 8 years… or 20+ years for guys like me who started training as kids? Your anabolic window may start out at 24 hours, but it shrinks rapidly.
Plus, when it comes to building muscle, there’s something going on in your body called net protein balance. That’s how much muscle protein we have at a given time. You’re either synthesizing (building up) or breaking down muscle protein, plain and simple. If I’m sitting around not training and consuming protein, I’m synthesizing, and I’ll have a positive net protein balance; I’ll essentially have a surplus of muscle protein. On the flip side, if I go train on an empty stomach, my muscle protein will be used during the workout, and I’ll then have a negative net protein balance, or a deficit.
What you need to realize is this: As long as I have a negative protein balance, MPS will NOT happen. It takes a positive balance to synthesize muscle protein. And this won’t happen until I consume protein.
So, think about it: Assuming you burn through your muscle protein during a workout (whether you were training on an empty stomach or not), the longer you wait to consume protein, the more you’re breaking down muscle protein and the longer you’re putting off MPS. Even if you believe that you have several hours to elevate MPS, why would you want to keep breaking down muscle protein and remain in a negative protein balance?! There’s no benefit!
Bottom line: When you’re done training, take your protein!
Protein Before or After Workouts?
Taking a scoop or two of protein powder immediately after a workout is a good idea, but taking protein before, and even during, a workout is beneficial as well. In fact, if you start drinking a protein shake before training and continue sipping on it during the workout, you probably don’t even need to have protein immediately post-workout.
But a lot of people don’t want the hassle of carrying a shaker cup around the gym for an entire workout. In this case, having your protein shake within 30-60 minutes after your workout is fine.
Other Times to Take Protein: Morning, Bedtime, With Meals
As far as other times of day, you should also use a protein blend first thing in the morning to stop muscle protein breakdown after having slept for several hours. When you wake up, you’re operating at a negative protein balance, and you’re in a catabolic state. You want to quickly reverse that breakdown with a protein shake to put you back into a state of synthesis. Of course, slower digesting proteins are good, too, to keep MPS going, so a protein blend is still ideal here. And then feel free to have eggs for breakfast if you like.
Having a protein shake at bedtime is also a good idea, for the same reason as it is first thing in the morning. You want to prevent, or at least delay, muscle protein breakdown through the night so that your body isn’t leaching amino acids from your muscles while you sleep. The casein in Pro JYM will be especially useful here, but you still want that quick spike of MPS from the whey.
Another good time to have a protein shake is with a meal – either right before eating, during the meal, or right after. A lot of people will advise to have a shake between meals to bridge the gap between feedings, but the science contradicts this. Studies have shown that muscle mass is maximized when protein shakes are taken with meals, not between, due to increase levels of MPS.
3) Amount – How Much Protein to Take
So how much protein should you be getting at a time? You may have heard the so-called “magic number” of 30 grams, as if the body can’t possibly absorb more than that amount in one sitting.
That’s simply not true. How much protein you can absorb at a meal depends on many factors – body size, when and what you last ate, the composition of your total daily diet, etc. For example, someone who hasn’t eaten for, say, 12 hours and then has a high-protein meal will probably absorb more protein from that meal than someone who ate an hour earlier. Do you really think a muscular guy coming off of an extended fast will only be able to absorb 30 grams of protein from a plate of steak and eggs and a protein shake on the side? Of course not – he’ll absorb more than that.
Now, if you eat frequently (5-8 meals a day, let’s say) and are an average-size person, a decent rule of thumb would be to consume 30-40 grams of protein at each meal.
Leucine: The Key Amino Acid for Muscle Growth
But when we talk about protein needs for building muscle, there’s another number to look at: the amount of leucine you’re getting. Leucine, one of the three BCAAs (the other two being isoleucine and valine), is critical for building and maintaining muscle, as it turns on the key to MPS. And we know through research that it takes around 3-4 grams of leucine to maximize MPS. And for most common protein sources – protein powder, chicken, eggs, steak – it takes somewhere around 30-40 grams of protein to yield 3-4 grams of leucine.
So, look at the meal you’re eating. How much protein is coming from, say, the eggs on your plate? If you’re getting 15 grams there (2 eggs), add one scoop of protein powder to reach a total of 30-40 grams of protein for the meal.
The Older You Are, the More Protein You Need
When it comes to building muscle, age matters. Older people like me (51 years old!) need more protein than younger people to spark muscle protein synthesis. If you’re close to 50, or beyond, you should be looking to get 50-60 grams of protein per meal to maximize muscle growth. This advice comes from a University of Central Florida study that I covered in my 13 Things You Didn’t Know About Muscle Growth article.