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When to Take Protein: Timing and When to Use Protein Powder

So, you want to add a protein shake to your routine but you’re not exactly sure when is the best time to drink one. No worries, we’re going to cover the benefits of protein, the science behind nutrient timing, and give you some practical tips you can use.

When it comes to protein—it’s important to know a few things. Protein is one of the three main macronutrients alongside carbohydrates and fat. It’s considered a macronutrient because our bodies need it in relatively large quantities to survive. Protein provides 4 calories per gram, so it’s also an energy source for the body. And finally, protein plays a role in a variety of physiological functions, the main function we’ll be talking about today is the growth and repair of muscle tissue.

Why Take a Protein Powder

Protein powders are a convenient supplement that can help many people meet their daily protein intake goals. Protein powders generally take very little time to prepare, and they come in delicious flavors that can help satisfy one’s sweet tooth. If you want a little more variety, you can even use protein powders as part of cooking recipes. Because of this, protein powders are staples in the fitness routines of many people. So why would someone be so concerned about their protein intake? Let’s go over some of the benefits of protein and how protein powders can help you reach your daily goals.

#1 You want to lose weight naturally

Protein powders are a staple in many people’s weight loss routines. This may seem counterintuitive since protein powders are often associated with bodybuilders looking to bulk up. But protein is also an important macronutrient in one’s diet when looking to lose weight. Protein can help preserve your existing muscle mass during a low-calorie diet and it can help support muscle recovery from hard workouts. The current daily protein intake recommendation for athletes seeking to lose weight is set at 1.6-2.4 g/kg.[1] For a 150 lb. adult looking to lose weight, this would mean an intake of 109-163 g per day.

#2 You want to build muscle mass

Using a protein powder is a convenient way to help reach daily protein intake goals, this is especially important if you’re looking to build muscle mass. To create an anabolic environment for the body that lends itself to muscle growth, we want to have a positive net protein balance, this means that we’re consuming more protein than our body is breaking down. Our bodies breakdown protein into amino acids and then use these compounds as bricks for the construction of new muscle. For building muscle, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends a daily protein intake range of 1.44-2.0 g/kg.[2] For a 150 lb. adult looking to build muscle mass, this would mean an intake of 95-136 g per day.

#3 You want to improve your exercise performance

When protein is supplemented alongside resistance training programs, it can enhance the effectiveness of exercise and support increased levels of 1-rep maximum strength. [3,4] It’s important to note, while protein supplementation can augment the effects of a training program, exercise is the most potent stimulus for these improvements. This means variables like the intensity of your training program, the exercise selection, and volume will have a greater impact on your exercise performance than any supplement.

#4 You want to enhance your recovery

A post-workout protein shake is a common strategy in the recovery plan of most athletes. Aerobic and resistance exercises can induce muscle damage and soreness, especially eccentric movements aka muscle lengthening (think lowering a weight or running downhill). Athletes use protein shakes as part of their routine to promote a positive net protein balance and provide the body with amino acid building blocks to support the repair of damaged muscle tissue. Research on whey protein supplementation has shown that it can help support recovery from exercise. [5,6]

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

You can drink your protein shake whenever you like, your first goal should be to hit your daily protein intake. Figuring out the right timing of when to take a protein shake is a common question many lifters have when they first try using protein powders. Chances are this is due to information they’ve heard about the anabolic window. The anabolic window refers to a period of elevated muscle protein synthesis following a workout. In the past, people had suggested this time frame of the anabolic window was relatively short and athletes needed to immediately consume nutrients after a workout to maximize muscle growth. But does the anabolic window for protein still matter?

Research on protein supplementation indicates that while protein supplementation can have a positive impact on building (or maintaining) muscle mass, immediate consumption of protein pre and/or post-workout doesn’t appear to enhance the strength or hypertrophy adaptations of resistance training. [7,8] Factors like daily protein intake, whether exercise was done in a fasted state, and the length of exercise duration are all variables that would impact protein timing recommendations. Based on current evidence, total daily protein intake appears to be a greater factor for promoting gains in muscle mass than protein timing and the anabolic window appears much wider than originally thought.[9]

How much protein is too much?

Research on protein intake shows that long-term consumption of 2 g/kg/day is safe for healthy adults with 3.5g/kg/day being the tolerable upper limit.[10] In a large systematic review meta-analysis on protein intake and exercise, the scientists found no additional benefit to gains in muscle mass or strength in subjects whose protein intake exceeded 1.6 g/kg/day.[11] In other words, there’s a point of diminishing returns where additional protein doesn’t help your goals and these extra calories could be used on other macronutrients (or eliminated if you’re trying to create a caloric deficit for weight loss).

Can you drink protein on off days and rest days?

Yes, protein shakes are regularly consumed on off-days and rest days to help athletes hit their daily protein intake goals. Protein shakes can be used to contribute to a positive net protein balance which can help support the repair of damaged muscle tissue and the growth of new muscle. While protein shakes are commonly used around the time of a workout, you can also drink them during other times of the day to boost your daily protein intake.

Takeaway on Protein Timing

  • If you’re looking to lose weight, aim for a daily intake of 1.6-2.4 g/kg
  • If you’re looking to build muscle, aim for a daily intake of 1.4-2.0 g/kg
  • You can have protein shakes on training days and non-training days to help you meet your daily intake goal.
  • While your total daily protein intake will have the largest impact on whether you build or maintain muscle, a good guideline for protein intake around the time of your workout to maximize muscle gains is to aim for 0.4-0.5 g/kg of lean body mass before and after a workout.[12]
  • Since current research indicates that our muscles are sensitized to protein intake for 24 hours following a workout and total daily protein intake plays a greater role on our rate of muscle growth than protein timing, we have some flexibility. A practical application is to aim to hit your daily protein intake goal and divide the amount evenly throughout the day, for most people this would mean consuming 20-40 g of high-quality protein every 3-4 hours.














Date December 30, 2022
Category Supplementation
Erick Avila

Erick Avila got his start in the fitness industry working as a physical preparation coach with professional boxers. He’s written for top brands like Muscle & Fitness, Juggernaut Training Systems, T-Nation, Stack Media, and Everlast Boxing. And worked in the dietary supplement industry across a variety of roles including researcher, content writer, and product formulator. Erick has a Master of Science in Drug Discovery and Development from Drexel University and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutrition with an emphasis on Exercise Science from California State University Los Angeles. In his free time Erick enjoys lifting weights, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.