If you’re dedicated to making gains and are truly serious about taking your physique to the next level, you’ll want to make a few changes. Building lean muscle mass takes months, years even, and is one of the most frustrating processes you’ll ever endure. There will be times when you question why you’re bothering putting your body through such intense training when you barely make any gains at all. There will also be times when you find yourself getting bigger and leaner by the week, where every training session seems to be better than the last.
Bodybuilding is very much a sport of ups and downs, and to be honest, it’s more accurate to refer to it as a lifestyle, rather than a sport. No matter what your goals may be, if it’s muscle growth you’re looking for, you’ll need to increase your protein intake. This is where supplementation proves to be so useful. The problem is knowing which products and supplements are right for you. To make life a little easier, here is a handy guide in which we will aim to tell you everything you need to know about protein and the various protein supplements currently on the market.
Table of Contents
Why is protein so important?
Talk to any bodybuilder about their diet, and 99.9% of the time they’ll begin by breaking down the different forms of protein that they’re currently consuming on a daily basis. Protein for a bodybuilder is both a best friend, and a worst enemy. It’s their friend because it plays such a vital role in muscle growth and recovery, but it’s their enemy because they have to consume so much of the stuff that they often get sick and tired of it and have to choke it down.
But why do big and jacked dudes need to be consuming so much protein? Well, protein is one of three macronutrients, the others being fats and carbohydrates, that is vital for the growth and repair of muscle tissue within our bodies. Protein is also critical for cellular health and function. We’re basically giant clusters of billions of cells, so the importance of protein supplementation really does become apparent when you put it like that.
Now, get ready, because we’re about to get all scientific on you. From a molecular standpoint, protein is basically comprised of a series of amino acids which are linked together in the form of a chain. Each link that holds the amino acids together and in place is known as a peptide link. In the human body, amino acids are the primary sources of Nitrogen.
If you’ve ever heard a bodybuilder talking about the importance of Nitrogen, you may be aware of the fact that maintaining a positive Nitrogen balance in the body is crucial for the growth and regeneration of muscle tissue. As well as playing a vital role in the growth of muscle mass, protein also provides other health benefits to us. These benefits include, but are not limited to:
- Provides an alternative source of energy when carbs are not available
- Helps keep PH levels balanced within the blood
- Helps maintain and balance optimal hormone levels
- Plays an essential role in endless physiological processes
- Promotes a healthy immune system
- Strengthens major organs
- Preserves muscle tissue when in a caloric deficit
- Assists with the active uptake of nutrients and minerals
As you can see, protein is a very useful macronutrient. This is why it’s so important to ensure that we are getting enough, whether we’re looking to bulk up, maintain, lose fat, or simply lead a healthy life regardless of how much muscle mass we may be carrying.
Protein for muscle growth
One of the biggest misconceptions in the word of bodybuilding, is that muscle is built in the gym. People often think that lifting weights in the gym causes your muscles to grow. It doesn’t at all. When you lift weights and exercise, what you are actually doing is creating tiny rips and tears in your muscle tissues, which in turn causes the muscle to become broken down and damaged.
After intense training sessions, you’ll probably have noticed how sore and painful your muscles feel. In fact, you haven’t experienced true pain until you try to walk upstairs the day after training your legs. This pain is because you have literally damaged your muscles.
Now, it might sound counterproductive to destroy your muscles when trying to build them up, but don’t worry, there is method to this madness. You see, muscle isn’t built in the gym. Muscle is built in bed, when you rest and recover. After creating tiny rips and tears in your muscles, your body repairs them like it would repair any other injury or wound. However, in order for it to do so, it needs access to the right materials for carrying out the repair, which are the proteins and amino acids found in said proteins.
When we rest, our bodies carry out the repairs and rebuild the muscle tissue bigger and stronger, with the intention of protecting them from any further damage. This is why we become bigger and stronger, and it is why we need to continually push ourselves harder and harder when we train. When our bodies rebuild and repair muscle tissue, they do so via a process known as protein synthesis. Protein synthesis can only be obtained when a positive nitrogen balance is present. In order to maintain a positive nitrogen balance, we need to be taking in plenty of protein. The bigger you are, the more protein you need. Protein therefore, helps ensure that your body remains in a constant state of repair, creating the perfect anabolic environment.
Whole food sources of protein
Yes, we know that this article is looking at protein supplements, and don’t worry, we’ll be getting to those in just a few moments. Before we go any further however, we need to emphasize something. You see, newbie bodybuilders who are just starting out at the gym, will often find themselves relying on protein supplements, rather than whole foods. Rather than spending a week’s wages on a healthy grocery shop, they will instead spend far too much money on a fancy-looking tub of protein powder because they saw some personal trainer on Instagram offering them a 10% off code.
