Protein powder is crucial for advanced muscle gain. While anyone who is looking to increase muscle mass can benefit from protein powder, I can tell you from both personal and professional experience that finding the right protein supplement becomes even more essential as we age.
While it's true that the "average" person can get all of the protein they need fairly easily from eating a balanced diet, research suggests that both older adults and exercisers seeking muscle growth can benefit from consuming up to double the amount of protein of the recommended daily allowance.
There's a vast body of research supporting the use of protein supplements for gains in strength and muscle mass. I'll briefly go over a 2018 systematic review on the effect of protein supplementation on training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults simply because it's so comprehensive. When researchers looked at data from 49 studies involving nearly 1,900 participants, they found that protein supplementation significantly increased strength and muscle size.
I can say that I've personally benefited from supplementing with protein powder. Trying to achieve my goal gains without it simply wouldn't be possible. That's why I have been so eager to do a big overview of the best protein powders on the market for muscle gain. In this article, I'm going to cover the facts about how protein powders help us to grow lean muscle later in this article, but first I'd like to share my top picks.
Our Top 3 Picks
(Scroll Down for The Full Top 10 List)
Why I Like It
Stack this with Ignition and it's one of the best post-stack muscle recovery shakes, which helps build muscle
So many gym fanatics use this protein powder and for good reason - it works. Very similar to Phormula-1, but more affordable.
I love the grass fed aspect, but at the end of the day I tried this protein powder for 30 days to see if it's actually worth it. It's #3 on my list for a reason - it does work for muscle gain.
#1. 1st Phorm Phormula-1
I was impressed by the fact that this protein powder didn't get clumpy when I mixed it. I can't tell you how miserable poorly mixed protein shakes make me! The big positive thing that I'll say about what 1st Phorm has done here is that they formulated this powder using low-temperature processing to make cross-flow, micro-filtrated whey protein isolate that is very usable for the body.
While 20 grams of protein is on the lower side of what I like to see, I really wanted to try this product because I had heard that it was a really tasty, easy-to-get-down formula that could be a good go-to recommendation for clients trying protein shakes for the first time. I'll point out that this powder has essentially zero sugar even though it offers some pretty robust flavor options.
Some of the additives and artificial coloring in this powder make me apprehensive. It's also a little pricey for the protein content. However, I'll say that this could be a good introductory protein powder for someone who wants to be sure they will like what they taste.
#2. JOCKO MOLK Protein Powder
JOCKO MOLK is actually something I personally used even before I thought up the idea of creating any kind of review list for the best protein powders. This is a product that actually exceeds the hype surrounding it. The time-released blend of whey concentrate, whey isolate, micellar casein, and egg is great for growth and recovery.
JOCKO MOLK is one of the cleanest products in this category. The only things added to the key protein sources in the formulation are cocoa and monk fruit for flavoring. Each scoop has 22 grams of protein. Lastly, this one stands out because it contains probiotics and digestive enzymes that help to absorb protein better by fortifying your gut health and immune system.
The big shock about this one is that it's probably the most delicious protein powder out there even though it has almost no ingredients. I loved that I didn't get any kind of strong aftertaste after gulping it down. I wish I could say that about most other protein powders on the market.
Of course, JOCKO MOLK is famously a keto-friendly protein powder.
Read my full review of JOCKO MOLK.
#3. Transparent Labs 100% Grass Fed Whey Protein
After taking this protein powder, I am honestly surprised that it's not more popular. First, 28 grams of protein per scoop represents one of the industry's highest protein-by-weight ratios. Transparent Labs also manages to get its formulation just a hair cleaner than JOCKO MOLK's. In addition to 100% grass-fed protein, the ingredient list also contains stevia combined with cocoa, strawberry, or other natural flavoring. As someone who recommends protein powders to clients, I love that this one comes in 11 different flavors for people to try.
