Disclaimer: There’s no question that fitness / training supplements are a great tool, and I support their proper use. However, I make it a point to emphasize that they are in fact supplements and not replacements. Adding supplements to a bad diet or inept training doesn’t fix anything.

In addition, I always advise that supplements should not be used in the first 9-12 months of training. Beginners should be focused exclusively on learning the proper form, full range of motion, technique, and diet. After the first year, then you can begin to consider ‘supplementing’ your training.

Physical fitness is a lifestyle. It’s the positive result of behaviors, knowledge, and choices, not products and or purchases.

The supplement sector is the backbone of the fitness industry, and its cornerstone product is protein powder. The word ‘protein’ is typically utilized to refer to the entire product line in a general sense. However, in reality, it is actually an over-generalized term.

There isn’t ‘a’ protein, there are numerous types, sources, and forms of protein, and each has its purpose and reason for either being in your diet or omitted from it.

Understanding which protein supplement to use involves an assessment of numerous factors, including: understanding the products, your body, training goals, priorities, and budget.

Having said that, its imperative to understand that the differences between protein supplements, or any supplements for that matter, is not brand name.

Obviously, as with any products, some tend to be better than others. I focus upon what (based upon personal experience and or knowledge) works, and what doesn’t work.

When I make suggestions about specific products, three factors need to be kept in mind:

  1. If I make a suggestion, it is solely based upon the fact that I have personal knowledge and or experience of its effectiveness, but
  2. That fact needs to be kept within the understanding that everyone’s physiology is unique and simply because it works for one person or group of people does not guarantee those results will be universal, and
  3. In relation to suggestions on this site, because I believe in a product, I promote it using an affiliate program which does result in a commission if anyone purchases it through a link that I provide.

So, with all the ‘keeping it above board’ stuff out of the way, we can talk about what really matters, providing you the knowledge element of the lifestyle.

What, Why, And How Much about Protein?

Protein is one of the four elemental macro-nutrients (or Macros) that create calories. The other three being fats, carbs, and alcohol.  

PROTEIN  MEATS, BEANS, ETC  1 GRAM =  4 CALORIES
CARBS  PASTA, RICE, BREAD, FRUIT, ETC  1 GRAM =  4 CALORIES
FATS  NUTS, OILS, AVOCADO, ETC  1 GRAM = 9 CALORIES
ALCOHOL  BEER, WINE, VODKA, WHISKEY, ETC  1 GRAM = 7 CALORIES

While calories are often shadowed as the evil thing, always remember that calories are the foundation of your health and fitness lifestyle.

They are not your enemy; they are your ally. The relationship between you and calories needs to be founded upon knowledge, not retreat.

Protein is critical to the body for several reasons. In fact, there are nearly 10000 different kinds of protein found throughout the human body.

Protein is not only elemental to our muscles, but our bones, skin, organs, tissues, hair, and blood. It fuels our biological processes (boosts metabolism, lowers blood pressure, etc) and helps maintain and strengthen our immune system.

Simply stated, our bodies use and need protein to build, repair, oxygenate, digest, and regulate.

Not consuming adequate amounts of protein can result in deficiency and then significant health issues, including muscle loss and tissue breakdown. However, the key is adequate. More is not necessarily better.

Clinically speaking, 10% – 35% of overall caloric intake should come from protein. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) states:

56 grams per day for the average adult male
46 grams per day for the average adult female

However, for those who are training / strength training, your protein needs may increase. To determine your training needs, this tool provided by the United States Dept. of Agriculture is very informative and comprehensive.

The most important thing to remember about choosing a protein supplement is the product’s amino acid profile. Protein is the collective product of amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean all protein is a complete protein.

There are 20 amino acids, of which our bodies naturally produce 11. Thus, we need to supplement the other 9 by diet; the essential amino acids, EAA. Of those 9, 3 are BCAA or Branched-Chain Amino Acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs are chemically different allowing them to be broken down in muscle tissue instead of the liver. Thus, they are critical for making gains.

The best proteins are complete proteins. Those who are training should use a protein that not only contain all nine EAAs, but sufficient amounts of BCAAs

Forms of Protein

Protein supplements comes in essentially three different forms.

  1. Concentrates – these supplements typically contain a ratio of 60-80% protein and the remainder is carbs and fats.

These are the original supplements and are the least expensive. Generally speaking, concentrates are perfect for 80% of those who work out and need/want to use a supplement.

Concentrates can be taken as a pre-workout and or anytime after you finish working out, but are most effective if taken within an hour or two of working out.

  1. Isolates – are filtered better than concentrates, so as to contain less carbs and fat; providing a higher percentage of actually protein, typically 90-95%.

Isolates are a more advanced supplement, and because their protein purity is higher, they are more expensive than concentrates. Though most supplement shops will sell you based upon price, isolates really are not necessary for anyone who is not at least an intermediate lifter and been lifting for years.

Isolates do have considerably less lactose content, so they are a better choice than concentrates for those who are lactose intolerant.

Isolates are best taken within 1-2 hours after working out, so as to fully maximize the purity of the protein.

