For anyone striving to maximize muscle growth or achieve their fitness goals, protein timing can be an important aspect to consider. While the most important factor regarding dietary protein is the overall daily total, timing protein intake strategically can also help to further enhance muscle protein synthesis, support muscle recovery, and promote optimal muscle growth.
However, as with almost any nutrition topic, there are some pervasive myths about protein timing that are not backed by the most up-to-date scientific evidence. In this article, we'll explore when and why protein timing can be important, and provide proven insights into how you can make the most of this nutritional strategy to capitalize on the hard work put in during training.
Traditional Protein Timing Strategies
It’s a widespread belief that consuming protein immediately after a workout is essential for building muscle — that’s why it’s so common to see people leaving the gym after a strength training session with a protein shake in hand.
A driver of this universal practice is the theory that a limited time exists after training to consume protein in order to optimize muscular adaptations (or anabolism). The concept, coined as the “anabolic window of opportunity”, has led many gym-goers to assume that if a large amount of protein is not consumed within a certain time period — commonly believed to be as short as 30 minutes — that muscle repair and growth will be compromised.
But is there any scientific merit to this practice? The “anabolic window of opportunity” concept originated with earlier, short-term studies which showed greater increases in muscle protein synthesis (MPS) when protein was consumed immediately post-exercise, compared to delaying ingestion. For instance, a 2001 study giving participants a protein-containing supplement straight after training documented a threefold spike in MPS, whereas those delaying intake by three hours saw a relatively paltry 12 percent rise1.
Studies like this have led many to believe that delaying protein intake after exercise, even by
a matter of minutes, might compromise muscular gains. Some public figures have even gone so far as to claim that the timing of intake is more important to muscle development than the absolute daily amount of protein consumed.
Does This Theory Hold True?
Recent evidence directly challenges this conventional view. To start with, the earlier research that supports the “window of opportunity” theory is mostly based on animal studies, or — as with the example above — long-duration endurance exercise, where muscle adaptations are largely based on efficiency rather than growth. Results from studies assessing strength-training adaptations have been much more mixed.
It’s also important to note that isolated measures of MPS do not necessarily correlate with
long-term exercise-induced muscle growth2 — which is the outcome that really matters.
Is There Better Evidence Now?
There have now been enough long-term controlled trials — in humans — on this subject to allow researchers to conduct meta-analyses (large reviews of the literature). For instance, a meta-analysis was conducted in 2013, combining the results from 23 randomized controlled
studies where one group received protein within one hour post-workout, and the other group
delayed consumption by at least two hours. After controlling for differences in overall daily
protein intake, the researchers found no difference between the groups for strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth)3.
A 2020 meta-analysis assessing 65 randomized, controlled human studies confirmed these findings — showing that while protein supplementation in general helped increase lean body mass, there was no beneficial effect of timing intake around workouts (either directly before or directly after)4.
When Is a Good Time To Consume Protein?
Both of the meta-analyses mentioned above show that while timing protein intake around a workout isn’t critical, the total daily amount consumed is what really makes a difference to muscle gains.
But there is an element of protein timing that can make a difference to your strength and fitness goals: the distribution and frequency of consumption throughout the day5. The American College of Sports Medicine, for instance, highlights how muscle adaptation to training can be maximized by splitting daily protein targets into multiple meals, every three to five hours throughout the day6. Timing protein intake in this way optimally stimulates muscle protein synthesis repeatedly over the course of the day, leading to the greatest increases in strength and muscle mass over time7.
With this in mind, consuming protein soon after a workout could be beneficial if you’re exercising
in a fasted state or haven’t eaten for a while beforehand — because doing so could help bring an eating pattern closer to that ACSM recommended frequency of every three to five hours. A shake can be a quick and convenient way to get protein in at this time, and can be easier to stomach than eating a big meal after a workout. An additional protein shake shortly after training, or at any other time of day, may also be useful for reaching overall optimal daily protein targets.
The Takeaway Message
If you work out in a fasted state, timing your post-workout meal or high quality protein shake like FYTA Elite Plant Protein soon after could help to optimize the frequency and distribution of protein intake over the course of the day.
However, in most circumstances, seeing as your overall daily protein intake is what matters most, you can simply eat your post-workout meal whenever is most convenient for you. That could be right after training, or a little later on. Since studies show that most adults unevenly distribute protein intake by having relatively little at breakfast and lunch but loading up at dinner8, finding ways to top up the protein levels of other meals and snacks throughout the day could be a useful strategy.
- Levenhagen, D. K., Gresham, J. D., Carlson, M. G., Maron, D. J., Borel, M. J., & Flakoll, P. J. (2001). Postexercise nutrient intake timing in humans is critical to recovery of leg glucose and protein homeostasis. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism, 280(6), E982—E993. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.2001.280.6.E982
- Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Parise G, et al. (2014). Acute post-exercise myofibrillar protein synthesis is not correlated with resistance training-induced muscle hypertrophy in young men. PLoS One. 2014;9:e89431. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0089431
- Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A., & Krieger, J. (2013). The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: A meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 53. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
- Wirth, J., Hillesheim, E., & Brennan, L. (2020). The Role of Protein Intake and its Timing on Body Composition and Muscle Function in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. The Journal of nutrition, 150(6), 1443–1460. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxaa049
- Areta, J. L., Burke, L. M., Ross, M. L., Camera, D. M., West, D. W., Broad, E. M., Jeacocke, N. A., Moore, D. R., Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S. M., Hawley, J. A., & Coffey, V. G. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of physiology, 591(9), 2319—2331. https://doi.org/10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897
- Thomas, D. T., Erdman, K. A., & Burke, L. M. (2016). American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 48(3), 543—568. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000852
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,15,10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Jespersen, S. E., & Agergaard, J. (2021). Evenness of dietary protein distribution is associated with higher muscle mass but not muscle strength or protein turnover in healthy adults: a systematic review. European journal of nutrition, 60(6), 3185–3202. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02487-2