Do you need a protein supplement to build muscle?

Featured article in the Spring 2016 Issue of Nutrition Close-Up; written by Pamela Hernandez, CPT

There is always a desire to find the answer to our health and wellness concerns in a pill. According to Forbes magazine, the nutritional supplement industry produces revenue of approximately $32 billion annually.1  The broad definition of the term “supplement” includes everything from your basic daily multivitamin to the vast selection of protein shakes and weight loss pills advertised in fitness magazines. 

I am often asked about supplements in my personal training practice. I always remind clients of the dictionary definition: A thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it.” I explain that changing their bodies and improving their health starts with creating habits of eating a balanced diet of whole foods, and exercising in accordance with their goals. Supplements are designed to enhance or complement their efforts, not serve as a substitute.

Protein supplementation is an excellent example. Whey protein is a long time bodybuilding standard that has gone mainstream. Women in particular are looking to protein supplements as the answer to their desire to lose weight while maintaining lean muscle and strength. What gets lost in the advertisement of popular protein shakes is that they must, as the fine print often says, be partnered with a sensible diet and an exercise program. A 2015 study highlights the problem of seeking results from supplementation alone.

This Australian study published in The Journal of Nutrition followed a group of postmenopausal women for two years.2 The women were provided a 30 g whey protein supplement daily. At the end of the study they found no impact on the preservation of lean mass or improvement in physical function.

On the surface, this study may appear to discourage protein supplementation. However, if we think about the definition of supplement and look at the evidence regarding strength training coupled with supplementation, it reinforces the idea that diet plus exercise must be combined before any type of supplementation can be effective.

Strength training on its own has been proven repeatedly to help preserve lean body mass as well as improve the ability to perform normal activities of daily living, particularly in older adults. If we look at a study of protein supplementation with a strength-training program added, we see a very different outcome than the Australian study.

In this study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging, postmenopausal women were again provided with daily protein supplementation along with unilateral resistance training four times per week.3 On two days a week, training one side of the body, they consumed a whey protein supplement post workout. They consumed a placebo drink post workout the other two days of the week after training the other side of the body. The goal was to study the strategic timing of a protein supplement, not the effects overall. What they found was that the timing of the whey protein had no significant effect. However, there was a significant increase in both muscle strength and size. We can conclude from this that the real key to improving muscle mass is resistance training, which may be aided by protein supplementation. In fact, supplementation may be critical if the overall protein requirements are not being met through whole food sources.

Another study published in 2014 in the Journal of Nutrition Health and Aging looked at the issue of daily protein intake and its effects on sarcopenia.4 The subjects, also postmenopausal women, were divided into two groups based on daily protein consumption. Those assessed as having a low-protein diet (less than 0.8 g/kg bodyweight) had impaired physical function compared with those who reported a higher daily protein intake. None of the subjects were provided supplementation, so we can only assume that those with a higher intake ate a diet richer in whole food lean protein options.

We can take away from these studies two key points:

  • Resistance training and adequate daily protein intake is required to preserve lean muscle mass and physical function.
  • Supplementation alone is not the answer to maintaining lean mass and daily function, but may help improve a diet that is low in protein intake.

Encouraging women of all ages to include a quality source of protein at each meal (I recommend 10-30 g per meal to my clients) should be enough to ensure they meet the daily minimums suggested. Protein supplements can be a useful tool to make sure they meet this requirement. The goal is to remember that supplements are meant to enhance and not replace a regular diet of nutrient rich whole foods.



Pamela Hernandez, CPT, is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and ACE Health Coach. She runs Thrive Personal Fitness in Springfield, MO and is the author of the new book “Motivation Is Made Not Found.” Pamela’s goal is to empower women with fitness and help them take control of their lives by taking control of their health.


1Forbes. Nutritional Supplements Flexing Muscles As Growth Industry. Version Current 12 Aprils 2013. Internet: (accessed March 2 2016)

2Zhu K, Kerr DA, Meng X, et al. Two Year Whey Protein Supplementation Did Not Enhance Muscle Mass and Physical Function in Well Nourished Healthy Older Post Menopausal Women. J Nutr. 2015;145:2520-6.

3Weisgarber KD, Candow DG, Farthing JP. Whey protein and high volume resistance training in postmenopausal women. J Nutr Health Aging. 2015;19:511-7.

4Gregorio L, Brindisi J, Kleppinger A, et al. Adequate dietary protein is associated with better physical performance among post menopausal women 60-90 years. J Nutr Health Aging. 2014;18:155-60.

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