The Benefits of Pre & Post Workout Nutrition By Will Brink
Pre- and post-workout nutrition is all the rage these days, and for good reason. For some, however, it’s become more than a science—it’s become their religion, or perhaps just a place to focus their OCD-like tendencies. Regardless, people have taken the topic of pre- and post-workout nutrition to a level that is not justified by the research, or at least not confirmed by the research that currently exists.
Readers should realize I may have my membership card to the Bodybuilding Nutrition Guru Society torn up and thrown at me for what I am about to share in this article…
As expected, supplement companies—and self–proclaimed ‘net guru types—have used what does exist for research to convince everyone that that if they don’t take in exactly 98.7 grams of carbohydrates and 37.2 grams of protein within 28 seconds after they leave the gym, their muscles will be attacked by every muscle-hating hormone they possess in their body by second 29; with the prior year of hard work in the gym totally wasted by second 30!
People are fixated on this particular topic like nothing else, and when you throw in the other possible ingredients that can be added to the post-workout drink, such as creatine, glutamine, and many others, it’s taken to the level of psychosis!
Of course supplement companies have come out with their own “techno-functional ultra-repartitioning multi-dimensional”* post-workout drink formulas that are claimed to be the latest breakthrough. Besides the carbs and protein in these formulas, many of the additional compounds are either under dosed (ergo the ‘label decoration’ syndrome), have no particular justification for being in the formula in the first place, or both (ergo, the ‘shot gun’ approach)…but I digress.
Now I have to take at least some blame—or credit—for this predicament, depending on how you want to view it. I have written extensively about the importance of post-workout nutrition in all manner of articles, and give the topic extensive focus in my Bodybuilding Revealed e-book.
Unlike many of the supplement companies and ‘net experts’ out there, however, I never claimed you would shrivel up into Pee Wee Herman in a matter of minutes if you didn’t get your ultra high-tech post-workout drink 29 seconds after your last set of squats. I have always taken a balanced view on the topic, by pointing out that food is still more important in the overall equation of muscle growth.
Thus, what I can say is that research—and common sense—tells us it’s advantageous to get some fast-acting carbs and protein after a hard workout to optimize the time we put in the gym. From there, however, people have relied more on wishful thinking than science for their pre- and post-workout nutrition. People who have poor diets and poorly thought-out training routines, but focus on the latest magic pre- and post-workout elixirs are missing the point. Their approach is like trying to hold up a three-legged stool with one support leg and the other two missing.
General Considerations of Research vs. the “Real World”
As we all know, a great deal of research is performed that—although interesting—has very little “real world” application to bodybuilders and other athletes.
This is because scientists do everything in their power to study their chosen topic in isolation. In other words, they go to great lengths and trouble to control variables that will impact the outcomes of their studies. For example, in a study looking at the effects of a drug or supplement, a placebo group is matched to the “active” group. The scientists want to make sure the effect they get—or don’t get—is due to the drug/supplement and not the placebo effect. Making the study double-blind is another way of attempting to prevent the bias of the scientists from influencing the study.
The point is that, when they attempt to isolate an effect of something being tested, scientists often end up with results that may not always be directly applicable to the “real world” of Joe Schmoe gym goer.
When study designs don’t reflect “real world” conditions, they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Were the study participants fasted? What type of exercise did they perform? What effects did the researchers actually look at and how does that apply to the “real world” or athlete in question? Were the study participants new to the form of exercise being utilized in the study or were they experienced athletes? How many people were in the study? Who do the results apply to: endurance or strength athletes? Both? Neither?!
Those are just a few of the essential questions that have to be asked and answered before you can even begin to draw any useful “real world” conclusions from the studies that come out. Yet this doesn’t stop people and supplement companies from jumping on the latest studies as the last word in nutrition and start making recommendations from them. They also tend to ignore the studies that contradict or fail to replicate the advice they are giving out. Let’s look at some examples…
The Fast vs. Slow Protein Craze..
