The Anabolic Window and Peri-Workout Nutrition: Does It Matter for You?
If you’ve been around training and muscle building for long, you’ve likely heard of the anabolic window. This window is the time post-workout where you need to consume protein and fast-digesting carbs quick, fast, and in a hurry to maximize your gains. Since there’s a lot of back and forth on this topic, I think it’s worth taking a look at.
Is there such thing as an anabolic window or is your overall daily intake all that matters?
First things first, let’s cover why this matters and what’s probably the most optimal strategy. The point of strength training is to do several things, one of those being muscle hypertrophy (growth) stimulation. When you strength train, your body sends signals to muscle cells to start rebuilding. If you remember biology lessons, amino acids are the building blocks responsible for rebuilding and come from your dietary protein.
The more amino acids your body has available in the bloodstream, the faster you’ll start the hypertrophy and recovery processes. That means it’s not just important to have a post-workout shake – but all around your workout.
This doesn’t mean you have to slam protein shakes all day long. The numbers will vary based on your size and metabolism but for most, having 20-30g of high-quality protein around 60-90 minutes pre-training and another 20-30g post-training is optimal.
Side note: By high-quality, I mean protein sources that are rich in BCAAs, especially leucine. These BCAAs have been shown to be superior for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Animal products like eggs, dairy, and whey protein are all leucine-rich. And in this case, a lean protein source is ideal. Check out the infographic below to see examples of lean vs not-so-lean protein sources. (You would want to go with the right side of the graph.)
Okay, 40-60g within a 3-hour window around training is optimal. What about carbs?
The idea of fast-digesting carbs post-training comes from the notion of insulin-related benefits. Spiking insulin post-workout, in theory, will drive substrate (amino acids, glucose, anything in the bloodstream) to where it needs to go as fast as possible. In this case, it would drive them to muscle cells which have been depleted in training. Doing so would kickstart muscle protein synthesis and the recovery/growth process faster. Sounds great, right?
It is, but research has shown that this anabolic window isn’t as important as we once thought. It looks like having carbs and protein of any kind around training but not directly after is all that matters. Glycogen will be restored before your next workout and muscle protein synthesis will be elevated all the same.
Also, if you’re on a caloric deficit and dealing with hunger, it’s much better to eat whole food carbs vs sugar for their satiation factor. Unless you’re an elite athlete or training multiple times a day, save the carbs for your meals and whole food.
Side note: Does this matter for you?
In my article about what’s required to reach fitness model body fat levels, I discussed everything that goes into becoming a member of the fitness elite. Nutrient timing is a piece of that puzzle. I want to make it clear before moving on that nutrient timing probably doesn’t matter all that much unless you’re really trying to boost your results so don’t stress out too much about it. Still, it doesn’t hurt to know the details and implement what you can. Because why not, right?
Q: Is there a benefit to eating carbs before a workout?
Maybe. Carbs can have a protein sparing effect. Meaning, if your body has glucose (from carbs) readily available, it won’t pull amino acids from muscle tissue to create glucose. In fasted states or periods of extreme exertion like a two-hour training session your body can burn through glucose in the bloodstream and has to create new glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. Everything is fair game here, including muscle proteins and glycogen (stored carbs).
This is where having carbs pre-training can help. In all honesty, most people aren’t training hard enough for this to matter. But if you are, having carbs pre-training will ensure that you avoid anabolism and muscle breakdown during training.
In addition to the protein sparing effects of carbs, you can also experience a performance boost. After all, glucose is the body’s primary fuel source and having adequate fuel is a good idea if you’re serious about training. Just keep in mind the above points about fat loss efforts and muscle gain efforts not always mixing. Optimal performance and cutting body fat rarely coexist and require sacrifices to one or the other in many cases.
Q: What are some examples of fast digesting carbs?
A: Good question! Think sugars and starches in the absence of fat. So, french fries wouldn’t be a great example but white potatoes by themselves would work. Likewise, the best cereal on Earth (Cap’n Crunch) would be fast digesting as long as you don’t have it with whole milk and eggs. Other common examples would be white bread, fat-free frozen yogurt, gummy bears, and even dextrose (glucose from starch) powder.
On the other end of slower digesting carbs would be the fibrous veggies and whole grains. They all end up as glucose in the bloodstream, but those take longer to digest and absorb. And for this purpose – minimize insulin spikes. Though it’s worth mentioning that protein by itself can spike insulin just like fast digesting carbs.
Overall, it’s probably a good idea for most to stay away from simple sugars and the fast digesting stuff above. BUT if you’re going to have some foods like that, post-workout is the time to do it!
Highly Related: I have a free cookbook with plenty of chocolate recipes that are perfect for post-workout snacks. You can learn more about it here or enter your info below to have it sent straight to your email.
Q: What about fruit and fructose post-workout?
A: Fructose needs to be converted to stored glycogen in the liver before it could be used as fuel. It is also subpar at spiking insulin and if you’re getting it from fruits, the fiber will also blunt rapid digestion. Eat as much fruit as you’d like, but it’s not the ideal carb source around training. If you’d like to learn more about fructose, check out this article from Precision Nutrition. Another thing worth considering is the antioxidant load of most fruits. Since the point of strength training is to create inflammation and a stimulus to recover from, antioxidants may interfere with these processes.
I wrote an article for Muscle & Performance on antioxidants, and other things to avoid around training that you can read here.
I hope that answers any questions and gives some insight on peri-workout nutrition. Shoot me an email if you have any other questions.
P.S. If you’re into lifting heavy and would like to learn more about the deadlift, I’m offering my book, Deadlift Mastery, for free. Click here to get it.