#4. Clean Simple Eats Protein Powder
Clean Simple Eats has slightly more going on with its protein powder compared to other brands. With 20 grams of protein, this powder is on the lower side for my personal needs. However, I do plan to keep it in my back pocket specifically for some of my clients who are looking for protein powders for weight loss. I say that because this blend has prebiotic VitaFiber® in the mix to help support gut health and digestion. The vanilla flavor also has a dessert-like quality that I think can be very welcoming for someone who is new to protein shakes.
#5. Just Ingredients Protein Powder
This 100% grass-fed protein powder that's sourced from New Zealand was a pleasant surprise for me. Offering 24 grams of protein per scoop, it's definitely on the higher end of the ratio scale when compared to some of the popular products out there. What makes this product unique is that it uses a combination of classic whey protein, pea protein, pumpkin seed protein, and chia seed protein.
If you're someone who needs extra iron, you'll like that each scoop offers 15% of your daily value. I also like seeing collagen thrown in the mix.
I'll place this chocolate protein powder among some of the best when it comes to flavor. Using cocoa and coconut milk, Just Ingredients creates a very luxurious taste that makes it easy to stay on track with your daily protein fix.
#6. Gold Standard Whey Protein
This product got on my radar because it has close to a 5-star rating based on almost 34,000 reviews. I decided to try it for myself after seeing that it offers 24 grams of whey protein. While I don't personally use coffee as a carrier for protein powder, I had heard from multiple people that the mocha flavoring of this powder was good enough to basically make a "protein Starbucks drink" at home. My guess is that the high protein amount offered in such a good flavor is the reason why this continues to be one of the biggest word-of-mouth protein powders out there.
Aside from the tiny amount of sunflower oil and soy, this is a perfectly clean product with almost no filler. The bulk size of the tub breaks things down to just over a dollar per serving.
Read my comparison of Gold Standard Whey vs JOCKO MOLK.
#7. Legion Athletics Whey Protein Powder
While 23 grams of protein per scoop is very respectable, Legion Athletics goes a little too heavy on the filler for my comfort zone. Sunflower oil creamer as a first ingredient turned me off a bit. However, I will say that I agree with the nearly 10,000 reviews online that mostly say that this is a very delicious, smooth formulation that doesn't cause any bloating or discomfort.
With the price being similar to prices for some of the powders with better quality, I probably wouldn't label this my first choice. However, I do think it's worth considering if you're looking for a good non-GMO, whey-based protein supplement that has a pretty decadent taste.
#8. Dymatize Super Mass Gainer Protein Powder
This protein powder belongs in a special category for people who are looking for extreme fuel. With each serving offering 52 grams of protein, this product made me excited to test it out during an intense training period. However, something I didn't realize until after I had already received my order of Dymatize is that the serving size is absolutely huge.
My impression was that this protein powder is slightly chalkier than almost all of the ones I've tried.
If you're someone who simply cannot stick to taking a daily multivitamin, this power actually packs in most of the big essential vitamins and minerals you need. It offers up to 200% of the daily value for things like vitamin C, vitamin B, vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, and iron.
I think this is a very niche product that is only going to be suitable for people who are aspiring to be mass gainers. However, the low price combined with huge serving sizes could open up the potential to simply use each tub for smaller portions as a cost-effective way to enjoy a high-quality protein powder.
#9. Muscle Milk Gainer Protein Powder
This is a combination powder featuring whey protein and casein protein. With 32 grams of protein, this powder may help you to see gains faster if you're doing everything else right. While I generally liked the vanilla flavor that I chose to try over the chocolate, the serving size of four scoops really became tiresome after a few days of sticking with this product. What kept me going was the way the slow-release and fast-release effects of whey and casein helped me to feel really consistent both during and after workouts.
I also want to point out that each serving has 650 calories. Most of the other protein powders generally have between 100 and 150. For this reason, you really have to make sure you're putting in the effort with burning calories before you can consider jumping to this powder.
#10. Ronnie Coleman King Mass XXL Mass Gainer Protein Powder
You can get up to 50 grams of protein per serving with this powder if you increase your serving to six scoops. A standard two-scoop serving has just 17 grams of protein. If you've read the nine reviews above, you know that 17 grams puts this one in last place.
