Unless you've been living under a rock, you've certainly heard about the post-workout window of opportunity. The two- to three-hour period after a hard lift is an almost magical time, when your body is primed to build muscle and burn fat at incredible rates. No matter what else you're doing with your meal plan, you MUST optimize your post-workout nutrition to see optimal results.
Still, opinions vary wildly on the best post-workout shakes and meals. Some guys think you need to load up on hundreds of grams of carbs, while low-carbers might stick strictly to protein and aminos. To make things more complex, lots of people include other goodies – creatine, arginine, and even caffeine.
So, what's really necessary? What should you put in YOUR post-workout meals to fit your meal plan and optimize recovery? Read on to find out!
Every guy wants to optimize testosterone, but there's actually another hormone that's even more anabolic – insulin! That's right, that carb coma-inducing hormone that diabetics worry about is also your greatest asset in the quest to build muscle.
Unfortunately, insulin can also be sure-fire fat builder if you don't manage it properly. It's incredibly effective at inducing your body to STORE nutrients in cells, and that storage can occur just as readily in fat tissue and muscle fibers.
To harness the muscle-building properties of insulin without getting fat, you'll want to stick a hefty portion of your daily carbs into the post-workout window. Heavy resistance training induces greater insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells ONLY, leaving your fat deprived of nutrients – exactly what you want! Those carbs will help to dive other nutrients – particularly amino acids – straight to where they're needed most.
The Right Carbs
Not just any carbs will do, however. You probably already avoid table sugar, fructose, and other industrial crap – as you should! But when it comes to the post-workout window, you need to steer clear of some of the “healthy,” slow-digesting carbs, as well. This is NOT the time to be gorging on oatmeal, brown rice, or any other whole-grain goodies that'll take hours to digest.
No, you need FAST-acting carbs post-workout, and that means sugars! Don't go searching out the baking aisle, though. Table sugar (sucrose) is half fructose and half glucose, and that big batch of fructose is bad news. To spike insulin and refill your muscle glycogen, you want pure glucose – the preferred form of energy for both plants and animals. Most health food and supplement shops sell it as “dextrose,” and you'll usually see it listed as one of the first ingredients on pre-mixed workout drinks.
How much glucose do you need? That'll depend on your current goals and body fat levels. If you're lean and trying to pack on size, go with about a half a gram per pound of body weight. If you're on the chubbier side and trying to shed fat, err on the side of a quarter gram per pound.
Carbs are crucial, but they're not going to accomplish much without some sort of protein. Most bodybuilders use whey, and in this case I see no reason to rock the boat! A good whey isolate powder will digest quickly, providing your muscle cells with a radid supply of amino acids for growth. Shoot for about half as many protein grams as carb grams in your final shake.
Of course, you may want to supplement those complete proteins with a few specific aminos. There are twenty in total, but three in particular – the branched-chain amino acids – will flip a muscle-building “switch” in your body. These aminos are leucine, valine, and isoleucine, and you want to get those in a 4:1:1 ratio, respectively. Don't worry too much about the math, though – that's the ratio most companies already use when they manufacturer their BCAAs. Add 10-15 grams to your post-workout shake, and consume a couple more doses throughout the day if you can afford to.
Testosterone and Growth Hormone
Other than insulin, test and GH are the most anabolic hormones your body can produce. However, some studies suggest that these hormones actually DROP when you consume a carb-filled, protein-packed post-workout shake.
In fact, some guys will go so far as to AVOID food for a few hours after their workouts, believing they're optimizing their hormones and creating a more favorable environment for growth. Is this a good idea? Hell no!
Despite any rises or dips in testosterone, the research is pretty clear on the benefits of post-workout nutrition. If you skip these critical shakes and meals, expect to feel tired and sore for FAR longer than you would otherwise. As for your hormones, levels will return to normal shortly after your shake is digested. In fact, better nutrition tends to boost anabolic hormones in the long run. Temporary spikes and dips are to be expected; it's the average levels that really count.
So far we've only touched on mass gains, but the post-workout window is just as useful for fat loss. For one thing, anything that helps your body retain fat-free mass (muscle tissue) is going to help you get ripped. The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism will be, and you can't afford to lose that muscle because of skipped meals. Misguided attempts to cut calories from the post-workout window will only leave you weaker and fatter in the long run.
The longer-term post-workout period is also fantastic for fat loss in its own right. Heavy resistance training can increase lipolytic (fat-burning) activity in your body for a day or two, so don't worry about spiking your insulin in the first hour. Once the carbs are cleared from your system, your body will still be more primed to burn fat than it was before. Basically, but optimizing your post-workout nutrition, you can have your cake and eat it, too!
Justin Woltering is a distinguished Fitness Expert, Author, and Dymatize Sponsored Athlete. See www.justinwoltering.com