How to Optimize Meal Timing for Gaining or Cutting

Introduction
Meal timing is something that you are bound to have heard about at one point or another during your training career. At some point, one of your friends or maybe a gym veteran has spoken to you about drinking a shake post-workout to start promoting recovery and muscle growth or getting protein in every few hours to stave off catabolism. Those are both forms of nutrient timing that are used for a specific purpose.

In more practical terms, nutrient timing is how you can bring out the full capacity of a diet. While alone it doesn’t account for a huge portion of your results (maybe about 10%), proper timing along with a well-calculated plan will see you outperforming your peers at the gym that just focus on calories. Typically there are two ways I like to use nutrient timing with my clients:

1) As a way to build adherence with new clients (i.e scheduling meals at times they’re more likely to not miss or overeat)
2) As a way to improve the results of an advanced client during gaining or cutting phases

The Goal of Nutrient/Meal Timing
The goal of proper meal timing is not just about splitting calories up during the day. If you’re at a high level, you’re using trying to get the most results possible; and without knowing how to split up your macros appropriately you can be leaving gains on the table.

When creating a plan for your day, the first thing we need to do is set meals around when you wake up, train, and go to bed. The meals around these events will have the most variation, whether from the total amount of calories you are eating or the specific macronutrient breakdown.

Through these variations, we can cut hunger during a caloric deficit; make it easier to get all your food in during gaining phases; or manage things like insulin resistance in general populations [1].

How to Use Nutrient Timing to Your Advantage
The first way anyone can use nutrient/meal timing to their advantage is simply by splitting the total amount of protein they consume equally across all meals. We want to do this because while protein will almost always be used for various processes within the body, only a certain amount of it can be used effectively for muscle protein synthesis.

A simple and effective way to split protein is to divide it equally across all meals, though if that causes your macros to be awkward numbers your best bet would be to increase the protein consumption post-workout and at your last evening meal. The higher protein post-workout can help to drive a positive net protein balance especially after very taxing workouts while increasing protein at a regular meal will help to increase satiety – this is an especially powerful tool during cuts where caloric deficits will surely drive hunger up.

To contrast that last point, you can also use meal timing during a gaining phase to push most of your caloric intake around workouts or times where hunger levels are very high to avoid having to inevitably force-feed yourself to stay on track.

Here is how we can look at meal timing to optimize workouts:

Pre-Workout
Your goal with your pre-workout meal is to be able to fill glycogen stores maximally to fuel your workout. As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, you are in the gym to lift and to gain or preserve muscle mass, to that end, you want to always make sure that your pre-workout nutrition is centered around improving the performance of your workout.

Carbohydrates intake pre-workout will most likely be your second biggest consumption of carbs during the day (the biggest being post-workout), however, that isn’t the only nutrient you need to be eating. Your protein intake pre-workout will also have a twofold effect; the first being an increase in serum amino acids causing a positive net protein balance. The second being a pro-anabolic response resulting from ingesting at least 20g of whey protein before exercising [2,3]. It also seems that through these mechanisms, there are sufficient circulating nutrients to maximally stimulate protein synthesis right after the workout is complete.

One caveat to this is that eating within a short amount of time pre-workout might have the opposite effect on performance since digestion will take precedence. A trick here would be to try and aim to have your pre-workout meal 2 – 3 hours before training. Additionally, try to reduce the amount of fiber and fats that this meal contains and instead consume simple carbohydrates and protein. Fats and dietary fiber will slow down digestion and delay the time it takes for these nutrients to reach their destination [4]. Smaller meal sizes and quickly digesting carbs are your friends here.

Intra-Workout
While most people think that their intra-workout nutrition is going to make or break their results, the vast majority of lifters do not really need it. The exceptions to this rule are those are a very high level of lifting that train hard for well over an hour on average. The types of lifters that I’ve seen intra-workout nutrition make a difference for are high-level bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, powerlifters, and some CrossFit athletes training multiple times per day. Unless you fall into this category or are competing in a sport that requires a full-day event (a soccer tournament or Brazilian jiu-jitsu competition for example), chances are you might be better off saving the calories for your meals.

However, if you do fall into this category the rules are pretty simple: In lifting sports, choose rapidly digesting carbohydrates and protein (high glycemic carbs or powders work great here), to maintain steady blood sugar and stay anti-catabolic. For team sports or non-lifting sports carbohydrates and electrolytes will generally be the priority during the event, and protein ingestion to stave off catabolism and improve recovery will become the priority towards the end.