With whatever change they have left they’ll buy some cheap and basic food and will instead get their protein primarily from the powder they purchased. There is NO substitute for whole foods. If it’s a choice between healthy food or a tub of protein, healthy food should win every time. If, however, you combine a healthy diet with protein supplements and a smart training regime, you will make all kinds of impressive gains, your strength will increase, your endurance will increase, and you’ll reap all of the rewards. Getting plenty of protein from healthy whole food sources is vital.
To help you choose your weekly groceries wisely, here’s a look at some of the best whole food sources of protein:
- Grass-fed beef
- Nut butters
- Brown rice
- Red meat
The importance of protein supplements
Currently, the supplement industry is thriving. More and more people are now using health and fitness supplements to improve their physiques, and their athletic performance, which is why supplement sales have shot through the roof. Each year, the supplement industry generates billions upon billions in profit, and sales only look set to continue to rise.
There are countless supplements out there designed to address all manner of various ailments, health issues, and athletic requirements. Some are used to promote health in general, others for fat loss, others for energy, others for libido, and plenty more besides. In the world of bodybuilding however, supplements are synonymous with muscle growth, which is why the two often go hand in hand with one another.
Whey protein is the world’s most popular supplement, and it has been for many decades now. The demand for protein supplements has never been greater, but why is that? Well, primarily the main reason is because of the fact that supplements do work when used correctly. Protein supplements are designed to replace food, they are designed to be used alongside a healthy diet. Some of the key benefits of protein supplements include the following:
- Rapid absorption rates
- Easy to consume
- Great taste
- High quality protein source
- Enriched with vitamins, minerals, and amino acids
- Controlled absorption rates in some blends I.E casein
- Promotes muscle growth
- Speeds up recovery
- Increases muscle strength and power
- Plenty of variety
- Very versatile
- Increases energy levels
- Maintains a positive nitrogen balance
- Regulates blood glucose levels
- Regulates hormone levels
- And much more…
Popular protein supplement options
Now that we’ve looked at why protein is so important and why protein supplements can be so beneficial, we need to now help you get to grips with the many, many, many options that are currently out there for you to choose from. This is where many bodybuilders slip up, because in all honesty there’s so much variety that they don’t know where to begin and they simply go with the first half-decent looking powder they can find.
Do you know your isolates from your concentrates? How about your hydrolysed blends from your weight gainers? If not, don’t worry because by the time you’ve finished reading this you will know everything there is to know. Here are some of the different protein supplement options currently available for purchase:
– Whey protein concentrate
We’ll begin with the most popular supplement in the world. Yes, it’s whey protein concentrate. Whey protein concentrate is a derivative of cow’s milk. Once the milk has been obtained, enzymes are added to cause it to separate and turn to cheese. When it separates, it splits into solids and liquids. The solids are known as curds, whereas the liquid is known as the whey. It is the whey that we’re looking for here. This liquid is then taken and is gently pasteurized, before being filtered and processed. It eventually becomes a powder and is often enriched with sweeteners and flavourings, as well as any additional ingredients such as amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and even creatine in some blends. It is then packaged up and is shipped to supplement stores worldwide.
Whey protein concentrate is popular because it is affordable, and if you go with a good blend, it more than does what it is supposed to do. The reason why it’s cheaper than isolate (more on that next) is because of the fact that per serving, it provides around 80% protein, as opposed to isolate which is much higher. The remaining 20% comes in the form of fats and carbohydrates. A good quality whey concentrate should be at least 80% pure protein per serving, though some provide 85% or even a little more.
Just be wary of cheaper brands, however, as cheaper blends use less protein and bulk out their products with filler ingredients to make their protein stretch further. Some inferior brands have been found to be as low as 30% protein per serving, which is an absolute disgrace. We’ll talk to you about what to look for in a protein supplement a little later on, but just be wary that if a whey protein does look to be so cheap it looks too good to be true, it probably sucks.
– Whey protein isolate
Next up we have whey isolate. For many dedicated bodybuilders, whey protein isolate is considered to be the cream of the crop. Whey isolate is obtained in much the same way as whey concentrate. Whey isolate is considered to be much better quality because of the fact that it provides more protein per serving. Whereas whey concentrate provides around 80% protein per serving, whey isolate will provide anything from 95 – 99% pure protein per serving. This in turn will help to keep calories lower and ensures that you get more protein for your money.
