A few weeks ago I got a sore throat, I was experimenting cycling Creatine on heavy days and leaving it out on light days. This is not an indictment of Creatine, just so you know, it’s very common to get a sore throat this time of year in Minnesota. But it was certainly an option that the Creatine dehydrated me after not using it for a few days. So I had two options, take Creatine more regularly which artificially keeps my weight a bit higher or lose all my gains. The reason is simple, not only does Creatine help endurance and increase capacity to your muscle cells but it is also a myostatin inhibitor, which is known to be catabolic (tears down tissue, not just muscle). If you really want to screw with people in the gym simply say the word catabolic. I like to think of myself as a science friendly alternative to a lot of the extreme noise you hear related to health and nutrition but it’s very easy to get caught up in all of that. Which is why it’s not uncommon at the moment to have some skinny guy telling some jacked woman or man what “is” and “is not” correct. When said jacked woman or man laughs in that persons face she/he is labeled a “bro-scientist”. Bro-science (why isn’t there a female alternative to this) is simply the act of ignoring actual science in favor of what has always worked. The obvious implication is that “what has always worked” works despite the actions of the person lifting the heavy weights because it stares in the face of actual science.
What about protein or carbs in the peri-workout cycle?
If you are not familiar with the term the peri-workout cycle is the time before, during and after your workout. The idea being that you may need carbs to fuel your workouts (you don’t), BCAA’s during your workouts and more carbs and proteins post workout, possibly with some BCAA’s thrown in there for good measure. We certainly wouldn’t want you to go catabolic. Working out also serves another function which is often overblown as well, it frees up fatty acids that could potentially be used as energy. The only problem is that if you are slamming all of these “anabolic” (builds tissue, not just muscle) foods it comes at a cost, your body then uses those foods as energy and since all of them are insulinogenic (they all increase insulin) burning fat becomes a distant goal during this point. It is much more likely with all that insulin trying to build tissue that those fats get re-stored into your body. Which is o’kay that is what body building is all about.
Let’s be clear, all the insulin panic out there is for the most part silly unless you are a diabetic or pre-diabetic but you should be aware of the role of insulin. Insulin builds stuff in your body which is an antagonist to the stuff that leans you out. Not forever, just for short bursts of time. This is the problem with the overly scientific approach to body composition, people go to the extreme for extreme results when a good balanced approach is the best long term course of action. Let me say that another way, most of the people I talk to on a daily basis want results tomorrow, not two years from now. Why is that? It’s because what they have been doing so far has not been working and it seems obvious that going in the opposite direction is the logical fix. Indeed it may be the fix depending on what you are doing for health and longevity but I bet you weren’t doing everything wrong because that is rarely the case. I don’t get a lot of severely obese people calling me so that is the basis for my statement above. Most people aren’t doing everything wrong, just a few things.
Are you a body builder?
You might be surprised at my response because I think everyone is a body builder in some way shape or form. We all want to look good naked and whether you lift weights, run or do something else you do that as a manner of addressing the way your body looks and feels. So let me tell you one of my basic tenets that actually ticks a lot of people off:
You should be building your body most of the time and dieting occasionally
The ultimate goal being under 10% body fat for men and 20% body fat for women, both are highly negotiable in my mind because not everyone is built similarly. Genetics play a big factor here, I see a lot of men and women trying to fight their bodies basic nature trying to get to arbitrary numbers when the mirror should clearly tell them those numbers should not matter for their body type. So body type matters a great deal. With that said you will only go so far with your body composition goals using diet alone, I’ll clarify that a bit by saying “in a healthy manner”. There are a lot of men and women walking around that are in danger of a stiff wind bringing them to their knees, this hopefully isn’t you.
The question ultimately is do you need supplements to build your body and I would suggest that if you aren’t below the numbers I mentioned above that answer is likely maybe with a strong leaning towards no. The debate on whether or not supplements are better than whole foods bores me. The more accurate question for most people is “can you meet your nutrient requirements with real food” and that answer is 100% yes. The reason people take protein supplements as an example often comes down to the fact that they aren’t getting their total protein in a day without it. I recommend a number in grams close to your lean body mass, this might only change if you are looking to dramatically increase your lean muscle mass, otherwise that number does seem to do the trick as long as your workouts are asking you to use said nutrients.
What about nutrient timing?
I am certainly a fan and I believe that small changes make big differences over time. The key there is “over time”. So let me break it down. Would 60 grams of protein post workout as your only source of protein be better than getting 150g throughout the day? Certainly not and to some the example is absurd but it’s very common for people to ignore amount of protein throughout the day as a significant number. The science is very clearly on the side of amount of protein overall being more important than around your workouts. Another frequent question is “how would this affect my recovery?”. I will concede that your (and my) recovery is likely better if you ingest protein (or BCAA’s) in a liquid form around your workouts. The reason you might not take it is because it might be contrary to your weight loss or “leaning out” goals. I think of supplements like insurance, it’s good to have them there in a pinch but they are there to insure your overall intake in case you lack nutrients for that day. Once again I need to step back and ask who you are? Are you a body builder prepping for stage or a mother of four in the burbs? Because the difference matters in terms of what I recommend (though honestly if you are a body builder prepping for stage I am probably not your guy).
