Is It Important to Eat or Drink Protein Quickly after Training?

Key Points:

  1. No, it’s not important to consume protein quickly after a workout. This is true despite the fact that your muscle protein balance is negative until you consume protein.
  2. A meta-analysis found no difference in muscle growth or strength between groups consuming protein within one hour before or after strength training, and groups who consumed protein more than two hours before or after training.
  3. If you consume protein within 2–3 hours before or after your strength training, you have probably maximized or near-maximized any potential timing effects. Think of it as a “protein window” of 4–6 hours, in which you should train.

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As soon as you put down the barbell after your last set, you should jump to your protein shake and chug it. Right?

Not so fast, my muscled friend.

The advice to consume protein after lifting weights is definitely a sound one. But how important is it to do it fast?

Does it make any difference to your results if you eat or drink protein within 30 minutes of your workout, or after several hours?

In this article, we will be covering three things you might want to know:

  1. How strength training and protein affects your muscle growth.
  2. The results from a review of 23 studies investigating the effect of protein timing before or after workouts.
  3. Practical advice on protein intake surrounding strength training.

Let’s start off by making you a little bit stressed about consuming protein after working out.

Negative Protein Balance after Training – until You Eat Protein

Take a look at the diagram below.

It shows the effect of protein consumption on your muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown, depending on whether you have trained or not before.1

Muscle protein synthesis is the building of new muscle protein, and muscle protein breakdown is the opposite. When your muscle protein synthesis is greater than your breakdown, you build muscle. Your muscle protein balance is positive.

Consuming protein at rest increases your muscle protein synthesis and lowers your muscle protein breakdown. Meaning: you are building muscle mass.

If you strength train without consuming protein before or after, then your muscle protein synthesis will still increase, but so will your muscle protein breakdown. And your muscle protein breakdown will remain greater than your synthesis until you eat some protein.

Protein intake and strength training have a synergistic effect on your muscle protein balance. The combination of training and eating protein increases your muscle protein synthesis further than each of them on their own, with the result that you will be building muscle even faster.

The logical conclusion this far is obvious: consuming protein shortly after or before your workout is beneficial for your muscle growth.

But how sensitive is the timing?

Does it matter, in real world results, if you chug a protein shake immediately after your workout, or can you wait until your candle-lit evening dinner?

The Effect of Protein Timing on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy

In a meta-analysis titled The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy, the researchers wanted to investigate if protein timing had any effect on the muscle growth and strength gains from training.2

They only included studies comparing two groups where:

  • One group consumed protein within one hour before or after strength training
  • The control group didn’t consume protein within at least two hours before or after strength training.

A simple pooled analysis of the results indicated that, yes, protein timing did have a small positive effect on muscle growth in these studies. However, when the researchers corrected for differences in total protein intake, this positive effect disappeared. In fact, the total protein intake explained almost the entire difference in results, and there was a strong correlation between total protein intake and increased muscle mass.

On average, the protein intake of the control groups was 1.33 g/kg/day, and 1.66 g/kg/day for the groups that consumed protein soon before or after their workouts.

So, the only positive effect of consuming protein in close proximity before or after your workout in this context, is if it increases your total protein intake from sub-optimal levels to something closer to optimal.

Read more: Protein for Strength Athletes and Bodybuilders – How Much, How Often, and What Kind

The same results where found for strength gains as well: protein timing did not affect the rate of strength increase.

But … You Wrote That My Protein Balance Is Negative until I Eat Protein?

Yes.

That’s true.

After you’ve trained, your muscle protein balance is negative until you consume protein again.

However, what this meta-analysis tells us is that in practice, it doesn’t make any noticeable difference if you consume protein immediately after (or before) working out, or if you wait a couple of hours.

The meta-analysis investigated practical training studies running over the course of several months. It was not just a few measurements of protein synthesis and breakdown done in a lab over the course of a few hours. This gives these results credibility.

Instead, you can probably follow these recommendations for post-workout protein consumptions, from a literature review from the same researchers:3

  • Consume protein-rich meals every 3–4 hours in the case of small meals.
  • Or consume large, protein-rich meals that take longer to digest every 5–6 hours.
  • Train somewhere in this window between meals. That will make sure you have amino acids available in your blood when you’re done training.

If you workout in the morning before breakfast then it is probably not ideal to wait for six hours before you eat some protein. But, it probably doesn’t make a big difference if you eat protein immediately after your workout or wait a few hours. At the same time, it doesn’t hurt either, so if you like it and you have the option: sure, eat or drink some protein when you’re done training. Just know that you don’t need to get stressed out over it.

The one scenario where an extra post-workout meal of protein makes a positive difference is if it increases your total daily protein intake from a low level, up to about 1.6–2.2 g/kg, where the positive effects cap out for most of us. But even in that case, it is the addition to your total protein intake that is important and not the timing per se.

In Conclusion: Protein after Training

Here are the key take-aways from this article:

  • The most important thing when it comes to protein is your total daily protein intake. In general, aim for 1.6–2.2 g/kg/day.
  • If there is an effect of protein timing, a so-called “anabolic window”, then that window seems to be larger than just an hour before or after your training.
  • By eating a protein-rich meal about every 4–6 hours (depending on meal size) and training sometime in between meals, you are probably near-maximizing any potential effects of protein timing.

But if you want to consume protein after your training, because it fits your meal schedule or you want that extra protein for your total daily intake: how much should you eat or drink?

Research shows that about 20–30 g of high-quality protein is enough to maximize muscle growth for most people. If you are older, upwards of 30–40 g protein after a workout might be needed to maximize your muscle growth. You can read a lot more about that in our article Building Muscle as You Age: Protein Needs for the Older Lifter.

A final speculaton on my part, is that the importance of protein timing increases if your intake of protein and calories isn’t that big to begin with. For example if you are cutting.

More reading about protein:

References

  1. Nutrition. Jul-Aug 2004;20(7-8):689-95. Protein requirements and supplementation in strength sports.
  2. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 53. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis.
  3. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013; 10: 5. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?