Whey Protein 101

Whey protein is a naturally occurring protein found in cow's milk. It makes up approximately 20% of the total protein that would be found in a glass of milk with casein being the other 80%. Whey protein is a byproduct of cheese making and is also one of the main reasons that the Canadian Dairy Board runs their propaganda (whoops I mean advertising) promoting drinking milk after your workout to refuel your body. Because let's be honest, it's definitely not the lactose and milk fat found in regular milk (or the 20+ grams of sugar in flavoured milk) that is the healthy component of cows milk ;)

Enter whey protein powder - aka the protein from milk without (in some cases) the stuff you don't need.

Whey protein is the most utilized and one of the most studied supplements available on the market. With years of research supporting whey protein supplementation for muscle growth, recovery after exercise, metabolism, and performance it is likely the most widely used supplement by athletes and recreational exercisers alike. Whey protein supplements are a stable of any sports nutrition brand, you cannot have a full line of supplements without a whey protein - this gives the consumer many options to choose from when looking for the best whey protein supplement to help achieve their goals. This article will examine the benefits of whey protein as well as break down the different types and qualities whey protein so you can differentiate between many different proteins that are available.

Benefits of Whey Protein Supplementation After your Workout

  • Reduce Muscle Soreness - Exercise causes "microtears" in your muscle fibres and proper protein intake and supplementation will provide your muscles with the amino acids (building blocks of muscle) that are needed to rebuild your muscle and reduce muscle soreness. These microtears caused by exercise are a good thing as this is the basic mechanism for building muscle, however it also means that muscle soreness can result a day or two (or even more!) after your workout. This is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) and is common when new to exercise or when working out at a very high intensity with complex exercises. Supplementing with 20 grams of whey protein after your workout has been shown to reduce DOMS so that you are not as sore after your workout or sporting event and are able to keep up your level of physical activity without muscle soreness hindering your performance (or desire to go to the gym again!).
  • Build Lean Muscle - We do regular exercise to improve overall health, increase muscle strength, build lean muscle, and maybe to look better naked! Although weight training alone achieves this, supplementing with whey protein after your workout greater amplifies these effects and helps build significantly more strength compared to if you were not to supplement with whey protein after your workout. Whey protein contains amino acids which are the "building blocks" of muscle, so if we provide our body with a high quality source of protein such as whey after our workout our body will naturally use these amino acids to build the muscles that we just worked in the gym. Think of your muscles as a lego castle and the amino acids in your whey protein as the individual lego blocks. Working out without supplementing with whey protein after and then waiting until your next meal would be like telling your child to go make a lego castle with the 20 blocks they have and then giving them 10 more blocks a few hours later and telling them to go back and build a better one. Supplementing with whey protein after your workout when your body needs the amino acids would be like giving the child an additional 20 blocks while they are in the process of building their castle. If your end goal is the best lego castle it makes sense to give the lego blocks to your child (the amino acids to your muscles) when the child is building the castle (rebuilding microtears after exercise) as opposed to waiting until the child has lost interest in building the castle and giving them less lego blocks ("I don't need whey protein, I'll just eat dinner in a few hours"). See what I'm getting at? So whey protein supplementation post workout increases anabolic (muscle building) signalling and myofibrillar (muscle) protein synthesis so that you can build more lean muscle.
  • Increase Muscle Strength - As whey has been shown to play a key role in improving muscle growth, reducing soreness, and speeding recovery time it also plays a major role in increasing muscle strength. Regular supplementation with whey protein post workout has shown to significantly increase strength compared to not supplementing with whey after your workout.
  • Improves Tendon and Ligament Strength - Not only does whey protein help muscles grow, it also has been shown to help improve tendon (tissue that attaches muscle to bone) and ligament (tissue that attaches bone to bone) strength when supplemented post workout! This is great information for athletes who train at a high intensity as increasing tendon and ligament strength could reduce the risk of serious injury during exercise and sport. The high leucine (a branched chain amino acid) content of whey has been shown to be the primary reason for the increase in tendon and ligament strength.
  • Prevents Muscle Loss - Whey protein supplementation post workout as well as throughout the day after a workout has been shown to prevent muscle loss so that your body is not breaking down hard earned muscle. Supplementing with whey protein even later in the day after exercise or the day after (within 24 hours of the exercise) has been shown to create a positive nitrogen balance in the body (more amino acids coming in than going out) and as a result spare muscle tissue from being broken down by the body as a source of energy. The Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs - Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine) are the components of whey which are mainly responsible for this and "sacrifice themselves" when the body is in need of energy and are turned into glucose to fuel your cells as opposed to your body breaking down muscle to do the same.

