When Should You Drink a Protein Shake for Optimal Results?

Supplementing with protein shakes to help increase daily protein intake is common in the fitness world. It's a common trait because it helps, bodybuilders, casual lifters and any gym-goer achieve any type of fitness goal! From building muscle to weight loss, a good protein powder will help you get there. Along with a good nutrition and workout plan of course!

Chances are you've probably seen lifters pull out a shaker bottle and pound a protein shake immediately after their workout. This is a popular thing to do post-workout because of the anabolic window theory. But is that theory true? Are there more benefits to drinking a shake after a workout than before one? 

These are questions on every fitness lover's mind – and we're here to put your mind at ease! Keep on reading to learn more about the anabolic window and when to drink protein shakes for optimal results!

What is the anabolic window?

It's a short period of time (also known as the "window of opportunity") after high-intensity training that the body is at its prime to accept high-protein food and use amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to reduce muscle protein breakdown and increase muscle protein synthesis. Hence why you see lifters pound protein shakes or have a scoop of BCAA's right after their workout - to take advantage of this 30-60 minute muscle-building window! This theory was widely believed and popularized in the fitness world because of the body's reaction after training. After doing any form of high-intensity training, like strength training, your body is in an anabolic state. This means that your body is going through a range of cellular processes that facilitate muscle repair and growth, basically, your body is repairing and rebuilding the muscle fibers damaged during intense exercise. So, the theory is that consuming protein and fast-acting carbs right after your workout (within the 30-minute anabolic window) will help accelerate the replacement of glycogen and increase muscle protein synthesis in an effort to maximize muscle growth. However, there's no conclusive evidence that shows drinking a post-workout protein shake is any more beneficial than drinking one before!

A 2017 study found that pre and post-workout protein intake produced similar muscle adaptations, suggesting that pre-workout protein is just as beneficial as immediate post-workout intake.[1] Another study showed muscle protein synthesis increases when you consume a moderate amount of protein throughout the entire day, opposed to in only one short time period. In terms of carbohydrates, research shows that glycogen synthesis after exercise is not any more beneficial than any other time, what matters is that you meet your daily carb intake.[2] 

There are even more studies that contain similar results and debunk the 30-minute anabolic window! This doesn't necessarily mean post-workout nutrition doesn't matter – it does! It just means that you don't need to slam a protein shake right after you drop your weights to get the results you want. So, if you want to build muscle effectively, when should you drink a protein shake?

When is the best time to drink a protein shake?

The time of day you drink a protein shake depends on you! As long as you're getting enough protein in and training consistently you'll be on the right track to maximizing your workouts for better muscle gain! However, there may be some pros of drinking a protein shake before or after training that may sway you in one direction more than the other...

Drinking a post-workout protein shake

Although the anabolic window is largely debunked, there is one group of people who could benefit from a post-workout protein shake... Those who work out in a fasted state. Fasted workouts involve training on an empty stomach, or after fasting for 12+ hours. Studies show that working out in a fasted state significantly raises muscle protein breakdown post-exercise, making the anabolic window crucial. This happens because fasting naturally puts your body into a catabolic state (not anabolic) in which the body starts breaking down fuel for energy. So, your glycogen stores are completely depleted which increases the rate of protein breakdown, opposed to those who work out in the afternoon or evening after eating sufficient nutrients.

Those who work out on an empty stomach should have a protein shake within an hour of training for optimal muscle recovery, but be mindful of the type of protein powder you consume. There are different types of protein powders that have different benefits. In this case, we'd suggest choosing a whey protein powder because it's acid-soluble and can be digested easily. It's also a complete protein and contains all nine essential amino acids needed to increase muscle protein synthesis. And don't be afraid to add to your shake to increase the nutrients! Add a fast-acting carb like a banana, berries, and add a few healthy fats like chia seeds or a tablespoon of peanut butter. This will make your post-workout shake extra nutritious and delicious!

