People are People

People—be they scientists, meatheads, or those who are a little of both, form opinions by weighing “evidence” in the context of their own worldviews. In other words, opinions are like...well, you know the rest. Therefore, even after more than a solid decade of peri-workout recovery supplement (RS) research, scientific opinion on the topic varies widely, as do the opinions of “in the trenches” bodybuilders.

Two well-known and respected muscle biologists, who are also actively publishing in this area, recently stated the following in regards to RS timing and content:

  • “…we believe that it is largely irrelevant whether the feed is given pre-, during or post-exercise.”
  • “…nutrient sufficiency per se, rather than timing of intake, is the more important aspect to successful hypertrophic adaptation.”
  • “…[the] addition of carbohydrate to protein affords no greater anabolic effects on protein turnover…after exercise, highlighting the central role of EAAs as the principal macronutrients required to optimise anabolic responses in protein turnover to exercise.” (1)

On the end of the spectrum, however, the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s (ISSN) Position stand on nutrient timing states that:

  • “Pre-exercise ingestion of essential amino acids or [protein] alone increases muscle protein synthesis. In addition, ingesting [protein] + [carbohydrate] pre-exercise has been shown to produce significantly greater levels of muscle protein synthesis.”
  • “The addition of [protein] (0.15 – 0.25 g/kg/day) to [carbohydrate] at all time points, especially post-exercise, is well tolerated and may promote greater restoration of muscle glycogen.”
  • “Ingesting [carbohydrate] alone, or in combination with [protein] during resistance exercise increases muscle glycogen stores, offsets muscle damage and facilitates greater training adaptations after acute and prolonged periods of resistance training.” (2)

Making it Work: Optimizing Your Peri-workout RS

The above scientific conundrum boils down to two dietary variables:

  1. RS Timing
  2. Nutrient sufficiency (In other words, whether you eating enough of the right stuff). Taking a cue from the scientific quibbles. It seems that we can improve our odds of anabolic success by using a peri-workout RS for both nutrient timing and a nutrient overload.

It makes perfect sense that a peri-workout RS might elicit greater effects if you are fasted (e.g., exercise first thing in the morning) compared to after a workout performed while carrying a “food baby” you conceived earlier that day at the all-you-can-eat buffet. A sizable meal may elevate blood amino acids and insulin for five or more hours (3), so gulping down an RS on top of three plates of Kung Pao chicken may do little to improve protein balance. Research backs this up. Short-term muscle protein synthesis measurements in the “fed” vs. fasted state (4, 5) confirm that being fed means greater anabolism—probably leaving little room for an additive effect of an RS if protein synthesis is already “maxed out” by the meal (6).

This clues us in as to why some bodybuilders may not find peri-workout RS beneficial. As I mentioned in Part One, many of the naysayers also complain of GI issues. Naturally, gastric distress itself doesn't tend to spur on tremendous training efforts; however, in some cases, the bloating, belching, etc. was partly because individuals were still digesting much of a large meal consumed shortly before exercise. (In other words, they were already in the “fed” state).

On the other hand, a workout may increase sensitivity to amino acids for up to 24 hours after the workout (7).  Bodybuilders who play “catch up” with a massive food intake or an extreme high-calorie post-workout regime during the 12 to 24 hours after a workout (8, 9) might also find that peri-workout RS is not helpful. Note here, though, that two well-performed training studies have found that, without increasing caloric or macronutrient totals, peri-workout timing of 40 grams of protein (10) or protein/carb/creatine (32g/32g/6g, respectively) for a 200-pound bodybuilder(11) enhances muscle and strength gains.]

Let Them Eat (More) Cake!

Regardless of the critical importance of RS timing, I have found that the beauty of a peri-workout RS, especially when looking to gain off-season size, lies in “having your cake and eating it too.”

  1. Peri-workout RS saves time compared to gorging down a monstrous post-workout meal or supplement. Essentially, the “post-workout” meal is finished when your workout ends, meaning that you can eat again sooner.
  2. Multi-tasking a workout with a “meal” ultimately permits greater food consumption, in part by spreading nutrient consumption out more evenly over the course of a day.

Below is a generic example of how a large (~250-pound) bodybuilder might make adjustments in order to include a 600-calorie peri-workout RS, thereby increasing daily calories by the same amount. The strategy is generally to consume a slightly smaller (and low fat) pre-workout meal and/or place the pre-workout meal(s) a bit earlier in the day, easing the digestive load when exercising (12, 13).

