Which comes first? The chicken or the egg? More importantly, does it matter?

If you didn’t bring your protein shake to the gym would you just turn around and go home? That is actually a serious question. Some readers will think it laughable to postpone a gym session just because they forgot their post workout shake. On the other hand readers on the inner sanctum of the Bro’therhood will think it laughable to even consider working out without a shake ready to go for post workout.


So, then. which is more important? Training? Or the nutritional provision around that training?

We have all heard the famous one liners which some personal trainers and gym-goers alike use to attempt to sum up the nuanced relationship between diet and exercise.

“Its 80% diet and 20% exercise, Bro, Brovlovski, Broseph”.

If you think “no that’s not right, it’s probably more like 70/30″or maybe you are of more balanced and reasoned disposition and think “it’s more like 50/50”. You could even swing the pendulum the other way because you are a clever clogs and if the title of this blog serves as any clue you will be thinking… “I’m smarter than those guys, its 20/80 in favour of training”

The truth? These are the most arbitrary set of numbers attached to a statement as you are ever going to find.


You are all wrong. Or right. Who cares about finding a number? We are concerned about getting bigger, stronger, faster and leaner. We are concerned with adaptation to stimuli.


  • Humans have evolved due to the necessity to adapt to stimuli. We are the product of lots and lots of adaptations. Some of these we choose, some of these we don’t. Hard Training is a stimuli we choose and that requires adaptations.
  • We eat protein. We store protein as muscle. How do you get muscle? You train.
  • You can gain muscle even if you eat sweet f* all else (energy deficit), even if you don’t gain in an energy deficit you can most definitely maintain all muscle mass.
  • With the above points made, the conclusion is that the processes of muscle building, remodeling and repair are all signaled once we train, they all actually occur once we eat protein. This, independent of the state of chronic energy balance, positive or negative.

Now, if you wish to read the good bits, please go on.

Adaptation at a glance

“Much of who you are as an adult is a modified — stress-adapted — version of an original template. Most of who you are and what you are physically capable of is the result of adaptation to stresses and stimuli.”  – Paul Ingraham

We respond to stresses placed on the body by adapting to them, we reinforce our defenses in a way that makes us more equipped to deal with these stresses when they occur again. Let’s take resistance training for example. The ultimate adaptation to resistance training is to end up with more myofibrillar proteins available for contraction to preempt the difficulty imposed by another bout of training. If we keep building myofibrillar proteins in our bicep for example we get swole.


Protein Turnover at a glance

The accrual of myofibrillar proteins occurs as a result of a positive net protein balance. Protein balance is a simple two armed equation of Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) minus Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB). Chronic energy deficits will lead to greater rates of protein breakdown as amino acids are utilised for energy and not their primary purposes of repair, growth etc.
This constant process of muscle protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis is called Protein Turnover

It is this dynamic ‘fasted-loss/fed-gain’ cycle in proteostasis (protein balancing act) that ensures muscle mass remains constant.  Key word: constant i.e. maintenance. This process is like muscle and protein’s version of whole body energy balance. We eat less than we need, we use up our body stores for energy and thus weigh less. If we eat more than we need, we save some energy for later and thus weigh more. In this case we end up with more or less protein.

The anabolic effects of nutrition alone, are principally driven by the transfer and incorporation of amino acids captured from dietary protein sources, into skeletal muscle proteins. (Wackerhage & Rennie 2006)

^^^ This^^^ Read it again

This happens to compensate for proteins which are degraded into amino acids from tissues and metabolized during fasted periods (Atherton et al 2010) where MPB occurs naturally, we cannot stop MPB completely but what we can do is stimulate more MPS.

This anabolic response mentioned above comes and goes, which makes sense because if there is no MPB you could get swole by just eating protein all day. Once you have eaten enough protein to maximise MPS it takes 30 mins for MPS rates to triple, peaking around 1.5 h before returning to baseline by 2 h (Atherton et al. 2010). This is despite continued increased availability of circulating amino acids and sustained ‘anabolic signalling’.
^So the very last sentence is important there.^

We may have a post workout shake and then 30 minutes later have a big ol’ steak. The above timeline would mean that the amino acids from the protein shake, if sufficient, would be enough to saturate the muscle with aminos and the big ol’ steak would do little more than fill up the belly. Although there may be a continued supply of extracellular amino acids in the blood knocking on the door of the muscle, they are not going in there once the signal of “muscle full” has been sent. At which point the amino acids have been used up and the rest of the amino acids will contribute to organ protein synthesis, or remain in the amino acid pool for 4 to 6 hours contributing to lots of other processes, some might be oxidised or turned to glucose in the liver (gluconeogensis).

PSA *no kidneys were harmed with the ingestion of excess protein*

Lets see how training works it’s magic on the situation

Through training alone, in a fasted state* rates of MPS and MPB are the same as that of the non trained state after 60 minutes of recovery. It is only after 3 hours it can be seen that rates of MPS and MPB increase but with a negative net protein balance over that time to the same extent of that seen in the non trained and fasted state. (Pitkanen et al., 2003)

In that study, across the training group, mean MPS rose by 21% and the mean MPB was 17%. These are watered down averages. Those that found it challenging would be way higher and those who didn’t would have been way lower.

