The Anabolic Window – Part 1

If you haven’t noticed lately I’ve been on a bit of a myth busting streak. I’ve tackled many myths such as needing carbs post-workout to help increase muscle-protein synthesis, needing to maximize workout-induced hormones for maximal muscle gains, needing to minimize cortisol around training, the importance of static stretching before exercise and most recently needing to keep your workout under an hour. Today I tackle my biggest potential myth yet. I’m challenging the importance of the post-workout “anabolic window” and want to determine if it even exists at all. We’ve all heard it over and over. It’s a must to slam the quickest digesting forms of protein (and sometimes carbs) after your workout in less than 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour or however many minutes you may have heard or your gains will quickly evaporate and you may as well have not even worked out at all. There was once upon a time when I believed that a workout was all for nothing if I didn’t get the best specially formulated muscle-building supplements into my body as fast as possible during this extremely short window of opportunity.

It’s a pretty common belief this window is extremely critical for initiating the rebuilding of your damaged muscles and in turn improving body composition and also that the consumption of these nutrients is even more critical than the rest of your nutrients throughout the day. Muscle magazines and supplement companies alike tell you over and over again just how important it is to get these nutrients in post-workout or the Anabolic Reaper will come and destroy all your gains. That’s all great, but of course someone selling you something is going to make it sound like you need what they are selling to get results. I believed what I heard and read about this for far too long, and it wasn’t until I started really second guessing everything and doing my own research that I started to question how much this anabolic window even exists and how much of it we are possibly being tricked into believing. So as with most of my articles, it came time to dig a little deeper and find out what the research really says about this supposed brief window of opportunity.

The theory behind the anabolic window makes sense when you think about it. Intense resistance training will significantly deplete many of your stored fuels such as glycogen and amino acids and of course it causes plenty of damage to your muscle fibers. So taking in the proper nutrients to restore your fuel levels and start the rebuilding of damaged muscle tissue only makes sense, you know, in theory. But as with all things if you only go based on things that make sense in theory without looking for applications, we are really only guessing. Does taking in nutrients right after your workout really allow you to recover that much better than if you waited to eat? Do those fuel levels really need to be topped off immediately to allow the body to recover? Do you have to take whey protein to maximize protein synthesis or can you eat regular food? Let’s try to find out, shall we?

The first subject I’d like to look at is the theory behind needing the fastest absorbing protein post-workout. We know that whey is digested faster than casein, and supplement companies sell all sorts of different whey proteins that digest faster than the other. There is whey protein concentrate which is the cheapest and supposedly slowest releasing of the whey proteins, but is also the most nutrient dense form. From there we are sold on spending more to get a whey protein isolate which strips out many of the nutrients and allows the body to digest it faster. Then there is the ever expensive “super fast absorbing” whey protein hydrolysates. Supposedly these are the best for post-workout because as mentioned we are told you need to get that protein in as fast as possible because there is a limited time for our body to take advantage of this anabolic window. This is what we are told anyway, but what does the research say?

Tipton et al., 2004 (1) compared groups who took either whey protein, casein protein or a placebo after resistance training. The researchers were looking to determine the difference in muscle-protein synthesis between the groups. Both the casein and whey groups had increases in net muscle-protein balance compared to placebo, but what may surprise you is they had very similar increases in muscle-protein synthesis despite the very different patterns of blood amino acid responses. So while this would show taking in protein after a workout increases muscle-protein synthesis, what it also shows is how fast it gets into your body may not make much of a difference at all. If casein and whey have similar responses in muscle-protein synthesis after a workout, would it really even matter if you ate a meal or took in a protein supplement? Seems doubtful. The other question becomes was the increase in muscle-protein synthesis because it was after resistance training, or was it just because of the nutrients themselves? As we know properly spaced meal frequency will increase protein synthesis.

Going back to the whey protein argument, the above study is just more evidence of what we’ve been telling you all along here on Whey protein concentrate is the best protein for your money. Scratch that – it’s the best protein. If you are sensitive to dairy products a whey protein isolate would make sense as the lactose is stripped out. Otherwise, sacrificing all the nutrients in your protein drink just to make it a higher percentage of protein and to make it digest faster doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Essentially when you are paying more money for an inferior product. Whey protein concentrate easily gives you the most bang for your buck and is arguably more effective for building muscle mass anyway.

So this week we have learned that the speed of which nutrients get into your body post-workout does not make a significant difference in muscle-protein synthesis. Admittedly this article was a bit of a teaser. Next week we will really get into the nuts and bolts and look closely at how big of a difference there is, if any, when nutrients are given shortly after working out or when you wait for longer periods of time. We’ll look at the difference between taking in nutrients before or after a workout and the respective responses in muscle-protein synthesis, and we’ll look at just how long muscle-protein synthesis is raised after a bout of resistance training. By the time we are done with it all we should have a very good understanding of big big of a role post-workout nutrition and the timing of it plays. Come prepared because I promise there will be a lot of research to go over next week!

Happy Lifting!

The Anabolic Window – Part 2

The Anabolic Window – Part 3

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