Background: Protein supplements are frequently consumed by athletes and recreationally active adults to achieve greater gains in muscle mass and strength and improve physical performance.
Objective: This review provides a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the literature that tested the hypothesis that protein supplements accelerate gains in muscle mass and strength resulting in improvements in aerobic and anaerobic power. Evidence statements were created based on an accepted strength of recommendation taxonomy.
Data sources: English language articles were searched through PubMed and Google Scholar using protein and supplements together with performance, exercise, strength, and muscle, alone or in combination as keywords. Additional articles were retrieved from reference lists found in these papers.
Study selection: Studies recruiting healthy adults between 18 and 50 years of age that evaluated the effects of protein supplements alone or in combination with carbohydrate on a performance metric (e.g., one repetition maximum or isometric or isokinetic muscle strength), metrics of body composition, or measures of aerobic or anaerobic power were included in this review. The literature search identified 32 articles which incorporated test metrics that dealt exclusively with changes in muscle mass and strength, 5 articles that implemented combined resistance and aerobic training or followed participants during their normal sport training programs, and 1 article that evaluated changes in muscle oxidative enzymes and maximal aerobic power.
Study appraisal and synthesis methods: All papers were read in detail, and examined for experimental design confounders such as dietary monitoring, history of physical training (i.e., trained and untrained), and the number of participants studied. Studies were also evaluated based on the intensity, frequency, and duration of training, the type and timing of protein supplementation, and the sensitivity of the test metrics.
Results: For untrained individuals, consuming supplemental protein likely has no impact on lean mass and muscle strength during the initial weeks of resistance training. However, as the duration, frequency, and volume of resistance training increase, protein supplementation may promote muscle hypertrophy and enhance gains in muscle strength in both untrained and trained individuals. Evidence also suggests that protein supplementation may accelerate gains in both aerobic and anaerobic power.
Limitations: To demonstrate measureable gains in strength and performance with exercise training and protein supplementation, many of the studies reviewed recruited untrained participants. Since skeletal muscle responses to exercise and protein supplementation differ between trained and untrained individuals, findings are not easily generalized for all consumers who may be considering the use of protein supplements.
Conclusions: This review suggests that protein supplementation may enhance muscle mass and performance when the training stimulus is adequate (e.g., frequency, volume, duration), and dietary intake is consistent with recommendations for physically active individuals.