Leg Day Observer

The protein shake and beyond: What to know about eating and exercising

The ideal post-workout meal is not so different from a pre-workout snack.

Hello! Welcome to Leg Day Observer, an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day.

The nice thing about a post-workout shake, besides how disgusting it tastes, is you can trace the growth of the entire $15.6 billion sports supplement industry through its rise.

What was once a weird, chalky, gritty dairy mixture drunk out of plastic, made from strange proteins, and tied to too-big muscles and a male-dominated reputation, has evolved into a value-free and plant-based snack. With a high fashion world profile and one that’s less male than ever, one wonders whether a convenient and unpleasant fake food is still the right post-workout snack or meal — or if it was ever right to begin with.

Protein shakes are a short-hand for the immediate post-workout meal, which, even with the rise of intermittent fasting, remains a sacred precept in the annals of athletic nutrition. But there is much confusion over what you should drink, when, and even whether you should drink it. It doesn’t have to be so tricky.

Early bodybuilding diets mostly predated supplements, and athletes relied on balanced, high protein meals after they lifted weights — as well as throughout the rest of the day. There’d be slight modifications in the 1960s and 1970s, with crude liquid supplementation: a protein drink in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1977 bodybuilding book is made from milk, “milk-solids,” one egg, and ice cream. But it was mostly whole foods.

A man mixes protein powder into his shake.

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Today, some coaches are convinced that the body absorbs liquid protein more easily than protein in solid forms, meaning a whey or pea protein shake starts rebuilding your muscles quicker than a slab of salmon eaten at the same time. But the shake habit is as much about marketing as efficacy: the magazines that covered bodybuilding and weight training were supplemented by ads from nascent, growing sports supplement companies, and their stories would promote the shakes and warn against the dangers of waiting to get home to refuel. All this pushed a few generations of lifters to downing shakes at their gym locker, or right after.

But while it’s important to get protein decently fast after a workout, that meal is best understood in the context of the whole workout, and a day’s nutrition. And critically, that doesn’t always mean a shake.

Eating before, during, and after a workout

Studies suggest that carbs and protein, when consumed before a workout, and during, can help with metabolism and endurance, and ingesting fat after a workout might have less than optimal effects. For lifters, simple sugars like dextrose, if taken mid-set, can help in absorption and recovery and post-workout carbs have been shown to maybe be anabolic, which means they might even muscle. It’s less a blow to IF than another way to succeed.

All this means that workouts need a kickstart and some fuel, and that the ideal post-workout meal is not so different from a pre-workout snack: a protein and carb mix that’s low in fat.

The relieving thing is this macronutrient profile describes just about every non-keto protein shake sold in stores. But while we should give bodybuilders credit for being early, the best thing about the protein options is not their profile but their convenience: they’re easy to down right after a workout or inhale between meals or ahead of a quick run. Shakes are not necessarily the best approach; they’re just pretty good.

And while shakes work, the best approach comes when lifters are not at the gym: pushing for the right kind of foodstuffs in before and after a workout, increasing thermogenic foods the rest of the week, and edging supplements, like shakes, as close to possible to whole, real foods. And while protein shakes, like all supplements, are notoriously unregulated, their shift in the last few years from dairy to plant-based has been promising.

Rethinking workout nutrition — Protein powders, until recently, were almost entirely milk-based, made up mostly of whey, which is lactose-free and digests immediately, and the slower-absorbing casein. Market estimates have the plant protein sector growing wildly, which is nice for animals, but also for lifters: these proteins are both elite and holistic, and about as good as whey. Most importantly, they’re easier to digest than the stuff made out of milk.

Still, while powders have improved, food hasn’t, and whole food protein sources have devolved from the organic stuff that Schwarzenegger and his contemporaries ate 50 years ago to bionic, pilled-out meats and veggies. In that context, the measurable differences between whey protein and whey isolate seem quaint. Eating healthier throughout the day would make up for downing a post-workout shake. But it seems hard to do.

So it feels important to adopt a different sort of context for workout nutrition — one that’s less about the macros we take in and more about their purpose.

Carbs are important before and during a workout less for body composition but because the energy they provide allows for a better workout. And workout quality, which can diminish after weeks of gym sessions that require effort and presence but which never end, seems like the key to it all.

None of this is exactly hard science: it’s harder to quantify a good workout than an individual’s calorie expenditure or deficit. Still, there’s a logic to it. Because we need to get protein in, we worry about the ideal way: whether in liquid form, or low fat, and exactly when. But it’s an obtuse debate that mostly affects elite athletes and coaches. Debating dextrose and glucose, or whey and pea protein doesn’t make much sense if the workout they follow was phoned in.

This makes for a broader context through which to consider post-workout nutrition, specifically.

Post-workout meals, whether liquid or not, are important since they’re about recovery — muscles grow after a workout, not during — but it feels just as important to get into the right habit before a workout and not waste it, and to eat capably throughout the day, so as not to waste that shake — or snack, or sandwich — that comes after the gym.

But it might be most important not to get too precise, or hew so strongly to the nutritional routines of elite athletes — which are never designed with long-term health in mind — as a guidepost for how to do things. A post-workout shake is helpful; so is any type of real food. But it can’t be the only good meal of the day; and if follows a phoned-in lift day, it’s wasted as well.

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