Advice doesn't have to be complicated to be effective. The simpler the advice, the more likely it will be applied in the real world, thus the more likely it will produce the desired result.
If you can't summarize your theories in less than a few minutes, then either your kohai (student) won't understand it, you don't really understand it, you're trying to sound too smart, or the material is so complex that it won't work in real life situations.
Since I'm coming close to the end of my rookie season here on T NATION, I figured I'd give you a short, practical summary of what we've covered so far regarding fat loss nutrition. Colleagues, clients, and friends have called it a Paleo-meets-Sports Nutrition hybrid approach.
Here are the Cliff Notes:
- A Paleo/caveman-style diet is a simple template from which everyone can start. Eliminating most man-made, modern, processed, and refined foods and emphasizing natural foods that we evolved from can go a long way in improving health markers while helping achieve physique enhancement goals.
- However, high intensity exercise creates a unique metabolic environment and changes how the body processes nutrients for 24-48 hours upon completion of a training session. If you exercise 3-5 days a week, your body is virtually in recovery mode 100% of the time. It's an altered physiological state beyond pure resting conditions, thus its nutritional needs are completely different from the average, sedentary, overweight office worker.
- We should keep in mind that surviving in the wild during caveman times is different than achieving elite performance or physique goals in modern times. "Life extensionism" at the cost of a sickly appearance, low libido/Testosterone, and an overall lack of "bad-assery" is not what the average T NATION guy is looking for.
- Just like the sedentary person shouldn't get caught up in following Food Pyramid dogma, the strength-training athlete shouldn't get caught up in following no-carb dogma. Treating sick populations (insulin resistant, obese, etc.) is not advising athletes. Targeted carbohydrate intake can help the athlete fuel, recover from, and respond to intense strength training sessions.
This is my approach, based on my education and experiences. But it's not the only way. I encourage you to take some personal accountability and self-experiment to find what works best for you.
Just remember, there's more than one way to skin a cat, or more appropriately for us, to peel off body fat.
The Lost Art of Post Workout Nutrition
I've talked a lot about Paleo Nutrition specifics. This time around, lets talk about some Sports Nutrition specifics. Efficiency means starting with the most important thing first right? The key, core concept in Sports Nutrition is post-workout nutrition.
Before the rise of information overload, practical advice regarding post-workout nutrition was simple – down some damn protein and carbs as soon as you can after finishing your workout.
Lately, I've seen a disturbing trend rising amongst the gym population, particularly amongst those who fall victim to over-intellectualizing or over-theorizing everything. Turns out some scientist or evolutionary theorist somewhere stated that carbs in the post-workout period inhibit the fat burning environment created by exercise.
Thus, people are starting to believe that to maximize fat loss, you must go low carb all the time, even in the critical post-workout window.
I can hear Donnie Brasco right now, "Forget about it."
The result is that the Sports Nutrition principle that's more important for producing physique development results than anything else, namely combining protein with carbs in the post-workout period, has been lost. These days I have to fight with people to get them to include some damn carbs in their post-workout meal.
Unfortunately, a few T NATION readers have fallen under this spell. I've had to help several regular Nation readers uncover the underlying problem concerning their lack of physique enhancement results despite consistent and intense training protocols.
The #1 culprit was a lack of carbs in the post-workout recovery period. For too long, many of us have been living on "A Nightmare on Carb Street."
It's time to wake up.
What to do can be explained in a sentence: down some Surge Recovery and/or eat a post-workout meal combining protein with carbohydrates in a 1:1 to 1:2 ratio after every strength training workout. Whole food examples include fish and rice, egg/egg white mixtures and rice cakes, chicken and yam, steak and potato, etc.
If you're already doing that, you're done. You're probably getting good results and don't need to read on. The rest of this article is geared towards those who've somehow been confused into thinking that post-workout protein/carb combos are detrimental to their physique goals.
Unfortunately, the why – the science behind simple practical recommendations – can get pretty complex. However, it's a worthwhile endeavor to learn a little bit. It gives you the knowledge-base necessary to separate fact from the brown stuff that comes out of a bull's backside. It helps you stick to the fundamentals of physique enhancement and not get pulled off track by highly intelligent theorists, but equally lacking in real world practical experience.
The Problem with No Carbs Post Workout
When most people think of getting shredded, they think of fat loss only. This often results in extreme calorie/carb cuts and exercise protocols that can be counterproductive in the long-term due to the presence of a chronic catabolic environment. For example, hours of cardio a day and cutting out lettuce because it contains 1g of carbohydrate.
Short-term catabolism is beneficial, as it helps us break down stored energy nutrients for fuel, both as glycogen or body fat. But chronic, long-term catabolism is highly problematic for physique enhancement goals. This ultimately leads to muscle loss and body fat gain despite high activity levels and low food intake.
So physique athletes can't just think about "burning" stuff off all the time, even during fat loss phases. We also have to pay attention to recovery and muscle growth, or at the very least, lean muscle maintenance. Enter post-workout nutrition.
