Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Exercise Intensity, Oxidative Damage, Glycogen Depletion and Supercompensation. Plus: Optimal 0-12h Post Workout Glycogen Repletion Protocol For Performance Athletes

Do they train at the right intensity and what is the right intensity? What's right, anyway? Lot's of questions, tons of words, a couple of answers and some interesting revelations in today's 2nd article of the SuppVersity Exercise Science Week.
This is day 2 of the SuppVersity Exercise Science Week -- another day, another news. After you've learned about the various mechanisms by which exercise will induce structural changes to your beer belly, lover handles and other problem and non-problem areas, in yesterday's first article of the SuppVersity Exercise Science Week, today's post does actually pick up on the notion of the superiority of high intensity exercise and takes a look at how low vs. high(er) intensity endurance exercise effects the antioxidant defense system of the body. This will lead us to an issue that was once considered to be a downside of high intensity workouts: their notoriousness to deplete muscle glycogen, of which we now know that it is actually one of their fundamental strengths. When we are done with that, it's about time for the sweet dessert. The latter is going to have three courses and will help you achieve maximal muscle glycogen supercompensation after a workout.

Where does the idea that you better work out at low intensities come from?

I have made it a (enervating?) habit to include a small reminder of the "dark side" the same beneficial exercise stress that elicits muscle gains, fat loss, and improvements in conditioning and overall health can have, whenever you don't allow for adequate recovery and nutrient supply, in almost every of the articles pointing to the superiority of high intensity training vs. training in the comfort zone (click here to read up on a couple of these articles).

Figure 1: A comprehensive study by Carey revealed that the increase in ratio of fat-calories to total energy ependiture, when you train in the "fat burning zone" is 3% for men, 5% for women. The total amount of fat is yet higher above the "zone" and, most importantly, the current research suggests that the glycolytic effect, which is inversely related to the relative fat oxidation, is what triggers most of the beneficial metabolic effects.
The question, how pronounced the differences actually are, on the other hand, is not just rarely addressed here at the SuppVersity, it's also something scientists are still trying to elucidate. Usually you will see creatine kinase, an accepted marker of skeletal muscle damage being accessed before and after a workout, but as I have pointed out in previous articles, my personal experience tells me that an intense strength workout is - despite its ability to increase CK levels in training noops by up to 10,000% (x100, no typo - eg. Sewright. 2008) less prone to send you down into the abyss of the Athlete's Triad, than working out for hours (worst on a daily basis) in the purported fat burning zone, i.e. the target heart rate where you'll satisfy the greatest part of your metabolic demands from body fat and of which Carey has been able to show in "relatively fit" male and female runners that it is at least 30% below the anaerobic threshold (AT: 155Hb/min; Fat Burning Zone: 105Hb/min; cf. Carey. 2009).

Aside from that, Carey's results also support the observation Wilson et al. formulate in their recent review of concurrent training, namely that "most dramatic loss in fat mass occurr[s] from moderately high to very high intensities" (Wilson. 2012). In this context, the scientists' definition of "moderately high" is already way beyond the alleged zone of maximal fat loss. "Dramatic" is by the way also an excellent attribute for the 4.5x higher fat loss effect Wilson et al. computed for the highest vs. medium exercise intensities  (91-100% vs. 61-80% HRMax) based on the data they collected for their review.

"Better fat loss, w/ high intensity, aha... but isn't that at the cost of increased oxidation?"

In view of the fact that will be coming back to the issue of "optimal fat loss" later this week, anyway, I guess it's best we get back to the topic at hand and take a look at the toll endurance workouts at different exercise intensities actually take on your antioxidant defense system. As mentioned before, it is still far from being certain which markers you would actually have to measure to get a clear picture of how much stress and damage a given exercise regimen is inflicting. Compared to the creatine kinase levels, the measurement of markers of the activity and status of the anti-oxidant defense system, which was the main outcome variable in a study by Takahasi et al. does yet appear to be more relevant - if not with respect to exercise performance than certainly with respect to overall and metabolic health.

