Pounding protein to pack on muscle: myth?


As of September 2017, new Sweat Science columns are being published at www.outsideonline.com/sweatscience. Check out my bestselling new book on the science of endurance, ENDURE: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, published in February 2018 with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell.

- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


The latest Jockology column is now available — it takes on the myth that you need to pound huge protein shakes after your workouts if you want to pack on muscle. This is a classic case of researchers saying one thing, while top athletes tend to do something completely different. Are the athletes just stuck with outdated traditions, or are the researchers failing to operate in the “real world?”

It’s a pretty safe bet that the guy at the gym who is built like a tree trunk and bench-presses the entire rack also has an enormous barrel of protein powder tucked into his gym bag. This, you might think, is a pretty good endorsement of the “you’ve got to eat muscle to build muscle” school of thought.

But correlation is not the same as causation.

Read the rest of the column — and then feel free to tell me I’m an idiot. After all, I’m not the most muscular guy the world…

10 Replies to “Pounding protein to pack on muscle: myth?”

  1. Alex,

    Great article on protein powders. As a Strength Coach in Toronto I find this type of article invaluable as a resource for my trainees. After I read it, I liked it so much I went to your blog. I noticed that you have an article on unstable training related to athletic performance. I wanted to bring to your attention research on that topic posted on PUBMed, located at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez. I believe this study stands in direct contradiction to what you wrote in your blog, and perhaps the writing was misleading to the average gym goer. There is no evidence that for an athletic population unstable devices provide any sort of pre-habilitation function in regards to ankle sprains. For rehab, labile devices are more than appropriate for rehabilitating the stabilzing muscles of the ankle, namely the evertors and invertors, but for the average population the study found they provide little to no significant benefit. Further, in terms of force production the study found that athletes who used unstable training as a training method actually decreased muscular leg force production. If you require the original source, I’d be more than happy to provide it, and to also educate you on better stability training and ankle sprain prehab methods.


    Tim Enfield

  2. Great article on protein and muscles, however you blew it when you said it won’t hurt to use protein powders.

    The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly studied the standard dietary supplements used by athletes — mostly the protein powders you buy at “health food” and grocery stores. In 3 studies that I know about, 14.8% contained undeclared prohormones, 22% contained prohibited (undeclared) steroids, 14.5% contained undeclared caffeine or ephedrine. Bottom line: 1 in 5 supplements are contaminated with undeclared potentially unsafe ingredients. (as per Kelly Anne Erdman, Canadian Sport Centre Calgary, UofCalgary Sport Med, RD, cycling olympian). It CAN hurt to use commercially produced protein powders.

    Plus, your article appears less than one week after Hydroxycut was finally pulled from the market for being linked to numerous cases of liver damage, liver disease, need for liver transplantation, and one instance of death.

    You should have concluded with how to make your own protein powder at home — it’s pretty easy to do. Quaff some skim milk powder mixed with chocolate/strawberry milk flavouring powder, stirred into some milk (or substitute soy powders and fortified soy drink if that’s your path). Add some instant coffee powder if you want an energy boost. You’ll get your protein fix, without illegal hormones and other contaminants.

  3. Cathy, you raise a really good point. The dietary supplement industry is very poorly regulated, so it’s difficult to be entirely sure that you’re getting what you think you are. Personally, I’d opt for whole foods over powders any day of the week.

  4. Tim, thanks for your comments on balance training. I’m going to move them to a separate post, so that others who are interested in balance training don’t miss the discussion. One quick note: you just provided a link to the main PubMed portal, rather than to a specific paper — if you provide a reference to the paper you’re referring to, I can look it up.

  5. @Cathy Richards, RD
    Cathy, I would like to know more about your research and what lab work can be done to check for the potentially unsafe products in the muscle building protein powder. Our son was using GNC MASS XXX and he died on 05/20/09. We have been searching for answers to sucralose and undeclared steroids and other contanminants. We believe something in the drink mix caused our son to change his perception about life. Cameron killed himself.
    All evidence from friends,co-workers,habit workers, church and his professers at college were just totally shock as we were. This is not our son’s character. According to his calendar of events he was planning on living.
    Can you help?

  6. @Deborah Paul
    Deborah, I am so sorry to hear about Cameron and your loss. I have lost a dear friend to suicide — it is very hard to accept any part of it (although I have, mostly, now), and I know how his parents struggle with it, so I have a little bit of an idea as to what you are feeling and the answers you are seeking.

    I’m not a researcher in the area, I have just attended conferences where it’s been discussed as a minor topic. I suggest you contact the Canadian Sport Centre in Calgary they have done some work in this area — http://www.canadiansportcentre.com/athlete/supplements.php . It was one of their dietitians Kelly Anne Erdman whom I heard speak on contaminants in 2007. There is also a dietitian at U of C’s Sport Med department that might be able to help you, at (403) 220-8232.

    You can also check out the Sports Illustrated May 18th article on the topic — “What you don’t know might kill you”, available online. Although they are not talking about suicide per se, it addresses some of the physical and psychological issues around the use of supplements.

    Sorry for the delay in responding — I don’t check this site often. I hope I have been of some help. Be very patient with yourself and your family as you deal with the many complex feelings that arise from the suicide of a loved one. It really can’t all be solved but I hope you find some moments of peace.

Comments are closed.