The Religion of Pre and Post Workout Nutrition
By Will Brink - Author of: Diet Supplements
Pre- and post-workout nutrition is all the rage these days, and for good reason.
For some, however, it’s become more than a science—it’s become
their religion, or perhaps just a place to focus their OCD-like tendencies.
Regardless, people have taken the topic of pre- and post-workout nutrition to
a level that is not justified by the research, or at least not confirmed by
the research that currently exists.
Readers should realize I may have my membership card to the Bodybuilding Nutrition
Guru Society torn up and thrown at me for what I am about to share in this article…
As expected, supplement companies—and self–proclaimed ‘net
guru types—have used what does exist for research to convince everyone
that that if they don’t take in exactly 98.7 grams of carbohydrates and
37.2 grams of protein within 28 seconds after they leave the gym, their muscles
will be attacked by every muscle-hating hormone they possess in their body by
second 29; with the prior year of hard work in the gym totally wasted by second
People are fixated on this particular topic like nothing else, and when you
throw in the other possible ingredients that can be added to the post-workout
drink, such as creatine, glutamine, and many others, it’s taken to the
level of psychosis!
Of course supplement companies have come out with their own “techno-functional
ultra-repartitioning multi-dimensional”* post-workout drink formulas that
are claimed to be the latest breakthrough. Besides the carbs and protein in
these formulas, many of the additional compounds are either under dosed (ergo
the ‘label decoration’ syndrome), have no particular justification
for being in the formula in the first place, or both (ergo, the ‘shot
gun’ approach)…but I digress.
Now I have to take at least some blame—or credit—for this predicament,
depending on how you want to view it. I have written extensively about the importance
of post-workout nutrition in all manner of articles, and give the topic extensive
focus in my Bodybuilding Revealed
Unlike many of the supplement companies and ‘net experts’ out there,
however, I never claimed you would shrivel up into Pee Wee Herman in a matter
of minutes if you didn’t get your ultra high-tech post-workout drink 29
seconds after your last set of squats. I have always taken a balanced view on
the topic, by pointing out that food is still more important in the overall
equation of muscle growth.
Thus, what I can say is that research—and common sense—tells us
it’s advantageous to get some fast-acting carbs and protein after a hard
workout to optimize the time we put in the gym. From there, however, people
have relied more on wishful thinking than science for their pre- and post-workout
nutrition. People who have poor diets and poorly thought-out training routines,
but focus on the latest magic pre- and post-workout elixirs are missing the
point. Their approach is like trying to hold up a three-legged stool with one
support leg and the other two missing.
General Considerations of Research vs. the “Real World”
As we all know, a great deal of research is performed that—although interesting—has
very little “real world” application to bodybuilders and other athletes.
This is because scientists do everything in their power to study their chosen
topic in isolation. In other words, they go to great lengths and trouble to
control variables that will impact the outcomes of their studies. For example,
in a study looking at the effects of a drug or supplement, a placebo group is
matched to the “active” group. The scientists want to make sure
the effect they get—or don’t get—is due to the drug/supplement
and not the placebo effect. Making the study double-blind is another way of
attempting to prevent the bias of the scientists from influencing the study.
The point is that, when they attempt to isolate an effect of something being
tested, scientists often end up with results that may not always be directly
applicable to the “real world” of Joe Schmoe gym goer.
When study designs don’t reflect “real world” conditions,
they need to be taken with a grain of salt. Were the study participants fasted?
What type of exercise did they perform? What effects did the researchers actually
look at and how does that apply to the “real world” or athlete in
question? Were the study participants new to the form of exercise being utilized
in the study or were they experienced athletes? How many people were in the
study? Who do the results apply to: endurance or strength athletes? Both? Neither?!
Those are just a few of the essential questions that have to be asked and answered
before you can even begin to draw any useful “real world” conclusions
from the studies that come out. Yet this doesn’t stop people and supplement
companies from jumping on the latest studies as the last word in nutrition and
start making recommendations from them. They also tend to ignore the studies
that contradict or fail to replicate the advice they are giving out. Let’s
look at some examples…
The Fast vs. Slow Protein Craze..
