A guide to whey protein: Do you need it?

Whey protein supplements are the most popular and most widely sold of all fitness products. Gym-bros (and other users) pounding down the protein shakes have helped grow the value of the whey protein industry to a whopping 7 billion pounds. This is projected to exceed 10 billion GBP by 2020. So why are whey protein supplements so popular? As almost anyone can tell you, muscle is primarily composed of proteins. If your goal is to increase or maintain your weight and muscle mass then good levels of protein in your diet are absolutely essential. Whether or not you decide to obtain this protein from whey products is entirely up to you and I’ve written this guide to give you the general run down on what whey protein is and if it can ultimately help with your training.

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Despite the widespread availability and growing popularity of whey protein, a good amount of misinformation still persists on the internet and especially in the gym. This article aims to explain the importance of proteins for muscle growth, delve into how whey is made, address concerns regarding whey protein side effects and finally determine if you even need whey protein at all.

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Protein and muscle growth

 

Proteins are an essential nutrient of the human body. They are formed by chaining amino acids together with peptide bonds. When consumed, proteins are broken down into smaller ‘chunks’ or chains by the actions of acid in the stomach as well as various protease enzymes. This protein break down is important for obtaining the essential amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine) which we cannot synthesise ourselves (1)

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Proteins are both a major building block for tissue and also a fuel source, providing as much energy as carbohydrates (fats are about double this, yay fat!) at around 4 kcal (17 kJ) per gram. Protein is only used as anaerobic fuel when carbohydrates are low, or as aerobic fuel when lipid resources are also low (2). Alongside their role in muscle building, proteins can be found in practically all cells of the body where they act as major structural components (3). When broken down into their amino acids, proteins are used as precursors to nucleic acids (essential for all forms of life…so pretty bloody important), co-enzymes and a variety of hormones to name just a few (4). Basically, without proteins you’d be a pool of slightly salty water.

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Not so big now are you puddle face
Not so big now are you puddle face

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.Protein is essential to develop and repair muscle tissue (5) and there is good evidence that athletes and active individuals require greater protein consumption, than the average person,  to power this growth and repair (6). However there appears to be a fairly clear upper-limit on protein requirements. Once protein needs are met (which will be higher if you are training), additional protein will not increase muscle synthesis and will instead be excreted as waste . This holds true for almost all biological nutrients and molecules including things like vitamins:

http://scienceguysupplements.com/the-multivitamin-hoax.

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So whats the ideal amount of protein to be consuming? It depends on your goals and your body type but the generally agreed ‘standard’ amount is roughly 0.7-0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. 

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For an average 72 kg man wanting to gain some muscle that would be about 128 g of protein a day. You may want to take 1 gram per pound for ‘safety’ but any more than that seems to have no positive effect on muscle growth (7,8,9)

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Surprisingly, research has shown that as long as you are meeting your protein requirements you are better off obtaining additional  calories from non-protein sources to increase your muscle growth even further (11,12,13).  Eating a very high protein but low carbohydrate diet isn’t all that great for muscle growth.

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Ah good old non-protein calorie sources
Ah good old non-protein calorie sources

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The best diet for muscle growth, as in most cases, involves balance. You want to be consuming 0.8-1 g/lb of body weight per day whilst also obtaining a good amount of your calories from carbohydrates and unsaturated fat. This will really help you power through heavier lifts. I’ve noticed very obvious drops in my maximal lifts when cutting down on my carbohydrates even when actively increasing my protein intake.

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Whey protein production 

 

I’ve summarised the process (very simply) in a little diagram:

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Producing whey protein is very cheap. Whey is essentially a by-product of cheese manufacturing. Initially, whey protein was, and still is, sprayed onto hay to act as a  cheap, protein rich supplement feed for live stock. Now that the supplement market has boomed companies now target the greatest prey of all…the human cow. Whey protein isn’t very expensive but it certainly isn’t cheap either. Considering it is manufactured in huge quantities for a small cost the mark-up we pay as consumers is in the thousands of percents.

