Hard-training strength athletes require lots of protein on a daily basis to make sure that their muscles have all of the amino acids necessary to grow bigger and stronger. It’s tough — and expensive — to get all of that protein from whole foods, though, and that’s why protein supplements have been so popular for most of the last century.
While most of the protein drinks of the past were putrid in flavor and yielded questionable results, we’re lucky to live in a time that is chock full of good, quality protein supplements.
In fact, we have so many choices that it can be difficult to know which is the best.
Let’s take a look at the four basic types of protein supplements and try to figure out which one is indeed superior if building solid muscle is your primary goal.
Whey is one of two types of protein derived from whole milk, with casein being the other. For many years, whey was just considered a byproduct of casein production and was simply discarded.
Then, researchers began to examine that thin liquid they were throwing away and found that it contained about 20% of the protein in milk, and that protein was absorbed by the human body more quickly and completely than any protein that had been studied before.
The result was a decent uptick in protein synthesis, which is what bodybuilders are always looking for.
After a couple of decades on the market, whey protein production methods have been honed to the point that it’s not only one of the more effective supplements available, it’s also one of the least expensive, depending on the form.
Whey isolate is a very pure form of the protein that contains almost no fat or lactose, making it acceptable for many people who can’t tolerate milk products. Isolate is absorbed extremely quickly and could cause blood sugar spikes for some users.
Whey concentrate, on the other hand, is less processed than the isolate form, so it doesn’t reach the blood stream quite as fast, and it may contain just a tad of fat or lactose. In general, concentrate costs less on a per-gram basis than isolate.
Casein is the more abundant of two milk proteins, making up about 80% of the protein found in whole milk. In contrast to whey, casein is absorbed fairly slowly, which helps to keep potential blood sugar spikes in check.
That slow uptake rate also means that casein can provide a more steady supply of amino acids flowing to your muscle over several hours. While casein does not improve protein synthesis like whey, research has shown that the slow amino release may allow casein to help prevent muscle breakdown, which is also vitally important to bodybuilders.
Egg White Protein
Before research into whey protein got under way in earnest, egg white, or albumin, protein was the gold standard for protein supplements. In fact, it held the second slot on the biological value chart for protein, just below whole eggs.
The advantage of egg white protein over whole eggs is that you get lots of protein with no fat or cholesterol. The disadvantage is that the protein is not quite as high in quality.
Even today, with the ready availability of whey and casein, some bodybuilders still swear by egg protein, and it is a quality, viable supplement.
The final major category of protein supplements can be loosely labeled “plant-based” and features protein from sources like soy, peas, and rice. These can be a great way to boost your protein intake, but they present some significant disadvantages, too.
First, plant protein is generally not as complete or usable as is protein from animal sources. That means you’ll need to take in more of it to get the effects your looking for.
Second, because it takes a lot of plant material to yield sufficient protein to make a potent supplement, most of these products are more expensive than their animal-based counterparts.
Which Is Best?
In truth, there may not be one best protein supplement for everyone. Generally, a good quality whey concentrate will get you the most protein for your money and is probably the safest place to start.
There are times, however, when the slow release of casein will be what you need. The good news is that you can also get casein from foods like cottage cheese, so that could be an adjunct to your whey supplement.
The best approach for most lifters is to have both whey and casein on hand, if you can afford it, and to use them separately when it makes the most sense — bed time for casein, post-workout for whey. At other times of the day, you can mix the two for the best of both worlds.