If you’re putting in a big effort at the gym to build muscle, it’s important to keep in mind that what happens after you leave the weight room also has an impact on your gains.
You may have heard fitness enthusiasts and pros refer to this post-training time as the “anabolic window”—and hype up the nutrition and supplement routines they swear by following during these 30-ish minutes. Here’s what the anabolic window is all about, as well as which common post-workout mistakes can shut the window prematurely and mess with your gains.
Why is the Post-Workout Window Important?
To sum up decades of research, after a tough training session, your muscles detect the workout you just did and send signals to the rest of your body that they need more protein to recover and rebuild. These signals lead to an increase in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the process of synthesizing (a.k.a. creating) new muscle proteins. We often hear that MPS is imperative to gain muscle, and that’s certainly true. We also get a massive spike in MPS following a resistance training workout.
Now, imagine that these MPS signals are like the instructions for building a house. Even if you have the plans, you can’t actually build anything if you don’t have materials or workers. Both are crucial! The materials, in this sense, are amino acids, the building blocks of both protein and muscle. The workers, meanwhile, are additional calories and specific micronutrients that support the muscle-building process.
Since building muscle requires a great deal of energy, having both amino acids and energy (in the form of calories) is generally recommended during the post-workout period. This is what leads many experts and professionals to recommend consuming some sort of protein supplement and/or food relatively soon after your workout. (More on that shortly.)
Optimizing the post-workout period isn’t quite as simple as having a snack after you work up a sweat, though. In fact, several factors go into optimizing recovery and muscle growth—and the more serious your goals are, the more serious you should consider being about these items.
Common Post-Workout Mistakes That Sabotage Gains
Given what we know about MPS and post-workout muscle recovery and growth, there are a few common mistakes exercisers should watch out for after training.
1. Overlooking Post-Workout Protein
Though our bodies increase MPS following a workout in order to build more muscle, our muscles also signal for increased muscle protein breakdown (MPB). This is usually the result of burning some muscle protein for fuel during training, as well as the “cleaning” or “repair” process for muscle fibers damaged by a heavy workout.
Since we need MPS to build muscle, if MPB outpaces that MPS, we’ve got a problem on our hands. In such a scenario, we would theoretically lose muscle.
Avoiding this really starts before your workout, since eating before training can help ensure you have amino acids and calories on standby. However, it’s also important to emphasize protein intake post-workout. This protein contributes to your overall daily intake—and since daily protein balance is probably most important for your potential gains, consuming more protein and calories overall is certainly going to help you build muscle. The goal is 30-plus grams of protein after training, so getting in at least a protein shake after your workout is a good idea.
Neglecting post-workout nutrition is especially problematic if you train fasted (like first thing in the morning). Ultimately, you’ll probably have a harder time building muscle and gaining strength.
2. Slacking on Hydration
Another item that many people forego in their post-workout plan is hydration and electrolyte intake. During a hot workout, you could easily lose a liter or more of sweat per hour. Since each drop of sweat also contains electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, you also lose crucial minerals when training hard.
Dehydration can actually throw off many of the hormones that we generally associate with exercise recovery and gains. In fact, studies have shown that dehydration can reduce testosterone, increase cortisol, and even impair insulin sensitivity. This misalignment of the biochemical milieu of our bodies can really throw our recovery efforts out of whack. Drops in testosterone can reduce MPS signaling while increases in cortisol can boost MPB signals and impaired insulin sensitivity makes it tougher to get nutrients into the muscles to aid in recovery.
Drink water throughout the day and down at least two cups post-workout. If you exercise hard consistently and have no contraindications (like blood pressure concerns), you might even add some extra salt to your post-workout meal to replenish what you lose through sweat.
3. Insufficient Sleep
Sleep might not fall within that immediate post-workout anabolic window, but it’s an important enough part of your overall post-workout routine that it’s still worth mentioning here.
Everyone hits the gym super-hard thinking they’re growing and getting stronger while pumping the iron—but you actually grow outside the gym during the recovery period that follows. There’s no more crucial part of your recovery period than the sleep you get that night. Even if you perfect your other post-workout tactics, they can only do so much if you don’t sleep enough (and well) after you train.
Again, it all comes down to your hormonal environment here. Sleep impacts just about every anabolic and catabolic hormone, meaning that periods of poor sleep make muscle recovery and growth, as well as fat loss, rather hard.
In fact, multiple studies have shown that poor sleep can impair both muscle-building and fat-loss efforts. Why bust your butt in the gym just to waste it by sleeping for five hours that next night? If you’re training consistently hard, do your best to dedicate at least seven hours to sleep every night. 90 percent of that should be overnight, but you can use naps sparingly to get in some extra rest if you need to.
The Bottom Line
All-in-all, none of this is intended to make you stress out about the post-workout period. Realistically, I only really recommend folks optimize these items if they have serious gym goals. If you’re at the gym to simply maintain your health or weight, keep it up and don’t worry too much. However, if you’re looking to build significant muscle or strength, avoiding these post-workout mistakes can be a game-changer.
Keep in mind that training and health are both marathons, so finding ways to optimize your life while maintaining balance will help you reach your goals that much more quickly and sustainably.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.