It's perhaps the biggest challenge facing the non-drugged-up bodybuilder: gaining muscle without gaining a lot of fat in the process.
No, wait, I take that back. The biggest challenge is probably losing body fat while retaining all that iron-earned muscle.
Hmm, actually, both of those tasks can be frustrating. The cool thing is that both goals can also be achieved if you learn to do one thing: increase your insulin sensitivity.
In other words, make your body more sensitive to the insulin it naturally releases when you eat. That way you can take advantage of the muscle-building effects of insulin and avoid the fat-gaining effects of producing too much insulin (being insulin resistant).
Many bodybuilding nutrition experts believe that if you're more insulin-sensitive during a mass program you'll gain more muscle than fat. And if you're dieting, the insulin-sensitive guy will lose more fat without losing muscle.
Both challenges solved.
We asked nutritionist and iron addict Mike Roussell to give us the scoop on boosting insulin sensitivity.
Put Those Carbs to Work!
A cornerstone principle for any dedicated T NATION reader's diet is nutrient timing. We eat different foods at different times of the day in order to maximize the effect of circadian and behavioral hormonal changes for maximum fat loss and muscle development.
Much of the rationale behind nutrient timing has to do with doing everything we can to enhance glucose control and insulin sensitivity so that the carbohydrates we eat are used to make us look more like a muscle-man and less like the average American.
You've heard the usual advice given to laymen: Exercise to increase insulin sensitivity. Great, but let's assume you're already doing that.
The next piece of advice is to eat more often. You know this one too: Eat six smaller meals per day instead of two or three big ones and you'll improve insulin sensitivity.(3)
So let's go beyond that vanilla advice and look at some other methods to enhance glucose control and insulin sensitivity, including a new concept called antioxidant timing. In fact, let's start there.
1 – Properly Time Your Antioxidant Intake
When I first got interested in weight lifting and bodybuilding I read stories about professional bodybuilders and their tackle boxes full of supplements and vitamins. Most notably, Skip La Cour would keep one in the trunk of his car. When he left the gym he'd open his trunk and go through a post-workout ritual of pill popping, including vitamins E and C.
With a physique like Skip's, it would be hard to question his methods, but what if his post-workout E and C supplementation was actually hindering potential results and decreasing his insulin sensitivity?
Ludicrous right? Well, keep reading.
It's common knowledge that one of the benefits of training is that it increases insulin sensitivity. Recently a group of German exercise physiologists set out to examine how supplementing with vitamin C (1000mg) and vitamin E (400 IU) affected the post-workout boost in insulin sensitivity.
In this study, 40 young men exercised five days a week (50 minute sessions including cycling and circuit training) for four weeks. The addition of vitamin C and E supplementation in that group completely eliminated the beneficial insulin-sensitizing effects of exercise!
With further investigation it seems that the post-workout increase in reactive oxygen species (ROS) – which is blunted by C and E supplementation – is a necessary phenomenon for increasing insulin sensitivity. The argument for the temporal benefit of ROS post-workout is strengthened by the fact that long term antioxidant supplementation has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity.(1, 2)
Okay, so what do you do with this info? While it's what some would consider "fringe" nutritional science and the standard, "more studies need to be done in this area to further explore our findings" was added by the authors, I say run with it.
If you're looking for an extra potential edge, then I'd avoid antioxidant supplements and high antioxidant foods around and directly after your workouts. This will allow for the natural post-exercise rise in ROS and improvement in insulin sensitivity.
2 – Add Cinnamon to Your Meals
Beyond spicing up your pumpkin pie, you probably never give cinnamon a second thought. However, the simple addition of cinnamon to your diet has been shown in several studies to delay gastric emptying (4, 5), lower blood glucose levels following a meal (4, 5), reduce fasting insulin (6), and maybe even make up for temporary insulin resistance due to lack of sleep.(7)
To reap the glucose-controlling benefits of cinnamon you'll need to use 3-6 grams (approx 2-3 teaspoons). Adding a couple teaspoons of cinnamon to your morning muscle gruel is a no-brainer, so you have no excuse not to add this to your dietary arsenal.
3 – Supplement with Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
ALA is an antioxidant found in spinach, broccoli, and tomatoes.(8) However, the clinical trials done using ALA use 500-1000 times more than you get in your diet, so if you want to use ALA to boost your insulin sensitivity then you're going to need to supplement.
In several studies with Type II diabetics, the addition of ALA increases insulin sensitivity by 18-57%.(9-11) While the ALA dosages in these studies vary, 600mg per day may be the maximum effective dosage for diabetics. I'd prefer that you start with a lower dosage 50-100mg per day (the amount recommended for antioxidant purposes) and move up from there.
4 – Don't Skip Your Workout Drink
Getting quality protein and carbohydrates into your system around the training period is important, as you probably know. It's so important that it's even been called the 3rd Law of Muscle and it's the basis of the Plazma™.
In fact, the ability to replenish glycogen stores decreases by 50% if you wait two hours after training to load up with the right stuff. The difference between taking a protein supplement immediately vs. waiting three hours is the difference between experiencing a 300% increase in protein synthesis and being stuck with only a 12% increase.
These drastic differences in the workout window when someone follows the 3rd Law of Muscle vs. when they do not suggest that withholding nutrients after training prevents you from maximizing your insulin sensitized state. So don't skip the workout drinks!
When it comes down to it, maximizing insulin sensitivity is all about getting the upper hand and giving yourself the edge over those poor drones in your gym with no clue. Put these tips into action, improve your nutrient partitioning, and reap the benefits!
- Ristow M, Zarse K, Oberbach A, et al. Antioxidants prevent health-promoting effects of physical exercise in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2009;106:8665-8670.
- Head K. Study suggests antioxidants inhibit exercise-induced insulin sensitivity. Alternative medicine review 2009;14:99-102.
- Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81:16-24.
- Hlebowicz J, Darwiche G, Bjorgell O, Almer L-O. Effect of cinnamon on postprandial blood glucose, gastric emptying, and satiety in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;85:1552-1556.
- Solomon T, Blannin A. Changes in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity following 2 weeks of daily cinnamon ingestion in healthy humans. European Journal of Applied Physiology 2009;105:969-976.
- Hlebowicz J, Hlebowicz A, Lindstedt S, et al. Effects of 1 and 3 g cinnamon on gastric emptying, satiety, and postprandial blood glucose, insulin, glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide, glucagon-like peptide 1, and ghrelin concentrations in healthy subjects. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89:815-821.
- Jitomir J, Willoughby DS. Cassia Cinnamon for the Attenuation of Glucose Intolerance and Insulin Resistance Resulting from Sleep Loss. Journal of Medicinal Food 2009;12:467-472.
- Uma S, Ishwarlal J. Alpha-lipoic acid supplementation and diabetes. Nutrition Reviews 2008;66:646-657.
- Jacob S, Henriksen EJ, Schiemann AL, et al. Enhancement of glucose disposal in patients with type 2 diabetes by alpha-lipoic acid. Arzneimittel Forschung 1995;45:872-874.
- Jacob S, Rett K, Henriksen EJ, Hring HU. Thioctic acid–effects on insulin sensitivity and glucose-metabolism. BioFactors 1999;10:169-174.
- Konrad T, Vicini P, Kusterer K, et al. alpha-Lipoic acid treatment decreases serum lactate and pyruvate concentrations and improves glucose effectiveness in lean and obese patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 1999;22:280-287.