Figure 2: Changes in myeloperoxidase, heart rate, rate of perceived exertion and trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity (TAEC) in eight healthy and untrained males aged 22.6 ± 1.4 years (mean ± SD), with 67.7 ± 4.1 kg body mass, 175.2 ± 3.7 cm height, and 15.1 ± 2.2% body fat after 20min of exercise at 70%, 100% or 130% of the anaerobic threshold.
On three separate occasions, the Japanese researchers studied the effect of different exercise intensities. The latter ranged from 70% over 100% to 130% of the anaerobic threshold and would thus represent exercising in the "fat burning zone" at moderately high intensities and high intensities.

The first thing the scientists registered was that the pre to post increase in oxidative stress at the low and medium intensities did not even reach statistical significance. The "pro-oxidative" effects of the high intensity trial, on the other hand, were statistically significant. Yet, if you look at the actual data in figure 2, I'd guess that you will - just like me - ask yourselves what all the hoopla was about: The absolute differences are mediocre, at best and their physical not statistical significance is highly questionable; and that's not just because the trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity (TEAC) actually increased from pre to post exercise (from allegedly lower pre levels in the 130% trial than before the other exercise tests.

Training at higher intensities is demanding, yeah... but not overtly demanding!

Now, all these statistical significances were calculated on a pre vs. post basis. Intensity-specific differences on the other hand were not observed. We do therefore have to be cautious not to misinterpret the scientists very own and actually non-judgmental conclusion ...
"We found that plasma concentrations of d-ROMs increased as a result of 20 min of exercise above AT. Exercise above AT also increased enzymatic and nonenzymatic antioxidant capacity. On the other hand, there was no effect after 20 min of exercise at 70–100% AT, suggesting that exercise under the AT level does not produce oxidative stress damage." (Takahashi. 2013)
... as an advice to stick to "exercise under the AT [anaerobic threshold]". There are already way too many people wasting their time on the cross-trainers of this word - don't join them, but don't overexert yourself either.
The "Iranian HIIT Solution" has already proven that a minimalist HIIT regimen in the form of 3x200m sprint sessions per week can make all the difference esp. for someone who has never participated in regular activity before (read more).
A single bout of intense exercise leads to significant improvements in glucose and lipid metabolism in obese individuals, that's the latest result of another very recent study that was conducted at the University of Glasgow (Whyte. 2013). The protocol consisted of nothing more than " four maximal 30-s sprints, with 4.5min recovery between each (HIIT), or a single maximal extended sprint (HIT) matched with HIIT for work done". With 20% higher mean power during the sprints the temporary intensity was higher, in view of the fact that the overall exercise duration was longer and there was no time for in-between sprint glycogen replenishment. Thu it's actually not surprising that the acute increase in insulin sensitivity did reach statistical significance only after the extended sprint session. The overall metabolic benefits (non-significant improvements in glucose and lipid metabolism) on the day after, of which we can assume that they were not brought about by the immediate reduction of muscle glycogen, were identical for both conditions, while the the total and relative increase in fasting fatty oxidation was more pronounced after the HIIT protocol (total: 63% and 38%; relative, based on RER: 11% and 8% ).
Figure 3: Oxidative stress and glycogen depletion are important triggers of the beneficial effects of exercise on glucose metabolism ( (based on Kawanaka. 2012).
If we go a step further and think about whether or not oxidative stress is actually something you would want to avoid at all costs, the figure from Kentaro Kawanaka's recently published alongside review of the regulation of glucose transport in skeletal muscle during and after exercise (see figure 3) can help us make up our minds. If you take a look at my mark-ups it's plain to see that ROS production and the increase in AMP (quasi "used ATP") and decreases in ATP and phosphocreatine (PCr) are major signals for the activation of a hitherto incompletely understood signaling cascade that results in increased glucose uptake by the muscle. That's the same glucose uptake, by the way that makes the most significant difference between the "normal" and, insulin-intolerant individual and makes an ideal stepping stone to full-blown diabesity (=obesity + diabetes type II).

"So, what exactly is the effect size of these improvements? Are the worth the sweating?"

