Protein is often hailed as the holy grail of post-workout nutrition. From fitness enthusiasts to professional athletes, the belief in its ability to enhance muscle recovery and promote gains is deeply ingrained in the fitness world. However, with the vast amount of information available, it can be challenging to separate fact from fiction when it comes to post-workout protein. A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that consuming protein immediately versus one hour after resistance exercise had similar effects on muscle protein synthesis.
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
Cool down from your workout, and pound protein. It’s a routine that most gym lovers have down pat – and when we slip up, we hope that all of our sweat wasn’t in vain.
The Anabolic Window
Why does protein consumption matter? Well, exercise, especially tough workouts, creates microscopic damage within the worked muscles’ cells, which are composed of proteins. The protein you eat supplies the building blocks that make up your muscles. These building blocks, or amino acids, help repair damaged muscle proteins and form new ones, with the ultimate goal of creating stronger, bigger and fitter muscles, explains Oliver Witard, a protein metabolism researcher and senior lecturer at King’s College London.
The post-workout chunk of time when exercisers should consume protein is called the “anabolic window.” The idea is that muscles are more sensitive to protein and therefore more likely to absorb and use protein immediately after exercise than they are later in the day.
“The ‘anabolic window,'” Witard says, “implies that delaying protein intake by one hour or more after exercise will reduce or, worse still, prevent muscle anabolism (growth) during recovery.”
The ideal window is generally believed to be about 30 to 60 minutes post-workout, adds Megan Wroe, a registered dietitian and wellness manager with Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California. “This is when your muscles are most receptive to protein uptake.”
However, Wroe notes, “your muscles are always receptive to protein uptake.” So, making sure to eat in that recovery window isn’t a strict and inflexible rule, she says.
Post-Workout Protein: Separating Fact from Fiction
Do you really need protein right after your workout? Learn what the science says about post-workout nutrition and how to optimize your recovery.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
Simply put, consuming protein is vital to workout recovery and results, with current research showing that for optimal muscle health, people need about double the amount of protein that experts once thought. For example, the current recommended daily allowance of protein, which represents the minimum required for good health, is 0.8 grams of daily protein per kilogram, or 0.22 grams per pound, of body mass. For a 150-pound adult, that works out to 55 grams of protein per day.
However, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the strength and conditioning profession around the world, recommends 1.5 to 2 grams of daily protein per kilogram of body mass per day for physically active adults looking to support strength training for optimal muscle growth. For the same 150-pound adult, that equates to 102 to 136 grams of protein per day.
How Soon Should You Eat Protein After Working Out?
Here’s the thing: Research shows that you don’t have to cram all that protein in immediately after your workout. “High-quality and short-term muscle biopsy studies report similar muscle anabolism after consuming an essential amino acid mix one, two or even three hours post-exercise,” Witard says, citing 2014 research from his team, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.
Another 2017 PeerJ study found that when men drank 22 grams of protein after their workouts, they didn’t build more muscle than those who didn’t drink the protein supplement. But there’s a catch: All of the study’s subjects were already eating roughly 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of their body mass per day.
“Taken together, this research clearly demonstrates that skeletal muscle remains responsive to protein ingestion during time periods outside the limits usually defined by the ‘anabolic window,'” Witard says. “Indeed, it appears that this ‘anabolic window’ extends to 24 hours post-workout or perhaps even longer.”
Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor at Lehman College in New York who has studied protein timing in exercisers, also notes that prioritizing protein consumption within the anabolic window may not be that crucial.
“If there’s any benefit to getting protein within a half hour and 45 minutes of your workout as opposed to a few hours later, and I’m not convinced there is, it would be very narrow,” he says. “As long as you hit daily protein intake, you can build muscle.”
And while there’s no denying that adequate protein is important for rebuilding muscles after exercise, there’s no need to overdo it either, says Stacy Cleveland, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. Your muscles, she explains, can really only absorb about 15 to 30 grams of protein at a time.
“Studies show there is no benefit to consumption higher than 30 grams of protein in one sitting,” Cleveland says. Excess protein consumption that can’t be absorbed and used by the muscles right away will be used later as part of the body’s overall protein turnover process, used as energy or stored as fat.
