When you work out to build muscle, getting the right kind of protein in the right amount at the right time is essential. Muscles use protein to rebuild the fibers that give them strength. They use glucose (sugar) and water to make the glycogen that "pumps them up" so they become visibly larger. You need protein, glucose, and water in the first two hours after a workout to take advantage of muscle's brief period of super-sensitivity to insulin, which helps it absorb all three of these vital elements from the bloodstream.
A good protein shake provides all three of the macronutrients needed to build muscle. It also can be used as a meal substitute when you are in a hurry, even if you aren't on your way out of the gym. Ideally, a protein shake should be something you can drink on the go. You shouldn't need cutlery. You should be able to carry them with minimal refrigeration. A good protein shake should be a meal in a glass.
All shakes, obviously, are not created equal. Here's how to choose or make the shake that will work best for building muscles.
Gym and juice bar shakes usually are too high in sugar.
The best shakes are made at home. You will need to own a blender to make shakes, but it doesn't have to be expensive. A Magic Bullet is great for making single-serving shakes. A Vitamix is expensive, but useful for all kinds of kitchen tasks.
The first step in making a protein shake is choosing the liquid.
You can use water, cow's milk, goat's milk, almond milk, unsweetened hemp milk, unsweetened soy milk, or green tea (cooled or iced). The more fluid you use, the thinner the shake will be. The less fluid you use, the thicker the shake will be. Use 4 to 8 oz (120 to 240 ml) of liquid per serving. All the liquids used to make shakes provide the water your muscles need to make the glycogen that increases their size. If you don't get the water, you don't get increased muscle size.
The second step in making a protein shake is choosing a protein powder.
Common and inexpensive protein powders include whey, pea, rice, hemp, and casein. Some people are sensitive to casein, although usually even if you have a problem with dairy, you will be fine with whey. Use one or two scoops (25 to 50 grams) of protein powder per serving.
A lot is made of the virtues and vices of different sources of protein. If you are getting enough protein in your diet otherwise, and you aren't an elite competitive athlete, any protein powder will be OK for use after a workout.
Next, add veggies to your shake.
Older Americans are universally familiar with the cartoon character Popeye, who was strong to the finish 'cause he ate his spinach. The fact is, spinach is as close as you can get to a wonderfood for adding to a workout drink. Besides "alkalizing" (helping the kidneys conserve calcium and indirectly keeping bones stronger), spinach helps the body with blood sugar regulation and oxygen regulation. If you eat spinach regularly, you'll suffer less of a "burn" when you do intense aerobics or weightlifting. Other vegetables that are suitable in post-workout shakes include beets and beet juice (which pair well with chocolate), which assist in digestion, cooked pumpkin, cooked sweet potato, beet greens, Swiss chard, celery, cucumber, and kale. If you use cucumber, start with less liquid.
Then add a fruit.
Half a banana will give a smoothie a creamy consistency. Dates (remove the pits first) are great sweeteners. Apples are easy. Just remove the core first. Pitted cherries, pineapple, and mango are all delicious, as are berries. You'll get a cleaner taste if you use just one or two kinds of fruit at a time. Use about 100-150 grams (1-2 cups) of fruit per serving.
Finally, add a healthy fat.
Omega-3 fats fight muscle inflammation. They also help you control your appetite. Great sources of omega-3's include almonds and walnuts, flaxseed, pepinos (pumpkin seeds), cashews, and even peanut butter. A couple of tablespoons (up to about 30 grams) is enough.
Put all the ingredients together and pulse until well blended. For flavor and mouth feel you can add granola, cinnamon, shredded coconut, oats, cacao nibs, or dark chocolate to the final mixture. You can either make this as soon as you get home after your workout, or make it up to 12 hours ahead of time and keep refrigerated for use later.
Post-workout smoothies don't have to be complicated or expensive. However, if you make shakes every day, you should fine tune your recipes. Maybe you really are someone who shouldn't have dairy products. Choosing a protein powder other than whey somtimes makes a major difference. (Most frequently the symptom, oddly enough, is head colds. They go away when athletes stop using dairy.) Some people are mildly allergic to pea powder. Not everyone can tolerate every fruit. If you have allergies to melons, fish, or latex, then you probably should not eat mango. Agave and artificial sweeteners just aren't necessary if you use fresh fruits and vegetables to make your smoothies.
Everyone who works out, however, needs some post-workout nutrition. Stick to a healthy shake, not a full meal, and you'll gain muscle without putting on fat.
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