Types of Whey Protein

Now that you know some of the reasons whey protein supplementation is important after exercise, it is important to know the difference between the $20 tub of protein you find at Walmart and the $60 tub of protein you can find in reputable health stores (and on this website of course). When it comes to whey protein quality and quantity the saying "you get what you pay for" cannot be more true. With the increase in popularity of sports nutrition products and the increase in efficiency of cheese making, whey protein is in high demand and comes at a cost if you are getting the good stuff. By looking at the label of your whey protein supplement you can see what the primary type of whey protein is and if it is a high quality protein or if there are other proteins/cheaper whey proteins that are the main ingredients.

Whey Protein Isolate - The Gold Standard

Whey protein isolate (WPI) is the gold standard of quality for whey protein. In the manufacturing process the whey is removed from the milk fats, lactose, and other aspects of milk and is dehydrated into powder form. In other words, whey protein isolate is the protein from cows milk without the stuff you don't want and is significantly lower in cholesterol, fact, and lactose than whey protein concentrate and regular milk.

Whey Protein Concentrate - The "Cheap" Whey

Whey protein concentrate (WPC) is the lowest quality of whey protein as it is not isolated from the other aspects of milk, it still contains cholesterol, milk fats, and lactose but at a lower amount when compared to regular cow's milk. Whey protein concentrate can range from 29% - 89% protein by weight so there is a much larger range of actual whey protein content with WPC. Whey protein concentrates with lower percentage of protein by weight contain more milk fats and lactose and are cheaper to buy than isolates as well as higher protein by weight concentrates. Since whey protein concentrate has the less desirable aspects of milk this can result in a protein powder that causes stomach upset, bloating, and gas...This also happens to be the effects experienced with lower quality whey protein powders and these also tend to be the cheapest for the consumer. WPC is still whey protein, however it is less pure than isolates and has been known to have less desirable side effects.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate - The Fast Whey

Whey protein hydrolysate (WPH) or hydrolyzed whey protein isolate (HWPI) is the fastest absorbing type of whey protein out of the bunch. WPH starts with Whey Protein Isolate and then is predigested and hydrolyzed so that the amino acids are absorbed more rapidly because your body does not have to hydrolyze the bonds between the amino acids that make up the whey protein structure. In other words, WPH is a broken down, faster absorbing form of Whey Protein Isolate. This type of whey protein is ideal in a blend post workout and can be more ideal for individuals with sensitivity to dairy. WPH is typically more expensive than the other types of whey protein and provides a faster spike in amino acid levels in the blood stream compared to other types of whey protein.

New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate - The Clean Whey 

New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate (NZWPI) is an improvement on the gold standard of whey protein isolate. The same processes are involved in New Zealand whey isolate as regular whey isolate with 1 difference - the protein comes from cows in New Zealand and their strict dairy laws make this a very good thing. In North America, the dairy industry allows cows to be injected with steroids and growth hormones to expedite the growth of the cow and put more meat on the cow at the end of the day. These North American cows are also couped up in large farm houses and fed cheap high calorie, low nutrition feed that gets them to pack on more weight - imagine what this does to the whey protein they produce. In New Zealand, the dairy laws are strict in that cows are not allowed to be injected with steroids or growth hormones and they are free-range and grass-fed this results in a much healthier cow and a cleaner whey protein. For this reason many companies have started using New Zealand whey as opposed to just any old whey isolate because they want a cleaner more pure product, this however also results in a more expensive protein powder.

So, next time you buy your whey protein take a look at the label, does it contain just pure whey isolate or is the main source whey protein concentrate? Or, is the main protein whey and the second or third on the list another type of protein such as soy? Either way, look at the label before you buy and know that in most cases the quality of the whey protein and the source of they whey truly does determine the price of the whey protein you are buying.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the article!


Evan Ward, BScHK, CPT, President of DYNAMIS

DYNAMIS REFUEL s6k Advanced Recovery Protein contains 23 grams of New Zealand Whey Protein Isolate per serving with added Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs), B-Vitamins, and Green Tea Extract for improved recovery, check it out here.

Selected References

  1. Ha E, Zemel MB (May 2003). "Functional properties of whey, whey components, and essential amino acids: mechanisms underlying health benefits for active people (review)". J. Nutr. Biochem. 14 (5): 251–8.
  2. Phillips SM (February 2011). "The science of muscle hypertrophy: making dietary protein count". Proc Nutr Soc(Review) 70 (1): 100–3.
  3. Jay R. Hoffman and Michael J. Falvo (2004). "Protein - Which is best?". Journal of Sports Science and Medicine(3): 118–130.
  4. Foegeding, EA; Davis, JP; Doucet, D; McGuffey, MK (2002). "Advances in modifying and understanding whey protein functionality". Trends in Food Science & Technology 13 (5): 151–9.
  5. Witard OC et al (2014). "Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protien at rest and after resistance exercise". Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jan;99(1):86-95
  6. Burd NA et al (2011) "Enhanced amino acid sensitivity of myofibrillar protein synthesis persists for up to 24 h after resistance exercise in young men." J Nutr. 2011 Apr 1;141(4):568-73.