If you keep up with fitness articles and trends, you may have heard of the anabolic window. This is the idea that you should consume protein within 30 and 60 minutes after your workout. Many believe this period is the best time to consume protein and that staying in this window will optimize muscle gains. In reality, the anabolic window is a myth that can be busted by taking a look at science and research. Let’s go over the details of this theory and why it simply isn’t true.
Where Did This Idea Come From?
For many decades, bodybuilders and weight lifters have been consuming high amounts of protein after training. This is because many believe that since weight training is damaging to the muscles, you must give them fuel to repair them as soon as possible. They also believe consuming protein after a workout turns on the anabolic switch in your body, healing the microtears you just caused by lifting weights. Some bodybuilders even claim not consuming protein after a weight lifting session can make the session completely useless.
Where Did it Go Wrong?
This idea became popular after a few fitness articles came out that put a heavy emphasis on a timed consumption of protein after a workout. These articles seemed to get this idea from different studies which seemed to show small to moderate effects from consuming protein after weight lifting. As always, it is important to look at the conditions of the participants of each study before drawing any conclusions.
A study by Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and James Krieger analyzed 20 of these studies that met strict inclusion criteria. After crunching all the data, it turns out the hypertrophic differences noted in the timing studies could be explained by daily total intake. The participants who showed better results from consuming more protein afterwards were consuming much more protein throughout the day than the other participants. This completely refutes the idea the belief that you must consume protein 30 to 60 minutes after your workout.
Is the Post-Workout Anabolic Window a Myth Altogether?
We have known since as early as 1997 that weight training alone results in a long lasting elevation of muscle protein synthesis for at least 48 hours after training. We can also see that the initial spike in sensitivity to amino acids is generally after two and a half to three hours after training. Both of these numbers are much longer than the 30 to 60 minute window that many people follow.
It is also noted in a 2017 paper that the interval for protein intake may be as wide as several hours, depending on when the pre-workout meal was consumed. If amino acids are still in the system from the pre-workout meal, the specific timing of the post-workout meal is much less important. Schoenfeld and others have proposed that there is a four to six hour window around the training session, which is before and after the workout. If you eat a meal an hour before your workout, you will have more time for when you need to consume protein afterwards. If you do your workout fasted, you will have less time until you need to consume protein.
For more clarity on this, a 2017 position stand from the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends consuming protein immediately to two hours following training. However, they also suggest feeding as soon as possible after a workout, considering not eating doesn’t offer any benefits for hypertrophy.
What About Carbs?
There is an enormous amount of literature on the timing of carbohydrates after a workout to build muscles. In an assumption that we are trying to build muscle, it does not appear that the timing of carbohydrates matter that much. First, eating carbohydrates on their own to restore glycogen after a workout is futile because high-intensity resistance exercise with moderate volume has only been shown to reduce glycogen stores by 36 to 39 percent anyway. This can very easily be replenished after the workout assuming some amount of carbohydrate is being eaten within that 24 hours following training.
Eating carbs to spike insulin is also futile. This is because the amount of an insulin spike you need to see to suppress muscle protein breakdown can be accomplished through just eating protein alone or through a mixed meal. In conclusion, drinking a high glycemic shake in order to raise insulin is probably just empty carbs and will not do much for hypertrophy.
Anabolic Window and Protein
Many people view the anabolic window as exactly that–a window. People think after the window is closed after 30 minutes to two hours, they completely missed an opportunity for gains. We know it simply doesn’t work this way. We know that weight training primes the muscle to be more sensitive to amino acids for at least 24 to 48 hours after training. In the context of sufficient total daily protein intake, the specific timing of post-workout protein matters much less.
Rather than thinking of the anabolic window as an on and off switch where you can either flick it on after training, or else it stays completely off, think of it as a turn dial. This is because you can turn it up to varying degrees based on how you time your protein feedings, but if you miss that time, you can still get that dial turned most of the way up and make progress. If you have worried about wasting a workout because you missed your anabolic window, hopefully this blog post helped you understand that your workouts are not wasted as long as you consume protein daily.