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How To Pick The Best Post Workout Recovery Shake For Your Needs

If there’s ever a time when supplementation can have the most significant impact on lean muscle development it’s post-workout following a higher intensity resistance training session.

For decades bodybuilders and weight lifters have made it a practice to consume a post-workout protein shake and for good reason.

The idea has always been to jump start the rebuilding and repair of lean muscle. While there’s plenty of research to confirm the benefits of post-workout supplementation, it’s been my experience that a lot of folks aren’t really sure what constitutes an optimal form of supplementation for their unique needs.

Making a decision on the best post-workout recovery shake to consume will often come down to a recommendation from the guy at the local GNC or a personal trainer at the gym. Unfortunately the products they recommended may not be always be optimal for your needs.

This shouldn’t come at much of a surprise but that college kid working the counter at the local nutrition store or health club may not have a depth of knowledge on nutritional science. But let’s face it, most people don’t have a clue on what’s best so they’re likely to go with whatever is recommended.

In today’s post I’m going to reveal some tips on what to look for in determining the best post-workout recovery shake for your goals and unique needs, along with helping to clarify if you really need one in the first place.

More after the jump…

The inherent problem with post-workout recovery shakes

Simply put, there are a ton of options out there in the market for post-workout recovery drinks and the composition of these products widely varies. You’ll find some with as little as 10 grams of protein and others with more than 50 grams. Likewise, there are those with no carbs and others with as many as 75 or more grams.

The type of protein may vary, there may be special ingredients you’re not sure about. Reading the product label for a lot of these products can make your head spin. What in the world is half of this stuff and do I really need it?

Try to remember the majority of post-workout recovery shakes are designed to be marketed to bodybuilders or serious endurance athletes. In attempts to gain market share and obviously sell more products, manufacturers will go to great lengths to make their product appear superior with proprietary ingredients and the such.

In order not to get swept up in the marketing hype, it helps to know a little bit about what your body really needs post-workout in the first place. For the most part this will be determined by looking at the following factors:

What type of training was completed?

  • Long duration cardiovascular (endurance) workout
  • High intensity resistance training workout
  • Low-moderate intensity resistance training workout
  • Low-moderate intensity aerobic exercise workout

What are your primary goals and training objectives?

  • To put on weight and add a significant amount of muscle mass (get big!)
  • To add lean muscle while maintaining a relatively lean body weight
  • To perform better with endurance events and enhance recovery
  • To lose a significant amount of body fat while maintaining lean muscle

What is your current body composition?

  • I’m already somewhat close to my ideal body weight
  • I’m lean and find it hard to gain weight and muscle mass (hard gainer)
  • I’ve got more than 20 lbs of excess body fat to lose

We can go ahead an narrow things down quite a bit right here.

Endurance athletes

If you’re an endurance athlete you’ll likely be doing more of a post-workout recovery drink that a protein shake of sorts.

Your needs are going to revolve more around glycogen replenishment and electrolytes than specific nutrient timing and ratios of proteins and carbs for muscle rebuilding. This is not really my expertise and I don’t work with endurance athletes much, so to be honest I’m not up on which drinks on the market are superior.

If you fall into this category I’d consult with endurance coach or competitive triathlete to see what they recommend.

Those who don’t really need or will benefit much from a formulated post-workout recovery shake…

Let’s begin by identifying whether or not you stand to benefit much from a post-workout recovery shake in the first place. If you fall into the following categories you can look to consume some whey protein and water post workout and/or simply eat a supportive nutrition meal an hour or two after your workout.

You’re performing low-moderate intensity resistance training or aerobic workouts

You really don’t have much of a need for a formulated post-workout recovery shake so I can save you some time and money. If you fall into this category the intensity of your workouts won’t be significant enough to warrant post-workout supplementation.

Focus on eating a healthy well balanced meal within an hour or two post workout and refer back once you progress to more intense weight training sessions (if further lean muscle development is a goal of yours).

A scoop of whey protein mixed with water is an inexpensive option that can provide benefits, but you won’t necessarily need to do much in the way of immediate post workout carb replenishment.

