You need extra protein when you're working out to gain muscle. But if you're getting tired of grilled chicken and boiled eggs — or you simply don't have time to cook — you might consider taking a protein supplement.
While some protein powders may be a little more effective than others, they all help you gain the muscle you want. Be sure to check with your doctor first, though, before adding a protein supplement to your diet.
Protein Needs for Gaining Muscle
When you're working out, protein from the food you eat is used to repair muscle damage, build new muscle and serve as a source of energy. So yes, you do need to eat more protein when you're working than a person who does not work out at all.
A bodybuilder needs 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, according to sports dietitian Nancy Clark, which means a 180-pound lifter should aim for 126 to 144 grams of protein a day.
Protein is found in a wide variety of foods, from meat to milk to veggies and grains, and most people — even athletes — can get what they need from the food they eat. For perspective, one egg has 6 grams of protein, 3 ounces of chicken 26 grams and 1 cup of yogurt 12 grams.
However, if you're having a difficult time getting what you need, protein powders serve as a convenient and concentrated source of protein.
Milk Protein Powders
When it comes to protein powders, milk protein is the most popular, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. A milk-based protein powder typically contains casein or whey — or a mix of the two — and provides all the essential amino acids you need for muscle building.
When deciding on a milk-based protein powder, whey protein may make a better choice because it digests more quickly when separated from casein — making it more rapidly available to your muscles. Whey also contains high amounts of the branch-chained amino acids your muscles need to grow.
Numerous studies confirm that whey protein does in fact help grow muscle when combined with strength-training exercises, according to a 2016 meta-analysis published in Sports Medicine. This review study, which looked at nine earlier clinical studies, concluded that whey protein — either by itself or mixed with other ingredients — was better at muscle building than other protein supplements.
Soy Protein Powder
While whey protein may be the best choice for muscle building, that doesn't mean you can't make gains with other types of protein powders. Like milk, soy protein provides your body with all the necessary amino acids your muscles need to grow. However, soy contains a lower amount of the branch-chained amino acids.
Soy-based protein powders still help you make gains if you're working out, according to a 2007 study published in Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. This clinical study compared the effects of soy protein versus whey protein on muscle growth in a small group of individuals weight-training three times a week. The researchers found that soy protein was as effective at building muscle as the whey protein.
However, while soy protein does help promote muscle growth, it may not digest as quickly as the whey protein and gains may not occur as quickly, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
While soy, consumed as food, shouldn't pose a health risk, the safety of soy supplements aren't as well-established. Soy supplements might contain higher levels of phytoestrogens — substances that may have estrogen-like activity. Consult your doctor to make sure a soy protein supplement is appropriate for you.
Pea Protein for Muscle Growth
If you're a vegetarian and can't take soy, you might want to consider pea protein for growing your muscles. Like whey, pea protein contains a high amount of the amino acids necessary for building muscle.
And it may be just as good at helping make the gains you want as whey protein, according to a 2015 study published in Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition. This study compared the effects of a pea protein isolate versus whey protein and a placebo on muscle growth in a group of young men engaging in regular strength training. The researchers found that pea protein worked better than a placebo in building muscle and was just as effective as whey protein.
Eggs are a high-quality source of protein, because they contain all the essential amino acids. However, research on the benefits of egg protein powder on building muscle is limited.
When taken before a workout, egg-white protein powder helped a group of women gain muscle mass, according to a 2012 clinical study published in Nutrients.
However, this study — which compared egg white protein powder to a carbohydrate supplement for muscle gain — found there were no marked differences in muscle gains between supplements. More research is needed to determine its benefits.
Timing Your Protein for Muscle Gain
While any of these protein powders makes a good choice for helping you make muscle gains, what may be most important is the timing of your protein supplement. Muscle building is at its peak 30 to 45 minutes after you finish your workout.
To get the gains you want, NASM recommends you get 6 grams of essential amino acids, which translates into about 18 grams of whey protein, plus 35 grams of carbs immediately following your workout. This means you need to mix your protein powder with some carbs to get the most benefit.
Add your protein powder of choice to a cup of milk or blend it with 100 percent fruit juice and a banana to get what you need and gain the most benefits.
Do You Need a Supplement?
Protein powders may serve as a convenient way for you to meet your protein needs. However, most people can get all the protein they need from food alone — in most cases, protein supplements aren't necessary.
Even those with very high protein needs, such as elite athletes, can get what they need eating a balanced diet filled with healthy sources of protein such as yogurt, milk, chicken, eggs, lean red meat, fish, beans and tofu.
- Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook; Nancy Clark
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: Protein Quality, Quantity and Timing
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition: Effect of Protein Source and Resistance Training on Body Composition and Sex Hormones
- Sports Medicine: Effects of Whey Protein Alone or as Part of a Multi-ingredient Formulation on Strength, Fat-Free Mass or Lean Body Mass in Resistance-Trained Individuals: A Meta-Analysis
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Ingestion of Whey Hydrolysate, Casein or Soy Protein Isolate: Effects on Mixed Muscle Protein Synthesis at Rest and Following Resistance Exercise in Young Men
- Nutrients: Effects of Egg White Protein Supplementation on Muscle Strength and Serum Free Amino Acid Concentrations
- Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition: Pea Proteins Oral Supplementation Promotes Muscle Thickness Gains During Resistance Training: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Clinical Trial vs. Whey Protein
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass
- European Food Information Council: What Is the Nutritional Value of Eggs?
- Linus Pauling Institute: Soy Isoflavones
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Protein and the Athlete
- American College of Sports Medicine: Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance