In my article about protein synthesis, I got into some nitty-gritty details on how muscle is built and covered the basic physiological interactions that happen when you eat and work out. I also mentioned that I would dive deeper into the topic of post-workout nutrition (timing and content). I wanted to make this a separate topic because of how critical it is to achieve your strength and physique goals.
Furthermore, while I have mentioned on a high level what your post-workout strategy should be in regards to nutrition, I never really dove into “why”. Making yourself familiar with the details on “why” can provide the motivation and discipline to do things in a way that will garner the results you’re after. Allow me to start by refreshing you on the basics of building muscle…
Protein Synthesis After A Workout
Following a strenuous workout, protein synthesis – the process that builds skeletal muscle mass – is stimulated, with a building phase that continues for about 24 hours. For the first three or four hours, it increases by about 50% and then ramps up to peak around 109% at the 24-hour mark. After protein synthesis peaks, it slowly returns to baseline levels over the next 12 to 24 hours (36 to 48 hours post-workout). During the climbing phase, it is essential that a person consumes sufficient protein to feed those muscle cells; otherwise, sarcopenia will occur – the process wherein the muscle cells are broken down and protein is used as fuel, which results in muscle loss.
The Anabolic Window
The anabolic window (also known as the metabolic window) refers to the one-hour pre-workout, and the three to four hours post-workout where a person should consume carbohydrates and amino acids (protein) in order to build the most muscle possible. The small pre-workout meal provides the body with both carbs for energy and protein to help “prime the pump”. The post-workout meal replenishes the body’s glycogen stores (through the consumption of carbohydrates) and provides the muscles with protein to use during protein synthesis. This, in turn, leads to muscle growth. Let’s look at each of these more specifically…
One to two hours before a strenuous weight-lifting workout, a person should consume a small meal that consists of 50% complex carbohydrates and 50% protein. Examples of this type of pre-workout meal include fast-digesting protein sources like chicken, turkey, white fish, or protein powder. Good carb choices are sweet potato, oatmeal, or brown rice – carbs that illicit a very small insulin response.
The carbohydrates will provide slow-release energy to help fuel the workout, and the protein, which takes longer to process when you add a complex carb to the meal, will work to start feeding your muscles directly after your workout.
My personal favorites for this meal are a couple of pieces of well-seasoned baked Tilapia and a cup of brown rice – shooting for 30-40 g of both protein and carbs in this meal that will be fully digested (or close to it) by the time I hit the gym. It’s also important this be a low/no-fat meal, as I’ll explain below.
Studies have shown that proper post-workout nutrition is very important and has many benefits. A properly formulated post-workout meal will help:
a) prevent muscle breakdown;
b) increase or maximize protein synthesis;
c) decrease recovery time;
d) replenish glycogen stores.
It’s not enough to just randomly eat “some” carbs and “some” protein; the amount and the type of carbs will affect how quickly and efficiently the protein is sent where it is needed the most.
Carbohydrates in your post-workout meal serve to provide an insulin spike that delivers proteins and carbs (in the form of glycogen) into the muscles. A study performed in 2000 suggests that the intake of between 0.8 to 1.2 grams of carbohydrates for every kilogram of body weight accelerates protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment. Keep in mind that the upper limits of that suggestion refer to athletes who participated in an extremely intense workout. Stick to the 0.8g/kg range if your workouts are of average length and intensity.
For example, a 180-pound athlete (81.8kg) should consume anywhere between 65.5 and 98.6 grams of carbs in the post-workout meal. However, it’s important to keep in mind that any carbs not used to refill glycogen stores will be converted to fat. This is why it is important to stick close to the 0.8g/kg range.
When it comes to post-workout meals, the type of carbohydrate consumed is essential; you want the carbs to be digested quickly. This requires simple carbohydrates in the form of dextrose, honey, or other sugars. White rice, pasta, or white bread can also be a good choice since they break down faster than whole grains. Avoid fruit since the sugars in them, called fructose, are converted to liver glycogen rather than muscle glycogen (unless the liver glycogen stores are full). Complex carbohydrates, like those found in whole grains and vegetables, take too long to process and convert to glycogen, and the point is to feed the muscles quickly. These foods are more appropriate for your pre-workout meal, or for a meal after your post-workout meal.
