I’m often asked what's the best protein powder, or protein supplement. This is one of the first questions I’m asked by younger guys wanting to put on some lean body weight. Protein powders can be quite expensive, and in most cases your money could be put to better use.
You need to look beyond the anecdotal stories of how “my friend started training last year and put on 5kg of muscle in the first 6 months of his training”. It’s easy to make the connection between gaining muscle and strength and taking protein supplements, but be careful you don’t undersell the hard work and effort you have put into your training. Generally in Australia as a population group we tend not to be deficient in protein. In the 2011-2012 National food survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics they found that the mean protein intake for males aged between 19 and 30 years old was 117.2g. When you compare this against the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) estimated protein requirements for resistance training is 1.5-1.7g per kg of body weight, which for a person weighing 80kg that would be around 120g of protein per day. This is pretty close to what the average 19 to 30 year old male is already taking in, in their diet. A couple of minor adjustments to the average person’s diet would have them at or above what the AIS suggests. The Nutrient Reference values for Australia and New Zealand give a Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) of 64g per day for males between 19 and 70. The average person has a protein intake way above this level.
Although studies have found connections between protein intake and increased muscle hypertrophy when combined with resistance training (1), there is no evidence that suggest that the level of protein required can’t be met through normal dietary means.
Taking large amounts of a single amino acid could potentially cause a deficiency in other amino acids. This is because the demand on protein carriers by the excess ingestion of one amino can limit the absorption of other amino acids. This can also lead to toxicity in extreme instances (2).
Don’t underestimate the importance of Carbohydrates and fats in your diet. By consuming the correct amount of these macro nutrients you will spare more of the protein you ingest in your diet to be used for recovery from your training, and to synthesis the proteins required to increase lean body weight. You don’t want to use that expensive protein powder as an energy source when there are plenty of inexpensive carbohydrate foods that will not only provide energy for your workout and taste great, but are also loaded with nutrients that your body needs to function efficiently.
So my advice is to save your money and understand that your biggest improvements will come from your natural adaptation to training, recovery, and well balanced healthy diet, not from spending all your hard earned cash on expensive supplements.