Is a Protein Shake Necessary After Strength Training?

Is a Protein Shake Necessary After Strength Training?

Banana Protein Shake

My banana hemp protein shake

Will you still build muscle if you don’t drink a protein shake after lifting weights?

When I told a nutritionist that I down a protein shake religiously after each strength training session, she looked at me funny.  She’d never even heard of the concept and thought it was bogus.  Yet, it is widely acknowledged in fitness circles and from highly regarded trainers as vital to consume the right protein-carb balance within a brief time window following a muscle-building workout.  What is this disconnect between nutritionists and trainers?  Who’s word should we take?

First, what ratio exactly do trainers recommend?

Mainstream Trainer and Bodybuilder: In The Female Body Breakthrough, Rachel Cosgrove promotes a 1:4 ratio of protein to carbs (e.g. 15-20 grams whey protein blended with 60-80 grams carbs primarily from fruit) within 30 minutes of your workout.  She stresses that this is crucial for body recovery and protein synthesis.

Raw Foodist Pro-Athlete: Brendan Brazier, in Thrive, says to eat simple carbohydrates following your workout, and he recommends that the ratio of protein to carbs be no higher than 1:4.  He also stresses that ease of digestion is an important factor.  He recommends drinking  a whole food smoothie as a meal replacement about an hour after your workout.

Now, I know that the whey protein powder (or soy protein powder for that matter) that Cosgrove recommends will not be easy on digestion.  Brazier recommends hemp protein as the most easily digestible, highest quality complete protein, stating that since it is higher quality you actually need less of it.

(Update 06.16.13: After meeting Brendan Brazier (yay!) and getting to ask him some of these questions at the Health, Healing, and Happiness Conference, I wanted to add some extra info for y’all.  First of all, his Vega products are based on a trio of proteins that he developed for himself because he feels its ideal.  This blend of pea, hemp, and brown rice proteins delivers the complete amino acid profile while remaining very high in quality.   He also says its important to counter the acid build-up that you get from exercise by adding alkalizing greens into your protein shake.  For example, you could include some chlorella (algae powder) or kale when you blend your shake.)

But, as pure as hemp protein is, it is still a fractionated food – it has been altered from its original state by removing the fat.  Let’s take a look at the argument against using a specific protein source rather than the ratio naturally found in whole fruits.

80-10-10 Creator and Pro-Athlete Coach: Dr. Doug Graham advocates against consuming fractionated foods where parts have been removed, such as in protein powder.  He says that bananas are the perfect recovery food after an intense workout, and he encourages people to eat as much as 10-15.

Now, let’s get back to the point – what practical decision should you make in your real life?  If you want to build muscle, should you be drinking a protein shake after your workout?

I’ve been flipping back and forth on this one myself.

Digestion.  Soy and whey are going to be hard to digest.  Lots of commercially packaged protein powder have tons of ingredients, so read the label!  I agree with Brazier about hemp protein’s purity – it is raw and comes from only one source, hemp seed.  I think what it comes down to is how you feel after you drink your shake.  We can listen to the experts advice all we want about what is best for our digestion, but until you actually start listening to your own body, you won’t really be able to optimize your own digestion.

Greens as Protein Source.  Knowing that greens have a very high protein ratio (as much as 20% of calories), I’ve experimented with making a green smoothie with about 2 cups of kale as my protein source, and that felt fine with my body.  According to cronometer.com, a smoothie made with 2 bananas, 2 cups of peaches, and 2 cups of kale comes in at about 400 calories, 11 grams of protein (half of these from the kale), and 95 grams of carbs.  (Update 06.16.13: but Brendan says that this does not give you the complete amino acid profile so isn’t optimal during that important window of rebuilding your muscles.)

Practical Advice.  For everyday life and practicality, I’ve loosened up a little bit and gone closer to Brazier’s recommendations.  I find that a quality hemp protein powder digests very well for me so that tends to be what I use.  When I add 2 Tbsp Hemp Pro Fiber to the smoothie above, I get about 17 g protein with a minimal carb increase.  Sometimes I just have greens, sometimes just hemp.  I’m not religious about it anymore, and I’m still making strength gains.

My current routine is to drink a protein shake of hemp protein powder blended with fruit after weight lifting.  After a cardio or yoga session, I’ll just have some fruit or whatever the next meal is.  My ideal for both pre- and post-workout fuel is ripe, spotted bananas; they are great for replenishing your potassium and electrolytes.

(Update 06.16.13: I am currently going closer to Brendan’s recommendations and using Sunwarrior Raw which is a blend of pea, cranberry, and hemp protein after strength training.  I might go back to using Brendan’s product Vega in the future also.  This is anecdotal, so take it with a grain of salt, but I’ve pushed past a weight plateau and increased the weight I’ve been able to lift since I started drinking protein shakes again.)

Yummy Recipe.  I just got back from the gym and made myself a delicious milkshake that is more like a dessert than a recovery source.  Here is the recipe: 2 ripe bananas, 2 frozen bananas (in chunks), 1/2 cup almond milk ( I usually leave this out – you could sub coconut water), a dash of vanilla, and a  pinch each ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.  Blend and drink.  Yum!

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