Should you have protein before or after your workout?

Is it better to have pre-workout chicken or a post-workout shake? We’ve got all the answers to protein timing. 

When it comes to exercise nutrition, protein is the source of the biggest debate. While we’ve laid down the facts on how much protein you really need to support your training, and whether protein shakes are essential for gym-goers, there’s one question that still looms: when should we be having it? 

“There are two main anabolic stimuli for muscle: exercise and protein,” explains strength and nutrition coach Pennie Varvardies. This simply means that muscle growth is triggered by both the need to rebuild after resistance training and having enough protein, the building blocks of muscle, available to do so. The timing of that availability is very much up for debate. 

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Let’s start with pre-workout nutrition. The food we eat before exercising is there to provide us with enough energy and nutrients to get us through our reps, so it makes sense that protein before exercise might give us an extra boost.

Exercise by its nature is catabolic, meaning that it breaks down our muscles, so some people argue that protein beforehand can preserve our muscle mass. This research by the University of Texas shows that we can increase anabolic (or muscle growth) markers and improve performance during training by having at least 20g of protein within an hour before exercising. 

“Consuming protein before a workout will help your muscles repair and rebuild,” says Pennie. “It’s also worth making sure to also get some carbs with your pre-training meal, particularly if you’re going to be training for more than an hour, to provide you with the energy needed to work hard and get the most out of the session.” 

But post-workout protein has the biggest rep of all when it comes to strength training nutrition, particularly the magic ‘post-workout window’ that suggests we get optimal muscle building gains by eating protein within 20 minutes of finishing our exercise. 

However, this American review of that science suggests that protein within three hours of training can increase muscle growth – a much more manageable time frame. And post-workout protein isn’t just about getting bigger and stronger, either. “Consuming enough protein will help your muscle repair after training, helping you recover faster and more efficiently,” says Pennie. 

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Yet, most research suggests it doesn’t really matter if you have it before or after training, so long as you have enough protein generally throughout your day. So, eating a serving of protein with each meal or snack every few hours is best, and naturally means that you will be having it around your training, too. “Research shows that 24-hour protein synthesis rates are higher when you spread your protein out throughout the day, rather than eating it all at once. That means if you have three or four servings of protein throughout the day a few hours apart, you’ll build marginally more muscle over time,” says Pennie.

And this 2006 study showed that having protein, creatine and glucose immediately before and after training improved muscle mass and one rep strength compared to having the same nutrients further spaced out in the morning and evening. 

So unless you’re an athlete or are extremely serious about your training, the answer to the pre- or post-workout protein question is… just have it when it’s most convenient. 

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Images: Getty 

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