You have 20 or more pounds of body fat to lose and weight loss is your primary objective

Individuals who are overweight typically have poor insulin sensitivity which can negate some of the benefits of consuming simple sugars that are part of most formulated post-workout recovery shakes.

If fat loss is your primary goal and you’ve got a good bit of it to lose, focus on dropping the weight while maintaining lean muscle. It’s been my experience that whey protein and water post-workout works best for these individuals.

A scoop of whey protein that provides anywhere from 15-30 grams is sufficient post-workout. Again this is to be followed up with a healthy supportive nutrition meal an hour or two later.

These individuals will want to avoid post-workout recovery shakes with a lot of carbs. Simply put, they don’t need them and the consumption of high glycemic carbs immediately post-workout can be working against their fat loss goals.

When a formulated post-workout recovery shake with carbs and protein has the most benefits

There are two categories in which a post-workout recovery shake can make a big difference:

  • Individuals who are close to their ideal body weight and wish to further lean muscle development and fat loss with higher intensity weight training workouts.
  • Individuals who are more of a “hard gainer” and wish to add weight and muscle mass with higher intensity weight training workouts.

You’ll notice that post workout recovery shakes are NOT limited just to individuals who want to get big and muscular. The common denominator is the completion of higher intensity weight training workouts which deplete muscle glycogen and break down muscle fibers.

In short, post workout recovery shakes provide the most benefit when an individual is training hard to further develop their physique. They’re not needed by those completing low-moderate intensity workouts.

This applies to women who train hard to be lean, toned, and defined, just as much as it does for men who train hard to add muscle, get ripped, etc.

Post workout supplementation with recovery shakes is all about enhancing the anabolic environment that exists in the body following an intense weight training session.

With the proper nutrient timing, the rebuilding and repair of muscle can be optimized thus allowing faster recovery and improved muscle development.

Metabolic Window of Opportunity

You may have heard about the “window of opportunity” that exists post-workout for enhancing recovery. This is very real, however it only pertains to those who have done a higher intensity workout that produced a metabolic disturbance.

In other words, if you just got done doing a 30 minute walk/jog or a light weight training session, there’s not much of a “window of opportunity.” Doesn’t matter how many calories you burned or how much you sweat during the workout.

This is all about optimizing the rebuilding of lean muscle, which requires it to be broken down with an overload stimulus in the first place.

This is a very important factor as I see a lot of trainees in health clubs drinking post-workout recovery shakes when they haven’t completed workouts that justify their use. And then they wonder why they can’t lose their belly fat, oblivious to the fact they just consumed a bunch of sugar and spiked insulin levels.

Alright, I’m going to assume from here on out that your weight training workouts are intense enough to produce a metabolic disturbance and deplete muscle glycogen so that you stand to benefit from a post workout recovery shake.

You just finished up with an intense weight training workout, now what?

The decisions you make with your nutrition over the next 45 minutes can make a big difference in the results you see from all that hard work.

Here’s why…

Immediately after an intense weight training session, muscle cells are extremely sensitive to the anabolic effects of the hormone insulin. This sensitivity however declines rapidly, hence the idea of having a “window of opportunity” to leverage the benefits of insulin stimulation.

Most of the research has shown that this metabolic window of opportunity exists immediately after your workout, peaks at around the 15-30 minute mark, and begins to close after 45 minutes.

Hitting the showers after your workout and consuming nothing, or waiting a while and just consuming a solid food meal and you’ll be missing out.

In order to get the most benefits with post workout supplementation here are your primary objectives…

Provide the body with just enough simple sugars to prime the insulin pump and initiate an anabolic state.

Enough carbs to spike insulin which serves as the transport mechanism to get nutrients into the muscle cells, but not so much that you’ve got far more sugar than your body needs.

For most individuals this will be between 15-40 grams of fast acting carbs. Individuals with a significant amount of muscle mass, athletes, or those completing longer workouts may find that 50-70 grams of carbs in a post-workout recovery shake to be appropriate.

Again, this comes to down to individual needs.  Just make sure if you’re consuming a post workout recovery shake with higher amounts of carbs that your body can benefit from it. Consuming excess simple carbs post-workout and you just may find it difficult maintaining or dropping body fat.

