Critical Mass: Optimizing Post Workout Nutrition

written by Sandeep De,

The most critical nutritional period for muscle growth is the postworkout meal. Following a hard workout, your body is severely depleted of glycogen and glucose. Hard working muscles utilize glucose (usable form) and glycogen (stored form) for energy. The amount of fuel in your tank obviously does not last forever. As such, there is a point at which blood glucose levels (available energy) and glycogen levels (stored energy) get so low that effective exercise cannot occur. This is typically characterized by a decline in energy levels. There simply isn't enough available energy for working tissues to use. The body gets real scared by this. Why? If you're in danger, your body is going to want energy to get the hell out of dodge! So what happens is that a hormone called cortisol is secreted. This is your worst enemy in the quest for size and strength. What cortisol does is chew up muscle tissue for proteins and convert them into glucose. This is a protective mechanism to ensure that the body has a supply of energy in times of danger. A process called gluconeogenesis ensues, producing glucose from these amino acids in the liver. The net result is a  loss of muscle tissue - and unless your parents are brother and sister you should be able to tell that this is a bad thing.

Another important nutrient that is used up during hard training is water. Of course, you lose plenty simply through the process of sweating. But water is also used internally by working tissues and to keep the temperature of your body down. The fact that you can lose 20% contractile strength by only dehydrating a muscle a little should underline the importance of water in effective training.

The grand-daddy of facts relevant to athletes is that post workout muscle protein synthesis is very high. In plain english this means that your body is growing muscle as fast as a leadfooted drunk driver on the Autobahn. This is one of the most anabolic times of the day. Couple this with the fact that your body can process and store carbohydrates as glycogen 125% more effectively than normal during the postworkout period, and you start to see that the importance of the postworkout meal is very high indeed.

What do these things imply? Well, obviously, if you give your body the nutrients it WANTS to play with, you will grow muscle and strength at a faster rate than otherwise possible. Protein synthesis or the creation of new muscle is elevated. For natural trainees, it is especially important to take advantage of this (steroid using trainees are lucky enough to have continually elevated levels of protein synthesis). But muscle size is not only determined by protein. The majority of space taken up in the muscle is fluid and stored glycogen, as well as a sizeable amount from intramuscular fat. Since you can shuttle more glycogen into muscles than normally possible during this time, you can technically make yourself appear larger than normal with a little extra carbs and water. Why water? Well, for one gram of carbohydrate to be stored as glycogen, you need approximately 3-4 milliliters (mL) of water. Hence for 100 grams of carbohydrate you need about 300-400 mL of water to store it in the body.

Storing glycogen and building muscle decreases recovery time between workouts. Why? If you've got a supply of carbohydrate, your body doesn't need to chew up nearly as much muscle tissue as it would if there were no carbs available. Hence you have less postworkout soreness than without carbs. Furthermore, the proteins that are damaged are repaired much earlier. The increased glycogen storage in the muscle also permits higher training volumes than what would normally be possible. This is important, since volume (sets x reps x time under tension) is typically correlated with hypertrophy gains. If you are physiologically capable of doing more you need me to spell this out to you?

Post workout carbohydrates have also been shown to increase insulin and growth hormone levels - two hormones that are critical in the cascade of processes necessary for effective muscle growth. This leads to increased protein synthesis and hypertrophy. Postworkout carbohydrate ingestion has also been shown to decrease protein breakdown and excretion, maintaining a more positive balance of muscle in the body.

So what are the practical applications of this knowledge?

Need 1: Water. You must rehydrate yourself for performance and to ensure that any carbohydrates you eat can be effectively stored. How much water is enough? You can't just drink the 3-4 ml x [amount of carbs you eat in grams] because that would only give you enough to store the carbs as glycogen. Significant water has also been lost through sweating and thermoregulatory processes. What this basically means is that the more water you suck down, the better! The worst thing that can happen is that you'll be a little bigger than normal! Be careful to space out water consumption. The way that water levels are moderated in the body is by changes in blood pressure. If you drink too much water at one time, blood pressure rises excessively and this sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then stops the secretion of a hormone called Anti-Diuretic Hormone (ADH), which causes the body to excrete more water than normal. Hence hydration is undermined if you chug a whole bunch of water at one time. Hydration is much more efficient by steadily sipping water until you have drank a large quantity of water. Most people can't go wrong with 1 to 2 L of water post workout.

Need 2: Carbohydrates. To offset protein catabolism. To replenish spent glycogen. To permit supercompensation of glycogen stored. Most of the studies done have shown good effects of using 1 to 2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodymass. However, I think that the amount of carbohydrate you ingest post workout should also be reflective of your training volume. It makes sense that 2-3 sets to failure won't torch your body of fuel nearly as much as 20 sets will, right? Hence, you should tailor your carbohydrate intake appropriately towards your volume utilized. The studies mentioned above used 1 to 1.5 grams carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass for people training with 8 sets to failure. You must add or decrease carbohydrate intake specific to your own training volume. I would highly suggest that the carbohydrates you ingest be in a powdered or liquid form. The reason for this is simple - faster absorption. The faster you can get glucose into your bloodstream and muscles, the less protein destroyed and the more glycogen stored. I think that normal digestion simply takes too long. The glycemic index of the carbohydrates you eat should be relatively high. Around 100-130 for the nitpickers out there. For my money, I think that a combination of juice and maltodextrin powder serves this purpose nicely. Maltodextrin is very rapidly absorbed, and juices add both flavour and high glycemic carbohydrates. Try to stick to juices that are rich in glucose as these will be the most rapidly absorbed. If you can't find any maltodextrin at your local health food store (it's dirt cheap - about $8 for a 2 lb. container), try a home brewing store. Maltodextrin powders are common there. Dextrose is a chemical rearrangement of your basic glucose molecule. Dextrose powder, therefore, is also an option for post workout carbs. You can obtain dextrose at home brewing stores as well - it seems to be difficult to come by (if at all) in health food stores. Otherwise, you can order maltodextrin from Supplement Direct. It may not be listed online but I do know that they carry maltodextrin if you email them.

