Post exercise protein is a topic that I revisit regularly. It’s nutrition month as I release this episode, and we’re talking strength training a lot this month because STRONGER is open for enrollment.
In this episode I’m talking all about the ways to optimize your pre-and post exercise protein meal. I’ll also reveal a few things that may be going wrong if you’re not seeing results.
In recent prior master classes and podcasts I’ve addressed these questions:
- How much does muscle protein synthesis decline with age?
- What is the rate of muscle loss during menopause?
- How disabling is muscle loss for women over 50?
In this post I revisit this topic. I do so because of the conversations occurring in our community that indicate even trainers and coaches are not clear on the differences … for women, for women over 50, and that makes for an extremely confusing environment. Confused minds don’t do anything.
How to optimize a post exercise increase in muscle protein synthesis to enhance muscle size and strength with resistance training.
Muscle protein synthesis is the primary variable influencing muscle net balance with dietary amino acid ingestion representing the single most important nutritional variable enhancing post-exercise rates of muscle protein synthesis.
Consideration must also be made for the age of resistance-trained individuals, as older adults require protein intake over and above that of their younger counterparts to receive the same benefits noted above.
High quality – complete essential amino acid profile, high in especially leusine (It’s important to note that all “complete” proteins are not equal. Among the essential amino acids each source has more or less of any one of the amino acids.)
Rapidly absorbed – liquid vs solid, some proteins like whey protein are easily digestible, however that particular dairy source has other complications for women in midlife (bloating, inflammation, blood sugar spikes)
Aging – older adults do not have the same level of muscle protein synthesis that younger adults do. Therefore, they require a higher dose, that is more protein, per meal or post workout to have the same effect compared to younger adults. Midlife, specifically at menopause the accelerated rate of muscle loss makes it more important to increase protein.
Females – with less muscle mass to begin with and with a decline in estrogen, increase in cortisol, and decrease in growth hormone and testosterone, you’ll also find it more paramount to watch your protein in take
Endurance exercise –fewer studies on older adults and endurance exercise effects on protein needs, namely because it is not the primary recommendation for older adults. There is a greater oxidation and muscle wasting that occurs with endurance exercise in older adults, and in younger adults protein needs to rise with endurance activity.
Chronic negative energy balance – if you’re dieting? Cutting calories on purpose or by accident (you’re fasting and have a window so short you’re unable to eat adequate protein) over time that will have a negative effect on muscle. There is a benefit to fasting, however during fasting muscle can’t be gained, it may be maintained, and the increased protein intake following the fast is what triggers muscle protein synthesis.
Timing Post Exercise Protein
(More on this at the end). At 1-2 hours following a challenging workout a high quality high protein (EAA rich) meal or smoothie is ideal.
- Suboptimal amino acid compositions (plant-based)
Before we dive into this, you must know the quality of the resistance training you do matters.
“The combination of peri-training protein consumption with inadequate or ineffective resistance training protocols will not maximize improvements in strength or hypertrophy.”
Resistance exercise increases muscle protein synthesis for up to 48 hours.** (24)
That is, the environment is ripe for supporting muscle protein synthesis, but it’s only optimized with the ingestion of amino acids.The synergistic effect of resistance training + amino acid ingestion provides the right opportunity to support muscle growth.
Resistance Training Components That Matter
- Has to reach muscular fatigue
- Have adequate volume
- Provide adequate rest days for repair between workouts
- Related to lean muscle increases … it is more relative to local muscle fatigue than functional movement alone (justifying the need for both to optimize the human experience over 50)
For women in menopause:
Estrogen decline causes a decline in muscle
Cortisol increase causes a breakdown of muscle
Lifestyle habits that matter
poor sleep quality, excess caffeine, negative energy balance
Show Me the Fat
In older adult women consuming a diet high in PUFA also supported reduced inflammatory response to exercise. The high fat, anti-inflammatory diet enhances growth response for favorable skeletal muscle growth.
So, while the conversation is usually around protein, how much and when to consume it, whether it should be consumed with carbohydrates, you also want to consider if you’re eating and also potentially take anti-inflammatory fats. Omega 3 supplements may help the overall effect.
Resistance training fasted does show an increase potential for muscle protein synthesis (no studies on women in menopause currently) but it’s only when that is combined with amino acids that the muscle protein synthesis is actualized.
Studies in young adult males show that 20 g of protein enhanced muscle protein synthesis But that 40 g had no better effect.
A pre-exercise snack does not negate your need for a post-exercise protein requirement. It may however, improve your results. That is, you can’t add together some protein from a simple shake you had before and then have less in your post-workout meal or smoothie. You still need the same amount post exercise.
Three potentially problematic protein foods often used in studies:
Each of these is on a short list of common food sensitivities that women in midlife often don’t tolerate either at all or on a daily basis. Whey (dairy) is a common inflammatory contributor, not just for those with an autoimmune disease but for older adults with inability to breakdown proteins ingested as well as they once did. The best way to know is test your body by eliminating for a period of time and reintroducing.