I like to think of this as the "yin & yang" of physique enhancement. We need balance in everything in life.
When one side is unbalanced, such as when a sedentary person consistently eats refined carbohydrates, insulin is chronically elevated, and there's too much "anabolic" activity – the body is always in storage mode, including storing body fat. If this isn't offset with "catabolic" activity or the burning off of stored nutrients through exercise, the net effect is "Pillsbury Doughboy-ville."
What happens when the other side of that equation becomes unbalanced is a little more complicated.
If you lean too much in the other direction (i.e. performing intense activity while chronically restricting calories/carbs, especially post-workout), there are negative consequences. Most notably, a lack of physique development and body composition change despite sincere effort.
Exercise is a catabolic activity. We all know it causes microscopic damage/tears in the muscle tissue. But what some have forgotten is that this catabolic process must be offset with an anabolic recovery period for physical adaptation to take place. Muscular repair – an anabolic process – only occurs with proper nutritional intake.
If you perform high intensity strength training but don't include some protein and carbs for recovery, what you end up with is cortisol over-dominance and a constant catabolic state. This over-dominance of cortisol is compounded by two lifestyle factors:
- Our modern lifestyles, especially those of career-driven professionals, are highly stressful. Cortisol levels are chronically high due to the stress of corporate life. You don't want to add to this negative hormonal environment with improper post-workout nutrition. Otherwise, what's intended to be beneficial (exercise) ends up being counterproductive by contributing even more to chronically elevated cortisol levels.
- Those who lack real anaerobic fuel from carbohydrate intake often make up for it with artificial energy coming from stimulants (coffee, energy drinks, fat burning pills). Now there's considerable research that caffeine, in moderation, is beneficial for fat burning, but the key, as with most things in life, is moderation.
This is the exact scenario that plays out with many strength-training athletes who strictly adhere to low carbohydrate diets. They're confused, thinking the low carb diet plans that are the best for sedentary populations are also the best for them. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The result of this hormonal environment is the "Skinny-Fat Syndrome." Guys and gals who consistently train hard, follow the low-carb trend, think they're doing everything right, are lean everywhere else, but hold flab right around the midsection. Oddly enough, it's too low of a carbohydrate intake, and it's the refusal to offset catabolic activity with an anabolic recovery period that's keeping them fat.
These athletes may be improving performance parameters (improving strength, endurance, ability to perform a specific like max pull-ups, deadlift max, etc.), but their appearance isn't changing. In many instances, it's getting worse.
It's much easier to improve performance on a sub-par diet than it is to improve appearance. Fact is, for the person with average genetics and choosing a natural route, it's impossible to improve appearance on a sub-par diet.
Yes, if carbs are overeaten it will inhibit the fat loss process. Chronic elevation or overproduction of insulin can of course lead to fat gain. But in the right amounts and situations (i.e. following an intense workout where insulin sensitivity is high), it can be a good thing (anabolic, anti-catabolic).
As counterintuitive as it sounds, some carbs in the diet can offset the catabolic activity of exercise (insulin is a counter-regulatory hormone to cortisol), can initiate the recovery and repair process, can help build lean muscle, and can help burn fat in the recovery period.
I've worked with physique athletes who got over their misconceptions and "carbophobia," leaned up, and reached personal, record low body fat percentages by adding carbs back into their diet; starting of course, with the post-workout period.
The Inhibition of Fat Burning Myth
The biggest argument I hear against carbs post-workout is that they'll inhibit optimum fat burning. This may be true at other times of the day, under normal physiological conditions, but it's not true in the unique environment created by intense strength training.
As bodybuilding nutritionist Chris Aceto accurately stated, carbs have a "metabolic priority" in the post-workout period. The strength training athlete cycles periods of glycogen depletion with glycogen restoration, and in the post-workout period, even a high carb intake doesn't get stored as body fat.
Again, the prevailing confusion in our industry is due to dietary principles that are great for sedentary populations being extrapolated and applied across the board, even with athletes.
In the post-workout period, the main priority of ingested glucose is to refill depleted glycogen stores. As this is happening, fatty acids fuel normal resting energy requirements.
There's a lot more we can talk about regarding this topic, such as the effect of carb and protein levels on the free Testosterone:cortisol ratio in response to exercise, changes in glucose transporters, and the glycogen synthase enzyme in response to exercise, etc.
That's A Wrap
But these are all more about the why then the what to do with post-workout nutrition. For now, follow my advice and return to the simple: take in some protein and carbs post-workout, even when prioritizing fat loss. You may need to cut the carbs at other times during the day, but you shouldn't cut them in the post-workout period.
1. Kimber, et al. Skeletal muscle fat and carbohydrate metabolism during recovery from glycogen-depleting exercise in humans. J Physiol. 2003 May 1;548(Pt 3):919-27.