Saturday, October 6, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 4: Nutrient Timing



In the last post I talked about how important proper nutrition is for building muscle and strength. While researching the topic of nutrition I happened across an interesting theory that argues that you could build extra muscle from your workouts by simply timing your intake of certain nutrients before and after your workouts.

After toying around with nutrient timing for a few months I have found that it will help you grow several pounds of muscle in just a couple of weeks (so long as your workouts are intense enough)!

What is Nutrient Timing?
Essentially, nutrient timing is a 24-hour eating schedule that is started by an intense 30- to 45-minute workout. By eating a few easily-digestible nutrients before and after each workout, as well as eating highly-nutritious meals in-between each workout, you can enhance how much muscle you can grow. More specifically, by correctly timing your nutrient intake you can elevate a hormone that accelerates muscle synthesis while suppressing a hormone that breaks down muscle.

Recap on Building Muscle
Before I talk about this technique, I want to recap how muscle is grown so that I can better explain why nutrient timing works so well. As I talked about in the introduction of this series, building or losing muscle can be reduced to a very simple formula:

Muscle Synthesis - Muscle Degradation =  Muscle Growth, Maintenance, or Loss

Another way of putting this is to say that if you experience:
  • More muscle synthesis than muscle degradation then you grow muscle overall.
  • More muscle degradation than muscle synthesis then you lose muscle overall.
  • The same amount of muscle synthesis and degradation then you maintain the muscle you have. 
So, if you want to build muscle very quickly then you have to both minimize muscle degradation and enhance muscle synthesis.

Cortisol and Muscle Degradation
Of course, for you to grow muscle of any kind you have to signal a need for this additional muscle. This need can be simulated by 30-45 minutes of intense exercise 5-6 days a week. If these exercise sessions are intense enough, then hormones will be released that can enhance muscle growth.

However, the big problem with intense exercise is that the abuse that signals a need for muscle growth also creates physical stress and depletes sugar stores, both of which results in the additional release of the stress hormone cortisol. (1,2,3)

Why should you care about elevated levels of cortisol? It works against your ability to build muscle. While cortisol is dealing with stress and maintaining blood sugar levels it also does its other jobs: Mobilizing amino acids from muscle cells and slowing down immune cells as they try to fix exercise-damaged muscle cells. Taken together, cortisol can cause muscle degradation and inhibit muscle synthesis. (1,2,3)

Insulin and Muscle Synthesis
Earlier, I mentioned that muscle growth happens when there is more muscle synthesis than muscle degradation. This muscle synthesis is facilitated by anabolic hormones. While testosterone and growth hormone are the better known anabolic hormones, insulin is the muscle-growing hero of nutrient timing.

Insulin is a storage hormone that can store sugar, fat, and protein. When protein is stored in muscle (as amino acids), these muscles will grow.

Insulin not only shoves more protein and sugar into muscle cells, it also extends the life of the potent anabolic hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). The longer IGF-1 remains active, the more muscle cells proliferate and grow. (4)

Finally, insulin increases blood flow to and from muscles. This speeds nutrients into exercised muscles and quickly gets rid of metabolic waste that can hinder performance, recovery, or growth. (2)

Nutrient Timing and Muscle Growth
Nutrient timing usually starts with easily-digestible pre- and post-workout drinks that contain starch, protein, and a few essential nutrients.

The starch found in these drinks helps maintain blood sugar levels after your workout, which prevents excess cortisol from being produced to do the same thing. This reduction of cortisol limits muscle degradation and allows the immune system to repair muscle damage more effectively. (1,2,3)

Insulin levels will also rise in response to this starch, which will help rapidly refill muscle cell sugar stores (glycogen). Insulin will also shuttle consumed protein and essential nutrients into muscle cells, helping aid in recovery and growth. (1,2)

With its ability to reduce the muscle-destroying hormone cortisol, while also elevating the anabolic hormone insulin, nutrient timing can boost muscle synthesis and prevent muscle degradation. This creates and environment that can turbo-charge your exercise program's ability to build muscle.


Using Nutrient Timing
Nutrient timing is comprised of three phases: Energy, Anabolic, and Growth. Each phase is important for suppressing the production of extra cortisol, enhancing the secretion of insulin, and allowing rapid muscle recovery and growth from intense exercise. (1,2)

Energy Phase
An intense workout starts the first phase of nutrient timing. During the energy phase, stored energy (e.g., creatine phosphate, sugar, and fat) is expended to fuel a workout. The more energy that can be released (especially stored sugar) the more intense the exercise can be. (1,2)

This phase of nutrient timing is supported with a starch/protein drink consumed 10-15 minutes before a workout. The pre-workout drink will: (1,2)
  • Prevent the drop in blood sugar that can cause the release of additional cortisol.
  • Increase blood flow to and from muscles, increasing their capacity for energy output.
  • Limit immune response.
  • Minimize muscle damage.
  • Enhance the cortisol-reducing ability of the anabolic and growth phases that follow.

