Is Sugar Post-Workout Ruining Your Gains?
Recently I heard a rumor suggesting that consuming sugar (yes, that means carbs) post-workout is interfering with our gains. And I thought to myself,
If you’ve been following me at all, you know that I’ve written about how dextrose (sugar) can help fuel your workouts as well as how combining carbohydrates with protein post-workout can increase the rate of glucose uptake into cells, speeding up the rate of recovery.
Have I been steering you in the wrong direction all along? Did I miss something despite the significant amount of time I’ve put behind my sports nutrition and personal training certifications? How could I not know this?
So I did what I always do. I put on my Nancy Drew glasses (did Nancy Drew even wear glasses?) and went to work to find out the truth behind this theory.
The Theory Behind No Sugar Post-Workout
Okay, here is what people are suggesting: That there is a two hour window after an intense workout when human growth hormone (HGH) is at its highest. However, if we consume sugar (whether that be glucose, sucrose, or fructose), the release of HGH during this time will drop or completely stop. Thus, negating any benefits we may have gained had we maintained our HGH production.
Let’s Look at the Science behind Human Growth Hormone
While HGH is most commonly known for its role in a child’s physical growth (or maybe even more so for its role in “performance enhancement” for athletes), it continues to play a role in adult lives too. It primarily acts as a regulatory hormone; meaning it works to maintain homeostasis of fluids, bone, muscle, and blood sugar. It can also help build muscle and burn fat.
HGH is released in waves throughout the day, but its levels are at its highest after exercise, when our blood sugar is low, or during sleep (in fact peak levels are typically found during sleep times, so make sure you are catching those zzzz’s!). You know, any of those times when energy levels have a tendency to be dramatically different than usual.
As we age, the amount of HGH our bodies’ produce goes down. This is likely one of the reasons why we also begin to lose muscle and bone mass as we get older. However, we already know that exercise – specifically strength training – can slow down the effects of aging, and this is no less true when it comes to HGH. If we continue to train hard, we can help keep production of HGH levels going strong.
So How Does HGH Relate to Exercise?
During and after exercise, a whole bunch of hormonal and enzymatic reactions occur. Because exercise requires energy, our bodies are working hard to process stored glycogen to create ATP (read this for more information on how our energy systems work). Eventually, we are going to use most of our glycogen stores – specifically when we are participating in anaerobic activities – resulting in low blood sugar.
The body senses the fact that blood sugar levels are low and HGH (among other things) comes to the rescue. Remember, HGH is sort of a maintenance worker, so it is secreted in an attempt to regulate blood sugar levels. Because glycogen levels are depleted, HGH relies on fat for fuel. It’s for this reason that HGH is often considered a fat burning hormone.
Interesting fact: HGH is sort of the mirror image of insulin, but in reverse. When blood sugar levels are high, insulin is released to regulate blood sugar. When blood sugar levels are low, HGH is released to – you guessed it – regulate blood sugar.
So here’s where sugar comes into play: If we consume sugar post-workout, then insulin is released in response. When insulin is released, the production of HGH is stopped (the reverse is true as well). And once HGH is no longer at the plate, we lose its role in building muscle and burning fat.
I think it would also be important to mention here that whey protein post workout causes an insulin response as well. Again, stopping HGH.
But hold on. The Intensity of Exercise Also Matters.
The human body has three different types of muscle fibers. They are:
- Type I (Slow twitch oxidative): For low-power and high-endurance activity like running or walking.
- Type IIA (Fast twitch oxidative): For high-power and low-endurance activity like strength training.
- Type IIB (Fast twitch glycolytic): For super-intense, short-endurance exercise like HIIT and plyometrics.
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, maximum levels of HGH are not released unless we activate our Type IIB muscle fibers. Unfortunately for us lifters, strength training – even during a heavy workout – does not usually engage Type IIB.
What it takes, says Dr. Mercola, is “high-intensity burst” exercises, even beyond what you might associate with HIIT and plyometric workouts. Dr. Mercola suggests that to really tap into that HGH, these exercises need to “meet or exceed” your maximum heart rate for “20-30 seconds.”