To illustrate the quantity of these effects, Kawanaka uses data from a 2009 study by Koshinaka et al. who subjected rats to an acute bout of 3x20s "high-intensity sprint interal swimming" and measured muscle glycogen levels and glucose transport at different timepoints in the 16h window after the workout.
Figure 4: Insulin and non-insulin stimulated glucose transport in rat epitrochlearis muscle at rest and 4 hours after cessation of HIIT exercise (left); muscle glycogen repletion and supercompensation after a workout (from Kawanaka. 2012 based on Koshinaka. 2009)
If we take into account that 3h(!) of continuous swimming elicited the exact same improvement in glycogen uptake as those 3x20s all out "sprints", I probably don't have to say it "appears" as if the synergistic combination of brief HI(I)T training and an appropriate diet will be more productive than the endless hours on an elliptical way too many (often unfortunately female) trainees are still performing in the desperate hope to finally shed the fat from whatever problem areas they have or believe they'd have.

Glycogen supercompensation: This is how it's done

There is yet more to the Koshinika study than another confirmation of the usefulness of HI(I)T exercise for fat loss, fitness and fabulous health. The data Koshinaka et al. collected does also tell us something about post workout glycogen repletion. Most importantly (at least in my humble opinion) that the first, immediate post-exercise phase is characterized by a rapid non-insulin dependent increase in glucose uptake. The latter is actually just as high (>5┬Ámol/g/20min; respective data is not shown in figure 4) as the maximally measured glucose uptake in phase II, in the course of which the presence of insulin has a dose-dependent beneficial effect on the total amount of glucose that's going to be shuttled into the muscle (see figure 4, left). With phase III being characterized by saturated (in fact more than saturated) glycogen stores, these observations would suggest that an "optimal" glycogen replenishment protocol would look somewhat like this:
    When you increase your calorie intake on a bulk, you better go really high carb + low fat, if lean gains are what you're looking for. This is at least what a 2011 study by Mendes-Netto suggests (read more)
  1. phase I: immediately post > fast absorbing carbohydrate source -- what's important during the immediate post-workout phase is exclusively the availability of glucose, insulin the presence of extra high insulin levels is more or less unnecessary
  2. phase II: post workout phase (<8h) > high GI carbohydrate source -- once the glycogen levels have reached a certain level the supercompensation process requires the presence of additional insulin, therefore your post-workout meal should not be carb-free or extremely low GI
  3. phase III: recovery phase (>8h) > low GI carbohydrate source -- the glycogen stores have already reached higher than baseline levels, the presence of high levels of insulin in this phase would be counterproductive as it would actually drive glucose uptake by the adipose, not the muscle tissue
Whether this maximum glycogen repletion protocol does in fact make sense for everyone is yet another question, though. For someone who trains twice a day, like Arnold, it certainly does. The same goes for endurance athletes looking for maximal performance. If Lance Armstrong, for example, would ever be allowed to compete again, he would best go for a fast absorbing carbohydrate source like Vitargo right after the race, a huge bowl of pasta and some sugary grape juice as his first meal after the race and some slow digesting carbs like a couple of bowls of oats later that day to ensure optimal glycogen levels on the next day of the Tour -- what neither Lance nor you should not forget, though, is to add some protein to the equation, even if building muscle is not your goal, the protein will speed up the replenishment of muscle glycogen (Zawadski. 1992)

"But how important is muscle glycogen, anyway?"

For the average trainee it does yet remain questionable whether or not this protocol will actually yield noticeable benefits. While it is important to replete the glycogen stores, the advantages of doing this as fast as possible are actually not really relevant for someone who trains 3-4 times per week in order to promote health, well-being and a leaner, more muscular (but not freakish) physique. Especially with respect to the latter, the majority of the more recent studies clearly suggests that muscle protein synthesis is, in the short run, not impaired by low levels of muscle glycogen (click here to learn more).

What you should never forget, though, is that your body will interpret chronically low muscle and liver glycogen levels as a clear-cut indicator that you're starving. The results are a reduced metabolic rate and the shut down of "auxilliary" and costly bodily functions such as the reproductive machinery, etc. - and we don't want that to happen, right?

