Drag your butt to the gym, slay your session, down a protein shake within 30 minutes, and go on with your day—we all know the formula to carve killer muscles, right?
Yet, when has anything ever been that simple? “It is crucial to consume protein within 30 to 45 minutes after your workout—but that’s at a minimum,” says Chris Jordan, C.S.C.S., director of exercise physiology at The Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute.
That half-hour window is heavily influenced by, well, a whole lot of things. Plus, there’s 23.5 other hours in the day to consider. “You need to be consuming sufficient protein each and every day—both workout and rest days—evenly distributed across multiple meals to help optimize repair and growth.”
So what is the ideal protein shake schedule to build bulk?
We’ll get to that. First, a quick biology refresher: When you strength train, you’re actually damaging the muscles, causing small tears to the muscle tissue. It sounds bad, but this is what stimulates the muscle to repair itself and come back even stronger and bigger, Jordan explains. In order to repair, though, your muscle needs amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and energy (carbohydrates) to do the job.
Why do people always talk about getting nutrients into your body within 30 minutes of a workout? Because protein uptake is faster immediately after a workout, so you’re better served to start the recovery process as soon as possible, Jordan explains. Think about it like this: Your body has burned through all those nutrients and hormones to power your workout, so you’re asking it to recover on nothing until you refill those stores. So, as soon as you can post-sweat (or likely while you're still sweating), down a shake with around 20-30g of protein.
While that 30-minute window is true to an extent, the best time to down your post-workout protein shake is actually influenced by what your pre-workout eating routine was.
A 2013 meta-analysis in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that timing your pre- and post-exercise meals to be within 3-4 hours of one another was more important to muscle growth and recovery than any post-workout window alone. That means if you eat a protein bar with around 20-30g of protein, ideally, 30 minutes before spending an hour in the weight room, you have 2.5 hours to drink that shake and build optimal bulk.
Why? “Muscle glycogen—which comes from carbohydrates—is our primary source of energy fueling workouts,” Jordan explains. “If glycogen levels are low, like from going too long without eating, your body will begin to break protein down during exercise to provide some energy.” Loading up on protein and carbs before a workout helps keep you fueled to the finish line and keeps your body from eating up those protein pools during exercise so that it can tap into them immediately after.
3. The other 23.5 hours of the day
While protein uptake is fast-tracked immediately after your workout, the window for muscle protein synthesis stays open for roughly 24 hours, according to a 2012 meta-analysis in Nutrition & Metabolism. That means you need to focus on ingesting enough of the macronutrient all day, every day. Aim to pile in 20-30g—food sources like chicken count too—every three hours, or four times a day. That same study analysis found that consuming that amount of protein at this specific rate was better at helping men build lean body mass than eating small amounts more often or large amounts less frequently.
4. Rest days
As for days where you don’t make it to the gym and aren’t doing fresh damage to your muscles, do everything exactly the same, Jordan advises. “Muscle recovery, repair, and growth starts after your workout and continues for days,” he explains. Peak muscle inflammation—what we feel as soreness—may not even reach its pinnacle for 48 hours post-sweat session. “Insufficient protein intake on any given day can decrease protein synthesis and impair muscle repair and growth over the short- and long-term,” he adds.
Bummer that a rest day for your body can’t be a rest from your meal plan, but think of it this way: Even when you skip a workout or two, keeping your protein schedule consistent means your muscles can still reap some benefit from the couch.