by Chad Kerksick PhD September 03, 2012 5 min read
This is an easy one to write and defend. So many components of muscle building and recovery are supported by high-quality protein. High-quality protein sources abound and include the two milk proteins (whey and casein), egg and flesh proteins (a collective term for fish, beef, pork, bison and all forms of poultry such as chicken, turkey, and various game fowl). Whey protein is used in the exercise and bodybuilding world for a number of reasons, but first and foremost because it routinely is regarded as the highest quality source of protein available.
Different production methods yield three predominant products: whey protein concentrate (which typically ranges from 35 – 89% protein), whey protein isolate (>90% protein) and hydrolyzed whey protein isolate (or concentrate). Of these, speculation abounds whether a hydrolyzed protein is better than an isolate and many people agree that a hydrolyzed whey protein isolate gives you the best of both worlds.
Quickly, a hydrolyzed protein is put through processes that breaks up (the sciency name is hydrolyze) the protein molecule. Instead of being hundreds (or even thousands) of amino acids long now the larger molecule is broken up into several much shorter chains of amino acids (called peptides). Your stomach is able to more quickly digest and assimilate shorter peptide chains, thus some of the advantages of a hydrolyzed protein is quicker release of amino acids into the blood (where they can then be transported to needed tissue), higher insulin spikes (to permit anabolic activity and limit catabolic activity) and less allergenicity (which can aid in digestion and greater immune function) (Manninen 2009). Some studies have even reported more favorable performance and muscle building outcomes (Saunders, Moore et al. 2009; Tang, Moore et al. 2009).
From top to bottom, whey proteins when compared to other sources of protein typically have the greatest concentrations:
1) Total amounts of amino acids
2) Essential amino acids
3) Branched-chain amino acids, and
Herein is really the only reason why whey protein is held in such high regard. Ingestion of small doses of whey protein has been shown to exert maximal stimulation of muscle protein synthesis both with and without any additional anabolic stimulus of resistance training (Tang, Moore et al. 2009).
In addition to rapidly stimulating increases in amino acids in the blood and stimulating the building of various muscle proteins, a number of studies support the use of whey protein over the course of several weeks of resistance training. For some people, these longer studies are more telling as they provide a more realistic answer to just exactly your body responds and changes when resistance training (as opposed to how your body responds one day in a laboratory setting). For starters, 36 men followed the same resistance training program for a period of six weeks and in a blinded fashion supplemented with either whey protein (1.2 grams/kg/day), a carbohydrate placebo (1.2 grams/kg/day) or whey protein + creatine monohydrate. Changes in strength and lean tissue was measured and whey protein was found to significantly increase lean mass and strength when compared to those taking the carbohydrate placebo (Burke, Chilibeck et al. 2001). For those keeping track of the best supplements for a strength and power athlete, when creatine (at a dosage of 0.1 grams/kg/day) was added to the whey protein, even greater increases in lean mass and strength were found (Burke, Chilibeck et al. 2001).
Additional studies have used high quality isolate versions of whey protein and have found great results for those who wish to gain mass and strength. For example, young, healthy men supplemented their diets with either whey protein or casein protein while completing a ten week resistance training program. When whey protein was provided, significantly greater gains in lean mass and greater losses of fat mass were found when compared to changes seen when casein protein was added. Additionally, greater improvements in strength were also realized by the whey protein group (Cribb, Williams et al. 2006). A similar study provided combinations of whey protein and creatine to young, healthy men while following an eleven week resistance training program. In this study, the groups that provided some combination of creatine or whey protein experienced significantly greater increases in strength and muscle. Specifically, the group which just provided whey protein experienced greater improvements in both strength and muscle mass. Moreover, when creatine was added these improvements were oftentimes even greater (Cribb, Williams et al. 2007).
Finally, some studies have explored the use of whey protein to aid in weight loss and improvements in health and body composition. When compared to soy protein and a carbohydrate placebo, individuals who supplemented their daily diets with 56 grams of whey protein
(Baer, Stote et al. 2011) experienced more favorable outcomes. After 6 months of just adding whey protein to their diet (no exercise program was involved), significantly more body weight, fat mass and waist circumference measures were lost when compared to people who supplemented with a carbohydrate placebo. The soy protein group also lost weight and improved body composition to a similar extent as what was seen with whey protein.
As you can see from the studies outlined, whey protein is an absolute must for every exercising athlete and especially athletes who desire to increase their strength and lean mass. Please note, however, that whey protein may also be important for people who desire to lose weight, lose fat and improve their body composition as well. All in all when the studies outlining the excellent composition of amino acids found in whey protein and how the body responds after one or more doses of whey protein are examined, a person can easily see that whey protein is an important consideration for a strength and power athlete.
Baer, D. J., K. S. Stote, et al. (2011). “Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults.” J Nutr 141(8): 1489-1494.
Burke, D. G., P. D. Chilibeck, et al. (2001). “The effect of whey protein supplementation with and without creatine monohydrate combined with resistance training on lean tissue mass and muscle strength.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 11(3): 349-364.
Cribb, P. J., A. D. Williams, et al. (2006). “The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 16(5): 494-509.
Cribb, P. J., A. D. Williams, et al. (2007). “Effects of whey isolate, creatine, and resistance training on muscle hypertrophy.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 39(2): 298-307.
Manninen, A. H. (2009). “Protein hydrolysates in sports nutrition.” Nutr Metab (Lond) 6: 38.
Saunders, M. J., R. W. Moore, et al. (2009). “Carbohydrate and protein hydrolysate coingestions improvement of late-exercise time-trial performance.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 19(2): 136-149.
Tang, J. E., D. R. Moore, et al. (2009). “Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men.” J Appl Physiol 107(3): 987-992.