Of all the times to be concerned with your dietary needs, post-workout nutrition is easily an incredibly important time during your quest for a more muscular physique. Not to shun the other meals of the day, or relegate them to subpar status, but post-training is a delicate and advantageous time to reap big, long-term rewards. You've put in the hard work, sweat and sometimes tears. Now it's time to refuel and recover.
You already down a protein shake after each session. Probably, say, 30 or 40 grams of quality whey protein. What more can you do to accelerate your gains? What else can you combine with your post-training drink to help you reach your goals faster?
Good versus evil
Many moons ago it was announced to the great people of gyms everywhere that there was an anabolic window of sorts. This window was your one and only opportunity to shuttle in muscle-building raw materials and have them take effect. This window was claimed to last only 30 minutes to an hour (depending on what you were reading), and caused millions of gym rats to start taking their shaker bottles and bags of powder to the gym. Shaking, mixing and gulping began as soon as the last rep of the last set was done.
The interesting thing was that no one knew why. Why was this window so important and what science was it based on? Once these questions arose, so did the naysayers. A strong rebellion was formed to combat this old gym lore, ostracizing past principles and dietary beliefs. The resistance touted the belief that it didn’t matter when you ingested your post-workout nutrients, just as long as you did so before the sun went down (or something like that). This was just what people needed to hear. No worries – I’ll just throw out my nutrient timing practices and wing it.
I am not here to wage a debate over who is right and who is insane, but I would like to point out some of the more important reasons to entertain post-workout nutrition and how you can take advantage of it for your own personal gain.
Why post-workout nutrition is important
It all has to do with two very important factors. Number one: the hormone insulin. Aside from being the culprit behind fat storage, is also a highly anabolic workhorse. Increasing insulin will help kick-start protein synthesis and help stuff nutrients into muscle cells – namely amino acids and glycogen. This post-workout period is ideal since testosterone and growth hormone levels are elevated and muscle tissue is starving for some good eats.
Speaking of starving – this immediate starvation response including depleted glycogen, the need for amino acids for repair and recuperation and not to mention the construction of new, stronger muscle tissue needs to be answered – and fast! Why wait and lose both the insulin trigger and the opportunity to pack your muscle with protein and simple carbs to start the all-important recovery process. Restored glycogen, faster recovery and the ability to bounce back quicker are just a few reasons to mind your post-workout habits.
Beta-alanine seems to provide the greatest benefit for aerobic activities lasting greater than 60 seconds, but can also mitigate fatigue during anaerobic exertions.
What not to take
There are countless post-workout potions out there promising the perfect this and the exact amount of that, but what you don’t need is just as important to understand as what you do need.
Fiber should not be on your list. Your goal is to get nutrients into your starving muscles as quickly as possible. Fiber will only slow digestion and delay recovery. Is it the end of the world if you take in a few grams of fiber, well, no. But to get the most out of your torture sessions, nix it.
Fat should be virtually nonexistent as well, for the same reasons as fiber – slowing digestion. Fats slow breakdown. They also slow down the digestion of other macronutrients in the gut and intestines, again, delaying the vital recovery process. Think of fat as the law officer with a radar gun on the interstate – commence with the brake lights!
Lastly, any form of slow-digesting protein source such as beef or exclusively casein protein will take too long to break down. Your gut will be working overtime too much to worry about those needy muscle fibers. Avoid any protein source that takes a significant amount of time to digest.
Your post-workout essential list
Let’s get down to business. Below are five key ingredients for an optimal post-workout recovery plan. Don’t think you need all five for perfect results, just think of this list as a few suggestions for accelerated recovery and, subsequently, more gains!
Essential #1 - Whey protein
Whey protein is a no-brainer, but a required mention. Whey is a fast digesting protein, which means it’s quickly broken down into usable amino acids and shuttled to muscle tissue with ease. Protein powder is also extremely portable and compact so there’s no excuse for not including it in your gym bag.
If you’re attempting to increase lean muscle mass, shoot for a minimum daily intake 0.68-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.  With this number in mind, 30 to 45 grams mixed with your favorite non-fat beverage should do the trick.
Whey protein is an easy way to increase protein intake, improve post-workout protein synthesis, and increase lean mass. If you’re lactose intolerant, then consider beef, egg, or vegan protein powder blends.
Essential #2 - Casein protein
Wasn’t this just on the no-no list, you say? Notice I stated above not to take in casein exclusively. While whey protein will take care of your short-term protein needs, adding 20 or so grams of casein protein powder to your shake will help you stay anabolic long after training is overdue do its differing blood amino acid response pattern.
A casein and whey combination promoted the greatest increases in fat-free mass after 10 weeks of heavy resistance training compared to a carbohydrate only drink or a whey protein + BCAA drink.  Casein protein can also have up to 50% of your daily value of calcium versus the 10-20% found in whey protein. It’s hard to argue with adding an ingredient that helps maximize protein synthesis and prevents bone degradation.
Essential #3 - Creatine
Creatine monohydrate, a natural chemical present in and made by the body and found in food, is the most heavily researched supplement. Creatine can improve exercise performance, increase muscle mass, improve anaerobic cardiovascular capacity, and increase power output. Quickly replenishing the ATP-ADP cycle for better recovery will not only between your workout sets, but also help you recover after your workout is complete.
Creatine monohydrate is the most cost efficient option and is as effective as the designer creatine varieties. If you’re still not convinced, some reports show that creatine has long-term heart, muscular, and neurological protective effects. Consume 3 to 5 grams before and after training.
Essential #4 - Beta-alanine
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that attaches itself to Histidine to promote better endurance and more energy. This helps increase intensity and effectiveness of power movements through the increased muscle carnosine content, giving you better overall exercise performance.
Beta-alanine seems to provide the greatest benefit for aerobic activities lasting greater than 60 seconds, but can also mitigate fatigue during anaerobic exertions through a period of aerobic exercise. Additionally, Beta-alanine has been shown to work synergistically with creatine to improve strength and lean mass, giving you an even more effective supplement cocktail. 
You’d be crazy to miss out on including this supplement, which will help to stave off fatigue, increase lean mass, improve weightlifting performance, and increase cardiovascular output.
Consume 3 to 5 grams before and after training.
Essential #5 - Simple carbs
Even though all food/supplements will influence insulin levels to a degree, causing a rapid increase directly after a workout will help jumpstart your muscle-building plans. Simple carbohydrate intake at this time will also help shuttle in all those supplements listed above, which will stimulate amino acid transport, protein synthesis, and muscle tissue repair. 
A carbohydrate and protein supplement produces greater plasma insulin and glucose responses as well as yields a muscle glycogen storage rate over 4.5 times higher than a protein-only supplement.  By combining protein with these simple carbohydrates you can create a similar insulin response and muscle glycogen-repletion rate compared to a higher carbohydrate, lower protein, and higher calorie beverage. 
Depending on your bodyweight and activity level, consume between 20 and 50 grams after training.
7) Earnest, Conrad P., et al. "The effect of creatine monohydrate ingestion on anaerobic power indices, muscular strength and body composition." Acta Physiologica Scandinavica 153.2 (1995): 207.