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Why You Need Whey

Did you ever see a study that seemed to contradict common sense when it comes to the basics of exercise and supplementation? You're not the only one. Here's how to break down the flaws in anti-supp research and take away lessons you can really use!

One day a couple of years ago, I was doing my daily Internet rounds and checking out the latest research—of which there's always plenty.

All of a sudden, my eyes fell upon this ominous title: "Whey Protein Before and During Resistance Exercise Has No Effect on Muscle Mass and Strength in Untrained Young Adults."

My heart immediately sank. Whey protein, nectar of the weightlifting gods, has no impact on muscle mass and strength? How could that be possible?

Upon further review, it became clear that it wasn't possible. But that doesn't mean I didn't take anything away of value from this study—or any of the countless others whose premises, methods, and conclusions I ultimately disagree with.

This particular study can pass along some valuable lessons to you, too, both about how to use whey, and how to use research.

Let's get beyond the headline and take a closer look.

The Study Basics

This study, which was performed at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, involved 29 people (of which 12 dropped out during the study) who did not have a history of training with weights.1 The participants were randomized to either receive 25 grams of a whey protein supplement, or a placebo/control drink of carbohydrates.

They drank half of the mixture immediately prior to each of their four weekly full-body weight training sessions, and sipped on the other half after completing sets. At the end of the eight weeks, neither group had gained any muscle, but both groups increased their bench press by a few pounds.

Don't jump to unverified conclusions based off one research study. Investigate the full body of evidence. Protein can help build muscle.

At first glance, the headlines seem right on. Whey protein didn't help these weight training newbies get any bigger or much stronger. You might as well trade in your workout whey protein shake for a root beer. Cheers!

Not so fast. Having looked at enough research to fill a CrossFit box over the course of my career, a few things stood out immediately from the basic premise of the study.

The first red flag: The people in this study were untrained when it came to resistance training. When you start training with weights, neurological adaptations occur which result in your body getting stronger simply due to becoming more efficient with the movement patterns. This could explain the gains in strength without much new muscle growth.

However, that brings us to the second red flag: Neither group gained any muscle. From this, we could conclude that adding whey protein doesn't increase muscle mass. Plenty of research says otherwise. Conversely, we could conclude that weight training doesn't increase muscle mass—which we all know, even anecdotally, isn't true. And the existing research definitely backs that up.

This was the point where the study abstract—you know, that little 250-word snippet on PubMed we've all looked at and drawn conclusions from—ceased to be helpful. If I wanted to dig deeper, it would have to involve the study itself. If I just blew your mind because you thought the abstracts were the studies, you're welcome.

Whey Alone Isn't Enough

You can't just take protein and get huge. That's silly. You must consume a caloric surplus or you will not gain.

Looking at the participants' diet information in the study provided me with the answer that I was looking for. On average, regardless of whether they were in the whey group or the placebo group, the subjects' daily caloric intake decreased by about 200 calories per day from the beginning to the end of the study.

The people in the protein supplement group actually ate around 20 g of protein less per day at the end of the study than at the start, despite supplementing with an extra 25 g per day four days per week.


You can't decrease your caloric intake on the order of 200 per day and expect to get bigger?I don't care what you drink during your workout.

Building muscle requires an anabolic environment, and there's nothing anabolic about a 180-pound 23-year-old man eating 2,000 calories per day.

If someone—anyone, really—is training full-body lifts four days per week, their basic energy needs are going to be at least 2,500 calories per day. That number doesn't include the additional calories that would be needed for them to add muscle.

Put another way, this study put whey protein in a position to fail. This isn't the first time a study was structured this way, nor will it be the last. So does that mean there's nothing to be learned from it, and that it should be balled up and thrown in the nearest fireplace? Definitely not.

The Real Takeaways

I see two morals in this story. The first is that workout supplementation with protein isn't the answer by itself. Whey—or whatever protein you prefer—is just one piece of the overall muscle-building puzzle. You still need to eat a caloric excess beyond what you burn each day in order to build muscle.

The second takeaway is that nutrition and exercise research has become a major media spectacle. The results of new research get plastered all over websites and magazines on a regular basis, as if that one study is the definitive work on a given topic. That is almost never the case.

Case in point: Five days before the "no whey" study was published, the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" published a review of 22 clinical trials looking at protein supplementation and muscle growth.2 The total participants numbered 680, not just 17. And guess what? This review found that protein supplementation enhanced the anabolic effects of weight training, leading to increases in lean body mass, maximal strength, and muscle fiber size.

When reading research pay attention to the number of subjects. If 17 people fail, but 700 succeed, that probably means something.

Don't ditch your protein shakes! They're an efficient and effective way to jumpstart protein synthesis and deliver key nutrients at the times when your body needs them most. My first suggestion for that time wouldn't be before and during your workout like in the study—although that can be effective—but rather post-workout, when the spike in blood amino acids from the shake will be in sync with the increase in protein synthesis from exercise. That, alongside a solid program and sufficient diet, is the recipe for growth.

Whey Power!

If you wonder what type of shake I would have given the participants in the "no whey" study, the answer is one with both whey protein and extra calories.

Double Chocolate Cherry Power Shake

If muscle-building is your goal, start by consuming 500 more calories per day than you burn. The simplest and most delicious way I can think of to get them would be from a "power shake" like this one. It makes one serving.

  1. Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. For a thicker shake, add less water or more ice cubes.

Double Chocolate Cherry Power Shake PDF (37.5 KB)

  1. Weisgarber KD, et al. Whey protein before and during resistance exercise has no effect on muscle mass and strength in untrained young adults. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2012 Dec;22(6):463-9.
  2. Cermak NM, et al. Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Dec;96(6):1454-64.

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