Drinking a protein shake before your workout

Anyone can benefit from drinking a protein shake post-workout and even pre-workout! If you haven't eaten in around four hours and want something light that will help with your muscle-building goals then have a pre-workout protein shake! It will help cure your hunger before your training session and also give your muscles the essential amino acids that are ideal for building muscle.

Just try to have your protein shake one to two hours before your workout so your body has time to digest it, and keep it light! The last thing you want is to feel too full that it's in the way of your training performance. If you have a sensitive stomach consider getting a hydrolyzed protein powder. Hydrolyzed powders are processed so that the amino acids are broken down into smaller chains for easier digestions and absorption. Or try our Whey Protein Isolate, aside from containing 25 grams of protein per scoop, we've also added a digestive enzyme blend for easier digestion and maximal absorption.

Protein shake mistakes to avoid

As you can see, the timing of your protein shake isn't as crucial as some make it seem. What matters the most is that your meeting your daily protein requirements. The time you decide to consume a protein shake will have little effect on your muscle gains. Focus more on the stuff that matters, your workout routine and diet!

However, if you want to maximize the effectiveness of your protein shake then avoid making these mistakes...

Getting the wrong type of protein powder

First off, there is no wrong type of protein powder. Each kind is simply produced differently which gives it different macronutrient ratios and also changes the way it's absorbed in the body. For example, casein protein provides your body with a slow and steady stream of amino acids and digested at a slower pace. As opposed to whey protein which is absorbed quickly in the bloodstream, and has a steady stream of amino acids for only about 90 minutes. One isn't necessarily better than the other, they just work differently! Someone who works out in the evenings would benefit from a casein protein powder, while someone who needs a fast-absorbing protein would benefit from whey.

So, how do you know what type is the best for you?

It depends on when you workout, your goals, and even your dietary needs! To help you find the best protein powder for you, we have a complete breakdown of the different types of protein powder so you can find the best one that fits you.

Substituting it for a meal

Protein supplementation is a great way to increase protein consumption, but it shouldn't be your main source of protein! Avoid replacing full meals with protein shakes. Doing so will lead you to miss out on the nutritional value of whole foods, and other high-quality sources of protein like eggs, red meat, etc.

Instead of using a protein shake as a meal, incorporate it into your daily diet as a snack! You can build a balanced filling shake/snack that you can drink any time of day to significantly increase your protein intake.

Using powder as your only protein source

You don't want to make a meal out of your shake, but you shouldn't avoid using other nutrient-dense ingredients that can add to your protein intake and even curb your sweet cravings! So, use your protein shake as an opportunity to make something that will satisfy your sweet tooth and at the same time boost your nutrient intake by adding in some healthy add-ins. You can use frozen fruit, nut butter, greek yogurt, seeds, or even tofu to significantly increase the protein in your shake. This can take your regular protein shake from 20 grams of protein to nearly 40!

One of our favorite recipes includes mixing our 373 Lab's Chocolate Cheesecake Whey Protein Powder with almond milk (or any plant-based milk), a frozen banana, and two tablespoons of peanut butter powder! It's basically a rich chocolate cheesecake milkshake disguised as a protein shake 😉

Buying pre-made shakes

Although ready-to-drink protein shakes are ideal for a busy day, try to avoid them. Most of these types of shakes are filled with a lot of unnecessary fillers to help enhance the flavor, but they provide no added health benefits. If you're on the go and need a quick protein-filled snack, just pack your shaker bottle with your favorite protein powder and a banana or nuts.

However, it may be impossible to avoid pre-made shakes forever, and having one every once in a while isn't bad...  just be smart about your choice. As always, read the nutrition label carefully. Look at the ingredients list and make sure the type of protein is the first thing listed. Try to avoid artificial sweeteners and food additives like carrageenan.

In summary, there is no right or wrong time to drink a protein shake. Focusing on eating a high-protein diet and meeting your protein needs will help you attain your muscle-building goals. And if you're still not getting enough protein in your diet, check out these Clever Ways to Increase Your Protein Intake!

When Should You Drink a Protein Shake for Optimal Results?