There are a fair few myths circulating within the fitness industry. It’s usually the old school bodybuilder types who promote them, and they hang around like the smell of an unwashed gym sock, refusing to die, and still being perpetuated in muscle magazines and weight rooms across the land.
We have classics such as –
“Don’t eat carbs after 6.”
“You HAVE to do cardio fasted.”
“You need to train to failure to build muscle.”
If you’ve been reading FitTalk recently, you’ll know that all of these are completely untrue, and that following these practices, while not necessarily “bad” could make sticking to your diet and routine a lot harder than it needs to be.
That’s why, in this blog, I’m addressing another big misconception that bodybuilders and athletes seem to get wrong a lot of the time – The Anabolic Window
What is the Anabolic Window?
The anabolic window refers to the time period after a workout, when it’s supposedly a good idea to get in foods to help you build muscle.
The theory is solid –
You just spent an hour (give or take) pummelling your muscles into submission, and in order to repair and recover, they need nutrients.
If you’re bulking and in a calorie surplus, you’ll be looking to make the most of this window to aid your mass gains, whereas if you’re cutting and in a calorie deficit, the idea is to prevent muscle loss, and stop your strength, energy and performance from declining.
Those who promote the idea of the anabolic window usually suggest that you need two things post-workout –
- Fast-digesting carbs
The protein component is obvious. The amino acids that make up a protein molecule are building blocks.
It’s these that are responsible for cell regeneration, and so you want them in your system to aid growth.
Fast-digesting carbs supposedly help the muscle recovery process for two reasons.
Firstly, when you train, your levels of glycogen (the stored carbohydrate in the muscle cells) decreases, and so you want to top this back up again, or you risk feeling fatigued and losing mass.
Secondly, it’s argued that fast-digesting carbs spike insulin levels.
Insulin is a storage hormone, and while that often gives it a bad rap in terms of storing body fat, it can help shuttle nutrients (and protein) to the muscle cells faster, getting the repair of damaged tissues started sooner.
It seems sound, so why is the anabolic window a complete myth?
Bros and bro-ettes seem to think that speed is of the essence in terms of getting in nutrients post-workout, but this isn’t the case.
Digestion is a long and complex process, and even the most fast-digesting food sources will take a good 45 minutes to get from your mouth, through your digestive tract and your stomach before hitting the rest of your body and your muscle cells.
Therefore, if you’ve eaten pre-workout, you can be assured that there will still be circulating nutrients when you finish your last set.
A case could actually be made that pre-workout nutrition is more important than post, when you take this into account.
Additionally, the speed at which nutrients are delivered really doesn’t matter too much.
Lifting weights spikes levels of muscle protein synthesis (MPS – the rate of protein turnover within a muscle cell,) so again, provided you had some protein before you hit the weights, your muscles are still being fuelled for optimal growth.
The Fast Carb Myth
This is another area where the theory is easy to believe.
It goes like this –
To help raise insulin levels and re-stock glycogen as quickly as possible, you need a fast-digesting, or high-GI carb. (Think white rice, white bread, sugary sweets, etc. rather than slower-digesting sources such as oats, brown rice and berries.)
You need to remember though, that as discussed above, digestion speed isn’t as simple as “eat something and it goes straight to the muscles.”
Not just that, but post-training, your body is extra receptive to food anyway, so any type of carb (and even some non-carb-based foods such as whey protein) will create a big insulin spike. They don’t need to be fast digesting.
Do You Train Twice a Day?
If you do, then actually, all the above might not apply to you.
I’ve slightly bashed the anabolic window, as for most folk, it’s minutia. However, if you do train twice a day (be that both weights sessions, or one weights and one cardio) then what you eat between sessions does matter more.
You DO need to make sure your glycogen levels are topped up, in order to perform well in your second session.
Another caveat is those who train fasted.
While I’m not generally a fan of fasted sessions for the most part, if you don’t have any pre-circulating food when you train, you could do with getting something into your system quickly, which is where protein (particularly in liquid form) and fast-digesting carbs could be beneficial.
Making a Guess
One thing I’ve always wondered is where the mythical 30-minute or 1-hour cut-off comes from?
People preach that you MUST get your post-workout meal in within 30 or 60 minutes of finishing, but this would indicate that at 31 or 61 minutes, depending on who you listen to, you are no longer primed to gain muscle and your workout’s been a waste.
Whoever thought up that logic had obviously been drinking too many out-of-date whey shakes.
The Bottom Line
By far and away the most important factor is hitting your daily macronutrient quota.
You can bang on about the anabolic window all you like, but if come the end of each day, your protein, carb and fat numbers aren’t within 5% of what you’re aiming for, you won’t be progressing optimally.
Aim to get a nutrient-dense mixed meal of protein, carbs and fats in around 1 to 3 hours before you train, and the same again afterwards.
Personal preference plays a big role here too.
You want a pre-workout meal that doesn’t sit too heavy, and allows you to perform well, and a post-workout feed that fits your schedule and allows you to meet your macros and make progress.