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Never mind timing: This is the whey to muscle gains in ageing women

By Nikki Cutler contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Extreme Media
Getty | Extreme Media
Whey protein can help ageing women gain muscle no matter when they take the supplement, say researchers.

Researchers from Brazil and Portugal examined whether is it more efficacious for skeletal muscle mass (SMM) for women aged over 60 to supplement with whey protein pre- or post-training.

Lead researcher Dr Hellen Nabuco, from the Federal Institute of Science and Technology of Mato Grosso, Brazil, says in a Arla Whey and Protein blog post: "What we found in our results was that it doesn’t seem to matter when supplementation takes place. When compared with a placebo group of ageing women, both those who took whey protein supplements prior to resistance training and those who supplemented after training demonstrated a significant increase in SMM, muscle strength, and functional capacity - as measured by walking speed and the rate at which a participant could rise from a seated position."

Dr Nabuco adds that previous studies examining the effect of supplement timing have so far neglected to control for initial SMM gains and muscular strength increases that are effected by neurological factors around initiating new exercise regimens.

"These muscle adaptations are often so large in untrained participants that they can actually mask gains due to whey protein supplementation, thereby making it look like whey protein does not have a significant effect on SMM or muscle strength when compared to placebo groups.

"In the studies that we have designed, we asked participants to undergo an eight-week pre-conditioning program in order to distinguish gains in SMM and muscle strength unique to the whey protein supplementation from neural adaptations in the muscle that are known to occur in the first few weeks of resistance training.

"We also carefully recorded the nutritional intake of participants throughout the study so that we knew what the protein intake of our participants was on a daily basis without supplementation."

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The problem

The deterioration of muscle mass is a huge problem for older adults. Helping the elderly reduce muscle mass loss (sarcopenia) and attenuate a decline in strength (dynapenia) can help lessen the number of falls they have and have a huge impact on the retention of personal independence.

While whey protein has been widely regarded as a valuable resource for sports nutrition, the specifics regarding the optimal time to supplement around training have, until now, been a bit unclear.

Ageing effects women in a slightly different way than men. For women, the loss of muscle mass and overall body fat paired with the shift of remaining fat to the abdomen and to the inside of muscles (due to the loss of estrogen) creates a specific concern. Also, because women generally start with less muscle mass than men, the loss of muscle is more critical for women. 

Muscle mass retention

Whey protein has, on average, about four times more protein than the same serving portions of semi-skimmed milk or a cooked egg. Additionally, whey has been identified as a superior protein in terms of ease of digestion and the availability and uptake speed of amino acids. 

To date, the jury has been out on whether pre- or post-training whey protein supplementation is more effective for building and maintaining muscle mass in ageing adults who are doing resistance training.

Only three studies have even looked at the effect of the timing of protein intake in older people, and there has not yet been a study done that controlled for or monitored all of the factors that may influence muscle mass retention. These include such factors as level of fitness training, daily nutritional intake and timing of supplementation. 


It is well established that that protein supplements are effective for boosting muscle mass and strength gains during resistance exercise in both younger and older subjects.

A meta-analysis of 22 clinical trials​ revealed that protein supplementation was associated with average increases in fat-free body mass of 0.69 kg, and average increases in leg press strength of 13.5 kg.

Many studies​ have specifically looked at the particularly strong benefits in older adults, especially with Leucine-enriched amino acid supplements.

However it has been argued​ in the past, that timing of protein consumption is critical for muscle mass gain.

Next steps

Dr Nabuco adds: "Because gains are seen in both pre- and post-training supplementations, the elderly should be encouraged to take whey protein supplements whenever it is convenient and agreeable to them.

"Moving forward, we feel that research should investigate whether or not there is a dosage level of protein supplementation in the elderly that is optimum for the maintenance and increase of SMM and muscle strength. If we can determine this, then, an even stronger statement as to the 'ideal recommendation' for protein supplementation could be made. Also, it is very possible that supplementation with whey protein every day, as opposed to just on days when resistance training is done, may encourage even more muscle gains. This is also a relevant research question going forward."

Source: Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sport
Nabuco. H. C. G., et al
“Effects of pre‐ or post‐exercise whey protein supplementation on oxidative stress and antioxidant enzymes in older women”

Related topics: Research, Sports Nutrition, Protein

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