Ah, yes. The classic post workout meal. The proverbial pie cooling on the ledge of the anabolic window. The constituents of this meal can greatly impact your recovery and set you up for success in your next workout if done correctly. However, subpar nutrition at this time can impair muscle protein synthesis and glycogen replenishment and may render you sluggish and unmotivated in your next gym session. Let’s grab a fork and dig in to what a post-workout buffet should look like.
Hydration and Electrolytes
The main objective of the post-workout meal is to replace what was lost during the training session (25). During an intense workout, a dedicated bodybuilder can lose over 3-liters of sweat and over 3-grams of sodium (17). This creates an immediate need for both water and sodium replenishment as the muscle cell needs both water and sodium for proper function and fluid balance (17). Dehydration has been linked to several negative exercise factors (16,19,32) so making hydration a major component of post-workout nutrition is essential. One of the best ways to maintain proper hydration is by drinking 16-fluid ounces of water an hour before, every hour during, and within an hour after your workout (20). This helps ensure that water isn’t inappropriately shed during your workout and is at least somewhat replenished following training. You can further your hydration effectiveness by imbibing 3.7-liters of fluid per day as a male and 2.9-liters per day as a female (17). An even more accurate, but difficult, hydration assessment is to shoot for 1-liter of fluid for every 1000-calories burned throughout the day (17).
As far as sodium goes, the average person loses about 1.15-grams of sodium per liter of sweat (17). A hardcore training session could easily result in 3-liters of sweat loss which leaves you in a 3.45-gram sodium deficit. The easiest way to get more sodium is through table salt – sodium makes up 40% of table salt by weight (17). 8.625-grams of table salt would be necessary to replenish sodium following an intense training session, so don’t be afraid to liberally salt your food and even grab a sports drink like Gatorade on your way out of the gym.
The next major nutrient burned during intense exercise is carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is the preferential energy source for intense exercise bouts lasting anywhere from 15-seconds to 2-minutes – or basically 99% of resistance training sets. As far as post-workout nutrition goes, carb type, timing, and amounts are all important for recovery (3,4).
As far as carb type goes, your best bet is to focus on foods that are high on the Glycemic Index (4). The Glycemic Index is simply a measure of how blood glucose levels respond to certain foods – the higher the blood glucose response, the higher the GI (14). Foods that are higher on the GI scale include simple sugars that are found in things like sports drinks, sweetened cereals, and even candy. Research shows that high GI foods are more effective at replenishing glycogen immediately after exercise than low GI foods (4,8,15,24).
On that last point, carb timing is also important for maximum glycogen replenishment. Consuming carbs immediately after exercise has been shown to be slightly more beneficial than waiting 2-hours post exercise (8,12). Some may refer to this as a sign of the, “anabolic window” but it’s probably just more effective because you’re spending more overall time replenishing rather than staying depleted. Your goal should be to take in sufficient carbohydrate every 2-hours following your training session for at least 4-hours (7,8).
So what counts as, “sufficient carbohydrate?” Immediately after exercise you should shoot for 1-1.2 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight (2,7). Ingest this amount at least twice in the first 4-hours following exercise (6). If you’re trying to gain weight, take in this amount once an hour for at least the first 4-hours following training (6). An average bodybuilder should aim for a total intake of 5-7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight throughout the day while a bodybuilder looking to gain significant weight will be better off consuming 10-12g/kg (7). For overall carbohydrate consumption, meal timing and proportions do not seem to have significant impacts one way or the other on overall glycogen replenishment outside the initial 4-hour window (3,9). Therefore, focus on whatever diet strategy allows you to hit your goal carbohydrate intake without ruining your day or bank account.
Protein and Timing
Now it’s time to discuss everyone’s favorite subject when it comes to post-workout nutrition: protein. Protein isn’t burned or depleted during exercise per se, but intense exercise will result in a negative overall protein balance (2). Consuming protein post-exercise, then, is important for bringing the body back into positive protein balance and driving protein synthesis. 20-grams of quality protein appears to maximize muscle protein synthesis and restores a net positive protein balance following exercise (31). Heavier or more experienced lifters might get greater MPS responses to higher protein intakes up to 40-grams per meal (13). Faster digesting proteins and milk-based proteins can maximize protein synthesis even quicker than others, so whey protein is probably the best idea if you’re choosing a shake for your post-workout protein (11,13).
When it comes to the idea of the “anabolic window,” it’s actually much wider than initially thought. The anabolic window represents the span of time that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is elevated following resistance training. MPS appears to peak about 3-hours post workout and remains elevated for 24-48 hours following training (13,26). Grab either a shake or meal within 3-hours of training (23) and try to keep protein intake consistent every 2-3 hours over the next 24-48 hours to keep MPS optimized during the recovery period (13). Chug 30-40 grams of casein protein before tucking in for the night to keep MPS elevated overnight (13).
As far as total protein intake goes, 2g/kg of bodyweight appears to be appropriate for most bodybuilders while 3g/kg of bodyweight might be best for optimizing body composition in a calorie deficit (13). Split this up into even doses every few hours throughout the day and focus the majority of your intake on whole foods with complete essential amino acid content – complete EAAs are necessary for optimizing protein synthesis (10,27,29). Only use supplements when you need extra protein to meet your goals or if your coworkers would rather you chug a shake than eat stinky steak and eggs at your desk every morning.
The last nutrient to consider when designing a post-workout nutrition plan is fat. If you’re not on a ketogenic diet, fat isn’t going to be a major part of planning out your overall diet as you’ll typically hit high enough fat levels when ingesting a high protein diet. Fat is still an important component of a bodybuilder’s diet as fat intake is highly correlated to overall testosterone levels (1,28,30). Aim for grabbing at least 20% of your total calories from fat and you should be set for proper fat intake (30).
At the end of the day, post-workout nutrition is one of the best methods for promoting recovery. Water, sodium, and carbohydrate replenishment is the most important factor and should be addressed immediately after training. Protein can be taken anytime within the first 3-hours while MPS is peaking and then every few hours during the next 24-48 hours while the “anabolic window” is wide open for business. When concerning protein, overall intake is more important than timing so focus mostly on getting in 2-3g/kg per day (26). Fat intake is not overly important following exercise but is a key component in the big picture for optimizing testosterone levels. Design your post-workout nutrient needs based off of your body weight and goals and you’ll be set. Crush the weights then crush some food – enjoy.
Levels of Post-Workout Meals
Do You Even Lift?: Chicken and rice – C’mon, you just destroyed yourself and this is your reward?
Beginner: Bowl of cereal with a glass of milk – Weak but better than nothing.
Novice: Protein shake and handful of gummy bears – Classic and useful if you’re in a rush.
Intermediate 1: Cheeseburger, fries, milkshake of choice – Now we’re talking!
Intermediate 2: Entire frozen pizza – Serious gains and usually budget-friendly.
Advanced: Panda Express Bigger Plate – Why be big when you could be bigger?
Masters: Local buffet for 45-mins minimum – Don’t put your fork down until you’re visibly sweating.
Elite: Two entire meals at IHOP – You’re racing the clock on this one, eat as fast as possible.
World Class: Gallon of chocolate milk over next 2-hours – The King of Recovery.
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