Train, Refuel, Repair

How you feed your body immediately after training can make a drastic impact on how strong, lean and muscular you can become.
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Training is the fun part of getting fit. Hard sets, new personal bests in reps or weight loads, sweat falling to the gym floor — these things separate you from the decidedly less hardcore, light-training population. But what separates you from the hardbodied physique-flaunters you see on covers of magazines like this one?

With each rep in the gym, you are breaking down muscle tissue, which is not, in and of itself, a physique-enhancing process. It’s only when this is paired with to-the-letter nutrient intake (and ample rest, of course) that true change really occurs. In the moments immediately following a hard workout, your muscle bellies are begging for the basic building blocks of repair — amino acids and glucose — so they can come back stronger on the next go-round. It’s also at this point that your body is primed to absorb and stock up on key supplements like creatine. But as your body cools, the window of opportunity narrows, and your chances of maximizing recovery (read: inducing increases in size, strength and fat burning) are greatly diminished. Here’s your fail-proof guide to postworkout nutrition.

Once you set those dumbbells down for the final time, your body is in crisis. It may not look like it on the outside, but the voluntary trauma that you have just put your body through is beginning to take its toll on your muscles. Micro-tears within the muscle send your body into acute panic mode as it begins to try to find ways to heal itself. Not to worry — this is really more of an opportunity than anything else. If you take measures to ensure that your body finds what it’s looking for, you drastically improve your chances of helping those battered muscles come back bigger and stronger the next time. And a readily available supply of nutrients is the perfect solution.

The Window:

Immediately After Your Last Rep

The Essentials:

  • 20 to 40 grams of whey protein
  • 10 grams of casein
  • 10 grams of soy
  • 10 grams of glutamine
  • 5 to 10 grams of branched-chain amino acids
  • 3 to 5 grams of creatine
  • 3 to 5 grams of arginine
  • 2 to 3 grams of beta-alanine
  • 40 to 100 grams of dextrose

Once you set those dumbbells down for the final time, your body is in crisis. It may not look like it on the outside, but the voluntary trauma that you have just put your body through is beginning to take its toll on your muscles. Micro-tears within the muscle send your body into acute panic mode as it begins to try to find ways to heal itself. Not to worry — this is really more of an opportunity than anything else. If you take measures to ensure that your body find what it's looking for, you drastically improve your chances of helping those battered muscles come back bigger and stronger next time. And a readily available supply of nutrients is the perfect solution.

Whey protein, which is digested quickly in the body, provides the spark for recovery by sending a flood of muscle-building aminos through your bloodstream. Aminos are necessary because this is when protein synthesis is at its peak — your muscles are actively seeking out these building blocks at this time. Studies show that taking casein and soy with your whey postworkout can have a greater impact on muscle gain by extending the muscle-building window and hitting protein synthesis from different angles, at different rates.

Glutamine, an amino acid that also keeps the immune system revving under stress, is critical at this time because of its ability to stave off catabolism, or muscle wasting, and boost growth-hormone levels. In other words, it acts to preserve muscle tissue.

The branched-chain amino acids act as insurance during this window. Not only do they reduce the specter of delayed onset muscle soreness, but they also promote protein synthesis.

Creatine, a must whether you’re training for size or just to get shredded, should be taken at this time to replenish your now-depleted stores of explosive energy. With this supp, you are essentially making a down payment on your next workout.

Beta-alanine works through different pathways to boost strength and stamina and should be restocked immediately postworkout.

And while most of these supplements sound familiar, the one that likely sticks out is dextrose. Dextrose, a fast-digesting sugar, is one of the most important items in this stack because it rapidly replenishes glycogen (stored sugars) used during exercise, shuttles aminos to muscles and lowers levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. If you are trying to lean out, you can keep this on the lower end of the prescribed dose, but during this postworkout window, supplemental carbs are more than likely going to be put to work in your immediate recovery.

The Window:

Within One to Two Hours Postworkout

The Essentials:

  • complete meal
  • 1 gram of vitamin C
  • 2 to 3 grams of fish oil

Sure, supplements rule when it comes to getting recovery started, but once an hour has passed, they’ve worked their magic and it’s time for a real sit-down meal. While supps are key players in your recover/rebuild process, proper combinations and proportions of whole foods have their own role to play in creating drastic changes to your overall body composition and performance levels.

Your postworkout plate should feature a calculated ratio of carbs, protein and fat. Generally, you want to aim for 0.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight to continue refilling glycogen stores and supporting recovery. But choose wisely. While fast-digesting carbs were advisable immediately postworkout, you’ll want to opt for the slower-burning variety here. Your carb stores are likely approaching full from the postworkout dextrose, so choices such as brown rice, sweet potatoes and whole-grain bread are smarter because they digest slower and therefore have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels. If body fat is a concern, or if you train at night, simply reduce this portion slightly.

Feeling full from your postworkout shake? Too bad. More protein at this point helps drive home the muscle building that you kick-started earlier. Aim for at least 0.25 grams per pound of bodyweight. No calculator handy? Try a 5-ounce chicken breast or filet of fish, which will feature roughly 30 to 35 grams of quality protein.

When it comes to fats, you’ll want a modest portion to aid in digestion and to support recovery. Healthy fats, such as those found in fish, olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocados, also can help boost fat burning and promote joint health. So whether your main dish is salmon or you’re drizzling some olive oil over your greens, a little fat with your first whole meal after training is a no-brainer.

Vitamin C and fish oil, which also support recovery, are best taken with food and should be kept within arm’s reach during this meal. Vitamin C helps with the synthesis of hormones, while fish oil further slows muscle breakdown and supports your soon-to-be-aching joints.

ZMA

The Window:

30 Minutes Before Bed

The Essentials:

  • 20 to 40 grams of casein
  • 3 to 5 grams of arginine
  • ZMA (as directed)

Whether you trained at the crack of dawn or just before the dinner bell, the “postworkout” window extends until lights out. Just because you’re ready to snooze doesn’t mean the recovery fairies are also going dormant. In fact, this is when those little sprites do some of their best work.

Assuming you’ve made it to your bed without noshing on a pint of gelato, your body is preparing for a seven- to 10-hour fast. And absent proper nutrition, it can easily slip back into a catabolic state. So immediately before bed, it’s a good idea to take down 20 to 40 grams of casein protein (closer to 40 if mass or strength are among your goals). Taking up to seven hours to digest, casein can help your muscles suck down much-needed amino acids throughout the night.

Arginine is great for augmenting growth-hormone production, which is highest while you sleep. Just make sure you use an arginine supplement, ideally in capsule form, that is without stimulants. ZMA — a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B-6 — also contributes to the production and maintenance of key rebuilding hormones while also contributing to a good night’s sleep.