A few years ago in college, I would train with two of my close friends, who also happened to be my roommates at the time. We always went to the gym after class together. The three of us had very similar body types. One of my friends and I were actually the exact same height and weight, while the other one was a few inches taller and had about 10 more pounds on us. We did the same workouts together with high intensity. We usually ate the same foods since we lived together and kept each other motivated. About 4-5 months of training together, I started to look the leanest and most in shape of the three of us. The only real noticeable difference between our routines at that particular time was how we approached our post-workout nutrition.
After our workouts, the three of us would usually eat something different from the other. Some of you would think it’s quite strange but we all have different tastes in food. This is quite common among lifting partners. After our workouts, one of my training partners would always drink his protein shake (just protein with no carbs or fats) while my other lifting partner would eat a full meal (consuming protein, carbs and fats). I would have a protein shake on one day and then have a full meal on the other. I liked switching it up. I was like a combination of my two other friends. I mainly just went with what I was craving at that particular moment. Nevertheless, we were all conscience about eating healthy. If we ate a full meal, we made sure it was as healthy as possible.
However, I started changing my approach to my post-workout nutritional habits after educating myself on this topic, which I will explain more below.
When you exercise, you use up the muscle’s fuel resources. You also essentially tear down old, less adapted muscle in order to rebuild more functional muscle, whether it’s for endurance purposes or to build bigger, stronger muscles. After you train, your body is starving for nutrients for recovery and replenishment. That’s why you need to get specific nutrients into the muscles as quickly as possible. The quicker you can get these nutrients into your body, the better it will be for your gains.
We all know that we need protein after we workout. However, it’s the other two essential nutrients (carbohydrates and fat) that may be just as important.
In terms of protein consumption after your workout, whey protein is what you want. It’s the fastest digesting protein to consume. Sure, some turkey or eggs is great also but it’s not going to be digested as quickly. It’s hard to find high amounts of whey protein in all-natural foods. It’s very easy to find an extremely concentrated form of whey protein in powder. That’s why whey protein shakes are great for this very purpose.
The real issue for most people becomes what else to have with your protein shake. You should have a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein immediately following your workout (even 3:1 ratio if you are training longer than usual). Carbs are needed to replenish the energy you used up during your workout and to transport protein throughout the muscles for repair. You need carbs to fully utilize the protein in your body. It’s that simple. Having no carbs with protein is like giving the wrong gas to a car. It may work but it’s not going to work nearly as efficient. You need a fast-acting, high glycemic carb to get that proper insulin spike in your body.
While many of you have adequate protein and carbs after exercise, you may completely miss the last part of the equation: fat intake. While your post-workout meal should be rich in protein and carbohydrates, fats should be avoided during this time. In general, consuming fats in our diet is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood areas of daily nutritional intake. Fat has many important functions as a nutrient. It is a concentrated source of energy and provides the body with essential vitamins and building blocks for growth and development. For this very reason, it’s very beneficial and healthy for the body to have specific fats at specific times. However, eating fats after your workout is something you should avoid if you want to fully maximize your gains.
There’s only about an hour window after your workout, in which your body can utilize those nutrients the best for muscle growth, strength gains and recovery. When you consume fats after you workout, the fat slows down digestion, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen. You want all those proteins and carbs to transport through your muscles and the rest of your body as quickly as possible. Fat is going to delay this process and may hinder your full absorption of nutrients when you need them most.
I started learning all of this information after the three of us started hitting a training plateau. We switched around our workouts but nothing seemed to work. That’s when I made tweaks to my post-workout nutrition. Instead of randomly having a protein shake without carbs or a high fat meal, I would protein with carbs and no fat. I would stay away from all fats for 1-2 hours and then eat a full meal. Within 2-3 months of doing this, I saw a real difference in how I looked and felt.
I told my friends to change their approach. They both told me that they felt like they had more energy after their workouts and noticed a difference in their bodies for the better.
At the end of the day, we all have our own genetic makeup. What worked for me may not work for you or for others. There are times when I would switch around a workout and notice improvements and break out of plateaus. There are other times when I switched around my nutritional habits that I noticed a difference. It’s not limited to one set thing. All the little changes can add up so you can see the bigger picture. This change in post-workout nutrition was certainly one of the better changes I made, but it’s certainly not just limited to just that. If you are hitting a plateau, try making those necessary tweaks in your workout and/or nutritional program. There is no better answer than trial and error.