For the second to last article in this series, I want to tackle a few more advanced topics related to timing. Specifically, when to eat, when to exercise, and which of your meals should be the biggest.
If you’re just finding this article series now, start here at part one.
Most people eat three meals a day. Bodybuilders and bikini competitors often eat six meals a day, while people who have jumped on the paleo and intermittent fasting bandwagons often limit themselves to one or two meals a day. But what does science say about meal frequency?
In terms of gaining or losing weight, it’s not hugely important. Weight change is ultimately determined by how many calories you eat. But from the standpoint of body composition, it matters quite a bit.
Studies show that muscle protein synthesis is maximized by consuming four meals a day, provided each meal contains sufficient protein. That means that with proper meal timing, you’ll build more muscle and lose more fat, independent of your total caloric intake.
To really do this right, your meals should be spaced roughly 3-6 hours apart, your first meal should be shortly after waking, and your last meal should be shortly before going to bed. So if you sleep from 11 PM to 7 AM, your meal times should be something like 8 AM, noon, 5 PM, and 9 PM.
Each meal also needs to include at least .2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. That works out to somewhere between 20 and 40 grams for most people. The first and last meal of the day might benefit from having a bit more protein, since you have a longer period of fasting in between them.
The Best Time of Day to Work Out
Popular wisdom holds that it’s best to work out first thing in the morning, because you’ll burn more fat when you work out in a fasted state. In this case, the popular wisdom is dead wrong.
While it’s true that your body burns fat during fasted workouts, this doesn’t actually matter. In the long run, what matters is how many calories you burn, not which fuel source is being used during your workout.
However, the time of day you work out does matter- just not for that reason. Studies have shown that it’s better to work out later in the day- sometime between mid-afternoon and early evening- for several reasons. Your core body temperature is higher later in the day, so you’re stronger and able to work out more safely. Your hormonal environment is more conducive to burning fat and building muscle, due to higher testosterone and lower cortisol levels. You’re also closer to bedtime, which means your sleep will be timed for when your muscles most need it.
For most people, the optimal time to exercise is somewhere between 3 and 8 PM.
How to Calorie Cycle
To build more muscle and burn more fat at the same time, you need to eat most of your calories within a certain window after each of your workouts. We could get into some complex calculations here, but it can be boiled down to a simple rule: the next two meals after each weight-lifting workout- cardio workouts don’t count here- should have about twice as many calories as your other meals. Your total calories shouldn’t change, however, so the other meals should be made smaller to compensate.
As an example, suppose you eat 14,000 calories a week, spread across four meals a day. That works out to 500 calories a meal. However, you work out four days a week, so that means eight “big” meals. Your eight post-workout meals- the next two meals after each workout- will be 770 calories each. The other twenty meals will each be about 390 calories.
As mentioned earlier, protein should be spread pretty evenly throughout those meals. Most of your carbohydrates should be eaten in the evenings and/or during those post-workout meals. Your daily fat intake can be with any meal, as fat isn’t that sensitive to timing.
That concludes today’s lesson. Tomorrow I’ll recap everything I’ve covered so far and give you a cheat sheet you can refer to later.