Upon the completion of strenuous strength training or an explosive high-intensity workout session, targeted muscles are peppered with microscopic rips and tears in their fibers. These damaged muscle cells stimulate the body to repair and strengthen the existing muscle through a process known as muscle protein synthesis. The body requires nutrients to recuperate from physical exhaustion — here’s where post-workout supplements come into assistance.
The vast majority of post-workout supplements on the market today have one commonality: protein. When digested by the body, protein is broken down into its component amino acids, which are transported to muscle cells and synthesized into muscle protein, or protein-constituting muscle cells, in a complicated process known as MPS which makes muscles bigger and stronger.
For this reason, powdered protein supplements are often consumed in smoothies or shakes and provide users with a convenient source of protein for the body to repair and build muscle tissue. In fact, a landmark 2018 study published under the National Library of Medicine conducted by Robert Morton et al. found that supplement users were associated with a 3.24-pound increase in muscle strength compared with placebo groups.
“The average individual loses around 400 grams of nitrogen daily from normal everyday activity,” said Sebastian Zorn, Director of Sports Nutrition with football at Stanford University. “This needs to be replaced and an additional surplus ingested to build muscle mass, so the daily Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein is anywhere from 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight for the average person to 2.2 grams for the elite athlete looking to gain lean body mass.”
This makes it especially important for athletes undergoing a rigorous training routine to meet their demanding daily RDA for protein. Such athletes may find protein powders an accessible way to supplement protein into their diets while restricting their caloric intake.
“Normal days during my athletic season consist of workout sessions on top of regular practices,” senior and football player Andrew Hahm said. “Protein powders give me a convenient way to supplement my daily protein recommendation without spending too much time preparing natural foods amid an already hectic schedule.”
Protein powders are used by the general public, recreational exercisers and fitness fanatics alike. Contrary to popular preconceptions, protein powder also sees great use in areas outside resistance and sports training such as in forms of cardio exercise.
“I don’t train religiously for a sport and still find use for protein supplements after my workouts,” senior Krisalyn Satriya said. “I used to feel sluggish after my workouts, but taking protein keeps me from feeling hungry for the rest of the day after my workout adrenaline wears off.”
Popular manufacturers of store-bought brands derive their protein from plants and animals. Whey protein comes from milk, meaning it is animal-derived and a complete protein, or a source of the nine essential amino acids necessary in the human diet. It is richly concentrated, absorbs quickly into the bloodstream and gives the user a sense of fullness. Also derived from milk is casein protein. Unlike whey, it is digested slowly and best taken before bedtime.
On the other hand, plant-based proteins, derived from peas, brown rice, chia seeds and more, are great for those with dietary restrictions. Commercial plant-based brands also come with a host of vitamins, fibers, and probiotics, making them a great supplement for nutrients beyond protein. Compared to animal proteins, plant-based protein powders come with less protein and generally aren’t complete.
“Still, the volume of protein taken matters more than the type,” Zorn said. “Where protein comes from isn’t as important — what’s more important is obtaining enough protein consistently throughout the day. For timing around workouts, getting carbohydrates and fluids within one hour of the workout is crucial.”
Although protein supplements can serve as a convenient source for one’s daily protein intake, it’s important to recognize that it is entirely possible, and normal even, to obtain one’s protein from natural foods alone. Experts agree that adolescents and young adults should get their protein from whole food sources such as poultry, dairy, beans and lentils. In short, post-workout supplements with protein should be used as what they are — supplements, and not replacements.
“As a whole, pre- and post-workout supplements do help if you’re training and recovering correctly,” Zorn said. “But ultimately, getting adequate sleep, adequate food and nutrient volume throughout the day and hydrating before, during and after training are all going to have a significantly greater effect on performance than any given supplement.”