Supercharging your Body for a Workout

By Mark Barber aka MuscleTalk Member BodyShaper Personal Trainer and Exercise Consultant
Former Heavyweight Mr UK Champion & Novice UK Champion

When asked the question 'How do I supercharge my body before a workout?' it would be rude for me not to oblige with another couple of pages from the bodybuilder's personal lexicon, now wouldn't it?! Hopefully there will be a few gems of wisdom below which will make sense to the rational world, as we all share a common interest in making our bodies function optimally, delivering optimal performance when needed, and recovering as fast as possible to allow us to carry on with our busy lives. I'm sure that this a common aim for all of us, whether our performance needs are for fitness, weight loss, shaping or bodybuilding.

Preparing for a workout
A commonly asked question is 'what is the best fuel source for the body to assimilate - is it fat, complex carbohydrate or simple carbohydrate (sugar)?' The correct answer is in fact all three, but you have to understand the nature of each of these fuels and get the timing right for them to factor gainfully in your training.

Fats, complex carbohydrates and sugars are all in essence the same thing, i.e. body fuel. They are just given different names to identify similar groups of molecules, particularly the number and nature of chemical bonds which they contain. It is the breaking of these bonds and their subsequent oxidation (burning with oxygen) within the muscle's fuel cells (mitochondria) that creates energy in the form of phosphate bonds, which can be utilised for muscular contraction, whether that muscle drives the heart, constricts the blood vessels or powers physical movement. Fat is the king of all energy sources in the diet, containing almost purely hydrogen-carbon and carbon-carbon bonds with almost no nitrogen or oxygen content, and a gram of fat contains almost 9kcal of energy (37kJ). Fats are fashionably maligned as they cannot readily be used to make amino acids for proteins or glucose for muscle carbohydrate stores (glycogen), but as a long range muscle fuel they have no equal.


Energy values for different food types:

Energy ValueskJ per gramkCal per gram
Fats379
Alcohol297
Protein174
Carbohydrate164

Carbohydrates (carbs) are already partially oxidised, with their high oxygen content, and are therefore less 'energy rich', producing 4kcal (16kJ) per gram. A scientist developed the notion of a 'Glycaemic Index' (GI) to rank all food types in order of their 'energy bioavailability', or how quickly energy contained within the food types may be made immediately available in the form of the muscle and brain's primary fuel which is blood sugar, or glucose. When translated into English, this means pushing sugars to the top of the list because they are more readily absorbed and broken down to release glucose (i.e. fast acting), and demoting fats to the bottom of the pile because they are more slowly digested, absorbed and broken down (slow acting).

Now here's the clever part... the timing. As previously discussed; fats are 'long' acting, complex carbs are 'medium' acting, and sugars are 'fast' acting. To put a rough activity duration for each as a fuel, fats provide enough sustained energy for a 90 minute workout, complex carbs fuel for some 40 minutes, and energy from sugars is expended after only 20 minutes.

These are the time courses which we incorporate into our plan for energy loading, although rather than expending all energy in one explosive burst, we'll try to deplete our glycogen stores more gradually. Optimum pre-workout times for ingestion are:

Food typeTime taken before training
Fats60 mins
Complex carbs20 mins
Sugars5 mins

As you can see in the table, all three fuel sources of fuel taken at appropriate times before training are immediately available to release energy for the first 15 mins within the training zone of compound muscular movements (whole body exercises), and then the availability of energy from ingested foods steadily declines leaving no energy release available from foods after some 30-40 mins of training. After this point it is up to the body's storage reserves to provide the necessary energy to continue training, which, if the workout has been sufficiently intense to burn all available muscle glycogen stores, should be derived from stored fats or muscle proteins. As requested, your body will have been 'supercharged' for the first 15 minutes of training, utilising energy released from the three main food types eaten before training. The best fats to consume are mono- or polyunsaturated fats, and generally come from plant sources. Examples are avocados, canola, olive, safflower, nuts and seeds. Carbohydrate foods such as pasta and bagels are great for loading your body with energy before and after training. Simple sugars (preferably glucose) are best taken in the form of isotonic sports drinks. Fruits are not always ideal, as many fruits are rich in the sugar fructose which the body first has to convert into glucose, and is also harder for your body to convert to useful fuel during exercise.

To give a calorific example, a 200lb athlete who is training for bodybuilding should have ingested 600kcal in the ratio of 13.3g of fat (=120kcal), to 90g of complex carbs (360kcal), to 60g sugar (120kcal), which will give him an available energy of some 245kcal over the first 15 mins of the workout, a veritable inferno of 'bioavailable' fuel energy.

