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Choosing the right post-workout nutrition

One of the very first questions I remember asking someone not long after I began weight training as a teenager, was “what should I eat after I workout?”

I had only just started to become serious about fitness and knew that nutrition was a big factor of my success. I had seen lots of people drink protein shakes after the gym, and I knew that protein in liquid form was digested faster than eating food, and therefore could get to my muscles quicker, but that was about it.

I was completely committed to building up my physique, and wanted to know everything I could that might benefit me doing so. Fast-forward to the present day after years of competing, dieting, researching and courses, and I feel as though if I could tell my younger self what I know now, I would have seen far more progress than when I had to first try everything out for myself.
In order for me to explain and justify my answer, I feel it necessary to provide several answers to a few questions that will greatly help you understand and make use of the information. I shall expand on the following topics within this article:

  • Why is post-workout nutrition is important, and different from other meals in the day
  • What is the Anabolic Window?
  • Why protein and carbohydrates together post-workout?
  • Is there an ideal amount of nutrition I need after training?

The Importance of Post-Workout Nutrition

Lets start things off with the process that happens to your muscles while you’re working out in the gym, and why post-workout nutrition is perhaps the most important meal of the day if you are training.

As you lift weights, you are placing your muscles under stress (from exertion against resistance). One of two things usually happens here: 1) you lift the same amount of weight in many of your workouts, and after a little progress, you feel as though nothing else is happening. 2) You continually challenge yourself during your workouts, keeping records of your weights, and aiming to progress even by the smallest increment, or a rep or two extra, each workout. You steadily see improvements in your physique, especially when compared to photos from several months earlier.

What is happening? Well, it’s a simple case of efficiency and requirements. If you aren’t stimulating your muscles with a resistance that challenges you, your body has little reason to ‘need’ to change. If you continue with the same routine, your body will soon become more efficient at performing the same tasks that were once more challenging. It doesn’t need to build more muscle, just be more efficient at handling/coping with the stresses (from the weights) that you exert on it. In other words, you are conditioning the muscles to become more efficient.

The second example demonstrates a progression in overloading the muscles with increased resistance, effectively forcing the body to make them stronger and bigger in order to better cope with the stresses placed on them. (This is why it’s important to gradually increase resistance over many months, and not try to jump up to heavier weights too quickly, as you need to allow the body time to adapt).

The microscopic tears in the muscle fibers cause a breakdown of old and damaged proteins, which continues to unfold for many hours after leaving the gym. This process is known as ‘Protein Breakdown’ and can be destructive to your progress unless you supply the right nutrients for the body to get to work repairing and constructing new proteins in the muscle (referred to as as ‘Protein Synthesis’). It’s important to keep in mind that this process (called ‘Protein Synthesis’ is in effect all the time, with the body always breaking down and repairing new proteins. It’s just that it’s amplified more so after training, which is why post-workout nutrition is considered one of the most important meals of the day, as this could have the biggest impact towards your training progress.

After leaving the gym, the process of protein breakdown not only continues to happen, but actually increases, and if not stopped soon with the right nutrition, can actually be detrimental to your workouts and training goals.

If you think you’re building muscle in the gym, you’re not! All that you’re doing is creating an environment where protein breakdown can happen, and be increased much more than usual. It’s the combination of post-workout nutrition and quality rest and sleep that is actually doing the ‘repair and rebuilding’ of our muscles. Still think rest days are only for beginners??

Muscle hypertrophy (the increase in size of skeletal muscle) occurs only when the body has a positive protein balance after training. If you don’t consume enough of the right fuel that the body requires, then protein synthesis will fall and protein breakdown will continue to rob you of your hard earned muscle.

You can start to see the importance, and the relationship between training and eating now, especially in the nutrition following your workout.

The Anabolic Window Time Frame

The term “Anabolic Window” refers to the time period after you’ve finished your workout, in which the muscles trained (even beyond those directly trained, especially if large exercises such as deadlift and squats have been performed), are primed to accept more nutrients (than usual) in order to increase the process of protein synthesis. According to most studies, this ‘window’ is open for 1-2 hours following the end of your workout, although to optimize your recovery, you should be ingesting fast-acting proteins and carbs almost immediately after you’ve finished (within the first 20 minutes), which is why liquid, drinkable post-workout nutrition is highly favored over eating food. To fully benefit from supplying fuel to the muscles, many (myself included), take a protein shake with fast-acting carbohydrates immediately after training, followed by a smaller, solid meal about an hour later. Doing this supplies a stream of nutrients to the body at different rates of absorption, thus ensuring a consistent supply of fuel to the muscles.

Feed the body properly within this time frame and you’ll get the benefits of increased protein synthesis, Delay your post-workout feeding time (even by a couple of hours) and you’ll limit the opportunity to replenish lost muscle glycogen and protein synthesis. It’s as easy as that.

What’s not easy is knowing just how much and of what food or supplements to take.

Better with Protein and Carbohydrate After Training

Fast-acting protein (meaning it’s able to be quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream and taken to the hungry muscles), is best consumed in the form of a protein shake, which quickly stimulates protein synthesis, and suppresses protein breakdown. Protein is only one part of the story though, and if you are only consuming a protein shake after training without any carbohydrates, you could be missing out on optimal muscle recovery, and even holding back from your training potential.

During weight lifting, carbohydrates stored as energy in your muscles can be substantially depleted. Therefore, almost immediately following your workout, there is a need to replenish with both protein and carbohydrates.

