Nutritional science has come a long way in recent years. There has been an on-going debate or quite some time in regards to the post-exercise “anabolic window” that occurs post weight training. The theory was that within a certain period of time after training, you had to get in your protein shake. Otherwise, you would lose all of the gains you stimulated during lifting. If you’re well enough read on this subject, you will know the argument goes something like this:
– Lift weights – Get in your protein shake and carbs in within 30 minutes post-training or you lose out on anabolism
This has led countless numbers of lifters to be paranoid about downing a protein shake quickly post-training. Or more effectively put, miss out on the post-training window for setting up growth.
Now I want to preface this by stating there eventually became two factors here regarding this theory.
One was glycogen replenishment. Meaning, that you need to take in carbohydrates post-training in order to replenish depleted glycogen stores from training. The other factor was muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is the removing or repairing of damaged proteins and building of new proteins that are replicas of the original.
Muscle Protein Synthesis 101
This theory was widely accepted as truth for decades until some research was done over the years that showed so long as you had a meal within a few hours of training, you would be just fine, and that total protein intake over the course of the day mattered more than when you had protein intake. That it made no difference if you had a shake immediately after training, or three hours later.
But is that really true?
Hard training creates damage at a cellular level. This is the stimulus for growth. But growth itself doesn’t happen until after training. That’s when the repair process happens. After a workout, the rate of muscle protein synthesis has to be greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown (MPB). So if muscle protein balance (the weighing between synthesis and breakdown) is in the negative, anabolism/growth cannot occur. To get this straight for you, when MPS is greater than MPB, growth will happen. When they are the same, nothing happens. When MPB is greater than MPS, you will lose muscle.
This is not debatable. It simply is factual.
So where is the debate?
The debate from there became, how important is nutrition timing? To answer this, we have to understand how to dramatically increase MPS, and decrease MPB in order to create the most anabolic environment possible to grow as fast as possible.
I’m going to try and cut through a lot of bullshit for you and make this easy to understand, so you can apply this to your nutrition plan.
So let’s get down to it!
According to pretty much all research, MPS spikes post-training for up to 24 hours, then starts to return to baseline between 36 and 48 hours (depending on what study you look at). But the fact is, if you haven’t eaten anything at all 36 hours after training you probably had bigger problems in your life than worrying about losing all your gains. So we really don’t need to worry about stretching the timeline out that far.
The theory held by lots of folks in the scientific field is that, so long as you are getting ample amounts of protein within that time in the post-workout window, you will recover and progress adequately. It appears however that this is far more important for people who train fasted, something we will address later as well.
But on the surface, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If I wait and eat 4 hours after a really brutal leg training session, it’s no different recovery-wise than if I eat very shortly afterwards?
I’ve never, ever thought that not eating, or waiting to eat, was just as good as eating when it came to building muscle. It seems awfully contradictory. During a time when my muscles will be primed for nutrient uptake and partitioning (during training), I have no nutrition coming in? So does eating before you train play an important role in increasing MPS?
Well, apparently it does!
Pre-Peri-Post workout nutrition
For a while, intermittent fasting (IF) was a big diet fad. I say fad because I see it as nothing more than another coming and going of something that isn’t backed up by either anecdotal evidence or scientific evidence in regards to building muscle mass. I don’t know of a single massively-muscled individual that got that way by doing IF. However, I have seen lots of scrawny guys rave about how great it is for getting lean. This should come as no surprise!
So, you’re telling me if I don’t eat for long periods of time, I will get lean, but really small?
Yes! That’s exactly what will happen. You’ll go through both fat and lean muscle mass.
Not eating for long periods of time seems to run counter to what common sense should tell us about building muscle mass. Remember, to build mass, we need a positive muscle protein balance so that we can grow (MPS > MPB)
A Common Sense MPS Approach
If anything, eating before you train appears to have a more significant effect on increasing MPS than training in a fasted state, and then eating afterwards
An increased net uptake of EAAs translates to increased muscle protein synthesis. We found this to be the case, because a mixture of 6 g EAAs + 35 g glucose given immediately before exercise resulted in a greater stimulation of net muscle protein balance than when it was given either immediately or 1 h after exercise. Source: Skeletal Muscle Protein Metabolism and Resistance Exercise, Robert R Wolfe
So we’ve set the stage for step one in regards to net protein balance. Eat before you train. The right question then become: how long before you train?