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The diagram above is a very general outline of whey production but multiple forms of whey can be produced by changing steps in the process. Most of these forms are available as bodybuilding supplements:

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  • Concentrates have typically  low levels of fat and cholesterol but, in general, compared to the other forms of whey protein, have higher levels of carbohydrates in the form of lactose — they are 29%–89% protein by weight. This is the cheapest form of whey protein.

 

  • Isolates are processed to remove the fat and lactose. They are 90%+ protein by weight. Like whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates are mild to slightly milky in taste. This type of whey protein is especially popular as a supplement probably due to the fat removal.

 

  • Hydrosylates are whey proteins that are predigested and partially hydrolysed for the purpose of easier metabolising, but their cost is generally higher because of additional processing (14). Highly hydrolysed whey may be less allergenic than other forms of whey. Allergies are more commonly against the casein (a phosphoprotein) rather than the other proteins in milk.

 

I’ve always gone for ‘isolate‘ whey proteins as my goal is to take on as much protein per scoop of supplement as possible. I prefer to obtain my carbohydrates and fats from cooked food. However, if you are actively trying to ‘bulk’ and increase your weight or improve your maximal lifts then concentration whey protein might be more appropriate for your goals.

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The ‘anabolic window’: fact or fiction

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.The term ‘anabolic window‘ is thrown around the gym all the time if you mention protein shakes and other whey protein supplements. A lot of ‘gym bros’ frantically down a massive protein shake following a weight lifting session claiming that the protein is needed straight after a work out if you want to grow. The idea is that following a workout there is a small window of opportunity to intake protein which your body will use immediately to start synthesising muscle. If you miss this window, some will claim, you will either not grow as much or not grow at all depending on who you talk to. This protein doesn’t have to come from whey but it’s easier, faster and cheaper to have a protein shake with you than a chicken breast and a few eggs…

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anabolic-window-meme

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I myself am guilty of this. I always take a protein shake straight after a workout but I do this more out of habit and to have something in my stomach before I can get hold of real food. I’ve had periods at the gym on and off protein shakes and some of my most marked strength gains have occurred when NOT taking  protein supplements. Sometimes I would wait as long as 90 minutes after a work out to consume food suggesting immediate protein intake might not be necessary. However this is all anecdotal evidence. As always lets look to the science for answers…

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What does the science say about protein intake timing and the so called ‘anabolic window’?

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I’m not sure where this ‘myth’ first started but the idea of an anabolic window is pretty much entirely false and here’s why:

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In most situations, muscles don’t break down following training 

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When we lift weights our goal is to stimulate muscle growth. Following a workout, muscles show signs of tension damage (and low grade inflammation) and the goal is to repair them to a bigger and stronger state than before. However, your muscles won’t ‘break down’ if you don’t intake protein immediately. Insulin release plays an important role in preventing muscle break down and ingesting carbs and protein will raise your circulating insulin levels. In theory this should reduce muscle break down but the ‘breakdown’ is so minimal to begin with that the impact of insulin spiking is negligible (15). The only situation in which you should make sure to intake protein and calories as soon as possible is if you are training in a fasted state (16). I personally never do this as not eating at all before lifting weights makes me feel lethargic and weak.

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No good evidence supports the claim that post-workout protein increases muscle growth

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On the surface it seems to make sense that if you take on protein immediately after hammering your muscles then they will grow and repair at a faster rate than if you didn’t. However an in-depth meta-study (a study pooling data from multiple similar studies) found that this simply isn’t the case (17). So it seems as if the major touted benefit of post-workout supplementation i.e. faster and bigger muscle growth, probably isn’t true.

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Having looked more closely at the data, most of the cohorts in the studies are comprised of either obese or elderly people (as muscle maintenance is very important)  or those who don’t train frequently. Some studies do look at more active individuals and while a small benefit is seen in one or two (18), the most benefit is actually attributed to a full post-workout meal within a few hours of training.

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One study conducted in 2012, that does include exercise was conducted on a number of young men (19). In this study, 33 men with no previous weight lifting experience were put on a 3 week resistance training programme (enough time to see early signs of muscle growth). Half the men were assigned protein immediately before and after their workout and the other half received a placebo (in this case a similar powder but no protein content). After 3 weeks, the size,  one rep maximum and maximum voluntary force were all measured in the bicep and no differences between the PROTEIN or PLACEBO groups were observed.

