Protein shakes are very popular supplement options, especially for those hoping to boost muscle growth and their overall performance when they exercise.
But should you have a protein shake before or after workouts?
While mixing some powder with water or milk may seem like a relatively straightforward process, there’s actually a bit of science behind exactly when you should drink your protein shake to get the most out of it.
In this article, you’ll discover
- The main types of protein powder
- When to drink a protein shake
- Benefits of protein pre-workout
- Benefits of protein post-workout
- When to have protein snacks
The key types of protein
The best time to take your protein shake will largely depend on what type of protein it contains.
There are numerous different protein powders out there, some of which contain protein-rich dairy products and others that are completely plant-based and suitable for vegans.
Common protein powders include:
- Whey protein: is a dairy-based protein powder that contains all the essential amino acids and is absorbed quickly by your body.1
- Soya protein: is a plant-based, vegan protein powder that contains all the essential amino acids, but it is absorbed slowly by your body.2
- Hemp protein: is another plant-based, vegan protein powder that is made from hemp seeds, it contains all the essential amino acids, but it is low in lysine.3
- Pea protein: is also a plant-based, vegan protein powder that contains all the essential amino acids but it is low in methionine and cysteine.4
- Casein protein: is a dairy-based protein powder that contains the essential amino acids and like soya protein, it is absorbed slowly.5
Not sure how much protein to have a day? Check out our article: How Much Protein Do I Need?
When should I take my protein shake?
As well as the type of protein you have, another factor which may determine exactly when you decide to have your protein shake is your overall goal. Are you looking to lose weight or build up muscle?
Most either drink a protein shake before or after a workout, however there are benefits and downsides to both.
Taking a protein shake before exercise
So should you take a protein shake before your workout?
Depending on the type of protein it contains, doing so could stimulate your cells to begin the process of building up muscle mass and help reduce the likelihood of muscle damage or fatigue when you start exercising.6
If you’re trying to build up muscle, it’s important that you also eat before you work out.
If you exercise on a protein shake alone, your body might start to burn muscle instead of fat. Low GI carbs like lentils and oats are best as they release energy at a slower rate, allowing you to exercise for longer.7,8
Wondering when to drink protein shakes for weight loss? If you’re exercising and trying to lose weight, you may also want to have a protein shake before you exercise.
Protein is a big contributor to fat loss as it’s able to keep the body feeling fuller for longer and may help increase your metabolism.9
Taking a protein shake after exercise
Fitness enthusiasts often swear that the best time to drink protein shakes is in the anabolic window, which has always been thought to be 15-60 minutes after exercise.10
This is because you can burn protein when you exercise and may have depleted your body’s stock of it that’s been gained naturally through food.
But new research from the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that this window is actually up to two hours from a workout, so you have longer than you might think!11
Some types of protein, such as whey protein, are also thought to help repair any muscle tissue that’s been damaged during exercise.12
What’s more, many studies show that post-workout is when your muscles are able to absorb the most amount of protein.
If you’re looking to gain more muscle mass, having a protein shake after you hit the gym is a no-brainer.13
Taking a protein shake before bed
Hear us out on this one, as having a protein shake before bed is more beneficial than you might think.
A review of studies on when to take protein from 2016 found that consuming protein before bed is a good way to promote muscle growth and to help people adapt to their exercise regime.14
This is thought to be the case as the protein taken before bed is effectively digested and absorbed, increasing the availability of protein to muscles for recovery throughout the night.
Top tip: if you want to try this method, opt for soya based or casein protein powder!
In order to maximise muscle growth during this period, the scientists conducting the review recommended taking approximately 40g of protein before bed.15
When to eat protein snacks
As well as drinking a protein shake as part of your exercise routine, you may also want to consider eating some protein-rich snacks throughout the day.
These can help you stave off hunger pangs for longer if you’re trying to lose weight and also boost your protein levels if you’re hoping to improve the strength and size of your muscles.16,17
The final say
- Generally speaking, consuming enough protein is more important than the exact timing of when you have it – unless you’re doing resistance training, where it is recommended to have it directly before or after exercise.18
- Taking protein before bed is also a valid option for muscle growth and exercise adaptation.
- Having protein snacks throughout the day is another technique to help you reach your weight loss goals.
As you should be able to get enough protein from your diet alone, it’s important that you follow instructions on packets properly if you decide to take a supplement such as a protein powder.
If you’re ever unsure about whether a product is right for you, speak to one of our nutrition specialists in-store or to a medical professional.
You also asked...
Based on the information we’ve already mentioned, if your goal is to gain muscle, the best time to drink a protein shake is either directly before or after exercise, or before you go to bed. However, if your main source of exercise is resistance training, you should probably stick to having your protein shake immediately before or after your workout.
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.
Last updated: 6 January 2022