December 28, 2021 10 min read
Whey protein powder is the most ubiquitous workout supplement out there. Although there aren’t any “necessary” supplements to get a strong and good-looking physique, whey comes the closest by far.
The importance of whey protein powder comes down to the fact that it provides very high-quality protein that your body can absorb quickly to use for its muscle-building needs. And to add to that, whey protein can also help you cut down body fat while also experiencing weight gain by building muscle.
But despite its ubiquity, it’s not something that many people are very familiar with—even though they might use it on a daily basis. Down below we’ll take a closer look at what exactly is whey, why it’s probably the best protein supplement, and why it’s an almost necessary supplement in your workout regime—whatever your goals may be.
Whey is an extremely common substance that you’ve likely already ingested at some point in your life. It’s one of the two proteins that are found in cow’s milk, with whey being 80% and casein accounting for 20%. It’s a byproduct in the cheesemaking process, with cheese curds being separated from the whey. Before its health benefits and protein content was discovered, it was often thrown out. If you’ve ever opened a yogurt container and noticed the watery liquid sitting on top—that’s whey. Through this processing, whey becomes filtered and separated from other carbohydrate and fat components of the dairy product.
As the whey goes through more filtering stages, the proteins become more concentrated and the fat and carb percentage lowers. In the end, you’re left with the whey protein powder that everyone knows and loves. Even though the majority of your nutrients should come from whole, healthy foods, whey protein is a fantastic way to get more protein into your diet. It provides a high-quality protein that’s quickly absorbed by your muscles and used for repair and energy. There are several reasons why whey is special when it comes to protein powders, and for that, we need to look more closely at what makes a protein, a protein.
Along with fats and carbohydrates, protein is a macronutrient that’s necessary for a well-functioning body. Its primary role is in the growth, repair, and maintenance of muscles, bones, cartilage, and blood. Since working out comes down to breaking down muscle only for it to grow back bigger and stronger, it makes sense that protein is an important component of a healthy muscular physique. And not only does protein help to develop these gains, but also to maintain them after you’ve already built up some sort of foundation. In the post-workout phase, protein will also aid in recovery—even when it comes down to recovering from injuries.
Proteins are also important for keeping our hormones in check and managing our weight. For example, high protein diets are more satiating because they help to suppress our appetite. When considering protein as a muscle-building ingredient, it’s the perfect supplement for elevating your workout experience. However, not all protein is built the same, and it pays to know how different proteins interact with the body. To better see the usefulness of whey protein, it’s good to know how a protein is built in the first place.
As we’ve seen, protein is the building block of your muscles. But if we dig a little deeper, we can see that amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. It’s the amino acid make-up that dictates the quality of any particular protein. There are 20 amino acids that make up a complete protein. Seven of these amino acids can be created by your body, meaning that they’re non-essential. Another four are considered “conditionally” essential since your body can produce them in enough quantities barring any sort of sickness or abnormal activity levels.
The remaining nine are known as the essential amino acids, or EAAs. Since your body isn’t able to make them on its known, you need to get them from outside sources. This is where whey protein comes in. The quality of a protein is measured by how complete or incomplete it is with these essential amino acids. Not only do the EAAs have to be in a complete protein, but they also have to be present in sufficient enough quantities. Whey protein powder happens to be a complete protein that offers all of the necessary amino acids for well-rounded development.
Furthermore, whey protein also contains a good availability of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). This includes leucine, valine, and isoleucine, which are broken down within the muscles of your body. This makes them particularly important for lifting because it’s believed that their absorption in the body relates to their usefulness. Whey protein powder usually gives you around 26 grams of BCAAs per 100 grams of protein. Comparatively, plant proteins will usually give you 18 to 20 grams per 100 grams of plant protein powder.
All of these characteristics of protein point to whey being one of the best forms of protein supplementation for your body. However, there’s also the important distinction between the two types of protein powders that come from dairy: whey and casein.
As we mentioned above, while whey makes up 80% of milk protein, casein makes up the other 20%. And although whey is a lot popular, casein has its own niche usage. Casein takes longer to absorb in your body, making it useful for providing energy over a longer period of time. For example, lifters who want to maintain a large amount of lean muscle mass will sometimes supplement with casein before they go to bed. When you’re sleeping, your body enters a fast where it begins to break down its own tissues for energy.
If you’re trying to prevent muscle loss during sleep, casein can offer a solution since it’s slowly processed over a longer period of time. However, this also makes casein a lackluster option if you’re looking for a quick hit of protein either before or after a workout session.
One well-known study found that supplementing with whey protein would increase protein synthesis by 70% in test subjects.
On the other hand, casein only increased protein synthesis by 30%. This difference was argued to have been caused by whey’s relatively quick rate of digestion when compared to casein’s rate of digestion. While both whey protein and casein protein have their unique niches to fill, whey is the better option when looking for a quick hit of protein to build strength and muscle size.
But even when it just comes to whey protein powder, there isn’t just one variety.
Whey protein powders differ mainly in how much they’ve been filtered and processed. There are, of course, differences in taste, texture, and fillers but these will vary largely from producer to producer. There are three main types of whey protein that will mean the same thing, regardless of what supplier you go to.
These are whey concentrate, whey isolate, and whey hydrolysate. Many manufacturers will offer a blend of these varieties, so it’s always a good idea to check the make-up of a protein powder you’re trying for the first time. Make your decision based on your goals and starting level, and you’ll be well on your way to seeing improved size and strength.
Starting the list with the least filtered whey protein, the concentrate type goes through a filtration process to “purify” it. This can either be microfiltration or ultrafiltration, but they both often result in powders that are 70 to 80 percent protein. The remaining 20 to 30 percent is largely made up of carbs and fats, which some lifters want to avoid depending on their goals and physique.
