Workout Hard, Post-workout Smart, Part I


We all want to maximize the hard work we put into training.  Having a good post-workout nutrition strategy is the only way to truly get the biggest return on investment.

Last month, I wrote an article Myth #3: The Milk Myth, and in it debunked a related myth that chocolate milk is the ideal post-workout beverage. After I posted that blog I got a lot of emails and Facebook messages from people asking what they should be doing with their post-workout nutrition if chocolate milk (and Gatorade) weren't good options.

The short answer is, "It depends."  It depends on your goals, style of training (duration and intensity), when you train and what you are doing with your global nutrition strategy.  I’m going to give you the long answer in this four-part post-workout series.

Today’s installment is an introduction to the highlights and some recommendations you can implement immediately.

There are four key factors that you need to consider when deciding upon your post-workout strategy:

1.  Exercise causes protein muscle breakdown.  The more intense and/or longer the duration of training the more this is an issue.  Reversing this process into protein synthesis, which rebuilds the tissue stronger than it was before is your primary goal.

2.  How (or if) you will replenish depleted energy stores like glycogen (glucose stored in muscles) and the other components that allow your body to produce ATP (think "muscle fuel"), such as creatine.

3.  Ridding your body of the metabolic byproducts and controlling catabolic hormones that break down your body and create inflammation is the third factor to consider.

4.  The often forgotten and ignored fourth factor is how you will support central nervous system (CNS) recovery.

Before you can choose the best post-workout strategy for yourself you need to answer a few questions:

1.  What are  your goals?  (fat loss, build muscle, strength, performance, etc)

2.  What is the duration and intensity of your training?  (this may vary from day to day)

3.  Who are you?  Or more specifically where are you at now with your fitness and body composition?

4.  Are you willing to try something new and give it a long enough trial to really determine if it is a better strategy?

Post-workout Strategy Basics

 Rebuild and Replenish

In order to stop protein muscle breakdown and replenish energy stores you need protein.  Protein is broken down into amino acids, which are the building blocks you need to repair muscle tissue (protein synthesis) and stop muscle breakdown. The faster you can positively improve your protein balance the faster you get into the muscle-building phase and out of the breakdown phase.

The prevailing wisdom has been that carbs along with protein is ideal because it creates an insulin spike that rushed all the protein into the muscles at warp speed to trigger more efficient protein synthesis.  The problem with creating an insulin spike is that insulin is the hormone that triggers body fat storage.  There is now research proving that ingesting carbs with protein does not improve protein synthesis.

The second reason that people have always said that you need to eat carbs post-workout is that you need to replenish your muscle glycogen stores.  This has also been proven false in research studies.  Our bodies are more than capable of replenishing their own glycogen stores through the process of gluconeogenesis using lactate and amino acids.  Unless your intense workouts are longer than an hour you do not need carbs post-workout.  A general rule of thumb is 30 grams of carbs for every hour of training (this does not apply to you if fat loss is your primary goal, see below).

What does this mean for you?

A basic post-workout nutrition strategy is to have 15-30 grams of high quality whey protein within 30-45 minutes of training.  The quicker you get that nutrition the better.  The amount of protein you take depends on your size, your goals, and the intensity/duration of your workout.

    • The more muscle mass you currently have the more amino acids you need to support protein synthesis.
    • Higher intensity and heavier weights means more damage to your muscles and therefore a need for more protein support. The same goes for training that is longer in duration.  In general your most intense day shouldn’t also be your longest day.
    • If your goal is primarily to build muscle or you are a hard-gainer you should up your protein post-workout and quality carbs from whole food sources.

My Example

I weigh 225 lbs. with less than 10% body fat and do 2-3 very intense workouts a week.  I normally take 24 grams of protein along with 5 grams of L-glutamine, greens powder, maca root and some amino acids immediately after my intense workouts.  I mix my post-workout shake with either water or raw milk if my workout was particularly intense or long, which they often are.  I take nothing or just some glutamine, greens powder, and maca root (more info on those later) following my less intense metabolic workouts that are shorter.

If your goal is fat loss…

Your primary concern is moving more, eating less and controlling your insulin levels.  Sugar is not your friend.  Your workouts should be intense and no longer than an hour at most in duration.  Intensity is more important than duration unless you want to be skinny fat.

In the event you do some less intense steady state aerobic workouts (jogging, cycling, or swimming) for active rest or to mix it up you don't need any post-workout nutrition.  Occasional post-workout fasting for your longer, harder workouts is also a good strategy to employ to maximize natural growth hormone (GH) levels (more on that in Part 2 of this series).

In the subsequent parts of the series I will dive deeper into the following topics:

Part II, Why post-workout carbs sabotage your hard work and why fat might maximize it.

Part III, How to optimize your post-workout hormonal cascade for more fat loss, muscle/strength building and better recovery.

Part IV, Recommendations on the best supplement brands as well as additional supplementation that can augment your goals such as, creatine, branched chain amino acids (BCAA), L-glutamine, fish oils, Greens Powders and other high anti-oxidant blends, adaptagens, and much more. 

Part V, Importance of central nervous system (CNS) recovery for the advanced/hardcore trainees and so your workouts don’t leave you bonking at work.