  1. Hydrolysates – are heat treated to separate the amino acids so they are absorbed by the body the quickest. Also, whey hydrolysates appear to boost insulin levels the most and thus enhance muscle growth exponentially better than the other two.

Hydrolysates are the apex of protein supplements. Generally speaking, hydrolysates only need to be used by that 5-10% who live to lift and bulk; the competitive powerlifter, bodybuilder, etc.

This is a protein that truly supplements a diet which cannot actually provide the amount of protein the athlete needs.

This is not only the most expensive, but very expensive, and should be taken immediately after lifting.

Types of Protein

While there are actually numerous types of protein supplements, this post will briefly discuss the four most common types; whole food, whey, casein, and plant-based / vegan.

Whole Food

This is food, this is your diet. Chicken, tuna, beef, beans, eggs, etc. This is your foundational source of protein and nutrients overall. Everyone should be using whole food as their primary and foundational source of protein.

This is my primary source of protein. I have a standard muscle-bulking super-food post-workout meal, which I will attach as a .pdf for anyone who is interested. But, be aware, it is for getting big gains, and if you don’t put in the work, you will still get big, but not the way you want. LOL!

I cycle on and off of a protein supplement a few times a year. But, the supplement I use, has proven to me, to be absolutely superior in the field. I will list my personal recommendations at the bottom of this post and affiliate links on my GEAR page.

Typically, as I work out from 12:00 – 14:00, this post-work out bulking meal is my first food of the day; I have a creatine and collagen shake pre-workout.

When I cycle a supplement, I add the collagen to the supplement as a pre-workout, unless I use my second choice, then I eat pre-workout and supplement post.

Whey Protein

Whey protein is the primary protein used in the industry. Its the number one choice and there is a valid reason for that.

Cow milk is composed of two types of protein; whey and casein. Casein makes up 80% and whey the remaining 20% of the milk’s protein profile. They are both by-products of making cheese. The liquid is the whey, and the solids are the casein. Once dried and turned into powders, you have protein supplements.

The primary difference is in absorption. The body absorbs whey protein very quickly. This is why whey is best taken within a few hours of working out.

When protein is consumed, the body breaks it down into the individual amino acids (this is why hydroslysates are superior). The amino acid level, from whey, remains elevated in the blood for 90-minutes after consumption. Thus, it jump starts and fuels the body’s repair mechanism post-workout, which is what results in gains.

Casein Protein

While the body absorbs whey quickly, the opposite is true of casein. The amino acid levels from casein remain elevated in the bloodstream up to five hours.

Due to this difference in absorption, casein is best used as a pre-workout protein as well as prior to going to bed for the night.

Taking casein a few hours prior to working out will feed the body during training. This pre-training shot of protein creates a positive nitrogen level in the blood stimulating protein synthesis.

Finally, and contrary to what many believe, there really is no ‘magic’ protein window post-workout. The body will continue to repair and need protein for hours. And, as the body does most of its repairing while we sleep, taking a shot of casein will slowly and continually feed the body during its 8-hours of rest. Thus, optimizing both results and the use of the supplement.

Also, a mixed protein supplement (both whey and casein) can be a great supplement for those who work out later in the day, such as after 19:00 / 7pm and or work out 3-4 hours prior to going to bed.

Plant-based / Vegan Protein Options

As vegan has become such a popular lifestyle choice, the supplement industry has kept up and there are a plethora of options.

The primary difference between the options is the protein source, and there are many. Some of the more common are: Pea, Hemp, Pumpkin Seed, Sunflower Seed, Brown Rice, Soy, Sacha Inchi Seed, Chia, Quinoa, and blends; which could combine two or more of those.

Most industry nutritionists consider Soy, Pea, Hemp, and Quinoa to be the best options.

The critically important thing to remember about plant-based protein supplements is that, most are not complete proteins. Most plant-based proteins naturally lack, at least, one essential amino acid.

The notable exceptions being soy and quinoa. Thus, check to see if the protein you are buying has been supplemented to transform it into a complete protein.

Plant-based / vegan supplements are easier for the body to digest, as compared to whey. And, as some people can experience acne from using whey supplements, plant-based supplements actually have a beneficial effect on the skin.

Additionally and possibly the best reason to consider a plant-based supplement, is that they naturally contain phytochemicals.

Though the research about these naturally occurring compounds is still on-going, one thing has been established; they are essential for improving health. These compounds have been connected to everything from boosting immunity to preventing cancer. They are thought to be a super-antioxidant.

And, of course if you are lactose intolerant, a plant-based / vegan supplement is a great option.

Take Away

Protein is essential and required for overall health and for making gains.

Remember, whole food is the best choice, and should be the foundation for everyone.

There are numerous effective supplement options which will fit into your level of training, budget, and overall lifestyle.

If you find one that seems to work, use it. However, don’t be over-whelmed with the challenge to get the right fit between you and your supplement profile. It’s a lot of trial and error, but that’s all a part of the struggle in perfecting you.

My personal top recommendations:

My absolute top performer and go-to: PhD Nutrition Synergy

A notable second place: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey

Casein pick: Dymatize Elite Casein

Blended pick: MuscleTech Phase8 Protein Powder

Vegan option: Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard 100% Plant Based Protein Powder