Notice that you can work up to very large intra-workout nutrient loads over time. At the extreme end of peri-workout “feeding,” Fahey et al. fed subjects (with six and a half years of weight training experience) a 2,000-calorie supplement (>150 grams of protein) during a two-hour weight workout. None complained of nausea; however, all subjects admitted to having a feeling of “extreme fullness” (14, 15). Even a steak meal (16) or beef stew (17) can be digested during exercise. I personally have consumed 2,000-calorie peri-workout drinks in the past, but that was only after gradually increasing the size of my RS over the course of many months.

Nuts n’ Bolts: K.I.S.S.

An analysis of an entire "kitchen sink" worth of ingredients crammed into a “mega recovery supplement” is far beyond the scope of this article. However, I’ll leave you with a few basic ideas to keep in mind, as well as a few you might not have considered.


The common complaint “carbs make me tired” may be a function of reactive hypoglycemia (not continuing to consume carbs throughout exercise, thus allowing glucose levels to drop)—not an increase in brain serotonin causing “central fatigue" (18, 19). Even Fahey’s 2,000-calorie peri-workout RS, since it was consumed at regular intervals during the entire workout, kept blood glucose levels steady during exercise (15).

You may need to experiment with carbohydrate sources. Fast-acting, high glycemic index (GI), and glucose-based carbs like dextrose, maltodextrin, or a glucose polymer are preferred for insulin release and glycogen replenishment (20). Sucrose can be used (21). Waxy maize may be a low GI carbohydrate (22, 23), yet some find it easy to assimilate and deem it a worthwhile addition. The original Vitargo® (derived from potato starch) emptied from the stomach (24) and replenished glycogen (25) more quickly, whereas the current (barley-derived) version is touted for quickly raising insulin and blood glucose (26).

A hot product among the designer carbohydrate sources and blends is highly branched cyclic dextrin (HBCD). So far the science tells us that:

  • HBCD is preferred over glucose by laboratory mice when swimming for endurance (27).
  • HBCD provides a fast source of glucose in a properly (osmolality) adjusted sports drinks (28).
  • Most importantly, HBCD, in a sports drink with low osmolalty, empties more rapidly from the stomach during exercise and causes less flatulence and belching than higher osmolality dextrose-based drinks (29).

If wavering on the addition of carbohydrates in your RS, the ISSN’s position stand (in addition to my commentary in Part TWO ) may help you decide. ISSN states that “Ingesting [carbohydrate] alone, or in combination with [protein], during resistance exercise increases muscle glycogen stores, offsets muscle damage, and facilitates greater training adaptations after acute and prolonged periods of resistance training(2).”

Bottom Line: If you are eating carbs in your diet anyway, then there are few reasons not to include carbohydrate in your peri-workout RS.


We also know that faster absorption (30) and “spiking” of blood amino acid levels (31-35) results in greater rates of muscle protein synthesis. While some research suggests that only 20 grams of (egg) protein maximizes post-exercise protein synthesis (6), let’s face are likely consuming 200 to 300 grams of protein a day. There is certain logic to including at least a meal-proportionate amount of protein in your RS (more than 20 grams). Yet, there are physiological constraints governing our actions. For instance, how fast protein is digested limits how fast it is absorbed into the bloodstream(36, 37).

Luckily, food technology can be employed to speed protein absorption:

  • Utilize a digestive enzyme (containing protease/peptidase) if it is not already included with your protein source (38).
  • Hydrolyzed (pre-digested) protein can deliver amino acids(36) more rapidly and can elevate insulin (37). In fact, hydrolyzed proteins (like casein hydrosylates) may deliver amino acids (in the form of di- and tri-peptides) more rapidly than free-form amino acid blends (39).
  • Leucine, when added to a protein/carbohydrate mixture, may add a bit of a protein synthetic oomph to your RS (40). However, this may be overkill if you’re already super-sizing your RS and using  a high-leucine protein source like whey (33).
  • It makes sense to include a high quality complete protein source with all the essential amino acids (not just leucine) for skeletal muscle structural reasons(41), anti-catabolic actions (42, 43), insulin secretion (44, 45), and inherent anabolic (46, 47) actions that the non-essential amino acids lack (48). The essential amino acids trigger anabolism, but sustaining it requires the “non-essential” amino acid building blocks you find in a natural protein source (49).

