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The Need to Feed

A recently published study shows that if you eat a combination of 10 grams of milk protein, seven grams of carbohydrate and just 3.3 grams of fat immediately after training, you gain much more muscle mass and muscle fiber size than if you wait two hours after training.

You’ve just finished your last grueling set of hack squats, and the pain in your quads, hams and lower back is worse than a hammer smashing your thumb. As you limp out of the gym, the last thing on your mind is eating, but even if you have no appetite, you’d better get some nutrients into your stomach. If you miss that window of opportunity immediately after exercise you’ll be like the guy who decides to get a beer at the bottom of the ninth and misses the winning run. Talk about bad timing!

In fact, it may not take too much to kick start your anabolic machinery. It’s the timing that’s important. A recently published study shows that if you eat a combination of 10 grams of milk protein, seven grams of carbohydrate and just 3.3 grams of fat immediately after training, you gain much more muscle mass and muscle fiber size than if you wait two hours after training.

You’re probably thinking, ‘That’s barely 100 calories!’ That’s the beauty of it. Taking advantage of the anabolic window doesn’t mean you have to eat a protein bar that sits like a lead weight in your gut or blend enough protein powder to feed a pack of hyenas. My advice, particularly if you’re never hungry after training, is to eat a balanced ‘meal’ immediately after a workout and follow it with a larger meal one hour later.

Just so you know I’m not making this stuff up, here are the data. The study ain’t perfect, but then science never is. Nonetheless, the study is intriguing and provides very useful tidbits for those of us interested in maximizing our anabolic drive.

At the Sports Medicine Research Unit in cooperation with the Copenhagen Muscle Research Center, scientists took 13 men 74 years of age’yes, they’re old, but I’ll get to that later’and put them on a 12-week resistance-training program. One group took in a protein supplement immediately after exercise (T0, for time zero), while another got it two hours after (T2). The supplement consisted of 10 grams of primary milk protein, seven grams of carbohydrate and 3.3 grams of fat. The protein gel was dissolved in warm water. The T0 subjects took the supplement within five minutes after training. The T2 subjects waited two hours and weren’t allowed to eat anything during those two hours. Afterward free access to food was allowed. Their training program was roughly 30 minutes long and started with a five-to-10-minute general warmup on a bike. They subsequently performed leg presses, lat pulldowns and knee extensions. For the first six weeks the subjects used three to four sets of 10 to 12 reps for leg exercises. The last six weeks they used three to five sets of eight reps per leg exercise. For lat pulldowns they did one set of eight to 12 reps, and the load increased from a 20-rep maximum to a 10-rep max over the training period.

You’re probably wondering what I’m wondering: What kind of workout is that? Leg presses, lat pulldowns, knee extensions not exactly a whole-body program. And it’s not exactly a leg program. But I guess that’s what makes the study so interesting. With what I would call an incomplete training program, subjects still achieved a modicum of training success especially if they took the supplement right after training.

After the training and supplementation period the researchers found that the T0 group increased muscle cross-sectional area of the quads by 7 percent. There was no change in the T2 group. Furthermore, the T0 group increased muscle fiber size by 22 percent, while the T2 group experienced no change.

Why the T2 group didn’t gain lean mass is unclear. My guess is the training wasn’t hard enough or they didn’t train hard enough (subtle difference there). Subjects in both groups took in the same amounts of protein (approximately one gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight), carbohydrates, fat and total calories daily. Thus, the differences observed in skeletal muscle adaptation were not related to nutrient intake per se. Instead, the differences must have been related to the timing of protein intake; neither group ate much total protein to begin with. One gram of protein per kilogram is barely above the archaic RDA standards.

What does that all mean? Timing is clearly important for inducing gains in skeletal muscle mass, although one could argue that the findings apply only to older individuals. We do know that older people have a lower rate of muscle protein synthesis than younger people; interestingly, however, aging does not impede the stimulatory effect of feeding on protein synthesis. In other words, as long as you eat, you’ll jump start your body’s protein synthesis machinery.

How does that apply to younger bodybuilders? Think of meal timing as one of the clues to solving the riddle of how to gain muscle. You want as many clues as possible to solve it. Why ignore one of them? Use all the ammunition you’ve got at your disposal. Until future scientific work confirms that young athletes respond similarly to meal timing, we’re left with an educated guess. And my educated scientific guess is that timing is important.

Here’s what Birgitte Esmark, M.S., Ph.D. and student and primary author of the Journal of Physiology investigation listed below, concluded: ‘From our results it appears that the time following resistance exercise is very critical for muscle growth in the elderly. Hence, simply by having a protein intake immediately after termination of the exercise you may benefit more from the same amount of resistance training.’

Editor’s note: Jose Antonio, Ph.D., CSCS, FACSM, has published work on skeletal muscle physiology and sports nutrition. He is a co-editor of the authoritative text Sports Supplements, which describes the hows and whys of dietary supplements for athletes. Go to


Levenhagen, D.K., et al. (2001). Postexercise nutrient intake timing in humans is critical to recovery of leg glucose and protein homeostasis. American Journal of Physiology. 280:E982-E993.

Esmark, B. et al. (2001). Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training In elderly humans. Journal of Physiology. 535(1):301-311.

Welle, S., et al. (1994). Postprandial myofibrillar and whole-body protein synthesis in young and old subjects. American Journal of Physiology. 267:E599-604. IM

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