Posted 3 months ago

Do you need protein intra workout?

For as long as I can remember, there has been a debate within the fitness industry about the use of protein intra-workout. The discussion has largely been around the benefits of supplementing branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), and whether or not it helped with the ‘gainz’ or was just expensive piss. All you need to do is type “are BCAAs good” into google and thousands of articles, studies and blogs will come up arguing for and against that argument.

Before we get into another article discussing intra-workout protein, we should probably establish what exactly BCAAs are. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different types of amino acids, which can be categories as essential or non-essential, and they mainly differ in where we get these from. That is, non-essential amino acids (11 different types) can be produced by the body, whereas essential amino acids (EAAs, 9 different types) cannot be produced by the body, and as such, must be obtained from our diet. These are involved in a variety of roles within the body such as: tissue growth, energy production, immune function and nutrient absorption.

Critically, the evidence has shown that all nine of the essential amino acids are required for optimal muscle growth. Unfortunately, branch-chain amino acids only contain 3 out of the 9 essential amino acids, which brings heat to the debate of their utility for overall muscle growth and performance. With this in mind, you can see why that the popularity of these BCAA supplements has decreased and are being replaced by supplements such as EAAs and pepto-pro, which do contain all nine essential amino acids.

In this article, my aim is to show you the pros and cons, and the different arguments debating whether you should or shouldn’t supplement protein intra workout; my goal is to dismantle the science behind it, and show you the utility of prioritising certain supplements over others, to maximise your physique development.

PROS of supplementing protein intra-workout
Whether you’re already into bodybuilding or are just getting started with your physique journey, you’ll know about the importance of protein in our quest to gain new muscle mass. If you haven’t already worked out your personal protein intake target for the day, then consuming roughly 1.1g of protein for every pound of body weight is a good place to start. For example, a female weighing 130lbs would roughly consume 140-145g protein per day. This estimation does vary for assisted males, as their protein intake will need to be a lot higher to support the levels of recovery they are capable of.

Although the process of gaining muscle tissue happens after it is broken down i.e. during rest and recovery – specifically, sleep – we can optimise this process by managing our daily protein intake schedule. This is because our bodies are in a constant flux of muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS), meaning that we are always either breaking down muscle protein, or building it back up. 

As bodybuilders, we want to try and maximise our body’s ability to do the latter – build as much muscle as possible. As we know, in order to do that, we need a baseline of dietary protein intake, with a particular emphasis on proteins that contain all of the nine EAAs (these food sources are also known as complete proteins – click here to read my article on complete and incomplete protein sources). Interestingly, and crucially for this argument, evidence has shown that by having a constant influx of protein throughout the day (dosing every 2.5-3 hours) – as opposed to having the same quantity of protein in one sitting – we are further maximising our body’s ability to build o synthesise muscle mass more optimally.

With this in mind, if you think about your current protein intake and distribution, it is likely that you’ll have some protein as part of your pre-workout meal, wait for 2h, train for 2h, and then eat protein again with your post workout window. In practice, this means that you might go upwards of 4h without taking in any protein at all. Therefore, if you were to add a serving (or more) of EAAs into your intra-workout shake (creatine, water, carbs), this will help the ongoing stimulus of MPS once you’ve finished training.

Taking in EAAs intra-workout will also help you reach your daily protein intake easier. In fact, from experience, some clients can struggle to hit their daily protein targets, especially the assisted male bodybuilders. This is because their protein needs are much higher than average (approximately 1.2g/protein per lb body weight – do the math for a guy who is 110kg!!). As such, I tend to recommend they take an EAA supplement intra-workout – not just because it is easy to drink, but also because EAAs are digested and absorbed much easier relative to meat sources of protein, which removes some digestive strain (especially for those who need to eat 4000kcal+ a day!).

CONS of supplementing protein intra-workout
Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this article is there wasn’t a debate between those arguing for and against the supplementation of protein intra-workout. Typically, those who are not in favour of these supplements will quote research evidence demonstrating that taking EAAs intra-workout had no measurable benefit or change/difference for muscle protein synthesis (MPS) when compared to not taking it. The conclusion is therefore that EAAs are not needed, and that you can get all the protein you need from your diet, which is not false. With this in mind, and if perhaps you don’t have the disposable income to buy more supplements, then you won’t hugely miss out on “gainz” for not taking protein intra-workout.

However, the conclusions drawn from these studies need to be interpreted with caution. This is because the study participants are often not representative of physique athletes, bikini or figure competitors, male assisted bodybuilders etc. You can imagine that you’d have a hard time controlling for all the different factors to make the samples equal and draw conclusions if that were the case. I also don’t think a physique athlete would be too keen on potentially taking an EAA placebo for a few weeks! Usually, these studies recruit “trained” and “untrained” individuals, where “trained” is defined as someone who has been lifting for 2-3 months. It is hard to deduce whether these people train or just go to the gym, and as such, assuming that their muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is high enough to require EAAs is flawed.

In fact, there is a very limited amount of research that has been completed on people like us (physique athletes, competitors, people getting ready for a photoshoot, people transforming their lives and giving it the beanz). Therefore, drawing conclusions from studies where we are not represented in the study sample is extremely difficult, and more research is needed to support these conclusions.

In summary, supplementing protein intra-workout can be a great way to help hit your daily protein targets – taking in a continuous supply of amino acids whilst training will also help support MPS across the day. Of course, you don’t NEED to be using these, especially if your income is limited and/or if you don’t train very hard yet, as you can get all the protein you need through your diet. However, if you’re one of those who likes to give it the big beanz on the hack squat, I’d definitely recommend you start adding them in.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons