Quick Whey Protein Summary Points
- Whey protein is the most popular type of protein powder in the world and is derived from cheese processing.
- Whey is the most easily absorbed and most bioavailable of all protein types
- Whey contains a high amount of essential amino acids, branched chain amino acids and a variety of other bioactive compounds that are beneficial for muscle growth and recovery.
- Sustained whey protein intake can help boost lean muscle, reduce fat mass and benefit performance
- Whey protein can be consumed throughout the day but works best when taken close to workout times
- Whey protein can be stacked with any type of supplement including fat burners, pre workouts, creatine and hormone support supplements.
What is Whey Protein Powder?
Whey protein powder is probably one of the best known supplements used by bodybuilders today. It is a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids, and is of very high and rapid digestibility and bioavailability. In fact, whey protein has the highest biological value of any protein, meaning that it is better absorbed and used than any other protein (MHC, 2008). This makes whey protein the king of all proteins.
Where Does Whey Protein Come From?
As its name suggests, whey protein is made from whey, which was originally a byproduct of cheese manufacturing. Milk is made up of two major protein components, whey and casein. When the casein has been removed to make cheese, this leaves the whey which can then be purified to varying degrees to make whey protein.
Whey Protein Benefits
Whey protein is low in fat and carbs, but rich in a variety of health and muscle boosting nutrients such as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), leucine, non/semi-essential amino acids, and dietary protein in general. Furthermore, the rapid digestion of whey protein makes it an ideal protein source for bodybuilders and athletes needing a quick hit of protein. These make whey an effective agent in increasing strength, increasing lean muscle, and reducing fat.
Whey Protein Benefits for Strength
There have been numerous studies that have shown the effectiveness of whey protein on increasing strength. A study has shown that subjects supplemented with whey protein were able to increase a measure of strength (knee extension torque), significantly more than a group receiving a carbohydrate placebo (Burke et al, 2001). It has also been shown that subjects supplemented with whey protein saw 26% higher gains in bench press strength, and 15% increase in pull down strength above that of subjects supplemented with casein protein (Cribb et al, 2006). The reason for this is likely to be attributed to the rapidly nature of whey protein absorption compared to casein (Boirie et al, 1997) and its anabolic effect.
Whey Protein Benefits for Lean Gains
Protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. Although weight training is effective in promoting muscle gain, the gains will not be possible without adequate food and protein input (Phillips et al, 2005). It is therefore rational to deduce that the best protein will give the best lean gains. Whey protein is rapidly digested, stimulates high levels of muscle protein synthesis, and prevents protein degradation (Hayes & Cribb, 2008). All this together, simply means better lean gains.
The difference between lean mass from using whey protein and not using whey protein can be quite dramatic. One study showed that lean muscle gained through use of whey protein was 525% greater than that achieved through using casein protein (Cribb et al, 2006). Another study showed that supplementing with whey protein resulted in muscle gains 155% higher than people given a carbohydrate placebo (Burke et al, 2001). Although the difference in gains between these two studies was quite large, what is quite clear is that lean gains are higher when using whey protein.
Whey Protein Benefits for Fat Loss
Along with the above mentioned benefits of whey protein on strength and lean gains, whey protein is also well documented in its ability to decrease fat mass. Some whey protein studies have observed significant reductions in body fat (Lands et al, 1999; Cribb et al, 2006). There are several reasons why protein is good for weight or fat loss. First of all, gram for gram, protein yields the least energy compared to carbohydrates and fat. Secondly, protein intake causes feelings of satiety (fullness), so that you are less likely to overeat while dieting. Thirdly, high quality proteins, such as whey, are better able to increase energy use. Finally, high protein intake during periods of weight helps to prevent muscle loss (Westerterp-Plantenga et al, 2009). One study has shown that supplementing with whey protein during heavy dieting resulted in 125% less muscle loss compared to those receiving a placebo (Frestedt et al, 2008). These traits combined make whey protein a very effective weight loss aid.
