Of all the topics that spur epic online debates, post workout protein consumption might take the cake.
Carbohydrates and ketogenic diets are a close second but nothing enrages people like the “one scoop versus two scoop" argument.
Old School Belief
For a long time there was this idea that 30 grams was the perfect amount to consume after a workout because anything over that was wasted. But a few years ago some nerd in a lab coat told us 25 was the maximum effective amount (I can say this because I am a nerd with a lab coat. Seriously, I am wearing mine right now).
It was also believed that around 20 grams of whey was the amount needed to really get a “boost” in muscle protein synthesis post workout by protein ingestion. This is likely why you see most protein supplements that have servings in the 20-30 gram range with between 24-27 grams being the most popular.
The great part about science is that it learns and grows, always updating its “beliefs” about the world based upon new evidence. Fortunately for us, there has been a lot of research done on what is the optimal amount post-workout protein for muscle growth and recovery and we now have a much better answer!
A Dawning of a New Era?
One of the most beautiful things about science is you can use experiments to answer hard questions; including what is the best amount of protein to consume after you get done slinging iron and getting your pump on.
Recently, a study from Dr. Tipton’s lab has brought forth new evidence to show that “two scooping it” may be more effective than “1 scooping it”.1 Before we get into the data I have to tell you that this pleases me because 2 scooping it makes shakes taste substantially better.
Ok, sorry for the digression, back to the science. Recently, a group of researchers (fellow white lab coat wearers) had a group of resistance trained individuals engage in a full body training protocol and then slam back one scoop (20 grams of whey protein) or 2 scoops (40 grams of whey protein).
When you break down the study in full it looks like there was a slightly higher level of muscle protein synthesis.
The differences weren’t gigantic by any means and we don’t know whether or not this leads to bigger biceps 12-16 weeks down the line, but we can definitely say that it looks like from a “molecular biology” standpoint that 40 grams of protein results in higher protein creation immediately following a workout than 20 grams, so our old myth of 30 can die a nice, quiet, pseudoscientific death.
Now this study has caused a lot of “stirring” amongst the fitness media mob, but we really need to consider it in the context of decades worth of research and other data. Without getting too lost in the details we can look at the research as a whole and draw a few conclusions.
Many of the studies showing that 20 or 30 grams appears to be the “upper” limit were often done in non-trained individuals or in “split” training style exercises. Generally speaking, these studies, due to their design, recruited less overall muscle mass and engaged in less overall volume than the recent study showing that the 40 grams appears to have a slight advantage.
Now we also have to look at the marginal increase that the 40 grams gave us over the 20 grams. It may be that the slight advantage results in meaningful long-term gains, or it might be that it doesn’t.
For now, the jury is still out but I think we can safely conclude from the past studies, and the most recent one, that the data suggests that the more muscle mass we recruit and the more volume of training we engage in, the more protein we can successfully utilize toward growing new muscle. Think of it like this figure.
This figure is a rough starting point but we need to fine tune our understanding a bit. For example, based on the newest research we know that the top end is fairly open ended, but there appears to be a relationship between how much muscle you use and how much volume you accumulate during the workout.
Additionally, when we look at the actual data it appears that we start to see a leveling off of the curve in which more protein doesn’t lead to drastically higher muscle protein synthesis. So we need to adjust our understanding of that. The linear relationship starts to flatten out as we increase our protein intake. The law of diminishing returns applies here.
Now what about the lower end? Virtually all the research indicates that the low end of the spectrum is dictated by the amount of essential amino acids present in the protein and that about 5 grams of essential amino acids is the minimum you want to get to really trigger a robust muscle protein synthesis signal.
As most whey protein powders have roughly 5-7 grams of EAA per 15 grams of total protein I would say that roughly 15 grams of a high quality whey is enough to ensure you are getting enough essential amino acids to kick of the muscle protein synthesis party.
Ok, so now you know the back story and the data you need to decide what your optimal protein. Let’s decide what your, personal, intake should be and use this figure below as our guide.
Questions to Ask Yourself
1. What is your goal: If your goal is to get as jacked as possible and maximize your muscle growth you immediately fall into the “err on the side of a bit too much”
2. How much lean body mass do you carry: The more lean body mass you require the more protein you will need to maximize muscle growth.
3. What type of workout did you do: A whole body workout will require more protein than a split workout.
4. How much protein have you had today: If it is 4 PM and you haven’t eaten anything but a Poptart or one of those cute little 100 calorie snack packs you are going to need to shove some food down and might benefit from consuming more than the maximal known “muscle protein synthesis amount”.
Time to get down to brass tacks and help you get to a final answer. We put together a table that gives you an idea of what you should aim to consume. If you answered, “ I want to get as jacked as possible”, it is likely best to err on the side of consuming a tad too much.
We have attempted to put together a quick table that allows you to decide where you should fall for optimal protein intake. Is this table perfect? No, but it will get you 95% of the way to optimizing your post workout protein intake.