When you want to build muscle, consuming supplemental protein after a workout can help. While protein alone won't create big guns and a taut frame, combining it with a focused workout routine, hydration and proper sleep will give you an edge on muscle development. The dizzying array of protein powders available can be confusing, though. A pure protein powder is enough to augment many people's weight-training programs. For those who have trouble putting on muscle despite spending hours at the gym, a weight gainer may be necessary.
After exercise, your muscles are uniquely poised to absorb amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. A research review published in a 2014 issue of "Sports Medicine" notes that studies are consistent in proving the benefits of protein supplementation on post-workout muscle growth. Protein powder and weight gainers are two ways to quickly deliver amino acids to worked muscles. You simply mix them with water, milk or juice -- or blend with fruit into a smoothie -- and consume within an hour of your strength-training workout.
Whey protein digests quickly and is a favorite among athletes, bodybuilders and recreational exercisers. Soy, egg, hemp and casein are alternative protein powders with slightly different amino acid makeups that may not be as effective in helping with muscle growth. Protein powders usually contain pure protein, with the possible addition of sweeteners and flavorings. Protein powders have only trace amounts of carbohydrates and fats and usually feature about 20 to 30 grams of protein per serving.
Weight gainer powders feature protein along with added carbs and fats to provide more calories. A ratio of carbohydrates to protein of 2-to-1 is typical -- for example, you might get 60 grams of carbs and 30 grams of protein in a serving. Some weight gainers have more than 100 grams of carbohydrates. The carbs usually come from a mixture of sugars, such as maltodextrin and glucose. While a serving of plain protein powder has between 90 and 120 calories per serving, a weight gainer may have up to 650 calories per serving. Weight gainers often include added supplements, such as additional amino acids, as well.
Which to Choose?
Weight gainers are often marketed toward "hard gainers" -- people who work out hard with weights but typically don't see measurable changes in muscle size even after six or more weeks. Hard gainers benefit from consuming a serious number of calories post-workout to help restore glycogen, or energy, stores in the muscles and replace calories burned. If your goal is to become leaner and more muscular, a plain protein powder is sufficient. Taking a weight gainer could lead to fat gain because you're consuming far more calories than your body needs. Bodybuilding guru Lee Hayward notes that the average person benefits from added protein in the diet but doesn't need added carbohydrates.