“Hey man, what kind of protein do you use?”
This is one of the most common conversation starters (and enders) you will hear in the gym, often coming from a smaller guy asking a bigger guy, and usually preceded by the infamous “How much you bench, bro?”. There may or may not be a correlation between the two, but every gym bro and his mother knows that in order to get big and strong, you need protein. Protein sources can come in many forms, but the best are whole food animal sources such as red meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish. The problem is that many of us require a lot of protein in order to build muscle, and sometimes eating enough whole food to get your protein can be a challenge. Sometimes you’re busy and don’t have time to whip out a steak immediately after the gym, at work, or in class. This is where protein supplementation comes it. When used in conjunction with a proper weight training program, supplementing with protein can help you build muscle and maintain muscle if you are cutting or losing weight.
Please keep in mind that protein supplements are just that, they are supplements. They are meant to supplement your diet and supplement your training program. Don’t expect to drink a protein shake, having never touched a barbell in your life, and you’re going to automatically look like Arnold. Also don’t expect to get looking jacked if all you do is run on the treadmill, and drink a shake after. In order to build rock solid muscle and mind blowing strength, you need good, old fashioned, hard core, resistance training. Most of the protein in your diet should come from whole food sources, but supplementing with protein can be very beneficial when done correctly.
Amino Acids: The Building Blocks
Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids, which are organic compounds containing a bunch of sciency terms such as amines and carboxylic acid functional groups. Each amino acid has a side chain made up of a specific sequence of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen. There are many amino acids, but there are 20 specific amino acids that we are concerned with in nutrition. These 20 amino acids are necessary for building muscle tissue and can be categorized at either essential or nonessential amino acids.
There are nine essential amino acids and they are called essential because they can not be synthesized by the body, so we must get them from outside sources, such as food or supplementation. Of these 9 essential amino acids there are three that are especially important for muscle building. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are categorized as branch chained amino acids, or BCAAs, due to their specific branch like structure.
Nonessential amino acids can be produced by the body even if we don’t take them in from outside sources. Some of theses nonessential amino acids are conditionally essential, meaning they become essential in times of stress and illness.
Protein supplements are made up of these amino acids and many have added BCAAs due to their muscle building properties.
Protein is one of the three main macronutrient sources that provide energy for the body. Each macronutrient serves different functions in the body and therefore they are all equally important. However, when it comes to supplementation, protein is arguably most important supplement you can buy. This is because your muscles themselves are made up of protein and having enough protein in your diet is necessary for muscle growth. In addition to helping build muscle, protein is also important for:
- Maintaining muscle tissue when in a caloric deficit
- Regulating proper hormone levels
- Balancing PH levels
- Immune system support
- An energy source if no carbohydrates or fat are present
Types of Protein Supplements
Most protein supplements come in powdered form, ready to drink shakes, or protein bars. While they all have the basic goal of building or sparing muscle, there are some that can be digested faster than others, and there are times when certain types of protein would be most beneficial. When selecting a protein supplement that is right for you it is important to take into account the protein source and other ingredients, what your goals are, and when it is appropriate to take it. Price can also be a contributing factor as the cost of protein powder can vary significantly based on quality, brand, and where you buy it. Keeping that in mind, here are the main types of protein powders:
Whey Protein is the most common form of protein supplement on the market. It is known as a fast acting protein, meaning it is digested and absorbed by the body relatively quickly. Whey protein contains all essential amino acids and has a high bio-availability, meaning your body will use most of the protein you ingest. Whey comes from milk and is isolated from the byproduct of cheese production. It can come in three forms, concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysates.
- Concentrates have a low, but significant, amount of fat and cholesterol, along with higher bioactive compounds and carbohydrates, in the form of lactose.
- Isolates are filtered to remove most fat and lactose, but are also lower in bioactive compounds.
- Hydrolysates are proteins that have been essentially predigested and partially hydrolyzed, breaking apart their amino acids, allowing them to be digested easier. This may be a good source for people with lactose allergies, but also have a higher cost.
