Protein synthesis is the process in which the body adds contractile proteins to the muscles, thereby making them bigger. Somewhere in the early to mid 1990′s research came out suggesting that ingesting protein directly after a workout would help promote protein synthesis.
Up until that time, post workout recovery had been centered around the idea of replenishing glycogen stores to get the body back to normal. This was because researches tended to study endurance athletes. As you may know, training for endurance and training for muscle are completely different goals and as such, the research on how to best recover for endurance athletes didn’t relate well to people who were more interested in gaining muscle.
To understand why, you must remember that the body’s main source of fuel for exercise is glycogen. Simply put, glycogen is the stored form of the carbs you eat. Carbs are eaten, broken down into glucose and stored in the muscle as glycogen. When training for endurance, the body calls upon the stored muscle glycogen as its main energy source. The thing is, traditional weight lifting doesn’t deplete as much glycogen as endurance training, so the research done on endurance athletes couldn’t be applied to people who are weight training solely for aesthetic reasons.
People who lift weights are more concerned about building and preserving muscle. The great thing about weight lifting is that it does just that- it builds muscle. Unfortunately, part of the process in building muscle is the tearing down of that muscle via protein degradation. It then builds back up in a process called protein synthesis. Weight training, and exercise in general, promotes both of these processes at the same time. If there is more protein breakdown than synthesis, then you are in a catabolic state. If there is more synthesis than breakdown, you are in an anabolic state. It should be fairly obvious that if you are interested in gaining muscle, you want to be in an anabolic state as much as possible, meaning you want more protein synthesis than breakdown.
So recovery research shifted away from the restoration of muscle glycogen and towards how best to return the body to an anabolic state. Although exercise promotes both protein synthesis and protein breakdown, it is more catabolic, meaning the body is breaking down protein faster than it is synthesizing it. How best to return the body to an anabolic state was what everyone wanted to know.
It was found that a combination of carbs and protein was the most efficient method of returning the body to an anabolic state. I’ll explain why in the next post.