Building muscle is generally the main motivation for getting into the gym in the first place.
Whether it’s to look better, develop more confidence, or to gain strength for preseason football training, the desired outcome is the same, more muscle and less fat.
Train for long enough and it becomes apparent that the key stimulus for unlocking serious muscle gains is to progressively increase the level of the intensity of your workouts.
All too frequently, guys will grab a training program, get into a pattern, and then flat line because their intensity doesn’t change.
There’s simply no substitute for increasing training intensity to spark continuous growth. Progressive resistance is the name of the game and without it you can forget about expanding those shirtsleeves.
While devoted trainees pound protein and carbs pre and post workout, a crucial step has unwittingly been missed. The intake of nutrients during training, intra-workout nutrition.
Fresh muscle gains have been the biggest casualty.
Smart trainees have finally caught on, but are they doing it right?
For those who have been neglecting intra-workout nutrition entirely, pay very close attention, this article will unlock the gains you’ve been missing.
Misconceptions About Intraworkout Nutrition
The idea of nutrient consumption during workouts has been tossed around gyms for the past decade or so. That being said, many bodybuilders have forgone this crucial strategy. Why?
Many intra-workout misconceptions exist. The mechanical digestion of nutrients diverts blood from muscles and is energy-robbing.
Certain compounds, notably caffeine, can dehydrate muscles and deplete training energy. The excessive intake of stimulants may over-stimulate the central nervous system and cause muscle fatigue.The intake of certain nutrients during training is time consuming and inconvenient.
While the above are true, they are also not the most effective intra-workout strategies. Unfortunately, the association they have with intra-workout nutrition prevents many from taking advantage of one of the most powerful growth determinants.
Intraworkout Nutrition: The Missing Link
Much of today’s muscle-building progress can be attributed to nutrition. In the not too distant past, workout nutrition was rather primitive. A meal one hour before training and a protein shake post-workout was about it. In recent years, supplement savvy lifters have taken a more scientific approach to “peri-workout” nutrition (the time before, during, and after your workout).
However, what is arguably the most important of the three nutritional windows, intraworkout nutrition, is still frequently neglected.
Engineering the perfect training experience and setting the stage for maximum muscle growth is all about timing and attention to detail.4 It’s not always what you consume but when you consume it that can make a significant difference to how the body responds to a given training stimulus.
Crudely ingesting a bunch of simple carbs (some even recommend straight table sugar or fruit) and a protein shake will not cut it. What is required is an array of specifically-engineered ingredients.
The supporting cast
Like any worthy enterprise, gym training requires a supporting cast of star players to get the job done right. While pre-workout nutrition provides beneficial nutrients to kickstart the training process, the effect is often short-lived. It is during training that a steady supply of anabolic agents is needed most.
It’s while we are working out that the muscles are most sensitive to key anabolic hormones such as insulin and muscle-building nutrients such as proteins and carbs.
Training is catabolic, not anabolic. During a workout, muscle tissue is broken down and protein is leeched from muscle to sustain a high intensity output. In fact, to ensure ample energy, drinking amino acids/BCAAs will contribute up to 15% of useable energy.7 The use of aminos may even supersede 500%, given the energy demands of the typical hardcore workout.
Thus, for many lifters, training can be a two steps forward/one step back endeavor. However, with proper intra-workout nutrition, the muscles have no reason to degrade.
The master anabolic: insulin
The key to proper intra-workout nutrition is to ensure that insulin is steadily released as the workout progresses. And the best time to encourage insulin release is when muscles are most receptive to the nutrients it delivers.4 In fact, specifically targeting insulin release outside of the intra and immediate post-workout periods can contribute to fat storage.
Though carbs and proteins have a willing guide at such times (insulin), they may be barred entry into muscle (less sensitive to insulin at such times) and must find a home elsewhere (fat tissue).