The use of fasted subjects in nutrition studies illustrates how researchers can end up with results that may not apply well to the real world. As the name implies, the study subjects are a group of people who have not eaten for an extended period of time. In many cases, they haven’t eaten for 8 – 10 hours or more, which of course does not reflect how the average person eats, at let alone how the average athlete eats—especially bodybuilders looking to add muscle mass.
Enter stage right, the “fast vs. slow” protein craze. The study that got this craze rolling was called “Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion” and was responsible for causing a resurgence of interest in casein. The basic premise of this much-touted study was that the speed of absorption of dietary amino acids (from ingested proteins) varies according to the type of dietary protein a person eats.
The researchers wanted to see if the type of protein eaten would affect postprandial (e.g., after a meal) protein synthesis, breakdown, and deposition. To test the hypothesis, they fed casein (CAS) and whey protein (WP) to a group of healthy adults, a single meal of casein (CAS) or whey WP following an overnight fast (10 h). Using this specific study design, they found:
•WP induced a dramatic but short increase of plasma amino acids.
•CAS induced a prolonged plateau of a moderate increase in amino acids (hyperaminoacidemia)
•Whole body protein breakdown was inhibited by 34% after CAS ingestion but not after WP ingestion.
•Postprandial protein synthesis was stimulated by 68% with the WP meal and to a lesser extent (+31%) with the CAS meal.
The basic non-science summary is: the study found that CAS was good at preventing protein breakdown (proteolysis), but was not so good for increasing protein synthesis. WP had basically the opposite effects: it increased protein synthesis but didn’t prevent protein breakdown. The problem is that they were using fasted subjects for a single meal. ***
Keep that in mind as we move along here…
So far so good right? So what can we conclude from this study and how useful are the results? Like so many studies, the results were interesting—and of little use to people in the real world. Do these results hold up under more “real world” conditions where people are eating every few hours and/or mixing the proteins with other macronutrients (i.e., carbs and fats)?
The answer is probably not, which is exactly what the researchers found when they attempted to mimic a more realistic eating pattern of multiple meals and or the addition of other macronutrients. The follow up study was called “The digestion rate of protein is an independent regulating factor of postprandial protein retention.” Four groups of five to six healthy young men received:
• a single meal of slowly digested casein (CAS).
• a single meal of free amino acids mimicking the composition of casein (AA).
• a single meal of rapidly digested whey proteins (WP).
• repeated meals of whey proteins (RPT-WP) mimicking slow digestion rate of casein (i.e., reflecting how people really eat).
So what did they find? In a nut shell, giving people multiple doses of whey—which more closely mimics how people really eat-—had basically the same effects as a single dose of casein, and mixing either with fats and proteins pretty much nullified any big differences between the two proteins.
Even that’s not the end of the story, however, as multiple follow up studies done by the same group and others found these effects could also be different in older versus younger people and male versus female! How messed up is that?! So how much press did these follow up studies get? Little or none, as I recall.
Now, a later study did attempt to examine the actual net amino acid uptake after resistance training with whey vs. casein, and found both proteins had essentially the same effects on net muscle protein synthesis after exercise despite different patterns of blood amino acid responses.
Does that put to rest the issue or debate of one protein vs. the other post-workout? No, as there are yet more conflicting studies out there and my bet is still on whey as the superior post-workout protein, but it’s important to realize the answer is far from established at this time.
Milk: nature’s original MRP. Despite all the fancy proteins out there all claiming to be the next step in the evolution of proteins that “will blast you past your plateaus in the gym,” good old milk seems to be competing—and winning—against some “high tech” products on the market. We have various studies finding increased protein synthesis and other positive effects when a purified protein supplement (e.g., whey, soy, casein, etc.) ingested right after or before a workout—usually in conjunction with carbohydrates—but what about good old milk, a “real” food?
One recent study found good old milk to be an effective post-workout drink that increased net muscle protein synthesis after resistance training. Yet another recent study compared 2 cups of skim milk as a post workout drink compared to a soy drink and a “sports drink.”
In this study, the milk and soy drinks were matched for basic macronutrient ratios and calories and all three were matched for total calories. 56 male volunteers were split into three groups, with all put on a resistance training program for 12 weeks. The volunteers were then randomly assigned one of the three drinks to consume as a post workout drink and again one hour after the workouts.
