Pre Workout vs Protein Powder | When Should I Take What?

Pre Workout vs Protein Powder | When Should I Take What?

If you’ve ever walked through a supplement store or scrolled on their website, you probably noticed there are a lot of fitness supplements on the market.

Two fitness supplements that you’ve probably heard of a lot include protein powder and pre-workout powder, due to their popularity as fitness aids.

This may have you wondering what the differences are between pre-workout powder and protein powder, their uses, whether you need them, and if so, when you should take them for best results.

This article compares pre-workout powder and protein powder and tells you whether they’re needed as part of your fitness program.

What is Pre-Workout?

pre-workout vs protein image

Just as its name suggests, pre-workout powder is a supplement you should take before your workout. Its main job is to boost energy and athletic performance, resulting in a better workout.

Pre-workout powders are very popular in the fitness and bodybuilding industry. As a result, there are many options to choose from, with most brands having their own unique mix of ingredients. Though, there are some popular ingredients found in most pre-workout supplements, such as caffeine, creatine, and added vitamins and minerals.

Caffeine

Pre-workout powders will usually contain caffeine, which is one of the world’s most popular ergogenic aids. In fact, the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s 2021 position statement clearly outlined the benefits of caffeine for sports performance, including (1):

  • increased muscular strength, endurance, and power

  • aerobic endurance, focus and attention, and vigilance

  • sprinting, jumping, and throwing performance

  • enhanced focus and alertness

Most benefits are found with doses between 2-6 mg per kilogram body weight. For example, for an 80 kg (175 lb) person this translates to roughly 160-480 mg of caffeine. Though, since benefits have been observed on the lower end of caffeine intake, it’s best to consume the lower end of the range to avoid any unwanted side effects.

Considering the caffeine content in pre-workout supplements can vary significantly, with some having around 100 mg per serving to upwards of 400 mg per serving, you’ll want to pay attention to the label and choose pre-workout powders with doses on the lower end.

Creatine

Creatine is another popular ergogenic aid that is popular in pre-workout supplements.

When paired with a well-designed strength training program, creatine has been shown to increase both muscle strength and mass (2, 3, 4).

While commonly added to pre-workout supplements, it’s probably better to take creatine by itself due to creatine’s unique dosing cycles. This will allow you better control over the dose you take.

Other Ingredients

Since no pre-workout supplement is the same, there will often be other ingredients added to the product that may support athletic performance. Though, research is lacking for many.

Some examples include beta-alanine, tyrosine, taurine, and added vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins.

Often, these ingredients are added to enhance mental performance, such as focus and energy. Though, they may also play minor roles in other aspects of performance, such as delaying onset muscle fatigue.

One important note is that pre-workout rarely contains added protein or amino acids in any meaningful amount.

Timing

Generally, it’s best to take a pre-workout powder around 15-45 minutes before your workout to allow the ingredients to enter the bloodstream and start to take their effect.

What is Protein Powder?

pre-workout vs protein image

Protein powders are a common workout supplement used to increase protein intake.

Simply, they’re concentrated forms of protein derived from animals (i.e., whey or casein found in milk) or plants (e.g., soy, pea, etc.) They usually provide around 20-30 grams of protein per serving, though this can vary depending on the manufacturer and ingredients used.

Often, people use protein powder as a way to top off their protein intake, especially if they struggle to meet their protein needs from food alone.

For people who have higher protein needs, such as those looking to put on substantial muscle mass, protein powders can be a very useful tool to support muscle growth and recovery.

To build muscle, you need to achieve two main things. First, you need a strength training program that brings your muscles close to failure. This creates small “micro” tears in the muscle, which then sends signals to the body to repair them bigger and stronger.

Second, you will need to consume enough protein to support this muscle rebuilding process. Generally, most people looking to build sufficient muscle will need between  0.6–0.9 grams of protein per pound per day (1.4–2.0 g/kg/d) (5, 6).

Whey protein isolate is considered the gold standard for muscle growth, as it is a complete protein, meaning that it contains all essential amino acids, contains a high amount of the branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine, and is absorbed at a high rate (5).

Though, other protein powders, such as plant-based varieties, have also been shown to promote muscle growth, provided they contain sufficient protein and amino acids (7).

Regardless, it’s important to remember that protein powder should be used to supplement a nutritious diet. Ideally, you should aim to consume most of your protein through food sources (e.g., chicken, fish, beef, beans, tofu) and use protein powder to supplement any remaining protein needed. 

If you do choose to use a protein powder, timing isn’t as important. Most people choose to consume a protein powder right after their workout session or within two hours after exercising, but most research to date suggests total daily protein is more important that protein timing (5, 8).

Pre-Workout vs Protein Powder: Understanding the Differences

The easiest way to differentiate pre-workout powder and protein powder is to understand their purposes. 

The main purpose of pre-workout powder is to boost performance by increasing energy levels and alertness. In contrast, the main role of protein powder is to support muscle growth and recovery.

The following chart can be useful in understanding the main differences between pre-workout powder and protein powder:

Features/Benefit

Pre-Workout

Protein Powder

Muscle Recovery Post-Workout

No Yes

Supports Muscle Building (Hypertrophy)

No; But may improve performance leading to greater gains Yes

High in Protein

No Yes

Contains Caffeine

Usually  No

Contains other performance enhancers (eg., Taurine, Beta-Alanine, etc.)

Usually No

Boosts exercise performance

Yes No

 

 If you’re unsure which is right for you, ask yourself what your main goals are. If you are looking for something to help you perform better during your workout, then a pre-workout powder may be a good option.

