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Nutrient Timing, Anabolic Priming

If you try to work out without eating anything in the morning, you’ll quickly hit the wall and run out of energy.

Q: I get up in the morning at 8 a.m., and I go to bed at 10 p.m. If I go to the gym at 5 p.m., I’m too excited and can’t sleep! Can I go to gym at eight in the morning, with no food? I read that’s good for insulin sensitivity. If I were to eat a small breakfast, could I go to the gym at 10? I have a lot of days I can’t sleep. Can you coach me?

A: That’s a great question because nutrient timing is very important in regard to building muscle and losing fat. What foods you eat and when you eat them relative to when you do your workout is very important if you want to achieve the maximum benefit from your diet.

Weight training requires carbohydrate for energy. If you change your workout time to 8 a.m. instead of 5 p.m., you’ll definitely need to eat at least one meal consisting of protein and complex carbohydrate. Many people make the mistake of going to the gym in the morning on an empty stomach.

When you wake up, you haven’t eaten any food in six to eight hours, and your body is in a fasting state. If you try to work out without eating anything in the morning, you’ll quickly hit the wall and run out of energy. Your body will use whatever little carbohydrates are available in your system from the day before. You just won’t have the power and energy you need because your fuel supply will be too low.

Even if you work out really early, it’s worth it to get up a little earlier to have a protein drink and some form of complex carbohydrate. A protein drink with a quick-acting form of whey protein, such as Optimum Nutrition’s Hydro Whey protein, would be a good choice. The amino acids from the protein will feed the muscle cells that haven’t had any nutrients all night.

It’s also essential that you have some form of complex carbohydrate before you do any weight training. My favorite food in the morning is oatmeal, but you could also have whole-wheat or Ezekiel bread or even brown rice or a sweet potato if that’s your preference. If you don’t feel like eating anything early in the morning, try the Oats and Whey supplement from Optimum Nutrition. It’s basically whey protein combined with oatmeal in a powered form so you will get the amino acids and carbs you need for your workout.

You mentioned that working out with no food is good for insulin sensitivity. You may be confused about what insulin sensitivity is. In bodybuilding terms, it refers to the muscle and fat cells’ ability to pull glucose, or sugar, from the bloodstream into the cells. For building muscle and losing fat, the ideal situation is that the muscle cells are more insulin sensitive and the fat cells are less so.

The muscle cells are thought to be more insulin sensitive at certain times of the day—after you wake up in a fasted state and immediately after an anaerobic, or weight-training, workout. There are other times of the day when the fat cells are more insulin sensitive. For example, it’s believed that the fat cells are less sensitive to insulin earlier in the day compared to later in the evening. That’s why many people cut back on their carbohydrate intake later in the day and eat the majority of their carbs for breakfast and lunch.

You want to eat complex carbohydrates before you go to the gym. The carbs will be stored in your muscle cells as glycogen. That’s the fuel you’ll be using for energy during your workout. As I said above, no carbs in the muscles equal no energy, and your strength and power during the workout will be significantly compromised.

After the workout you want to take advantage of the muscle cell’s sensitivity again. When your workout is completed, the glycogen from the muscle cell should be depleted. If you take in carbohydrate and protein at that time, your muscle cells will quickly absorb those much-needed nutrients like a sponge soaking up water.

To make digesting the protein and carb easier, get them into your body in an easily digestible form. I prefer a powder form—a supplement like Optimum Nutrition’s 2:1:1 Recovery or RecoverX from Muscle-Link is ideal—because the amino acids and carbs are quickly digested and absorbed into the muscle cells.

Since you have a hard time getting to sleep when your workout is later in the day, working out earlier might indeed be a better option for you. Just remember to have a good source of protein and complex carbs about an hour before your workout, and then have a postworkout drink consisting of easy-to-digest whey protein and simple carbohydrates immediately after your workout. By following that strategy, you’ll be taking advantage of nutrient timing. It will put your muscles into an anabolic environment, which will encourage growth and development.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at  IM




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