With all these factors taken into account, that post-workout protein shake may not be necessary. Cleveland says you can meet your protein needs with food and “you do not need any supplements before or after a workout if you are eating balanced meals.” She also recommends having some carbohydrates, such as a banana, and a little bit of protein an hour or two before a workout.
Wroe adds that consuming protein immediately after a workout may be more important for people who work out first thing in the morning when they’re “still in a fasted state.”
Spread Out Your Protein Intake for Greater Muscle Gains
Even if the anabolic window is 24 hours or longer, there’s still good reason to space out your protein intake within that time frame. Over the past decade, research has indicated that consuming multiple protein-containing meals throughout the day is likely even more beneficial than cramming protein right after your workout.
For example, in one study published in The Journal of Physiology, men performed resistance exercises and followed up their workouts by consuming 80 grams of protein over the next 12 hours. They either consumed 10 grams of protein every one-and-a-half hours, 20 grams every three hours or 40 grams of protein every six hours. It turned out that the men who consumed 20 grams of protein every three hours following their workouts had significantly higher rates of muscle protein synthesis.
Schoenfeld’s 2018 research, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, suggests that for optimal muscle growth, people should consume between 0.4 and 0.55 grams of protein per kilogram of their body mass four times per day. For a 180-pound adult, regardless of sex, that works out to eating 33 to 45 grams of protein four times per day.
To determine the right amount of protein, especially if you’re an active adult, talk with your doctor or a dietitian about your personal needs.
What to Eat After a Workout
There are plenty of tasty ways to top up your protein stores after a workout. Shaun Carrillo, lead wellness coach at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Southern California, says that “convenience plays a big role” in what will be the best option for post-workout fuel. He recommends several options, including:
If you have a little more time and are less on-the-go, a small meal can also be a great option. He suggests:
Wroe notes that post-workout snacks containing both protein and some carbohydrates work especially well because they can also replenish the glycogen your muscles used. Glycogen is a form of glucose that your muscles and liver store so that your cells will have energy available when they need it. If you’re looking to lose weight, “you may want to focus less on the carb and just replenish with protein to support weight loss,” she adds.
Wroe also advises trying protein shakes, which can be tasty and easy, but keep an eye on the sugar content. A homemade version she recommends includes half a banana, a half-cup of blueberries and a serving of whey protein and milk. Add a dash of cinnamon for some extra flavor.
Another easy go-to is a hard-boiled egg with some berries or “peanut-butter bananas, where you smear unsweetened nut butter between two lengthy banana halves along with some cinnamon and sandwich them together. This is delish frozen too,” Wroe says.
In addition, these foods can help exercisers hit their protein goals at every meal:
The Bottom Line
Practically speaking, if you eat sufficient protein at every regular meal, you’re going to get in all of the protein you need around your workouts, Schoenfeld says. No extra post-workout shakes required.
Wroe agrees that “unless you’re trying to meet very specific athletic goals, try not to overthink the post-workout refueling. Research shows that daily protein intake is the most important piece, so make sure you’re eating enough protein and it’s spread fairly evenly throughout the day.”
And when it comes to supplementing pre-workout, that’s “really only necessary for serious athletes who are carefully monitoring intake and output,” Wroe says. “Your typical person just working out to stay healthy and get stronger should focus most on the post-workout fuel.”
Concentrating on overall protein intake is often plenty for most people to worry about. To make sure you’re staying on target, Wroe recommends monitoring lean body mass and adjusting your protein intake so you can be sure you’re losing fat rather than muscle if you are trying to shed weight.
Top Plant-Based Proteins
The U.S. News Health team delivers accurate information about health, nutrition and fitness, as well as in-depth medical condition guides. All of our stories rely on multiple, independent sources and experts in the field, such as medical doctors and licensed nutritionists. To learn more about how we keep our content accurate and trustworthy, read our editorial guidelines.
Shaun Carrillo, CSCS
Carrillo is lead wellness coach at Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Southern California.
Stacy Cleveland MS, RD, LD
Cleveland is a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS, CSPS, FNSCA
Schoenfeld is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.
Oliver Witard, PhD, AFHEA
Witard researches protein metabolism and is a senior lecturer in exercise metabolism and nutrition at King’s College London.
Megan Wroe, MS, RD, CNE, CLEC
Wroe is a registered dietitian and wellness manager with Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, California.