When and how many carbs should I eat daily?
I eat my carbs at night and have for almost two years. This stands in the face of the standard recommendation that most people think is correct, namely that you should not only avoid carbs after 6pm (seriously google it, it’s unreal). I first heard this recommendation from Bob Greene on Oprah but it was later made famous by Elle Macpherson. In a sense it’s hard to argue with when you look at it as a form of intermittent fasting. Even if you are assuming that there is some food after 6pm it’s pretty clear that ketogenic diets (fats and proteins) work similar to fasting without food. Either way there is no magic here but I think I can make a strong argument against it. Namely that you shouldn’t go to bed hungry and you can get a similar result by simply delaying breakfast. Let’s assume that Elle Macpherson stops eating at 6pm and wakes up at 6am and eats her carb meals. Does she eat carbs in an unrestricted manner? I am going to suggest she does not, so let’s assume she takes a conscious approach to her carbohydrate intake. Also it matters which carbs we are talking about here and are those carbs the exclusive sources of nutrition at those times? Once again, lot’s of factors. The reason I eat carbs and night and that is what I recommend is because you go to bed full and that fact allows your sleep to do it’s best work. The basic function of sleep is to repair the damage you did to your body throughout the day, every single day. Carbs as a general rule make you sleepy and full. Trust me, I tried it the other way and failed multiple times before I quit banging my head against the same wall.
This of course leads me to how many carbs you should eat and that question is also multi-pronged. As a baseline I start at 100g a day, I don’t feel like 100g a day is magic but assuming you are eating an adequate amount of protein and eating a moderate amount of fat 100g’s will keep your bodily inflammation in check. So that is my recommendation for sedate people. For active people my recommendation changes, women hold glucose in their muscles better than men so I recommend lower amounts for women because of this fact. I tend to stay under 200g a day with less most days and more the days before I lift heavy. I am 162 pound man, this is what works for me after trial and error. Most people would do well to see what works for them (or hire someone to help them figure it out, wink wink).
Should I avoid fat at night?
This is a really funny one because most of the “science based” folks are doing something similar to what the bro-scientist do. They are taking what they know about one topic and applying it to multiple topics without significant evidence. Namely that you need to feed your muscles glucose for performance (I agree) and that the best approach to doing so is in the absence of fat. The assumption part happens based on logic, the logic that the carbs are going to keep insulin high and therefore cause the fat to store more easily. It’s the basis for all calorie cycling. The only problem with this assumption is that isn’t what most of the studies are suggesting because there is rarely a mention of fat restriction. In fact, most of these studies really don’t care about the whole carb part, they are more interested in whether or not people function better with their calories in the evening. Fats blunt insulin so the uptake of glucose to your cells is slowed. Fats also slow digestion. Much of the science suggesting eating carbs at night is the exact science that suggested you shouldn’t eat after 6pm. Namely that it inhibited your bodies recovery hormones. So the hypothesis goes that if you eat your fats with carbs (glucose) that slows the digestion and then slows your bodies ability to recover. I am not going to argue that it does or does not but I would like to point out that the science is not completely there.
I don’t avoid fats at night when I eat my carbs and it hasn’t been my experience that eating less fat and more carbs is substantially better for both me and many of the people that I have worked with. Those people are not professional body builders however, so if your goal is to be a professional body builder or even just compete on stage then you should at least consider what I am suggesting. That is simply this, since fat slows digestion it allows for the glucose you are eating to more effectively load into your body over a slightly longer period of time. This means that you can get a similar (granted possibly worse) result eating fats with fewer carbs. The ultimate point being that it’s incredibly hard to use very specific studies from scientific literature to make broad generalizations. The more accurately you can define the study for a specific outcome the less relevant it becomes for the whole. I am not arguing that carb cycling can’t work, I am arguing that a balanced plan can be similarly effective.
It all comes down to your goals and plans
About a month ago I started cycling in some Westside Barbell training for strength in conjunction with my normal Crossfit workouts. I have made a few adjustments to make this work, the Westside stuff is typically more heavy work so at Crossfit I don’t always try to Rx the workout depending on how it works with my Westside schedule (or the conjugate method). Even though I probably rambled a lot on various topics I actually sat down to write this article because it has been surprising to me how much my strength is benefitting just by changing things up a bit. Especially when you consider that I stopped taking all supplements as a result of getting sick. When I first stopped I felt more sore than I do now because my body has simply adjusted (could have been that I was sick). It’s also hard to say that I wasn’t just sore because I was doing something harder. For the good majority of the year I used supplements and carb drinks as a way to help my muscle gains. It worked, I gained about 10 pounds of muscle. I also gained some fat, which happens. What I didn’t foresee is that I would have similar, if not better gains, without those supplements and carb drinks. The ultimate point being that science isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete. You have to apply what you know and tailor it to your needs. Creatine, Protein, Dextrose or whatever, they aren’t miracles that will make you jacked. Getting under the bar and seeking out progress is way more effective than any supplement you will take. I know it took me a long while to make that point but that is where I was going all along. The problem with writing a simple article is that the minute you address some topic you have to qualify that topic by explaining it and so sometimes these articles go long. In the end I hope it helps people more than it confuses them.