As a transporter, poor insulin levels render other intra-workout nutrients inefficient. In addition, when intra-workout insulin plummets, the catabolic hormone glucagon takes amino acids from muscles to make glucose to ensure a steady supply of energy.7
Teaming up with glucagon in the absence of insulin are its catabolic counterparts, cortisol and epinephrine. While cortisol randomly takes energy from proteins, carbs, and fats, epinephrine specifically seeks glycogen from the liver to further power the muscles.7
While all this catabolic destruction is going on, the muscles are left depleted and unresponsive to growth. Insulin blunts cortisol, epinephrine, and glucagon so muscle tissue can live to fight another day.
The first requirement of any solid intra-workout plan is to ensure steady insulin levels throughout the workout. This takes carbs. To optimize insulin levels the right carbs must be selected. High-sugar simple carbs like glucose and fructose greatly increase blood sugar, thereby promoting too high of an insulin response.
Such sugars also encourage bloating, cramping, and are poorly absorbed. Inefficient nutrient uptake and low energy levels are likely outcomes.
It’s best to select a range of complex high-molecular-weight carbs that are both easily absorbed and sustaining. Such carbs, due to their extremely low osmolality, are rapidly emptied from the stomach and taken to the small intestine where they are gradually released into the blood. The muscles then receive steady supply of energy via a steady insulin response.
As the body’s preferred nutrient for producing ATP, the right combination of carbs keeps energy elevated during a workout. With a gradual influx of high performance intraworkout carbs, muscle glycogen is continually replenished.
The highest-molecular-weight carbs available today are Highly-Branched Cyclic Dextrin, High Molecular Weight Dextrin Polysaccharide, Ultra-High Molecular Waxy, Maize Rice Polysaccharide, Digestion-Resistant Dextrin (Highly-Branched Structure), and Potato Polysaccharide.
These carbs infiltrate target muscles faster to supply energy, protect muscle protein, and maintain peak performance for longer.
The need for a steady supply of key amino acids also increases the harder and longer we train. But a lack of insulin makes it impossible for the muscles to soak up the branched-chain-aminos so crucial for muscle rebuilding and energy production.2 9 Thus, carbohydrate and BCAA supplementation work hand-in-hand to ensure a positive training experience and fresh muscle gains.2
Science reinforces the need for BCAAs during training. While keeping the muscles supplied with BCAAs during workouts prevents muscle degradation, intra-workout BCAAs also sets the stage for continued growth, post-workout.2 A key study by Karlsson et al. found that intra-workout BCAA supplementation resulted in the greater phosphorylation of ribosomal S6 kinase.6
What this means is that with intra-workout BCAAs, a key enzyme crucial for protein synthesis is turned on to a much greater degree post-workout.1 The result is more muscle growth than when training without BCAAs.
Researchers have found that intra-workout BCAA supplementation can also minimize the reduction of testosterone and power that normally takes place following intensive training, while reducing post-workout muscle soreness. The increased anabolic environment also counters free radical production.
Free radicals destroy muscle and interfere with recovery. The antioxidant effect of intra-workout nutrients neutralizes free radicals while also facilitating faster recovery due to a reduction in post-workout muscle inflammation.
While the growth benefits of intraworkout BCAA supplementation are well known, taking these master aminos during training can also provide additional energy by sparing muscle fuel stores, boosting the immune system to aid recovery, and enhancing muscle definition by ensuring that fat is used for energy.7
As with intraworkout carb consumption, the right BCAA product means better results.9 The trouble with many BCAA products is that the potency is so low and the solubility and absorption is so poor that the active ingredients do not reach the muscles and protein synthesis cannot be activated.
Look for a product with a superior delivery system, a BCAA ratio closer to 45% (Leucine), 30% (Isoleucine), and 25% (Valine), which is a ratio of 9:6:5, and with maximum potency (eight grams of BCAAs per serving being optimal).
The unsung heroes of the intraworkout performance team are the electrolytes. The low ranking many lifters give electrolytes is surprising considering that without sufficient potassium, magnesium, calcium, and sodium, the muscles would not function at all.