Protein, which is made up of amino acids, is required in your post-workout meal to aid in the process of protein synthesis. Just like with carbs, it is important that the meal consists of the proper ratio of protein for optimal muscle growth. It is a widely-accepted suggestion that protein intake consists of between 0.2 to 0.4 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (I lean towards the higher end of that scale). Suitable protein sources for a post-workout meal include protein powder, egg whites, and lean meats like chicken, tuna, and bison.
As in the example above, the 180-pound athlete should consume between 16.4 and 32.7 grams of protein in the post-workout meal (again, the bigger number is usually better in this case). An easy way to figure out how many grams of protein are in meat is to remember that one pound of meat has approximately 100 grams of protein; so to eat between 16.4 and 32.7 grams of protein, one would have to eat between approximately 74 grams (2.75 ounces) and 147 grams (5.2 ounces) of lean meats.
One egg white contains approximately 3.6 grams of protein, so it would take at least nine egg whites to fulfill the minimum protein requirement for the post-workout meal. Of course, a meal that combined egg whites, lean meat, and some white toast would be an excellent choice if you were going to eat a whole food meal instead of a liquid post-workout shake.
Alternatively, a liquid meal in the form of a specially-formulated supplement with the proper ratio of carbs and protein, or a homemade smoothie consisting of protein powder, milk or gatorade, and honey would also work well and would digest very quickly. IsoFuel is a fantastic post-workout protein option, but you will also need to add some simple carbs to the meal or shake since it only has 6 grams of carbs. I prefer liquid meals because they are easier to prepare and consume, and they get absorbed faster into the bloodstream.
It is important that the post-workout meal be low in fat because dietary fat slows down the digestion process. You want your post-workout meal to digest quickly so that you can enjoy optimum protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment. This is not to say that your entire diet should be fat-free; essential fats are necessary for good health and building muscle. Just a post-workout meal should be very low-fat or even fat-free, if possible.
In addition to the slowing down of digestion of your post-workout meal, consuming fat during the anabolic window can also lead to fat storage – not what we’re after. The reason is when your insulin is spiked and your cells are hungry, they absorb everything you put in them – including fat. So as a general rule, it’s best to avoid fast for the first few hours post-workout to ensure you’re fueling your body for lean mass gains, not fat gains. The same goes for the pre-workout meal – any fat you consume there could still be in your system and get stored when your insulin spikes.
Timing for Post-Workout Meal
From a timing perspective on the post-workout meal, my personal preference and recommendation is to have a shake ready that I consume immediately after my workout. I prep with Nitrobol, IsoFuel in a shaker cup and a bottle of Gatorade before I head to the gym. As soon my workout is over I head to the locker room and down my Nitrobol with water and then hit the shower. This gives my system about 10 minutes to start digesting and absorbing all the anabolic goodness that Nitrobol contains, and primes the pump for protein synthesis.
As soon as I’m out of the shower, I down my Gatorade and then add water to my IsoFuel shake and finish up with that. When it’s all said and done I’ve supplied my body with tons of BCAAs, EAAs, high-quality quick digesting protein, simple carbs, and little to no fat. And I can literally FEEL my system start to absorb the nutrients as I go from a “smoked” feeling to one of calm relaxation when my body realizes it now has the fuel it needs to repair from the workout I just put it through.
So now you should have a good grasp on what goes into proper pre and post-workout nutrition as well as how to best time it for maximum results. Of course, the trick is actually doing something with that knowledge! The key of course is to have a plan and then execute. You can set yourself apart at this very moment by writing down what your pre and post-workout strategy will be this coming week. You have the tools so it’s time to make it happen and see significant gains.
Do you have a method/strategy that you leverage for your pre and post-workout nutrition? Any other thoughts and/or questions? Please take the time to share them below…