The use of fasted subjects in nutrition studies illustrates how researchers
can end up with results that may not apply well to the real world. As the name
implies, the study subjects are a group of people who have not eaten for an
extended period of time. In many cases, they haven’t eaten for 8 –
10 hours or more, which of course does not reflect how the average person eats,
at let alone how the average athlete eats—especially bodybuilders looking
to add muscle mass.
Enter stage right, the “fast vs. slow” protein craze. The study
that got this craze rolling was called “Slow and fast dietary proteins
differently modulate postprandial protein accretion” and was responsible
for causing a resurgence of interest in casein. The basic premise of this much-touted
study was that the speed of absorption of dietary amino acids (from ingested
proteins) varies according to the type of dietary protein a person eats.
The researchers wanted to see if the type of protein eaten would affect postprandial
(e.g., after a meal) protein synthesis, breakdown, and deposition. To test the
hypothesis, they fed casein (CAS) and whey protein (WP) to a group of healthy
adults, a single meal of casein (CAS) or whey WP following an overnight fast
(10 h). Using this specific study design, they found:
•WP induced a dramatic but short increase of plasma amino acids.
•CAS induced a prolonged plateau of a moderate increase in amino acids
•Whole body protein breakdown was inhibited by 34% after CAS ingestion
but not after WP ingestion.
•Postprandial protein synthesis was stimulated by 68% with the WP meal
and to a lesser extent (+31%) with the CAS meal.
The basic non-science summary is: the study found that CAS was good at preventing
protein breakdown (proteolysis), but was not so good for increasing protein
synthesis. WP had basically the opposite effects: it increased protein synthesis
but didn’t prevent protein breakdown. The problem is that they were using
fasted subjects for a single meal. ***
Keep that in mind as we move along here…
So far so good right? So what can we conclude from this study and how useful
are the results? Like so many studies, the results were interesting—and
of little use to people in the real world. Do these results hold up under more
“real world” conditions where people are eating every few hours
and/or mixing the proteins with other macronutrients (i.e., carbs and fats)?
The answer is probably not, which is exactly what the researchers found when
they attempted to mimic a more realistic eating pattern of multiple meals and
or the addition of other macronutrients. The follow up study was called “The
digestion rate of protein is an independent regulating factor of postprandial
protein retention.” Four groups of five to six healthy young men received:
• a single meal of slowly digested casein (CAS).
• a single meal of free amino acids mimicking the composition of casein
• a single meal of rapidly digested whey proteins (WP).
• repeated meals of whey proteins (RPT-WP) mimicking slow digestion rate
of casein (i.e., reflecting how people really eat).
So what did they find? In a nut shell, giving people multiple doses of whey—which
more closely mimics how people really eat-—had basically the same effects
as a single dose of casein, and mixing either with fats and proteins pretty
much nullified any big differences between the two proteins.
Even that’s not the end of the story, however, as multiple follow up studies
done by the same group and others found these effects could also be different
in older versus younger people and male versus female! How messed up is that?!
So how much press did these follow up studies get? Little or none, as I recall.
Now, a later study did attempt to examine the actual net amino acid uptake after
resistance training with whey vs. casein, and found both proteins had essentially
the same effects on net muscle protein synthesis after exercise despite different
patterns of blood amino acid responses.
Does that put to rest the issue or debate of one protein vs. the other post-workout?
No, as there are yet more conflicting studies out there and my bet is still
on whey as the superior post-workout protein, but it’s important to realize
the answer is far from established at this time.
Milk: nature’s original MRP. Despite all the fancy proteins out there
all claiming to be the next step in the evolution of proteins that “will
blast you past your plateaus in the gym,” good old milk seems to be competing—and
winning—against some “high tech” products on the market. We
have various studies finding increased protein synthesis and other positive
effects when a purified protein supplement (e.g., whey, soy, casein, etc.) ingested
right after or before a workout—usually in conjunction with carbohydrates—but
what about good old milk, a “real” food?
One recent study found good old milk to be an effective post-workout drink that
increased net muscle protein synthesis after resistance training. Yet another
recent study compared 2 cups of skim milk as a post workout drink compared to
a soy drink and a “sports drink.”
In this study, the milk and soy drinks were matched for basic macronutrient
ratios and calories and all three were matched for total calories. 56 male volunteers
were split into three groups, with all put on a resistance training program
for 12 weeks. The volunteers were then randomly assigned one of the three drinks
to consume as a post workout drink and again one hour after the workouts.
