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Muscle Growth and Post-Workout Nutrition

In recent years, there has been huge interest in the topic of around workout nutrition for promoting optimal gains in strength and muscle size (prior to that, most interest had to to with recovery from exhaustive endurance exercise).  And, as is so often the case, as research has developed, many ideas, some good and some bad, have developed out of that.

Early research into post-workout nutrition focused almost exclusively on endurance athletes and, really, the only issue of importance was refilling muscle glycogen and re-hydrating the athlete.  For this reason the focus was on carbohydrates and fluids with little else considered.  At some point, I recall it being the mid-90’s some early work suggested that adding protein to post-workout carbohydrates was beneficial in terms of glycogen re-synthesis and a new dietary trend started to form.

Now, it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that whether additional protein actually increases glycogen synthesis depends on a host of factors, primarily how much carbohydrate is provided.  Simply, if sufficient carbohydrate is given following training, adding protein has no further benefit in terms of promoting glycogen re-synthesis.

In situations where insufficient carbs are consumed (by choice or otherwise), extra protein helps.  Which isn’t to say that additional protein following training isn’t valuable for endurance athletes even if carbohydrate are sufficient but that’s not really the topic of today’s article.

While individuals involved in the strength sports and bodybuilding were quick to jump onto the post-workout carb/protein bandwagon, the research wasn’t really aimed at them.  As well, there has always been a bit of a disconnect in using work on endurance athletes (who may be doing hours of exhaustive work) and trying to apply it to individuals in the weight room.

After an intense weight lifting workout your body system is characterized by three main factors:

1. Glycogen Stores are low.

2. Protein Breakdown is increased.

3. Muscle Protein Balance is negative.

Therefore, for a rapid recovery from exercise, immediately after a workout (strength or endurance), you must:

1. Rapidly replenish the low glycogen stores in your muscles.

2. Rapidly decrease the muscle protein breakdown that occurs with exercise, especially high intensity bodybuilding training.

3. Rapidly force further increases in muscle protein synthesis in weight trainers and/or restore muscle-protein synthesis in endurance athletes.

There are two key factors to rapidly increasing post-workout glycogen synthesis:

1. Adequate carbohydrate availability (to convert to muscle glycogen).

2. High insulin levels (to stimulate glycogen storage and shuttle carbohydrates into the muscle).

An ideal post-workout muscle growth stimulating formula would include fast absorbing proteins, high glycemic carbohydrates, and some additional BCAAs (which have been shown to drastically increase protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown on their own). Certain amino acids can increase the insulin response to meals. By adding certain amino acids to the carbohydrate/protein beverage in the above study, the insulin responses were considerably higher than the carbohydrate/protein beverage alone.

Protein, Carbohydrates or Both, Oh My!

While athletes are rarely that interested in technical details and only want the practical applications, to understand everything I want to talk about I need to look at a bit more detail, specifically how protein and carbohydrates interact with the processes of protein synthesis and breakdown discussed above.  And it basically works out like this:

    Protein (amino acids) stimulate protein synthesis but have no impact on protein breakdown.
    Insulin (secondary to carb consumption) inhibits protein breakdown with no impact on protein synthesis.

The final piece of the post-workout puzzle is the management of protein synthesis. And although this area is a little more complex than managing protein breakdown, there are three key ingredients to increasing protein synthesis immediately after workouts:

1. A proper ratio of BCAAs.

2. High blood levels of essential amino acids.

3. High blood levels of insulin.

You must prioritize 3 main factors as soon as possible.

So that’s that: protein is better than carbohydrate following training but protein plus carbohydrates is optimal. Good luck with your muscles.