Although no major differences were found in strength between the 3 groups, the group getting the milk had the greatest increase in muscle mass (via increases in Type I and II fibers) with researchers concluding
“…chronic postexercise consumption of milk promotes greater hypertrophy during the early stages of resistance training in novice weightlifters when compared with isoenergetic soy or carbohydrate consumption.”
But it gets better: how about our favorite childhood drink, chocolate milk? How about chocolate milk vs. two commercial energy/fluid replacement drinks, such as Gatorade and Endurox R4?
One recent study—albeit a small one—found chocolate milk as effective as Gatorade, and more effective than Endurox, as a recovery drink for trained cyclists between exhaustive bouts of endurance exercise.
Now is this a condemnation of sports drinks and an endorsement for milk/chocolate milk as the last word on post-workout drinks? Not at all: remember those essential questions I mentioned above? You have to look at such a study in context—in other words, at the experimental design and how that applies to the “real world.” The subjects fasted for 10 - 12 h prior to the chocolate milk experiment, and these drinks were the only food these guys had for 14 - 16 hours. The results may have been quite different had they been following their normal eating patterns.
They also measured effects on endurance vs.—say—strength or increased protein synthesis, etc.
So, in the context of this particular study design, look at it this way: chocolate milk has casein (a “slow” protein), and whey (a “fast” protein) as well as calcium, some vitamins and a bunch of carbohydrates—so it makes a pretty good, cheap MRP, if that’s all you are going to get all day long. It’s not a half-bad post-workout drink either. It’s not the best MRP—or post workout drink—I could design, but it’s cheap and easy to find. The reality is that there are some inexpensive foods out there can be used, and most of your old school bodybuilders and strong men used milk as the original post workout drink/MRP.
The study that looked at milk vs. soy and sports drink, was done in novice weight lifters, so that too needs to be taken into consideration. Regardless, milk, in particular chocolate milk, should make a perfectly acceptable and inexpensive post workout drink and people who think it’s too “old school” or not “high tech” enough to be if any use are clearly misinformed and the victim of marketing.
Now the study we need to see that does not exist, of course, is milk or chocolate milk vs. a well thought out post-workout drink of—say—whey and maltodextrin (high GI carb source), in experienced weight lifters who are not fasted—but don’t hold your breath on that one. Studies like that get expensive quickly and also pose practical issues. For example, if you wanted to match the protein content of—say—2 scoops of whey isolate to chocolate milk (so the groups were getting an equivalent amount of protein), the subjects would need to drink a large volume of milk (remember, milk is mostly water).
My hunch is that a correctly designed post-workout drink would be superior to chocolate milk, but it would be nice to see the two compared, no?
The Pre-Workout Drink
The pre-workout drink craze followed the post-workout craze after a study found pre-workout nutrition may be more effective than post-workout nutrition.
The study that got this craze going was called “Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise” which found that drinking a mixture of essential amino acids and carbohydrates induced a greater anabolic response (i.e., a net increase in muscle protein balance) when taken right before weight training vs. right after. ****
This study had everyone taking in a pre-workout drink as well as a post-workout drink in an attempt to cover all the bases. It should be noted, however, that—once again—they were using fasted subjects. Think of it like this: you have not eaten in 8-10 or more hours, then you are made to work out on a (very) empty stomach.
Under those particular circumstances, does it not make sense getting something to eat before the workout would be superior to after the workout? We all know hitting the weights on an empty stomach is not an optimal method to preserve—or build—muscle mass. Nor is it reflective of real world eating patterns where the vast majority of people have eaten a full meal at least a few hours before they hit the gym.
After this study, everyone started drinking a protein drink before they hit the gym. Interestingly, however, a recent study done by the same group who did the pre-drink study mentioned above, found whey taken before hitting the gym did not result in an improved net protein balance vs. taking it after the gym.
“Well wait a dang minute Will, now I am really confused!” you are saying angrily to your comp screen! Does this new study show pre-workout nutrition is no more effective than post workout nutrition?
