How do I use whey protein successfully without wasting my money? And do I take protein before or after a workout?

In this hefty unit and science laden article, I’m going to answer the questions- how do I use whey protein and do I use protein after or before a workout?

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  • If you just have started training and are looking for the next supplement to give you that “extra edge” or are looking for that “perfect cookie cutter programme”, let me save you a bunch of time.  There isn’t any.
  • Stop worrying about the 5%; re-invest your time, effort and money. Read some books, join a good gym and gain valuable advice from veteran lifters.
  • Food! Real food! Whole food!  Is the key to a well-balanced diet.
  • Bottom line: whey is a convenient way to get calories from protein and when used correctly is a great tool in a smart trainer’s arsenal.

Muscle protein synthesis – muscle protein break down = Net muscle protein synthesis.

Whole body protein balance (protein turn over) is determined by protein synthesis and protein breakdown. Only about 25% of total body protein synthesis comes from skeletal muscle, other body processes also require amino acids.

Strength athletes need more protein than sedentary individuals or endurance athletes, to enhance the recovery process of muscle fibers that have been disrupted during heavy resistance exercise (Hoffman et al., 2009).

Heavy resistance training has an influence on energy expenditure and substrate utilization post exercise. Elevated muscle protein synthesis is the primary mechanism associated with higher resting energy expenditure after a heavy training session (Hackney et al., 2010).

Strength training makes you more sensitive to the effects of essential amino acids on muscle protein synthesis, meaning ingesting protein before and after a training session can be an effective way to increase muscle protein synthesis.

It was shown that the respiratory exchange ratio was significantly reduced for 24 hours after heavy resistance training. Respiratory exchange ratio has traditionally been used as an indirect assessment of substrate utilization after training (Hackney et al., 2010).

How does protein and insulin effect muscle cell growth?

Dietary sources produce variable effects on protein balance, given the differences in both amino acid composition and digestibility of intact proteins. Whey and casein contain all of the EAA in ratios that are similar to that of body proteins and are especially high in BCAA.

In skeletal muscle specifically, increased availability of essential amino acids initiate a cascade of events that stimulate protein synthesis leading to positive protein net balance.

The amino acid leucine and insulin (to an extent) impact protein kinase b and mTOR pathway which controls the initiation of protein synthesis and elongation of proteins within a muscle cell (Onwulata & Huth, 2008).

Note that the skeletal muscle essential amino acid leucine is a potent stimulatory for protein synthesis.

Muscle protein breakdown, to a lesser degree (10-25%), is also stimulated with exercise when performed in the fasted state. However, the fasted state exercise increase in muscle protein breakdown is completely suppressed with the consumption of amino acids (Onwulata & Huth, 2008).

So it’s only when “ADEQUATE” nutrition is provided, especially protein, that resistance exercise results in a net anabolic state that stimulates protein acceleration.

EAA, including BCAA have been shown to directly stimulate muscle protein synthesis particularly in the presence of insulin (Layman, 2002).

Insulin mainly suppresses muscle protein breakdown, providing an anabolic environment for protein synthesis – resulting in a net positive impact on protein turn over (Rennie et al., 2004).

Following a mixed protein meal, there is an influx of amino acids into the circulation, where they are transported actively into muscle especially BCAA .

Effects of milk protein, whey casein on protein synthesis

Whey is an acid soluble protein, where casein clots when exposed to acidity of the stomach, which delays its gastric emptying and thus may result in a slower release of amino acids (Mahe., et all 1996).

Results showed that despite a peak leucine (x2.5 greater for whey than casein) both stimulated total muscle protein synthesis (68% by whey and 31% by casein) following exercise (Onwulata & Huth, 2008).

Whey produced a short lasting increase in amino acid plasma concentration. Casein produced a lower but sustained increase in circulating amino acids.

There was no difference between the proteins, suggesting that both proteins promote the effects on muscle protein synthesis!

What does this tell me? While both proteins promote net whole-body protein synthesis, slow digesting casein favoured a great inhibition of protein breakdown and whole-body net protein balance compared to whey under resting conditions.

Both dairy proteins stimulate protein anabolism, but sustained levels of EAA in the plasma after casein or small repeated intakes of whey favour greater net protein anabolism. Protein breakdown was not altered after whey proteins but was inhibited by 34% with casein.

BCAA must be present in the muscle cells to promote protein synthesis. However, these amino acids are unique because they are metabolized for energy by the muscles rather than the liver. Through this action, they are thought to help increase carbohydrate bioavailability while helping to counteract muscle protein breakdown during exercise (Walzem et al., 2002).

A study with competitive wrestlers showed that a combination of moderate energy restriction and BCAA supplementation induced significant and preferential losses of visceral adipose tissue and allowed the maintenance of a high level of performance (Walzem et al., 2002).

The study showed that intake of BCAA during exercise decreased the net rate of protein degradation caused by heavy exercise (Walzem et al., 2002)

Side note: powdered BCAA supplements are expensive and taste like powdered rotting socks. 

Stop! You’re giving me a headache! What can I take away from all of the science mumbo-jumbo?

Based on Wilkinson et al., (2006) results, in order to create an optimal environment for muscle protein synthesis, a supply of fast and slow proteins is needed.

The period of muscle induced protein synthesis is about 48 hours (Philips et al., 1997). Studies have shown that when protein is ingested around training time it can help long term muscle gain, but is dictated by net muscle protein balance.

Suggesting that the optimal period during which protein should be consumed, appears to be within one hour prior to or after exercise.

I like Keifers protein blend idea and you can try adding a fat source with your whey shakes to slow down the absorption rate. 

Good thread on the ironadicts forum about whey blends.This is why whole food protein sources should be used, as they digest slower and release amino acids steadily into your blood stream.

(Hoffman et al., 2009) What I did like about this experiment is that it used experienced athletes. It unintentionally showed that ingesting additional protein above 1.6g/kg, regardless of its timing, might not result in further performance gains.

Hoffman said that they didn’t use enough carbohydrate, as it’s likely that the carbohydrate content in protein supplementation is important for facilitating transport across the intestinal lining -accelerating uptake by skeletal muscle by activating insulin-dependent transport mechanism (Hoffman et al., 2009)

The findings of the study didn’t support the benefits of pre/post exercise ingestion of protein supplementation on performance. What it did show was they whey was the bomb at bumping up your daily caloric intake from a protein source.

Some of these studies may seem confusing and contradictory, which brings up a good point to remember; there is no final answer since the human body is a complex system and doesn’t behave like a test tube.

Find out what works for you, with a little experimenting, and reject what doesn’t.

References used (Click here to expand)

I. Onwulata,  P. J. Huth , (2008). Whey Processing, Functionality and Health Benefits . Blackwell Publishing and the Institute of Food Technologists.

Jay R. Hoffman, Nicholas A. Ratamess, Christopher P. Tranchina, Stefanie L. Rashti, Jie Kang, and Avery D. Faigenbaum Effect of Protein-Supplement Timing on Strength, Power, and Body-Composition Changes in Resistance-Trained Men. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2009, 19, 172-185 © 2009 Human Kinetics, Inc.

KYLE J. HACKNEY1,2, ADAM J. BRUENGER1,3, and JEFFREY T. LEMMER1,4 . Timing Protein Intake Increases Energy Expenditure 24 h after Resistance Training . 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.

R. L. Walzem,1 C. J. Dillard,2 and J. B. German (2002) Whey Components: Millennia of Evolution Create Functionalities for Mammalian Nutrition: What We Know and What We May Be Overlooking . Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 42(4):353–375 (2002).


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