High-performance race cars rely on the finest equipment and premium grades of fuel to run fastest and most efficiently, so why would your internal bodily mechanisms be any different? You can fuel your muscle- and strength-building efforts with clean, high-quality foods and supplements to maximize your performance and gains, or gunk up your insides with greasy and sugary foods that add more to your waistline than your bench press.
After all, in bodybuilding, you truly are what you eat.
Bodybuilding nutrition has been refined over the years but the basic tenets remain. You should eat:
- 5-6 small meals per day spaced every few hours.
- Lean protein sources to build and repair muscle.
- Complex carbohydrates to fuel energy needs.
- Limited amounts of dietary fats, which also provide energy and are important for hormone production.
This sounds pretty simple, but there are a few qualifications.
Complex carbs, which are nothing more than a bunch of sugar molecules chained together, take longer to digest than simple sugars, so they are ideal to consume throughout the day to control blood sugar levels. Simple sugars, on the other hand, quickly enter the blood and elevate blood sugar, spiking insulin release.
Insulin drives those circulating sugars into storage tanks—namely muscle tissue and the liver first to replace any that's spent—but then the excess is driven into fat cells. Hence, controlling insulin by consuming complex carbs over simple ones is a smart way to watch your body fat.
However, sometimes you actually want to elevate your blood sugar and use the resulting insulin surge to your advantage. That's where pre- and post-workout nutrition begin to differ from the bodybuilding diet you follow the rest of the day.
The Name Of The Game Is Speed
Eat a heavy meal before your workout and it'll still be in your stomach on that heavy set of squats—and you'll know it. To ensure you're not hungry halfway through your workout and you have plenty of fuel to train intensely, your best bet is to consume a small pre-workout meal 30-60 minutes before your training session. The nutrients will be readily available to fuel your workout and even give you a head start on the post-workout recovery process.
Though your metabolism and body type help determine the exact quantity of nutrients you may need from that meal, you want to consume a pre-workout meal that's equal parts fast-digesting carbs and protein to fuel your muscles and jumpstart muscle growth and repair.
Starchy carbs like low-fiber white bagels and white rice and other fast-digesting sugars—sugar, dextrose, maltodextrin—combined with a fast-digesting protein like whey protein isolate or egg whites (if you prefer a whole food) are quickly digested. These carbs and sugars can be quickly accessed during a hard training session.
Similarly, immediately after your workout, your muscles are depleted of the stored form of carbohydrate—glycogen—which fuels muscular contraction during lifting. Especially after a long, heavy training session, your body tips toward a catabolic (muscle-wasting) state.
To refill these stores after your workout and jumpstart the growth process (anabolism), you again want to rely on fast-digesting carbs (and their effect on insulin). Here, too, a fast-digesting protein like whey protein isolate can quickly shuttle into muscle cells alongside the sugar molecules.
Research shows that after an intense weight workout you have a far greater need for dietary protein than sedentary individuals, and that fast-digesting proteins should be consumed before and after training for optimal gains.
Research shows you may boost protein synthesis immediately after your training by consuming a fast-digesting protein to maximize muscle and strength building. Simply put, after a workout your muscles are hungry for nutrients and a fast-digesting high protein/high simple carb meal has been shown to deliver superior muscle-building results.
Many athletes choose to consume these nutrients in liquid form (via a protein shake) because it's easy to prepare and the liquid can be digested more readily than solid foods. Research supports the notion that there's a two-hour "anabolic window" following heavy resistance training.
Since a whole-food meal typically takes more time for preparation and even digestion, it's not your best choice in terms of an immediate post-workout meal, but it can be consumed an hour after your training.
Basic Beginner's Mass-Gain Stack
Your body responds quickly when undertaking a bodybuilding program, so providing the raw materials to help ensure an anabolic state is critical both pre- and post-workout.
Clearly, protein and a fast-digesting sugar to spike insulin should be on your list. In addition, there are a few other ergogenic supplements you should consider.
Whey Protein Isolate
Whey is the protein that's separated from the curd in the production of cheese. The best forms of WPI have limited fat and lactose; production processes like cross-flow microfiltration have helped in its purification.
WPI is absorbed quickly and provides a steady stream of amino acids which enter the blood quickly. This has been shown to promote gains in lean mass and strength, reductions in body fat, and increased growth hormone release.
Derived from meat sources, creatine has been shown to increase protein synthesis by pushing water into muscle cells (a signal for anabolism).
It's also been shown to increase phosphocreatine stores in muscle tissue, which is used to make more ATP (energy) for longer and more intense workouts. Research also indicates that creatine elevates insulin-like growth factor, an anabolic hormone.
The predominant amino acid found in skeletal muscle, glutamine is abundant in the body and most protein-rich foods. Glutamine is important for protein synthesis and is often depleted during heavy exercise.
Research has shown that supplementation increases muscular growth by boosting muscle cell volume and growth hormone release, while also reducing catabolism.
Besides boosting metabolism, caffeine has also been shown to reduce post-workout muscle soreness by 50 percent.
If you consume nutrients within 30 minutes of your workout, a fast-digesting carb will be quickly available for working muscles.
That same benefit applies post-workout too: Fast-digesting carbs like sugar, dextrose, and maltodextrin quickly spike insulin levels, helping drive all the other ingredients in your post-workout shake into glycogen-depleted muscle tissue.
Of note, since fructose (fruit sugar) must be broken down by the liver, it's not as fast as these other sugars.
Clearly, research supports the notion that diet is as important to your mass-gaining goals as the training itself. While the workout provides the stimulus, how, what, and when you feed your body is crucial to your overall progress. You can maximize your gains by paying particular attention to what you consume, especially right before and immediately after your training.
- Wilson, J. and Wilson, G. Contemporary issues in protein requirements and consumption for resistance trained athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2006.