No, and here’s why. It’s an apples vs. oranges study. The first study used free amino acids plus carbohydrates, and the follow up study used whey alone without carbohydrates—which is very odd if they were truly trying to see if free aminos were superior to a whole protein such as whey.
Unfortunately this latter study really didn’t do much to confirm or deny the first study’s findings. And, don’t forget my comments regarding using fasted subjects, which adds yet another wrinkle to all this.
So does that essentially disprove the pre-workout drink vs. the post-workout drink studies? Nope. One recent study did look specifically at the issue of timing and does support the idea that the pre- and post-workout window is the most effective period for ingesting some fast-acting protein and carbs.
This study, titled “Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy,” has gotten a fair amount of attention in the bodybuilding/sports nutrition oriented publications. The researchers examined the effects of a drink of whey, glucose and creatine given to two groups of experienced weight lifters, either morning and evening (M/E) or pre- and post-workout (PP), to see if the actual timing of the drink had an effect on muscle hypertrophy or strength development.
The study found that the group getting the drink PP had an increase in lean body mass and 1RM strength in two of three assessments that were tested. The group getting the drink PP also experienced greater creatine retention and glycogen resynthesis, which means timing of specific nutrients is an important strategy for optimizing the adaptations desired (e.g., increased muscle mass and strength) from your hard work in the gym.
So does this study finally put to rest the issue of pre- vs. post-workout nutrition? No, it did not compare one strategy to the other per se, but did confirm that nutrient timing is an important aspect.
One obvious issue is that this study used a drink that contained creatine throughout, so technically it’s not a pro + carb study, but a pro + carb + creatine study. On the plus side, it was done in experienced weight lifters and they were not fasted, so it does at least represent the metabolic realties of “real world” people looking to get the most of their nutrition. Either way, it supports the idea of taking in the right nutrients both pre- and post-workout, but people should not be under the impression that this issue of timing has been “put to bed,” so to speak, and realize there are still plenty of unanswered questions yet to be explored.
Of course, there are more studies than just the ones mentioned above, so there are plenty of measurements on indicators of recovery from exercise, such as effects on glycogen resynthesis, alterations in hormones, and hormone levels. Nonetheless, I prefer to look at the actual endpoint that really matters at the end of the day: did this person gain muscle mass, strength, or performance by using this product? Without that, everything else—though potentially interesting—is mental masturbation.
Conclusions, and Real World Recommendations.
Now I didn’t write this article to confuse you, but to demonstrate that the optimal strategy for increasing strength and LBM in response to resistance training is not as cut and dried as you are often led to believe. However, it’s also probably simpler than you are led to believe, as the human body is far more adaptable to the types of protein it receives as well as the amounts it receives.
Thus, the people who stress over whether they got 35g of protein and 60g of carbs in their post workout drinks vs. 32g of protein and 70s of carbs in the drink are probably wasting their time, and causing what is known as “paralysis by analysis.” Put more practically, the amount of cortisol you produce from worrying about such minutia probably offsets any gains you might make from one drink vs. another!*****
I also wanted to dispel some of the hype over one protein vs. another, and the fact that expensive pre-made high tech drinks that are all the rage right now are just that: expensive and over hyped.
In the real world, people have used variations of the idea that fast acting proteins and a good dose of simple carbs can improve the effects of resistance training for many years. My good friend, the late Dan Duchaine, used to give people whey mixed in water and Corn Flakes with skim milk as their post workout meal.
One bodybuilder I knew who went onto be a well known IFBB pro, used to have a drink of whey after his workouts and several slices of apple pie at the local Friday’s restaurant next to the gym for his post-workout meal.
Most of your old time strong men and bodybuilders drank quite a lot of milk, and as we have seen from the research, it’s not a half bad post workout drink either.
If people want to buy pre-made carb/protein mixtures with other nutrients added (e.g., creatine, glutamine, various vitamins, etc) out of convenience and don’t care that they can “roll their own” for less money, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Just don’t think there’s anything magical about the pre-made post-workout drinks, no matter what the marketing material or web site says to entice you to purchase it.
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