The pre-workout drink contains: (1,2)

Anabolic Phase
After exercising with great intensity (e.g., heavy weights), your muscle cells start to take in sugar from the blood without insulin to rebuild sugar stores. This can drop your blood sugar below a point that your brain is comfortable with, causing the stress hormone cortisol to be secreted. Cortisol will force stored sugar from muscle and liver cells into the blood, which will interfere with the repair and growth of muscle cells damaged during your workout (known as a catabolic response). (1,2,3)

You can prevent this catabolic response by consuming a starch/protein drink within 45-minutes of completing your workout. This period is known as the anabolic window because the body is most receptive to the post-workout drink during this time. If the recovery drink is consumed after this 45-minute window, cortisol levels will become too high, creating insulin resistance (because cortisol counter-regulates insulin), and making the drink progressively less effective. After 2 hours it is completely ineffective at enhancing muscle synthesis. (1,2)

The post-workout drink will: (1,2)
  • Enhance muscle synthesis and inhibit muscle degradation.
  • Accelerate the movement of metabolic waste from muscle through increased blood flow.
  • Accelerate the regeneration of muscle glycogen stores.
  • Reduce muscle damage.
  • Boost the immune system, accelerating tissue repair.

The post-workout drink contains: (1,2)

Growth Phase
During this phase, exercise-damaged muscles should be growing and glycogen stores depleted during exercise should be replenished.

To sustain the muscle-building momentum built up by the first two phases, consume a non-liquid meal about 1-4 hours after consuming the post-workout drink. This meal should be comprised of safe starches (e.g., white rice, potatoes, root vegetables) and high-quality protein (animal protein of some kind). (1,2)

Include whole milk with this meal as well. Whole milk has been shown to increase muscle synthesis on its own (likely due to the muscle-building effect of the milk protein casein and milk's ability to increase IGF-1 release). (5)

A Few Caveats About Nutrient Timing
As awesome as nutrient timing is, it has to be used correctly: Consuming high-starch/protein drinks at any time other than immediately before and after your workouts will likely encourage you to build fat, not muscle. This is because the intensity of your workouts sets the stage for the anabolic magic of nutrient timing. So, if you have not just worked out (intensely), don't use these drinks. (1,2)

Sucrose (e.g., table sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup) is not a recommended carbohydrate source. The fructose part of this sugar has to be converted by the liver before it can be utilized by the body (the glucose portion goes directly into the bloodstream). If too much sucrose is consumed in a day (more than 30-50 grams per day) then the body can experience a stress response, which can elevate cortisol levels. (6)

Finally, nutrient timing doesn't build muscle, intense exercise does. Nutrient timing only creates an environment that is more responsive to intense exercise. Without engaging in intense exercise, nutrient timing will do nothing for muscle growth.

Conclusion
Nutrient timing is a way to enhance muscle synthesis and inhibit muscle degradation. It does this by using pre- and post-workout starch/protein drinks to spike the anabolic (muscle building) hormone insulin while suppressing the catabolic (muscle destroying) hormone cortisol. If these drinks come just before and after an intense workout, and followed by several nutrient-dense, toxin-free meals (containing safe starches and high-quality protein), then you should experience a rapid increase in muscle and strength.

In the next installment of this series I'll spend more time talking about the anabolic and catabolic hormones that can create muscle, or destroy it.


References
1. Chambers, Ashley and Kravitz, Len. Nutrient Timing: The New Frontier in Fitness Performance. UNM.edu. [Online] [Cited: February 20, 2012.] http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/nutrientUNM.html.
2. Ivy, John. Nutrient Timing. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004.
3. Farris, Russell. Potbelly Syndrome. Laguna Beach, CA : Basic Health Publication, Inc., 2005.
4. Lindeberg, Staffan. Food and Western Disease. Ames, Iowa : John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010.
5. Elliot, Tabatha A., et al. Milk Ingestion Stimulates Net Muscle Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise. s.l. : American College of Sports Medicine, 2005.
6. Yudkin, John. Sugar: Pure, White, and Deadly. New York City : HarperCollins, 1972.

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