The anabolic window. Whether it’s from your lifting buddies in the gym or from your personal trainer, we’ve all been told at some point, that we have 30-45 minutes to get our protein shake down the hatch, to help with building more muscle and optimizing recovery. Many people practice this concept, for precise nutrient timing. And although it helps with getting into a healthy supplement and nutritional routine there is actually very little scientific evidence that backs this strategy. We’re going to talk more about the anabolic window, the science, and why this theory has become a dominant ideology in sports nutrition practice.
What Is The Anabolic Window
The anabolic window describes the proverbial belief that 30-45 minutes post workout, is the most optimal time for nutrient delivery and absorption, to enhance recovery and produce bigger and faster gains. It has been postulated, that the timing of nutrient delivery, can restore energy reserves and rebuild damaged muscle cells to produce an anabolic state.
The theory is based from your body’s anabolic response. Anabolism is the state of building smaller cells into larger ones, including skeletal muscle.
Over the past several decades, nutrient timing has been the subject of numerous research studies, analysis, and reviews. Post workout nutrition and nutrient timing, involves the consumption of primarily protein and carbohydrates.
After resistance training, your body is in an anabolic or muscle building state. Glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis are two of the processes, in which the anabolic state theory, calls on carbohydrates and protein for, in order to refuel these processes. The strategy is designed to maximize exercise-induced muscular adaptations and facilitate repair of damaged tissue [R].
Resistance training depletes your body of critical nutrients, including glycogen and amino acids, while also causing damage or micro-tears to muscle fiber. Theoretically, consuming the proper ratio of nutrients during this time not only initiates the rebuilding of damaged tissue and restoration of energy reserves, but it does so in a supercompensated fashion that enhances both body composition and exercise performance [R].
But is the anabolic state theory, just a theory, or does it hold true to its hypothesis? To be clear, in science, a theory is a tested, well-substantiated, unifying explanation for a set of verified, proven factors. A theory is always backed by evidence; a hypothesis is only a suggested possible outcome and is testable and falsifiable. In this case, nutrient timing research is open to question in terms of applicability. Recent evidence has directly challenged the classical view of the relevance of post-exercise nutritional intake on anabolism.
There are two primary goals in post workout nutrition strategy and nutrient timing – glycogen replenishment and muscle protein synthesis.
Glycogen availability from carbohydrates has been shown to mediate muscle protein breakdown, while the ingestion of protein, helps increase the building of new muscle. Yet despite a sound theoretical basis, evidence remains unclear.
So What’s The Real Anabolic Window Time
Studies have shown that ingesting protein and carbohydrates within 1-3 hours of your exercise or training routine, will elicit the same response, completely disproving that the anabolic window is only open 30-45 minutes post workout.
Without a doubt, eating carbohydrates and protein is crucial to the muscle building and recovery process. But getting those nutrients within 30 minutes, is not so important. What this theory is good for, is developing healthy habits, and consistency, but besides that, the theory itself, does not hold up.
As an athlete, however, your body does demand more, of everything to consistently perform and produce changes in body composition. High-intensity functional bodybuilding with moderate volume (6-9 sets per muscle group) has only been shown to reduce glycogen stores by 36-39%. Athletes that are prone to more volume, will demand more nutrients. Whether that’s 30 minutes within their workout, does not really matter.
Other purported strategies of post workout nutrition call for protein directly post workout, based on the fact that protein can inhibit the breakdown of muscle mass. Studies show that muscle protein breakdown is only slightly elevated immediately post-exercise and then rapidly rises thereafter 3 hours post workout. If you’re in a fasted state, muscle protein breakdown is further elevated, resulting in a net negative protein balance.
So, as long as you’re getting in your post workout nutrition, prior to that 3-hour mark, you have nothing to worry about.
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Anabolic Window: Takeaway
Despite the claims that your anabolic window is only 30-45 minutes post workout, evidence is lacking to support this theory. This hypothesis, is largely based on the pre-supposition, that exercise is carried out in the fasted-state. In that case, immediate nutritional intervention post workout, does make sense. Consuming a pre-workout meal, one hour before your training, is best practice to increase muscle size and strength, while also maximizing athletic performance. In terms of practical nutritional strategy and application, eat your post workout meal, when it makes the most sense for you.
It’s important to remember, that after your workout your body is in an anabolic sate. Consuming a protein shake, with protein and carbs, will help you crush your workout and achieve bigger gains, as the glycogen and amino acids from the shake, will be utilized during and after training.