Protein Shakes: Is Before or After a Workout Best?

woman drinking a protein shake

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Protein shakes are a commonly enjoyed supplement for many, especially active individuals, whose protein requirements are higher than those who are more sedentary. Protein is one of the three macronutrients along with carbohydrates and fats and is responsible for muscle repair, preservation, and growth.

People often rely on protein shakes to aid in various body composition goals such as when building muscle, weight management, exercise performance, preserving muscle, and just out of convenience to help them meet dietary protein targets.

Getting enough protein is essential for meeting many body composition goals. The timing of when you consume a protein shake—before or after a workout—depends on your personal preferences and goals. For some, it comes down to preference, but for specific goals, protein shake timing can impact results. Read on to learn more about when it is best to consume a protein shake.

What Is a Protein Shake?

Protein shakes can come pre-mixed or in powder form. Some contain other nutrients and are fortified with vitamins and minerals while others are primarily pure protein. Pre-made shakes are clearly the most convenient but are less versatile, while protein powders and shake mixes can be customized with additives of your choice, including milk, blending with fruit, or adding peanut butter.

The popularity of protein shakes lies mainly in their convenience, as a way to boost protein intake when it may be difficult to do so with food alone. For those who are aiming to increase their protein intake for certain goals, protein shakes make this easy, especially if you aren't yet used to eating as much protein as you want to consume.

Some people also rely on high-protein diets when pursuing a weight management goal. This approach is based on protein's role in preserving muscle during weight loss, which helps you prevent some of the metabolism slow-down that can occur due to reduced caloric intake. Protein also requires more calories to digest than carbs or fat, but this effect (thermic effect of food) is relatively negligible in the big picture of calorie balance and weight management.

Types of Protein

Several types of protein are available for protein shakes. Dairy-based proteins are the most commonly found and have the most scientific data available to support their use for body composition goals such as muscle gain. However, if you are allergic to dairy, there are several options available, some of which are comparable to dairy-based products.

Whey

Whey protein is dairy-based and highly absorbable. It contains essential and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), ideal for muscle building and preservation. Research associates whey protein supplementation with superior protein metabolism, increased performance, and superior recovery among resistance-trained individuals.

Whey protein powder is typically 11% to 15% protein, while whey concentrate, which has been processed to be higher in protein by weight, ranges from 25% to 89% protein. Whey isolate is an even more concentrated whey protein powder and contains 90% or more protein. Because of this, it is more expensive than the other forms.

Casein

Casein protein is another dairy-derived protein that digests more slowly than whey. As such, casein protein provides a slower release of amino acids over time, which is thought to boost muscle growth and repair damaged tissues. Casein protein powder is commonly taken in the evening or nighttime to increase protein synthesis overnight, boosting muscle repair and growth.

Pea

Pea protein is plant-based, making it a good protein powder for those who avoid dairy or any animal products. Studies show that pea protein is equally effective as milk-based protein powder. It also is hypoallergenic, easily digestible, and has a mild flavor.

You can find pea protein as a stand-alone product or in combination with other plant-based proteins. It is especially high in iron, the amino acid arginine, and branched-chain amino acids.

Arginine is essential for creating nitric oxide, a compound that helps relax blood vessels, increasing blood flow and oxygen exchange.

Soy

Soy is another vegan protein powder that is suitable for those avoiding dairy or animal produce in general. Soy provides all of the essential amino acids, including the favored branched-chain amino acids, which is less common for plant-based proteins.

BCAAs are three essential amino acids (EAAs) considered imperative for muscle building and preservation. These are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, with leucine being considered the most crucial for stimulating protein synthesis.

Hemp

Hemp protein powder is another plant-based protein, which is unique since it is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and includes an excellent dose of fiber. It is a complete protein containing all of the essential amino acids. Hemp contains several vitamins and minerals, making it more of a functional food than some other protein powders.

Rice

Similar to pea protein, research suggests rice protein may be equally effective as whey protein to support body composition goals such as muscle building and exercise performance in resistance-trained individuals.

