Post-workout protein shake is a classic part of fitness culture, it's easy to forget that it's not always the norm outside of the fitness center.
Take, for example, the military. Soldiers and service personnel of all kinds train as hard as anyone in any country, and not only that, they must regularly prove their resilience through fitness tests. But when the hard work is done, they are also likely to receive a carbon-rich sports drink for their efforts as a shake. A 2010 study found that only about 18 percent of the US military regularly used protein or amino acids.  Although this number may have increased in recent years to counteract broader social acceptance of protein supplements.
But would a greater emphasis on the supplement protein actually make a difference in terms of the soldiers' fitness level or PT's performance? A recent study investigated just that.
Renewed Showdown on Basic Education
This double-blind study compared the effects of whey protein with a carbohydrate placebo on body composition and physical performance in the initial Army training at Auburn University.  The entry-level training is the first step in the military career of a soldier and has one goal: to turn civilians into soldiers! The program is physically exhausting and involves large amounts of strength and endurance training.
In this study, soldiers were given one of two supplements twice daily:
- Hydrolyzed Whey Protein Concentrate: 39 grams of protein per serving and about 80 grams per day
- The same amount of calories from a placebo carbohydrates
In both cases, dietary supplements were divided into two daily servings: following morning physical exercise and before bedtime. The researchers measured body composition as well as a basic assessment of physical performance before and after the eight-week period. The test consisted of:
- 2-minute push-up test
- 2-minute sit-up test
- 2-mile test
The following was found.
Body Composition: On average, soldiers in the whey group lost 4 pounds more fat than soldiers who received the placebo with carbohydrates. Considering the fact that total caloric intake was the same in both groups, this finding points to whey's potentially unique fat-burning ability – and to the idea that whey calories should not be equated with other calories, especially if someone is exercising regularly.
However, it does not surprise me. I was involved in a study in which we gave over four hundred extra calories of pure protein to a group of hard-training women for eight weeks and saw surprising levels of fat loss. You can read about it in the article "How much protein do women really need?"
Performance: If the physical test were to be conducted, the improvements in the protein group were also superior. On average, they completed nearly seven more pushups compared to the carbohydrate group. There were no differences between the groups in the sit-up or 2-mile running test.
The push-up test is a prerequisite for completing the program. An improvement of seven pushups in this test could literally be the difference between completing and not completing this intensive training program!
The Upshot for You
Scientific Support for the Benefits of Whey Protein supplementation continues to gather, not only in terms of body composition, but also in terms of physical performance. If you're in the military – or just in a brutal program like the former MFT28 Military Fitness Trainer by Greg Plitt, a later fitness icon -, one or two shakes a day can help you not just step with your physical demands but also translate them into results.
The ideal time to supplement with whey protein is right after your workout. However, if you get a second shake, you should consider doing so at bedtime. At the Physique Science Laboratory of the University of South Florida, we're providing all volunteers in our trials with 25 grams of whey protein right after training.
- Lieberman, HR, Stavinoha, TB, McGraw, SM, White, A., Hadden, LS, and Marriott, BP (2010). Use of nutritional supplements in US Army soldiers. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92 (4), 985-995
- McAdam, J., McGinnis, K., Beck, D., Haun, C., Romero, M., Mumford , P., & Roberts, M. (2018). Influence of whey protein supplementation on physical performance and body composition in soldiers for entry into initial education. Nutrients, 10 (9), 1248.