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Post-Exercise Protein
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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The Journal of Physiology recently reported a study that tracked 13 subjects over 12 weeks. One group took a protein-containing supplement immediately after resistance training. The other waited for 2 hours before taking protein. The immediate protein group saw significant increases in muscle mass, dynamic strength (strength in moving a weight) and isometric strength (strength without movement). The 2-hour delay group saw only improved dynamic strength. The study notes "We conclude that an early intake of an oral protein supplement after resistance training is important for the development of hypertrophy in skeletal muscle." 

Probably the most important type of protein intake after a resistance training workout is simply a gram or two of leucine (which is contained in just a few grams of whey protein such as EAS Simply Protein). Even if you're waiting 45 minutes to eat a whole meal after workouts in order to maximize fat burning, I'd still recommend that little bit of protein. 20 or 30 calories of immediate whey protein isn't going to sacrifice fat loss, but it can evidently have a significant impact on your muscle gains. The scientific evidence on the importance of post-exercise leucine continues to mount. As one recent review puts it: "One particularly noteworthy advance is the identification of the unique specificity of leucine in signaling to stimulate protein synthesis in skeletal muscle."

Most of the recent research has focused on the benefits of immediate protein intake on muscle gain. But a new study by Japanese researchers suggests that it also helps to shift the composition of weight loss toward more fat loss and less muscle loss. The study, "New approach for weight reduction by a combination of diet, resistance exercise and the timing of ingesting a protein supplement" split subjects into 2 groups. One followed resistance exercise with a supplement including 10 grams of protein (about 40 calories) and about 7 grams of carbohydrate (about 28 calories), while the other group did not. Both groups followed otherwise equivalent programs, including a reduced-calorie nutrition plan.

After 12 weeks, both groups lost significant body WEIGHT, but the no-meal group lost both fat and fat-free mass and had a significantly negative nitrogen balance (a sign of muscle loss). The immediate-supplement group lost primarily fat while retaining muscle. The immediate-supplement group also evidently maintained a higher resting metabolic rate, which the researchers suggested "might be associated with an increase in body protein synthesis."

Remember, high-intensity exercise is a form of stress, and stress raises the level of a hormone called cortisol which triggers muscle breakdown. Even about 40 calories of whey protein (or 1-2 grams of free-form leucine) is evidently enough to trigger new protein synthesis. This is useful after both weight training and cardio workouts. After weight workouts, you might also combine that protein intake with a few grams of carbohydrate (even the amount in a serving of Betagen or an ounce of apple juice). This can shut down cortisol without significantly impairing your fat-loss progress. If you're after fat loss too, you should still wait about 45 minutes before having a more complete meal. But the research is increasingly clear that a little bit of protein-rich nutrition - less than 100 calories - can be very effective after workouts.

Even better, another recent study concludes that if you're restricting your energy intake by eating less, protein supplements including BCAA's (for instance, supplementing with a few grams of whey protein) can help to accelerate the loss of "visceral fat" - the very dangerous kind of fat that often accumulates in the abdomen and around the organs - without muscle loss. The study notes "BCAA supplementation (76% leucine) in combination with moderate energy restriction [i.e. a reduced calorie nutrition plan] has been shown to induce significant and preferential losses of visceral adipose tissue and to allow maintenance of a high level of performance."

How much do you have to eat after weight training to get an effect? Surprisingly little. In one study, there was a marked effect from only about 100 calories of total intake. A recent study in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology & Metabolism involved a small post-exercise meal (10 g protein, 8 g carbohydrate, 3 g fat) either immediately (EARLY) or 3 hours (LATE) after 60 min of moderate-intensity exercise. The "EARLY" group showed nearly triple the rate of energy utilization and protein synthesis, resulting in significantly greater muscle gains. Interestingly, though essential amino acids were taken up by the muscles in the "EARLY" group, they were actually released from muscle in the "LATE" group (this implies muscle loss in the group that waited 3 hours before eating).

This underscores an important fact: if you work out and you do not follow up with proper nutrition, you can very well lose muscle rather than gain it. It's absolutely essential to think of exercise and nutrition as a package deal. As Shawn Phillips says, "The one thing is everything." If there's one thing that will create results - just one thing - it's to follow a program that integrates everything: effective workouts, proper nutrition, rest, everything.

Again, it may help fat loss to wait about 45 min after workouts to eat a significant meal. But the research is increasingly unanimous that at least a little bit of leucine (even the amount contained in 5-7 grams of whey protein) should be part of your post-workout nutrition.



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