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We know that if we exercise with the right amount of intensity and volume then that results in muscle growth.
But many don’t realise that we can maximise muscle growth through our pre- and post-workout nutrition, which we’ll explore in this Workout Nutrition 101 guide.
So what are the requirements to maximise muscle gain?
We need to maximise natural anabolic hormone release (testosterone, insulin, human growth hormone and IGF-1), consume adequate protein and obtain a caloric surplus.
Workout Nutrition 101: Anabolic Hormones
In terms of anabolic hormones, fasting enhances human growth hormone (HGH) secretion due to the absence of insulin, even increasing up to 500% after a 24 hour fast!
HGH affects total body growth and repair (including muscle mass, bone density, organ reserve, etc.) and these effects are thought to be partly due to the simultaneous increase in insulin-growth factor 1 (IGF-1).
Similarly testosterone production is maximised through fasting and furthermore strength training increases both HGH and testosterone release for a double dose of muscle-building excellence.
So three anabolic hormones are increased when the most important one, insulin is low? This hormone causes the shuttling of amino acids (building blocks of protein) into the muscle and is released by consuming protein or carbohydrate.
Therefore if we fast we aren’t providing the amino acids required (and subsequent insulin release), so we’re missing out on the ‘anabolic window’ of faster muscle growth after exercise right?
It turns out the period of increased protein synthesis (muscle repair and growth) is much larger than previously thought, lasting at least 24 hours long. It is still more than doubled at 24 hours and may last up to 48 hours before returning to normal levels.
Seeing as the post-workout ‘window’ for increased protein synthesis is so large, it appears to be worthwhile to delay consuming protein by fasting post-workout in order to maximise HGH and testosterone production.
Thereafter, you can consume protein to maximise the final anabolic hormone and provide the building blocks necessary to build muscle.
Indeed, delaying feeding seems to be accounted for by evolution as human growth hormone and testosterone both have protein-conservation properties which prevent muscle breakdown.
Workout Nutrition 101: Protein
Grown men these days fret about downing their protein shake as soon as their last set is finished. But our bodies are well-adapted to not need protein consumption so urgently, and in fact we seem evolved to preferentially consume protein hours later.
Strength training blunts hunger and there is also the fact that fasted training results in greater subsequent protein synthesis (i.e. muscle growth and repair) than fed-state training.
This shows that our body is well-adapted to pre- and post-workout fasting, which is a stark contrast to some claims that your body will wither and break down without a massive protein shake immediately after your last set.
HGH and testosterone prevent muscle breakdown post-workout, but even if there is some protein breakdown post-workout this will simply be restored by later protein consumption.
For example despite the large differences in speed of amino acid absorption, consuming casein post-workout results in the same amount of protein synthesis as consuming whey protein.
There is also supporting evidence from both longer-term studies and reviews to suggest that timing of protein intake matters little. In the words of both the Laws of Nutrient Timing: hitting your daily macronutrient targets is FAR more important than nutrient timing.
But is there any effect of post-workout protein intake timing at all? The only way to truly find out is to experiment and track your strength levels and muscle size over time since science doesn’t confirm any large effects for everyone.
Some people will be overly concerned about losing muscle mass regardless, so if there was a fail-safe way to prevent muscle loss what would it be?
First, consuming 25g whey is enough to maximally stimulate protein synthesis (i.e. one scoop) but it is preferable to consume BCAAs instead as these contain the most important amino acids for growth.
Whey protein or meat contains only 20% BCAA content, thus 5-10g BCAAs can be consumed instead as it results in a much lower caloric load, triggering a smaller insulin response and thereby maintains GH/testosterone secretion.
This small amount of protein is unlikely to be harmful as exercise increases insulin sensitivity so the insulin release in response to these small doses of protein will quickly be reduced back to normal fasting levels.
As fasting is not an ‘on/off switch’ and more like a continuum, this should have little effect on the beneficial consequences of fasting.
Therefore for those really worried about losing muscle mass, 5-10g of BCAAs every 2 hours after exercise should be enough to maximise protein synthesis with minimal effect on anabolic hormone release.
As stated previously however, daily total protein intake is far more important and this will be explored in a forthcoming post.
To summarise our recommendations so far: fast for several hours post-workout for the beneficial effects on anabolic hormones and consume 5-10g of BCAAs every 2 hours after exercise.
The final piece in our workout nutrition 101 puzzle is caloric surplus, which we will explore in our next post.