The reason why whey isolate provides more protein is because of the fact that it undergoes additional filtration and processing, to remove more of the impurities. The impurities we’re referring to by the way, are carbohydrates and fats. For a bodybuilder that is cutting weight and prepping for a contest, every single calorie matters so the more protein he can get per serving, all while keeping calories as low as possible, the better. Whey isolate, like concentrate, comes in a whole variety of different flavours and blends. Again, it’s worth going with a trusted and reputable brand when buying a whey isolate, as this will ensure that you get more bang for your buck, as it were.
– Casein protein
Casein protein is another very popular protein that is also derived from cow’s milk. However, other than being rich in protein and coming from the same source, this is where the similarities with whey protein end. You see, casein accounts for just over 80% of all proteins found in milk. Per serving, you will get, on average, around 92% pure protein.
But why would people buy casein protein instead of whey? After all, they both come from milk, so, surely, they’re the same, right? Wrong! The difference between whey and casein protein is like chalk and cheese. Whey protein is a rapid absorbing protein that is quickly digested and absorbed by the body. This makes it ideal for post-workout nutrition. Casein protein is a slow-digesting and slow-absorbing protein that takes several hours to be fully absorbed by the body. Casein protein supplements are generally consumed right before going to bed at night. This is because, as they’re so slow to be digested and absorbed, they provide your muscles with a constant and steady stream of proteins and amino acids needed to remain in an anabolic state.
Casein helps to promote muscle growth while preventing muscle wastage in the form of muscle catabolism. Casein is used primarily for muscle growth and repair, rather than energy, which means that your body will instead use carbs and fats for fuel. This not only preserves muscle tissue but as an added bonus, it can also help to speed up weight loss. Casein protein is generally thicker than whey and isn’t often available in as many flavour options. Chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla are all flavours which are pretty-much guaranteed, however.
– Whey protein blends
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, you may wish to consider investing in a whey protein blend. To cut a long story short, whey protein blends are great for people that perhaps don’t have the budget for expensive whey isolates, but who are looking to spend slightly more on a product with a little more nutritional value than a whey protein concentrate. Basically, these products are made up of a combination of whey protein isolates and whey protein concentrates. They obviously don’t have as high a protein percentage value than whey isolates alone, but they provide more protein per serving than whey concentrates. They also provide less lactose and fat per serving. If you’re looking to spend slightly more money on a supplement than you would on whey concentrate, whey protein blends are ideal.
– Egg protein
Egg protein, or egg white protein as it is sometimes called, is slightly less popular protein source than the ones listed above, but it still has its place in the supplement world. Egg white protein is derived from the albumin found in egg whites. Now, on paper, there isn’t much reason to use egg albumin proteins instead of whey proteins, but it still has its benefits. To begin with, eggs are the only food source in the world that can boast a complete essential and non-essential amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules, so the more amino acids we consume, the more muscle we will likely build. Egg albumin protein supplements are also very beneficial for people that are lactose intolerant. If you suffer from lactose intolerance but are looking to increase the amount of amino acids and protein you consume from non-food sources, egg protein supplements are perfect.
– Brown rice protein
So far, all of the proteins on our list have been derived from animals. We haven’t yet included a plant-based protein source. Until now. You see, it’s all well and good us sitting here talking about protein powders that come from animals, but what about if you cannot consume products derived from animals? Vegans for example, cannot consume products derived from animals for ethical reasons. Protein is still hugely important to them, whether they want to build muscle or not, so what can they do? Well, they can utilize a protein supplement from a plant-based source.
Brown rice protein is very popular in the world of vegan bodybuilding and fitness in general. It is a great source of B vitamins, as well as dietary fiber. It is also hypoallergenic. This means that the likelihood of it causing an adverse allergic reaction, like that which somebody would suffer from lactose intolerance if they consumed whey protein, is incredibly unlikely. This is because brown rice protein is easily digestible. This also means that more of it is utilized so less goes to waste. The only downside to brown rice protein is the fact that, unlike egg protein, it is lacking in certain amino acids, including essential ones which the body is unable to naturally synthesize.
– Pea protein
Pea protein is another plant-based protein source that is perfect for vegans which is derived from yellow split peas. Just like brown rice protein, pea protein is hypoallergenic, so digestive issues are highly unlikely with this product because it is so easily digested. It provides a very impressive amount of protein per serving, and has more amino acids than brown rice protein, though it still doesn’t quite have a complete amino acid profile. It can also be used in baking to make savoury vegan-friendly baked goods such as cakes and breads.
