You see them in every gym, there’s that person that works their tail off and gains strength but their physique never changes. They will tell you their diet is consistent and pretty clean and they always have a post-workout protein shake.
Then you ask yourself, how does this person get stronger but look the same as six months ago. Well the strength increase can be achieved through proper training, with or without a clean diet. On the other hand, the lack of change in their physique will ultimately come down to improper dieting. Not to say that they aren’t eating clean, but they may be missing a very important element of dieting.
This key element is known as macronutrient timing, and it can help you conquer your fitness & physique goals.
Macronutrient Timing & The Anabolic Window
In its simplest form, macronutrient timing is the science of what to eat and when to eat. The most common timing you’ve most likely heard before is that crucial little time frame right after you work out. Yep, the magical “anabolic window”. You just had a killer training session and your muscles are broken down and depleted. At this time those fibers will need two things, protein and carbohydrates.
“A plain protein shake just won’t cut it if you’re looking to build some muscle. You MUST have carbs with your protein if you want to get the most of your workouts and build muscle.”
Let me try to explain why both are necessary without getting too nerdy on you. The end result we are looking to achieve here is a positive net protein balance, or protein synthesis is greater than protein breakdown. At rest (and not eating) and during resistance training, the net protein balance is negative as you are breaking down muscle and not taking in any source of energy. And keep in mind that the rate at which muscle is breaking down is very small.
So first let’s look at carbohydrates post-workout. Carbs are protein-sparing, meaning they will slow down protein catabolism. This helps you get closer to a positive protein balance. They will provide the muscles with energy and restore glycogen reserves that you depleted while training. Your body will prefer the more energy efficient process and utilize the carbs rather than breakdown muscle for an energy source.
“Carbohydrates also play a part in the release of hormones that promote growth. Therefore, when we add protein to the equation a cascade of anabolic activity begins!”
Let’s take a look at protein now. I mean we already know this is important because protein is used to repair/build muscle. But what are we really doing here? We are increasing the amount of protein in our body, which leads to a positive protein balance. And a positive protein balance leads to muscle growth! However, just protein without carbs will not lead to a positive protein balance as it cannot overcome the rate of protein catabolism. The carbohydrates slow down this rate of catabolism enough to where a positive protein balance can be achieved when protein is taken in.
Now the amounts of needed of each will vary from person to person. Speaking in general, 25-35 grams of protein will suffice for most people. On the other hand, there are many factors that can affect the amount of carbohydrates that should be consumed. Body composition, body type, muscle group worked, daily activity level, what your goals are, and more all have an impact on how much to consume post-workout and throughout the day.
So, a veteran bodybuilder in a bulking phase will probably be eating quite a few more carbs than say a men’s physique pro that is three weeks out from a show. Personally, I keep my carbs in a somewhat small range, and my shakes will have 35-40g protein & 35-45g carbs.
“One last thing regarding carbs, most of them should come from simple sugars (e.g. banana). Just something to spike insulin levels a little and get that anabolic activity kickstarted.”
The Trifecta of Macronutrient Timing
What I call the trifecta, is about a 4.5 to 6-hour window in which your pre-workout meal, post-workout shake, and post-workout meal are consumed. It makes sense right, the meals surrounding the anabolic window would be the next most important for macro timing.
If you typically don’t have a meal before you work out, try it for two weeks and then please leave a comment about how much your strength has gone up. For those of you who have a pre-workout meal regularly, you know how important this meal is because you’ve missed that meal a time or two and halfway through your workout your muscles couldn’t fight the fatigue.
“Your pre-workout meal is going to provide your muscles with the energy to go HAM in the gym.”
You’re probably wondering what these meals should look like. Again, it’s going to depend on each person’s macro set. I also take my training regimen into account when determining my macros for the meals. My pre and post-workout meals are pretty much identical except for my post-workout meal on leg day (refeed day) when I will have a cheat meal with more carbs than the pre-workout meal. Protein is straight-forward and distributed evenly across all meals.
So, on heavy training days such as legs, back, or longer chest workouts, I will have about 25-30% of my daily carb intake. On days I train smaller muscle groups like shoulders, arms, abs, or shorter chest workouts, I will drop that to around 20-25% of my daily carb intake.
Fats I try to keep low. They are great for lasting energy, but they take forever to metabolize and slow down digestion. My upper limit that I have for both pre and post-workout meals is 10 grams. Any more than that and my digestion slows down, which is the opposite of what we want during the trifecta time frame. In case you’re wondering why we don’t want to slow digestion down I’ll briefly explain why.
Your muscles are broken down from training and signaling for repair (which is where your shake comes in). If the muscle fibers don’t get what they need for repair in time they will be catabolized and used somewhere else in the body. Therefore, it’s critical that your digestion and metabolism are at full speed. Your post-workout shake can then be utilized at the fastest rate possible.
There is one big difference between your shake and the meals, and that is the source of carbs. The main carb source in your shake is simple sugars, while the main source in your meals is complex carbohydrates. There is no reason to spike insulin at these meal times, and insulin levels will still rise to a degree anyway.
“My point being stay away from sugars, especially processed ones. You should be able to see the connection between the type of carbs and the goal/effect that we are trying to achieve.”
We want to provide energy with our pre-workout meal, so we have energy rich complex carbs. After a workout we need to replenish our muscles’ glycogen stores and spike insulin to maximize recovery, so we have fast-digesting simple sugars to elevate insulin levels and delivered quick.
Our post-workout meal we look to further replenish glycogen stores and maintain that positive net protein balance. Thus, we have the slow digesting complex carbs to steadily replenish glycogen and slow down the rate of protein catabolism.
Well it’s all there for you to try. If you are new to nutrition & training, this will be a trial-and-error process. It will be a good experience for you to get to know how your body responds to certain things. It’s how I learned, and I can’t think of a better way to learn than from experience.
Just be attentive to your body and how it feels/changes as you switch up foods and amounts. Last but not least, be consistent! And that goes for everyone. Consistency over time yields results.