For example, many HIIT workouts suggest you pump your heart rate up to about 80-90% max. Dr. Mercola would say, Pish posh, boost that baby up to 100%! (Okay, I don’t know if that’s what he’d really say since I’d never met the man, but it seems like something he would say, right?).
So in other words, not only do you not want to consume sugar after you workout, you want to make sure that you are pretty much in an asthmatic state during your workout in order to maximize the release of HGH.
Better bring a barf bag to the gym just in case.
What the Experts are Saying
So is the rumor true about post-workout sugar consumption and how it may be stunting our growth? Here’s a little bit of what I found:
- A website called “You and Your Hormones” verified that HGH is released after sleep, exercise, and as a response to low blood sugar. In fact, in order for doctors to test HGH levels, they give patients a sugary drink because “sugar should cause growth hormone to reduce.” Check one for HGH being reduced as a result of sugar.
- HGH Magazine (there really is such a thing!) supports the no-sugar-post-workout theory, though they do acknowledge that consuming carbs + protein post-workout speeds up recovery. It all depends on your goal: If you want a fast recovery (because you’re going to be active again very quickly, for example), sugar post-workout it the way to go. If your goal is to gain maximum benefit from natural HGH production, then wait a couple hours before you have that sugary snack. Check two for no sugar.
- Brad Schoenfeld, a well-known sports nutrition expert states, “Intensity has been shown to have a significant impact on muscle hypertrophy and is arguably the most important exercise variable for stimulating muscle growth.” He also confirms that HGH spikes after exercise and plays a role in fat metabolism. Check three.
- A study on The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes supports the claim that “exercise intensity above lactate threshold and for a minimum of 10 minutes appears to elicit the greatest stimulus to the secretion of HGH.” An article from the University of New Mexico back this up by stating that HGH the levels being released is “very dependent on exercise intensity.” Check and check again.
Sugar Post-Workout, Yes or No?
After examining the theory of sugar (carbs) and its role with HGH, I think it’s safe to say that yes, if you want to maximize the release of naturally-occurring HGH after exercise, refrain from consuming sugar for two hours after your workout (I couldn’t find any scientific support on this two hour window theory, so I cannot confirm or deny the accuracy of this time frame. For now, we’ll just go with it). Not to forget avoiding whey protein post workout. Have some whole food protein instead like chicken, fish or beef.
Will HGH be the key to massive muscle gains?
That depends. There are so many factors involved with muscle growth, the least of which are genetics, age, physical conditioning, gender, and especially nutrition. Here is what I’d suggest:
- If you are relatively new to strength training, this is probably a strategy you don’t need to consider as muscle gains are typically greatest for newbies. This is because damage to muscle (hypertrophy) is pretty easy to do when your muscles haven’t been conditioned for strength training in the first place.
- If you are a seasoned strength training athlete who feels like you are spinning your wheels when it comes to building new muscle or burning that extra bit of fat, it may be a strategy worth trying. However, keep in mind that the intensity of your exercise is essential to initiate the greatest levels of HGH. If you still want to perform your regular strength training program, just add some killer HIIT or plyometric routines right after your usual workout.
- If you are a busy person struggling to find time for exercise, you may benefit from this strategy, especially as it relates to fat burning (since HGH relies on fat for energy). That being said, HIIT on its own (regardless if sugar is consumed post-workout or not) is a great fat burning method that can be done in literally minutes. Check out these HIIT workouts to get you started.
- I would not suggest this for anyone in contest prep, since low levels of glycogen is already an issue. Drinking sugar like dextrose intra or post-workout can really help with sparing muscle, waning energy levels and can keep you mentally plugged-in.
Have you heard of any lesser-known strategies for enhancing muscle gain and are wondering how accurate they really are? Let me know, and I’ll see if I can find some answers. I’m committed to providing fitness strategies that are healthy, realistic, and that actually produce results. The body is a complex machine, and what works for one person may not work for another.
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