 

The evidence suggests that there is no reason to ingest whey protein (or any protein for that matter) immediately in the post workout period. However, that is not to say that increased protein in general will not benefit your training and muscle gains overall.

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Whey protein side effects

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I wanted to briefly look at any side effects that may be associated with whey protein consumption.

The general consensus is that whey protein, when taken by mouth (how else?!) is safe for both adults and children (20,21).

The issues arise when excessive amounts of whey protein are ingested and this can be said for very high protein diets in general.

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Side effects include:

  • Gastrointestinal distress: bloating, increased bowel movements, cramps
  • Nausea
  • Increased thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches (maybe due to ‘hidden’ MSG in some cheaper whey supplements
  • Ketosis if coupled with little to no carbohydrates in the diet (22)
  • Increased risk of kidney stones (23)
  • Potentially carcinogenic (high chronic consumption) (24)

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These complications are fairly rare. When I first started taking whey protein years ago I did suffer mild gastrointestinal distress but this resolved quickly and hasn’t returned. Most of these complications results from excessive protein consumption or only result when other dietary changes are also made such as ketosis.

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.For the average person using whey to reach around the 1 g per pound of body weight value (discussed earlier), long term whey protein intake is safe. For those who are lactose intolerant you can chose supplements that have almost all lactose removed such as whey isolates.

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Will whey protein benefit me?

 

This does depend entirely on your goals. Whey protein isn’t a magic powder that will turn you into a Greek god but it is a great way to increase your protein intake if you feel your diet isn’t providing enough or if you just want to be taking slightly more. Some people suggest using whey protein to promote weight loss but I would avoid this. In most cases whey protein or similar shakes are suggested as meal replacements. When losing weight I don’t think supplements are necessary at all – meal replacement isn’t a good idea as it doesn’t encourage a healthy relationship with your food.

When bulking up (during the winter months like a big bear) whey concentrate powders, which have a good amount of carbohydrates and fats remaining in the product, are a good way of getting extra calories into your diet alongside protein.

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.Take home message: Nothing beats real food but whey protein is a fast and cheap ‘protein fix’.

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I say this in a lot of my articles because it’s very important. A lot of people starting out at the gym especially younger and smaller individuals  will spend a fortune on whey protein, creatine, BCAAs and everything else in the hope of packing on muscle fast but they neglect real nutrition. This simply doesn’t work. The bulk of your calories should be coming from real, nutritious food. Supplements should be used as a convenient way to squeeze in a bit more on top of everything else to give you an edge. This is especially true of whey protein.

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As an added note – whey protein is frequently used in a non-fitness capacity if you suffer from illnesses that are associated with muscle atrophy or that massively reduce appetite. These include established HIV and forms of cancer. Whey protein can also be taken simply if you have trouble  maintaining weight in general and doesn’t have to be associated with fitness or weight lifting.

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Top picks

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The choice of whey protein is staggering. The first thing to do is to look at if the product is a whey ‘concentrate’, ‘isolate’, or ‘hydroyslate’.

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Concentrates are great for general weight gain as they contain more calories per gram due to increased levels of carbohydrates and fats

Isolates are good if you’re looking for a high protein but low carbohydrate and fat product. Per serving you will obtain greater levels of protein but lower overall calories

Hydrosylates are the most heavily processed and expensive of the whey products. They have been designed in theory to be more easily digested.

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The products above are examples of ones I have used in the past and are some of the top choices in their category. Currently I have been using both My Protein Isolate Impact Whey and Olmpus Health Whey Concentrate.

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As always, thanks for reading and feel free to drop me an email at ed@scienceguysupplements.com for any further information,

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ScienceGuy

 


 

References

I recommend using Google Scholar for quick access to these studies.

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1) Genton, Laurence; Melzer, Katarina; Pichard, Claude (2010). “Energy and macronutrient requirements for physical fitness in exercising subjects”. Clinical Nutrition. 29 (4): 413–423

2) Nutrition Working Group of the International Olympic Committee (2003). “Nutrition for Athletes”. IOC Consensus Conference on Nutrition for Sport. Lausanne.

