You’ve probably heard someone tell you to “get your protein in after your workout so you don’t waste it.” And while that may only be partially true, the fact does remain: Muscle is built in the kitchen after you’ve put in all that hard work in the gym. Getting the right nutrients after you finish a workout can help you rebuild and repair your muscle proteins and glycogen stores and stimulate new muscle growth. When you finish at the gym, you need to reach for the best high-protein foods.
Protein has become synonymous with lifting weights and building muscle for a long time now, but it’s important to understand why that is. When you lift weights or strength train, those movements trigger a breakdown of muscle protein. How much depends on how long you’ve been training and the type of exercise you do, but even the most elite athletes experience muscle breakdown when they lift.
An Anabolic Window for Protein Synthesis
Lifting weights stimulates your body to increase protein synthesis following exercise. A number of studies have investigated whether a post-workout “anabolic window” exists; essentially, this window is a period of time immediately after a workout where your body is primed to build muscle. There are claims that immediate post-workout protein consumption is required to maximize muscle protein building, but the research to support that anabolic window isn’t definitive. Previously, the accepted view held that there’s a 30-minute post-workout window to get your protein in, but newer research suggests the time period is longer—up to two hours after exercise.
Protein quality matters, too. Aim for real food first (like chicken, eggs, etc.) as these protein sources contain all the essential amino acids (nine are required through the diet) in a digestible form. If whole-food protein sources aren’t feasible, aim for whey-based protein powders—these are derived from dairy and also contain all the essential amino acids for muscle protein synthesis.
Here’s the amount of protein you should try to consume post-lift:
- 0.14 to 0.23g of protein per pound of body weight (0.3 to 0.5g per kilogram)
- For most people, around 20 to 40g of protein seems to maximize the body’s ability to recover after exercise
- Aim to consume a protein meal or protein snack within 30 to 120 minutes after your workout
The Best Best High-Protein Foods to Eat After a Workout
The eight foods below are excellent sources of protein and will help you get 20 to 40 grams of complete protein after your pump.
1. Chicken Breast
- 3.5 oz serving
- 31g protein
- 4 large whole eggs
- 25g protein
- 6 oz serving of wild Atlantic salmon
- 33g protein
- 3 oz Albacore tuna (canned in water)
- 21g protein
5. Cottage Cheese
- 1 cup low-fat (2%) cottage cheese
- 24g protein
- 6 oz top sirloin steak
- 46g protein
- 6 oz pork loin
- 46g protein
8. Whey Protein Shake
Chocolate Peanut Butter Gains Shake
- 12 oz chocolate milk (dairy or non-dairy)
- 2 tbsp nut butter (or try PB2 powdered nut butters if you’re on the go)
- 1 scoop chocolate whey protein isolate (20g of protein per scoop)
Add all ingredients except protein powder to the blender and blend on low. Then add protein powder and re-blend until consistency is smooth.
Jordan Mazur, MS, RD is the Director of Nutrition for the San Francisco 49ers.
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