Protein shakes are a quick and easy way to increase the amount of protein in your diet. But how many protein shakes a day should you actually be drinking? And how many is too many?
Let’s find out.
Since you’re reading an article about protein shakes, I’m going to assume a few things are true about you.
First, you’ve heard that more protein is going to give you more muscle, and more muscle is exactly what you’re looking for.
You’re lifting weights three or four times a week, and you want to make sure you’re doing everything humanly possible to maximize the speed at which muscle is gained.
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So you’ve started using protein shakes to increase the amount of protein you get from your diet. But you’re not quite sure how many protein shakes a day you should be drinking.
You don’t want to miss out on any gains because you’re not getting enough protein in your diet, but nor do you want to eat more protein than is strictly necessary.
So, with all that in mind, how many protein shakes a day should you be drinking?
For most people, it’s probably going to be somewhere between 1 and 3 protein shakes a day. That’s the short answer. The long answer, as ever, starts with “it depends.”
How Many Protein Shakes Should I Have Each Day: The Long Answer
The number of protein shakes you should have in a day depends on how much protein you need, as well as the amount of protein you get from other sources.
First, you’ll need to work out what your daily protein intake should be. That’s going to depend on how much muscle you have, and the amount of training you’re doing.
A guy who weighs 225 pounds at 15% body fat, training hard for 5-6 hours each week, is going to need a lot more protein than someone weighing 50 pounds less going for the odd jog now and again.
For most people wanting to maximize gains in muscle size, you’re going to need at least 0.7 grams of protein per pound, or 1.6 grams per kilogram, of bodyweight.
The number of protein shakes you should have in a day is whatever number is required to hit that daily protein target.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re getting all the protein you need from the food you eat. And let’s also assume some of that protein comes from foods like fish, eggs or milk, which are all sources of high-quality protein.
Do you need more protein shakes on top of that? Not really.
As long as your protein intake is distributed throughout the day (as opposed to eaten in one or two large meals), adding protein shakes to a diet that’s already providing enough protein isn’t going to speed up muscle growth.
However, let’s say that you’re getting around 100 grams of protein each day from the food you eat. But you’ve worked out that you need around 140 grams of protein per day, and you have neither the time nor the inclination to get those missing 40 grams from food.
In this case, drinking a protein shake or two can help you bridge the gap between what you are eating and what you should be eating.
Paired with an effective training program and a lot of hard work, the extra protein will make a difference to the speed at which muscle is gained.
Protein Shakes Versus Food
The total amount of protein in your diet is important when it comes to losing fat and building muscle. But the source of that protein – assuming that some of it comes from high-quality sources – matters a lot less.
A protein shake is just a convenient way to increase the amount of high-quality protein you get from your diet.
To get 20 grams of protein from a chicken breast, for example, you’d need to put the chicken breast in the oven, wait until it was cooked, and then eat it. The total amount of time required to get 20 grams of protein into your system is going to be somewhere in the region of 30 minutes.
Mixing up and drinking a protein shake is faster, easier and a lot more convenient. You fill a glass with water, add the protein powder, mix it up with a fork, and drink it. That’s not going to take much longer than about 5 minutes.
It’s quick and it’s easy.
Protein shakes also contain a relatively small number of calories. With a whey protein isolate, for example, you get protein and very little else. Most protein-rich foods will typically be higher in carbs and fat, so you end up consuming more calories to get the same amount of protein.
On a per serving basis, the protein shake will probably work out a lot cheaper too.
To repeat, the total amount of protein in your diet is important when it comes to building muscle. But the source of that protein – assuming that some of it comes from high-quality sources like fish, eggs or milk – is a lot less critical.
How Whey Protein Shakes Compare to Milk
There was an interesting study done by a team of Norwegian researchers, who took two groups of untrained men and women, and got them to lift weights three days a week for three months .
One group took a whey protein shake twice a day, while group two got the same amount of protein from milk.
Both groups gained around the same amount of muscle. Whether the protein came from milk or whey didn’t seem to matter too much.
Even with the use of various sophisticated methods – including DEXA, MRI and ultrasound scans – to measure changes in muscle size, the researchers could find no significant differences between the milk and whey groups.
Another trial, this time by a team of US researchers, compared the effects of three different protein shakes – a whey protein concentrate, a whey protein concentrate high in lactoferrin, and hydrolyzed whey . There was also a control group that didn’t take any protein
All four groups followed the same training program, which involved lifting weights four times a week using an upper/lower split. Participants consumed 30 grams of whey protein twice a day.
On training days, the protein shakes were taken immediately before and after training. On non-training days, they were consumed between meals.
Although the researchers thought that subjects given whey protein shakes would gain the most muscle, that isn’t what happened.
On top of a diet already providing adequate amounts of protein, whey protein was no better than a placebo for increasing muscle mass in trained young men.
Do You Need a Protein Shake After Your Workout?
One of the arguments in favor of protein shakes, particularly those containing whey, is that the protein gets into your system a lot more quickly than it does with food.
As a result, you’re better off taking a protein shake rather than eating a meal after training, The protein is available to your muscles a lot more quickly, which helps to speed up the process of repair and recovery.
Is there any truth to this claim?
It’s true that whey protein is digested relatively quickly, with an absorption rate of somewhere between 8 and 10 grams per hour . But this doesn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things.
It’s not critical to get protein in your system immediately after training.
In fact, resistance training to the point of fatigue makes muscle tissue more sensitive to protein for at least 24 hours, rather than solely in the hours after exercise. The post-training “window of opportunity” stays open to protein for a lot longer than was once believed .
There are some instances where I think it’s useful to take a protein shake immediately after a workout. If you’re doing fasted weight training first thing in the morning, for example, and won’t get the chance to eat until lunchtime, then taking a protein shake after exercise is a good idea.
But in most cases, the immediate provision of a rapidly digested source of protein after training isn’t hugely important. The speed at which protein is absorbed matters a lot less than your overall protein intake for the day.
There is an upper limit to the amount of protein your body can use to synthesize new muscle tissue. Once you hit that limit, extra protein isn’t going to help you build muscle any faster.
As long as you’re getting enough high-quality protein each day, you can build muscle without protein shakes.
They do make hitting your protein targets for the day convenient and easy, which is why I drink 2-3 shakes a day myself. But think of them as an optional extra, rather than a strict requirement.
See Also: The Muscle Building Cheat Sheet
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About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.