  • Kawanaka K. Regulation of glucose transport in skeletal muscle during and after exercise. 2012. J Phys Fitness Sports Med, 1(4): 563-572.
  • Koshinaka K, Kawasaki E, Hokari F, Kawanaka K. Effect of acute high intensity intermittent swimming on postexercise insulin responsiveness in epitrochlearis of fed rats. Metabolism. 2009; 58: 246-253.
  • Takahashi M, Suzuki K, Matoba H, Sakamoto S, Obara S. Effects of different intensities of endurance exercise on oxidative stress and antioxidant capacity. J Phys Fitness Sports Med. 2013 1(1): 183-189.
  • Sewright KA, Hubal MJ, Kearns A, Holbrook MT, Clarkson PM. Sex differences in response to maximal eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Feb;40(2):242-51.
  • Whyte LJ, Ferguson C, Wilson J, Scott RA, Gill JM. Effects of single bout of very high-intensity exercise on metabolic health biomarkers in overweight/obese sedentary men. Metabolism. 2013 Feb;62(2):212-9.
  • Wilson JM, Marin PJ, Rhea MR, Wilson SM, Loenneke JP, Anderson JC. Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2293-307. 
  • Zawadzki KM, Yaspelkis BB 3rd, Ivy JL. Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1992 May;72(5):1854-9.


  1. Really enjoyed this article, quick question would you regard the instant oats such as the ones sold by MyProtein to be high GI when in fact they're marketed as good low GI Carb source? I'm using them immediately PWO with a banana and 30g of protein (whey/casein/egg)on the advice of someone that I would regard as an expert ;)

    1. I guess you will be fine with that stack, not despite but because the marketing statement is false, the fact that researchers use instant oats to produce a high GI meal and compare it to one with steel cut oats as a low GI meal (here: http://www.pediatricsdigest.mobi/content/103/3/e26.full)

      you can also check this table > http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods.htm for some quantitative values

      average oats have a GI of 55, while instant has 83

  2. learning_to_lift_weightsJanuary 29, 2013 at 7:37 PM

    Hi Prof.,
    Thank you so much for the update on glycogen. I've been always very much confused with glycogen replenishment. Could you please tell me, whether proper glycogen replenishment helps someway in PWO recovery?

    1. Okay, to keep things simple, the answer is no, glycogen replenishment does not help PWO recovery. So long as you are consuming adequate carbs in the following 24 hours you will replenish glycogen. Slamming 100g of sugar as soon as you finish your last set will not help in PWO recovery. The only reason I can really justify eating carbs PWO is to stop catabolic activity.

    2. well, on average you are right and statistically you may be right as, well, but when you compare CHO vs. CHO + Protein vs. low CHO + Protein post workout as Go et al. did in 2012 and take maximal voluntary contration force as a measure you could argue about a trend that speaks in favor of the "carb slam" => http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/instance/3407981/bin/nutrients-04-00568-g004.jpg

  3. Hi !

    Great article... As usual ;)

    Could you please develop the idea in the last paragraph about "chronically low glycogen levels = slowed metabolism" ?

    Thx a lot


    1. Glycogen levels are a signal to tell your body how "well-fed" you are. If you have chronically high glycogen then your body puts its energy towards reproduction and growth. On the opposite end, if you follow a ketogenic diet (for example), and glycogen levels are chronically low, then even if you eat all the fat and protein in the world, your brain will think you are starving and start shutting down libido, hormones, etc.

    2. as far as the ketogenic diet is concerned a significant overabundance of keton bodies can counter that... however, no "anabolic dieter" will reach this state of ketosis, because he / she is simply eating way too much protein (which will be turned into glucose by your liver).

      On a more general note, I suggest you read the article series about the athlete's triad to understand the implications, Marc => http://suppversity.blogspot.com/feeds/posts/summary/-/SATS

    3. Hi Primalkid and thanks for your answer.

      I had read (can't remember where) that even on nutritional ketosis, glycogen stores were usually half full thanks to neoglucogenesis...

      Reading your answer I guess that half is not enough :)

      Does long term ketosis really imply slowed metabolism ? If so... How bad is it ? Couldn't it contribute to longevity for instance ?

    4. Thx Dr. Andro !

      Very interesting answer :)

    5. Dr. Andro,

      Based on your last answer, could a "non ketogenic low carb anabolic diet" diet work properly (no slow down in metabolism) if ample amount of MCT/coconut oil is consumed to generate overabundance of keton bodies ?

  4. Do you have a bigger copy of the graph you did from Carey's paper or even a copy of the full paper please. I can't read the graph! It goes blurry when I blow it up. I'd like to pass it on to a few people.


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  6. How much time after a workout do you have for phase 1 and phase 2? And what percentage of glycogen can be recovered in each of those steps?

    Particularly without the timing of these phases, how could anyone try to implement the ideas in this post?!