What does whey protein actually do?

Protein is broken down into smaller substances called amino acids. Your body uses these amino acids like a builder uses bricks. In fact, amino acids are often known as biological building blocks. Amino acids are used to repair muscle tissue so that your muscles get bigger and stronger. No building blocks means less efficient recovery, repair, and growth.

Because of this, most rugby players should consume around two grams of protein per kilo of body weight per day, or around one gram per pound.

That’s easy enough if you weigh 60kg/132 lbs. Just a chicken breast or two and a few eggs will deliver all protein you need. However, if you tip the scales at nearer 90kg/198 lbs. or more, getting enough protein from solid food is much more difficult. That’s where protein powders come in.

Protein powders, most of which provide 20-30 grams of protein per serving, make getting enough protein much easier. Consume 2-3 protein-rich meals per day and a couple of servings of protein powder and you should comfortably consume enough protein.

Back in the golden age of bodybuilding, athletes consumed liver by the pound, and drank whole milk by the gallon to get the protein they needed. Protein powders, where available, were made from dried egg, milk, or soya. And while they undoubtedly worked, they were not very digestible, tasted terrible, and most users experienced bloating and digestive upsets.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and whey protein is the most popular form of protein powder. There are others available, such as calcium caseinate, beef isolate, and pea, hemp, and rice protein powders for vegetarians and vegans, but whey protein powder is by far the biggest seller.

What is whey protein?

Whey protein, a by-product of cheese manufacture, has a very high biological value. That is to say a large percentage of the whey protein you consume can be used by your body. Some scales, and there are several for ranking protein quality, place whey protein equal to or even above egg white which is considered the gold-standard in protein bioavailability.

It’s quick and easy to digest and, unlike old-fashioned egg protein powder, can easily be flavored. There was no banana split or mint choc chip protein flavored protein powders back in Arnie’s heyday!

Whey protein comes in a variety of formulations:

Whey protein isolate

 Whey protein isolate or WPI for short is the purest form of whey protein currently available and by weight contains between 90 to 95 percent protein. WPI has very little or even no lactose which makes it ideal for individuals who suffer from lactose intolerance. WPI contains only trace amounts of carbohydrates and fats which makes it perfect for those looking to gain lean mass or lose fat.

The purity of WPI means it is more expensive than other types of whey but, as you get a purer and more concentrated product, there is a benefit to this elevated cost. Of all the whey protein forms, WPI is the fastest and most easily digestible which makes it especially well-suited for post exercise consumption. Being such a concentrated product, servings are often smaller and a little goes a long way.

Whey protein concentrate

 Whey protein concentrate, WPC for short, is less pure than WPI and provides anywhere between 25 to 85 percent protein by weight, depending on the quality of the product in question. Lower grade WPC is often used in protein bars and is also an added ingredient in more common foods such as soups, crackers, and cereals.

WPC contains more carbohydrate in the form of lactose and slightly more fat compared to WPI. This reduction in purity is usually reflected in the price. If you use WPC, seek out products that provide around 80% protein by weight as these are the most useful for muscle growth and repair.



Hydrolyzed whey protein

 Protein is made up of chains of amino acids called polypeptides. The longer and more complex the polypeptide chain, the longer the protein will take to digest. Sometimes, for example between meals or late at night, a slow digesting protein is useful but immediately before and after exercise, a faster acting protein is better.

In hydrolyzed whey protein, the long polypeptide chains have been broken down into shorter chains called oligopeptides which are rapidly digested and provide a very quick supply of amino acids to your muscles. This rapid delivery of amino acids results in a speedier recovery from strenuous exercise.

Hydrolyzed whey protein is more expensive than both WPI and WPC and is best kept for immediately post-exercise. Of all the forms of whey protein, hydrolyzed whey is the least likely to cause digestive upsets as fewer digestive enzymes are required to break it down.

Whey Protein Blends

 While it is possible to buy products that contain only whey protein isolate, whey protein concentrates, or hydrolyzed whey protein, many protein powders contain a blend so that you can benefit from the unique properties of each type of whey.

Whey protein blends are usually good value for money and are suitable for a wide variety of users and purposes. Read the ingredients list so you know exactly what is in your whey protein blend and be aware that many products use a lot of whey protein concentrate as it is the cheapest form of whey. This is not necessary a bad thing but means that you may have to use more of the product to get the required amount of protein.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


So, what DOES whey protein do?

Whey protein, like all forms of protein, will enhance recovery and muscle building. In fact, studies reveal that training without whey protein may produce less favorable results while consuming adequate whey protein can have a very positive impact on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine levels.

But, whey protein appears to offer several additional noteworthy benefits:

Weight loss aid – a study published in Nutrition and Metabolism revealed that subjects who used whey protein during a fat loss diet lost considerably more fat and preserved more muscle mass than those who did not.

Lower cholesterol – a study published in The British Journal of Nutrition reported that overweight people given whey protein experienced a significant decrease in total and LDL (bad) cholesterol.

Lower blood pressure and reduced risk of coronary heart disease – studies published by the International Dairy Journal reported that supplemental whey protein significantly reduced blood pressure in hypertensives thus lowering their risk of developing CHD.

Anti-cancer properties – preliminary studies published in the Anticancer Research journal suggest that whey protein could be useful in the treatment of certain types of cancer.

It’s nice to know that your daily whey protein shake is good for more than just your muscles!

Whey protein is a cornerstone supplement for most ruggers because, in simple terms, it works. It’s the easiest way to make sure you are getting enough protein every day. Too little protein could have a very negative affect on your training, recovery, and performance. Make sure you are getting enough by adding whey protein to your supplement stack.


Tim Howard

Tim Howard

Tim is one of the founders at Ruck Science who settled in Austin, TX after playing rugby all over the world for the past two decades. He's constantly used as a guinea pig for our most advanced or controversial diet and training experiments.