I believe that it is also important to "buffer" your intake of this carbohydrate solution, just as the water. Why? Even though you can process nutrients more efficiently postworkout than any other time, it is still possible to overload your body's capacity to digest. One of the biggest reasons why people get fat is because they eat too much at one time! Don't turn a very anabolic period into a fat ass party! Buffer your intake of your carbohydrates over 1 to 1.5 hours. Drink them slowly. As a general rule, I try to consume half my post workout shake immediately after my workout, and then continue sipping on the remainder of my shake within 1 hour after my workout has been completed. I sip on water at the same time too.

Need 3: Protein. To take advantage of the anabolic postworkout period and offset muscle losses. Again, the amount of protein consumed post workout will depend on your body mass. I think it is stupid to say that one should not eat more than 30 grams of protein per meal. That means that a 300 lb. man and a 100 lb. woman can process protein at the same rate! As such, take into account body size. I would warn that you not overload your body's capacity to handle protein at one time - for most, this means around 30-50 grams. But metabolically speaking it is very difficult to convert protein into fat. So many processes must occur before it can be deposited as fat - it is very difficult to get fat off of protein. I would suggest that you get your protein from a hydrolysated whey protein shake. Why? Regular food protein digests too damned slow to take advantage of the postworkout processes. You simply can't take advantage of the anabolic state you're in when that chicken breast you eat hits your bloodstream 2 hours later! Whey hydrolysates are very rapidly absorbed - they are partially predigested through an enzyme bath so half the work is done for you :). Again, buffer intake to avoid fat deposition and direct more nutrients towards muscle tissue.

Avoid fat postworkout. Fat inevitably delays digestion because it metabolically requires so many more processes to break down. Postworkout you want efficient digestion, and fat gets in the way. Besides, it is questionable as to whether or not you need fat for any real nutritional purpose postworkout. If there is a need, I'm sure that most people would have no problem with that fat coming from bodyfat sources.

To ensure that you're getting a steady stream of nutrients to your body - follow a general rule of thumb. Your energy levels should not go down at all during the postworkout period. I mean this! If your energy is going down, two things could possibly be happening and neither of them are good. 1] Your blood glucose levels are dropping, meaning that you aren't getting in enough nutrients when your body needs them. You are now going catabolic. 2] Your blood glucose levels rose too quickly! Again, if you eat too many carbs at one time, blood glucose rises quickly. Your body secretes a whole mess of insulin to get rid of the blood glucose. Where does it go? Part of it to muscle, but most of it to FAT! That's right, excess glucose goes to fat! What then happens is that your blood glucose levels fall, you get really tired, and then you go catabolic! So not only do you chew up muscle tissue, but you get fatter at the same time. SInce blood glucose levels are directly related to energy levels, you should not see your energy level decline. In fact, it should be constant from the minute you start drinking your carbs, protein and water. If you're drinking your shake and still see a decrement in energy; slow down consumption. The nice thing about this is it also avoids bloating.

You can also consider adding Vitamin C and creatine monohydrate. Vitamin C will aid protein synthesis and recovery, and since the body is storing nutrients so effectively postworkout - creatine will be taken up into the muscle cell very efficiently  - more so than at other times.

Postworkout nutrition doesn't end with the meal immediately after your workout. Protein synthesis is elevated by 50% postworkout but it can be as high as 110% up to 24 hours postworkout. So keep supplying nutrients to your body in small, frequent and balanced feedings of carbs (40-70 grams), protein (30-50 grams), and water (up to 1L meal meal) every 1.5-3 hours. You can start adding in fat into your diet (10-15 grams per meal) after you've gotten the first meal postworkout out of the way, since heightened fat intakes are associated with better nitrogen balances (indicative of less muscle being lost). And of course, switch to solid food instead of the protein shakes.

One last reccomendation I would make is that you brush your teeth after you're done drinking all this crap down. Why? 200 grams of sugar at one time is a heckuva lot for your teeth to handle. Rather than letting your teeth decay with sugar residue, brush them clean and keep your chompers.

Here's where the fun part comes in. The following are recipes for my idea of a great postworkout shake for a 200 lb. athlete. The first tastes like an Orange Julius and is a great post-workout reward! The second tastes like a Pina Colada. If you'd like more shake ideas, check out Caleb Bacon's site.

Shake 1:

30-50 grams whey hydrolysate protein powder, vanilla flavoured
75-150 grams maltodextrin, depending on training volume (generally, 1 g maltodextrin = 1 g carbohydrate)
750-1000 mL orange juice (approximately 75-100 grams carbohydrate)

Blend until smooth. Drink with 1-2 L of distilled water over 1.5 hours postworkout.

Shake 2:

30-50 grams whey hydrolysate protein powder, vanilla flavoured
75-150 grams maltodextrn, depending on training volume
1 large can of pineapple in juice
1 small can of mandarin oranges in juice
1-2 cups water
6 ice cubes

Blend until smooth. Drink with 1-2 L of distilled water over 1.5 hours postworkout.

Shake 3:

Mix 300 grams of dextrose powder into 2L of distilled water. Add Kool Aid mix of choice for flavour. Drink half of this solution after training (yielding 1L of distilled water and 150 grams carbohydrate from dextrose). Then mix up a protein shake about 30 minutes later.

Postworkout nutrition is one of your best friends in the quest for size and strength (besides a lifetime supply of Sustanon 250!).

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