Although no major differences were found in strength between the 3 groups, the
group getting the milk had the greatest increase in muscle mass (via increases
in Type I and II fibers) with researchers concluding
“…chronic postexercise consumption of milk promotes greater hypertrophy
during the early stages of resistance training in novice weightlifters when
compared with isoenergetic soy or carbohydrate consumption.”
But it gets better: how about our favorite childhood drink, chocolate milk?
How about chocolate milk vs. two commercial energy/fluid replacement drinks,
such as Gatorade and Endurox R4?
One recent study—albeit a small one—found chocolate milk as effective
as Gatorade, and more effective than Endurox, as a recovery drink for trained
cyclists between exhaustive bouts of endurance exercise.
Now is this a condemnation of sports drinks and an endorsement for milk/chocolate
milk as the last word on post-workout drinks? Not at all: remember those essential
questions I mentioned above? You have to look at such a study in context—in
other words, at the experimental design and how that applies to the “real
world.” The subjects fasted for 10 - 12 h prior to the chocolate milk
experiment, and these drinks were the only food these guys had for 14 - 16 hours.
The results may have been quite different had they been following their normal
They also measured effects on endurance vs.—say—strength or increased
protein synthesis, etc.
So, in the context of this particular study design, look at it this way: chocolate
milk has casein (a “slow” protein), and whey (a “fast”
protein) as well as calcium, some vitamins and a bunch of carbohydrates—so
it makes a pretty good, cheap MRP, if that’s all you are going to get
all day long. It’s not a half-bad post-workout drink either. It’s
not the best MRP—or post workout drink—I could design, but it’s
cheap and easy to find. The reality is that there are some inexpensive foods
out there can be used, and most of your old school bodybuilders and strong men
used milk as the original post workout drink/MRP.
The study that looked at milk vs. soy and sports drink, was done in novice weight
lifters, so that too needs to be taken into consideration. Regardless, milk,
in particular chocolate milk, should make a perfectly acceptable and inexpensive
post workout drink and people who think it’s too “old school”
or not “high tech” enough to be if any use are clearly misinformed
and the victim of marketing.
Now the study we need to see that does not exist, of course, is milk or chocolate
milk vs. a well thought out post-workout drink of—say—whey and maltodextrin
(high GI carb source), in experienced weight lifters who are not fasted—but
don’t hold your breath on that one. Studies like that get expensive quickly
and also pose practical issues. For example, if you wanted to match the protein
content of—say—2 scoops of whey isolate to chocolate milk (so the
groups were getting an equivalent amount of protein), the subjects would need
to drink a large volume of milk (remember, milk is mostly water).
My hunch is that a correctly designed post-workout drink would be superior to
chocolate milk, but it would be nice to see the two compared, no?
The Pre-Workout Drink
The pre-workout drink craze followed the post-workout craze after a study
found pre-workout nutrition may be more effective than post-workout nutrition.
The study that got this craze going was called “Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate
ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise” which
found that drinking a mixture of essential amino acids and carbohydrates induced
a greater anabolic response (i.e., a net increase in muscle protein balance)
when taken right before weight training vs. right after. ****
This study had everyone taking in a pre-workout drink as well as a post-workout
drink in an attempt to cover all the bases. It should be noted, however, that—once
again—they were using fasted subjects. Think of it like this: you have
not eaten in 8-10 or more hours, then you are made to work out on a (very) empty
Under those particular circumstances, does it not make sense getting something
to eat before the workout would be superior to after the workout? We all know
hitting the weights on an empty stomach is not an optimal method to preserve—or
build—muscle mass. Nor is it reflective of real world eating patterns
where the vast majority of people have eaten a full meal at least a few hours
before they hit the gym.
After this study, everyone started drinking a protein drink before they hit
the gym. Interestingly, however, a recent study done by the same group who did
the pre-drink study mentioned above, found whey taken before hitting the gym
did not result in an improved net protein balance vs. taking it after the gym.
“Well wait a dang minute Will, now I am really confused!” you are
saying angrily to your comp screen! Does this new study show pre-workout nutrition
is no more effective than post workout nutrition?
No, and here’s why. It’s an apples vs. oranges study. The first
study used free amino acids plus carbohydrates, and the follow up study used
whey alone without carbohydrates—which is very odd if they were truly
trying to see if free aminos were superior to a whole protein such as whey.
