ARE YOUR MUSCLES EATING THEMSELVES?
Time to read 7 min
Time to read 7 min
Pre-workout nutrition and during-workout nutrition are the most important things you can do to make any kind of progress in the gym.
In fact, pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition is just as important as post-workout nutrition.
A few years ago, before we knew any better, pre-workout nutrition usually consisted of simply having a meal a couple of hours before a workout. Then, in more recent times, pre-workout nutrition transitioned to maybe sipping a whey protein shake an hour before going to the gym.
And the idea of intra-workout nutrition? It didn't even exist.
Then came a golden age of enlightenment where lifters accepted the science of true pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition. They began drinking measured amounts of protein and carbohydrates before a workout and continued to do so during the entirety of their workouts.
For the first time ever, lifters pretty much universally made progress.
But then something happened: a new generation of lifters came along. Rather than accept the tried-and-true pre-workout nutrition principles of the enlightened lifters, they reverted back to the primitive.
Some went back to ignoring pre-workout nutrition entirely while others went back to drinking simple whey protein shakes, energy drinks, or worst of all, nothing before hitting the gym.
It's almost as if they decided to throw out science altogether, or to embrace contrary anecdotal research that disguised itself as science.
It's time to bring enlightenment back.
When it comes to building muscle, building strength, recovery, and even body composition, when you eat is as important, maybe even more important than what you eat.
You could eat a mountain of protein but it would be largely wasted unless you ate it when your muscle cells were receptive to it, which is before a workout, during a workout, and to a lesser but still important degree, right after your workout.
Let's look at it another way. Even a high quality protein drink consumed a few hours after a workout may result in 85% lessprotein synthesis than drinking a crappy protein drink during your workout.
Regardless of the quality of the protein you're ingesting, you still need insulin to make muscle cells receptive to that protein gift.
The old-time lifters who used to eat a meal a couple of hours before a workout were kinda-sorta on the right track, but they didn't know what we know today.
Sure, their big meal would introduce protein and carbs into the bloodstream, simultaneously eliciting a surge of insulin. And those recently digested nutrients would hop on insulin's back and ride the currents of blood until they trickled into the capillaries that fed muscle cells.
Thus fortified, the lifter would head to the gym to attack his workout. The problem? His timing was off.
By the time he got to the gym, an hour or two after his pre-workout meal, levels of insulin would already be on the wane. Protein and carbs were still floating around the bloodstream, but there wasn't enough insulin around to carry the nutrients home.
Not only that, but the lack of insulin would have left the muscle cells largely unresponsive to the protein.
It's like a coach who's just given the rip-roaringest half-time pep talk in history. He's got the players so amped up that they're banging on lockers and butting helmeted heads... only someone locked the door and they can't get on the field to play.
And things only get worse for our molecular players. Since insulin is fading, the insulin antagonist glucagon shows up and starts to rob muscles of amino acids so it can convert them to the glucose that muscles need for fuel.
Epinephrine and cortisol, two other catabolic hormones, also enter the scene, the former robbing the liver of glycogen to fuel the muscles and the latter robbing energy from wherever it can – from fat, carbs, or from protein itself.
All that fuel, energy, and building blocks should be going to the muscles, but instead they're being pilfered by catabolic hormones.
It's too bad that insulin is in such short supply, because it would offset the collective efforts of all those catabolic fuel/energy/amino-acid robbing hormones.
But even if insulin levels were high or higher, there wouldn't be many amino acids to transport to muscle cells because the lifter swallowed his last bit of protein an hour or two ago!
Consider also that muscle glycogen is reduced by as much as 12% after just one set of 10 biceps curls, and muscle glycogen is what fuels ATP, the energy currency of muscle.
Just three sets of biceps curls results in a reduction of about 35%, and if you do another few sets you're at a 40% reduction in glycogen.
To remedy this, you need constant fuel.
You can see the importance of ingesting carbs before and during a workout, but ingesting protein is equally important.
Muscles need carbs to do work, but they also need protein. In that way, they're cannibalistic.
During a workout, amino acids, including branched chain amino acids (BCAA), supply up to 15% of a muscle's energy needs. And this use of BCAAs can go up by 500%, depending on the intensity and the duration of exercise.
But by ingesting the right type of protein before and during a workout, you minimize the cannibalism. You spare muscle protein, negate protein degradation, and set the muscle up for regeneration and remodeling, otherwise known as growth.
Consuming the right types of protein and carbs during the workout is important for many of the same reasons that it's important to consume them before the workout.
Insulin levels are kept high and levels of catabolic hormones are kept low, as well as ensuring that the muscles are getting a steady supply of nutrients and building blocks.
The protein and carbs ultimately keeps protein breakdown low, and the carbs that are still being ingested are fuelling the ATP/creatine phosphate pathway, ensuring higher reps and more intense contractions.
Likewise, fat is being oxidized at a much greater rate than otherwise possible, and this fat oxidation (fueled by proper nutrient timing) continues long after the workout.
If you were to actually weigh the muscles of a lifter who followed proper peri-workout nutrition after his workout, he'd literally be heavier than he would be if he'd followed the old time approach because he'd be filled with muscle-cell regenerating nutrients.
In short, everything would be perfect for muscle growth and recovery. The lifter, by ingesting a mixture of carbs and protein before and during his workout, has done everything to stack the muscle-building odds in his favor.
In addition, he won't be as sore the next day so he can train just as hard again.
Here are the benefits of properly loading the muscles before training and then continuing to fuel them throughout the workout:
Insulin levels are kept high, thus ensuring that nutrients can be carried directly to muscle cells.
High insulin levels keep levels of catabolic hormones like glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol low.
Protein synthesis is kept high.
Furnace-like fat oxidation ensues.
Protein breakdown is halted.
ATP and creatine levels are maintained.
Free radicals and muscle damage in general are minimized.
Inflammation is minimized, facilitating quicker and more efficient recovery.
Muscle growth is maximized.
Post-workout nutrition isn't really dead and it's not my intent to minimize its importance. It's just that pre- and intra-workout nutrition is even more important than post-workout nutrition.
You need to continue to nourish the muscles in the hour or so after a workout because the muscle cells are still keenly sensitive to protein.
However, unless the lifter had followed proper nutrition requirements before and during the workout, he's in for a world of hurt. He can drink his post-workout protein shake, but his muscle cells won't be as sensitive to any rise in insulin from the shake he just drank.
Insulin can/will carry the amino acids to the muscle cells, but they'll just pull the covers over their head and ignore it. These "homeless" glucose molecules will likely go into storage as glycogen or fat.
While it's not likely the protein will be stored as fat, much of it will end up in the liver, which is where amino acids go for storage.
Catabolic hormones will still be elevated and the rate of protein breakdown will still exceed protein synthesis.
The net result is very little anabolic stimulus and resultant muscle growth, some strength increases from neurological stimuli, and a lot of storage of amino acids in the liver.
Clearly, post-workout nutrition needs pre-workout and intra-workout nutrition in order for it to succeed.
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Ivy, John, and Portman, Robert, Nutrient Timing, The Future of Sports Nutrition, Basic Health Publications, Laguna Beach, 2004.
Tipton, et al, "Timing of amino-acid carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise." American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 1 August 2001, Vol, 281 no.2, E197-E206 DOI: