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.


Purposelessness said...

Are you sure egg whites work out cheaper than whey protein? Buying bulk whey works out cheaper, but maybe I miscalculated..

Glenn said...

Good arguments, Ned. I find that the convenience of whey powder is worth the price for me.

Anonymous said...

Hello Dr. Ned. How many eggs did you mean by a couple of eggs?

David Isaak said...

But how fast are the egg whites are digested and available compared to the whey? I have read that amino acid concentrations in the bloodstream peak at 20-40 minutes after ingesting whey.

On the other hand, I have read--though not from any authoritative source--that cooked egg whites are digested rather slowly, and are absorbed over a period of hours. Some people compare cooked egg whites to casein--a source of "slow protein."

A lot of muscle folks swear by the protein "spike" from whey. Whether this is really important, or a longer, steadier supply (say, egg whites) is as good or better, is an open question.

One study of POST-workout protein found that leucine (a BCAA) blood levels peaked higher with whey, but also found that net muscle protein synthesis seemed to be similar between whey and casein:

That doesn't really address the issue of pre-workout protein, though...

David Isaak said...

PS. Your favorite topic, Compensatory Adaptation, also comes into play here. The digestibility of "hard-to-digest" foods is affected by how often you eat them. Someone who routinely eats egg whites will absorb the aminos a lot quicker than someone who never eats them.

Pavlov was the first to study digestive adaptation, and noted that it strongly affected digestibility. Hardly anyone mentions that the numbers discussing digestibility and protein quality we see in the literature are all averages--and I've never seen the bell curves behind them!

Zbig said...

If we can't measure levels of hormones and the only output we can measure is body composition after a certain period,

what happens if we take two identical twins, feed one of them with the whey proteins, or whites, and the other eats exactly the same amount of calories but doesn't care about the pre workout protein timing, he just eats to feel good in the gym - not-to-full yet not-empty-so- he's-weak.
They both train exactly to the same protocol.

Now what order of magnitude of difference you guys think we can expect comparing their body comp after say 6 months? (my guess is that very little but I am fresh in this area, and would love to hear from more oriented people).

Anonymous said...

Love this tip. This fits perfectly into my schedule/budget. Thanks, Ned.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Rudolf. The cheapest form of whey contains lactose, which adds to the insulinogenic effect of whey. Too much insulin is a problem, as it suppresses growth hormone secretion.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Anon. By “a couple” I mean “two”. Each new egg (white only) adds about 4-5 g of protein.

Ned Kock said...

Hi David. What slows down the digestion of protein is usually the fat that comes frequently together. This is why eggs are said to be digested over a few hours. I would expect the hard-boiled whites to be digested relatively quickly (e.g., within the hour), but perhaps not as fast as a protein powder. This may be a good thing, because even though insulin prevents muscle breakdown, it is the breakdown of muscle that causes the adaptive recovery process that leads to supercompensation.

Ned Kock said...

I think that the main advantage of the pre-workout ingestion of protein, for those who do intermittent fasting, is to prevent the exaggerated epinephrine-norepinephrine response during the exercise session.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Zbig. I think it would be a very small difference, if any.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Jack. Thanks for dropping by. We need to talk more about aged raw-milk cheese here. Perhaps a bite a few hours before the workout would have an even more positive effect. There isn’t much research on the use of aged cheese by bodybuilders. Rats seem to put on muscle with it:

lancy said...

Whey protein powder used as a dietary supplement for many different uses but mainly sports enthusiasts and bodybuilders.

Protein Powder

js290 said...

I think I'd rather eat the entire egg after a fasted weight session.

garymar said...

Wouldn't a little cottage cheese work as well?

David Isaak said...

I'm unable to find any studies on the digestion speed of boiled egg whites alone. One study found that egg protein absorption peaked at 3 hours, but that, alas, was 25 grams of egg protein plus 5.5 grams of fat.

Our bodies may be especially good at absorbing whey. Cow milk protein is 20% whey, 80% casein, while human milk protein is 60% whey, 40% casein.

It isn't clear that protein timing makes any difference to strength or muscle gain, depsite the weight-room obsession with the issue:

On the other hand, your point is about training after fasting, which, as far as I know, hasn't been studied in any systematic way. So the epinephrine/nor-e angle is interesting...

David Isaak said...

