Monday, December 19, 2011

Protein powders before fasted weight training? Here is a more natural and cheaper alternative

The idea that protein powders should be consumed prior to weight training has been around for a while, and is very popular among bodybuilders. Something like 10 grams or so of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) is frequently recommended. More recently, with the increase in popularity of intermittent fasting, it has been strongly recommended prior to “fasted weight training”. The quotation marks here are because, obviously, if you are consuming anything that contains calories prior to weight training, the weight training is NOT being done in a fasted state.


Most of the evidence available suggests that intermittent fasting is generally healthy. In fact, being able to fast for 16 hours or more, particularly without craving sweet foods, is actually a sign of a healthy glucose metabolism; which may complicate a cause-and-effect analysis between intermittent fasting and general health. The opposite, craving sweet foods every few hours, is generally a bad sign.

One key aspect of intermittent fasting that needs to be highlighted is that it is also arguably a form of liberation ().

Now, doing weight training in the fasted state may or may not lead to muscle loss. It probably doesn’t, even after a 24-hour fast, for those who fast and replenish their glycogen stores on a regular basis ().

However, weight training in a fasted state frequently induces an exaggerated epinephrine-norepinephrine (i.e., adrenaline-noradrenaline) response, likely due to depletion of liver glycogen beyond a certain threshold (the threshold varies for different people). The same is true for prolonged or particularly intense weight training sessions, even if they are not done in the fasted state. The body wants to crank up consumption of fat and ketones, so that liver glycogen is spared to ensure that it can provide the brain with its glucose needs.

Exaggerated epinephrine-norepinephrine responses tend to cause a few sensations that are not very pleasant. One of the first noticeable ones is orthostatic hypotension; i.e., feeling dizzy when going from a sitting to a standing position. Other related feelings are light-headedness, and a “pins and needles” sensation in the limbs (typically the arms and hands). Many believe that they are having a heart attack whey they have this “pins and needles” sensation, which can progress to a stage that makes it impossible to continue exercising.

Breaking the fast prior to weight training with dietary fat or carbohydrates is problematic, because those nutrients tend to blunt the dramatic rise in growth hormone that is typically experienced in response to weight training (). This is not good because the growth hormone response is probably one of the main reasons why weight training can be so healthy ().

Dietary protein, however, does not seem to significantly blunt the growth hormone response to weight training; even though it doesn't seem to increase it either (). Dietary protein seems to also suppress the exaggerated epinephrine-norepinephrine response to fasted weight training. And, on top of all that, it appears to suppress muscle loss, which may well be due to a moderate increase in circulating insulin ().

So everything points at the possibility that the ingestion of some protein, without carbohydrates or fat, is a good idea prior to fasted weight training. Not too much protein though, because insulin beyond a certain threshold is also likely to suppress the growth hormone response.

Does the protein have to be in the form of a protein powder? No.

Supplements are made from food, and this is true of protein powders as well. If you hard-boil a couple of large eggs, and eat only the whites prior to weight training, you will be getting about 8-10 grams of one of the highest quality protein "supplements" you can possibly get. Included are BCAAs. You will get a few extra nutrients with that too, but virtually no fat or carbohydrates.