Is the post workout anabolic window really a myth?
As weird as it might sound I remember the day I bought my first tub of protein pretty vividly…
Because being a complete noob to the gym with next to no knowledge of nutrition, the marketing claims on the tub made it feel as though I was buying something much more sinister than a simple tub of processed milk
And in my mind, so long as I downed my protein shake along with some high GI carbs immediately after training in the post workout anabolic window, I would end up jacked like the models on all the ads.
Fast forward a few months and whilst I had made some pretty solid gains, I was by no means cover model ready like I had imagined
And I was questioning whether all the protein was a total waste of money.
Was it a load of marketing hype?
Was there actually any legitimacy to the claims of a post workout window of opportunity to maximise recovery and gains?
Or was it all just a myth?
Yes, no, it depends.
I know, you’re probably sick of the “it depends” answer
But when it comes to nutrition, particularly controversial topics like meal timing and post workout nutrition, the answer depends on the context of the situation
And by the end of this blog, you’ll understand why the necessity to scoff down a load of carbs and/or protein the second the dumbbells touch the floor on your last set of curls is context dependent.
First off, we’ll be delving into carbs; one of the primary sources of fuel you use to pick up heavy stuff.
Will post workout carbs make you jacked?
There are two main purported benefits of carbs post workout:  spiking insulin and  restoring glycogen levels.
Whilst it’s true that eating carbs will ramp up insulin, which may impact gains to a degree, from a muscle building perspective, the insulin spiking effect of carbs post workout isn’t that big of a deal, particularly if you’re not going into training fasted (1)
Plus, if you’re concentrating on getting carbs in post workout to maximise gains, chances are you’re also having at least 30-40g of protein post training, which will increase insulin levels sufficiently to max out any anabolic/anti-catabolic effect of insulin (2).
Post workout carbs will help with restoring glycogen levels though, which is the main benefit of getting a load of carbs in post workout.
Restoring glycogen levels
Glycogen is stored carbs/energy and is one of the main fuels used when you lift weights, particularly at moderate/high rep ranges (eg: typical bodybuilding style training).
So, after hard training your stores will have been used up to some extent, with the degree they’re depleted depending largely on exercise intensity, duration and how topped up your stores are going into training.
For example, a moderate volume lifting session (~6-9 sets of 8-12 reps per muscle group) may deplete glycogen levels in the muscles trained by 30-40% or so (1, 3).
So during the recovery period, you want to replenish this glycogen as sufficient levels will allow you to perform better next session and therefore indirectly contribute to gains.
To ramp glycogen levels up as quick as possible post training, you need to get carbs in immediately post workout. This is because there are two phases to glycogen storage:
Phase 1 (aka the rapid insulin independent phase) which only lasts for 30-60 minutes post training
And phase 2 (aka the slow insulin dependent phase) which, as the name suggests, is slower and lasts longer than the rapid phase (4).
If you don’t consume carbs in the hour after training, then you don’t make use of the rapid phase of glycogen synthesis and therefore don’t recover glycogen levels as quickly.
All this science is cool, but is a rapid increase in glycogen actually important though?
For most of us, no.
The reason most of us needn’t worry about getting glycogen levels back up ASAP post workout is that the vast majority of us train once a day
And research has shown that provided you eat enough carbs in total after training, you’ll restore glycogen to the same degree after 24 hours regardless of the time you get them in post workout (5).
So unless you have the need to increase your glycogen levels quickly after training because you're exercising again soon after, there is no need to stress out about getting a load of carbs in immediately post workout; just focus on your overall carbohydrate target for the day.
If, however, you do need to ramp up glycogen levels rapidly post lifting because you’re training twice a day, aim for around 1 – 1.5g/kg bodyweight within an hour post exercise (4, 6).
As an example, a 70-80kg person might have 100g of oats made with milk and topped with a banana.
So whether carbs matter in the ‘post workout anabolic window’ depends on whether you’re training again soon after (ie: more than once per day).
What about protein though?
Surely you won’t make gains if you don’t get some down you soon after lifting?
Or is it simply a case of hitting your daily target like so many of the evidence based folk are now saying?
For the answer, we need to look at what the goal is with protein intake for recovery and gains.
When it comes to making gains in muscle, what you’re ultimately trying to achieve is a positive muscle protein balance. What that means is a greater rate of muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth) than muscle protein breakdown (muscle loss).
Because you’re constantly building and breaking down muscle, it’s the balance between gain and loss OVER A PROLONGED PERIOD OF TIME that determines gains
And two of the primary factors influencing this balance are lifting weights and consuming protein:
Simply put, lifting will increase both the growth and breakdown of muscle and if you don’t have a dose of protein close to training, then breakdown will outweigh growth (ie: negative muscle protein balance).
If you down a protein shake soon after training though, you’ll increase growth more and tip the balance in favour of net growth (ie: a positive muscle protein balance) (7, 8).
This is the main basis of the whole post workout anabolic window as it relates to protein; you need to down a shake post workout otherwise you’ll be losing muscle.
HOWEVER, looking at the short term changes in muscle protein balance doesn’t paint the whole picture and as I highlighted earlier, it’s the balance over time that determines gains (1, 8). So you could be in a negative balance post training but still make gains.
To highlight this ‘bigger picture’ point, what do you think would lead to greater gains:
- A total daily protein intake of 50g, which is all consumed the second you step out the gym, thus maximising protein balance post workout
- A total daily protein intake of 150g, which is consumed in 2 meals, neither of which are close to training?