Bottom Line: Pick an easily or pre-digested and rapidly absorbed complete protein source (like whey isolate), possibly with digestive enzyme assistance, in order to minimize GI distress and speed protein absorption.


When it doubt, keep it simple.

Milk—nature’s own “recovery supplement,” seems to work better than many may have expected. Digestive problems (50) and casomorphin derivatives aside, e.g. BCM7 from A1 cows (51), the calcium content, the high-quality protein, and the other components of good old cow’s milk confer it with a body composition re-partitioning effect, especially when it comes to reducing body fat (52-54). “Encrypted” in milk proteins—both whey (55) and casein (56), are di- and tri-peptides (57, 58) that can make their way into the bloodstream(59) and positively affect fat cell metabolism (54). They can also lower blood pressure by inhibiting angiotensin converting enzymes by acting as ACE inhibitors. The latter effect is especially interesting for bodybuilders because ACE inhibition (reducing the action of angiotensin II in particular) and one’s ACE genotype (60) can affect adaptation to training quite powerfully—so much so that ACE inhibitors are even considered potential “doping agents" (61).

Large (700 calorie) milk-based RS supplements reduce muscle soreness and damage when consumed either before or after a workout (62, 63). Post-workout RS made of milk proteins outperforms soy protein for acute post-workout protein synthesis (64) and adds muscle over the course of training (65, 66). Of course, milk is more effective than carbohydrate alone in terms of packing on pounds (66, 67). In one study, a combo of the two milk protein fractions (whey and casein) even beat out a fancier whey/branched chain amino acid/glutamine combo for adding fat-free mass (68). For those amenable to dairy consumption, milk might simply replace water for mixing your RS, thus increasing caloric and (high quality) protein content (9) and saving a dime or two when it comes to protein and carbohydrate powders.

Bottom Line: Milk may be a better recovery supplement than you thought.

Bells n’ Whistles


Many pre-formulated recovery supplements contain a laundry list of ingredients far beyond a simple carbohydrate/protein combo. (As an aside, these “extra” ingredients are often clustered as “proprietary blends” which protect the formula from being copied; however, they also leave the consumer in the dark as to the absolute content of its ingredients.) Antioxidants are a typical addition to a generic multivitamin component, or perhaps they are part of a glucose-disposal agent containing supplements like alpha-lipoic acid (69) or pterostilbene—considered a superior form of resveratrol (70), that are also antioxidants.

This article isn’t about the health benefits of free-radical quenching, but it’s worth noting that large-scale research suggests that antioxidant supplementation may have no or even deleterious (extending to possibly carcinogenic) effects on health (71, 72). Physical activity actually increases free radical production, but the exercise stimulus also strengthens our cellular antioxidant defenses (73). If you block this oxidative stress by supplementing with vitamin C and E, then you also prevent this adaptation in your endogenous free radical defenses, along with the training-derived benefits like improved insulin sensitivity (74).

It seems that some free radical stress is required for normal signaling and adaptation to cellular stress (71, 73, 74), so one might consider at least postponing anti-oxidant supplementation until after the workout is over. Those still concerned about free-radical damage might opt for a simple whey/carb RS and take solace in knowing that whey itself, at least if not denatured from processing, has powerful anti-oxidant activity(75-77).

Bottom Line: Think twice about taking the “kitchen sink” approach to building your peri-workout RS.

Although some of you may still be shaking your heads, hopefully you've gained some insight into how difficult research is and why such confusion and discord regarding peri-workout RS persists—both in research and the “real” world. (I personally am pretty stoked to see that a hot selling sports supplement category like this one is also being actively researched.) If you have not already, I suggest doing your own in-the-trenches “research” with recovery supplements by employing any or all of the strategies I mention above. If you've read this far, then I’d be willing to bet that your desire to gain muscle and strength might just outweigh your indecision in giving peri-workout RS a go.

Please feel free to post questions (and RS-related progress or lack thereof) in the comments section below.

Integrative Bodybuilding: Peri Workout Recovery Supplementation (Part 1)

Integrative Bodybuilding: Peri Workout Recovery Supplementation (Part 2)


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