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Is the Anabolic Window Real?

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When I first started lifting, I was told you were an idiot for not chugging a protein shake as soon as you finished your workout because you would be missing out on potential gains. If you forgot to bring your protein shake to the gym, you better haul ass home to make one ASAP. 

A few years into my lifting journey, this belief transformed into being told to drink a protein shake during your workout AND after. It was a common belief that if you were not doing these things, you would be missing out on a lot of potential muscle size and strength gains. There are still plenty of people who believe this and plenty of industry professionals who push this belief. However, is it really that important to consume protein immediately after a workout? Let’s find out.

Why Drink a Protein Shake Post Workout?

The reason many believe that you need a protein shake after a workout is because protein is needed to repair the microtears that occur in our muscles while lifting. Protein is the material the body uses to build back the damaged muscle stronger than before. This process is called muscle protein synthesis (MPS). MPS is how we get stronger and put on muscle mass.

Protein shakes are marketed as a quick way to get protein into your body so that your body can rapidly digest it to be used. 

However, you really do not need a protein shake as your source of protein. Any type of protein will do, whether that be eggs, chicken, lentils, etc. Protein shakes are marketed as necessary by the fitness industry because they want you to buy more of their supplements. Many of the people with influence in the industry have a stake in these supplement companies and get kickbacks when they get people to buy their products. This is why they would try to tell you that you needed protein shakes before your workout, during your workout, after your workout, before bed, right as you wake up, etc. Basically, the more you thought you needed a protein shake, the more product they sold, and the more money they made.

In truth, protein shakes are just a source of food like anything else and you do not have to drink them to get your protein in after a workout.

With this, is there any truth to the belief that you need a protein shake immediately after a workout?

The Anabolic Window

Anabolic window is a term created to describe the time frame post workout where your body is most susceptible to use the protein, therefore, maximizing your gains from the workout. The common belief used to be that it was about a 30 minute timer that started the second you finished your workout, and if you did not consume protein in that time frame, your gains would be lost, or at least be noticeably less.

Current research is showing that this is not the case. One of these studies has shown that the anabolic window can last as long as 6 hours post workout [1]. Much longer than the 30 minute window that many are told about. The reason for this longer window is most likely due to the fact that another study showed that MPS occurs over a period of time that could be as long as 48 hours [2]. That same study also determined that MPS spiked at 3-4 hours post workout [2]. 

So, while the anabolic window does not shut on you 30 minutes after your workout, there is truth behind the fact that you should have some sort of protein in your body digested by this 3-4 hour mark post workout.

However, you do not have to get this protein into your body immediately post workout. There is actually an advantage to consuming protein in a pre-workout meal so that it has been processed in your body by the time it is needed for MPS. There are numerous studies that have shown an advantage of consuming both a pre and post workout meal. The advantage of doing so is that if you consume a pre-workout meal, you have a longer time frame to consume a post workout meal for maximal results. In the same vein, if you were to perform your training fasted, it would be advantageous to consume a protein shake, or at least a protein heavy meal, as soon as possible post workout [1]. 

Certain studies have shown that your time between pre and post workout meals could be as long as 3-4 hours for the best results [1]. This means that if you have a meal 2 hours before you have a 1 hour workout, you should try to consume another meal that contains protein within an hour of stopping your workout. 

Furthermore, these studies have shown that the best pre and post workout meals contain both protein AND carbohydrates. A study demonstrated this by testing the effect of subjects consuming just protein immediately before and after a workout compared to a control group that consumed that same amount of protein, but in the morning and evening. The study showed no noticeable difference between a control group and the test group [3]. This could also be interpreted as showing that the total amount of protein you consume throughout the day is more important than when you consume it. As for carbs, the exact amount you should eat pre and post workout depends on how you are training. For the average weight lifting session, 20-40g should be plenty for each meal. You do not need to overdo it on carbs. You probably eat enough during the day already.

Side note: Another study showed that evenly spreading your protein throughout the day in feedings that are 3 hours apart had the greatest effect on gaining muscle [4]. Do not think this is entirely necessary though to get results. This study was in advanced lifters. If you are a beginner or intermediate lifter, total consumed protein throughout the day will give the majority of the results, while small things like this could lead to 1-2% better results. Basically, you may not even notice the advantage of doing this.

To expand on the side note, there are differences about what is necessary based on where you are in your training journey. For beginners, studies have shown that there is no difference between groups that consumed protein immediately after a workout compared to those who consumed it 6 hours after the workout [4]. However, that same study showed that there was a noticeable positive benefit for advanced lifters to consume protein immediately after a workout[4]. What this means is that as you become advanced and near your genetic limit for putting on muscle, the small differences, such as consuming protein every 3 hours, become much more important. For beginner lifters, these small differences are not necessary and focusing on consuming an adequate amount of protein, 0.5g-1g per pound of bodyweight, is more important than when you consume it. Try not to trip over dollars to pick up pennies.

If you are going to consume pre and post workout protein, the general consensus is to aim for 20-40g in each meal [5]. The heavier you are (from muscle, not fat), the higher on that range you should be. Another thing to note if you are beginning to reach the 50+ age group is that you have a resistance to protein being used for MPS. This means that for older trainees, your protein pre and post workout meals could be as high as 40+ g [5].

Conclusion

From the plethora of studies on this topic there is not a one size fits all answer to when and what you should consume pre/post workout. It is up to you to determine what option seems to fit you best. To summarize, for beginner lifters, getting the overall total amount of protein per day (0.5-1g/pound of bodyweight) seems to be the golden ticket to maximizing your growth potential. There also might be some advantage to consuming a pre/post workout meal that consist of carbs and protein within 3-4 hours of each other but the overall effect might not be noticeable for a beginner.

However, for advanced lifters, there seems to be an advantage of the pre/post workout meal and getting protein as soon as possible after the lift. Furthermore, advanced lifters can benefit from consuming protein at equally spaced times throughout the day (3-4 hours between meals). This makes sure the body always has protein available to make repairs. As an advanced lifters, the new lifter growth potential is gone so you might have to take advantage of every little edge possible to keep growing as you near you genetic limit for gaining muscle.

As for intermediate lifters, you would most likely fall somewhere in between. Try to experiment and see what works best for you. Your goal does not have to be maximizing every last little bit of growth possible. It is perfectly okay to just enjoy working out without stressing about the added factors involved with nearing a genetic ceiling like advanced lifters have to. Focusing on a good diet can be plenty to get the physique you want.

If you want more personalized advice on how you should be training/eating, feel free to reach out to me HERE and I can help you set up a personalized plan to get you on your way so you barely have to think about it.

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[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3577439/

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4008813/

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19478342/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5214805/

[5] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28919842/