However, if you’re happy with your current workouts and are looking for something to support recovery after your workout, then a protein powder is likely a better option.

That said, you may not need a pre-workout powder or a protein powder if you are satisfied with your exercise performance and consume a diet high in protein.

Can You Use Pre-Workout and Protein Powder Together?

Theoretically, you could consume pre-workout powder and protein powder together. However, usually pre-workout is taken before a workout while protein powder is usually taken post-workout.

Usually protein powders do not contain any stimulants or additional ingredients, so it’s unlikely that you’ll be overdoing it. Though, it’s smart to double check the labels of the products you’re taking.

If you do want to try both, it’s a good idea to run it by your healthcare provider to make sure it’s right for you. In fact, it’s wise to discuss any new supplements with your healthcare provider.

Debunking Myths and Misconceptions

There are many myths and misconceptions about protein powders and pre-workout powders. Here are some answers to some you might be wondering about.

Kidney Damage

One of the most common myths is that consuming protein powder will damage your kidneys. Fortunately, this myth has been proven false in many studies (9, 10, 11).

For instance, a randomized 8-week study in 48 men and women found that protein intake between 2.3 g/kg/d and 3.4 g/kg/d — considered a high protein diet — found no negative effects on kidney function when consuming high protein foods and whey protein powder (12).

Another study in 14 resistance-trained men found that consuming a high protein diet (2.51 to 3.32 g/kg/d) for over a year had no negative effects on kidney function (13).

That said, if you have kidney disease or decreased kidney function, you may have more difficulty excreting protein waste products in the urine. Therefore, it’s important to work closely with a registered dietitian to monitor your protein intake (14).

But, for the average person, consuming protein powder will not harm your kidneys.

Pre-Workout is Better than Coffee

Coffee is one of the most popular natural caffeine sources in the world. It’s also a cost-effective way to consume caffeine prior to a workout.

If you’re a coffee fan and would rather get your caffeine this way, rest assured that it is a good option. The average cup of coffee contains around 100 mg or more of caffeine, meaning it’s a suitable option pre-workout (15).

That said, if you do choose to drink coffee, you may want to drink it 30-45 minutes before your workout to give the caffeine enough time to be absorbed. For some, drinking too many liquids pre-workout may cause stomach upset, so that is also something to keep in mind.

All Pre-Workout Supplements Are the Same

The ingredients in pre-workout powders can vary a lot depending on the brand and its intended use.

When choosing a pre-workout powder, look for a company that is third-party tested and only includes ingredients that are intended to support performance. 

All Protein Powders Are the Same

While many protein powders have similar ingredients, they’re not all the same.

Some protein powders will contain different protein sources, such as whey, casein, pea protein, etc. Also, they may contain other ingredients such as added sugars, flavorings, and fats.

Depending on your goals, you should read the label to ensure it only contains the ingredients you’re looking for. Ideally, it should also be third-party tested to ensure consistency and quality of the product.

Making the Right Choice for Your Fitness Goals

Whether to take a supplement or not largely depends on your own unique fitness goals and preferences.

Choosing a Pre-Workout Supplement

For many people, a pre-workout powder is not necessary. It can be helpful for providing an additional “boost” before a workout, but many people can exercise perfectly fine without pre-workout.

If you do decide to take a pre-workout powder, pay close attention to the product’s caffeine content. In many cases, pre-workout powders can contain high amounts of caffeine — much more than you’d get from a cup of coffee.

Ideally, choose a brand that is transparent about their ingredients. For example, avoid companies that rely on “proprietary blends” and do not disclose the exact dose of each ingredient. Further, opt for companies that use third-party testing, which helps to ensure consistency and quality of the product.

Choosing a Protein Powder

If you’re looking to put on muscle mass and struggle to meet your protein needs in a day, then a protein powder can be a good addition to your diet. The type of protein powder you choose will depend on your preferences and budget. 

The most well-studied protein powder is whey protein, which is a high quality protein produced during cheese making. There are two main types of whey protein powders available, including whey protein concentrate and whey protein isolate. The main difference between the two is that whey protein isolate has additional ingredients removed, such as carbohydrates (lactose) and fats (16, 17).

While most people can safely tolerate whey protein powder, some people may be sensitive to its lactose content. Fortunately, whey protein isolate is quite low in lactose as it’s removed during processing (16, 17).

Whey protein is considered the gold standard for protein powders due to its excellent amino acid profile. It’s considered a complete protein since it contains all essential amino acids. It also has a good mix of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are important for muscle building (5, 18).

That said, if you consume a plant-based diet or cannot consume milk products, then you can opt for a plant-based protein powder. In this case, it’s best to choose a plant-based blend which ensures a variety of amino acids (19).

Either way, aim for a product that has at least 20-30 grams of protein per scoop.

Similarly, it’s best to choose a brand that is third-party tested to ensure the product’s consistency and quality.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a supplement is a personal decision that depends largely on your own personal needs, preferences, and goals. In terms of pre-workout and protein powder, you’ll need to consider if it aligns with your fitness goals and needs.

Pre-workout powder is a supplement designed to boost performance and should be taken before a workout. In contrast, protein powder is a supplement designed to support recovery and muscle building. It’s usually taken after a workout.

Though pre-workout powder is popular, it’s not essential for a good workout. In fact, many people can exercise perfectly fine without a pre-workout powder and see amazing results. If you’re on a budget and want a little caffeine, you could also simply have a coffee 45 minutes before your workout.

If you’re considering a protein powder, it’s important to remember that it’s meant to supplement an already healthy diet. You should always strive to get most of your protein through protein-rich foods and then only supplement as needed. 

In either case, speak with your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement to make sure it’s right for you.

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