I'm unable to find any studies on the digestion speed of boiled egg whites alone. One study found that egg protein absorption peaked at 3 hours, but that, alas, was 25 grams of egg protein plus 5.5 grams of fat.

Our bodies may be especially good at absorbing whey. Cow milk protein is 20% whey, 80% casein, while human milk protein is 60% whey, 40% casein.

It isn't clear that protein timing makes any difference to strength or muscle gain, depsite the weight-room obsession with the issue:

On the other hand, your point is about training after fasting, which, as far as I know, hasn't been studied in any systematic way. So the epinephrine/nor-e angle is interesting...

David Isaak said...

Off topic--but have you seen the results of the calorie-restricted Mediterranean diet versus "intermittent low-carb dieting?":

The benefits the people are getting from just two days a week of low-carb eating are striking.

Ned Kock said...

Hi js290. Indeed, that might be the most advisable choice if you don’t experience things like orthostatic hypotension.

Ned Kock said...

Hi garymar. On a gram-adjusted basis, the hard-boiled egg white will give you significantly more protein and less sugar (lactose) than the cottage cheese.

Ned Kock said...

Hi David. One of the possible reasons why intermittent LC may be so healthy is compensatory adaptation. The liver glycogen “tank” will only increase in capacity over time if we stress it and then replenish it, on a regular basis.

Intermittent LC does that. So does intermittent fasting in the context of diet of mostly natural foods, including starches and fruits. The mechanisms are similar.

And increasing your liver glycogen tank capacity is one of the best things you can do for your health. Among other things, you’ll rarely if ever make fat from carbs, even if you consume a lot of carbs.

Constant LC, on the other hand, may lead to a decrease in the size of the liver glycogen tank. The same is true for an eat-all-you-want-including-junk-food “diet”, or the SAD.

STD Clinic said...

Body Workshop Supplements has the lowest prices on weight lifting supplements you will find. Protein powder available online and free available.

Lerner said...

Since I've started having raw eggs this past summer, I've rarely cooked them anymore. Yes, I'm aware of avidin - and also that only ~1/25,000 eggs have salmonella.

The raw eggs are strangely very appealing and refreshing to me, and were very easy to get accustomed to. The whole egg actually tastes sweet, which I assume is from some amino. (I was also surprised to learn that the yolk has about 40% of the total protein.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Ned,

What's a good description of "intermittent LC"? I know what LC and SAD are, but this is the q1st I've hear of an intermittent LC diet.

David Isaak said...


The "intermittent LC diet" s nothing more than having people eat very low-carb a couple of days a week. See :

Anonymous said...

Hi Ned, I feel really intrigued by this "The liver glycogen “tank” concept, have you written more about it? Can you provide some enlightening references?

Alan Aragon has written how liver glukogen status is a very critical aspect in physical fitness. Could these refilling strategies be applicaple to sports as well?

Also, are there any other strategies worth considering? Are there biological signs that tell about the raising of liver glycogen capacity, other than insulin metabolism?

Krista Varady has researched every-other-day fasting and has had some success too. How about trying every-other-day vegan/ketogenic diet or so? ^_^

Anonymous said...

I would add that I seem to naturally fast every now and then, so I would eagerly try some alternate version of eating, just for curiosity.

Have you seen texts on Mediterranean fasting, which is interesting too, like this one:

- Cheek Pouch

Anonymous said...

oI forgot these, references on fasting practices you might find interesting:

Lazarou C & Matalas AL. A critical review of current evidence, perspectives and research implications of diet-related traditions of the Eastern Christian Orthodox Church on dietary intakes and health consequences. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Nov;61(7):739-58.

Sarri K et al.Does the periodic vegetarianism of Greek Orthodox Christians benefit blood pressure? Prev Med. 2007 Apr;44(4):341-8. Epub 2006 Dec 19.

Sarri K & Kafatos A.The Seven Countries Study in Crete: olive oil, Mediterranean diet or fasting? Public Health Nutr. 2005 Sep;8(6):666.

Sarri K et al. Greek Orthodox fasting rituals: a hidden characteristic of the Mediterranean diet of Crete.Br J Nutr. 2004 Aug;92(2):277-84.

- Cheek Pouch

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

Any thoughts on using pure BCAA, EAA or Leucine powder? (other than the extra cost)

Art De Vany and Martin Berkhan (of Leangains) are major proponents of their use. Martin specifically focuses on use pre-workout in his fasting protocols. And Art uses leucine throughout the day.

