Nutrient timing for muscle gain is an essential concept that often gets overlooked because of all the ‘bro’ science out there.
The anabolic window is a term coined by gym goers that refers to the period of time around a workout in which you can best utilise your macronutrients (macros) for the day. It’s the period of time in which the food you consume will be used to fuel your workout and also when you are most receptive to nutrient intake during and after the workout.
In very simple terms you could consume the majority of your daily macros (in particular carbohydrates) around this period to really reap the benefits.
Utilising this period can have a dual benefit in terms of body composition for both muscle building and minimising body fat storage. Consuming the majority of your daily carbs around a workout means they are more likely to be burned for energy and used to refill glycogen stores so there won’t be much excess left over to be stored as fat. If you consume a heavy carbohydrate meal before bed as an example this is more likely to be stored as fat (if done regularly) as you won’t be burning it during your sleep to the same extent you would during a workout.
Consuming them around this period can also be beneficial for building muscle, you have more energy readily available for muscle contractions, lengthy sets and/or heavy lifting. You will also replenish muscle glycogen much quicker which will start the muscle building process much quicker especially when paired with a protein source.
This strategy is especially important if you are ‘hardgainer’ and struggle to put on weight in general, nevermind muscle! This is because you will have an increased appetite around a workout due to the calories burned and energy expended, some people who truly struggle to put on weight and build muscle need very high daily calorie totals which can be in excess of 4,000 calories and therefore need to utilise periods when appetite is high.
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This is the period leading up to your workout and is when you are going to consume calories with the aim of fuelling the session ahead. At 3 – 4 hours before you workout (not really relevant if you workout first thing in the morning) you want to get in a decent carb meal that also includes some fats and protein.
This is so that you have time to digest the meal and ensure it’s not lying heavily on your stomach causing discomfort during your workout. Whilst carbs are going to be the primary source of energy for your workout consuming a fat source with this meal will slow down the digestion or the carbs so that you don’t have large spikes in blood sugar. You don’t want to have a blood sugar spike followed by a drop hours away from your workout as you will feel the crash and be more lethargic leading up to you workout.
Then roughly an hour before, depending on how quickly/easily you digest food, you’ll want to have another smaller meal or shake and keep it light. A good example would be white fish and some rice cakes topped with peanut butter or an option that’s even easier to digest is a blended shake with oats, 25g whey protein and peanut butter. It’s important to get in a carb, fat and protein source before training as all three are used by your body as an energy source even though as mentioned earlier carbs are the primary energy for a weightlifting session.
This is of course only true unless you’re on a low carb diet, in which case it’s advised to save your daily requirement of carbs for the intra or post workout meal in order to replenish glycogen stores.
This is by far the most neglected nutritional period for most people but one that can be vital for performance and overall body composition. Intra workout nutrition involves consuming certain nutrients during your actual workout, for energy and muscle building purposes.
As far as intra workout nutrition goes for the majority of the population it’s pretty much a sports energy drink (Lucozade or a can of Monster) to top up electrolytes, though i think that is more of a happy coincidence for most. You’ll also see some people drinking BCAA’s throughout a workout but this is much less common and whilst beneficial and definitely recommended there’s much more you can do to enhance your intra workout nutrition and as a result your overall performance and physique.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA) and Essential Amino Acids (EAA) are a solid go to for intra workout nutrition, amino acids are the building blocks of protein and your muscles. Consuming some form of these during a workout will keep you in a positive protein synthesis balance and means you can stay in an anabolic muscle building state even when breaking the muscle down with training.
The nutrient missing from the majority of people’s intra workout nutrition is a fast acting carbohydrate source. Muscle Glycogen gets depleted as a weightlifting session progresses, keeping this topped up and at maximal levels will ensure you get the most out of every session. A fast acting carb (50g dextrose for example) dissolved in water with your BCAA/EAA is an ideal option.
This is the period after your workout that people will be most familiar with, especially with the popular habit of an after workout protein shake. There is no doubt that this is a good nutritional strategy and you will see benefit from doing this at a minimum but it doesn’t end there and it’s not the most optimal option either, you need to expand on this.
After working out your body has used up a great deal of its energy stores and has also broken down muscle tissue, therefore the main aim after a workout is to have recovery as a priority. You should aim to replenish these stores and start the muscle building process as soon as possible.
In the 15-20 minute period after a workout you want to get an easily digestible protein and carbohydrate source (here’s the scientific reasoning behind a post workout shake), the protein is to start protein synthesis and put your body into an anabolic muscle building state. The carbohydrate source is needed to replenish glycogen stores which are the muscles primary fuel source and is depleted during muscular contractions, a fast acting carb such as dextrose or maltodextrin is your best choice for this. The reason for a shake is that in liquid form the nutrients are much quicker to digest than solid food so enter the bloodstream and muscles whilst they are still sensitive to nutrient absorption.
Then around 1.5 – 2 hours after your workout is when you want to have a solid food meal (ideally your largest meal of the day). Unlike the pre workout meal, you don’t need to worry as much about food choices here in terms of digestion or satiety.
Whilst not usually considered to be a key component of the anabolic window and rarely mentioned in the same context making sure you are fully hydrated around a workout is vital. The simplest way to ensure this is to go to the toilet 20 minutes before a workout, if the stream is clear then you are well hydrated, if not drink 1 litre of water.
How To Apply This
There is still plenty of ongoing scientific experimentation and testing to find the optimal time to consume macros, the points above are strategies that can be applied to see what impact they have on you around the anabolic window. If you struggle to build muscle or can’t get the most out of your workouts then I would suggest trying to implement these into your diet as it’s usually the case that people just aren’t consuming enough nutrients around the workout in general even if they have no physique or performance goals.
Now that you’ve got a rough guideline for the nutrients and timings surrounding the anabolic window you can test out a diet plan factoring these in. An example meal plan that I personally use (weight – 180lbs) would be the following:
Pre workout meal (3 – 4 hours before a weightlifting session)
100g White Rice
150g Chicken Breast
One handful of green veg
Pre workout meal (1 hour before)
25g Whey Protein
2 Rice Cakes
30g Peanut Butter
Intra workout shake (during the workout)
10g Essential Amino Acids
Post workout shake (immediately after the workout)
25g Whey Protein
50g Blended Oat Powder
Post workout meal (2.5 hours after training)
100g White Rice
150g Chicken Breast
One handful of green veg
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