Hands up who watches the guys in the tight muscle vest strutting around the gym drinking some kind of luminous protein liquid after every lift or the woman who has muscular legs like a top sprinter using them to get back to the changing rooms as quick as she can after her session to construct some type of hi – protein powder concoction. We assume that because they are in such great shape that we should be doing the same and so copy their routine, right?
And by all means please do copy them. Copy their dedication to training, copy the effort they put into each lift because there is no denying that they have gotten into the shape they are in from hours of dedicated training in the gym and it goes hand in hand that they must be also be very disciplined when it comes to food and hydration otherwise their training would not have the same effect.
However is there any merit in their routine of carrying around a constant supply of protein with them while they are training? Should we copy the ritual of shaking tubs in the changing room afterwards trying to get as much protein into ourselves as fast as possible?
Like a free diver gasping for air once they hit the surface, it seems some people would wheel around an intravenous drip of protein with them on a constant basis if they could in an effort to get ‘swole’.
We all know that resistance training at the correct intensity (60-90% 1RM) and volume will cause the hypertrophy adaption in our muscles. Sufficient protein intake is also vital to allow protein synthesis to occur and the muscles to develop and grow.
Muscles grow through a process called protein synthesis by using the protein you ingest. To maintain muscle there has to be a balance between muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein break down. Therefore, for hypertrophy (muscle growth) to occur there has to be an increase in protein synthesis over muscle protein breakdown. Obviously the opposite is true also, if there is more protein breakdown than synthesis then atrophy (muscle wastage) will occur. Hence, protein intake is vital to increasing muscle size and strength.
But is it necessary to sip protein/ BCAA’s in the gym, gulp back shakes in the changing room immediately afterwards and is it necessary to buy protein shakes with the highest grams of protein possible?
Protein intake while Training
It has been very difficult to measure which way the protein synthesis/breakdown balance tips during the actual training session itself. Very few studies have been carried out in this area because it is technically very difficult to examine. Some studies have shown that there is little difference from the non-training situation (Kumar et al. 2009; Durham et al. 2004). It is generally accepted though by drawing some conclusions from studies, that protein synthesis ‘probably’ decreases during resistance training. Nevertheless, the change in protein synthesis and the breakdown that happen during exercise are relatively small and occur within a limited time frame, and are therefore of less importance than the changes that are manifested in the hours and days after the training session (Cardinale et al. 2011). So, there are no scientific studies that have been carried out that suggest consuming protein while training has any effect on muscle growth. The only conclusions drawn are that protein breakdown may occur and where it does the effects are minimal. Therefore the only thing you need to sip on while you are training is water.
Do I need to consume protein immediately after my training?
After training the level of protein synthesis is elevated meaning that the potential for muscle growth is prime, however the level of muscle protein breakdown is also high. Protein synthesis remains high for approx 48 hours after training (Kumar et al. 2009), whereas protein breakdown resumes normal levels after 24 hours (Philips et al. 1997). Therefore to insure protein synthesis maintains the upper hand in those initial 24 hours when both levels are high, protein ingestion is vital for muscle growth. Both the afore mentioned studies show that it is very important to maintain a fed state in order to give protein synthesis the advantage over breakdown. Training while fasted will have the exact opposite effect and protein breakdown will exceed synthesis in the initial 24hours and your muscles will experience wastage.
So we’ve established that the initial 24hours are vital. And indeed it is very important to get protein into the body sooner rather than later once training has concluded. However there is no major rush. By all means if you have a long journey ahead of you or you cannot access real food for a while after the training session then a protein supplement in the changing room is a good option. It is not necessary though, there is time if you are going home straight away to choose real protein from food as opposed to manufactured powder.
A study carried out by Schoenfeld, Aragon, & Krieger in 2013 concluded that evidence does not appear to support the commonly believed claim that immediate (≤ 1 hour) consumption of protein pre- and/or post-workout significantly enhances strength or hypertrophic related adaptations to resistance exercise. Instead they indicate that the window is indeed greater than one hour and the most important factor is that protein is consumed at some point after the session and the actual timing of intake is of less importance.
Having said that it is not advisable to allow it go to long post exercise before protein is consumed. A study by Esmarck et al. (2001) showed that a delay of at least two hours has proved significantly less efficient than ingestion immediately after training so it would appear that the window is longer than one hour but shorter than two. However it is worth noting that later study was carried out on elderly individuals and not younger trained individuals, so you would expect to see protein synthesis diminish quicker.
Having reviewed the vast majority of literature concerning the so called ‘anabolic window’ Aragon & Schoenfeld (2013) concluded that the window of opportunity for protein consumption after exercises is far wider that portrayed and that in fact the total protein consumption throughout the day is of far more importance. In other words don’t train in a fasted state and ensure you consume enough protein (1.3-1.7grams per kg of body weight)throughout the day and the so called narrowing window of opportunity spouted by supplement companies becomes bullshit.
