Getting enough protein in your diet is an important part of being able to maintain or build muscle when also strength training regularly. However, this not only raises the question of how much protein do you need but also when should you eat it?
When setting up your diet and planning your meals it can be difficult to know if you should eat protein before you lift weights, after you lift weights or both.
This difficulty comes from the debate in the fitness industry over what is necessary or effective and because the actual answer depends on several factors.
To help you figure out what you need to do, this article will explore why you need protein, how much you need and when you should eat it for the best results.
Protein is a macronutrient made up of 21 amino acids.
These amino acids often referred to as the building blocks of protein, are split into 2 groups, essential and non-essential.
The 12 non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body, whereas the 9 essential amino acids cannot be self-produced by the body and must be obtained through your diet.
Along with fat and carbohydrate, protein is one of three macronutrients in your diet, provides 4 calories per gram and is vital for the maintenance and/or building of muscle mass.
Protein also helps with immune function and satiety after meals. However, for this article, we’re most concerned with how protein can help you maintain or build muscle.
Your muscles are continually going through a cycle of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). The relationship between MPS and MPB is called protein balance and is key to maintaining and/or building muscle.
You do this by spending more time in a positive balance than a negative one.
On any given day, there are several things that will increase MPS, namely protein ingestion and strength training and things that will increase MPB, namely fasting and endurance exercise.
It’s by managing these factors to spend more of your time in a positive balance that you can build muscle, not lose it. Protein is an important part of doing this.
Protein intake for the general population in the UK is 0.75 g per kg of body weight and in the USA, it is 0.8 g per kg of body weight. This your RDA or recommended daily allowance and the amount of protein it is suggested that you get every day. (1, 2)
Per lb of body weight, this is 0.34 g and 0.36 g respectively. For a 160 lbs male, this would be about 55 g of protein daily
You’re probably thinking that this sounds low, and it is.
For individuals who want to maintain or build muscle this amount is far too low. (2, 3, 4) This means if you regularly lift weights and have a goal of improving your body composition you need to be eating more protein.
Every time you lift weights you damage the cells in your muscle fibres and this damage signals your body to increase muscle protein synthesis in order to repair itself (8).
After training it’s not uncommon to see a rise in muscle protein synthesis that lasts anywhere from 3 days to 24 hours. (9) This effect reduces with the amount of training experience you have as your body becomes better adjusted to recovering from exercise.
This is why beginners can progress with less training volume than intermediate or advanced lifters.
However, as well as this increase in muscle protein synthesis there is also an increase in muscle protein breakdown after strength training (10) and it’s here that your nutrition, in particular protein, plays a big role.
This is because protein directly stimulates muscle protein synthesis helping to ensure that MPS is greater than MPB (11). Without enough protein, in your diet, you can end up in a negative protein balance where muscle protein breakdown outstrips muscle protein synthesis.
Whether or not you should eat protein before your workout really depends on what else you’ve eaten that day.
This is because it takes your body several hours to digest and absorb the protein you eat, with the size and makeup of your meal influencing the speed that this happens. (12)
For example, a whey protein shake with about 20 g of protein in it will be digested and absorbed within about 2 hours, whereas a chicken breast with rice and vegetables might take more than 5 – 7 hours.
This means if that if you’re working out longer than 5-ish hours after eating a proper meal or 2-ish hours after having a protein shake or similar amount of protein then you can benefit from having some more protein before you work out.
The closer you are to working out the more you should prioritise getting your protein in the form of a shake or small serving of Greek yoghurt or other high protein foods. This will help you avoid training on a full stomach.
My Recommendation: get 20 g of protein within the 2 hours before you start your workout if you haven’t eaten a big meal with 20+ g of protein 5-ish hours before. For most people, who train before lunch or after work your breakfast or lunch meal should cover your needs and you won’t need to take in additional protein before working out.
Related: What is Pre-Workout Nutrition?
The answer here is a little clearer and the consensus amongst the leading professionals in this area is that protein intake post-workout isn’t game-changing but may help you build more muscle over time. (13, 14, 15)
Eating protein after your workout also helps to stop your muscle protein breakdown rates from rising and putting you in a negative energy balance.
For most people 20 – 40 g of protein in the form of a protein shake will be the most convenient method of doing this.
However, it’s also important to note that research shows that it’s total daily protein intake that is the most important factor when it comes to maximising your muscle gains. (16)
My Recommendation: get 20 – 40 g of protein within 2 hours of working out to help optimise your results if possible. Otherwise, prioritise hitting your protein goal across the day as a whole and you’ll be fine.
Related: What is Post Workout Nutrition?
Protein is readily available in the diet through a number of animal and plant sources.
Something to mindful of is that animal protein is superior to plant for the fact it contains complete proteins, which means you get all the amino acids (essential and non-essential) that you need from your diet.
However, even if you are plant-based, provided you get your protein from a mix of sources it is possible to get everything you need from the diet.
Another option is to supplement with protein powders.
Protein powders are a convenient, cost-effective way to meet your proteins needs especially if you’re on the go or find it difficult to get enough protein through food sources.
Whey protein provides 20+ grams of protein and is quick digesting which means it quickly raises protein synthesis rates which helps to maintain or build muscle. (17)
It’s no surprise that protein shakes are the go-to pre and post-workout choice of so many people.
Protein timing does matter, but maybe not as much as you think and whilst eating protein before and after your workout certainly won’t hurt it is also not your priority if you’re hitting your protein needs across the day.
When it comes to changing your body the fundamentals like total calorie intake, total protein intake and applying progressive overload to your workout will make the biggest difference.
Things like whether to eat protein before or after your workout may offer some additional small benefit and may help you build muscle faster but in and of itself is not going to make a huge difference.