Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He is based in Auckland, New Zealand.
There’s a common fear in weights rooms around the world that if you don’t start guzzling your protein shake within seconds of your last biceps curl then all of your hard work will be wasted. The example may be silly but it stems from something that’s a legitimate concern – the idea that when you take on nutrients influences the effect they have on your body.
I like to break the subject of nutrient timing into three parts – timing for the week, timing for the day and timing around your workout. Timing for the week concerns the distribution of your macronutrients throughout the week. If you do carb cycling or you have a re-feed day, for example, that might involve different levels of nutrient intake. Timing for the day means how frequently and how many meals I eat per day. Timing for the workout means I am concerned with the nutrients I take in either side of my session. And, ultimately, does that have an impact on the things I care about?
Eating isn’t cheating
If we’re looking at changes within the week, the biggest nutrient intake adjustment is going to be around a re-feed day where you increase your total calorie intake, often with a significant increase in carbohydrates. Re-feeds are a broad subject and they’re always built around the idea of retaining lean body mass and losing body fat. That’s what it really comes down to. People can argue whether it’s about the hormone leptin; am I burning more calories from it; is it just glycogen replenishment; is it a mental break? People get into wars on the internet over this stuff but the truth is that we don’t 100% know.
We use re-feeds to minimise metabolic adaption but I’m not going to pretend to tell you exactly how it works. I could tell you about all of the potential pathways and we could have a debate about it and waste our time. But what I am going to tell you is that recent research suggests that there are body composition benefits to approaching a diet with intermittent versus linear calorie and carbohydrate restriction[1-3].
The way I like to use re-feeds is to start by using one a week. I take my clients roughly to where their maintenance calorie intake level is, primarily from an increase in carbohydrate. That is an easy, straightforward mental break that refuels glycogen, satisfies some of the theoretical benefits related to leptin and gets the job done.
The studies relating to this subject haven’t been done on bodybuilders, they’ve been done on overweight women trying to lose weight. But they do seem to show that a steady deficit and the same calorie intake all the time does not appear to be as effective for losing maximal body fat with maximal retention of lean body mass as an intermittent approach, where you have some days where you’re basically not dieting. And the theoretical rationale tells us that this should work even better in someone who is already lean.
It is worth pointing out that I don’t believe that re-feeds are a big picture piece of your diet. This is detail stuff. My colleagues at 3DMJ Jeff Alberts and Brad Loomis have been in the game a long time and got absolutely shredded without ever initially using re-feeds so you can definitely lose body fat and get shredded without it. However, a re-feed might be a successful strategy to make the process more efficient.
The tactical bump day
How you do a re-feed is going to vary from person to person and there is no right or wrong way. Sometimes I’ll increase re-feed frequency as someone gets leaner. Sometimes they’re doing fine without it, they’re losing fat and they don’t like the idea of a high calorie day so we’ll leave it out. I usually place the re-feed on the same day each week so there’s a consistent weekly bodyweight average that we can compare. And then I might add a small bump up in calories on another day because sometimes that 10g increase of carbs can make a huge difference when you’re beat up from dieting.
That’s not really a re-feed – it’s just saying, you know what, on Wednesday we’re going to give you some breathing room so I want you to eat an extra 10-25g of carbs. Or, ok, you tend to feel beaten up after four low calorie days but you’re still losing fat well so why don’t we go higher with our calories every fifth day and see if we can lose fat at the same rate. It’s about making the diet more sustainable. It’s much more pragmatic than it is mechanistic. So we know it works. How it works? Ask me again in ten years.
Do you even eat, bro?
The big question for nutrient timing within the day is how often should I be eating? Now, I’m going to go off on a slight, but necessary, tangent here. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the term ‘bro-science’. Well, I want to step out of this ridiculous paradigm that there’s science and bro-science because the things we may call bro-science or we disparage now may be things that had research behind them and were well thought out and used only five or six years ago.
The whole idea of eating really frequently to try to maintain lean body mass and increase energy expenditure actually had research behind it. That research just happens to have been proven wrong, or we understand the limitations or the down sides of that approach. So it didn’t just stem from a couple of guys saying, ‘let’s do it, bro!’ In fact, some of the stuff that I say today will probably be labeled as bro-science in 18 months. Knowledge evolves, so don’t use knowledge to make yourself feel superior to someone who might think differently or hasn’t read the same thing as you. Got that? Good.
The traditional view around meal frequency was that you should eat a whole lot of them. The thinking went that is was better for muscle retention, for hunger regulation, for calories expended and so you would get leaner faster. Also, some bodybuilders have a very high calorie need and it’s just impractical to eat 2,000 calorie meals each time you eat. If you have to eat over 6,000 calories per day, maybe you’re going to eat six, seven or eight meals.
