What's the best thing about bodybuilding? Could be the pump – your workout floods your muscles with blood, your veins show proudly through your skin and the striations in your delts, pecs and arms stand out nicely. You just finished your training session and now it's time to eat! Or is it? Maybe you should drink something. You know how vital water is, and you certainly want to rehydrate. But you've also heard that simple sugars are important in replenishing glycogen stores. Than again, some one said you should take branched-chain amino acids immediately after you workout to prevent muscle breakdown. What about those various drinks in the fridge behind the counter at the gym - do you choose the one with creatine or fruit juice? Maybe the one with L-glutamine.
In a bold attempt to determine what you and I should eat or drink after we weight train, scientists have poked and prodded lab rats, feeding them dilute glucose drinks after the little fellows exercise. Ongoing research has produced a flood of new, supportive nutritional information, but it can be confusing. So before you throw up your hands in despair and head to the pizza parlor down the street, here's my take on what science says you should eat after your workout to gain optimal muscularity.
A Matter of Balance
At its most basic level, bodybuilding nutrition comes down to a balance of nutrients. Without sufficient carbohydrate intake, your energy drops. Without enough protein, growth is compromised. Without adequate fat consumption, your ability to make hormones and maintain strong cells decreases. Without vitamins and minerals, many other essential bodily functions suffer. Without adequate hydration, your performance goes downhill. Therefore, if anyone tells you that a single vitamin, mineral, herb, protein or magic potion is the end-all, be-all of post workout nutrition, you're being misled. Basically, the trick is to eat the right balance of nutrients in the right forms at the right time so our body can make optimal use of them.
The post exercise state is unlike any other during the day, and recognizing as well as taking advantage of its unique biological conditions allows you to better nourish or "refuel" your body. Strenuous exercise changes the production of insulin, a hormone responsible for transporting nutrients to your cells, and enzymes, proteins produced by living cells that cause specific biochemical reactions. Shifts in energy production and nutrient transport also occur. Stored glvcogen provides your muscles with the energy they need, in the form of adenosine triphospate (ATP), to contract and relax. Naturally the greater the duration and intensity of your training, the greater the depletion of your glycogen stores. Those stores need to be replenished, and the recovery or post exercise state may be the best time to do so.
After a weight-training session, particularly an intense one, your energy stores are quite low and your body craves fuel. As a result of your cells being in a state of heightened insulin sensitivity they're willing to suck up almost any and all nutrients you'll give them. Whatever you ingest will cause your body to produce higher than normal levels of insulin to transport nutrients to the cells; in this instance, mostly to muscle. Seeing as you're somewhat depleted, simple sugars might be the way to go because your body can store them more quickly. At this point you'll say hello to one of those post workout drinks and save the pasta for later.
Looking to carbs as the primary source for refueling puts you on the right track, but you'll get even more out of your refueling efforts if you also include some protein to optimize the insulin transport mechanism. Research shows that after you train, the best way to get an effective insulin response to support optimal nutrient uptake is to ingest both protein and carbs. So, now you know you want simple sugars as well as some protein after your workout.
How should creatine come into the mix? In my opinion, creatine monohydrate is the one supplement that has reasonably stood the test of time and can unquestionably lead to enhanced muscle strength and, to some degree, size. Since the post workout state offers an advantage in nutrient transport, and because you want to optimize muscle growth and strength, you'd sell yourself short if you didn't consider enhancing creatine transport. Yet creatine isn't magic. You can take all the creatine in the world, but if the proper biological and physiological factors aren't in place, it won't bring even the slightest benefit.
To utilize creatine efficiently your body must absorb what you ingest, then transport it via the bloodstream to muscle and finally convert it into creatine phosphate, the form in which it's used. Recent research supports ingesting creatine with carbohydrates because creatine has its own transport mechanism that seems to work more efficiently with higher insulin levels. Since insulin may transport nutrients to your muscles more quickly and efficiently after you train, it would stand to reason the same would occur with creatine.
If you've shopped for creatine lately, you 'ye probably noticed that many formulas now boast not only creatine but also glutamine on their labels. Why? While intense training is a positive stress, meaning it can bring about enhanced performance and well being, it also depletes your body of certain vital nutrients. Glutamine is one of the most important. In the event of stress without adequate recovery, glutamine levels decrease and your immune system may be compromised. Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in muscle tissue, and you run the risk of draining your muscles of their most predominant building block if you don't adequately supplement with glutamine. In seeking the most complete and valuable post workout recovery nutrition, then, you'd probably want to include this amino acid.
Let's put all the above advice together:
- After your workout, carbs are key In fact, this would be a good time to ingest simple sugars so you can quickly replenish depleted glycogen stores.
- Adding protein will facilitate absorption due to a heightened nutrient transport opportunity.
- Including creatine will stimulate the best muscle response possible.
- Adding glutamine would be beneficial in protecting your muscular system's ability to maintain and improve form and function.
So why can't you just eat a meal and swallow some creatine? Well, you can, but your results may not be optimal. If you eat a large meal, your body may have already passed the recovery state by the time the nutrients clear your stomach. Theoretically, this means you could have less than optimal nutrient absorption.
One way to try to circumvent this is to eat a meal that includes a combination of monosaccharides (simple carbohydrates or sugars) and polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates), allowing for quick sugar absorption and ongoing fuel for absorption, digestion and utilization. In other words, not only are the simple carbs rushed into muscle for glycogen storage but the complex carbs consistently supply fuel over a longer time frame. For protein, look to whey hydrolysate for quick absorption. It has a high ratio of di- and tripeptides, the form in which protein is most readily transported through the wall of the digestive tract.
So a large meal may not do the trick unless you're quite careful with nutrient selection. Can you just chug Kool-Aid mixed with some whey protein powder and creatine and get a post-workout nutritional benefit? I'd have to say yes, although many formulas on the market do a much better job of supplying quality nutrients. In fact, a high-quality recovery formula can and should include a complete profile of vitamins and minerals, the micronutrients that would be present in a regular supportive meal.
Don't be fooled by labels with endless lists of ingredients you can t pronounce. Look for products that contain creatine in its monohydrate form, macronutrients designed for quick gastric emptying, simple sugars to facilitate transport, glucose polymers for greater energy supply, peptide-bonded glutamine, an array of vitamins and minerals and whey proteins hydrolyzed into di- and tripeptides. With these simple rules, over time you should find that taking advantage of the post workout refueling opportunity will shorten your journey to optimal muscularity!