– Hemp protein
Hemp protein is derived from hemp seeds, and yes, hemp seeds do come from that plant. By that plant, we mean the cannabis sativa plant. Now, before you start worrying about getting high, you’ll be pleased, or sad, depending on your stance on the use of marijuana, to hear that hemp seeds contain incredibly low levels of THC. THC is the compound responsible for getting you ‘high’ and the amounts found in hemp seeds are nowhere near strong enough to have even the slightest mind-altering effects on you.
Hemp protein, as well as being rich in plant-based protein, is also a fantastic source of essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids are vital for cognitive health and function, as well as for the metabolism and the cardiovascular system. Not only is hemp protein great for building muscle on a plant-based diet, it’s also a great way of boosting your heath and well-being in the process. The major downside associated with hemp protein is the fact that it can be expensive because of the fact that it is harvested in mass numbers.
– Vegan protein blends
The vegan movement has grown hugely over the last few years, and if you’re following a vegan lifestyle, you’ll know how difficult it can be to get enough protein and amino acids in your diet. Supplement manufacturers have realized this, which is why there are now more vegan protein blends currently available than ever before. Vegan protein blends are made up of a blend of different vegan-friendly plant-based protein sources. Most commonly, the three protein blends found in these products include the three we listed above: hemp, brown rice, and pea protein. Again, these blends can be expensive, but if you’re following a vegan diet and lifestyle and are looking to build muscle, they’re worth every penny.
– Mass gainers
Finally, we have mass gainers. As you probably have guessed, mass gainers are not used during contest preps when bodybuilders are cutting. Instead, they’re used during the off-season when the aim is to pack as much muscle mass onto your physique as possible. To some, the prospect of constantly eating in order to gain muscle mass sounds too good to be true. The reality is that most people struggle to consume several thousand calories per day in the form of whole foods alone. To build muscle mass, you need to be in a caloric surplus. This means you need to be eating well above maintenance. Eating that much whole food is not only difficult, it’s also expensive. The solution is a mass gainer.
Mass gainers are specially formulated protein enriched supplements which contain additional fats and carbohydrates to bulk up the caloric contents. If you ate a calorific meal a couple of hours ago, the prospect of eating another 600 – 900 calories when you’re not hungry will not be appealing. Chugging down a mass gainer shake however, will be much easier. Mass gainers are a great way of increasing your protein and caloric intakes and are a wonderful alternative to whole foods. One mass gainer per day will help you reach your daily macro requirements much easier, and far more comfortably, than through whole foods when you feel full enough to burst.
How to choose a protein supplement
Now that you know some of the more popular protein supplement options available to you, it’s now time for us to finish off by talking to you about how you can select a protein supplement. There are many protein supps out there and knowing where to begin can be a little daunting. To make life easier, check out these handy tips.
– Go with a trusted brand
Anybody can start their own protein supplement company nowadays, and many people do. There are now more protein supplement companies to choose from than ever before, which isn’t always a good thing. You see, some start-ups looking to keep costs low, will use cheap ingredients and will bulk out their proteins with filler ingredients, including naturally-occurring amino acids. This is known as amino acid spiking, and it’s not technically illegal, it’s just very dishonest. Cheap proteins from unreliable brands provide far less protein per serving than the recommended 80% you could expect from whey concentrate. When choosing a protein supplement, read reviews, and always go with a trusted brand.
– Choose the right flavour
Flavour is very important when it comes to protein supps. The last thing you want is to be stuck with a 10lb bag of protein powder which you cannot stand the taste of. If possible, try samples or testers to get an idea of which flavours you like, or go with tastes that you know you enjoy. If you love strawberry, a strawberry flavour protein supplement will probably appeal to you.
– Know when to use which product
If you’re using more than one protein supplement, it’s important to know when to use each one. A whey isolate for example, works best when consumed immediately after a workout. This is because it’s fast-absorbing and it will get into your muscle cells quickly, when they need it the most. Casein is slow to be absorbed, and it is therefore perfect for before bed. This is because it will provide protein to your muscles when you sleep, when obviously you wouldn’t be able to get the protein any other way. Whey protein before bed would be used up far too quickly, and an hour or two later your body would be crying out for more protein.
– Don’t expect miracles
Despite what supplement companies may lead you to believe, protein powders are not legal alternatives to anabolic steroids in powdered form, and they won’t provide anywhere near the types of results that you would enjoy if you did use illegal compounds. If used alongside a healthy and balanced diet, and a regular and effective workout routine however, protein supplements will give you that little bit of an edge and they will help you make more muscle, strength, size, and recovery gains than if you tried building muscle without them.