Imagine the frustration: every day you go to the gym, train hard, give your best but still don’t see the results you desire. This scenario can be even more frustrating, when you realize that the reason for this disaster is a nullity - ie, not eating the nutrients you need at the times you need it, which has a negative impact on muscle gain, or you eat too much even though you don’t actually need it. This could hinder your fat loss and your hard earned muscle would disappear under a layer of fat, so that you couldn’t see them at all.
What to eat around your resistance training workouts
There a few points as to why people think that consuming carbs around workouts or even during a workout is beneficial for their strength and muscle gains:
● Carbs are supposed to give you the energy you need for training
● Carbs replenish glycogen stores (= carbohydrate stores inside the muscle you get energy from)
● Carbs spike insulin (anabolic hormone) to reduce muscle breakdown and promote muscle growth
The first point is totally logical, right? You get energy in before and during your workout. Thus, you have more energy to fuel your performance; you can lift heavier, you can do more reps, you don’t get tired as fast. Such theories always sound great and inspiring. However, often they don’t match reality.
From the research we have so far, carbohydrates before and during workout reduce glycogen losses (loss of energy from energy stores inside our muscle). However, it doesn’t translate into improved performance. The only time when a performance-improving effect from carbs was shown for resistance trainees, was during the second resistance training session in one day (1). If you don’t train twice a day, there is no point in having carbs before workout. With the exception of the placebo effect, of course ;-)
The same applies to having carbs immediately after a workout. It makes sense to refill glycogen stores immediately after exercise only for those who train twice a day or have less than 8-hours between training sessions. This applies particularly to endurance athletes. For strength athletes fast glycogen replenishment is of minor importance. Moderate volume high-intensity resistance training with 6-9 sets per muscle group was shown to reduce glycogen stores by less than 40%. Glycogen is usually replenished within 24 hours, provided you eat enough during the day (2).
But what about the insulin-spiking effect of carbs? Does this at least give me more gains?
Sadly not. There is lack of data supporting the theory that consumption of carbohydrates immediately after training is beneficial for muscle gains. Also protein increases insulin levels in blood (you can read more on this topic in my article: The fattening hormone insulin - falsely accused). If you eat enough protein after your workout, you will achieve the insulin level you need to prevent muscle breakdown even without carbs (1).
However, if you train fasted in the morning, it is important to consume protein and carbohydrates immediately after workout to transfer the body from catabolic to anabolic state (2).
Conclusion: Carbs before workout don’t make you perform better. However, those may be the “unnecessary carbs” that could make you lose fat slower (in case fat loss is your goal).
Carbs after a workout don’t make you gain more muscle though it’s also not necessary to avoid carbs before or after a workout. Just eat the normal meals you usually eat without stressing about adding more carbs to them.
It’s not a question of whether protein consumption around workouts is beneficial for muscle protein synthesis, but how much protein should one eat.
The recommendation for getting maximum muscle gains is eating 0.25-0.4 g protein per kg of body weight every 3-4 hours (1). This is also the amount of protein that would give you the maximum anabolic response if you ingest it after training. An exception to this applies to lifters on a plant-based diet. As vegan protein sources have about 16% less essential amino acids, the recommendation above should be increased by 16%.
Example for a 65 kg person:
65 kg x 0.4 g/kg = 26 g protein after a workout is definitely enough for maximum muscle growth. In fact slightly less protein would probably do the same job.
If this person is vegan, then this applies
26 g x 1.16 = 30 g protein after workout will give maximum gains.
Now do the calculations for yourself by using your own bodyweight.
If a protein-rich meal is consumed pre-workout, it has an influence on an amino acid level in the bloodstream during and after workout. As such, eating protein immediately after the workout is not really necessary. However, if your last protein-rich meal was 3-4 hours before the end of your workout, having protein straight after your workout makes sense. For advanced lifters, this window may be even slightly shorter.
It is likely that fat is neither directly beneficial nor disadvantageous for muscle protein synthesis after the workout. However, fat may have an indirect muscle growth enhancing effect. It is important to be in the anabolic state to maximise muscle gains. This is when your body has enough calories to feel well and build muscle. If you are on a low calorie diet all the time and your body doesn’t even have enough energy to go through the day without losing weight, you can’t expect it to ‘waste’ energy for building muscle. Muscle building is not your body’s priority when enough energy isn’t available. Fat has a very high energy content; it is twice as much as carbs and protein have per 1 g of the nutrient. For this reason, eating fat after a workout can make it easy to reach the anabolic state after the workout; the state that is the best for muscle building. There is an interesting research study in support of this. In this study, the consumption of whole milk post-workout resulted in increased utilization of available amino acids and a higher muscle protein synthesis compared to fat-free milk (3).
Then, two more questions remain:
1. How much fat should I eat after workout? - As much as it fits into your macros.
2. What are the best fat sources to eat? - Read the second part of the article: 3 Things You Should Know About Muscle Gain - Lean & Strong Series - Part 1. It is exactly on this topic!
In my next article, I will tell you more on optimized nutrient timing:
How much to eat and when to get the optimal gains! Stay tuned!
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