Bottom line is, yes it will do you no harm consuming protein straight away after a session and absolutely if you will not have access to real food for a prolonged period afterwards or if you trained first thing in the morning without food then it is absolutely the correct thing to do. However it is not necessary if you eat real food containing protein before training and do so again within the next few hours.
Does the type of protein and amount of protein after each training session matter?
We all hear great stories about BCAA’s, whey protein, casein etc. Different fancy coloured labels promising that their product is the best. And yes theses companies have spend a lot of time and money trying to design the optimum combination of BCAA’s/proteins and there may be some merit in what they have discovered with regard to fastest delivery to muscles etc. But whilst what they have discovered might be true, is it really an advantage when training for muscle growth and strength? Reminds me of some of the yogurt companies advertising that their product contains various cultures that are proven to help digestion however they fail to tell you that these cultures are in insufficient amounts in their product, but hey if it sells and it not a lie than that’s ok right?
Similarly here, BCAA’s may give the fastest delivery to the muscles whilst you are training there is no disputing that, but is that really an advantage? We have just seen that studies show changes in protein synthesis or breakdown during training are minimal and that it’s what you do before and after training that counts.
Similarly many companies claiming that whey protein is the best thing to take after a workout because it is broken down easier etc and gets to the muscles faster. Again whilst all probably true, is that an advantage when studies show that you have time to have a shower go home and make proper food like fish or chicken etc?
What is fact is the most important thing is that protein is ingested and it is irrelevant whether that comes from real food or a supplement. The type of protein (whey, casein, or soy) is also not hugely relevant. The most important thing for hypertrophy to occur is that protein is ingested regardless of type (Cuthbertson et al. 2005; Tang et al. 2009).
Finally that brings us to the amount of protein. How much protein is needed after a gym session?
We often see mass gainer post workout supplements with 40-50g or protein per serving. Many of us get bodybuilding nutrition plans from the internet suggesting such huge portions of protein after your workout for maximum gain. Are they correct? Absolutely, if you are over 20 stone in weight. It is true that after exercise there is a parallel increase in protein synthesis with protein consumption. However this increase only occurs up to a point. The advantages level out and become less significant at around the 25g per meal mark for male. Any more than 25g of protein consumed per meal has no significant influence on protein synthesis hence muscle growth (Moore et al. 2009). Nor does it improve or worsen body composition (Antonio et al., 2014). So by all means if you like leaving half of your money in the toilet go out and get your hands on one of these ‘high protein, mass gain’supplements.
In conclusion we have to remember that health and fitness is a massive industry with vast amounts of capital behind it, we can be overwhelmed by advertising and sponsored websites offering this and that as a fast track to a designer body and unequalled strength. The reality is far simpler as you can see. To increase muscle size and strength you need to first and foremost train correctly, for strength lift with high intensity 80%+ 1RM for bigger muscles lift 60-90% 1RM but add volume. To give muscles optimum growth potential follow a good balanced nutrition programme and including carbs (for another blog post) around training and make sure you have protein with every meal where possible up to 1.3-1.7g/kg/bw. Consume some kind of protein within a few hours of your training session (I prefer real food). There is no emergency, you have time within reason. The type of protein really doesn’t make any difference. There is no need to consume protein whilst training. You do need sufficient protein in each meal(25g) to kick start protein synthesis but no more, no need to overdo it, too much is just wasted. Remember, supplements are handy and make protein consumption easier but they are not vital to achieving your goals.
Antonio J, Peacock CA, Ellerbroek A, Fromhoff B, Silver T, 2014. The effects of consuming a high protein diet (4.4g/kg/d) on body composition in resistance-trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11:19.
Aragon & Schoenfeld, 2013. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window. Journal of the International Sociey of Sports Nutrition, 10:5.
Cardinale, M., Newton, R. & Nosaka, K., 2011. Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications, Wiley-Blackwell.
Cuthbertson, D. et al., 2005. Anabolic signalling deficits underlie amino acid resistance of wasting, aging muscle. FASEBJ, 19, pp.422–424.
Durham, W.S. et al., 2004. Leg glucose and protein metabolism during an acute bout of resistance exercise in humans. J Appl Physiol, 97, pp.1376 – 1386.
Esmarck, B. et al., 2001. Timing of post exercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans . J Physiol, 535, pp.301–311.
Kumar, V. et al., 2009. Human muscle protein systhesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol, 106, pp.2026–2039.
Moore, D.R. et al., 2009. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men . American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89, pp.161–168.
Philips, S.M. et al., 1997. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology, 273, pp.99–107.
Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. & Krieger, J.W., 2013. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), p.53. Available at: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=3879660&tool=pmcentrez&rendertype=abstract.
Tang, J.E. et al., 2009. Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men . J Appl Physiol, 107, pp.987–992.
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