Post-Workout Supplements: Are They Worth Trying?

Why You May Want to Think Twice Before Buying

women enjoying snack bar post-workout

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Getting all of the nutrients you need to recover from a workout is vital. Not only does proper recovery help to repair muscle and tissue—especially when it comes to strength training, but your post-workout recuperation routine also impacts your ability to gain muscle and your overall performance. 

While ads and commercials may suggest you need particular protein shakes, bars, and powders, there is more to recovery than just getting protein or specific amino acids. When you’re in a recovery period after a workout, which can be anywhere from two days to a week, depending on the type and intensity of exercise, there are several things you can do to foster recovery. 

First and foremost, you want to hydrate and replenish fluids lost during your workout. You should also focus on replenishing your energy stores (glycogen) by eating healthy whole foods with high-quality carbohydrates and proteins. 

Although supplements such as bars and protein shakes may be helpful when you’re in a hurry, they can lack some of the nutrients essential for recovery, not to mention supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and can be harmful for consumption. 

What are Post-Workout Supplements?

Post-workout supplements come in several forms. Among the most popular include protein powders, protein bars, pre-mixed protein shakes, BCAAs, and creatine. The potential benefits and drawbacks of each are detailed below.

Protein Powders

While you should always aim to get most of your carbs and protein from whole food sources, there is evidence to show that post-workout supplements such as whey protein can also properly aid in muscle recovery.

Some research indicates that protein supplements (specifically whey protein) can not only assist in muscle recovery, but it is essential to have protein added to meals post-workout along with carbs for proper repair. It also suggested that the quality of protein can affect acute and chronic adaptations to exercise.

Moreover, the quality of the protein is a way to measure if the source provides adequate amounts of the amino acids essential for protein synthesis. Essentially the higher the quality, the better chance you have of recovering. 

Protein Bars

If you live life on the go, protein bars are a great resource if you need a quick after-workout snack. It’s essential to look at all the ingredients before you purchase, as many bars can be packed with added sugars and high in calories, putting them closer to a candy bar.

Not only can the bars be filled with added sugars, but they can also be made with highly processed oils such as canola and soybean. While some protein bars are packed with artificial flavor and sugars, and other potentially harmful ingredients, if you find a well-rounded bar, it can be a great way to get all the carbs and protein you need to aid in your recovery.

When searching for a protein bar, look for bars with whole ingredients such as dates and a high-quality protein like whey or pea. 

Look for protein bars that contain more grams of protein than grams of sugar, ideally with fewer than 10 ingredients and with 2 grams of fiber or more.

Protein Shakes

Similarly to protein powders and bars, ready-to-drink protein beverages can be a great tool if you are in a rush through the day but are not necessary to reach your protein goals. Like protein bars, ready-to-drink beverages can lack vital minerals and nutrients and are often low in fiber.

Studies show that a higher daily fiber intake over time may decrease your risk of death from things like heart disease and cancer, so it’s essential to hit the RDA of 25 to 29 grams. So, if you plan to add ready-to-drink beverages to your diet, ensure they are made with whole ingredients and a good source of fiber, such as pea. 

BCAAs

There’s no doubt that BCAAs, or branch chain amino acids, are a slightly controversial topic amongst people in the fitness community. While some people swear by BCAAs, scientists haven’t quite figured out if supplementing BCAAs offer more of an advantage for active people than whole food protein sources and whole protein powders.

Yet, a multi-million dollar industry of nutritional supplements has grown around the concept that dietary supplements of BCAAs alone produce stimulation of muscle protein synthesis and can result in some sort of anabolic (muscle building) response in the body.

The truth is, on a molecular level, BCAAs are essentially the same as proteins. Protein contains 20 amino acids used throughout our bodies, including the three branch chain amino acids associated with building muscle: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Many protein powders contain the BCAAs that are often sold on their own, so finding a high-quality protein is essential and makes buying BCAAs unnecessary. 

Creatine

Creatine is one of the most well-known and widely researched supplements in the industry. Research suggests that creatine, specifically creatine monohydrate, has regularly shown to increase not only strength lean body mass as well.

It has also been shown to increase muscle morphology when used with heavy persistence training. It may even benefit individuals who participate in other forms of exercise, such as endurance training. Taking creatine may not be a bad idea if you want a possible extra boost in muscle gain and lean body mass.

Are Post-Workout Supplements Harmful?

While most post-workout supplements are probably not harmful, no dietary supplements, including protein powders, are regulated by the FDA. This means that there are no regulations on the products, and they are not required to put everything on the label or test the products for things such as heavy metals.

Because the FDA does not test these products, independent organizations have had to study products independently. Some of the best-selling protein powders may contain high levels of lead and cadmium, which may cause permanent health concerns.

Because these dietary supplements aren’t regulated, it is wise to aim for primarily whole food protein sources. If you decide to take one of these supplements, make sure to research the product thoroughly.

Best Ways to Recover Post-Workout

Recovery from exercise is vital. One of the most tried and true ways to best recover from a workout is drinking enough liquids before, during, and after your workouts, to ensure you are adequately hydrated.

Research suggests when we exercise, the fuel we use results in an increase in our core temperature, which in turn causes us to sweat. It is essential to rehydrate when we sweat, as dehydration during exercise can lead to dizziness, muscle cramps, and more.

Getting the proper protein, carbohydrates, and minerals post-workout are crucial to ensuring maximal recovery. Also, aim to get at least seven to nine hours (maybe more depending on the type of training you do) of sleep and rest in between workouts so your muscles have time to recover fully. 

A Word From Verywell

Some post-workout supplements such as protein powders and creatine can help boost results, including muscle repair and growth. However, it is possible, and likely more nutritionally advantageous to obtain your workout nutrition primarily from whole foods.

If you are interested in post-workout supplements, be sure to research them for quality and ingredients, focusing on lower sugar and higher fiber choices. If you are confused about how much protein or other types of supplements you may need, be sure to speak to a dietician or other health care professional.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are post-workout supplements necessary?

    Post workout supplements are not necessary. Eating whole foods is enough to meet your nutritional needs, as long as you focus on getting enough calories and micronutrients for your training and individual needs.

  • What are more important, pre- or post-workout supplements?

    Neither pre-or post-workout supplements are more important than the other. You do not need either type of supplement. However, if you want to focus on one type, post-workout supplements are likely your best bet as products like protein powders and quick-digesting carbs can improve muscle protein synthesis and repair.

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