We’ve all seen the 150-pound soaking wet trainee who kills himself in the gym day in and day out but isn’t gaining muscle. Why? He may have drawn the short end of the stick in the genetics pool, but another reason may be the lack of nutrition before, during and after his workout.
Without proper fuel in the tank, cortisol levels spike, promoting glycogen breakdown in skeletal muscle. By definition, cortisol is a glucocorticoid, a steroid hormone released to ensure the brain has an ample supply of glucose (sugar), its preferred fuel source in situations where simple survival is paramount.
Assuming most of you train hard, you can bet you are substantially raising your cortisol in every workout or game. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s how you manage the cortisol during and after that is key to optimizing recovery.
How do you do that? An intra-workout drink is your ticket. One study conducted in the late ’90s found that 50 grams of pure carbohydrate in a workout drink (e.g., Gatorade) consumed during a resistance training session completely eliminated cortisol elevations compared to a control flavored drink. Subjects in this particular study with the lowest cortisol—and the greatest muscle gains—were entirely from the group that drank the workout drink. Subjects with the highest levels showed the least gains (one placebo participant on the controlled drink even lost muscle during the study).
The simple addition of carbohydrates during your workout can be enough to maximize recovery. A drink containing highly branched cycle dextrins (HBCD) is going to be the best on the market because of its extremely low osmolality (it won’t sit in your gut and impact the quality of your workout), but you can decrease the osmolality of your workout drink by diluting it.
If you’re looking to maximize muscle gains during the workout window, adding fast-digesting amino acids to your shake can be good for triggering protein synthesis. There are a few options in this case, too—branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), hydrolyzed whey or casein, and essential amino acids (EAA). Price factors in as hydrolyzed proteins generally cost more. If you’re choosing between BCAAs and EAAs, note that both trigger protein synthesis, but BCAAs draw from existing amino acid pools to rebuild and repair muscle. For this reason, taking BCAAs on an empty stomach is not advisable, because there are no amino acid pools to draw from. Taking BCAAs deep into a workout may present similar complications.
In contrast, all amino acids are present in EAAs, and they exhibit a synergistic effect on the rebuilding process. Essentially, they work better.
In relatable terms, think of it as a bigger team pulling for you versus BCAAs. Hydrolyzed proteins are probably the best option because of their lightning-fast digestibility.
A little Gatorade powder mixed in water will do the trick all the same if you’re on a budget. Also, it’s important to assess your DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the next day. If you’re several weeks into your training program and feeling crippled days after the workout, you may need to increase the amount of your intra-workout carbs, assuming sleep and stress outside the gym are being managed properly. Check out the video player above to learn additional information about how you should fuel up before, during, and after workouts from sports dietitian Leslie Bonci.
Note: Please prioritize the rest of your diet. This isn’t a catch-all that makes up for poor dietary choices the rest of the day. It’s just a tool that’s been shown to help in your pursuit of strength and muscle gain.