Whey Protein Negatives and Side Effects
As a result of whey protein's rapid digestion, it does wonders almost immediately after it is consumed. However, this strength is also one of whey protein's weaknesses, because it is too rapidly digested to provide sustained protein release (Lacroix et al, 2006). This means that your body will not have a source of protein during periods of fasting, such as during sleep. Supplementing with other forms of protein (such as micellar casein or egg protein) can overcome this problem.
Being a component of every day foods, it's no surprise that the consumption of whey protein within guidelines is completely safe. However, depending on the type of whey protein, lactose can occur in significant concentrations. This may cause stomach upsets for those with lactose intolerance. Furthermore, those with milk allergies may experience rashes, breathing issues, or chest pains. In this case, a highly hydrolysed whey protein may be safe and suitable.
Whey Protein Recommended Doses and Ingredient Timing
The recommended protein intake per day is between 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight per day depending on your goals and level of exercise. Whey protein can be used to make up this total. The most important time for taking whey protein is immediately before and after exercise. It has been shown that taking whey protein (along with carbohydrates and creatine) was far more effective than taking the same stack in the morning and evening away from training. Proper supplement timing increased lean body mass, max squat, and max bench strength by 8, 4, and 4%, respectively, higher relative to consuming supplements away from training (Cribb & Hayes, 2006).
Whey Protein Supplements
There are a variety of different whey protein supplements including whey protein concentrates (WPC), whey protein isolates (WPI), hydrolysed whey protein, and a blend of all three with other proteins (blended proteins). These differ in their quality and effectiveness, and have been covered in great detail in our "Choosing the Best Protein Supplement" article. In addition to stand-alone whey protein supplements, you can find whey protein in other supplements such as weight gainers, which are essentially whey protein (sometimes together with other protens) blended with carbohydrates. Fat loss proteins generally contain whey protein, together with a range of thermogenic and fat blocking ingredients to help with fat loss. Protein bars and some post workout creatine supplements also contain whey protein.
Stacking Whey Protein
Whey protein is a must have supplement for any bodybuilder or serious athlete. Not only that but it stacks well with pretty much any other supplements, and what you choose depends on your goals (eg. weight gain, fat loss, etc). Stacking whey protein (and proteins in general) has been covered extensively in our "How to stack supplements" article. But briefly, it is a good idea to stack protein with creatine and carbohydrates. Other supplements to consider include pre workouts supplements, intra workout supplements, and post workout supplements. This combination ensures you get the most out of your training. Then, a micellar casein supplement would be ideal for use before extended periods in which you have no access to food (eg. before bed).
Boirie et al (1997), Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 94: 14930-14935.
Burke et al (2001), The Effect of Whey Protein Supplementation With and Without Creatine Monohydrate Combine with Resistance Training and Lean Tissue Mass and Muscle Strength. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 11: 349-364
Cribb & Hayes (2006), Effect s of Supplement Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, DOI: 10.1249/01.mss.0000233790.08788.3e
Cribb et al (2006), The Effect of Whey Isolate and Resistance Training on Strength, Body Composition, and Plasma Glutamine. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 16: 494-509
Dangin et al (2003), The rate of protein digestion affects protein gain differently during aging in humans. J Physiol, 549: 635-644
Frestedt et al (2008), A whey-protein supplement increases fat loss and spares lean muscle in obese subjects: a randomized human clinical study. Nutrition & Metabolism, 5 (online)
Hayes & Cribb (2008), Effect of whey protein isolate on strength, body composition and muscle hypertrophy during resistance training. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care 11: 40-44
Lands et al (1999), Effect of supplementation with a cysteine donor on muscular performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 87: 1381-1385
Lacroix et al (2006), Compared with casein or total milk protein, digestion of milk soluble proteins is too rapid to sustain the anabolic postprandial amino acid requirement. Am J Clin Nutr, 84: 1070-1079.
MHC (2008), Creatine and Whey Protein Supplements Creatine Supplements. University of Illinois
Phillips et al (2005), Dietary Protein to Support Anabolism with Resistance Exercise in Young Men. J Am Coll Nutr, 24: 134S-139S
Westerterp-Plantenga et al (2009), Dietary Protein, Weight Loss, and Weight Maintenance Annual Review of Nutrition, 29: 21-41