So here is a pretty common question that seems everyone has their own opinion on:
Which is better: Pre- or Post-workout nutrition?
So this is a great question because figuring out the answer may mean YOU recover faster, get sweeter gainz, and generally feel better overall.
Here is another variation of this question:
“Shouldn’t I drink my protein shake as soon as possible after my workout?”
Unfortunately for you, the answer to these questions is… It depends.
However, this is the answer to just about every single other nutrition question you probably have as well, so at least it’s consistent. But here is the 100% no bull-shit truth: No one has a definitive answer to YOUR personal nutrition needs…
Now I know that makes for a really short book but it is the truth. There are just so many factors that need to be considered that you need detailed one-on-one coaching, discipline, patience, and a significant amount of time to really get things dialed in.
With that said, we can still talk about some of the major reasons you should OR shouldn’t be slamming a protein shake or stressing over that “anabolic window” the internet is always talking about.
The Purpose of Post Workout Nutrition
The first thing you need to ask your self is: What is your goal?
The person looking to lose body fat is significantly different than the person looking to pack on 10 pounds of lean body mass (i.e. muscle) and show off their sweet GAINZ this summer. The workout program for these to individuals will also probably be very different so make sure you keep that in mind as well.
So, let’s talk about a few of the most common reasons people are concerned with pre/post workout nutrition so you can have a better (i.e. more educated) opinion about what you are doing.
These aren’t in any particular order…
1.) Glycogen Re-synthesis – As you may know glycogen is the primary fuel your body uses when performing high intensity, shorter duration, exercise.
So, if you hit it hard in the gym for 60 minutes you’ll be primarily fueling your efforts with the glycogen you have stored onboard in your liver and muscles.
Common sense would say that if you are burning up glycogen during your workout you’ll want to replenish that glycogen post workout.
This line of thought is true.
However, the confusion come into play when we listen to the bro-science aficionados out there proclaiming that if you don’t start replenishing this glycogen AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, or within that 30-60 minute (anabolic) window you’ll lose all of your sweet gains.
This is just not really a founded opinion…
According to a study on using carbohydrate & fat for training and recovery the only people who need to really concern themselves with immediately refueling, replenishing glycogen, post workout are those who may have another hard training session within an 8-hour window.
So, if you’re doing multiple workouts in one day, then slamming that protein shake immediately post workout may work for you.
2.) Muscle Protein Breakdown – As many of you may know, intense resistance training may have the tendency to break down muscle protein. Although breaking down the tissue is not always required to make improvements it is a by-product of a serious resistance training program.
Studies have shown that muscle protein breakdown is only slightly elevated post-exercise and increases with time post workout. However, the effects are even greater if the individual is fasted going into the workout (i.e. They work all day then hit the gym right after without eating).
In a review of nutrient timing, the authors stated that eating a protein and carbohydrate-based meal can raise insulin enough to blunt the effects of muscle protein breakdown. This is why many of the “post-workout” article/products you may have come across typically a composed of these two macronutrients.
However, they also noted that this effect could be easily accomplished with a normal, well-balanced meal, 60+ minutes post exercise. So, as much as that 40lb bag of Costco protein would like you to believe that the only way to improve performance and look good naked is by slugging down 50g of whey immediately follow your workout would like you to believe… It’s just not true and in fact, you can achieve the same results (i.e. blunting muscle protein breakdown) with real food.
So, the only real concern you should have with muscle protein breakdown comes when you crush that intense workout in a fasted state. Lifestyle may push you towards this being normal but a little planning, i.e. eat a snack (or that protein shake) before you workout and you shouldn’t have to worry about muscle protein breakdown.
3.) Muscle Protein Synthesis – is one of the most touted benefits of post-workout nutrition after resistance training and has been shown to promote a two-fold increase in muscle protein synthesis (which may be counterbalanced by the breakdown I just mentioned).
Unfortunately, despite many people touting the effects of that protein shake on increasing muscle protein synthesis the research just doesn’t back it up.
One study cited below points out that some research says an increase in essential amino acids in the bloodstream has great results on improving the rate of muscle protein synthesis, other studies have found no significant change.
In fact, the most convincing research actually pointed to a significantly “greater and more sustained” response when a protein/carbohydrate solution was ingested up to 1 hour BEFORE the workout. This seems to make sense considering there could be significant variance in digestion time to amino floating around the bloodstream looking for a job.
This would be win number three for PRE- workout nutrition (if you’re keeping score) if you consider digestion rate in bullet number one at the beginning of this article.
Now, on to the most important everyone’s favorite factor…
4.) Muscle Hypertrophy – Which, if you don’t know, is the enlargement of muscle tissue and how you get those guns (for when the suns out).
Just like I talked about a minute ago with muscle protein synthesis, much of the research into post-workout nutrition and hypertrophy is dubious at best…
I know this is shocking information for those that get their information from the back of the protein jug…
When you dig into the research and really look at the methods of many of these studies, it should become obvious that the methods of the studies touting the benefits of hypertrophy are flawed. (I.e. Many of the studies, such as Cribb and Hayes paper, cited below, on supplement timing and hypertrophy actually have the participants taking a supplement pre- AND post and getting great results.)
So to wrap all of this up…
Do you need a post workout supplement or nutrition of any kind immediately after exercise?
The research points towards NO… That is unless you are performing multiple workouts per day with less than 8-hours or rest between efforts OR your main goal is to “bulk up” in which case you should probably be eating a ton of food and cramming your starchier (i.e. more delicious) carbs into your system post workout. The boys over at Barbell Shrugged have a good podcast on exactly this topic titled: The Window of Gainz
What may be surprising to many of you is that the research seems to support that you would be better off eating a protein / carbohydrate-based meal PRE- workout in order to blunt the effects of muscle breakdown, and promote glycogen replenishment, protein synthesis, and probably hypertrophy.
This is what I’ve recommended to many over the years with great effect but it really all comes down to your individual goals and training.
You really need to test this stuff out on your self!
Be your own experiment and make a small (single) tweak to your nutrition plan or meal timing and see if you feel better, look better, or perform better. If so, you’re probably on the right track. If not, make another change, and test it out!
Aragon, A., & Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: Is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(5), 1-11.
Burke, L., Kiens, B., & Ivy, J. (2004). Carbohydrates and fat for training recovery. Journal of Sport Sciences, 22, 15-30.
Cribb, P., & Hayes, A. (2006). Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 06, 1918-1925.
Stark, M., Lukaszuk, J., Prawitz, A., & Salacinski, A. (2012). Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 9(54), 1-8.