Protein shakes are not necessary to building muscle, but they sure are useful and highly effective. If you want to improve your 'gains' while training and start adding more mass more quickly then there are few better ways.
How a Protein Shake Works
Essentially when we train by resistance – by lifting heavy weights for example – this causes the tiny fibres in our muscle to slightly tear in what are called 'microtears'. Our body then goes about the process of repairing these minor tears during 'anabolic' periods such as when we are sleeping or straight after a workout. During anabolic phases our body then looks around for protein and uses this to build or re-build tissue within our body – our muscle included.
It is impossible to increase the number of muscle fibres in our biceps, but it is possible to increase their thickness which the body does via the use of amino acids while repairing them. Essentially it is almost like a form of scar tissue which develops when the muscle fibres are healed, and this makes them both thicker and stronger. These amino acids are what we find in our protein – the building blocks of life – meaning that we are literally recycling the parts of deceased living matter that we eat.
The bad news is that if we don't have the amino acids in our body at that crucial time when the body is trying to repair its tissue, then the jobs simply don't get done. This would mean that you'd be left with torn muscle fibre rather than it coming back stronger as it should. So it's crucial to growth that you eat the right amount of protein.
Protein shake contains that protein in high quantities and has the vast majority of amino acids included in its concoction, and it also comes in a tasty and convenient form thus meaning that you aren't carrying around chicken legs with you wherever you go.
Choosing the Best Protein Shake
So protein shakes are highly useful and will help your muscles to get the benefit of all the hard work you put in down the gym. At the same time though, there are countless protein shakes and sometimes it's quite hard to know which the best one is.
Unfortunately there are too many protein shakes out there and too many different brands, and too many different opinions, to definitively say here which is 'best'. That's up to you to decide, but fortunately there are a few things to look out for to make sure that you are getting the best protein shake. Which will look at here, but of course.
Things to Look Out For
Types of Protein: The first thing you need to decide is what kind of protein you want. The most well known kind here is whey protein and this is created as a by-product of the cheese making process meaning it comes from milk. It's perfectly healthy and safe in other words and you get it in your diet anyway, but it's also an incredibly high form of protein that gives you more in one go than you could get from eating meat, and highly bio-available meaning your body can use it easily.
However for vegetarians (vegans) this of course isn't very desirable and fortunately they have their own alternative in the form of soy protein which is the same process made from soy. While this is a good source of protein, it's not quite as efficient as whey protein – so if you have the choice you should always go with the former.
There are other options available too such as egg protein, but if you have the option always look for whey protein for a very efficient protein shake that is also affordable (most shakes will be whey so that's easy).
Protein: Obviously the more protein is in each serving the better, and here you need to look for the amount of grams. If you have two options available to you, just pick the one with the most grams of protein.
Carbs: Carbs are what we use for energy. They contain sugar in a complex form meaning that the body needs to break it down to use it as energy. If that energy does not get used however, then it will be stored as fat and that's obviously not what you want. For those who want to build lean muscle then, the best protein shake will be one with a high amount of protein and a low amount of carbs – you still need carbs for energy but you will get this elsewhere.
Amino Acids: Certain amino acids are used for certain tasks in the body. It is currently believed that there are 27 in total (though some sources say 23 and the possibility of discovering more shouldn't be ruled out). It's very difficult to get all 27 in one helping, but you should aim to get as many as you can in your protein shake (they will be listed).
Other Supplements: Some protein shakes will try and 'wow' you with their extra supplements included (they might say on them something like 'Our Anabolic Stack'). This might seem impressive but actually it can be a bad thing for a number of reasons. The first is that it drives the price up. The next is that by having it in your protein shake you risk overdosing if you get it from other sources too. For instance if your protein shake has vitamin B6 in it, and your NO2 has B6 in it (which it often does) then that might exceed your maximum daily allowance and risk nerve damage.
At the same time, your body won't be able to utilise most of these additional supplements as you won't be taking them at the right time or in the right order. This is to say that something like creatine – found in many protein shakes – is intended to have a 'loading' phase, and then to be taken three times a day, neither of which is how you use a protein shake. So you'll want to take your creatine separately.
Finally, those companies that claim their products can 'do everything' are probably lying, and this suggests that the shake will likely be from companies out to scam you. If you can't trust the companies this may suggest that there's more wrong with them too.
Thus it is far better to go for pure protein. If it includes a few vitamins in there then this is not the end of the world by any means, but look out for things that sound hyperbolic and the word 'anabolism' or 'anabolic' being used too much.
Go Reputable: You need to get a protein shake that is reputable and you certainly shouldn't buy them through eBay unless it is via a 'real' store and the products come vacuum packed.