The Expert-Approved Ways to Use Protein When Working Out

Photo: Getty Images/Caiaimage/Sam Edwards
Guzzling protein shakes brings to mind some very specific images of Hulk-like bulking from the mid '90s. Blame those OG ads and their mega-muscly male target demo, but despite knowing how important protein is to muscles, I never learned how to supplement with it myself, and I'm not alone. One study showed that protein supplementation was a ritual that about 30 percent of women engaged in, compared with close to 70 percent of men.  So, IMHO, it's time to uncomplicate the practice of protein supplementation for women. Like right now, thank you very much.

"In the past, protein supplements have really been more targeted towards men,” says sports nutrition expert Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD, even if not intentionally. With the colors on the supplement labels and the ads used to promote them, the messaging has been that: "Hey, this is for men. It helps you get bigger,” she says. But we know that's not actually that true. "For women, protein supplements aren't going to create bulk—we don't have the hormones for that," says nutritionist Lisa Kilgour. Truth be told, it's not going to do much of anything (for anyone) unless you have a strength-training routine to accompany it. "One must lift consistently and follow a really good training program to build muscle," confirms Spano.

In fairness, over the last few years, protein companies have started to wise up to the fact that a good portion of the population kind of looks like the shrug emoji when asked how to use it. As more-and-more women are starting consider the benefits that protein can offer outside of the gym—like increased energy and more radiant skin, to name a few—brands have pivoted to meet the demand. But confusion still abounds on the right kind to take and how it boosts a sweat sesh. Keep scrolling to set the record straight on both of those things.

How to pick the right protein for your needs

No matter what type of workout you're doing, protein supplements are meant to be just that: supplements. Nutritionists agree that they're not 100 percent necessary as long as you're getting the right amount of protein from the rest of your diet (ICYWW that's a third a gram per pound of body weight). "They can be a nice tool when you're first going to the gym, when you're looking at changing your diet, when you're starting to create some balance," says Kilgour. Adding a scoop of powder to your regular routine can keep you feeling full for longer (and keep you from crashing at 3 p.m. on the dot), plus it could even help you see results from your workout.

It's important to pick the right protein—and if you've ever seen the hundreds of options (from both plant and animal sources) in the aisles at GNC, you know it's more easily said than done. "You want a high quality protein supplement—egg is high quality, beef is high quality," says Spano. "If you go for a plant-based protein, go for a mix versus a single protein. So instead of just pea, look for pea and brown rice. That way you’ll get all of the essential amino acids."

If you're exercising regularly (and not, say, training for the CrossFit games), any sort of protein will do—pea, hemp, soy, whey, and collagen are all A-OK options. "If you’re really strength training, you want to find something closer to 24 grams of protein than 12 grams in one serving," says nutritionist Beth Warren. She also notes that it's smart to look for branch-chain amino acids in protein powder, which also help with muscle strength and recovery.

No matter what your goals are, Kilgour recommends integrating two different proteins into your diet—for example, a plant and a whey protein—and switching things up regularly in order to keep your digestive system happy. Also important? Reading the labels. As "clean eating" has increasingly become a staple in the conversation surrounding diet, so too, has the demand for clean protein. People are now looking for streamlined ingredient lists that are better for your body and easier to digest, and brands have risen to the occasion.

"In general, just be as cautions with your protein powder as you would with anything food-based that you're buying, and remember: the simpler the better," says Kilgour. "The best proteins keep the ingredient lists so simple, it's hard to find them." She suggests looking for products that have 3 to 4 components, ensuring that these are from food sources rather than chemicals. To avoid bloating (an annoying potential protein side effect), seek out natural sweeteners like Stevia, cane sugar, or monk fruit instead of artificial ones, and keep an eye out for fiber, like emulsion or chicory root, which can also cause gut unease.

How to use protein to pump up your workout

The fact is, your supplement needs will differ depending on your workout. For example, you'll need more protein if you're lifting weights than you would after a hot yoga class. "Generally, it's the muscle-building exercises that will make your body crave more protein," says Kilgour. "That being said, as long as you're not over-consuming protein and you're not taking it in really heavy doses, the moderate amounts of protein supplements are good for any type of exercise you're doing. Generally, they go along with anything that's building strength and muscle, and if you're feeling really weak, adding a protein supplement can help speed that along for a lot of people."

Celebrity trainer Lacey Stone, who's partnered with Core Power Protein milkshakes, is a big fan of sipping on supplements after a particularly intense muscle-making sesh. "The more burn and the higher intensity workout, the more muscle fiber micro tears, so I would encourage protein supplements for those type of workouts," she says.

As far as when to take a protein supplement goes—whether to do it before, during, or after your workout—the verdict is still out on what the best practice is. "The main sports nutrition experts say to get some protein within an hour of finishing your workout, others say to have some before you go because it's easy to digest and will mean you're not working out on an empty stomach," says Kilgour. "My recommendation is to add it to your day in a way that's easy—either breakfast or a snack, and then experiment with when you take it." She suggests trying it at various different intervals in relation to your workouts and meals to figure out what feels best for your body.

"You can take protein in a smoothie, throw it into a high-protein pancake, you can put a scoop in your oatmeal after a workout," says Warren. "You just want to look at your progress in 2, 3, 4 weeks in to see if it's having the effects on your body and energy levels that you want to see. Oftentimes, you can tell if you're feeling fatigued or not seeing improvements from the overall diet and workout regimen. Then, maybe you should switch up the type you're using or how much." As with everything, when it comes to fitness, individuality reigns supreme, so find what works for you—and from there it's bottoms up.

Ready to get started on your own protein game? Here are our favorite powders, and 5 delicious smoothie recipes worth scooping them into.

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