Timing of protein intake How important is it?

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Bodybuilders are taught: after training you should take protein as soon as possible. But is that really the case?

Key points:

1.   For optimal muscle growth, consume approximately 1.6 g of protein per kg of body weight daily (a little more if desired, but don’t overdo it).

2.   Proteins are needed for muscle recovery and building after strength training and this is done through muscle protein synthesis. After strength training, muscle protein synthesis is increased for 24 to 72 hours (the so-called anabolic window).

3.   Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins cannot be stored and preserved until when they are needed most (such as during the anabolic window).

4.   Your body is therefore much more dependent on acute protein intake to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It is important that a minimum of proteins is needed to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (about 20 g). However, there is also a maximum amount of proteins that can be used in one go to increase that synthesis (about 40 g).

5.   That is why it is not so much the timing, but the distribution of proteins that is important: divide your proteins more or less evenly over four to six intakes per day, i.e. meals with 20 to 40 grams of high-quality proteins, always with three to four hours between meals.

6.   Schedule your workout in between two of those protein-rich meals. That way you are assured that your body can absorb enough proteins during and after training. So how fast you need protein post workout depends on what and when you have eaten before the training.

7.   If you haven’t had a protein-rich pre-workout meal, or no meal at all (you train on an empty stomach), then you should have a shot of protein right after training.

8.   Also take a shot of protein (preferably 40 grams, casein protein) before going to sleep to facilitate nighttime muscle building.

9.   The use of protein powders is not necessary, but it can be useful, especially if you have trouble meeting your daily protein needs through regular food.


As a strength athlete/bodybuilder you need more protein than normal. This is because the building blocks of proteins, amino acids, are used to repair muscle damage caused by strength training. In addition, your body uses those amino acids to build new muscle mass, provided that your training has provided sufficient stimulus to do so (overload). The process of repairing and building muscle proteins is called muscle protein synthesis.

Research has shown that 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day is required and is sufficient for optimal muscle building. It’s okay to eat a little more protein, but keep 2.2 g/kg/d as an upper limit. Otherwise you will eat too much protein, at the expense of your intake of carbohydrates, which are also very important for muscle growth.


In principle, all types of protein (animal and vegetable) are sufficient to facilitate muscle growth, although it is best to choose protein sources that are also healthy.

Protein powders and other protein supplements are not a must, but can be useful for practical reasons, such as when you don’t have time to prepare a meal. The disadvantage of protein powders is that they do not contain any other valuable nutrients.


Muscle protein synthesis is highest during the so-called anabolic window of opportunity. That ‘window’ stays open for 24 to 72 hours after training, depending on how hard you trained and what your training status is (beginner, intermediate or advanced).

In advanced athletes, the peak of muscle protein synthesis often occurs within the first ten hours after training. After 24 hours, muscle protein synthesis shows little increase, depending on how great the training load has been. In untrained individuals, the peak occurs much later and muscle protein synthesis often lasts at least 48 hours. See figure below.


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Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins cannot be stored and preserved until the times when they are most needed, such as during the anabolic window. Your body is therefore much more dependent on acute protein intake to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It is important here that a minimum of proteins is needed to optimally stimulate muscle protein synthesis, namely about 20 grams i ][ ii ] . However, there is also a maximum amount of proteins that can be used in one go to increase that synthesis, namely about 40 grams iii ] . The latter because of the so-called muscle full effect.

The foregoing means that it is best to divide your protein intake evenly throughout the day in portions of 20-40 grams at a time, always with three to four hours between meals. A meta-study by muscle growth expert Brad Schoenfeld confirms this iv ] .

20-40 g is still a fairly wide margin. However, at 20 grams you have already achieved a large part (~90%) of the muscle protein synthesis i ] [ ii ] . Nevertheless, a shot of 40 grams of protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis somewhat better than with 20 grams, according to research vii ] . Now you don’t have to eat 40 grams of protein every meal; save such a 40 gram shot for ‘special’ moments, such as your first meal after training, and just before bedtime (see below).


Now you also know where the ‘rule’ comes from that you should take proteins after training: your body has no stock and therefore has to be fed.

But be aware, there is a difference between intake and absorption of proteins. If you have a meal with 40 grams of protein an hour before your workout, your body can have protein for several hours after your workout. There is then no need and it is even undesirable to take a new ‘shot’ of proteins immediately after training. The latter is only necessary if you trained on an empty stomach or if your pre-workout meal did not contain much protein.

That is why the advice is: plan your training between two meals, so that your body always has enough protein, both during and after the training. Some examples to illustrate:

Training on an empty stomach
07:00 Training
08:00 Meal/shake* with 40 g protein

Protein-rich pre-workout meal
17:00 Meal with 30 g protein
19:00-20:00 Training
21:00 Meal/shake with 40 g protein

Just a snack before training
15:00 Snack with 15 g protein
17:00-18:00 Training
18:00 Meal/shake* with 40 g protein

* Because you have consumed little or no protein before training, it may be best to take a shake of whey protein powder, because this protein is absorbed by the body the fastest.

Do you also have to take the anabolic window into account? Not really, because if you train several times a week, that window is basically open continuously. Only advanced players may need slightly more precise timing v ] . Because the peak of protein synthesis occurs within ten hours for them, it may be advisable to take large shots of proteins, of 40 grams, in roughly twelve hours after the training.

So in general you can say that spreading and timing of protein intake becomes more important the more advanced you are.


Because an important part of muscle recovery and building takes place during nighttime sleep, we recommend taking a shot of 40 grams of protein immediately before sleeping, preferably a slow-digesting protein, namely casein (in the form of a shake or for example a bake cottage cheese).

Assuming you’re sleeping for seven to eight hours, a shot like that isn’t strictly enough for the whole night, even if you’re taking casein. However, we do not recommend setting the alarm to have a protein shake in the middle of the night; a good, uninterrupted night’s sleep is just that little bit more important. If you wake up on your own at night, you can of course do that, although it is not a must.

Example for an 80 kg man
08:00 Breakfast: 30 g protein
12:30 Lunch: 20 g protein
17:00 Dinner: 30 g protein
18:30 Training
20:00 Protein shake: 40 g protein
23:30 Cottage cheese: 40 g protein
Total: 160 g protein (= 2 g/kg)


We’ve rounded up this article by rounding up and debunking the biggest myths about timed protein intake, inspired by an infographic by Brad Schoenfeld.

Myth Fact
If you don’t take protein within 45 minutes of your workout, your body will go into a catabolic state. Muscles remain sensitive to the absorption of proteins for up to 24-72 hours after training.
There is no post-workout anabolic window of opportunity. That does exist, but it extends much wider than a few minutes or hours after training.
Timing protein intake around exercise is not important. The total intake of proteins in one day (minimum ~1.6 g/kg/d) is indeed the most important, but spreading proteins over the day is also important, especially as you are more advanced.
What matters most is what you eat after your workout. Whether you right after the workout protein should eat depends on what and when to have eaten training. The closer to training your pre-workout protein intake was, the less urgent the post-workout protein intake.
You should eat protein in combination with carbohydrates to optimize the insulin response. Adding carbohydrates to a post-workout protein shake does not provide any additional benefit in terms of muscle protein synthesis.


  • i ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19056590
  • ii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24257722
  • iii ] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23459753
  • iv ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26530155
  • v ] https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
  • vi ] https://www.facebook.com/MennoHenselmans/posts/does-nutrient-timing-matter-it-depends-on-various-factors-including-your-trainin/2249401281784361
  • vii ] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4985555/

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