Research shows that doesn’t matter a whole lot, so long as you’ve had a meal within a few hours, and are not training fasted. I personally don’t like to eat, then train immediately after. I prefer a few hours in between.
In contrast, when I was in Australia with John Meadows, he liked to eat and train as soon as possible after that. In fact he told me “the only time I will walk out on a training session is if I get hungry during it.”
So it’s mainly a personal preference.
What about during training?
Protein intake during training also appears to help increase MPS, and further resist MPB. If you are in a position where you cannot eat before training, then the uptake o f amino acids during training appears to have a similar effect on MPS as eating before training.
However I personally advise to eat before training as all of the research shows time after time that it increases MPS even more so than eating afterwards. Having amino acids during training does appear to prolong MPS, so to create the best possible environment for building lean tissue, make sure to do both.
That leaves us with what to do post workout.
A very well-done study shows that there was a significant increase in nitrogen retention when protein was consumed immediately post workout. Ity was published last year, and done on both trained and untrained subjects. This particular study has baffled a lot of people who had claimed that timing didn’t matter
To break it down so you don’t have to read the entire text…
- Two groups, one trained and untrained, were involved in the study.
- One group had a protein-carb shake immediately post workout, and one did not.
- Both groups had lunch at 13:00 (2 hours post training).
- The group that did not have the post-workout shake, had the same shake 4 hours after lunch.
- Nitrogen retention was significanlty higher in the group of trained individuals compared to the group of untrained men in regards to having the post-workout shake.
- The group of trained men that had the shake immediately post-workout had a higher nitrogen balance than the group of trained men that had the shake four hours after training.
If you’re a noob, then just get your protein in over the course of the day after training. If you’re a trained, or advanced lifter, then getting your nutrition in immediately post-workout does make a difference in achieving a higher nitrogen balance. This is pretty much irrefutable. Because the fact is, we don’t care about what works for noobs. Anything works for noobs in regards to growing muscle mass. When you are an advanced lifter though, this is where this sort if things start to matter.
This study pretty much debunks the theory that if you just get your protein in over the rest of the day, it’s all the same as getting it in within a shorter window post-training. But only for trained athletes. It is at this point that some of the other research fell flat on its face. It used untrained individuals. And as noted, anything will work for noobs. So throw that out if you’re a highly qualified athlete, and pay attention to what these results showed for people with a real training history. For them, it DID make a difference.
So as not to leave any stone unturned in regards to MPS, we must also cover the importance of leucine and its role in this process. Leucine appears to be the key to turning on the synthesis of amino acids.
A series of cellular studies has now clearly shown that leucine directly activates a critical compound in muscle called the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin). It turns out mTOR is like a molecular switch that turns on the machinery that manufactures muscle proteins and leucine is one of the major activators of mTOR. So leucine not only provides the building blocks for protein synthesis, it also plays a critical role in up-regulating the process. Even when an overabundance of amino acids are available to provide the building materials for new muscle, adding extra leucine augments protein synthesis rates further. The bottom line is that adding additional leucine to your diet is an effective strategy to maximize muscle anabolism after resistance exercise.
To add, from my buddy Jonathan Mike’s article on Leucine (because I thought this was an excellent article)
Declining leucine levels signal mTOR that there’s a lack of dietary protein present to synthesize new skeletal muscle protein, therefore disabling mTOR. Upon ingesting increased concentrations of leucine, the elevated amino acid then signals mTOR that sufficient dietary protein exists, and switches on overall protein synthesis. An important point to remember is an increase in mTOR activity (and all aspects of the pathway with which it belongs) results in an increase in protein-building and more growth!