3) Van Holden and Mathews. ‘Biochemistry’.  Third Edition (1999)

4) Branden and Tooze ‘An introduction to Protein Structure’. Second Edition (1998)

5) Hermann, Janice R. ‘Protein and the Body‘. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources • Oklahoma State University: T–3163–1 – T–3163–4.

6) Lemon, Peter (2000). “Beyond the Zone: Protein Needs of Active Individuals”. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 19 (5): 513–521

7) Lemon PW, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD, Atkinson SA. ‘Protein requirements and muscle mass/strength changes during intensive training in novice bodybuilders’. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 Aug;73(2):767-75.

8) Lemon PW. ‘Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals’. J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Oct;19(5 Suppl):513S-521S.

9) Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ. ‘Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation’. J Sports Sci. 2011;29 Suppl 1:S29-38. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2011.619204.

10) Rodriguez NR, DiMarco NM, Langley S; American Dietetic Association; Dietitians of Canada; American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Mar;109(3):509-27.

11) Campbell B, Kreider RB, Ziegenfuss T, La Bounty P, Roberts M, Burke D, Landis J, Lopez H, Antonio J. ‘International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise’. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2007 Sep 26;4:8.

12) Tipton KD, Wolfe RR.‘Protein and amino acids for athletes.’ J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):65-79. 

13) Rozenek R, Ward P, Long S, Garhammer J.’Effects of high-calorie supplements on body composition and muscular strength following resistance training’. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2002 Sep;42(3):340-7.

14)  Foegeding, EA; Davis, JP; Doucet, D; McGuffey, MK (2002). “Advances in modifying and understanding whey protein functionality’‘ Trends in Food Science & Technology. 13 (5)
15) Kumar V, Atherton P, Smith K, Rennie MJ: Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol 2009, 106(6):2026-39.

16)  Pitkanen HT, Nykanen T, Knuutinen J, Lahti K, Keinanen O, Alen M, Komi PV, Mero AA: Free amino acid pool and muscle protein balance after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003, 35(5):784-92.

17) Aragon, Alan Albert, and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10.1 (2013): 5.
18) Phillips SM (February 2011). “The science of muscle hypertrophy: making dietary protein count”. Proc Nutr Soc(Review). 70 (1): 100–3.
19) Erskine RM, Fletcher G, Hanson B, Folland JP: Whey protein does not enhance the adaptations to elbow flexor resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012, 44(9):1791-800.
22) Smith, Jack L.; Gropper, Sareen Annora Stepnick; Groff, James L. (2009). Advanced nutrition and human metabolism. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
23)  Food and Nutrition Board (2005). A Report of the Panel on Macronutrients, Subcommittees on Upper Reference Levels of Nutrients and Interpretation and Uses of Dietary Reference Intakes, and the Standing Committee on the Scientific Evaluation of Dietary Reference Intakes. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients). THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES PRESS, Washington, D.C.

24)  Levine et al. ‘Low protein intake is associated with a major reduction in IGF-1, cancer and overall mortality in he 65 and younger but not older population’ Cell Metabolism. March 2014. 19 (3) p407–417.

 

12 thoughts on “A guide to whey protein: Do you need it?”

  1. I am very impressed. You have given me the most thorough and complete breakdown of a product I consume every day.

    I have been using whey protein isolate for years now just to add some extra protein to my diet.

    I am an older guy at 59 and I do workout 5 days a week but I am not pumping iron trying to look Pumped at all.

    The cost sickened me when you broke it down. I pay a bit over $100 for a 10lb. sack that lasts me a few months.

    I was getting it cheaper from American but after some reading it seems they may be mis-representing their #’s.

    I am curious how much the “My Protein” product goes for?
    Thanks,
    Gary

    1. Hi there Gary. First off thanks for the comment, it means a lot. Glad to see people like what I write.

      That’s brilliant that you set a good amount of time aside to workout. My father is your age and I keep trying to encourage him to workout because its good for almost all aspects of your health. Maybe I’ll convince him one day but not yet!