While the "vanilla ice cream" flavor was tolerable, this ranked near the bottom for me in terms of being delicious and mixable. While nothing about this powder really offended me, it hit me as being an unremarkable product simply because it has some soy, oat, and other filler ingredients while still technically offering the lowest protein amount of any of the products I tried.
Understanding Protein Powder and Muscle Growth
Protein contains amino acids that are the building blocks for muscles. In addition to helping us to grow muscle, these amino acids also help us to repair and maintain muscle mass.
When we exercise, we are actually tearing tiny muscle fibers. The amino acids we consume help our bodies to repair these muscle fibers immediately. As a result, we're able to keep growing bigger, stronger muscles as part of a constant repair process that we don't even notice. The act of exercising doesn't simply "swell up" our muscles until they look bigger. It's the repair process that builds up our muscles to be larger and larger with each workout-repair cycle. Without enough protein, our bodies simply can't do it.
Lack of protein makes building muscles harder. It doesn't matter how hard you exercise! When our bodies can't enter the repair-build cycle, our muscle growth is going to be stunted.
When researchers looked at the effects of protein supplements on muscle mass, strength, and aerobic/anaerobic power in healthy adults as part of a paper that was published 2015, they found that protein supplementation may enhance muscle mass and performance when the training stimulus is adequate. I want to point out the fact that protein shakes and supplements on their own cannot give a person muscles. It's all about using the protein correctly to fuel workouts that activate the tear-repair cycle.
However, I do want to share that there is some evidence that even people who are dieting and working out for weight loss without necessarily focusing on muscle gain can still potentially benefit from "protein shakes." First, there is a trial from 2016 that found that people experienced greater simultaneous lean mass gain and fat mass loss when they combatted energy deficits using protein.
Protein Requirements for Muscle Gain Based on Personal Experience
What I'm about to share is only specific to my body. However, I think it will be applicable to most people who are in the midst of trying to increase muscle mass using physical activity that consists of regular weight lift and cardio. In my case, cardio comes in the form of running and cycling. Taking in at least 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily using a mix of dietary protein and protein supplements has become a sweet spot for me.
The Benefits of Using Protein Powder in a Muscle-building Regimen
I know that many people who do moderate workouts like to use protein powder to lose weight. There's evidence to suggest that supplementing with whey protein can help reduce body weight and total fat mass in people struggling with obesity. While I think this is worth looking into closely if you're struggling to lose weight, I am specifically concerned with protein powder's role in helping to build muscle mass.
A more interesting analysis for me is one that was published in 2018. With this analysis, researchers looked at 49 studies that supported the use of protein supplements for muscle growth. They found that research strongly suggests that protein supplements significantly improve muscle size and strength in healthy adults who perform resistance exercise training..
Another important aspect of protein powder for me is that it can help to reduce injuries during periods when you're really pushing your body. There's tons of research showing that protein supplements taken after exercise can aid recovery by reducing muscle damage. This also helps to improve muscle performance and muscle protein synthesis.
Ultimately, protein powder supplies the amino acids and protein your body needs to build muscle. It also helps you to push yourself without worrying about becoming depleted.
Key Considerations When Choosing Protein Powder
I want to quickly go into some of the big decisions to make when purchasing a protein powder.
Types of Protein Powders and Their Differences
I'm very open to different types of protein powder. However, I will admit that I'm generally loyal to whey because I feel that it provides a very clean, effective form of protein that doesn't have side effects.
Whey protein is simply the liquid that remains after curdling and straining milk. For me, whey is a well-tolerated and affordable option that's available in some great formulations by trusted brands.
Casein is another milk-based protein source that's common in protein powders. It's actually the protein responsible for giving milk its signature white color.
Both whey and casein provide all of the essential amino acids needed by your body. The big difference has to do with how you digest whey and casein. While casein promotes a slower, steadier release of amino acids, whey moves through your digestive system a little faster.
