Consumption of sufficient dietary protein along with a resistance exercise program has been shown to increase muscle mass. The average person requires about 0.8 g protein/kg body weight. However, many athletes have a much higher requirement for protein from 1.2-1.7 g protein/kg body weight. I always believe that consuming nutrients through food is much more beneficial than relying on supplements. However, many athletes find it difficult to consume this high amount of protein that their body requires strictly through food sources. Thus, many athletes resort to protein supplements and powders as an extra addition of protein. Specifically, whey protein is extremely popular amongst athletes and active individuals. In fact, a 2001 study reported that 50% of college freshmen football players believed that protein supplementation was necessary to increase muscle growth (12). Although, the specific sources and types of dietary protein that are most beneficial to the body has been a hot topic for debate. Therefore, I chose to delve into some of the research on whey protein and come to a conclusion based on science.
What is Whey Protein?
Whey protein in particular has been a preferred source of protein, over other sources such as casein and soy, because it is fast acting, quickly digested, and has a high branched chain amino acid content (BCAA) (1). The BCAA’s (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are used as fuel for muscles during exercise, stimulate protein synthesis, and improve muscle recovery time. In recent years, whey protein has been a popular ergogenic aid in those attempting to increase muscle mass. Contributing to 77% of domestic powdered protein sales in 2004, whey has been a popular source of protein because of its BCAA composition, it’s ability to synthesize protein and increase muscle mass, it is easily available on the market, and has a desirable taste. The market price of whey protein varies greatly depending on the manufacturer and the purity of the whey protein and can run anywhere from $10-$30 per pound. Whey is produced during the process of cheese making throughout the separation of the curds and the whey. The curds contain the component casein and the translucent liquid byproduct contains the whey protein. Once consumed, whey protein reaches the small intestine very quickly and rapidly, but once in the small intestine, hydrolysis requires a longer amount of time compared to casein, thus allowing for a greater absorption rate (3).
Forms of Whey Protein
1. Whey protein isolate: This is the “purest” form of whey protein. It contains the most amount of protein per serving (90%+ protein by weight), has the highest bioavailability compared to other forms of whey, and has very little carbs and lactose. The downside to isolate is it is usually pretty expensive.
2. Whey protein concentrate: Concentrate is not as pure as isolate, containing 29%–89% protein by weight. The downside is that concentrate has more calories from fat and has a slightly higher amount of carbs and lactose. However, whey protein concentrate tends to be decently priced.
3. Whey protein hydrolysate: This is predigested and partially hydrolyzed to aid in easier digestion and metabolism. The hydrosylate form also produces less of an allergic reaction, which is beneficial to people with lactose intolerances. However, it is usually more costly.
Does Whey Protein Increase Muscle Mass as a Supplement to Resistance Exercise?
Protein supplementation from whey has been shown to increase muscle mass more efficiently than other protein sources. In a study by Kerksick et al., 36 males participated in resistance training 4 days/week over a ten week period. The participants were randomly assigned into one of three supplement groups in a double-blind study; a carbohydrate placebo (48 g/d), whey protein (40 g/d) plus casein (8 g/d), or whey protein (40 g/d) plus BCAA’s (3 g/d) and L-glutamine (5 g/d). Results showed that after 10 weeks, the group that received whey protein plus casein had greater significant increases in 1 repetition maximum leg press, bench press, lean mass, and fat free mass than the placebo group (4). In another study by Andersen et al., twenty-two healthy males were given either a protein supplement drink or a carbohydrate drink immediately before and immediately after each resistance training session as well as one drink on non-training days. The protein drink contained 25 g of protein (16.6 g whey, 2.8 g casein, 2.8 g egg white protein, and 2.8 g of L-glutamine). Resistance training was performed three times per week for fourteen weeks and included 3 to 4 sets of inclined leg press, isolated knee extension, and hamstring curls for 4 to 15 repetitions maximum. The results showed that Type I and Type II muscle fibers in the trained leg muscles had an 18% ± 5% (P < .01) and 26% ± 5% (P < .01) increase respectively, whereas the carbohydrate group showed no significant increases in muscle fibers (5).
Another study observed the effects of whey protein in short term exercise. Eighteen men were given either a whey (21.4 g), casein (21.9 g), or soy protein (22.2 g) sports drink (all ~100 kcal) after performing four intense unilateral leg exercises. Consumption of the whey protein drink produced greater muscle protein synthesis both at rest and after exercises compared to casein and soy (6). Animal studies have shown the beneficial effects of whey as well. In rats, when whey protein was ingested along with resistance exercise, its effects promoted higher body weight and muscle weight gain than in rats who exercised alone (7). Even in older aged men (over 70 years), whey protein stimulated muscle protein accretion more effectively than casein and casein hydrolysate (8).