Unfortunately this latter study really didn’t do much to confirm or deny
the first study’s findings. And, don’t forget my comments regarding
using fasted subjects, which adds yet another wrinkle to all this.
So does that essentially disprove the pre-workout drink vs. the post-workout
drink studies? Nope. One recent study did look specifically at the issue of
timing and does support the idea that the pre- and post-workout window is the
most effective period for ingesting some fast-acting protein and carbs.
This study, titled “Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise
on skeletal muscle hypertrophy,” has gotten a fair amount of attention
in the bodybuilding/sports nutrition oriented publications. The researchers
examined the effects of a drink of whey, glucose and creatine given to two groups
of experienced weight lifters, either morning and evening (M/E) or pre- and
post-workout (PP), to see if the actual timing of the drink had an effect on
muscle hypertrophy or strength development.
The study found that the group getting the drink PP had an increase in lean
body mass and 1RM strength in two of three assessments that were tested. The
group getting the drink PP also experienced greater creatine retention and glycogen
resynthesis, which means timing of specific nutrients is an important strategy
for optimizing the adaptations desired (e.g., increased muscle mass and strength)
from your hard work in the gym.
So does this study finally put to rest the issue of pre- vs. post-workout nutrition?
No, it did not compare one strategy to the other per se, but did confirm that
nutrient timing is an important aspect.
One obvious issue is that this study used a drink that contained creatine throughout,
so technically it’s not a pro + carb study, but a pro + carb + creatine
study. On the plus side, it was done in experienced weight lifters and they
were not fasted, so it does at least represent the metabolic realties of “real
world” people looking to get the most of their nutrition. Either way,
it supports the idea of taking in the right nutrients both pre- and post-workout,
but people should not be under the impression that this issue of timing has
been “put to bed,” so to speak, and realize there are still plenty
of unanswered questions yet to be explored.
Of course, there are more studies than just the ones mentioned above, so there
are plenty of measurements on indicators of recovery from exercise, such as
effects on glycogen resynthesis, alterations in hormones, and hormone levels.
Nonetheless, I prefer to look at the actual endpoint that really matters at
the end of the day: did this person gain muscle mass, strength, or performance
by using this product? Without that, everything else—though potentially
interesting—is mental masturbation.
Conclusions, and Real World Recommendations.
Now I didn’t write this article to confuse you, but to demonstrate that
the optimal strategy for increasing strength and LBM in response to resistance
training is not as cut and dried as you are often led to believe. However, it’s
also probably simpler than you are led to believe, as the human body is far
more adaptable to the types of protein it receives as well as the amounts it
Thus, the people who stress over whether they got 35g of protein and 60g of
carbs in their post workout drinks vs. 32g of protein and 70s of carbs in the
drink are probably wasting their time, and causing what is known as “paralysis
by analysis.” Put more practically, the amount of cortisol you produce
from worrying about such minutia probably offsets any gains you might make from
one drink vs. another!*****
I also wanted to dispel some of the hype over one protein vs. another, and the
fact that expensive pre-made high tech drinks that are all the rage right now
are just that: expensive and over hyped.
In the real world, people have used variations of the idea that fast acting
proteins and a good dose of simple carbs can improve the effects of resistance
training for many years. My good friend, the late Dan Duchaine, used to give
people whey mixed in water and Corn Flakes with skim milk as their post workout
One bodybuilder I knew who went onto be a well known IFBB pro, used to have
a drink of whey after his workouts and several slices of apple pie at the local
Friday’s restaurant next to the gym for his post-workout meal.
Most of your old time strong men and bodybuilders drank quite a lot of milk,
and as we have seen from the research, it’s not a half bad post workout
If people want to buy pre-made carb/protein mixtures with other nutrients added
(e.g., creatine, glutamine, various vitamins, etc) out of convenience and don’t
care that they can “roll their own” for less money, there’s
nothing wrong with that.
Just don’t think there’s anything magical about the pre-made post-workout
drinks, no matter what the marketing material or web site says to entice you
to purchase it.
Comments of interest:
* = yes, I have seen every one of those words used in the marketing of a product;
sadly it's not exaggeration!