Post-Workout
Here is where most lifters focus their nutrient timing efforts. Now, I will preface this part by saying that research does not strongly support a post-workout anabolic window, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons for optimizing your post-workout nutrition.

One of the main attributes of post-workout nutrition is carbohydrate intake. Something that I picked up from the guys at Renaissance Periodization has to do with putting 35% of your daily carb allowance at your post-workout meal. Research has shown that muscles become more sensitive to insulin and therefore to glucose absorption post-training which creates an optimal opportunity to ingest a larger amount of carbohydrates – this is especially helpful for those that tend to put on body fat easily during a gaining phase [1]. Some people will also talk about needing to ingest carbohydrates post-workout to quickly resynthesize glycogen stores or to become more anabolic, however that research is divided. On the one hand, you do utilize stored glycogen to fuel intense workouts, but we’ve also seen that it is rare to completely deplete glycogen, and athletes only drinking water post-workout can replenish glycogen up to 75% within 6 hours, but it is true that ingesting carbs would replete up to 91% [5]. In addition, some research has also suggested that adding carbohydrates to a protein dose of 20-25g has no added stimulus to muscle protein synthesis [6].

Now even though it’s sad to find out that your post-workout nutrition is important but not necessarily in the way you might have wanted, it’s important to note that the benefits surrounding absorption of nutrients post-workout is still viable and should be the focus.

Final Word
Right now you’re probably saying to yourself:

“Alright, so then what’s the point of all this, James?”

Glad you asked.

Here’s what you should take away from this: Your lifting is stimulating enough to trigger anabolic responses and protein synthesis (i.e get jacked) however, the nutrition side of things might seem complicated, but it isn’t – we just want it to work synergistically with our lifting. The first rule is to figure out how many calories you need to eat, then I like to focus on my pre-workout and post-workout meals because while the pre-workout meal will be smaller, they both have the same goal: easy and quick digesting carbohydrates and protein with minimal fiber and fat. A good rule of thumb is 25% Carbs pre-workout and roughly 35% post-workout (see Renaissance Periodization for more detail). After that the rest of your meals should be split with your goal in mind; if you’re bulking then try and fit more food during times when your hunger levels are high to avoid needing to force-feed (even splits here don’t work super well). If you’re cutting, then try and stick more of your fats and fiber later in the day and especially at your last meal since these are the most satiating nutrients, and in this way, you can avoid having to fight hunger and improve your ability to sleep restfully.


References:
[1] Ivy, J. L. “Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake.” International journal of sports medicine 19, no. S 2 (1998): S142-S145.

[2] Tipton, Kevin D., Blake B. Rasmussen, Sharon L. Miller, Steven E. Wolf, Sharla K. Owens-Stovall, Bart E. Petrini, and Robert R. Wolfe. “Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism (2001).

[3] Tipton, Kevin D., Tabatha A. Elliott, Melanie G. Cree, Steven E. Wolf, Arthur P. Sanford, and Robert R. Wolfe. “Ingestion of casein and whey proteins result in muscle anabolism after resistance exercise.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 36, no. 12 (2004): 2073-2081.

[4] Lattimer, James M., and Mark D. Haub. “Effects of dietary fiber and its components on metabolic health.” Nutrients 2, no. 12 (2010): 1266-1289.

[5] Pascoe, David D., David L. Costill, William J. Fink, Robert A. Robergs, and Jeffrey J. Zachwieja. “Glycogen resynthesis in skeletal muscle following resistive exercise.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 25, no. 3 (1993): 349-354.

[6] Figueiredo, Vandre C., Michelle M. Farnfield, Megan LR Ross, Petra Gran, Shona L. Halson, Jonathan M. Peake, David Cameron-Smith, and James F. Markworth. “The effect of carbohydrate ingestion following eccentric resistance exercise on AKT/mTOR and ERK pathways: a randomized, double-blinded, crossover study.” International journal of sports nutrition and exercise metabolism 29, no. 6 (2019): 664-670.

Boirie, Y., Dangin, M., Gachon, P., Vasson, M. P., Maubois, J. L., & Beaufrčre, B. (1997). Slow and fast dietary proteins differently modulate postprandial protein accretion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 94(26), 14930-14935.

Lemon, P. W., Berardi, J. M., & Noreen, E. E. (2002). The role of protein and amino acid supplements in the athlete’s diet: does type or timing of ingestion matter?. Current sports medicine reports, 1(4), 214-221.