By Nick Nilsson
Author of Mad Scientist Muscle
The SINGLE most common question I get regarding supplements is..."Do I need to use a protein powder?"...followed almost immediately by..."How do I best use it?" followed by "Which protein powder should I use?"
I'm going to answer these questions for you here right now...and this is talking from my 27+ years of personal experience and research taking protein supplements and getting to know people actually IN the supplement industry.
Question #1 - Do I Need to Use a Protein Powder?
The short answer is no, you don't HAVE to use a protein powder. Not everybody needs it.
You can get excellent results by focusing on good quality food and hard training. Contrary to what you see in a lot of magazines, there's nothing magical about protein powder...you still have to put in the work if you want results.
Supplemental protein is something to start looking at when dietary protein is not fully getting the job done.
maybe your food protein sources aren't great quality...
maybe it's not convenient to prepare and bring along those protein sources...
maybe you find you just physically CAN'T (or don't want to!) eat enough protein from food sources...
or maybe you want specific benefits that can only be found in a supplemental protein source.
If any of those apply to you, then yes, I would recommend you consider taking a protein supplement.
Protein is critical for processes such as muscle repair and immune system function...if you're not getting enough or if the protein quality from your food is too low, your results (and potentially your health) could be compromised.
In fact, in my experience (this happened to me in my second year of training), if you're not getting enough quality protein, you may find that your fat-loss results stall out as well. At the time, I was trying to lean out but didn't yet fully know what I was doing nutritionally...in an effort to cut calories, I cut my protein down too much and hit a grinding plateau for several months. As soon as I started upping my protein intake, the fat started coming off again.
The amount of protein you need on a daily basis is the subject of HEATED debate in the fitness world...if somebody asks me for a specific recommendation, I use 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, but truth be told, I actually NEVER count protein grams myself. To me, it's a waste of time.
I just eat plenty of protein-containing foods throughout the day and take a good protein powder at the most effective times to do so, to make best use of it.
It's WAY too easy to overcomplicate things and end up obsessing about stuff that doesn't really make a difference "in the trenches," so to speak.
Question #2 - How Do I Best Use Protein Powder?
I've actually changed my mind on this over the years, and even just recently.
Research is coming out showing that your OVERALL protein intake that has a BIG impact on recovery and results, i.e. in a given 24 hour period. That means you should focus on your daily overall protein intake....getting enough quality protein over the course of the day.
That being said, there is ALSO research showing that protein timing CAN be beneficial at specific times.
So for me, I take supplemental protein at several key times of the day:
1. If I'm training for mass, I'll take a scoop of protein about 20 minutes before a workout to get some amino acids into the system before training. That means they're immediately available for recovery when I'm done...the muscles don't have to wait for the protein to digest because it's already there. If I'm training for fat-loss, I'll train fasted to take best advantage of the Growth Hormone response to training on an empty stomach...so no protein.
2. I'll take a post-workout protein drink in all cases. This is done within 10 minutes or so of training, along with a simple carb (I use organic honey for the carb).
3. If I'm in a hurry and either don't have any protein source convenient to eat or don't feel like making something. In this case, it's not about timing...it's about overall daily protein intake.
I don't personally take protein supplements with meals (nothing wrong with that, though, if you want to do it to increase your daily protein intake). I also never take a protein supplement right before bed (I prefer to let my digestive system rest...this also goes back to the point about the 24 hour protein intake being more important).
I don't pre-make a protein shake to set beside the bed, in case I wake up in the night (I NEVER wake up) and I would totally recommend against setting your alarm to drink one. You're better off getting quality sleep than interrupting it with an alarm just to drink a protein shake that won't make any difference to your results anyway.
Question #3 - Which Protein Powder Should I Use?
If you thought protein intake and timing was controversial, here's where it gets REALLY dicey...
Just about EVERY supplement company under the sun makes a protein powder and just about every company simultaneously claims to have the best one.
Well, in my experience, it's totally NOT worth getting a cheap protein powder. Not at all. Cheap protein can actually clog up your digestive system and make the good food you're spending your money on not digest properly or fully. And nobody likes the end result of THAT.
You're much better off going with a high-quality protein powder and just using it at the most "high impact" times to make it the most cost-effective.
Some of the better ones that I've used are Designer Protein, Iso-Smooth (from Blue Star Nutraceuticals), Prograde, MetRx (the original formula), Syntrax, IsoPure, and Muscle Milk (I actually know the lead protein buyer for this company).
The one I've gravitated towards using the most these days is BioTrust Low-Carb. It's a blend of whey and casein proteins (specifically micellar casein, which is a VERY high quality protein...it's the protein MetRx used to use before other companies started copying them and underpricing them...it got too expensive for them to keep using in their formula).
BioTrust is definitely a company I can personally vouch for. The owners of BioTrust (Joel Marion and Josh Bezoni) are friends of mine and I know for a FACT the level of research that goes into their products.
Let me put it this way...having been taking protein supplements for more than 24 years, theirs is one of THE best I've used, both in quality and in taste (even my wife likes it and she's WAY more picky than me when it comes to protein flavors). I've been using it almost exclusively for more than a year myself.
And just FYI, the video on their page is interesting, but if you don't want to spend the time, just close it off then click on the "read more" link in the product description...it'll give you a good rundown of what separates their protein from the rest and what the company is all about.
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