A shrill noise rouses me from a night of fitful sleep. It’s 4:30 AM: Sleep or gains? The answer to that question is easy.
I throw on some spandex leggings (yup I rock those bad boys), shorts, a shirt and hoodie, and my socks. The shaker bottle is on the night stand. I grab it, open my gym bag, and crack the lid on a pre-workout supplement.
The smell of fruit punch, chalk, and sweaty knee sleeves is the first odor my brain processes.
What a beautiful way to start the day. I toss a scoop of pre-workout in…. wait, no it’s a heavy, long, grueling leg day ahead. Better make it a 2 scoop kind of day, there goes 2 more.
I shake the bottle and chug half of it, grab my shoes, keys, wallet, shoot my training partner a text, and head to the gym.
Pointless hashtags aside, even at 4:30 in the morning I make sure my pre-workout nutrition is dialed in because it may be more important than post-workout nutrition for making gains.
Here are 4 simple tips to help you get the most out of your next training session.
1. Focus on Pre-Workout Nutrition to Optimize Performance
Anabolic windows have been all the rage for the last few years, but I bet you haven’t heard of anabolic doors, have you?
Welcome to extreme makeover: muscle edition, where the scale goes up and body fat goes down.
The anabolic window might only open after the workout, but you can throw open the anabolic door before your session if you optimize your pre-workout nutrition.
One of the most well-known concepts of how to get stronger and bigger is by increasing the intensity and volume of your training. Several research studies have shown that consuming carbohydrates pre-workout has ergogenic effects during high intensity exercise and may improve anabolism in muscles.1,2,3,4
If you are able to train harder at a slightly higher volume with proper pre-workout nutrition, then it’s likely that your pre-workout nutrition might be more important than your post-workout nutrition.
2. Consume Pre-Workout Carbs to Improve Metabolism and Performance
Aside from volume and intensity, we also know that pre-workout nutrition is important for increasing performance. We can use insulin to leverage hormone signaling to prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle protein synthesis while still allowing fat oxidation.
Put simply, insulin acts as a “metabolic switch.” It tells your body whether it should be mainly using carbohydrates or fat for fuel. When insulin is low, your body is using primarily fat for energy. When insulin is high, your body will primarily use carbohydrates for energy.
If you want to focus on maximizing performance and power output in the gym (which are critical for gaining size and strength), you should ideally be training in a state where your body is using carbohydrates for the primary fuel source.
An example to illustrate this point is McArdle disease. People with this condition are unable to store glycogen in their muscles so they are rather inefficient at using carbohydrates for fuel during exercise. As a consequence, they have a really low work capacity and are unable to train at high levels.
So what can we do to prime our bodies for training?
Go into your workout with a slight elevation in blood sugar and insulin by consuming some carbohydrates 30-40 minutes before your training session for better workout nutrition.
3. Pre-Workout Nutrition Maximizes Recovery
News flash: training in a fasted state may not optimize recovery. Rocket science, I know. The real question is, why?
During a high-intensity workout your muscles rely heavily on muscle glycogen (stored sugar) and your blood sugar.
During longer duration, high-intensity work the glycogen/glucose that muscles rely on is reaching low levels. Your muscles still need glucose for fuel at this intensity so your body pumps out the hormones glucagon and cortisol.
These hormones break down muscles for amino acids so it can convert them to glucose that working muscles can use for fuel. Lengthier high intensity sessions usually result in the breakdown of the most muscle tissue for fuel.
Fortunately there is a simple, easy trick to prevent this situation: consume some carbohydrates before your training session.
Noticing a trend here?
Let’s talk nutrition physiology for a second to make sure we’re on the same page. Thirty minutes prior to the workout, you consume about 30 grams of easily digestible carbohydrates and 15 grams of protein to promote an insulin response and increase blood glucose prior to a training session.
Your body begins breaking down the nutrients you consume, produces insulin, and both glucose and amino acids are shuttled into your muscle cells right around the time you begin training.
Instead of trying to deplete and replete your muscles of nutrients, you are essentially supplying your muscles with the nutrients they need as they are being depleted and recovery of your muscle tissue occurs much more rapidly.
4. The Post-Workout Window is Flexible
Alright, so I already detailed how to essentially “kick in” the anabolic door and bust this muscle building thing wide open, but what about that anabolic window everyone is always talking about?
If you do a quick google search you’ll find thousands of articles detailing how to “optimize the anabolic window.” In fact, there are even some articles showcasing the idea that you’ll lose precious muscle tissue if you take a shower and wait to pound a shake until afterwards.
Thank the fitness gods, Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon recently laid this myth to rest in their paper, “The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis”.
Basically, they showed that the anabolic window is much longer than people previously thought. It may even extend to several (3 or more) hours after you train.5
Now don’t get me wrong, post-workout nutrition is important, and their paper indicated there may be some benefit. But you don’t have to slam a protein shake within 20 minutes of lifting.
You might get a little more out of your training if you get some protein and carbohydrates in immediately following training, but you will get similar results if it's within 2-3 hours of training.
The biggest single determinant of muscle growth is your protein and caloric intake in a given day.
Ditch the Dogma, Enjoy Life
Essentially, make sure your full day of eating is dialed in and then stress out about the post-workout window. And even then, the window is a lot larger than you think.
It seems everyone wants to base nutrition and fitness upon blanket statements rather than examining the context of the situation. They're better off making individual recommendations based upon the complexity of the individual. Don’t just go with the flow, question the current ideas and examine the research for yourself.
- Carbohydrate feedings an exercise performance: effect of initial muscle glycogen concentration
- Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise
- Carbohydrate feedings 1 h before exercise improves cycling performance
- The effects of pre-exercise starch ingestion on endurance performance
- The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis