In 2018, Americans spent $155 a month on health and fitness, including $56 on health supplements. The most popular fitness supplements, by far, are protein powders. It seems like everyone wants to get more protein.
But, if you really want to maximize your muscle recovery and growth, it’s worth learning a bit more about the different protein supplements available.
Specifically, learning the difference between the two major types, casein vs whey, can help you get the most from your tough workout.
Muscle Recovery: Why the Body Needs Protein
Building muscle requires damaging your muscles. Both mechanical stress and metabolic fatigue result in muscle breakdown. When your muscle cells repair that damage, your muscles grow, resulting in hypertrophy.
Really, it is during your recovery periods and your rest days when you actually realize the gains of your training. During exercise, you damage the muscles, and during recovery time, they grow as they are repaired.
To rebuild those muscles and reduce inflammation, even without anti-inflammatories, your body requires protein. Protein is the main building block of almost everything in your body: muscles, tendons, organs, and skin, amongst other things.
Building muscle requires a positive protein balance: you must take in more than you break down. Protein supplements can help you maintain that balance during your recovery days, which ideally include some active recovery.
Protein and Water Retention
There are other ways protein can help you look better, even without making your muscles bigger.
Getting rid of excess water will help increase definition and make your muscles pop. A high-protein diet helps reduce water retention. Water loss actually accounts for the initial weight drop when you start eating more protein.
Protein Makes You Feel Fuller Faster
Another benefit of protein, depending on your fitness goals, is that it helps you feel full more quickly, leading you to eat less. Protein is actually better than carbs in that respect.
Plus, if you are currently cutting weight, eating more protein can help minimize muscle loss while you are in a calorie deficit.
Casein vs Whey: The Fundamentals
All types of protein are made up of amino acids. The body can make most of those amino acids itself, even if we don’t get them from food.
However, there are nine amino acids, the so-called essential amino acids, that the body cannot make on its own: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
A complete protein source is one that supplies all of those nine essential amino acids. Your muscle recovery will be more effective if you recover with such a complete protein source.
Whey and casein are both derived from milk. Like other animal sources, both are complete proteins.
What Is Whey Good For?
The biggest benefit of whey protein for muscle recovery is the quick absorption rate. Your body absorbs whey protein isolate at between 8 and 10 grams per hour. For comparison, your body absorbs protein from cooked eggs at about 3 grams per hour.
As such, whey protein is excellent for a post-workout snack, or a pre-workout shake shortly before your workout (see more on meal timing below). Your body can take in the whey protein quickly as your body needs it.
There are three main types of whey protein:
- Whey protein concentrate
- Whey protein isolate
- Whey protein hydrolysate
Most supplements you will see are whey protein isolate. Isolate is usually at least 90% protein, with much of the carbs and fat removed.
What Is Casein Good for?
In terms of casein vs whey, casein digests a bit slower than whey. For that reason, casein is not as good as whey for a pre- or post-workout shake.
However, because of that slow digestion, casein can feed protein to your cells over a much longer timeframe. That makes it an excellent choice to reduce muscle breakdown when you must go long periods without eating any other protein.
For the most part, that means supplementing with casein before you go to bed. A large portion of your muscle recovery happens while you sleep, and the slow-burning nature of casein means your body will always have the necessary protein.
There are two main types of casein:
- Micellar casein
- Casein hydrolysate
Most of what you’ll find is micellar casein.
Frequently Asked Questions About Protein
Nutrition is a constantly evolving field. It doesn’t help either that so much about building muscle is steeped in the myths and half-truths of old fitness magazines.
The truth is, if you work out consistently, eat properly, and get enough sleep, you’re well on your way to muscle repair. But, the below FAQs can help you optimize your muscle recovery even more.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
There is no hard and fast rule for how much protein you need. That will vary according to your age, gender, activity level, and a host of other variables.
According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, people should consume 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein. If you are a serious weightlifter, your calorie needs are probably higher as well, so that could be sufficient.
A gram of protein is about 4 calories. So, if you were eating 4,000 calories a day, 30% from protein would be about 300 grams, which is actually quite a lot, casein vs whey notwithstanding.
Protein After Training: Is the Anabolic Window Real?
Bodybuilding lore loves to talk about the anabolic window: you need to eat protein within 30 minutes (usually, but the number varies) after you work out or you won’t build muscle.
Really, science suggests that the window is not as short or as serious as people like to think. A protein shake is a quick fix, but you have time to wait for your next meal. Eat when it works for you.
That is especially true if you had a quality meal before your workout (more on that below). If you are working out in a fasted state, post-workout nutrition might be more important.
Getting the right nutrients after you work out has many benefits for the body:
- Decreases breakdown of muscle proteins
- Increases muscle protein synthesis or growth
- Rebuilds energy stores in your muscles
- Speeds up recovery
Consuming the right amount of protein after training is the key to these benefits. A protein shake makes that easy. Deciding on casein vs whey, you should probably pick whey in this case.
What Should I Eat Before I Train?
When people think about workout nutrition, most people jump immediately to protein shakes or meals post workout. But what you eat before your workout can have just as much impact as what you eat after.
Put simply, your body needs fuel for a tough workout, and you’ll get that fuel from a proper meal. A pre-workout meal should focus on two major macronutrients: carbohydrates and protein.
Fast digesting carbs can provide quick energy before a workout. Your body breaks down carbs into glucose and then processes and stores it as glycogen in the muscles and liver. The quicker the body can break glucose down, the sooner that energy is available to you.
So, while you want to eat more high-fiber, complex carbs at other times, your pre-workout meal or shake is the time to prioritize carbs that will get to your muscles a bit faster.
Protein before a workout offers its own benefits. Eating protein, with or without carbs, before a workout increases muscle synthesis and aids recovery. Again, casein vs whey, whey would be the choice.
Your best option in terms of timing is to eat a full meal of protein, carbs, and fat two to three hours before you train. That could be some lean protein and a good carb source like wholegrain bread or brown rice.
If your workout starts in an hour or so, go with something smaller and quicker, like greek yogurt and fruit, a nutrition bar, or a nut butter sandwich. Pre-workout shakes and supplements can also help in this situation.
Of course, you need to listen to your body as well. If you are eating healthy meals regularly throughout the day, you probably don’t need a specially planned pre-workout meal. Trying to exercise on a full stomach can be unpleasant and hurt your efforts.
How Often Should I Get Protein?
Another popular bodybuilding myth is the 6-meal idea: you want to eat six meals a day to keep your metabolism up and ensure you always have enough protein. Really, it does not matter all that much when you eat protein.
Provided you are eating enough protein, and getting some soon enough after your workout (see above) the exact timing does not particularly matter. Fit your meals into your schedule when and as often as is convenient.
Make Fitness (and Recovery) a Habit
The most important thing you can do for your fitness goals and muscle recovery is just to be consistent.
Whatever you decide in the casein vs whey debate, provided you work out on a regular schedule and get enough protein every day, you will build muscle. After that, you can worry about tweaking things to get maximum performance.
For supplements that can help you achieve that maximum performance, browse some of our products.