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Pre Workout Vs Protein Powder (What's The Difference?)

Tyler Sellers
Published by Tyler Sellers
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 9, 2023
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As a fitness coach, one common question I get from new clients is whether protein powders can work like pre-workouts.

The truth is, many people can't tell one from the other.

So I decided to prepare this report drawing from what I know about the two supplements from my decade-long experience.

I also did additional research and consulted a dietitian to tighten the article properly.

Here are my findings.

Quick Summary

  • Pre-workouts are supplements taken to enhance an athlete's performance, whereas protein powder supplements are taken for bodybuilding.
  • The benefits of protein powder include boosting recovery after a workout, promoting satiety, and helping maintain muscle mass.
  • Pre-workout supplement benefits range from increased focusness, enhanced energy levels, and improved endurance.

What Do A Pre-workout and Protein Powder Have in Common?

A buff male with a lot of pre-workout and protein powders on a table

Protein powders and pre-workout supplements have two things in common; they both come in powdered form and are both used to complement diet and exercise.

They should not be used as substitutes for a balanced diet but as boosters to an already established training regimen and diet restriction.

And that's pretty much it as far as their similarities are concerned.

Before we examine what makes them different, let's examine their roles.

The Purpose of Protein Powders

A muscular person mixing powder into a bottle

It's hard to find a serious gym-goer who doesn't use whey protein or protein powders in general. Protein shakes and powders are easily the most popular bodybuilding supplements in the health and fitness industry.

Now, to understand what protein powder does, it's essential to understand its purpose.

The work of a protein shake or powder is to fuel muscle recovery, maintain healthy metabolism and promote muscle gain.

Whey protein, the most popular in a variety of protein shakes, is suitable for people looking to boost their body’s protein intake and muscle mass.

One study examining its effect on 40 men proved that increased protein intake through supplementation resulted in increased muscle mass, especially after engaging in strength training and cardio [1].

Bodybuilders and athletes love whey protein shakes because they come loaded with essential amino acids, stimulants, minerals, and vitamins that are useful in burning fat cells in the body [2].

In addition, they contain Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). BCAA is an essential amino acid and dietary protein that aids in muscle growth and recovery when taken alone or as part of a complete protein [3].

Below are the full benefits of protein powders and shakes:

  • Weight management because of their low calorie to protein ratio
  • Promotes satiety
  • Enhance muscle tone and maintains muscle mass
  • Boosts recovery after a workout
  • It can be used as a vegan-friendly alternative to dairy and meat

The Purpose of a Pre-workout

A muscular man drinking from a bottle

When there’s no energy or passion for working out, pre-workouts come in handy to help you keep motivated and focused on your fitness goal.

Put simply, pre-workouts boost performance by allowing you to train harder and for longer.

That includes enabling you to have more energy, a sharp focus, and the power to push you further.

Pre-workouts also boost endurance and contain nutrients such as amino acids that boost muscle blood flow [4].

“The point of pre-workout is to boost your focus and energy and help you achieve maximum performance in the gym or during your chosen exercise.”

- Charlie Meister, Online Personal Trainer 

As you can already guess, pre-workouts contain stimulants like caffeine that push you towards maximum input for optimal results. Other ingredients include creatine, taurine, essential amino acids, and beta-alanine [5].

The best time to take a pre-workout is around half an hour before a workout so that the blend of ingredients can find time to kick in as you train [6].

The Differences

A buff individual holding two tumblers in the gym

Pre-workouts and protein powders have several differences, some of which we’ve already mentioned.


A pre-workout enhances performance and training intensity during a workout, while a protein shake is meant to aid muscle recuperation.

Time Taken

A pre-workout is taken around 30 minutes before a workout, while protein shakes can be taken anytime, including before and after training.

Nutrient and Calorie Difference

In addition, both pre-workouts and protein shakes have a nutrient and calorie difference.

Protein powders often have more calories because they are distilled food sources, while pre-workouts usually contain micronutrients and synthetic ingredients to boost performance.

Which Is Best for Beginners?

A buff person mixing protein powder into a tumbler

A pre-workout supplement is the best for beginners, based on my experience as a fitness trainer.

Why should you choose pre-workout first?

Because pre-workouts boost your motivation and performance during a workout by helping you stay focused and driven.

When you’re new to exercise, this push can be essential to ensure you stay on track and don’t give up too soon.

However, your muscles do need to adapt to exercise routines and get used to the training regimens.

Start with a protein shake to adapt faster and kickstart your goal of gaining more muscle.

I always advise my clients who have never used pre-workouts or any supplement before to start with a lower dose to test their body’s reaction before graduating to higher amounts.

After a decent period of using the supplement, I give the go-ahead to combine the supplements or use them separately in regular amounts, whichever works best for them.

Still, it's best to consult a qualified healthcare professional before deciding on a diet, exercise program, or dietary supplement.

What Is the Best Time to Take Pre-workouts and Protein Shakes?

A person in the gym looking at his smart watch

The best time to take a pre-workout is 15-45 minutes before exercising, while protein powders can be taken anytime, both before or after a workout.

Protein powders work the same way whether taken before or after a workout, although most people like taking it 15-60 minutes after a training session.

For a long time, athletes took protein powders within a 30-minute anabolic window. They believe that drinking protein shakes outside this window would be ineffective.

The anabolic window is the short time after a workout when muscles take in nutrients to repair and recover.

However, new research suggests that the anabolic window is longer than 30 minutes [7].


Is Protein Powder Better Pre or Post-Workout?

Protein powder is better post-workout. However, it’s still beneficial to drink a protein shake both before and after a workout in terms of muscle repair and growth.

Do You Need Pre-workout and Protein Powder?

Yes, you need a pre-workout supplement to maximize your training performance and a protein powder to boost your recovery.

Can I Take Pre-workout and Protein Powder Simultaneously?

Yes, you can take protein powder and pre-workout supplements simultaneously. There are no side effects.

Get the Most Out of Your Workouts

I recommend that you combine pre-workout and protein supplements for your training. It will help keep you focused in the gym and give you a nutrient advantage to get those gains coming your way.

But that can be hard to achieve because of the inferior quality supplements that flood the market today.

This is why we’ve thoroughly tested and prepared this list of leading pre-workout supplements:

I’ve personally been using these products for years, which is why I'm confident that they will make a difference to your routine as they do to mine.


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