Gym culture would have you believe your window of opportunity for maximizing protein supplement benefits, also known as the anabolic window, is like a ticking time-bomb.
The anabolic window is believed to be a 30-60 minute post-workout time frame crucial for maximizing anabolic activity via protein supplementation. It is also believed that missing the anabolic window is detrimental to overall muscle and strength development.
It’s time to rattle the gym cages, so to speak.
Most, if not all, of what is said about the anabolic window is merely bro science propagated by superstitious bodybuilding-practices.
WHERE’S THE EVIDENCE
Evidence supporting the anabolic window is deemed “far from definitive” by some researchers. One analysis explains that studies supporting the anabolic window were based on lifters who worked out without eating anything, which isn’t necessarily relatable to the average gym-goer.1
The anabolic window has been further misconstrued by many within the fitness community to mean “always necessary.”
Recent clinical evidence reveals the anabolic window isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
One study analyzed protein-timing’s effect on 33 resistance-trained men during a 10-week experimental period. Researchers focused on 3 parameters:
Researchers split the test subjects into random groups. Each group was assigned a different protein supplementing time frame: morning and night; before and after a workout; and no supplements at all.
All test subjects then underwent strength and power testing sessions consisting of the following exercises: 1-rep maximum on the bench press and squat and 5 repetitions at 80% of 1-rep maximum bench press. They were also measured for body composition. What were the results? Protein-timing didn’t have any added benefits on strength, power, or body-composition.2
A different 12-week study observed the result of protein-supplement timing on muscle growth after resistance training in 26 older men who regularly consume adequate protein amounts.
Some test subjects received protein supplementation before and immediately after exercise while others didn’t, and similar 1-rep maximum tests were performed. Once again, protein timing didn’t improve muscle mass and strength any further than men who routinely consume adequate amounts of protein.3
UPDATE: A recently published study titled, “Protein Ingestion Before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains During Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men,” may seem very appealing to those looking for evidence supporting protein timing. Judging by the title, could this be the study that essentially proves the necessity of timing your protein shake? Not quite.
This study analyzed the effects of supplementing with 27.5 g of protein vs. a non-caloric placebo drink before bed. What researchers found was that the added protein supplementation did indeed improve muscle mass and strength gains during a 12-week resistance training program.4
However, it appears this study’s focus was more on whether supplemental protein has any benefits on workout results rather than if timing had any effect. The time in which protein was consumed by test subjects was always before bed and the varying factor was whether the subjects received protein or a placebo drink instead. Considering what we already know about protein and its ability to improve muscle mass and strength when coupled with exercise, the results of this study don’t offer any new evidence to support protein timing in regard to the “anabolic window” debate.
Optimizing muscle glycogen resynthesis after working out is important. As you engage in exercise and resistance training, muscle glycogen storages are depleted and, as such, replenishing them is necessary for recovery and subsequent workouts.
But is there any added benefit of glycogen-timing? Is the most important time to refuel during that short, 30-60 minute anabolic window?
The answer to these questions depends on two criteria:
Ingesting carbohydrates quickly post-exercise is beneficial for a “narrow subset of endurance sports” where multiple training sessions or competitions occur less than 8 hours apart from each other.1
For athletes whose goals aren’t as endurance focused, completely depleting glycogen stores is harder to achieve than many people think, even for athletes who participate in high-intensity resistance training.1
Adequate carbohydrate refueling is attainable within a 24-hour period.1 This means that, for the average gym-goer, rushing home to eat healthy carbohydrates isn’t as important.
PICKING UP THE PIECES
So, does this mean that protein and carbs aren’t necessary for optimizing recovery and muscle growth, or that post-nutrition supplementation is optional if your goal is to optimize muscle hypertrophy? Not at all.
However, this growing body of research suggests lifters and athletes shouldn’t live and die by the anabolic window concept. A workout is not “lost” if you aren’t able to eat right away.
Rather, you should instead focus on overall nutrition throughout the day. The response of muscle protein metabolism after a workout lasts up to 24-48 hours. Consequently, any meals consumed within this period of time factor into muscle hypertrophy.8
Make it a habit to eat healthy carbohydrates and protein in your meals throughout the day; proper nutrition is key to maximizing gym progress.
If you train for strength and endurance, you should try to consume anywhere from 1.4-1.8 g/kg and 1.2-1.4 g/kg protein per day, respectively.5 Depending on the intensity of exercise and frequency per day, athletes should consume anywhere from 5-12 g/kg carbohydrates per day.9
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO
You should see the anabolic window concept as more of a safeguard than anything else. The habit of drinking a protein shake and refueling immediately after a workout is better than not consuming these macronutrients at all. But keep in mind that, for the average-gym rat, there is no rush.
Make sure you get adequate protein and carbohydrate amounts throughout the day as this lays the nutritional foundation for having successful energy to work out and have adequate protein for muscle recovery.
The days of needing to pack a post-workout protein shake to sip while down in the gym-locker room are over.
eSupplements Article Recap
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU
- Aragon, Alan Albert; Schoenfeld, Brad Jon. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:5 doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-5.
- Hoffman JR, et al. Effect of protein-supplement timing on strength, power, and body-composition changes in resistance-trained men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009 Apr;19(2):172-85.
- Verdijk LB,et al. Protein supplementation before and after exercise does not further augment skeletal muscle hypertrophy after resistance training in elderly men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Feb;89(2):608-16. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26626. Epub 2008 Dec 23.
- Tim Snijders, et al. Protein Ingestion before Sleep Increases Muscle Mass and Strength Gains during Prolonged Resistance-Type Exercise Training in Healthy Young Men. The Journal of Nutrition: Nutrient Physiology, Metabolism, and Nutrient-Nutrient Interactions.
- Neil Osterweil. The Benefits of Protein. WebMD.
- Lemon PW. Do athletes need more dietary protein and amino acids? Int J Sport Nutr. 1995 Jun;5 Suppl:S39-61.
- Hassapidou, Maria. Carbohydrate requirements of elite athletes. Br J Sports Med 2011;45:e2 doi:10.1136/bjsm.2010.081570.23.
- Tipton KD, Wolfe RR. Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2001 Mar;11(1):109-32.
- Coleman, Ellen, MA, MPH, RD, CCSD. Carbohydrate Requirements for Exercise. 2011 Edition. Nutrition Dimension.