Now that's the boring bit out of the way, let's start having some fun and take things that one step further; IOC tested athletes may want to avert your eyes at this point! It is biochemically possible to condense all of these ingested calories (including initial glycogen reserves) into a 40-50 minute workout session of 'high octane' performance, in essence by accelerating the whole thermogenic process (the metabolism, or breakdown of fuels). This can be achieved though one or all of the following performance enhancing agents (please consult your doctor before commencing any of the compounds below):

  • Caffeine - mild central nervous system (CNS) stimulant
  • Ephedrine Hydrochloride - moderate amphetamine properties (medium-term acting), and acts as a bronchodilator (widens airways)
  • Aspirin - thins the blood allowing it to move nutrients more freely and improve energy release and metabolism
  • L-Tyrosine - amino acid precursor of adrenaline, dopamine and noradrenaline
  • Methyl-Testosterone - increases aggression leading to heightened adrenaline levels, hence amphetamine effect through CNS stimulation
  • Niacin - vascular dilator, allows better oxygen transportation
  • L-Carnitine - amino acid derivative which has the ability to make the bonds within fats easier to break, making the energy more accessible

You may be thinking - why not just use pure amphetamine? The straight answer is that it is too long acting in nature (up to 12 hours), and anyone not on an intravenous drip of food and glucose will find it breaking down muscle fibres for energy after the first hour. It also gives you a grin like Cherie Blair with an associated inability to stop talking for periods shorter than 10 seconds, all of which are not conducive to a competition winning physique!

Suggested doses pre-training for optimal performance (doses are to be treated with caution and are an absolute maximum):

CompoundTime taken before workoutUnder 200lbs BodyweightOver 200lbs Bodyweight
Caffeine20-30 mins200mg300mg
Ephedrine HCl50-60 mins60mg60-100mg
Aspirin30 mins100mg150mg
L-Tyrosine20-30 mins500mg700mg
Methyl-Testosterone30 mins25mg50mg
Niacin20-30 mins100mg300mg
L-Carnitine30-40 mins1000mg1500mg

Please note the Methyl-Testosterone is best absorbed sub-lingually (under the tongue), and, due to its androgenic properties, may cause unwelcome virilisation in female athletes. I recommend caution with all of the above active agents, as it may prove too challenging for the constitution for some people. Also try not to use these performance enhancing substances for periods longer than one month at a time without having at least a two week respite, as your system will build a tolerance to these agents and you would need to increase dosages which might unduly stress the liver and kidneys!

Recovering from your workout
After the body has had a good workout, it is vital to 'fuel the recovery process' adequately to allow both muscle and tendon fibres time to repair and strengthen. After all, it is logically during the period of growth and repair (i.e. rest) in which the body adapts to the stimulus for increased performance and tissues grow in mass and strength, not during the biochemical stimulus for growth of the workout!

The primary importance to all athletes is to halt the ensuing breakdown (catabolic) processes which are associated with glycogen depletion which follows intense training. This is primarily due to the actions of insulin's opposite number, the hormone glucagon, which is released from neighbouring cells from the pancreas. Many athletes initially reach for a protein drink after workouts, forget it! The body is desperate to restore its lost muscle and liver glycogen reserves and so it will just break down whatever food enters the stomach and use it preferentially for glycogen production, and glycogen is a branched tree storage form of glucose molecules. Thus all food sources are preferentially converted into glucose (including certain amino acids) for to restore blood sugar levels for immediate energy and to replenish glycogen stores. The easiest way to address this need is to take in plenty of simple sugars such as glucose (also known as D-glucose or dextrose). The quantity required varies depending on bodyweight, the type of training and the degree of depletion of the muscle glycogen stores, but as a general rule of thumb 0.5g glucose per lb of bodyweight should suffice after training. There are protein supplements available which also contain sugars and complex carbohydrates, but I would personally keep them separate as you will be missing out on a fantastic 'window of opportunity' as I shall explain below.

Another big bonus achieved by consuming sugars after a workout is the associated insulin spike which is stimulated as the body's natural reaction to counteract elevated blood sugar levels. Insulin alone is very effective at stimulating receptor sites on muscle cells to absorb glucose and amino acids (to build proteins) at a greater rate, but when it is combined with elevated levels of somatotropin (Human Growth Hormone or HGH), whose release is induced following an intense workout, the potent growth factor IGF-1 (Insulin-like Growth Factor 1) is produced by the liver and other tissues in response to the actions of growth hormone. IGF-1 promotes hyperplasia (the growth of muscle cells by cell division) thus adding to the quantity of muscle cells within the body. Only a finite amount of IGF-1 is produced through this mechanism, but it all counts!

So back to the key issue of post-workout nutrition. Some 15-20 minutes after taking these simple sugars you will have created a 'window of opportunity' to absorb pretty much whatever you consume. No matter what your goals are, good quality protein is of primary importance at this point, and suggested quantities for different training regimes are:

  • Fitness - 30g
  • Shaping / Conditioning - 40g
  • Bodybuilding - 50-60g
  • Fat loss - 30g

There are many other dietary factors which could be included for various forms of training, but I will possibly discuss them in a future article as here we are dealing with diet for immediate training and recovery.