At some point every athlete has encountered the ‘anabolic window’ argument, which is the idea that in order to recover faster and maximize muscular gains you must ingest a certain amount of protein as soon as possible. If not taken at least within an hour most gains will be lost and your workout will have accounted for nothing.
Due to it’s popularity this concept is highly debated in the athletic world. Many argue that it doesn’t matter when you take protein, as long as you get enough in your system during the day. Others argue that every minute lost before taking the supplement is lost muscle mass and is potentially rendering your workout pointless.
They also argue that it doesn’t matter what the rest of your diet looks like as long as you get the proper amount of protein after your body will build muscle. Darren G. Candow and Philip D. Chilibeck wrote in their article the: Timing of creatine or protein supplementation and resistance training in the elderly:
“The timing of nutritional supplementation may be more important than the absolute daily intake of supplements. Protein or creatine ingestion proximate to resistance-training sessions may be more beneficial for increasing muscle mass and strength than ingestion of protein or creatine at other times of the day, possibly because of increased blood flow and therefore increased transport of amino acids and creatine to skeletal muscle.”
But this way of thinking is highly problematic for a few reasons; athletes have construed the study cited above to mean that it doesn’t matter what they eat the rest of the day as long as there is protein consumed shortly following the workout. But that is possibly the least harmful notion, the most harmful is the variety of eating disorders that evolved from athletes obsessing over eating times.
Pay Attention To Your Body, Not The Studies.
Studies advocating for the anabolic window are considered faulty for a few reasons. They generally failed to take into consideration the type of athletes they were using for the study in comparison to other athletes or the variety of diets that they use.
Anyone who uses protein is going to see a boost in muscle growth, especially if they are new to the program. Studies often tested athletes who were using a placebo in the place of the timed testing, or athletes who were new to the use of protein which would show positive results regardless of the timing.
Schoenfeld, Arago, Wilborn, Urbina, Hayward, and Krieger found in their 2017 article Pre- versus post-exercise protein intake has similar effects on muscular adaptations studies that were used to prove the anabolic window during preliminary research, upon reading the conclusions of a popular study they came to this conclusion:
“A recent meta-analysis by Schoenfeld, Aragon & Krieger (2013) found that consuming protein within 1 h post-resistance exercise had a small but significant effect on increasing muscle hypertrophy compared to delaying consumption by at least 2 h. However, sub-analysis of these results revealed the effect all but disappeared after controlling for the total intake of protein, indicating that favorable effects were due to unequal protein intake between the experimental and control groups (∼1.7 g/kg versus 1.3 g/kg, respectively) as opposed to temporal aspects of feeding. The authors noted that inherent limitations of the studies obscure the ability to draw definitive, evidence-based conclusions on the efficacy of protein timing.” (2)
The problem with anti-anabolic window studies is that while their research is generally well done and supported, there are fewer of them provided due to the unpopularity of the idea. Simply put, this myth is encouraged because of it’s popularity, not because of fact. No one wants to blame their poor diet or exercise program for a lack of momentum, which makes it easier to buy into the idea that it’s some other force which affects your gains.
This mindset is seen in every “Top 10 Fastest Ways to Build Muscle” or the “Best Ways to Boost Strength.” It’s easier to blame something out of your control than it is to assess your own faults. But regardless of how athletes feel, health, strength, and endurance are built by routine and proper dieting more than anything else.
Stop Working Out On An Empty Stomach! But If You Do, Be Sure To Do The Following...
If you train before breakfast then you are working in a fasted state and are more prone to injury, to prevent this they recommend lots of fluid and a BCAA+Hydration. This gives your muscles something to work with while they are beat into submission. Then being sure to eat breakfast relatively soon following your training so that your muscles aren’t being used as fuel to repair other muscles.
The best advice from researchers in any corner is to work on improving routine and diet. You can hit the gym 6 days a week and see gains, but you will likely also see injuries if there isn’t the proper support system. One study outlined the best way to look at the protein to workout timing, and it was all in regards to how you eat as a whole.
If you train before lunch, though, it is still good to have the BCAA but your body isn’t considered to be in a fasted state, so lunch can wait until well after finishing if necessary, and you won’t lose any ground. This is good for those who use their lunch breaks to hit the gym and things get in the way of eating lunch right after.
To be sure you are prepared for the workout, specialists recommend eating a hearty breakfast that takes up a third of your overall protein intake for the day. This sets up a solid foundation for whatever comes later on. Hitting a ⅓ of your protein intake at breakfast might be difficult for most people, so 1-2 servings of protein powder would be a great addition to your eggs & toast. (No pop-tarts allowed)
And if you are someone who works out after dinner you probably know the pain of getting that last heavy shake in before bed. It can ruin a night’s sleep if you are too full and that will hurt your gains more than anything. As long as you’ve gotten enough protein to fill your macronutrient requirements during the day, taking a BCAA and glutamine supplement before bed will help your muscles heal while you sleep and just help your sleep overall anyways.
All in all, the only thing that really matters in nutrient timing or in regards to the ‘anabolic window’ is to take care of your body. Eat in response to how you’re feeling physically and track your own progress. Anything beyond that can’t be proven one way or another in science for every single person, and assuming that a strictly timed diet will work for everyone leads to bigger problems in the athletic world