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Carb Or No Carbs With Post Workout Nutrition?

There has been a long standing belief in the fitness industry that a post workout shake is a very effective way to speed up the recovery and rebuilding process of lean muscle.

While I would certainly agree, there are some specifics to what goes in the shake that I tend to disagree on with some of the so called experts.

Specifically it has to do with the use of carbohydrates in your post-workout shake.

For years the recommended protocol was to consume whey protein with some simple sugars as fast acting carbohydrates to facilitate an insulin response whereby amino acids could rapidly get into the muscle cells.

The use of carbohydrate loading pre and post workout has been widely championed by the body-building and running communities for decades.

For the advanced bodybuilder or endurance runner there may be rationale to carbohydrate pre and post workout loading but for the average individual looking to lose weight who is not participating in long-duration workouts, this strategy may be extremely counterproductive.

I remember reading an interview a few years back by fat loss expert Mauro Dispasquale where he recommended no carbs with the post-workout protein shake until the individual was lean.

This went against everything I’d read and heard up to that point but it got my attention and I decided to investigate further.

Upon further research and some trial and error experimentation I’ve discovered he was absolutely right!

I think this area gets a lot of controversy because there’s no one right or wrong way to strategize post-workout nutrition. It all depends on the individual, their training regiment, and the desired outcomes.

For the purpose of this discussion I’m not going to talk about the needs of bodybuilders or endurance runners. These aren’t the people I work with on an every day basis. I’m going to talk about my recommendations for the typical middle age adult who simply wants to lose unwanted body fat and get lean.

These individuals are not competing in bodybuilding contests, running marathons, or participating in the CrossFit games. They’re doing resistance training 2-3 times per week and getting in some cardio with workouts that are typically less than 45 minutes in duration.

Equally important is that they’re not already lean or super-fit.

We’re talking about individuals who have higher levels of body fat and are likely to have some degree of low insulin sensitivity or insulin resistance.

This is the critical factor to take into consideration.

The objective for these individuals is to improve insulin sensitivity and stabilize blood sugar levels. Therefore the post-workout nutrition strategy of choice should be one that focuses on health improvement through these markers.

If you were to totally top-off glycogen stores by using carbohydrate loading post-workout, you’d be impairing insulin sensitivity and making it awful tough on yourself to lean out.

For the individual who isn’t already lean, their post workout nutrition strategy should be focused on muscular recovery and growth while ALSO minimizing the effects of insulin or carbohydrate.

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So how would you accomplish this?

My recommendation is to use a high quality whey protein powder (20-25 grams is fine) and mix it with water or Thai coconut milk.

The reason you want to be avoiding regular milk is we don’t want the insulin response from the lactose.

The Thai coconut milk and whey protein concoction can be very effective as it provides quickly digested protein with just a bit of fat suppress the normal glucose release of a large protein meal via glucagon.

You could also use coconut flakes, chia seeds, milled flax seeds, etc, to provide a small amount of fat to the post-workout shake. Not essential but it could be worth the time and effort.

If you don’t add the coconut milk, flakes, etc, and elect to use just whey protein and water you’ll still be far better off than consuming the traditional carb plus protein post-workout shake.

I should note however, there is pretty compelling evidence that you’d want to switch this up from time to time as you get leaner. Incorporating a high carb post-workout shake or meal every 5-7 days could be very helpful in offsetting the typical hormonal down-regulation that sets in with low-carb strategies.

This all comes back to the metabolic profile most associated with optimal health and effective aging….which is the ability to metabolize fat for energy.

For the typical overweight individual who is a “sugar burner” this is going to take some work conditioning your body to become a “fat burner.” While low-carb approaches (notice I didn’t say “no-carb”), can be very effective at improving insulin sensitivity, you still need to occasionally switch things up.

It’s the same reason why calorie restrictive diets don’t work long-term. The human body doesn’t work that way. You restrict long enough and protective mechanisms kick in to down-regulate metabolism and hormonal secretion. This is where you get into the dreaded weight loss plateau.

What’s once of the best ways to break the down-regulation cycle? Occasional bouts of glycolysis or in plain English…consuming larger amounts of carbs.

The whole secret with carbohydrate consumption while trying to get lean is to restrict starches and most simple sugars for a while (except fruits and vegetables) and then occasionally “re-feed” by putting the starches back in.

Think about it as “restrict then re-feed.” This is the best approach to working in conjunction with the metabolic processes of your body to condition yourself to become efficient as a fat burner.

A few side notes to this subject of post-workout nutrition for the individual looking to get lean.

Number one is to avoid consuming high levels of protein with your post-workout shake or meal. You don’t need a ton of protein here and more is certainly not better. From my experience anywhere between 15-30 grams is more than sufficient.

The last thing you want to be doing is consuming 40-50 grams plus of protein shortly after completing an intense workout. This will only facilitate an insulin response much in the same way carbohydrates would.

A scoop of whey protein powder mixed with water or coconut milk is going to be the ideal recipe most of the time.

Second is to not be paranoid about thinking you have to drink the shake immediately after your workout. There’s a ton of talk about this “window of opportunity” you have with getting amino acids into the cells following a workout. Don’t get hung up on this.

There’s no significant advantage of downing your shake immediately after you get off the floor from your workout. Protein synthesis which pretty much comes to a halt during intense exercise, will still be quite low for a while. Just make sure to get in a shake or post-workout meal within an hour or so following your workout.

What you don’t want to be doing is going several hours in a fasting state following your workout or consuming a really heavy meal shortly thereafter.

You want fast assimilating protein and possibly a bit of fat to suppress glucose release like we talked about.

A whey protein shake or a light meal of lean protein and veggies will work just fine.

So there you have it. If you want to get lean, leave out the carb-loading with your post-workout shakes MOST of the time.

Above all listen to your body and when something’s not working switch it up.

Shane Doll is a certified Charleston fitness trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts. With a staff of over 10 certified fitness professionals, Shaping Concepts provides personal fitness programs with a specialty on weight loss and body transformation. You can receive a FREE, no-obligations (2) session personal training trial and consultation to experience the difference for yourself.

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Category: Nutrition.