Knowing which one is better comes down to your plans for when to take protein powder. Casein is considered ideal for fasting situations. Meanwhile, whey is popular as a pre-workout or post-workout supplement because it gets muscle repair and rebuilding going.
If you can't do whey or casein due to anything from an allergy to a dietary preference, there are some plant-based protein powders out there. Many vegetarian and vegan-friendly protein powders use protein from peas, chickpeas, pumpkins, hemp, or soy.
Understanding Protein Content and Amino Acid Profile
Protein content of protein powders is generally pretty straightforward. You're going to be looking at grams of protein per serving. However, you do need to look at protein in the bigger context of calories and fat per serving to see if you're getting a good enough protein ratio.
You also want to make sure that the product offers digestible amino acids. You specifically want to look for the nine amino acids that are known as essential amino acids. They are named histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. The reason why these are called "essential" is because our bodies cannot synthesize them the way they can synthesize the other amino acids. As a result, we can only get adequate levels by consuming them.
Evaluating Additional Ingredients
While protein content and amino acids get top billing on an ingredient label, you also have to dig a little bit deeper to make sure a product is a good fit. The deciding factors can often be flavor and palatability. I generally like my protein powders to be as pure as possible. That means minimal flavors or sweeteners. I mostly take an additive-free stance unless a client of mine simply can't get a product down unless it has a strong "yumminess" factor. In my reviews below, I'll highlight anything you need to know about how products are sweetened or flavored.
Choosing the Right Protein Powder for Your Goals
I know that looking at all of these products might have your head spinning just a bit. Most people are going to find a product nested within my list of 10 above that hits the sweet spot for price and protein levels. Let me give you a little extra guidance to help you identify your winner.
Identifying Individual Fitness Objectives and Dietary Needs
If you're in a mode for mass gains, focus first on the protein content of any protein powder you're considering. If you're looking to gain muscle while also getting leaner, those low and middling protein levels with fiber could be good for simply getting everything in balance.
Understanding Specific Considerations for Different Lifestyles
Please don't put your digestive system through the wringer if you have lactose intolerance. While whey is my go-to protein source, you can still see gains using pea, pumpkin, and other protein sources. If you follow a vegan diet, plant-based protein is going to help you reach your goals without compromising your values.
Choose a protein powder with your lifestyle in mind instead of simply going with what all of the popular influencers are recommending!
Consulting With a Healthcare Professional or Nutritionist
I highly recommend talking with a certified nutrition expert if you're having a hard time making sense of what your body really needs. While I don't think most people can go wrong with one of the mainstream options I shared above, you may be able to get the best results by pinpointing how much extra protein you need based on body composition, daily diet, and your workout routine.
Incorporating Protein Powder Into Your Muscle-building Routine
How do you use protein powder? Here are some quick tips for getting the most out of every serving.
Recommended Serving Sizes and Timing for Optimal Results
There are many different ways to use protein powders. First, a lot of people like to prioritize protein shakes first thing in the morning after they come out of a fasting state. This is something that I often recommend to clients who are looking to use protein shakes to lose weight.
If your sole focus is building muscle, the general rule is to consume your protein shake within two hours of completing your workout. This is where we get into that repair mode that is helped along by the amino acids in protein. I personally aim to get in my protein shake during the window that lasts 15 to 60 minutes immediately after my workout.
Generally, you'll need one to three servings per day to see the gains you want. I can't give you a specific answer on how much protein powder you'll need to consume without seeing your full routine. However, I can say that one serving after every workout is ideal when you're in gain mode.
Combining Protein Power With Other Supplements and Nutrients
While I don't personally like to "overload" my protein shakes, the two things I will add in are MCT oil and probiotics. You're simply going to digest nutrients better if your gut is in balance with the right probiotics. The reason why I like MCT oil with protein powder is because it can be great for increasing energy after experiencing that post-workout dip. MCT oil also supports simultaneous fat burning and muscle buildings.
