When to Take Protein Powder: Does It Matter?

When to take protein powder: man holding his tumbler after working out

When to Take Protein Powder: Does It Matter?

Protein powder is a key dietary ingredient for many athletes and bodybuilders. If you fall into these categories, you probably already know that protein powder gives your body what it needs to perform at its best. The question is when should you take it and does it matter?

Whether building muscle mass or promoting fat loss to attain your ideal body composition, protein powder can enhance your fitness goals. We’ll look at how much you need and compare different types, plus we’ll also tackle the thorny question of exactly when to take protein powder for the best results.

Why You Need Protein

Protein is one of the three macronutrients, in addition to carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Protein provides your body with the essential amino acids it needs for general wellness and to function properly every day. Amino acids are the building blocks of your bones, organs, and muscle tissue and support your immune system and other processes in your body.

Protein for Muscle Growth

Protein becomes even more important when you’re training intensively, especially with the goal of muscle growth. In combination with strength training, protein intake contributes to muscle gain, building strength, and muscle recovery. The question of when to take protein powder usually comes up around those strength training sessions, as that’s when the amino acids come into play.

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — are especially critical. Among other things, leucine triggers the process of muscle protein synthesis, helping you build lean muscle through resistance training, while isoleucine supports muscle metabolism. Valine stimulates muscle growth and helps with muscle repair too.

Protein also helps fine-tune your body composition, whether your goal is weight gain, weight loss, or simply maintaining your muscle mass as you mature.

How Much Protein You Need

When to take protein powder: man preparing his protein shake

Before deciding when to take protein powder, it’s worth knowing the amount of protein you need. This depends on your age, activity level, and fitness goals.

If you’re only moderately active, you need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight every day. If you’re more mature and trying to maintain muscle mass, you need 1.5 grams per kilogram (or 0.68 grams per pound). And if you’re an athlete or bodybuilder, you probably need at least 2 grams per kilogram (or 0.91 grams per pound) daily.

Getting enough protein can be a challenge, but it can be done. Start by focusing on high-protein foods that are complete proteins, like beef, chicken, fish, and dairy. Or, if you’re following a plant-based diet, include good vegan sources of protein like soy and other legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

You can increase your protein intake further by taking protein supplements.

Note: If you have a health condition of any kind, consult a nutritionist, registered dietitian, or another health professional before following a high-protein diet or taking a protein supplement.

When to Take Protein Powder: Post-Workout or Pre-Workout?

When to take protein powder: woman drinking water from her tumbler

When you work out, you create tiny tears in your muscles. As those tears heal, your muscles get bigger and stronger. Your body needs plenty of amino acids to carry out repair work and rebuild muscle. Amino acids also help reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

That said, there are a few different opinions about when to take protein powder supplements to get the most from those amino acids. Should you take them pre-workout or post-workout?

One school of thought subscribes to the pre-exercise theory — that a good supply of amino acids, especially BCAAs, is especially effective at reducing DOMS after exercise. Another holds to the post-exercise theory that enhanced blood flow after exercise allows the amino acids from a supplement to be used more effectively for muscle building.

The research is ongoing, but the latest results indicate that when to take protein powder isn’t as critical as we used to think. The anabolic window for consumption is quite large, depending on when you ate your last pre-workout meal. If you eat a high-protein meal 1-2 hours before your workout, your body will already have access to the nutrients it needs for your training session. You may top up with a protein shake afterward if you choose.

It’s probably a good idea to take protein powder (as well as protein from whole food sources) at regular intervals throughout the day — including for breakfast and before bed, as your body does a lot of recovery work while you sleep. You absorb what you take in and give your body a steady supply of amino acids to work with throughout the day. And if you’re trying to manage your weight, it will keep you feeling full, so you’re less likely to snack. 

More important than when to take protein powder is your total protein intake for the day. Making sure you get enough protein is critical. Otherwise, especially if you’re reducing carbs during rigorous exercising, you may suffer from muscle protein breakdown — also known as catabolism — which is unlikely to help you achieve your fitness goals. 

Types of Protein Powder

Woman drinking from her tumbler

When you supplement your diet with protein powder, you also need to consider what type of protein powder you use. Different types digest at different speeds, so you may want to take them at different times of day. 

Some of the most popular types include whey and casein protein powder, as well as pea, soy, and hemp of the plant-based variety.

Whey Protein Powder and Casein Protein Powder

These complete proteins supply your body with all the essential amino acids it needs.

One of the main differences between whey protein powder and casein is that whey is quickly absorbed and digested. It’s therefore available for the body to use within 90 minutes after taking it, making it a good pre- or post-workout protein if you need a fast boost.

Casein, on the other hand, is much more slowly digested, so it has a slow-release effect over more than four hours. Taking casein just before bed may allow your body to use those amino acids while you sleep.

These protein powders are both dairy-based, although they contain very little lactose after processing. If you’re sensitive to dairy, you may prefer a plant protein. 

Plant Protein Powders

Many plant-based protein powders are available, including pea protein, soy protein, and hemp protein. Pea protein digests the fastest within 3-3.5 hours.

All three vegan proteins are also complete proteins, but they’re lower in some amino acids. For this reason, until recently, plant-based proteins weren’t considered as effective as animal-based proteins. 

This is now changing with the advent of optimization techniques. For the first time, there’s a pea protein proven to be as effective as whey protein at supporting muscle growth and recovery — Ingredient Optimized ioPea Protein.

What to Look for When Buying Protein Powder

Man holding and reading a protein jar

Regardless of what kind of protein powder you use, always invest in a high-quality brand. The best protein powders are highly bioavailable, meaning that your body can use as much of the protein as possible to fuel your workout and give you the results you’re looking for.

When researching brands, keep an eye out for those containing Ingredient Optimized protein powder. Ingredient Optimized supplements are more bioavailable than non-optimized protein powders, and they’re also better at building muscle and strength and helping with recovery.

You’ll find ioWhey Protein in Performix ioWHEY Protein and Kaged Muscle Clean Meal while ioPea Protein can be found in Kaged Muscle Plantein and Myprotein THE ioPEA.

Take Protein Powder Regularly to Meet Your Health Goals

Protein is critical for the proper functioning of your body. It’s the foundation of your bones, muscles, and organs. And it supports your immune system, among many other functions. It’s even more important if your goal is to build or maintain muscle mass or manage your weight. You can get only so much protein from food, so it’s a good idea to top off with good-quality protein supplements

If you’re wondering when to take protein powder, there are several different theories. However, recent research has shown that taking it throughout the day and keeping your supply of amino acids up may be best for achieving fitness goals. Everyone is different, so it’s worth experimenting to see what supports your body to perform at its best every day.