      I’ve always gone for impact whey isolate from MyProtein – as i’m sure you read, as the product becomes more refined it tends to cost more. At MyProtein you can get hold of a 5 kg bag (11 lbs) for around 55 pounds (as the pound is so weak that’s less than 70 USD!). So that would be more protein for less money than you are currently paying – its quite a nice product as well, flavours are good and it dissolves well.

      I would say however that since you aren’t concerned with pumping up and building too much muscle (I’m assuming cardiovascular training is your main focus), then perhaps you protein requirements are already being met through your diet. I’d usually encourage vegetarians who feel they aren’t getting enough protein, to supplement, but if you are a meat eater then in all likely hood protein supplements might not be entirely necessary.

      Hope that helps, always here to answer any questions.

  2. I am very impressed. You have given me the most thorough and complete breakdown of a product I consume every day.

    I have been using whey protein isolate for years now just to add some extra protein to my diet.

    I am an older guy at 59 and I do workout 5 days a week but I am not pumping iron trying to look Pumped at all.

    The cost sickened me when you broke it down. I pay a bit over $100 for a 10lb. sack that lasts me a few months.

    I was getting it cheaper from American but after some reading it seems they may be mis-representing their #’s.

    I am curious how much the “My Protein” product goes for?
    Thanks,
    Gary

  3. This article is precisely what your average gym goer needs to read – the amount of misinformation being pushed by PTs, the media and large companies is staggering.

    Make sure to share on Twitter, FB etc.!

    Jack

  4. Hey there Neddeh!

    Great products and article!

    Protein is very important in maintaining weight and muscle mass. As you said there are a growing amount of products over the years using protein, but not all offer the instruction and knowledge base to keep people informed of best uses.

    Thankfully you have put forth a detailed and informative description of your products,

    1. Thanks for stopping by Dathanmas,

      I try my best to inform as well as I can – the goal of manufacturers is to sell product but sometimes they aren’t transparent about all aspects of what they are saying and like I exaggerate then benefits.

      Come back again for future updates

  5. Science Guy ,

    This is more than a guide. This is an interesting and extensive post on protein and its relationship to ” muscle building “.

    Each new paragraph is a learning experience for me and I am also pleased to see you expressing ” both ” sides of the proverbial coin.

    Instead of aggressively trying to sell me ” whey protein “, you show me the science, the experience and the use of protein by ” gym-bros ” and its results .

    This is a must-read for all athletes and others interested in muscle growth.

    Paul

  6. Hey, I think you missed something important about the anabolic window. If you are just drinking a whey shake after a workout you are NOT getting the full effect. Your bodies glucose levels have been depleted from your workout and muscle tissue has been beaten. a whey shake will help the muscles but for a full benefit you should consume a simple carb(such as candy) which will restore your glucose levels-then your shake will provide the proper recovery you are looking for!

    1. Hey Kurtis,

      I’m not sure if you have read that section fully but I do show quite strongly that consuming protein immediately after a workout (in whey protein form) doesn’t appear to be important in building more muscle mass than if you don’t. What is important is that you eat a good amount of protein some time after a workout but doing so immediately is not necessary.

      The ‘anabolic window’ as it is advertised, doesn’t exist.

      I agree that GLYCOGEN levels in muscles are depleted following a workout but they restore fairly rapidly from you bodies own energy stores and although eating carbs straight away might make you feel less tired etc it doesn’t lead to greater muscle growth.

      Your comment suggests you think I am in support of the ‘anabolic window’ when in fact all of my research suggests it doesn’t exist – at least where muscle growth is concerned.

      Cheers

  7. Thanks for the detailed review. I agree with you on the “anabolic window” after working out,, not sure where this came from. At the same time though, I think you should listen to your body. If you’re hungry, then eat! Exercise increases appetite though so maybe that’s how it got started? Either way even if it doesn’t make sense I usually have a shake after a meal lol

    1. Of course Dan, completely agree. I do like to eat something after the gym and often do have a shake as I feel hungry after a long session.

      My gripe is with the specific claim that the immediate post-workout shake is vital to development. It’s not true.

      Happy new year!

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