Finally, I do dabble with adding collagen powder to protein powder once in a while simply because I'm prone to tired joints.
Balancing Protein Intake With a Well-rounded Diet
I just want to highlight the fact that your core daily recommended value of protein should be coming from high-quality, lean protein sources. For most of us, that looks like good cuts of steak, chicken, and fish. Eggs can also be great for getting in clean protein full of amino acids. You're obviously going to be relying on beans and seeds more if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.
I've seen many people try to hack their bodies by loading up on protein shakes instead of prioritizing diet. It just doesn't work. Think of protein powder as the extra protein you need for the extra work you're putting in instead of actual "nutrition" that's intended to be applied to your baseline protein intake.
Tips for Maximizing Muscle Gain With Protein Powder
While I don't want to give off the impression that there are hacks that allow you to ditch the discipline required to achieve muscle gains, there are some tried-and-true "shortcuts" that will get you where you want to be.
Importance of Regular Exercise and Strength Training
Extra protein can only work if it's allowed to do its job of repairing the muscle tears that you're enduring in your daily workouts. Protein alone isn't necessarily doing anything special for your body. It's those amino acids contained in protein getting to your muscle tears to build up the tissue that causes gains.
Be as consistent as possible in order to see the cumulative results of sticking with workouts and protein intake.
Staying Consistent With Protein Intake and Overall Nutrition
Unfortunately, losing muscle mass is so much easier than gaining it. It actually just takes one to three weeks to see noticeable losses of muscle mass after slowing down your physical activity.
I've also seen the way that people can "fall hard" when they aren't keeping up with the protein demands they're placing on their bodies. Injury, burnout, and loss of muscle mass are all very common when we're not being intentional about our protein intake.
Monitoring Progress and Making Necessary Adjustments
The journey isn't done just because we've found a protein powder that we think looks good. Be scientific about it. I encourage you to monitor your progress from the day you begin taking a new protein powder. If you're not getting the gains you want, it's time to start making adjustments for everything from protein intake to your workout regime. Doing the same thing over and over again is going to burn you out without ever giving you the results you want.
Common Myths and Misconceptions About Protein Powder and Muscle Gain
Many of my clients are shocked when I recommend protein powder. They assume that protein powder equals "cheating" when it comes to muscle gains. Let's cover the big misconceptions that stop so many people from getting game-changing protein levels.
Addressing Common Misconceptions
The most common misconception I see repeated about protein powder is that it's unnatural. In reality, high-quality protein powder is just a concentrated form of whey protein or casein protein. Ultimately, it's as natural as milk or cheese. High-quality protein powder is easily digested and used by the body.
The second misconception that I hear all the time is that protein powder will make you look puffy. While protein powder can help to increase muscle mass, pairing it with the right kind of diet and exercise can actually help you to achieve a sleeker physique overall because protein powder helps with satiety and metabolism.
Another big one is that protein shakes have to be consumed within 30 minute of working out to be effective. While I actually do recommend trying to get your protein powder in within the first hour after a workout, the window is closer to two hours.
Finally, I hear people say all the time that the body can't actually absorb anything past 30 to 40 grams of protein per day. According to this myth, anything past that is simply wasted. Rest assured that your body will know what to do with extra protein that is sent its way when you're using the right ratio of protein to physical activity.
Debunking Myths Through Personal Experience and Scientific Evidence
I have personally found that protein powder helps me to reach my goals in a shorter time without burning myself out. I am also able to perform with much greater power. It turns out I'm not alone.
"Peri-exercise protein intake plays a potentially useful role in optimizing physical performance and positively influencing the subsequent recovery processes," according to a 2018 study looking at the effects of protein supplementation on performance and recovery in resistance and endurance training.
The amino acids in the protein in protein powder help to build up muscles as they heal after being worked. In my experience, choosing a clean formulation with at least 20 grams of protein per serving is the best way to get the results you want. I can confidently tell you that the gains are yours to claim if you're willing to be consistent in your muscle-building journey!