Whether you’re a bodybuilder, powerlifter, strongman or general strength athlete, there’s an established wisdom about eating and training which never fails – you need a high protein (roughly 1-2g/lb of lean bodyweight), nutrient-dense diet that meets the calorific needs of progressive overload training.
The best training methodologies and diets weren’t created in a lab; they are intuitive and proven time and again by experience.
Sandow did it, Reg Park did it, Arnold did it, and every successful athlete before or since has done it. Some spread their meals, some ate three meals a day, some ate very little until after training and then gorged, but at the end of each day, they’d all eaten enough protein, carbohydrate, and fat to meet their individual requirements.
In short, they kept it simple and there hasn’t been a study to date to prove any of their approaches wrong, but have there been any studies to show a better approach?
Is there an optimal way to consume nutrients to maximise muscle and strength gains? Marketing hype would have you believe so, so let’s start with the most basic approach.
Three Squares a Day vs. Small and Frequent
The aim of any diet is to provide the macronutrients necessary to support the goals of the athlete whether that’s hypertrophy, fat loss, or strength. Determining the amounts is the tricky bit and it is highly individualized.
I hope we can all agree that protein should be roughly 1-2g/lb of lean body weight, that fat intake needs to cover your body’s requirements for essential fatty acids (to support a whole host of processes including hormone synthesis), and that carbohydrate intake should be proportional to your activity levels.
So what’s the problem with splitting it over three meals, the way mum and dad cooked for us?
Not a lot.
In fact, studies show that increased meal frequency has no effects on diet-induced thermogenesis, activity-induced energy expenditure, or sleeping metabolic rate. What does that mean? Increased meal frequency doesn’t speed up the metabolism (1, 2).
Is there a downside to Three Squares? Well yes, there’s one glaring issue and that’s trying to eat the number of calories required by some athletes in three sittings — it’s just easier and more comfortable to split them over smaller meals.
Is there such a thing as too high a meal frequency?
We’ve already seen that ‘speeding up the metabolism’ isn’t necessarily achieved through high frequency eating, but it does allow for easier consumption of the large amounts of food typical of the diet of most strength athletes. But is consuming protein often but in small amounts potentially limiting our gains?
Muscle protein synthesis has been shown to peak approximately 30 minutes after the ingestion of protein, remain elevated for 90 minutes, and then fall to fasting levels for four hours despite blood amino acid levels remaining at 70% above fasting levels through continual feeding. It seems there is a cut-off point whereby muscle protein synthesis simply stops despite a continual supply of amino acids (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
So what to do? Nothing. At some point common sense and compliance have to come into the equation; you have a set amount of food to eat during the day, and you’ve got to space it out in the way most convenient to you, without worrying about the little things.
It’s worth remembering that the biggest stimulus for muscle protein synthesis is resistance training, not protein, which leads us conveniently to the focus of most nutrient timing articles.
Pre, During and Post Workout Nutrition
The objective of any ‘Para’ workout nutrition protocol is to maximise muscle protein synthesis (kick-started by resistance training) and minimise protein breakdown. In other words, the goal is to increase anabolism and prevent catabolism.
Let’s start with the most talked about period, the post workout.
It’s a mantra now: post workout, you gotta consume fast-acting carbs and protein within the 30 minute window. This concoction will spike insulin and shuttle amino acids straight to your muscles.
Logically this makes sense, but unless you train on an empty stomach first thing in the morning, your insulin and plasma amino acid levels will still be high enough after your previous meal to prevent protein breakdown. As little as 6g of amino acids and 35g of table sugar is enough to keep insulin elevated to 4x fasted levels for one hour post-exercise (9, 10).
It is the change from fasting to high levels of blood amino acids that kick-starts protein synthesis, and there may even be some merit in the rate of change, or how quickly you go from zero to high (this is an expansion of Protein Pulse Feeding and we’ll touch on that later). Maintaining blood amino acid levels, as we saw above, isn’t necessarily going to do anything once muscle protein synthesis has shut down.
It is the pre-workout meal that deserves our attention, not the post-exercise meal.
A meal comprised of protein, carbohydrate, and even fat (which doesn’t affect insulin nearly as much as you’ve been told) consumed approximately one hour prior to training will provide the necessary insulin and substrates to both maximise anabolism and prevent catabolism (11, 12,13).
A common sense approach to the pre-workout meal would be an easily digested liquid meal such as AtLarge Maximus (weight gainer), Opticen (Meal Replacement) or Nitrean (protein powder), depending on your goals.
Similarly, a dilute version of this meal could be sipped during the session, or to ‘push the boat out’ (provided you can handle the additional carbohydrate and it’s in the context of your overall intake), you could take half a serving of Results, plus a serving of Nitrean and the same again during the workout.
About an hour after the session, when blood amino acid and insulin levels have dropped, take another shake to kick start muscle protein synthesis again.
Protein Pulsing and Advanced Techniques
We’ve got the basics covered: how we eat during the day and how we eat around training. Is there any merit in getting any more complicated? Should we be sprinkling leucine over our meals? Is it smart or just expensive to be taking BCAAs every 30 minutes? Do we need to worry about the relative merits of fast-acting versus slow-acting proteins and when to take them?
As much as leucine (one of the three branched-chain amino acids) by itself stimulates protein synthesis, that’s really only relevant in the fasted state, and the rest of the time, anyone eating large amounts of protein is getting adequate leucine. That goes for the other two BCAAs (isoleucine and valine) too – roughly 30-50g daily .