Exercise alone results in increased transport of amino acids from the blood to inside the muscle. “Hence, muscle balance can be increased but does not become positive until exogenous amino acids are provided , and until that time the most readily available source of amino acids for utilization is from an increase in the rate of protein breakdown”. (Phillips et al 1999)

What that means to me is that even without food, when we train we still get an increase in the processes which dictate adaptation to exercise. A simple conclusion to come to but quite pertinent in the big picture.
After 3 hours, still without food we start to see accelerated rates of protein turnover but with a negative net protein balance. The cool thing is that the same negative net protein balance is seen as those who did not train at all. Imagine that. These people went for a workout on an empty stomach and didn’t eat for more than three hours afterwards and still got an increase in the processes that govern muscle gain. They ended up in the negative BUT NO MORE THAN those who didn’t train at all.

Resistance training in and of itself is anabolic.

Let’s face it, unless the people who trained have a death wish, they are going to eat as soon as that test is over. If they eat a dinner with a serving of protein they will get that rise in muscle protein synthesis again and their body will begin the adaptive response to training.

We are sensitive to protein feeding for about 48 hours after training. (Phillips et al., 1997)

When we train, rates of protein turnover are accelerated. When we don’t train we don’t get an accelerated rate of protein turnover, we haven’t presented any stimulus and so we will not become any more of a human, we will end up the same or less. Remember, if MPB did not occur we could just eat protein and accumulate muscle interminably.

With that being said, the rates of protein turnover do end up in the negative, When protein balance is negative we cannot grow. This is where things get interesting. We have pounds and pounds of potential energy stored in our body in the form of fat. Can’t we just use this energy to build muscle? If a pound of fat has 3500 kcals of energy and I am 100kg at 20% body fat for example I would have ~70’000 kcals of energy at my disposal. Only increased essential amino acid availability has the ability to augment the recovery response of MPS.

It would be plausible that in the newbie trainer the adaptations would occur regardless of any change in nutrition due to normal levels of amino acid in turn over now having a more specific role to play in muscle repair and growth whilst other abundant energy sources in glucose and triglycerides (fat) are able to take care of most other metabolic processes.
Where this ends is when the amount of adaptation required exceeds the amount of basal amino acids available with a habitual diet, meaning more protein will be needed via the diet. We do not have a storage of protein in the body to draw from beyond what is synthesized as muscle and what is being turned over and utilized in the production of hormones, enyzymes & antibodies, but we need all of those things to live healthily and so it is best not to have to compromise our amino acid availability.

So protein is the key when it comes to muscular adaptations but adaptations must be forced.

Exercise preserves lean body mass in a caloric deficit. Even aerobic exercise can preserve muscle in the untrained.

Myth Buster – Muscle Gain in an Energy Deficit:

Longland et al 2016 performed a study whereby they put previously exercised people (so experienced but out of practice) in a 40% calorie deficit for 28 days and split them up into high protein (2.4g/kg) and low protein (1.2g/kg).

Its worth noting that 1.2g/kg is still above the RDA, but considerably lower than that recommended by us evidence based 2g/kg crowd. Then they resistance trained both groups.
Both groups lost fat, obviously… calorie deficit… but neither group lost any muscle. The high protein group even gained muscle. Muscle gain in a calorie deficit is one thing, it can be done but the low protein group actually didn’t lose any muscle. They had almost half of their maintenance kcals taken away from them and still strength increased in all exercises, as did measures of aerobic and anaerobic capacity and performance on sit-up and push up tests. There were no differences between groups for any
performance-based variable. So, training had a pretty big impact here alone.

Even protein sufficiency is evident at 1.2g/kg, which is low! 2 BIG FINDS here. (I think protein dosing/timing was a significant player here but that’s another blog for another day)

The truth for us trained folk lies somewhere in the middle. We need both things that lead to those results. We need intense training and we need a sufficient level of protein intake.

Protein is the key. Not hormones and not carbs. Carbohydrates do not affect rates of MPS when sufficient protein is taken. Carbohydrates resulting effect of higher insulin levels also do not effect rates of MPS when sufficient protein is taken.

The relationship between training and nutrition exists only when we have something to adapt to. Let’s say you have been doing a workout plan for 3 months and haven’t made any changes to it. You cannot have your nutrition so “on point” that you force growth from a routine that’s not challenging.

Resistance training with loads at no greater than 40% of 1RM will not increase rates of MPS in the period following. Unless taken to failure.

Resistance training with loads of 60% and upwards will increase rates of MPS 2-3x  in the period following and this will continue for 24 hours and decreasingly so up to 48 hours afterwards. (Phillips et al 1997Kumar et al 1999)

Remember our ‘muscle full’ effect? Well training at sufficient intensities prolongs this timeline for far longer, even after 24 hours allowing for far more MPS to occur and this leads to a more positive net protein balance. That’s your anabolic window bro. #science


muscle full mnu.PNG

Image courtesy of the last nutrition qualification you will ever need to do #MacNutritionUni

So if your training cycle begins with loads of 60% 1RM and you have adapted to this after a few weeks to the point where it is now in reality just 30% of your 1RM, your done, mate. No more adaptive MPS for you. Either go to absolute failure to the point where you cannot find enough tissue to mop up your nose bleed or increase the load to something that forces an adaptation again. On the other hand, you could take up endurance sports. MPS seems to be specific to the adaptation imposed ie. if you do endurance sports you still make use of higher MPS rates post exercise (~50%) but they go towards things like mitochondrial biogenesis rather than muscle cross-sectional area growth (swoleness)

On a side note, you can do some pretty good stuff with 30% loads, try blood flow restriction training as part of some metabolite focused training sessions but sprinkle it in don’t use it all the time, it will hurt though.

So there you have it. A rambling on a specific area of sports nutrition, mainly muscle gain and adaptation to resistance training. Thanks for reading all of ~2500 words!

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