When it comes to building muscle and strength, protein is a must! One of the best ways to increase one's protein intake is by having a protein powder for post-workout shakes or to add to your coffee, or even bake with. The point is, having a good protein powder handy will help you get more protein in your diet while helping to improve your muscle recovery and muscle-building efforts.
Fortunately, there are various types of protein powder to choose from... but which ones are the best for muscle gain?
Despite what you may think, not every type of protein powder is great for building muscle. So, to make sure you get the best one for your fitness goals, we're going to break down the three best protein powders (including the best plant-based protein), and two that you should avoid!
Best protein powder for muscle gain
When it comes to finding the best protein powder, the two things you need to do is find the best type for your fitness goals and make sure it's mostly protein. Below are protein powders that have been shown to be effective for building muscle, however, aside from the type, you want to make sure the kind you get has at least 20 grams of protein per scoop, and minimal fillers and additives!
It should come as no surprise to see whey protein on this list! Whey protein powder is the most popular (and the best) because it is acid-soluble. This just means that it can be digested quickly by the body and allows a stream of amino acids to enter the bloodstream within just an hour of being consumed.
For those that don't know, whey is an animal protein that is produced from the liquid portion of milk. It contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein, but what sets whey apart from the others is that it contains the greatest amount of leucine compared to other complete proteins, like casein and soy protein. Leucine is the amino acid that is responsible for increasing protein synthesis, the process in which protein is produced to repair muscle damage caused by high-intensity exercise. It essentially reduces the effects of muscle protein breakdown to help drive muscle growth.
Whey protein has been heavily researched, so there are several studies that back up its muscle-building claims. Several studies show that supplementing with whey protein helps build muscle mass while also assisting athletes and lifters with recovery. Aside from building muscle, whey has also been shown to be the most satiating protein powder. One particular study tested four different types of protein shakes on different days in a group of healthy men. The study found that the shakes used with whey led to the largest decrease in appetite and even a reduction in caloric intake at the next meal. So, not only is whey protein powder ideal for building muscle, it's even great for those with weight loss goals!
The benefits whey protein offers makes it one of the best for muscle gain because your body is able to absorb it quickly (making it ideal for pre and post-workout), helps increase muscle protein synthesis due to the great amounts of leucine, and helps keep you full longer. This is why it has become the standard protein powder that others are compared to! If a protein powder is comparable then it's impressive, but if it's not, then it's not worth it.
Casein is comparable to whey protein, which is why it's on this list! Casein protein is produced in a similar way to whey, it's derived from milk, except that it comes from the part of milk that bunches up and is later turned into cheese. This gives casein distinct differences from whey and knowing those differences will help you figure out if whey or casein is better for you.
As you know now, whey is digested quickly, typically within an hour. It causes a spike in blood levels of amino acids for about two hours after the levels fall back to baseline. Casein, on the other hand, is absorbed at a much slower rate which causes blood levels of amino acids to stay elevated for up to six hours. This is great, but the only downside is that the elevated blood levels of amino acids aren't quite as high as whey protein.
So, what do the studies say?
Unfortunately, studies show that casein doesn't stimulate muscle protein synthesis at the same rate whey does, probably due to leucine being greater in whey. However, this doesn't take away from casein's effectiveness! Casein has been shown to help cells synthesize protein during times your body breaks down muscle, like during sleep and extended periods of not eating. There is one particular study that was conducted on young men with an intense workout routine that shows casein's effectiveness. One group was given 40 grams of casein protein before bed, and the other was given a placebo, their anabolic response was monitored throughout the day, and it showed that the group that consumed casein had a much higher muscle protein synthesis rate than the placebo group.
This makes casein protein ideal for those who work out in the evenings or prefer to drink their protein shakes at night!
Rice and Pea protein
Despite popular belief, soy protein isn't the best vegan protein powder blend. Soy protein is thought to be the best because it's considered a complete protein. However, soy contains isoflavones, and consuming too much of it can skew hormone levels and lead to adverse effects. Soy isn't all bad, but if you want to avoid potentially negative effects, opt for a better option – a rice and pea protein blend!
When combined, these plant-based proteins are comparable to whey in their amino acid profile. Pea protein is rich in BCAA's, and other essential amino acids, but it's not considered a complete protein due to it missing methionine. Brown rice protein is high in EAAs and BCAAs, but it lacks lysine. So, combining the two makes them a complete protein!
On their own, both have shown to be comparable to whey. A 12-week study conducted on participants doing resistance training gave one group whey protein and the other pea protein. The pea protein group had a similar increase in muscle thickness to those who consumed whey. A study to show the effects of brown rice protein powder also showed an increase in muscle growth, power, and strength comparable to whey protein.
When it comes to vegan protein powder, a rice and pea protein blend is best. It may not be as great as whey protein, but it's comparable and makes for an excellent vegan substitute!
Worst protein powders for muscle gain
Now that we've covered the best protein powders for muscle gain, let's cover the ones you should avoid...
Hemp protein comes from hemp seeds, but despite its origin, it does not contain THC (the bioactive in marijuana). It's completely safe to consume, and it's actually turned into a vegan protein powder due to it being a decent source of amino acids. It's also rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids!
However, the amino acid profile found in hemp protein isn't special or comparable to whey or other plant-based proteins, like soy, rice, and pea. It doesn't have many BCAA's or EAA's, and it's actually very low in leucine – the amino acids that drive muscle protein synthesis. These disadvantages make it a poor choice for anyone with muscle-building goals.
What makes a protein powder great is its amino acid content, and collagen doesn't rack up to the competition! Although collagen is great for your skin, hair, nails, and joint health, it's not ideal for muscle-building. That's because it has a very different set of amino acids than animal-based protein powder, like whey and casein. It's low in a lot of essential amino acids, especially leucine.
So, despite its popularity, avoid collagen powder for muscle gain, and stick to whey, casein, or a pea and rice protein blend!
Start building muscle with the right protein powder
Choosing the right protein powder can make a difference in your muscle-building journey, and now you know which ones are the best and which one's to avoid. Remember, it all comes down to the amino acid profile and the protein per serving! And when it comes to those things, whey protein, casein protein, and brown rice and pea protein are the best.
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