While I didn’t put it in the title, this article is actually another myth buster. Why? Because the post-workout window (at least the conventional, optimize-with-a-protein-shake one) is not a real thing. Shock. horror. So kindly put down your (unfortunately worthless) shake for a moment and read just what about workout-windows is fact and what is fiction…
When you’re in the the locker room at the gym, you can’t help but overhear some weird and wonderful things.. but what are two questions you probably hear more than any others?
‘What have you got in your post-workout shake?’
‘What brand of protein shake do you use?’
These are so common because the idea of a post-workout window is accepted as the norm, and is so infallible – that not having a protein shake or a meal after a workout would be deemed muscular-stupidity/suicide. Post-workout nutrition is of the utmost importance because, after all, there is a half hour.. no an hour.. no 2 hours.. 6 maybe?.. long window where your body is ready to absorb nutrients (such as protein) at a higher rate – with better partitioning – and this will maximise protein synthesis and give you maximum muscle gain. But unfortunately, contrary to popular belief – that is just a theory.
And it’s wrong.
Why the conventional post-workout window became so deep-rooted in gym culture
As I know I state in nearly every article, every good lie is roughly based on a truth – and this one is no different. This time, the truth is that protein synthesis is elevated for a period after exercise.
But is that period an hour? Nope!
Anabolism is actually raised for 48 hours post-workout, but at staggered levels – with a 112% increase after 3 hours, 65% after 24 hours, and a 34% increase 48 hours after the exercise was performed. Not only will protein synthesis be raised after a workout, but there will also be increased blood-flow to the exercised muscles, and hormonal changes that potentially promote enhanced anabolism. It’s compelling statistics.
The other reason why this idea became so popular, is celebrity;
Like a young, aspiring footballer may copy the training practices of their favourite football player, it makes perfect sense that those trying to gain a bit of muscle would copy the moves of those who make their living out of doing just that. Famous bodybuilders, in fact nearly all the bodybuilders, from the 80s and 90s promoted and followed the principles of important post-workout nutrition. This is where protein shakes get their hype. Co-incidentally this is also a huge factor at play in why so many people believed, or still believe, in the six meals a day regimen.
Why the post-workout window is not realistic
So far, you’ve only read ideas that support the idea of an anabolic window post-workout, and the benefit of hastily consuming nutrients after exercise – but here is where it all falls short;
a chemical called AMPK (activated protein kinase) which activates catabolic (muscle eating) pathways while switching off anabolic (muscle creating) pathways, is elevated for about an hour or so (before it begins to attenuate) after resistance training – preventing anabolism.
So the resistance training itself blocks anabolism (muscle building) for an hour after training! Certainly, that fast-acting whey protein you have in your protein shaker isn’t going to be used to create muscle straight away – it doesn’t matter how fast it’s digested if anabolism isn’t on the menu.
Methodological failure leading to false interpretations
On top of this, nearly all of the studies that ‘support’ an anabolic window have some form of methodological failure involved. For example, the control group would receive less overall calories than the active study group, or the study would use elderly people (who digest protein differently), or use cardio instead of resistance-based training as the study’s exercise medium. All of these remove the validity of the results being supportive of an anabolic window for average, healthy, resistance-trained individuals.
There was one study (performed by Cribb & Hayes in 2006) which was methodologically valid, and found that the consumption of protein close to training at midday gave better gains in strength and body composition than the same amount taken in the morning and the evening. However, the study was sponsored by a supplement company (I’m not suggesting anything here at all) – and the results of a 10-week period of training had advanced bodybuilders adding nearly 15kg (on average) to their bench press. That is truly incredible. On the other side of the coin, other studies (not sponsored by supplement companies) with valid methodologies had different results;
Two studies conducted in 2009, and one in 2010, found that there were no benefits to the time the protein was consumed relative to the workout – strength and hypertrophy gains remained the same.
And that’s the killer, despite the theory that there could be some anabolic/nutrient-uptake advantage to post-workout nutrition alone – that just isn’t the case when it comes down to real-life studies. If you ignore the 2006 study, and I really think you should, all the recent studies point towards the anabolic window being a complete myth – and in fact that nutrient timing itself is not that important.
Get behind the idea that it is calories, not nutrient-timing, that is important.
So what about pre-workout nutrition?
Since we (or I) have concluded hasty post-workout nutrition to be unnecessary, is there any benefits to pre-workout?
The important thing to note is that in all of the studies listed so far, there was some form of pre-workout nutrition involved. Not necessarily a few hours before, but certainly within a reasonable time-frame – meaning that there would be nutrients from those pre-workout meals present in the bloodstream when the exercise was performed.
Going back to theory:
In the presence of glucose and protein, the elevation of anabolism-preventing AMPK is blunted, thus reducing its death-grip on anabolism sooner.
So while the introduction of nutrients post-workout may not find them shuttled to eagerly-awaiting muscles more rapidly and in higher quantities than usual (as is conventional belief), it will reduce the amount of time before your body is in an anabolic state post-workout, and can begin to build muscle.*
*Note that this only applies if you were fasted during the workout – it’s not me going back on what I’ve said.
The same applies if you have a pre-workout meal, as the nutrients are present in your bloodstream.
A study comparing a group consuming a pre-workout meal (consisting of glucose and protein) with a control group (no pre-workout meal), found that amino acid uptake during and one hour after training was higher in the group who had the pre-workout meal. Supporting the theory that AMPK elevation is blunted by glucose & protein. Another study found that resistance trained individuals already on a high protein diet had no benefit from consuming protein straight after a workout, compared to in the morning and evening.
Sigh.. another long, confusing article – what does it all mean?
Simply put, as long as you are eating around your workouts – both before and after – you will see no benefit in consuming anything straight after a workout. Your protein shake (no matter the brand or price) is now worthless. In reality, you simply will not gain any benefit (neither strength nor size) from downing carbohydrates and/or protein within an hour of your workout, as opposed to going home, chilling out for a few hours and then eating a meal.
If you perform fasted workouts, and it is not recommended (at least take some BCAA pre), a post-workout meal will allow your body to be in a anabolic state quicker, but a pre-workout meal around 2 hours before will do the same thing, and is more optimal.
Hopefully the detail I put into this article will help you to understand the reasons why the post-workout window is a myth, so you don’t have to just trust me. It’s a big myth – but one that you (hopefully) no longer believe.