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Does Protein Timing Matter?

Whats good friends! Welcome back for another edition of The Nerdy Athlete. Like always, I want to take a second to say THANK YOU to everyone who read last week’s entry, and to everyone who is here reading this right now. I hope I was able to answer some of y’all’s questions about foam rolling last week. This week’s topic is one that was requested on my Instagram a few weeks back. As promised, this week we are focusing on the protein intake timing and its role in muscle synthesis and growth. Let me just say that this was honestly a really fun one to write, and I’m excited to share it with you guys. Lets get to it!

TF Is Protein Intake Timing??

Man what controversial topic in the fitness world. When I first started lifting in high school, I remember being told by my coaches and friends that if I wanted to see any results, I had to be taking protein almost immediately after my workout. All of my homies had their shaker bottles with them at every lift, and it honestly just seemed like the norm so I never questioned it. Workout —> Protein Shake —> Repeat. Thats just how it went lol. As I progressed through college ball I noticed the exact same thing. “Alright this shit must be real if they’re doing this in college too” is what I would say my whole freshmen year hahahaahaha. It was just how things went. I’ve been rather curious as to whether there is any truth or merit to this.

I’m sure we’ve all heard somebody at our local gym talk about the “anabolic window” and how important it is that you consume protein during this time. The anabolic window is a theory that proposes that there is a 30 minute window immediately following exercise in which your muscles begin to repair themselves through muscle protein synthesis and other cellular processes (“Anabolic Window”). Muscle breaks down when you are working out, so the idea is that by feeding your body during this anabolic window when those cellular processes are starting, you are providing your body with immediate protein to assist in rebuilding your muscles. Let me take a quick second to really emphasize the word IDEA. The "anabolic window" has not been proven to truly exist in the literature, so I feel it is irresponsible to view it as anything other than a theory. Before we can really dive into protein timing and how it relates to muscle growth, we must first have a solid understanding of what muscle synthesis is.

What is Muscle Synthesis?

Some of the Day 1 Nerdy Athlete Blog readers might remember this, but we slightly touched on muscle synthesis in The Importance of Sleep. Muscle protein synthesis is the process in which essential amino acids are taken in by our muscles and proteins are produced in order to help rebuild muscle following an intense bout of exercise. This is the opposite, of course, of muscle protein breakdown, where proteins are lost during exercise. Here is a simplified diagram to help yo visualize the process a little bit better:

As you can see by the diagram, as we exercise, our muscles lose amino acids (building blocks of protein), while simultaneously pulling in new amino acids to rebuild muscle. The gains that we see are determined by the rate of muscle protein synthesis to muscle protein breakdown.

So… Does Protein Timing Matter?

Well, to answer your question - ehhh it depends lol. The research is rather contradictory, with some studies showing a link between protein intake timing and muscle growth, and other showing no link whatsoever. I will say that I found far more studies suggesting there is no link between protein intake timing and muscle growth than the opposite. A meta-analysis of 43 different studies conducted by Schoenfeld, Aargon & Krieger (2013) found that when comparing the results of all 43 studies, there was no significant link between protein intake and muscle growth. I trust the results of a meta-analysis MUCH more than one single study simply because meta-analyses draw from multiple studies with different variables and control factors rather than just one, deeming the results are more credible.

Also, the research shows that the anabolic responses seen post-workout are more due to protein SYNTHESIS than BREAKDOWN, meaning that eating a protein-packed meal immediately following a workout may not really be necessary (Glynn et al. 2010). If we look back at the muscle protein synthesis diagram above, we can see that this means there are more essential amino acids available to be pulled in during this phase. Since there is already a bigger “pool” of essential amino acids to be pulled in by the muscles following exercise, then the addition of more protein during the “anabolic window” may be ineffective because there may be more protein available than the muscles can use at the time, which will lead to the excess being stored as fat.

But, like I said, it depends. Some studies in the literature suggest that if you are working out in a fasted state, post-exercise muscle breakdown significantly increases, meaning you are losing proteins from your muscles that need to be replaced at a much higher rate (Pitkanen et al. 2003). Again, the gains that we see are determined by the rate of muscle protein synthesis to the rate of muscle protein breakdown. The idea here is that since the rate of muscle protein breakdown may be higher than the rate of muscle protein synthesis in a fasted state, the immediate protein intake will slow the rate of muscle protein breakdown and increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis; thus, resulting in GAINS.

This hasn’t been 100% confirmed in the literature, but it makes sense as to why muscle protein breakdown significantly increases in a fasted state and calls for a more immediate replenishment of protein. Here's a quick science lesson for ya lol. Glycogen is our muscle’s first source of energy, and we refill our glycogen levels by eating carbs. Being in a fasted state means that we haven’t given our body fuel (food obvi); therefore, exercising in a fasted state leads to a quicker depletion of these glycogen stores. When this happens, our body will turn to alternative sources for energy. In this case, those alternative sources are proteins and fats. If we’re trying to make GAINS BRO, the last thing we can afford is for our body to start eating away at our muscles. Kinda funny when you think about it tho: the concept of literally losing muscle as you’re trying to build it hahahahaha. Anyways.

Wrap It Up Mate

So, lets reflect on what we've talked about today. There is no real proof that the "anabolic window" truly exists, so that alone kind of shits on the idea of protein intake being vital immediately following exercise. We know that muscle protein synthesis is the process of our muscles pulling essential amino acids out of the blood and creating new protein. Since most of the anabolic effects that we see post-exercise are the result of muscle protein synthesis and not muscle protein breakdown, it is unnecessary to flood the system with more protein than it can work with during that time. However, in a fasted state, some studies in the literature suggest that protein intake timing does play an important role in slowing the rate of muscle protein breakdown and increasing the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

After doing this research I can't help but laugh at my high school self hahahaha. But hey, as athletes, we are always trying to do whatever it takes to give us an advantage on our opponents. So even if I was wrong, respect to high school Mikael lmfao. In terms of getting the absolute most you can out of the muscle protein synthesis process, focus on these things instead:

  • Increasing your daily protein intake (Weinert 2009)

  • Consume protein before sleeping (Kouw et al. 2010)

  • Get 6-9 hours of sleep (Grønli, Soulé & Bramham 2014)

Thats all for this Monday's edition of The Nerdy Athlete! I know I might have left some things out, so please feel free to shoot me your questions! As always, happy Monday CCTS Family! Thank you for rockin' with me. Attack the week and go be great!!

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2 commentaires

Enjoyed reading this one, thanks dude!


Surprised by the conclusion here! Thanks for sharing, as usual.

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