Fuel Your Workouts with Protein: Before or After? | Signos

Do you need that post-exercise protein shake? Read the latest research about protein before or after workouts.

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by
Sabrina Tillman
— Signos
Health & Fitness Writer
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Reviewed by

Sabrina Tillman
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
September 23, 2021
— Updated:
July 31, 2023

Table of Contents

You’ve got your protein shake, dry-quick sweat towel, luxe yoga mat, dumbbells, resistance bands, and fave YouTube trainer cued up and ready to tap play… but should you down that protein boost before you start your workout or save it for after? 

Some experts say that pre-workout protein is essential to an energized workout session, while others argue that post-workout protein is the ultimate recovery tool. Eating protein before or after a workout depends solely on your needs, lifestyle, and fitness goals.

Let’s dive in to see why protein is so important to the human body and the science behind meal timing when exercise is involved in the equation.

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The Benefits of Protein

Protein is one of the three major macronutrients critical for muscle growth, repair, and maintenance. If you don’t get enough protein, you could lose muscle mass, increase your risk of bone fractures, amplify your chance of infections, and inflate your appetite.

Protein-release hormones (GLP-1 and CCK) play a role in increasing satiety and decreasing hormone levels (neuropeptide Y) that can cause us to feel hungry. 

You also burn more calories digesting protein than carbs or fat (the thermic effect). Your body burns about 30 calories, breaking down 100 calories of protein, whereas it uses about 10 calories to digest 100 calories of carbohydrates and about 5 to digest the same calories of fat. 

For these reasons, a meta-analysis of research showed persistent benefits of a higher-protein weight-loss diet on body weight and fat mass. The data from this analysis suggests that an effective higher-protein diet should contain between 1.2 grams to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and about 25–30 grams per meal to improve appetite, weight management, and cardiometabolic risk factors.1

Our bodies need protein throughout the day because, unlike carbs and fat, the body can’t store protein quickly. Any excess protein consumed in one sitting will be oxidized for energy or converted into urine.

How Much Protein Do You Need a Day?

A review of studies published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per meal, about 20–30 grams, to reach a daily amount of 1.6 g/kg.2

A slightly higher daily protein intake of 1.75 g/kg/day showed moderate benefit in muscle strength and time trial performance compared to a daily intake of 1.2 g/kg in young endurance athletes.3

If you want to build muscle, combine resistance training with daily protein consumption of 1.4 g/kg to 2 g/kg; competitive bodybuilders likely need more protein than this, but direct research on this population hasn’t revealed decisive recommendations.4

The recommended daily amount of protein for middle-aged and older adults to avoid deficiencies is 0.8 g/kg.5 One cross-sectional study showed that a daily protein intake of 1.02 g/kg was positively associated with preserving lean tissue in the arms and legs.6

Should You Have Protein Before or After Workout?

Exercise creates tears in muscle tissue. After a workout, muscle protein synthesis and autophagy, the cleaning out damaged cells to regenerate healthier ones, occur to “make us stronger.”7

The body uses protein during this rebuilding phase to repair the damaged tissues, so it’s somewhat logical to guzzle a protein shake or eat a protein bar before you even take a shower.  

That said, the classical post-exercise goal to reverse catabolic processes quickly for muscle recovery and growth may apply only if you first start your workout without eating or drinking anything (besides water). 

Consuming protein more immediately after finishing a strength training session could lead to cumulative gains in muscle mass if the workout was performed in a fasted state.8

Another study from 2017 tracked muscle strength, strength gains, and body composition changes in response to one group consuming 25 grams of protein (and 1 gram of carbs) immediately before and the other group immediately after. Both groups performed the same total-body exercises and reps. Results showed similar effects on all measures studied in both groups, supporting the idea that the post-exercise window may be several hours long.9

The International Society of Sports Nutrition’s (ISSN) position on nutrient timing states that exercisers should prioritize meeting the total daily intake of protein with evenly-spaced feedings of 25 to 40 grams to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS). 

While the ISSN states that post-exercise ingestion of high-quality protein sources either immediately or two hours after the workout stimulates a robust increase in MPS, it also cautions that the post-exercise protein feeding should be affected by the size and timing of a pre-exercise meal. 

In short, ingesting 20 to 40 grams of high-quality protein every three to four hours affects MPS most favorably and is associated with improved body composition and performance outcomes compared to other fueling strategies.10

Keep it simple and focus on your total daily protein intake instead of worrying about protein powders, blender bottles, and bars. If you eat the recommended amount every three to four hours, you’ll end up having enough protein at the right time for muscle repairs after you work out.

A close up of sliced beef, a complete source of protein

What is the Anabolic Window? Is It Really Important?

The anabolic window is a debated theory that suggests a specific window of time post-exercise where muscle gain can be maximized through increased protein intake. The specific window is often referenced as being limited to 30 minutes. 

Research suggests that this anabolic window is longer than 30 minutes and may not be limited to post-workout timeframes.11,12,13

Benefits of Pre and Post -Workout Protein

There are numerous benefits to consuming protein before and after a strenuous workout. 

