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Can you smell the sweat? Feel the swell of blood in your muscles? You just delivered your body a pounding in the weight room, and now you expect it to respond. Here’s how to nutritionally maximize growth and recovery after a workout.
Step No. 1: Timing
This step is simple: Your postworkout meal should come as close to immediately after you put the last weight down as you can manage. You’re allowed to wipe your brow and take a few deep breaths, and then you should be in midswallow of your protein shake.
On days when you’re in a hurry, we’ll let you change out of your gym clothes, but if a shower is required and you’re the type who likes to spend time reapplying your makeup, blow-drying your hair and inspecting your pores in the mirror, we heartily recommend that you scarf before you scrub. Once you hit a half-hour postworkout, that important yet fleeting nutrition window is already slamming shut.
Step No. 2: Making Food Choices
What should you eat, you ask? Well, not whole foods, exactly. Whole foods take forever to travel through the top of the gastrointestinal tract, from your mouth through the esophagus to your stomach. Then they have to slosh around in there for a while, getting broken down, but it’s not even until they hit the small intestine that your body can reap the benefits of the nutrition they contain.
After workouts, muscles need immediate refueling; they can’t wait the hours that it would take for a chicken breast, as healthy as it is, to be broken down during digestion. Instead, supplements are the answer (with one exception, which we’ll detail later in this article).
The foundation of the postworkout meal, protein is what muscles are made of, and training with weights, ironically, rips up muscle tissue. Repairing that tissue is what makes it grow, and that process requires protein.
Decades of bodybuilding lore dictate that the postworkout protein of choice is whey. And after our rant about how timing is everything, you might expect us to greenlight this fast-digesting protein. However, newer research has swayed our opinion a bit. In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists found that subjects who drank a shake that contained whey and casein in a 1:1 ratio gained significantly more lean mass. That’s why we now recommend adding casein as well as whey to your postworkout shake.
Take: 40 grams of protein after workouts, with at least 20 grams always being whey and 20 grams from either casein or soy protein powders.
For some, the postworkout period is the happiest of the day, and not just because the major exertion is over. This period requires that habitual controls on sugar intake be slackened. In short: You must eat sugar. That’s right — pure, sweet, fast-digesting, insulin-bumping sugar.
In fact, the goal is to send insulin levels skyrocketing so that it can do its job, cramming glucose and protein into muscle cells, where they then get to work replenishing depleted stores and repairing damaged muscle tissue. So whether it’s fat-free candy like Gummi bears, jelly beans or sour peaches, fat-free baked goods like white bread or angel food cake, beverages like Gatorade or organic root beer (one rule: avoid high-fructose corn syrup), this is the time to indulge that sweet tooth.
40 to 100 grams of fast-digesting carbohydrates, depending on your goals. If you had a harder or longer workout, you need more carbs. If have a hard time adding muscle or have a high metabolism, you need more carbs. If you’re trying to add some mass, you need more carbs. If you’re at all concerned about body-fat levels, you need fewer carbs.
Easily one of the most successful, popular and well-researched supplements available, creatine would be called a wonder drug if it were, in fact, a drug. Instead, it’s a compound produced naturally in the body, where its main function is to provide quick energy to cells.
Why take it after workouts when all the energy has been created and spent? Because throwing it at your muscles after lifting ensures they’re full of it by the time your next workout rolls around.
Take: 2 to 5 grams.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Yes, we have already instructed you to take a megadose of protein, and yes, these particular amino acids are a component of the protein powders we discussed above. However, an extra boost of BCAAs can only benefit your muscles. Not only are they the most prevalent aminos in muscle tissue, but one of them, leucine, also has been shown to directly influence protein synthesis, which is the process by which muscles grow.
Take: 5 to 10 grams.
Have you heard the raves? Beta-alanine’s not a new supplement, but it caught fire when mountains of research started showing just how effective it is at increasing muscle mass and strength.
In the body, beta-alanine combines with the amino acid histidine and forms carnosine, which then goes to town building more muscle and helping your existing muscles work better and longer. But the body mints histidine, so the amount of carnosine it can make is dependent on how much beta-alanine you feed it. So get feeding.
Take: 2 to 3 grams.
An amino-acid-like compound, carnitine is responsible for several postworkout benefits, including an increase in blood flow, which increases the amount of fluid and nutrients delivered to your needy muscle cells. It also speeds away any waste products that don’t belong, and that enhances recovery.
Take: 1 to 3 grams.
Yet another amino acid, glutamine is critical to the gastrointestinal system and deeply involved in immune function. It also can boost growth-hormone levels (good for muscle growth), add volume to muscle cells (helping them grow) and improve recovery.
Take: 5 to 10 grams.
Step No. 3: Putting It All Together
You can take everything listed here in multiple doses or, if you’re an advanced exerciser, you might be able to combine all these elements into a single shaker cup and expend the last bit of energy you have shaking it up. Our recommendation? Shake away, but then chase it with some sweet, sweet (and yes, we do mean sweet) carbs.
Once you cover these extremely important bases, you only need to do one more thing to set your growth into motion — sit back and relax as your body, bolstered by all the right nutrients, does its job.