It’s also important to note that this type of filtration allows for most of the peptides to stay behind in the whey protein. These particles of protein are beneficial in many different ways in the body, including providing antioxidant benefits. Even though whey concentrate is the least processed whey protein, it still offers an amazing bang-for-your-buck. Especially if you’re going through a bulk or want to add some extra muscle mass in general, whey concentrate will offer you everything you need.
Continuing up our hierarchy of processing, next up we have whey protein isolate (WPI). Making isolate usually involves a longer filtration time, or completely different processing techniques. These include things like ion-exchange chromatography and cross-flow microfiltration. But the science isn’t really necessary for our needs—all we need to know is that isolate packs significantly more protein than its concentrate cousin.
These concentrations tend to be higher than 95-percent, cutting off a big chunk of the carbs and fats found in whey concentrate. This makes whey isolate a great option for those who are cutting and dieting. Without the additional carbs and fats, it’s mostly protein that’s going to be fuelling your gains. This also makes WPI a particularly good option for pre-workout and post-workout supplementing.
And at the top of the processing ladder, we have whey hydrolysate. Not only does this go through a stricter filtering process, but it also essentially “pre-digests” the protein for you. This happens through a processing system called hydrolysis, where the whey protein chains are broken down into their smaller component peptide fractions. Because the longer protein chains are broken down, this makes whey hydrolysate extremely digestible for your body.
It can be absorbed much faster than concentrate and isolate, making it the best choice for supplementing during your workout times. However, this also comes at a higher price tag. Depending on your goals and your skill level, one of these types is going to work best for your needs. For example, if you’re an amateur lifter trying to bulk up, a concentrate is going to be enough for your needs (while also being easier on your wallet). This is why it’s important to have goals to train towards because your choices should be guided by whatever gets you to these goals best.
Being a high-quality source of protein, whey has many benefits for the human body. Some of these include lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, and improving immune function. Whey can also increase bone density and may even reduce the symptoms of stress and depression. With enough protein in your diet, your cholesterol and risk of developing osteoporosis can also go down. However, the two biggest benefits are muscle gain and toning down.
Increasing the amount of protein in one’s diet is a good way to increase energy expenditure throughout the day. And the more energy someone expends, the more calories they burn. This effectively leads to fat loss. A high protein diet also has the benefit of being very satiating, reducing cravings for food throughout the day. These two factors make protein (and whey supplementation) a good option for those looking to trim down some pounds.
And on the other hand, whey protein is also great for increasing lean muscle mass in those who weightlift. As we saw above, it not only provides all the necessary building blocks of protein, but also increases anabolic hormones in your body that lead to more muscle growth. As a cherry on top, whey protein has a high absorption rate, making it a fast and easy way to fuel your body.
The necessary amount of protein intake from person to person will differ widely depending on their physical characteristics and their daily activity levels. However, for a sedentary adult, the minimum recommended daily allowance is 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. This equals out to 0.36 grams of protein per pound. For the average guy, this comes out to about 56 grams of protein per day, while for women it’s around 46 grams of protein. But this is just the minimum recommended intake of protein—if you’re looking to bulk up, or you’re very active, you’ll likely want to up this intake.
If you lead an active lifestyle, 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram is the recommended amount. However, more is not necessarily better. At a certain point over 2 grams per kilogram of body weight, any additional benefits will begin to drop off steeply. Another way of looking at it is that protein should make up 10% to 35% of your daily protein intake. This is a pretty wide window, but if you’re looking to bulk up or you regularly workout, then you should probably aim for the higher end of this spectrum.
You can take whey either before or after your workout—or at both times. If you’re taking it before resistance training, about 10 to 20 grams should be plenty to elevate your training and lead to greater gains. After your workouts, you want to take some whey protein in order to allow for enhanced muscle recovery and protein synthesis. For post-workout, take 20 to 40 grams of protein. Whey protein is also an easy ingredient to add to your shakes and meals.
For example, including some whey protein into your breakfast is a good way to give your body a boost of protein after not eating for several hours throughout the night. This will curb too much muscle breakdown, allowing you to maintain more muscle mass. You can either include whey as a shake in between meals throughout the day or directly add it to your recipes. For example, there are plenty of good brownie and pancake recipes out there that call for whey protein powder.
Whey is one of the most highly studied supplements and it’s safe to take for almost all people. The one exception is those who are currently going through liver or kidney issues. But even for those people, a medical professional should be consulted first before completely writing off whey protein. Whey protein is also a bad idea for those who have lactose intolerance. However, plenty of great options can be found in plant-based protein powders that have similarly good muscle protein synthesis when properly blended. These protein sources provide their own unique benefits that may work better for some people.
One of the biggest roadblocks to bigger and more consistent gains is a lack of protein intake. Even though you might have the best sleeping schedule and workout regime in the world, you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t feed your muscles with the protein they need to grow. And as we’ve seen, whey protein powder is one of the easiest and best ways to get some of this necessary protein into your body. Not only does whey provide a full protein make-up, but it also provides enough of these quantities to immediately give your body some much-needed energy.
Paired with its fast-acting effects, it’s the perfect muscle-building fuel.
Of course, the majority of your nutrients should be coming from whole, healthy foods. Avoiding processed foods and junk foods is the way to go if you want to live a healthy lifestyle and sport a good-looking body. But even though there is no truly necessary supplement for working out, whey protein powder comes the closest to achieving this title.
And if whey protein isn’t an option for you due to dietary restrictions, there are a plethora of plant-based protein powders available that achieve very similar results.
Maintain your three pillars of physical activity, nutrition, and rest, and some whey will go a long way in taking your strength and physique to the next level.