Pre-Workout Protein Benefits

Eating protein before a workout will help activate muscles, minimize mid-workout hunger cravings, and help reduce muscle breakdown and soreness. For pre-workout protein, aim for 15 to 20 grams of protein (and 25 to 30 grams of carbs) about 30 to 45 minutes before your workout.

Fuel your workout

The brain, body, and muscles need protein to function, and this macronutrient will naturally energize you before a workout. 

Minimize muscle breakdown

When you exercise, muscle fibers are essentially tearing. Because protein contains essential amino acids, a protein-filled snack will fast-track protein absorption and allow the human body to transfer this nutrient to repair cells more quickly.14

Feel satiated

Protein will help you feel full quickly. A protein shake could be a fast way to curb hunger and feel satiated before a workout if it has been a few hours since your last meal.

Boost muscle 

Consuming protein before a workout will boost how well your muscles adapt to your training session. Protein primes your muscles, and research suggests that protein can support muscle endurance for those extra-long and intense workouts.15

Post-Workout Protein Benefits

Post-workout protein shakes will help increase muscle-building efforts, improve muscle repair, reduce inflammation, and boost energy.

Repair muscle breakdown

Protein will help minimize muscle breakdown and speed up the recovery process.

Boost energy

Research suggests a protein shake can boost energy and replenish lost fluid if your workout is extremely sweaty.16 

Build lean muscle 

According to a 2019 study, essential amino acids in protein are major building blocks to maximizing and growing lean muscle.17

Reduce inflammation

When muscle fibers tear during a workout, the body increases inflammation (delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS). High protein levels can minimize this breakdown and mitigate the body’s inflammatory response, decreasing soreness.18

12 Tips to Meet Your Protein Target (For Each Moment of The Day)

Your protein goal will vary depending on your activity level and specific needs. However, you should generally aim to consume 20 to 40 grams of protein at each meal across three to five meals a day. Below are some tips on consuming protein at different times throughout the day.

When you first wake

Including protein in your breakfast is an easy way to stay energized and fueled as you start your day. Some ways to incorporate protein into your breakfasts include:

  • Add protein powder to overnight oats for a vegan grab-and-go breakfast. Top with chia seeds for even more protein.
  • Experiment with different egg dishes. One large egg averages about 6 g of protein. When you add animal protein sources to this dish, you can easily reach 20 g of protein.

Pregame workout 

We already discussed some of the benefits of eating protein before a workout. Here are some easy ways to implement this strategy.

  • Make a delicious protein shake to drink on the way to the gym or as you get ready for a workout. 
  • Fresh fruit with plain Greek yogurt is a protein-packed snack with no added sugars.
  • Protein bars could be a beneficial choice, but be mindful of added sugars and filler ingredients.
A man using an ab roller to work his core; next to him is a protein shake

Drink and sweat

This may be a controversial strategy for some since eating during a workout may lead to gastrointestinal issues.

  • For protein during your workout, reach for a beef jerky strip (like an Epic bar) or a protein shake.  

Before bed

Ever tried to fall asleep hungry? It's not easy. Hunger can interrupt sleep and make it difficult to relax enough to drift off. In other words—it's not that eating before bed always promotes better sleep, but going to bed hungry can be a problem.

  • Eat apples with peanut butter (or another nut butter variety with high protein content)
  • Enjoy plain Greek yogurt with berries
  • Drink a small protein shake with banana, almond milk, and nut butter

Between meals

Snacking can be the downfall of many and lead to decisions that do not support wellness goals. Instead of reaching for a bag of chips, consider adding protein to the snack lineup. Protein-rich snacks will help you feel fuller for longer and also suppress cravings.

  • Beef, chicken, turkey, and salmon jerky are available at most grocery stores. However, be mindful of added sugar and artificial ingredients.
  • Try a trail mix that has dried fruits and nuts. Aim for trail mix with almonds or pistachios, as these have more protein than other nut types.
  • Turkey roll-ups are the perfect on-the-go snack. Take a slice of turkey with cheese and cucumber and roll everything into a wrap.

Protein-Rich Foods You Should Eat

You should aim to consume protein from a variety of sources. Proteins from animal sources, such as eggs, milk, meat, fish, and poultry, provide the highest-quality rating of food sources, mostly because they’re complete proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids. 

Top-Rated Protein Sources

High-quality protein is determined by:

  • essential amino acid composition
  • digestibility of amino acids
  • bioavailability of amino acids

The highest-ranking protein sources that consider all three criteria above include:19

  • Whey protein: comes from cow’s milk and contains all essential and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). It tends to be digested quickly.
  • Casein protein: derived from bovine milk and includes all essential amino acids
  • Egg protein: occurs when egg yolks are removed, and the remaining egg whites are dehydrated and pasteurized.
  • Soy protein: the only plant-based protein source that includes all essential amino acids and BCAAs
  • Rice and pea protein: alternative vegan protein sources

<p class="pro-tip">Read more: Is it better to exercise before eating?</p>

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References

  1. Leidy, H. J., Clifton, P., Astrup, A., Wycherley, T. P., Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., Woods, S. C., & Mattes, R. D. (2015). The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 101(6), 1320S-1329S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084038
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About the author

Sabrina has more than 20 years of experience writing, editing, and leading content teams in health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. She is the former managing editor at MyFitnessPal.

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