Remember what sugar doesn’t get replenished in the liver and muscle cells has to be stored somewhere. Also, you want to consider the type of carbs to consume immediately post workout.

Ideally you’re looking for higher glycemic, fast acting carbs from glucose, dextrose, or glucose polymers like maltodextrin. You’ll want to avoid products with higher amounts of fructose.

Getting these carbs in liquid form is optimal because there will be faster assimilation and insulin stimulation.

Provide the body with just enough protein to start the rebuilding process.

Again, too much can defeat the purpose here. For most individuals they’ll want to look at consuming somewhere between 15-40 grams of fast acting protein, preferentially from whey protein. Doing 50 plus grams of protein post-workout isn’t necessary for most individuals, even for those looking to add a good bit of muscle mass.

Granted you’ll find a lot of post workout recovery shakes with higher amounts of protein. The best thing to do is just scale down the serving size (using a scoop instead of two scoops, etc) if you don’t need that much protein and carbs.

It’s important to remember that what you’re really trying to do is simply jump start an anabolic environment. You don’t start a fire by piling on a bunch of big logs in the beginning. You start with less fuel and build up as the fire gets going.

The same thing applies with your post workout nutrition strategy. Start with a smaller amount of fuel to get things rolling (protein and carbs in liquid form) then follow that up with solid food an hour or two after.

Think about it this way…you want slower release carbs and proteins from solid foods to come AFTER fast assimilating forms of both which are consumed shortly following your workout. Ignite the fire (or anabolic response) then keep it going with a steady flow of slower release nutrients from solid foods.

My recommendation as perhaps one of the best post workout recovery shakes

Ok, let me just preface this by letting you know that this is not a paid endorsement by the manufacturer. I’m just sharing what I recommend after looking at a lot of different products.

Again the biggest problem I see with a lot of post-workout recovery shakes is overkill with carbs and protein. Mega doses of carbs and protein isn’t necessary or beneficial for most folks.

Granted you can typically scale the dosage on most products, but I like to see both protein and carbs to be more within range to begin with.

I like to see preferentially whey protein for the primary protein source and maltodextrin as the primary carb source.

I want a formulation that is low in fat content (5 grams or less). Remember fat will slow gastric emptying and while this is preferential for slow release of nutrients, now is not the time, you want to push nutrients into the muscle cells with the assistance of insulin post workout.

This is why I don’t like to use a typical meal replacement shake for post workout needs. This also includes shakes with protein blends (casein, egg protein, etc). Slower release protein blends and meal replacement shakes fill a different purpose.

Having said all of that, here is one of my top choices for a post-workout recovery shake…

Optimum Nutrition After-Max

Click here to buy from Amazon.com

I’ll include the product labels below so you can see the ingredients and nutrient totals. Notice that it contains 40 grams of carbs and 40 grams of protein. If you don’t require this much (which comes from 3 scoops) just cut the dosage in half.

This product also contains 5 grams of both creatine monohydrate and L-Glutamine which are two of my top recommend post workout supplements.

The real benefit of this product at the end of the day in my opinion is you’re getting a good ratio of the most valuable recovery agents all in one shake. There’s no need to take additional creatine, L-glutamine, etc.

Mix up in a shaker cup, drink it down real quick, then hit the showers.

This product can cover a broad base of individual needs by simply adjusting the serving sizes. I work with a lot of middle age adults and obviously they have different needs than a 20 something year old athlete or bodybuilder.

It’s hard to find a post workout recovery shake that isn’t targeted to the latter group. This one fits the bill nicely. I’m sure there are probably other products that can work equally as well, but again this is just one my top picks from what I’ve reviewed.

Optimum Nutrition After-Max
Click here to learn more or buy from Amazon.com

If you have a product you’d like me to review feel free to leave it in the comments section below.

Also feel free to leave any questions you may have. I’ve tried to go into detail on this post as this really is a subject that I find a lot of people being uncertain with. Hopefully I’ve helped to clear up some of the confusion and you’ve picked up some beneficial tips.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified Charleston personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides personal training in Charleston with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation for middle age adults. Sign up today for a no obligations consultation.

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Category: Nutrition.