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Why Some Protein Powders Are Better Than Others for Building Muscle

October 6, 2022

Anyone who spends much time lifting weights or doing high-intensity interval training can easily attest to one thing: The protein cravings come on strong afterward. This is a simple and straightforward message from our bodies. That’s because, in order for us to build muscle, we need to consume protein, which is the main component of what muscles are made of.

If you’ve ever spent time in the protein powder aisle of a grocery or drug store, you know that the choices are nearly limitless. Some selections are single protein sources, while some are made from several different types, and others claim to replace entire meals. Add to that the fact that some are plant-based and others are animal-based, and the average person may find themselves pretty overwhelmed.

Is one protein better than another for building muscle? And if there is an ideal one, how should we be consuming it to get the most out of it? We’ve got the answers you need, to best sculpt the muscles you want.

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It’s all about amino acids

There’s no question that some protein powders are definitely more capable than others of helping our muscles grow. As for what makes that difference, it’s less about the specific protein than it is about its components.

“When it comes to building muscle, what you want to look for is that your protein powder contains branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs),” says Stephanie Hnatiuk RD, CDE, PTS, owner of Stephanie Hnatiuk Performance Nutrition. “This is because BCAAs (leucine, in particular) are the main amino acids that make up our muscle tissue. Therefore they play a more prominent role in muscle recovery post-workout and muscle growth than other amino acids.”

One might assume that all types of protein contain the full spectrum of BCAAs, but that actually isn’t the case. Hnatiuk explains that some protein powders are complete, meaning they do contain all vital amino acids, while others are incomplete, meaning that they don’t.

“Any ‘complete protein’ (which is a protein that contains all nine essential amino acids) will contain all BCAAs to some degree. However non-complete proteins (ones that do not contain all nine essential amino acids) may not,” she says.

Single protein powders versus mixes and meals

Due to the need for assorted amino acids to help build muscles, it’s common to find protein powder blends that are derived from numerous protein sources. Whether you opt for a protein powder from one source or many, that it’s complete is key.

“For anyone looking to build muscle, I would avoid protein powders that do not provide a complete protein source. If you’re going to invest in a protein powder, it’s important to make sure it contains all the essential amino acids,” says Hnatiuk.

Single protein powder sources that don’t contain the full spectrum of BCAAs include animal proteins such as collagen peptides, and most plant-based sources, including pea, rice, and hemp. Despite the fact that plant proteins naturally contain fewer types of amino acids, it is possible to find blends of them designed for muscle building.

“If you’re looking for a plant-based protein powder, look for one that contains a variety of different plant proteins and has BCAAs to ensure you’re getting everything you need,” she says.

As for protein powder mixes that claim to be able to replace a meal, that’s less about the protein sources used than the other ingredients added to it. Generally, those options contain additional nutrients, such as carbohydrates and salt, that make it so that you don’t have to add anything but water or milk in order to have a full-calorie meal out of your protein shake.

Related: 10 Easy Ways to Add More Protein to Your Diet

woman holding protein shake after a workout

Courtesy of Derick McKinney on Unsplash

How and when to drink your protein

Whether a single powder or a meal replacer, you want to have protein pretty soon after your workout to help facilitate muscle repair.

“Generally, the recommendation is to consume it within 60 minutes of your workout,” says Ellen Albertson, PhD, RDN, NBC-HWC, author of Rock Your Midlife. She thinks that protein shouldn’t be the only macronutrient you consume after your workout. “I’d also recommend having some carbohydrates to refuel your muscles,” making the case for protein powders that come enhanced with carbs.

Hnatiuk agrees, noting that even though our individual goals for fitness may vary, some basic points hold true for all. “For post-workout recovery, we want to pair up protein powder with a source of carbohydrates, because this provides not only the protein, but also the energy we need to repair damaged muscle tissue,” she says.

It might seem instinctive to pair protein and carbs with fat, since we need all three macronutrients in general, in life. For post-workout situations, though, that’s actually not the case.

“For faster digestion and absorption, we want to keep the fat content lower in our post-workout meal,” says Hantiuk. This is because fat slows our digestion down, and the goal is to get this nutrition to our muscles as quickly as possible after our workouts.

Whey and casein are the gold standard choices–here’s why

When searching for the right protein powder for you, if you eat a plant-based diet you’ll want to choose a protein powder blend that specifically states on the label it contains BCAAs and is a complete protein source with all nine essential amino acids.

If you eat animal products, though, your easiest and most cost-effective choice is dairy-based. Whey and casein are the two types of protein that milk is made of. “Both are well researched, contain a high level of protein concentration, and are considered to be best for muscle protein synthesis. They are also inexpensive and easy to use and available in lots of different forms like shakes, powders, and bars,” says Albertson.

Whey is the best choice for immediate after-workouts due to how quickly it’s digested. “Whey protein is the highest in leucine content, which is why it’s often the ‘go-to’ type of protein used in many brands of protein powder,” says Hnatiuk. She notes that enhanced protein powder mixes are created with how whey is naturally formulated in mind. “For protein sources that aren’t naturally high in BCAAs (say, rice protein for example), some brands will add in these BCAAs to match what you mind find in a whey protein powder.”

If you have an additional protein shake outside of your post-recovery window, casein is ideal.

“Whey digests more quickly than casein so it’s ideal for post-workout recovery, while casein takes a little longer to digest so it can promote longer fullness and satiety (which is why bodybuilders will often use casein in a shake before going to bed at night),” explains Hnatiuk.

How to choose a whey protein powder

With whey protein being the most beneficial protein for muscle building, we are fortunate that it’s also quite affordable — especially when compared to some protein powder blends. One thing to look for is whey that comes from cows that are grass-fed. That’s because products from grass-fed cows are less inflammatory than ones from grain-fed cows. In fact, grass-fed meat and dairy even contain anti-inflammatory omegas, such as CLA (conjugated linoleic acid).

Another key point is that you’ll want a whey protein that isn’t sugar-sweetened. Even though we need carbs after our workouts, there are much healthier sources to obtain them from, and sugar offers no particular benefits.

When you look up whey proteins, you’ll notice that some are called “isolate,” while others state that they’re “concentrate.” Both are viable choices. The main difference between them is that whey isolate is more processed, and specifically, is processed so that it contains more protein. It averages about 24 grams per serving to whey concentrates eighteen grams. Isolate also has lactose removed, which makes it the appropriate choice for anyone who is lactose intolerant. Lastly, concentrate has a couple of grams of fat and carbs, whereas isolate does not.

The bottom line

No matter what protein powder you choose, or how you choose to consume it, the importance of getting enough to aid in your body’s ability to recover from your workouts can’t be overstated. There’s no building muscle without ingesting sufficient protein, and protein powders offer a convenient and easy way to supplement this need. Provided you eat animal products, unsweetened, grass-fed whey protein is your best choice for this job.

Read next: 25 Protein-Packed Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

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