The timing of whey protein consumption, either pre or post exercise, can have different effects on muscle mass and body composition. In one study, eight subjects were given either a whey protein or carbohydrate supplement twenty minutes before resistance exercise. Results showed that 24 hours post exercise, participants who consumed whey protein had significantly greater increases in resting energy expenditure than those who consumed a carbohydrate supplement (9). In another study, 23 males consumed a supplement containing 40 g of whey isolate during a ten week resistance exercise program. One group consumed the supplement both immediately before and after resistance exercise and the other group consumed the supplement both before breakfast and before sleep. Results showed that the group who consumed the whey protein immediately before and after exercise had significantly greater increases in lean body mass, greater decreases in body fat, and greater increases in 1 RM strength (10). These results are consistent with another study in which milk protein ingested within five minutes post-exercise showed greater muscle hypertrophy than those consuming it two hours post-exercise (11). Furthermore, from the results of various studies whey protein should be ingested as close to a bout of exercise as possible in order to reap the most beneficial effects on the muscle.
In conclusion, there is ample evidence to support the popularity for the ingestion of the ergogenic aid, whey protein. Supplementation of whey protein has shown to promote greater muscle hypertrophy and increase muscle mass during a resistance training program. Also, the timing of ingestion of whey protein, either before or after, should be as close to a bout of exercise as possible to produce the best effects.
Whey Protein Shake Ideas
Consuming whey protein doesn’t have to be bland and tasteless. There are hundreds of recipes and ideas to incorporate whey protein into shakes, drinks, and smoothies. Here are a few recipes I found that sounded really tasty! You can find more recipes at www.bodybuilding.com.
Wild Berry Boost Shake
16 oz nonfat milk
1/2 cup ice cubes
Peanut Butter And Banana Shake
100g almond flakes
1 tbsp peanut butter
500ml skim milk
1 scoop Vanilla Whey Protein
4 large ripe strawberries
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup plain yogurt
3-4 ice cubes
How Safe Is Whey Protein?
The U.S. FDA does not regulate herbs and supplements, and thus there are no safety “guarantees”. However, if taken properly and in the right dosages, whey protein is considered safe for the general population. Prolonged and excessive whey protein use can cause kidney damage. Whey protein tends to lower blood glucose levels and individuals who are diabetic should take caution. It can also lower blood pressure and increase the risk of excessive bleeding (13). Some other common complaints are gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, and cramps.
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2. Hulmi JJ, Lockwood CM, Stout JR. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism. 2010;7:51-61. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=52859182&site=ehost-live. doi: 10.1186/1743-7075-7-51.
3. Whey Protein. Alternative Medicine Review. 2008;13(4):341-347. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx direct=true&db=a9h&AN=36459242&site=ehost-live.
4. Kerksick CM, Rasmussen CJ, Lancaster SL, et al. The Effects of Protein and Amino Acid Supplementation on Performance and Training Adaptations during Ten Weeks of Resistance Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (Allen Press Publishing Services Inc ). 2006;20(3):643-653. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=22681341&site=ehost-live.
5. Andersen LL, Tufekovic G, Zebis MK, Crameri RM, Verlaan G, Kjaer M, Suetta C, Magnusson P, Aagaard P. The effect of resistance training combined with timed ingestion of protein on muscle fiber size and muscle strength. Metabolism. 2005; 54(2):151-6.
6. Tang JE, Moore DR, Kujbida GW, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(3):987-992. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=s3h&AN=44180926&site=ehost-live.
7. Haraguchi FK, Silva ME, Neves LX, dos Santos RC, Pedrosa ML. Whey protein precludes lipid and protein oxidation and improves body weight gain in resistance-exercised rats. Eur J Nutr. 2011; 50(5):331-9.
8. Pennings B, Boirie Y, Senden J, Mg, Gijsen A, P., Kuipers H, Jc. Whey protein stimulates postprandial muscle protein accretion more effectively than do casein and casein hydrolysate in older men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;93(5):997-1005. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=c8h&AN=2011049478&site=ehost-live.
9. Hackney KJ, Bruenger AJ, Lemmer JT. Timing protein intake increases energy expenditure 24 h after resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010;42(5):998-1003. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181c12976.
11. Esmarck B, Andersen JL, Olsen S, Richter EA, Mizuno M, Kjaer M. Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans. J Physiology. 2001; 15;535(Pt 1):301-11.
12. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals 4th ed. 2006, Marie Dunford.