Women seeking plant-based sources of protein will experience a “wall” of essential amino acids that is insufficient compared to animal protein. The addition of BCAA supplement (containing leucine, valine, and isoleucine) may support women who don’t eat enough protein or are primarily eating protein from plant-based sources.
Carbohydrate too after exercise?
In any mixed meal (or a smoothie) you’re going to have some carbohydrates. You want some, but it doesn’t require a lot to boost the effect of the protein for muscle protein synthesis. In fact, in the majority of studies the additive effect of carbohydrate post-exercise is not proven. The carbohydrate seems to stop the muscle breakdown by replacing glycogen (energy store) in the muscle.
However, it has been observed that the combined effects of resistance exercise and amino acid ingestion on the enhancement of muscle protein synthesis may be delayed, and/or blunted in older adults, suggesting nutrient sensitivities may be compromised with advancing age.
**Whey protein is dairy, and an inflammatory (autoimmune disease trigger), and a food sensitivity for many women midlife and older.
Older adults have a blunting effect to low doses of essential amino acid consumption compared to young adults.
In general eating protein on a per meal basis, at least 30 g of high-quality protein, and following a post exercise increased EAA consumption of closer to 40 g improved older adult MPS comparable to young adults (20 g).
The amino acid leucine is identified as an important “trigger” but other EAA are required to facilitate the synergistic response for muscle size and strength. Therefore, you can’t just take a pill. You’ve got to eat a variety of foods, and consume high quality proteins, though BCAA supplements in addition may be warranted for adults who can’t reach protein adequacy.
Leucine-rich foods (seek 2.3-2.5 per meal)
- All animal-based proteins (hierarchy of quality: it runs, flys, or swims)
- Plant-based proteins (if careful “complete” have fewer overall EAA
In older adults, consumption of 40 g of protein post resistance training rate of MPS was 91% higher compared to no post meal feeding. Skipping a meal after exercise? Eating a lettuce salad or having butternut squash soup? Not eating at all, not eating enough, or having the wrong thing (say, an all-fruit smoothie) are the three biggest mistakes you can make that sabotage that weight training you’re doing.
Just Beginning Strength Training?
Protein intake is more, not less important for you. Multiple studies show that active older adults have enhanced muscle protein synthesis, compared to inactive. Similarly, those starting a resistance training program are not yet fully benefitting from muscle protein synthesis. So, you require more when you’re just starting out to experience the bump in MPS.
Before and or After Alone is Not Enough
Total protein intake is positively related to muscle and strength gains. That is, an around the clock, per meal dose of high-quality protein (at least 30 g per meal and even closer to 30-40 at breakfast and dinner) is most beneficial.
Pair that with meals or smoothies post exercise (if meal timing is not conducive to allowing the right timing, or if energy demands or need for more caloric surplus (required to gain muscle).
If You Take One Thing from This Episode
Many women wonder, what am I doing wrong? And they’re not eating breakfast, they’re having soup or salad for lunch without adequate protein, fat, or resistant starches. They’re not eating enough for dinner. You would not suspect that would work for your teen athlete son or daughter.
As a midlife woman you are far more likely to be losing muscle tissue than gaining it, your cortisol levels are high. An energy deficit- though you’ve been told calories in/calories out is the way – will make your body burn fewer calories.
Chances are you don’t have much energy. You want to nap. You reach for caffeine and then wine to wind down. You are more likely to be constipated. And you can’t lose weight even though you want to.
Potentially, you’re not eating enough.
An active body requires calories to thrive and create energy. You may choose to simply focus on “thin” – even not want to be active. But that too will backfire. As you lose significant enough muscle, you will either slow metabolism or become frail. There’s thin. There’s emaciated. At some point as you age, you will cross that threshold.
If you are dieting, or otherwise restricting your calories (as a result of fasting), you likely need additional protein over and above the recommendations here.
In Summary Post Exercise Protein:
Consider the following to preserve lean muscle, strength, and optimize body composition:
- Adequate resistance training
- Adequate protein possibly pre- and also post (but not totaled)
- All-day protein intake dosed on a per meal basis (about 30 g at least)
- Fatty acids and omega 3
Recommendations for Post Exercise Protein
If you have fasted overnight before your morning exercise, eating a high protein meal immediately after to stop further muscle breakdown from combined cortisol high early in day, reduced estrogen levels, and resistance training is best. Continue to follow a high protein meal schedule for 24 hours following the resistance training.
If you are in a fed state, even having had a simple shake of protein and almond milk for instance, you still need the post workout full dose of protein, but timing it 1-2 hours post exercise enhances muscle protein synthesis.
If you are less active and just beginning, your protein needs are greater, than a consistently active (resistance trained) older adult.
The older you get, your protein needs do not decrease, in fact they increase.