It really is that simple: flick the leucine switch on and you start growing. Of course I assume you are training and eating enough to support anabolism.
So how much Leucine do you need?
If you are using a quality protein shake before training, then you should be ok. However, it doesn’t hurt to add leucine to your pre-peri-post workout shakes/meals in order to have your bases covered. My recommendation is to take in a total of around 10 grams of leucine over the pre-peri-post workout period:
- 5 grams before you train
- 5 grams during
- 5 grams afterwards
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork for increasing MPS, the second part is how do we suppress MPB? Remember, increasing MPS isn’t enough. If MBS must exceed MPB to create an anabolic environment. So now, let’s worry about how to decrease MPB.
The factors we talked about above were strictly for increasing MPS, but they actually don’t play a significant role in decreasing MPB. So what does?
Insulin does very little in the way of helping to increase MPS. However, it is a major component in suppressing MPB.
The first thing that comes to mind when someone talks about spiking insulin, is the ingestion of simple sugars or carbohydrates in order to achieve this state. But the truth is, that’s not really a requirement. If you are having whey as your post-workout shake, it will raise insulin enough that the addition of carbohydrates will literally make no difference. So ingesting whey protein post-workout will spike insulin enough to suppress MPB, and your bases are now covered.
But there is another factor at play here as well.
It has been shown that intake of carbohydrates as part of post workout nutrition can reduce cortisol after repeated days of heavy training. An increase in cortisol when carbohydrate stores are low will indeed tap into fat stores for use as energy. The issue is, it will also tap into lean muscle tissue as well. This is not the desired effect for someone trying to build as much lean tissue as possible. So the fact is, we want to also suppress both cortisol and MPB post-workout as much as possible.
When glycogen levels are low, then cortisol levels will rise post workout. And this is where the importance of ingesting carbs post workout come into play. However carbohydrate intake prior to training is also going to play a role in keeping post-training cortisol low as well. So we’re back to the importance of not training in a fasted state again. As you can see, all of this ties up very neatly together.
Putting it all together for the perfect shake To make things as simple as possible, how would one situate this in order to take advantage of all the factors above?
- Eat 1-2 hours prior to training. Shakes are ok, but both a food meal or protein and carbohydrate mixture work well enough. Supplement that with 2.5 grams of leucine.
- Use essential amino acids during training along with a simple sugar added. Add in 2.5 grams of leucine to this as well.
- If you are an advanced lifter, get in a protein/carbohydrate shake or a well-balanced meal in less than an hour after training. If you are a novice it is not quite as important. I would suggest getting in a meal or protein shake within a two hour window post-training anyways. Not eating to build mass are words that don’t seem to go together.
Despite all of the evidence that shows nutrient timing to play a significant role in creating a more anabolic environment, there is still debate about just how important it is.
One could easily pick a great number of studies to refute any study that shows that nutrient timing is important. So I will actually end with this…
A question I often ask myself to determine if something is worth implementing into my training or nutritional paradigm is this:
“what are the negatives it could bring? And what are the positives?”
I literally cannot find a single negative associated with adhering to a sound nutrient timing plan. I can find all sorts of positives, however. To me, there appears to be enough research and anecdotal evidence to support using it to recover and grow at a more optimal rate. Once you get to an advanced level of development, progress does not come as easily. You are going to have to turn over every rock in order to find what makes a difference in getting better, or prevent stagnation.
If you haven’t been using these principles in your diet, then give them a try instead of debating about it all day. Then, you will be able to answer for yourself how well it works or does not work. And that is really the best way to know, instead of debating about it on the internet all day.
References http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8563679 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11440894 http://jn.nutrition.org/content/136/2/525S.full http://www.gssiweb.org/Article/sse-107-protein-consumption-and-resistance-exercise-maximizing-anabolic-potential http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16705065 http://jn.nutrition.org/content/136/2/533S.full http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008809/ http://www.nutritionexpress.com/article+index/protein/showarticle.aspx?id=807 http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/supplemental-leucine-how-it-powers-muscle-growth.html http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/295/4/E731 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21131864 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9760352