Most of the studies done on BCAAs have been done with the body in a fasted state and in the context of overall low protein intake – anything helps in that situation!
We touched on protein pulsing above as a way of kick-starting muscle protein synthesis. A further expansion of the idea of infrequent but high protein feedings is that between meals (and the further apart the better, as we saw above), blood levels of insulin and amino acids are low and so is protein synthesis.
Quickly elevating these levels through a fast-acting protein like whey/casein hydrolysate and maybe a carbohydrate source (it can be done without; insulin is sufficiently elevated by amino acids alone) will stimulate muscle protein synthesis for maybe 90 minutes, after which it’ll probably be time for a meal, which will kick-start the process again.
The more of these little pulses you can get in throughout the day, the more total muscle protein synthesis over the year, and theoretically, the better your gains.
The problem I have is with the legacy that previous meals have on your blood amino acid levels: there doesn’t seem to be enough time elapsed between meals to allow a return to fasting levels, which would prevent spiking/pulsing the blood with amino acids in the first place. Leave it too long and there are just not enough hours in the day.
I also have another problem with the protocol; it’s too damned fiddly and the benefits (even if you could devote the effort and resource to timing your meals like this) are likely to be small.
Powerlifter Ryan Celli understands the importance of pre and post workout nutrition
Putting It All Together
So what’s the ideal nutritional protocol? The one you’ll follow, most importantly, but having determined your macronutrient intake, you can decide how best to split it.
Here’s a rundown that is tried and tested and that science hasn’t bettered:
1) Establish your daily needs – how much protein, carbohydrate and fat are necessary?
I’m assuming most of you reading this have established your daily requirement for protein/fat/carbohydrate, and that having experimented for a while, you know how you respond to each.
Anyone that hasn’t worked out what they should be eating should pick a goal, 200lbs at 10% bodyfat, for example. Work out the maintenance calories required for that goal, regardless of whether you need to gain or lose to reach it, i.e., work out what a 200lbs and 10% bodyfat version of you would need to eat to stay at that weight and condition.
So for anyone thinking of calculating that, there are a few equations that require you to just plug in the numbers, and you can find them on-line.
Be sure to use formulae that use not just your resting metabolic rate but also thermogenesis through exercise and non-exercise related activity as well!
Remember that all of these equations are based on an assumption that you are ‘average’, so you may need to adjust the figure after a couple of weeks. If you need to put on weight to reach your goal and you’re not, increase the calories by 250kcal and monitor for two weeks. Similarly, reduce by 250kcal if you need to lose weight and you’re not progressing by following your initial assumption.
2) Load your food intake to coincide with breakfast and the pre- and post-workout period.
3) Divide the rest into as many meals as necessary to hit your daily intake target and consume when convenient.
Protein shakes allow for a convenient and effective pre/post workout meal
Ok, I don’t think it’s necessary to draw a table describing how to eat three times a day, but I will describe my timing for a training day in simple terms.
Now I train first thing in the morning, but that’s my bad luck! So in my example, my para-workout nutrition obviously coincides with my training session. If I get a break and work out late afternoon (when I actually prefer), my para-workout nutrition adjusts.
First, a little background before I show you my daily plan:
- I need 28,000kcal per week to maintain my weight.
- My para-workout nutrition gives me approximately 600kcal per training day.
- I train four times a week, so 2400kcal per week comes from para-workout nutrition
- I like four large meals a day, 28 meals per week, and because I like to keep things simple, I keep those meals the same size each day, training or no training.
To achieve this, I just take my weekly intake minus my para-workout calories and work out the quantities from there, i.e., 26,600kcal per week in whole food meals or 3,800kcal per day.
Training Session at 07.00
- 06.00 1 Serving Nitrean
- 06.30 1 Serving Nitrean + ½ Serving Results
- 07.00-08.00 1 Serving Nitrean + ½ Serving Results
- 09.00 Meal 1 – Approx 30% Overall Calorific Intake
- 12.00 Meal 2 – Approx 30% Overall Calorific Intake
- 16.00 Meal 3 – Approx 20% Overall Calorific Intake
- 20.00 Meal 4 – Approx 20% Overall Calorific Intake
On a non-training day, my schedule would look exactly like the above but without the para-workout nutrition. Similarly, if I didn’t have a para-workout protocol, and stuck to whole foods only, I’d simply add the additional calories to my meals.
Training Session 20.00
- 09.00 Meal 1 – Approx 30% Overall Calorific Intake for the Day
- 12.00 Meal 2 – Approx 30% Overall Calorific Intake
- 16.00 Meal 3 – Approx 20% Overall Calorific Intake
- 19.00 1 Serving Nitrean
- 19.30 1 Serving Nitrean + ½ Serving Results
- 20.00-21.00 1 Serving Nitrean + ½ Serving Results
- 22.00 Meal 4 – Approx 20% Overall Calorific Intake
We participate in a game of extremes – extreme development, extreme leanness, and extreme strength — so the term ‘moderation’ seems weak, but here moderation means common sense, not mediocrity, and the science doesn’t agree with the hype. With nutrition, you have to go with your gut (no pun intended!).
How you split your food and when you take it comes a distant second to hitting your daily total. Because you’re human and you have a digestive system, there’ll nearly always be an overlap between what you ate hours ago and what you’re about to eat now. The good news is that our bodies take care of the sophisticated nutrient timing all by themselves. 🙂
Written by Daniel Roberts
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Nutrient Timing – When Science and Marketing Collide discussion thread.
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