August 11, 2014

New Study on the Anabolic Window of Opportunity

Science is ever-evolving. New studies are continually carried out to expand on previous research and thus shed additional light on topics of interest. The process can be likened to solving a puzzle, where more and more pieces are provided over time to ultimately fill out the complete picture.

Such is the case with a recently published study titled, Effect of timing of protein and carbohydrate intake after resistance exercise on nitrogen balance in trained and untrained young men. Briefly, the study employed a within-subject design where both an untrained group and a trained group performed regimented resistance training under two different protein-timing conditions. Training was carried out over two consecutive 11 day periods using a push/pull split (lower body on days 1, 5, and 9; shoulders, chest, and triceps on days 2, 6, and 10; back and biceps on days 3, 7, and 11). Subjects were placed on a regimented nutritional plan where they ate breakfast at 7 am, lunch at 1 pm, and dinner at 7 pm. During one of the 11-day training phases subjects consumed a protein supplement immediately after exercise while during the other phase they consumed the shake 6 hours post-workout. Importantly, training was carried out from 10 to 11 am each morning prior to lunch. The table below provides specifics on the study’s protocol.

The results were intriguing. In the untrained group, no differences in nitrogen balance were noted between timing strategies. Conversely, the trained subjects showed a significantly greater positive nitrogen balance when protein was provided immediately after training compared to delaying consumption by 6 hours.

Upon first hearing about the study I was ready to dismiss results because of the very long wait to consume the post-workout supplement. Considering that training was carried out 3 hours after breakfast and that training took an hour, that means the supplement was ingested 10 hours after breakfast. Simple logic dictates that’s not ideal if the goal is to maximize the anabolic impact of training.

Here’s the rub though: Subjects ate lunch 2 hours after the training bout and that meal contained ~30 grams of protein. So in essence, the study actually showed that delaying intake just a couple of hours after a training bout had a significantly detrimental effect on protein balance in experienced lifters.


With that as background, here are some things to keep in mind when drawing evidence-based conclusions. I’ll start by noting that the study was well-designed to assess the desired outcome measure (nitrogen balance). The author took good care to control all relevant variables, in particular food intake (diets were designed by a nutritionist and intake was strictly monitored). This provides good confidence that results were attributed to the independent variable — namely, timing of post-workout protein provision.

It is important to understand, however, that the study measured nitrogen balance over a 3 day training period — not long-term muscle growth. Now there is a correlation between *chronic* nitrogen balance and hypertrophy. The accretion of muscle proteins is predicated on a positive nitrogen balance, whereby protein synthesis exceeds protein breakdown over a given time-frame. However, it is misguided to extrapolate that an *acute* measure of nitrogen balance will necessarily translate into greater muscle hypertrophy over the course of weeks or months. To this point, recent research from Stu Phillips lab shows that acute measures of post-exercise protein synthesis do not correlate well with long-term increases in muscle growth.

In addition, the nitrogen balance technique itself has inherent limitations. Research has shown that the technique results in an overestimation of nitrogen intake and an underestimation of nitrogen losses. Moreover, its ability to accurately determine balance over short time frames has been called into question — and this study evaluated balance over a period of just 3 days. Finally, nitrogen balance comprises many bodily tissues and thus it is not clear if differences are specific to muscle fractions. Whether these factors had an impact on the present study is anyone’s guess. Therefore, results must be interpreted cautiously.

Bottom line is that the study provides some interesting insight for generating hypotheses. In the narrative review I co-authored with Alan Aragon, we discussed that the anabolic effects of a meal last a maximum of about 6 hours, and therefore speculated that this would be the outer limit as to how long you should wait to consume post-workout protein from the time of your last meal. The present study suggests waiting 6-hours between meals has a negative effect effect on protein accretion in trained subjects but not in untrained subjects. Whether this translates into reductions in long-term muscle mass is unknown and can only be determined from a longitudinal study that directly measures changes in muscle hypertrophy.

Fortunately, I am collaborating with Alan Aragon and Colin Wilborn a study set to begin in a few weeks that will investigate this very topic. Stay tuned!

Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Jan 29;10(1):5.

Mitchell CJ, Churchward-Venne TA, Parise G, Bellamy L, Baker SK, Smith K, Atherton PJ, Phillips SM. Acute post-exercise myofibrillar protein synthesis is not correlated with resistance training-induced muscle hypertrophy in young men. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 24;9(2):e89431. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089431. eCollection 2014. Erratum in: PLoS One. 210;9(5):e98731.

Mori H. Effect of timing of protein and carbohydrate intake after resistance exercise on nitrogen balance in trained and untrained young men. J Physiol Anthropol. 2014 Aug 6;33(1):24. [Epub ahead of print]

Rand WM, Pellett PL, Young VR. Meta-analysis of nitrogen balance studies for estimating protein requirements in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Jan;77(1):109-27.

Tomé D, Bos C. Dietary protein and nitrogen utilization. J Nutr. 2000 Jul;130(7):1868S-73S. Review.


  1. Where goes the line between trained/untrained?

    Comment by MP — August 12, 2014 @ 7:18 am

  2. Great stuff as usual Brad; and a very interesting study. Looks like you haven’t been wasting your time having that post workout protein “just to be safe”. Can’t wait for further analysis by you and Alan so solidify some of this!


    Comment by Jay Scott — August 12, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

  3. Thanks Jay. Cheers!


    Comment by Brad — August 13, 2014 @ 8:00 am

  4. In this study, the “trained” group had ~6 years training experience.

    Comment by Brad — August 13, 2014 @ 8:02 am

  5. Hi,Very interesting, would u need to take a base line measurement, of growth before the study in your trained students, as we all respond in different ways to external forces, (genetics for the activity) look forward to the out come of the study, good look to all.

    Comment by gaz — August 15, 2014 @ 7:38 am

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  7. Yes, baseline measurements certainly will be taken.

    Comment by Brad — August 17, 2014 @ 6:15 pm

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