All else being equal, the 150g of protein per day would lead to greater recovery and gains even though the eating pattern is not maximising growth immediately post training. This is because it would lead to a greater muscle protein balance over the course of the day.
That is the reason why your total intake of protein is more important than when you get it in.
So no, you can’t extrapolate from gains measured at a fixed point in time, claiming that it will determine long term gains
And you need to look at the bigger picture of total intake when it comes to recovery and getting jacked.
So you don’t HAVE to down a shake as soon as you leave the gym.
A case for meal timing
With all that said, the timing of protein isn’t irrelevant when it comes to recovery and gains, and theoretically, you may see slightly greater results by paying a little attention to detail.
As I said, when you eat protein, you stimulate muscle growth. The extent that you stimulate growth depends primarily on its leucine content (one of the amino acids/building blocks of protein), with roughly 3g maximising the response (7). Whilst 3g of leucine will switch on synthesis maximally, you need a mix of other amino acids to keep it elevated (9, 10).
You can think of it like employing a load of builders to repair damage to your house; you’re like leucine when you call them up and signal for them to come do the repairs. They then come with the building blocks (amino acids) and put them all together to rebuild the house (muscle).
Research suggests that roughly 0.4 – 0.5g of quality protein (eg: animal sources such as dairy, meat, eggs and whey) per kg of bodyweight will do the job, providing sufficient leucine and additional amino acids to max the anabolic response (6, 7). For example, a medium chicken breast, 300-400g of greek yogurt or a couple of scoops of whey (40-50g) would be ideal for a 70-80kg person.
This anabolic response will stay elevated for a few hours post feeding before dropping back down. Therefore, it’s been theorised that spacing out your daily protein intake between 3-6 meals will maximise this response and your recovery and gains (8, 11).
Whether this means you should get a protein dose down you immediately post workout depends on where your training falls within this pattern.
For example, if your session falls 4-6 hours after your last intake of protein, it would be a good idea to consume protein as soon as possible after lifting to jack muscle growth up maximally.
On the other hand, if you ate 1-2 hours before training, downing a shake post workout wouldn’t be necessary as you’ll still have plenty of amino acids circulating in your blood and muscle growth will still be high.
So again, it comes down to context with the importance of a post workout recovery protein feed depending on how recently you ate.
"I know, you’re probably sick of the “it depends” answer".
Whilst all this talk of glycogen, protein synthesis and leucine is pretty cool (to me at least), the big take home from all the science is:
No, there isn’t a strict post workout anabolic window of opportunity like many supplement companies will have you believe
And you won’t lose any chance of making gains just because you don’t down a protein shake alongside a hefty dose of carbs the second you step foot outside the gym.
It’s not purely ‘bro-science’ though and under certain circumstances and given the right context, there is a case for getting in a decent feeding of carbs and/or protein within an hour after lifting.
So to give you a quick recap of the situations where post workout nutrition is of importance:
If you’re training twice on the same day, aim for around 1 – 1.5g/kg bodyweight of carb within an hour after your first session. If you’ve got 24 hours between sessions, just focus on getting in enough carbs in total rather than worrying about the time you consume them.
To maximise gains, aim to hit your daily protein target with 3-6 evenly distributed meals, each containing at least 0.4 g/kg bodyweight of protein. If your last feeding of protein was 4+ hours ago, get some high quality protein in as soon as you can after training.
Alongside NAILING your daily nutrition targets, which will undoubtedly have the greatest impact on your progress, the guidelines above will help make sure you maximise your recovery and those all-important gains.
This practical outlook and application of the science of nutrition is exactly what we teach on the Body Type Nutrition Practical Academy ® the next intake of which is on the 1st of October. Click here for details…
If maximising your gains has been a struggle for you over the years why not check out my coaching packages and get in touch? firstname.lastname@example.org
- Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the international society of sports nutrition, 10(1), 1
- Power, O., Hallihan, A., & Jakeman, P. (2009). Human insulinotropic response to oral ingestion of native and hydrolysed whey protein. Amino acids, 37(2), 333-339
- Haff, G. G., LEHMKUHL, M. J., MCCOY, L. B., & STONE, M. H. (2003). Carbohydrate supplementation and resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(1), 187-196
- Jentjens, R., & Jeukendrup, A. E. (2003). Determinants of post-exercise glycogen synthesis during short-term recovery. Sports Medicine, 33(2), 117-144
- Parkin, J. A. M., Carey, M. F., Martin, I. K., Stojanovska, L. I. L. L. I. A. N., & Febbraio, M. A. (1997). Muscle glycogen storage following prolonged exercise: effect of timing of ingestion of high glycemic index food. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 29(2), 220-224
- Schoenfeld, B. (2016). Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy
- Morton, R. W., McGlory, C., & Phillips, S. M. (2015). Nutritional interventions to augment resistance training-induced skeletal muscle hypertrophy.Frontiers in physiology, 6
- Phillips, S. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S29-S38
- Witard, O. C., Wardle, S. L., Macnaughton, L. S., Hodgson, A. B., & Tipton, K. D. (2016). Protein considerations for optimising skeletal muscle mass in healthy young and older adults. Nutrients, 8(4), 181
- Phillips, S. M. (2014) Role of Protein Supplementation in Augmenting Gains in Muscle Mass. Lecture
- Helms, E. R., Aragon, A. A., & Fitschen, P. J. (2014). Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,11(1), 1