As we’ve dug a little deeper into the research what we’ve found is that moderation seems to win. When you go really low or really high – below three meals a day or above six meals a day – you can (but not always will) run into issues, with hunger control primarily. But sometimes it can also affect lean body mass retention. This makes sense because if you’re only eating every once in a while you go for long periods when you don’t get to eat and you get hungry. If you eat every hour, every time you eat it’s never satisfying. So if you’re eating at a very high frequency, you’re food focused but you’re not satisfied. Somewhere in the middle is that sweet spot where you eat enough to feel ok and you don’t start looking at the clock after two hours.
Hedge your protein bets
With protein intake there’s some recent research that hasn’t been fully fleshed out yet looking at acute studies covering periods of not longer than a day and most of them are only 6-12 hours. Or they’ve been done over a longer period but they’ve only been done on an animal model.
Those studies suggest that large feedings, spread out, might be the best way to efficiently use your protein intake. At worst, it only matters how much you take in during the whole day. But at best, it might be beneficial to spread your protein out. And I’d rather bet on a potential that has no risk. So my advice is to evenly spread out your protein intake over however many meals you decide to eat that is not less than three and not more than six. That’s about as much meal timing as you need as a bodybuilder, in my opinion. The rest comes down to the personal preference that makes your diet most sustainable.
The case for carbs
Let’s get down to the smallest, the acute, nutrient timing scenario: peri-workout nutrition, which is placing your nutrients strategically around your training to optimise the response.
The research about carbohydrate use around workouts started with endurance athletes. When these athletes get glycogen-depleted they can’t perform as well. So glycogen is something you care about if you’re an endurance athlete. But we’re not endurance athletes. So do we need carbs pre- and post-workout? Perhaps, but not for the purpose of glycogen replenishment so we can go run a marathon. So all of these studies that show rapid increases in muscle glycogen are better right after your workout shouldn’t really matter to a bodybuilder. Sure, it’s true, but it doesn’t matter.
There are times where it may be warranted, such as in the situation of contest prep, to consider placing carbohydrates around your workout. Maybe if you’re fasted and you’re on low calories and low carbohydrates and you haven’t eaten for a long time. Even though we’re not doing endurance training there is some glycogen depletion that occurs from lifting weights. A moderate volume training programme for one body part may deplete the muscle by 30-40%[8,9].
If you’re already glycogen-depleted going into it then you may have some issues mid-workout. So if you know you’re going to have to do a fasted workout in the morning maybe you have some more carbs before you go to bed or you have some quick-acting carbs right before you train. Or even consider some intra-workout carbohydrate. So there are times when it’s warranted but most of the time, if you’re training three-to-six days a week for an hour of just lifting weights with intermittent rest periods, glycogen is not going to be the limiting factor for performance.
Here’s another example where carbs might be useful around a workout. You need to get a day in where you’re training legs in the morning and doing a high-intensity interval training session in the evening. Sounds like it sucks, right? But it might happen. So perhaps it makes sense to have carbohydrates around both sessions so you can maintain as much performance as possible in this not so ideal situation.
What might matter more to a bodybuilder than carbohydrate timing is protein timing. Incidentally, some of the arguments for why we need to take carbohydrates around a session are not just about glycogen. It may be because it spikes insulin, which perhaps prevents muscle protein breakdown, which means we can adapt more quickly and more efficiently to our weight training. It’s a fair hypothesis and we tested it and we found, guess what? You get an insulin response to protein. And it’s actually the same amount that maximises the minimisation of muscle protein breakdown. So, do we need carbs and protein post-workout to maximise muscle growth? It doesn’t look like it. If you’re taking in enough protein you’re going to be fine.
But hold on. There’s an inherent implication here that protein may be beneficial post-workout and I would say that there’s a strong rationale for it. However, what we have found is that the effects are not nearly as strong as we once thought. If you looked at research that came out six or seven years ago, studies would say that it may be that protein intake around your workout is more important than total protein intake throughout the day. But this was based on studies that didn’t even last the whole day. It was a limitation that, eventually, we caught onto.
So when we looked into it we found that there may be a small effect but it doesn’t need to be immediate. We also now know that it is much less important than your total protein intake for the day. So it is a good idea to have protein either side of your workout. But does it need to be within one hour? Probably not. My advice? Try to get in 0.4-0.5g per kg of bodyweight on either side of the workout, at least within two hours. Not, that is, within seconds of your last biceps curl[10,11].
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11. Schoenfeld, B.J., A.A. Aragon, and J.W. Krieger, The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 2013. 10(1): p. 53.