** = Brink’s Body Building
*** = The reason for this is that whey is absorbed rapidly (being a highly
soluble protein) and much of it is oxidized while casein forms a “clot”
in the gut and is absorbed slowly (being a fairly insoluble protein), thus causing
a steady level of amino acids. That’s why they dubbed whey a “fast”
protein and casein a “slow” protein.
**** = Measured as the Phenylalanine disappearance rate - considered an indicator
of muscle protein synthesis - via femoral arteriovenous catheterization, as
well as muscle biopsies from the vastus lateralis were used to determine phenylalanine
***** = Credit for that statement/joke has to be given to nutrition writer
Lyle McDonald who said something very similar in a post on the news group misc.fitness.weights
a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away about a topic I don’t
Boirie Y, et al. Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial
protein accretion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1997 Dec 23;94(26):14930
Dangin M, et al. The digestion rate of protein is an independent regulating
factor of postprandial protein retention. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001
Dangin M, Boirie Y, Guillet C, Beaufrere B. Influence of the protein digestion
rate on protein turnover in young and elderly subjects. J Nutr. 2002 Oct;132(10):3228S-33S.
Dangin M, et al. The rate of protein digestion affects protein gain differently
during aging in humans. J Physiol. 2003 Jun 1;549(Pt 2):635-44. Epub 2003 Mar
Demling RH, DeSanti L .Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake
and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police
officers. Ann Nutr Metab 2000;44(1):21-9
Tipton KD, et al. Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism
after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Dec;36(12):2073-81.
Elliot TA, et al.Milk ingestion stimulates net muscle protein synthesis following
resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Apr;38(4):667-74.
Hartman JW, et al. Consumption of fat-free fluid milk after resistance exercise
promotes greater lean mass accretion than does consumption of soy or carbohydrate
in young, novice, male weightlifters. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Aug;86(2):373-81.
Karp JR, et al. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid.
Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Feb;16(1):78-91.
Tipton KD, et al. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic
response of muscle to resistance exercise Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001
Tipton KD, et al Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein
ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007 Jan;292(1):E71-6.
Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on
skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Nov;38(11):1918-25.
Additional citations of interest:
Rankin JW, et al. Effect of post-exercise supplement consumption on adaptations
to resistance training. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004 Aug;23(4):322-30.
Børsheim E, et al. Effect of carbohydrate intake on net muscle protein
synthesis during recovery from resistance exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2004 Feb;96(2):674-8.
Epub 2003 Oct 31.
Bird SP, Tarpenning KM, Marino FE. Liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid
ingestion during a short-term bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar
protein degradation. Metabolism. 2006 May;55(5):570-7.
Baty JJ, et al. The effect of a carbohydrate and protein supplement on resistance
exercise performance, hormonal response, and muscle damage. J Strength Cond
Res. 2007 May;21(2):321-9.
About the Author - William D. Brink
Will Brink is a columnist, contributing consultant, and writer for various
health/fitness, medical, and bodybuilding publications. His articles relating
to nutrition, supplements, weight loss, exercise and medicine can be found in
such publications as Lets Live, Muscle Media 2000, MuscleMag International,
The Life Extension Magazine, Muscle n Fitness, Inside Karate, Exercise For Men
Only, Body International, Power, Oxygen, Penthouse, Women’s World and
The Townsend Letter For Doctors.
He is the author of Priming The Anabolic Environment , Body Building Revealed
& Fat Loss Revealed. He is the Consulting Sports Nutrition Editor and a
monthly columnist for Physical magazine, Musclemag and an Editor at Large for
Power magazine. Will graduated from Harvard University with a concentration
in the natural sciences, and is a consultant to major supplement, dairy, and
He has been co author of several studies relating to sports nutrition and health
found in peer reviewed academic journals, as well as having commentary published
in JAMA. He runs the highly popular web site BrinkZone.com which is strategically
positioned to fulfill the needs and interests of people with diverse backgrounds
and knowledge. The BrinkZone site has a following with many sports nutrition
enthusiasts, athletes, fitness professionals, scientists, medical doctors, nutritionists,
and interested lay people. William has been invited to lecture on the benefits
of weight training and nutrition at conventions and symposiums around the U.S.
and Canada, and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs.
William has worked with athletes ranging from professional bodybuilders, golfers,
fitness contestants, to police and military personnel.
See Will's ebook's online here:
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