I'm also considering egg white powder for convenience and portability compared to boiling and separating whole eggs. (the cost isn't much more for me here in the UK).

Anonymous said...

I have read some of your posts,and with all due respect they sound contradictory.
You state that fasted state exercise is beneficial.
Also consuming niacin 5 hrs prior to exercise peaks GH response
Elsewhere you have stated that while consuming niacin it is better taken with food//
So what would you do if u wanted peak GH response as well as fasted would have no option but to fast and take niacin on an empty stomach....

Unknown said...

You said "The opposite, craving sweet foods every few hours, is generally a bad sign." Do you write about this elsewhere, or do you know where this may be discussed. I've been leangaining for a month now and find that I constantly cave sweets!

Monty James said...

I am agree with you That protein powder makes us more healthy and fit. I am also using protein powder and it makes me healthy and fit. Thanks for your insights regarding protein powder.

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Toma Que Tomás ('Mash) said...


I revisited this post since I am interested in replacing supplements with real foods.

Had a quick look at egg whites versus Scivation XTEND™ powder for (L-Leucine, L-Valine, L-Isoleucine).

Scivation XTEND™ (1 x 12.5g serving):
3.50 g L-Leucine
1.75 g L-Valine
1.75 g L-Isoleucine

Egg Whites [raw] (2 x 33g large eggs):
0.70 g Leucine
0.50 g Valine
0.40 g Isoleucine

Recommendations per day [80kg]:
0.56 g Leucine (≥ 45 mg/kg/day)
0.28 g Valine (≥ 22.5 mg/kg/day)
0.28 g Isoleucine (≥ 22.5 mg/kg/day)

Because BCAAs have been shown to aid in recovery processes from exercise such as stimulating protein synthesis, aiding in glycogen resynthesis, as well as delaying the onset of fatigue and helping maintain mental function in aerobic-based exercise, we suggest consuming BCAAs (in addition to carbohydrates) before, during, and following an exercise bout. It has been suggested that the RDA for leucine alone should be 45 mg/kg/day for sedentary individuals, and even higher for active individuals. However, while more research is indicated, because BCAAs occur in nature (i.e. animal protein) in a 2:1:1 ratio (leucine: isoleucine: valine), one may consider ingesting ≥ 45 mg/kg/day of leucine along with approximately ≥ 22.5 mg/kg/day of both isoleucine and valine in a 24 hour time frame in order to optimize overall training adaptations. This will ensure the 2:1:1 ratio that appears often in animal protein. It should not be overlooked that complete proteins in whole foods, as well as most quality protein powders, contain approximately 25% BCAAs. Any deficiency in BCAA intake from whole foods can easily be remedied by consuming whey protein during the time frame encompassing the exercise session; however, an attempt should be made to obtain all recommended BCAAs from whole food protein sources. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise.

So it seems that according to the above recommendations two large egg whites are appropriate, but pretty poor in comparison to the 'best of breed' BCAA powder.

Sidenote: Could you explain why amino acids are sometimes prefixed with "L"?

Toma Que Tomás ('Mash) said...

Wow I made a huge mistake with those calculations and divided by 80kg rather than multiplied.

Recommendations per day [80kg]:
3.6 g Leucine (≥ 45 mg/kg/day)
1.8 g Valine (≥ 22.5 mg/kg/day)
1.8 g Isoleucine (≥ 22.5 mg/kg/day)

Sorry, so now I would have to say that it seems that according to the above recommendations two large egg whites are unfortunately not going to achieve those levels, and are pretty poor in comparison to the 'best of breed' BCAA powder.

Ned Kock said...

Toma, how is this related to the post? You may want to take a look at this:

Toma Que Tomás ('Mash) said...

Ned, just spotted your reply.

Not sure what you mean, the above was comparing BCAA recommendations from a supplement Scivation XTEND™ versus eating eggs.

Thanks for the other article.

Ned Kock said...

The egg whites prevent an exaggerated epinephrine-norepinephrine (i.e., adrenaline-noradrenaline) response.

Of course you can get extra protein from supplements. But the fate of most of the protein ingested is not accumulation in muscle.

Frankie said...

I actually eat 1 egg every morning and I believe that it does not trigger higher cholesterol level than what other people are always thinking. Besides, eggs are the best protein supplement available for us today.

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