Timing of Protein Shakes

Whether you decide to consume a protein shake before or after a workout comes down to personal preferences and goals. Here are some popular reasons that may impact the timing or your protein shake.

Build Muscle

If your goal is to build muscle, consuming your protein shake after your workout may provide the best benefits. You can also choose to consume protein before your workout. Post-workout protein intake has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis, which is crucial for building muscle mass.

It is wise to consume your post-workout protein shake with some easily digestible carbohydrates, which can increase the absorption of protein into the muscles, increasing repair, and building new muscle tissue.

Weight Management

Protein is known to increase meal satiety, increasing feelings of fullness and helping you stay full for longer. So, if weight loss is your goal, consuming enough protein is wise. However, this may be better accomplished using whole foods because drinking your calories and protein may not have the same filling effect as whole foods.

For weight gain, adding more calories to your diet is essential. If this can feel challenging to you as your body adapts to increased foods, including an easily digestible and less filling protein source in the form of a shake could help.

Exercise Performance

For exercise performance, the main benefit of protein shakes is to boost recovery so that you can get back in the gym or hit the road for another training session in a more optimal state. For this reason, your overall protein intake is important.

Protein timing for exercise performance is not as important as overall intake. However, research suggests that the post-workout period may have advantages. A post-workout shake can optimize physical performance and boost the recovery processes for both resistance training and endurance exercise.

If you are performing your exercise before consuming a meal, a pre-workout protein shake, ideally with carbohydrates, may help boost performance by increasing available energy and preventing muscle breakdown due to a lack of amino acids.

Prevent Muscle Loss

Protein helps prevent muscle loss, whether you are aging or in a calorie deficit. Preventing muscle loss is essential for healthy aging and keeping your metabolism functioning well.

Muscle loss can occur as you age and can decrease your ability to remain independent. Keeping your protein intake adequate throughout the life-cycle and higher when eating in a deficit will reduce the muscle that may be lost during these times. A calorie deficit required for fat loss will also reduce your muscle mass unless you aim to keep protein intake high.

Convenience

Convenience is one of the primary reasons for consuming protein shakes. Protein shakes are quick to make and drink and can be purchased pre-made or quickly mixed with milk to boost protein. Some people also do not like eating after a workout due to hormones that blunt hunger. Protein shakes can offer a solution for people with this issue.

How Much Is Right for You

Ideal protein intake for you will depend on several factors, including your goals, body composition, age, sex, and activity level. You can calculate how much protein you need based on these individual factors.

General guidelines for the average person advise an intake of between 10–35% of your total calories from protein. Active adults need more, about 1.2 grams to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight each day. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for healthy adults is a minimum of 0.8 g/kg/day to maintain health. You may need more, depending on the factors mentioned above.

A Word From Verywell

There are several reasons why protein shakes may help you attain your protein intake goals. When you choose to drink a shake depends on your preferences, although there are some advantages to be gained from choosing to consume protein post-workout. Protein is only part of the picture when it comes to a healthy diet that supports an active lifestyle.

Keep in mind that nutrient density is crucial for health, and protein shakes do not typically provide enough nutrients and are lacking in fiber. Speak to a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian about whether protein shakes are suitable for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should I drink a protein shake before bed?

    Drinking a protein shake before bed, particularly casein protein, may help increase protein synthesis through the night. However, a pre-bed protein shake is not necessary, especially if you consume a healthy whole foods diet with plenty of protein food sources.

  • Is it OK to drink a protein shake on an empty stomach?

    It is OK to drink a protein shake on an empty stomach as long as this doesn't cause you to feel nauseous. See how it feels for you. Note that adding carbs to your shake may boost results if your goal is performance or muscle gain.

  • Are protein shakes good for you?

    Protein shakes can be good for you, depending on the type. It's essential not to rely on them as they are not a complete or well-rounded meal. Consume plenty of whole foods along with your protein shakes.

  • Can you drink a protein shake every day?

    You can drink a protein shake every day so long as you consume a diet that contains whole, nutrient-dense foods and fiber. Do not rely on protein shakes as a sole nutrition source.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.