Want to maximise the fat-burning and muscle-building benefits of your workouts? Then you need to pay attention to what you do and what you eat after your session. Transformation expert and founder of New Body Plan, Jon Lipsey, answers your key post-workout questions…
What’s the first thing you do after a workout?
During my session I record what I lift. At the end of the session I’ll add in a bit of extra detail so those numbers make more sense when I look back at them in a few weeks time. I’d recommend taking a few simple notes, such as giving your session a score out of 10 for the following markers: overall performance; effort levels; and technical execution. I also make a note of something I think I did well, and something I could do better next time. It could be something like making sure I properly contract my abs and get really tight when I’m squatting. If you do that you can easily make next session better by directly addressing that issue, but if you don’t write anything down then the chances are you’ll forget it.
The next thing I do is give myself a pat on the back and celebrate the fact that I went out of my way to do something difficult, that I applied myself to the session and that I’m one step closer to achieving whatever goal I’m currently shooting for. That might sound a bit cheesy but acknowledging wins makes you feel good and helps you to build good habits. It basically encourages your brain to associate exercising with reward and that, over time, will make turning up to the next session incrementally easier because you’ve primed your brain to want to train.
Do you do a cool-down?
So, this is a subject that never seems to get pinned down in the science. One recent review in the journal Sports Medicine said that “based on the empirical evidence currently available, active cool-downs are largely ineffective for improving most psychophysiological markers of post-exercise recovery.” So it doesn’t seem like there is a specific protocol that you need to follow. When you resistance train your muscles can get tight, so it seems sensible to do a bit of gentle stretching and mobility work to loosen up. I’d also avoid doing things like going straight from a tough biceps session into a prolonged period where you’re sitting at a keyboard with your arms in a fixed position because you’re going to stiffen up pretty badly. I’d say that general mobility work and proper warm-up drills at the start of a session are probably more important than what you do after a session, but a general cool down and a bit of light stretching is never going to hurt.
What do you eat?
I’ll probably have a post-workout meal about 30 to 45 minutes after my session ends. That meal will consist of a high-quality protein source, such as a chicken breast, some carbs, such as wholegrain rice, and some healthy fats, such as avocado. I’ll also add in two or three vegetables to make sure my micronutrient intake is good.
Why do you wait that long?
This is something I picked up from my friend, strength coach and educator Mike Mahler. His thinking is that one of the things you’re aiming to do after you train is limit post-workout inflammation. You do need a certain level of inflammation response, because it helps you recover from the workout, but too much inflammation is counterproductive. So you’re not trying to get rid of it entirely, you’re just trying to manage it. One way you can do that is to ensure that intense workouts don’t last longer than, say, 45 to 60 minutes because studies have shown that excessively long workouts can reduce testosterone levels and increase stress hormone levels, which will increase inflammation. Mahler’s thinking is that you also want naturally-occurring systemic enzymes to do their post-workout anti-inflammatory job, and if you eat straight after your session then these enzymes will get diverted to assisting with the digestive process. I’ve eaten this way for a few years now and it works well for me. My suggestion would be to try it and see if it works for you too.
So is the “post-workout protein synthesis window” a myth?
It’s not a myth, as such. It’s just maybe not that helpful a concept. Firstly, for the reasons I’ve outlined in the previous answer, there may be a good reason to wait a little while before consuming your post-workout meal. But you’ll notice that I only wait about 30 to 45 minutes – I don’t wait three hours. And that’s because while there may or may not be a benefit to be gained from post-workout nutrient timing, there’s almost certainly nothing to lose by consuming a meal at that time.
How important is nutrient timing, do you think?
From what I’ve read, studies do seem somewhat inconclusive. It certainly doesn’t seem to be the case that if you don’t get ‘X’ amount of protein within ‘Y’ minutes of finishing your workout that you might as well not have bothered to train. That said, if you’re looking for every single incremental advantage, then maybe nutrient timing is something that you should pay attention to. If you’re a competitive bodybuilder or an elite sportsman, there probably is something to be derived from timing your food intake. But for the average person who trains three or four times a week and wants to lose a bit of body fat, it’s probably not going to make or break their success. If you want to get more information on this subject, one of the best experts I know is the educator Eric Helms, PhD. His view is that you should roughly spread out your protein intake throughout the day and consume your daily target amount of protein in between three to six meals. According to him, if you’re doing that, that’s about as much notice as you need to take of nutrient timing.
So how can you maximise muscle protein synthesis?
If you want to get geeky about it then rather than just thinking about protein, you could dig a little deeper and concern yourself with your intake of leucine (one of the three essential branch chain amino acids), because that has been shown to have an impact on muscle protein synthesis. This is crucial because not all proteins are created equal and some contain more leucine than others. Typically, animal sources, such as beef and chicken tend to contain more than plant sources, such as lentils and soy beans. I’d aim to consume around 2-3g of leucine per meal, which you’ll get if you eat about 150g of chicken or beef.
Do you need carbs post workout?
If you’re resistance training and your session reaches a decent intensity, you will use up some stored carbohydrate, which you can replace in your post-workout meal. But if you’re doing a few standard gym sessions a week, as opposed to an elite athlete doing multiple sessions a day, then you don’t need to supplement with carbs, particularly if fat loss is your primary training goal.
Any other final tips?
Just that I’d always have my sessions planned to the extent that, when I finish one session, I always know when I’m going to do the next one. Firstly, it helps ensure that there will be a next session. If you don’t plan, it’s all too easy to put them off. And secondly, having your next session scheduled in your diary helps you in the run up to starting your pre-workout routine.