The best times to take whey protein are first thing in the morning or right after your work out. These are times when you need to get protein in your body as fast as possible to prevent catabolism, or muscle breakdown. Most whey protein powders contain primarily concentrates, with some isolates, due to the higher cost of isolates. Hydrolysates are the most expensive, but if you have a lactose allergy, it may be worth it. If you are going to buy a whey protein, I recommend Dymatize Elite 100% Whey Protein. From what I have found, it is the best quality, for the best price, and it is what I have personally used for years.
Casein Protein is the other source of protein found in milk. It is similar to whey in that it contains all essential amino acids and also has a high bio-availability. The main difference between whey and casein is the rate of absorption. Casein is digested significantly slower than whey, which makes it a perfect source of protein to use before bed. It can also be used during the day in between meals or if you are going a long time period without eating. It can also be useful to use when dieting because it makes you feel more full. It is a little more expensive than whey and one I’ve used in the past is Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Casein. It tastes amazing, especially with milk.
Beef Protein. It is well known that beef is an excellent source of protein, amino acids, and creatine, and the idea of beef protein powder is to give you all the benefits of steak, in the convenience of a powder. The main ingredient is labeled as beef protein isolate, which sounds like it is simply beef isolated into powdered form. In fact, it is actually made from cow hooves, joints, and ligaments, basically the throwaway parts of the cow. It is then fortified with added BCAAs and creatine to produce the effects of actual beef. This may be a turn off to some people, but there is no evidence that it could cause any health risks. This may be a good option for someone allergic to dairy or other forms of protein. It is a fast acting protein, so it would be good to use it first thing in the morning or right after a workout. I currently use Muscle Meds Carnivor but I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend it. It doesn’t taste that great and unless you have an allergy, just stick with whey.
Egg White Protein is a high quality protein that contains all nine essential amino acids and has a good overall bio-availability and amino acid profile. This is probably one of the “cleanest” forms of protein you can get because it does not contain a lot (if any) added fillers or flavoring that other proteins do. This would be great for someone with a dairy allergy, or someone who wants a more natural source of protein. It is considered a medium acting protein and can be taken any time during the day. I use Now Sports Eggwhite Protein. I would recommend it as long as you can mix it with juice or a smoothie or something.
Protein Blend. There are many protein powders out there that contain multiple sources of protein. This makes the protein very versatile as you are getting the best of both worlds. These kinds of protein can be taken any time of the day, pre-and post workout, and before bed. They will have fast acting protein and slow acting, so you will have protein “feeding” your muscle for hours. A great product that I highly recommend is MusclePharm Combat Powder. It contains whey protein hydrolysate, isolate, concentrate, egg protein, and casein. All of these sources of protein are high quality and have a high bio-availability. Another protein blend I have used in the past and really like is MHP Paleo Protein. This is a beef and egg white protein blend and is paleo safe.
Plant Based Protein. If you are vegetarian or vegan, the above protein powders may be out of the question. In this case, plant based proteins are the way to go. There are many forms but the most common are brown rice protein, soy protein, hemp protein, pea protein and vegetable protein. These are not complete proteins, meaning they do not contain all essential amino acids, so you would need to combine them with other foods that contain the needed amino acids. I have not used any of these because I’m not a hippie, so I can not recommend a specific product or contest to the taste. I would not recommend soy protein for men due to the estrogenic effects it could potentially cause.
Where to Buy
Where you buy protein largely depends on how much you want to spend and how high of quality you want. You can go to walmart and buy protein for very cheap, but it is not going to be your best option in terms of quality. You can go to your local GNC and buy high quality protein but the prices there are outrageous. If you’re reading this you obviously have access to the internet, so that is going to be your best bet. You can find virtually any type of protein online and the prices are going to be much better than your local supplement shop. The best place to buy supplements online is bodybuilding.com. Feel free to click the link below to redirect you directly to the protein page where you will find hundreds of products.
No matter what type of protein powder you decide to use, remember to always prioritized real food. Supplements should just help you get enough protein to make the gains you want. Protein is essential to building muscle and gaining strength. It can also help retain muscle while losing weight and help improve body composition. Supplementing your diet with high quality protein can help you reach your goals faster and produce better results. It is important to always maintain a proper resistance training program while using protein supplements or you won’t get any of these benefits. I have given a few recommendations for specific products that I have used it the past, but if you have any questions, or if you have a protein you really like, please comment below.