Electrolytes carry electrical energy to every cell of the body. Almost every function within the body requires the combined assistance of these key chemicals. Muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve impulses are reliant on electrolytes. Unfortunately, the harder we train, the more susceptible to electrolyte imbalances we become. Muscle cramping and reduced performance are likely to result at such times.
Along with carbs and aminos, electrolytes are essential to ensuring we go the distance in the gym. And like carbs and aminos, a precise ratio of electrolytes is needed for optimal results. Electrolyte supplementation must provide optimal support while not overriding the body’s normal mechanisms.
Ketoisocaproic Acid (KIC)
With all the good carbs, aminos, and electrolytes do in assisting workout progress, the one thing they cannot do is offset the fatiguing effects of ammonia. The muscle toxin ammonia is generated whenever muscle contraction occurs. Ammonia builds up in the body during training and causes muscle fatigue. In deactivating ammonia, KIC, reduces fatigue and boosts muscle endurance.
The nutritional benefits of B-vitamins are too numerous to list in this article. B-vitamins are essential for converting proteins and carbohydrates into energy, repairing damaged cells (including muscle), and boosting red blood cell production to optimize energy levels.3 5
What many trainees don’t know is B-vitamins also enhance muscle growth.3 8 During hard training, tremendous stress is placed on the body’s energy production pathways. B-vitamins play a crucial role in enhancing workout performance and muscle gains by boosting energy production.
While a good balance of B-vitamins is to be achieved, standout performers to be taken intra-workout include B3 (Niacin), B6 (as Pyridoxine HCl and Pyridoxal-5'-Phosphate, B9 (as Folic Acid and 5-Methyltetrahydrofolate), and B12 (as Methylcobalamin).
Gain while you train
Intense training is extremely damaging on the body. With countless workouts and tremendous efforts channeled into the singular goal of building more muscle, very little progress often occurs.
With intra-workout nutrition, the progress dedicated lifters seek can finally be achieved. The catabolic consequences of training means more muscle is often lost during training than is ultimately gained. Without the right nutrients delivered at this crucial time, the body will continue to take energy from wherever it can be found.
Ironically, training energy will also plummet. It seems that proper intra-workout supplementation is the key to countering this perplexing dilemma. This one simple step to maximizing muscle gains can turn each workout into an opportunity to build muscle.
- Biolo, G., Maggi, S.P., Williams, B.D., Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. Increased rates of muscle protein turnover and amino acid transport after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal Physiological Endocrinol Metabolism, 1995: 268, E514-E520.
- Bird, P. Stephen, et al. Liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion during an acute bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar protein degradation. Metabolism Clinical and Experimental, 2006: 55, 570-577.
- Brown, A. (2006). Medical News Today: Vitamin B Deficiency and Poor Athletic Performance Linked.
- Cribb., Paul, J., Hayes., & Alan. Effects of Supplement-Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(11). Pp. 1918-1925.
- Douglas, E. What Happens When You Exercise With a Vitamin B Deficiency? Livestrong. [Online] http://www.livestrong.com/article/418931-what-happens-when-you-exercise-with-a-vitamin-b-deficiency/ - retrieved on 3.4.16
- Karlsson H.K., Nilsson P. A., Nilsson, J., Chibalin, A.V., Zierath, J. R., & Blomstrand, E., Branched-chain amino acids increase p70S6k phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2004;287: E1–E7.
- Luoma, T. C., Post-Workout Nutrition is Dead: Pre-Workout and Intra-Workout Nutrition is Better. [Online] https://www.t-nation.com/supplements/post-workout-nutrition-is-dead - retrieved on 3.4.16
- Medical News Today. Vitamin B Deficiency and Poor Athletic Performance Linked. [Online] http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/56869.php - retrieved on 3.4.16
- Tipton, K., D. et al. Timing of Amino Acid-carbohydrate Ingestion Alters Anabolic Response of Muscle to Resistance Exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001 Aug; 281(2):E197-206