Taking protein and carbohydrate after training, strongly influences amino acid and glucose delivery and transport, and will ensure that protein synthesis remains high. This is due to the presence of carbohydrates after training increasing insulin within the blood stream, which helps to transport nutrients more efficiently into the muscle cell.

How Much Protein and carbohydrates do I need?

PROTEIN

To get the benefits of a positive nitrogen turnover rate, enough as just 20g of protein (that’s not a 20g serving, but enough protein powder that provides 20g of protein, which is usually 1 30g serving scoop), can be enough to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. It’s been long believed that no more than 25g of protein after exercise is needed to maximally stimulate the muscles ability to grow. However, a recent university study in 2016 showed that up to 40g of protein after training (regardless of the lifters weight and size), may be more beneficial than 25g.

Whichever brand and type of protein powder you choose, I would recommend one that is at least a protein isolate (a hydrolyzed protein would absorb even faster, but not by much), that contains a protein content of at least 75-80% (meaning for every 100g, you are getting at least 75-80g of protein).

CARBOHYDRATES

During the workout your muscles use glucose (usable energy circulating within the blood) and glycogen (stored energy within the muscle cells) for energy. Whilst a protein shake provides fast absorbing, high quality protein for the muscles, you should aim for a high glycemic carbohydrate source as well. The term Glycemic Index (GI) is a measure of how quickly different carbohydrate-containing foods will raise blood sugar (and insulin levels). The standard measure is based on a serving containing 50g of carbs. The term fast-acting carbs (best for post workout), are those that rank 70 or higher on the scale.

It is critical to get the carbs (and protein) to the muscle cells as fast as possible. As well, the elevated insulin levels will help to drive nutrients into the muscle cells. And again, high-glycemic carbs are best for this purpose

Unlike proteins, which are pretty straight forwards, carbohydrates fall into several different categories, based around short and long-chain structures (often referred to as fast and slow-digesting). There are two types of simple sugars:

Monosaccharides. These consist of a single sugar molecule, and include fructose (found in fruits), and dextrose (glucose). Fructose has a GI ranking of 25, so not ideal for post-workout, and dextrose has a ranking of 100 (which is the standard of which all carbohydrates are based off).

Disaccharides. These consist of a double sugar molecule, and include sucrose (table sugar), which has a GI of 65, and Lactose (sugar found in milk), which has a GI of 45.

Beyond these simple sugars, there are Polysaccharides, which consist of longer chains of molecules, and often referred to as complex carbohydrates. Perhaps the most interesting group within this category is maltodextrin, which has a GI rating of 110.

At first glance, you may think that maltodextrin is more beneficial that dextrose as a post-workout carbohydrate, as it’s higher on the Glycemix Index. This is true, although due to its longer chains bonding each molecule, it first has to be sent to the liver, which breaks the bonds and frees the single glucose molecule, making them more absorbable into the bloodstream. Dextrose (glucose) can be absorbed in the small intestine (before reaching the liver), and so is metabolized faster than the higher-GI maltodextrin.

Now, before you start thinking about only using Dextrose instead of maltodextrin for your post-workout carb source, remember that with maltrodextrin, there will not be as quick of a drop of insulin and blood sugar levels as with dextrose, so if your goal is more focused on building a lean physique, you may want to opt for a maltodextrin post-workout carb source. Otherwise, many people are combing both dextrose and maltodextrin in their post-workout recovery (try a 50:50 mix), so as to receive a quick and steady stream of glucose to the muscles, without spiking insulin too quickly, followed by a steep drop in blood sugar level.

Another option worth considering is Waxy Maize Starch, which is derived from corn starch, and can be digested and metabolized faster than dextrose or maltodextrin.

The general consensus when it comes to carbohydrate quantity following training ranges from 0.25g (more towards cutting weight/fat) to 0.5g (more towards gaining weight/increasing size) per pound of lean body mass depending on your goal. In other words – your total body weight, minus that of your body fat percentage.

This would mean that for a 180lb person with 16% body fat, with the goal of building muscle, would aim for 75g of simple carbs.

151.2 x 0.5 = 75.6

So to summarize, this person would aim to take in 40g of protein with 75g of fast-acting carbs within 30 minutes following the end of his workout. (Followed by a solid food meal 60-90 minutes later).

If his goal was to cut body fat, and get leaner, he may wish to still take in 40g of protein, but only half as much carbs (around 38g).

The common ratio of carbs to protein to follow post workout is 2:1, which shows to be fairly accurate if your goal is to grow bigger, but if your goal is to cut body fat, this appears to be a more even 1:1 ratio of carbs to protein.

My recommendation would be to ensure up to, but no higher, than 40g of protein from a high quality protein powder, with anywhere from the same amount, to double that amount of carbohydrate (depending on your goal of getting lean or getting bigger), using maltodextrin and dextrose (or possibly just Waxy Maize starch). Start with a 50:50 split of each, and based on how you feel after ingesting it – if there is any digestion discomfort, change the ratios about of these different carb sources.

Simply put, my post-workout carbohydrates accounts for around ¼ of my daily carb intake, with the protein amount being about the same as all my other meals – based on eating 6 times a day (This roughly translates to 240g of protein a day and 270g of carbs a day, or 35% protein, 40% carbs, and 25% fats coming from my total daily calorie intake)

Depending on your goal, you can also add into the mix 5-10g of creatine (if your goal is strength/size oriented), 7-10g BCAA’s, and 5g Glutamine for recovery. 2g of Luecine (the most potent of the 3 amino acids in BCAA’s) may also be beneficial to support an anabolic stimulus following your workout.

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