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“Does Whey Protein Work” for Building Muscle?

When I was new to muscle building many years ago, the hot protein on the market was egg whites. It was touted as having the best PER (protein efficiency ratio) and thus, capable of adding pounds of muscle to our bodies like nothing else. And never mind that you could fry or boil up some eggs for pennies on the dollar; convenience necessitated getting it in the form of powder from a can. This was due partly to the fact that it wasn’t yet clear that eating some of those egg yolks is nutritionally beneficial (do some people still actually eat “egg white omelets?”), and separating the yolk from the protein-rich egg whites was hardly worth the trouble for such a bland serving of food. The powder seemed almost worth it.

Protein marketers have since become savvier. Realizing they needed to provide a magical protein source that couldn’t easily be whipped up in one’s own kitchen, they began touting the ultimate “extract” from another source: Whey… the very stuff that ‘Little Miss Muffett’ ate along with her curds as she sat on her tuffett.

Where Does Whey Protein Come From?

Whey protein is a byproduct of milk when cheese products are manufactured.  During this process, the milk casein (curd) is separated from the milk and made into cheese. What’s left behind after these solids are separated is the liquid portion of the milk: whey. The whey is then filtered to remove lactose and some remaining fats before it is dried out and ‘ionized’ in order to purify it even more. After water has been removed through drying, the remaining powder is what you see in that can from the nutritional supplement store – with a few artificial flavors added in.

Mixing Protein Powder_ High Protein Chicken Breast

Does mixing and drinking a cup of 'whey protein powder' work better for 'muscle building' than simply eating 'high protein foods'?

The Benefits of Whey Protein

I actually consume whey protein quite often. However, I don’t do it with the expectation that it will send my muscle growth into the stratosphere of super-anabolism. I’ve long outgrown that kind of naiveté. Here are the benefits I get from it:
  • Convenience – It’s a fast and easy protein to consume when on the run.
  • Digestibility – This stuff is really easy on the gut. It’s satiating without being irritating.
  • High in BCAAs – Has a high amount of branch-chained amino acids for recuperation.
  • Possible Anti-Oxidative Qualities – I’m always game for adding more anti-oxidants to my system.
  • Possible Immune System-Stimulating Qualities – Always game for this too.
  • Low Fat Source – It provides high quality protein without excessive amounts of dietary fat and calories. This is great when you want a meal in which you get plenty of dietary fat from one or more of the non-protein portions of the meal.

The one drawback I see in whey protein is an element that its marketers have tried to convey as an advantage: fast digestibility. Consumed by itself, whey protein tends to digest and hit the system quickly. Although many have been led to believe that this quality in a protein adds to its muscle building potential, my rational thinking ability leads me to conclude that that’s nonsense. Think about this for a moment: If you drink whey protein right now and it hits your muscle cells thirty minutes from now, what’s the difference between that and eating a turkey sandwich two hours ago if the protein from the turkey hits your muscle cells thirty minutes from now? Both proteins hit your muscles… uh… thirty minutes from now. I see no advantage from “fast digestion.”

Interestingly, the best way to slow down the digestion of whey protein is by negating the last bulleted benefit I’ve listed above. By adding some “good fat” to whey protein (peanut butter, almond butter, olive oil), you can slow down its digestion which results in it hitting your system in a more steady and usable manner. Nothing wrong with that: getting quality protein while adding fat that can help with HDL/LDL cholesterol ratios is something that meat and egg consumption alone is just not going to do. For a great whey protein recipe that will do just that, you can click the blue link.

So… “Does Whey Protein Work for Building Muscle?”

Although I’m the one who posed the question, it’s admittedly silly when analyzed closely. All body tissue requires protein for repair and regeneration. This includes, of course, muscle tissue. If a bodybuilder is lacking enough quality protein in order to fully recuperate muscle tissue between workouts, then any quality protein source added in adequate supply to the diet will “work for building muscle.” In other words, any good protein source is going to “work” in a noticeable manner to the degree that protein was supplied in insufficient quantities prior to testing whether that protein is “working.” So I guess that means whey protein “works for building muscle.” But so does egg white protein, tuna protein, beef protein, and chicken protein.

So the real question is: Does whey protein work for building muscle to a degree that’s noticeably better than other high quality sources of protein?

Personally, I’ve not noticed a difference. If I eat beef, chicken, eggs, tuna, and other high quality animal proteins in the absence of having whey protein in the mix, I recuperate between workouts and build muscle steadily. If I add whey protein, I don’t notice any increase in recuperative ability between workouts. This doesn’t dissuade me from utilizing whey protein for variety as well as reaping the benefits listed in the bullet points above.

Whey Protein is high in BCAAs

One of the reasons for whey protein being touted as ‘good for muscle building’ is that it’s a rich source of branch-chained amino acids. These three particular amino acids, l-leucine, l-isoleucine and l-valine, are of what no less than one-third of skeletal muscle tissue is comprised. This obviously makes them important to the bodybuilder, athlete, or fat loss enthusiast in a quest to build and/or preserve muscle and strength. I think a daily serving or two of whey protein is excellent for ensuring an adequate amount of branch chained amino acids for the intensely training athlete, bodybuilder, or “dieter” who’s attempting to preserve as much fat-burning muscle as possible while losing cellulite.

Once again, however, it’s important to note that adequate amounts of BCAAs derived from other dietary sources prior to adding whey protein to one’s diet may negate any noticeable muscle building effect that the addition of whey might otherwise have. Foods high in BCAAs include beef, eggs, and dairy products. Obviously, if you’re getting all the BCAAs your body needs from sources like these, the addition of whey protein will provide a convenient and easily-digested “insurance” to the mix – but it’s hardly likely to send you into anabolic nirvana.


So here’s my answer to the question: ‘does whey protein work for building muscle?’

Yes… it “works!” But by the very definition of “works”, we might as well say that meat works for building muscle, eggs work for building muscle, yogurt works for building muscle, and getting enough sleep works for building muscle. In other words, adequate muscle recuperation between workouts “works” for building muscle.

On the same note, the right amount of muscle breakdown DURING a workout “works” for building muscle.

Bottom line: Effective muscle building is accomplished by a synergistic combination of elements; not one thing in the absence of all that’s important – including whey protein – will “work” for muscle building success.


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