Your pre-workout meal is a critical part of the workout itself. Failure to eat enough, or failure to eat the right kinds of foods, can make you feel like you're dragging an anchor back and forth across the gym. You need some good guidelines around which to build your pre-workout meals, but some of the things you hear can be downright ridiculous.

Your pre-workout meal should focus on two nutrient staples: carbohydrates and protein (along with ample fluids throughout the day). Carbs provide your muscles with fuel to last throughout the workout. Protein provides nutrients that "turn up" muscle building and "turn down" muscle breakdown during and after training.

If you're stuck in a rut with your pre-workout meals, or lacking in carbs or protein, then stock up on the ingredients for these meals and get cooking.

1. Iced Rice Cakes

When you're in a hurry to get to the gym and start lifting, but don't have the fuel on board to dominate your workout, this fast-digesting duo can help. Tasty and low in fiber, rice cakes provide your muscles with readily available carbs. Fast-acting whey provides a protective protein layer for your muscles. Combine the two, and you'll be fueled up with little risk of GI distress.

Rice cakes with whey icing

Hildebrandt makes a whey-protein "icing" for his pre-workout rice cakes: Mix one scoop of whey isolate with a couple tablespoons of water until it turns into a paste, then spread away!

2. High-Protein Overnight Oats

On your most demanding workout day, you need to provide your body with a long-lasting fuel source—and plenty of it—before hitting the gym. Hildebrandt's pre-workout meal staple before he demolishes his legs (which he does twice a week!) consists of high-protein overnight oats.

High-protein overnight oats

Oats are an excellent source of fiber, which helps provide your muscles with a sustainable fuel source for hours. And these oats deliver 300 calories (54 grams of carbs) per uncooked cup. The night before leg day, Hildebrandt mixes dry oats with his favorite milk, whey isolate, and fruit. The next morning, his breakfast is ready to go and he's off to the gym.

Here's my version of Hildebrandt's overnight oats: Mix your favorite oats, yogurt, and liquid in a 1:1:1 ratio. For instance, try 1/2 cup oats, 1/2 cup Greek yogurt, and 1/2 cup almond milk. Mix all the ingredients together, add your favorite toppings (whey, berries, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, cocoa powder, etc.), and place it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, you can eat them cold or heat them in the microwave.

3. Ground Meat and Rice

Balancing protein, carbs, fiber, and fluids for your pre-workout meal can be challenging enough, but when you're in bulking mode, it can be harder still to get it right. You have to find a way to distribute significantly more calories throughout your meals, but you also can't let your needs for adding mass overshadow your needs for each workout.

Ground meat and rice

Try combining your favorite lean ground meat with jasmine rice. Ground meat works well, because having been broken down in the grinding process, it's easier to digest. Jasmine rice is ideal, because it packs a mighty calorie-per-bite ratio yet contains a low amount of fiber (1 cup cooked provides 45 grams of carbs). Translation: You get a lot of fuel with little to no GI distress.

Once you've browned the meat and added it to the cooked rice, top it with diced tomatoes, peppers, or chilies. The result is a delicious plate of pre-workout fuel that'll also help you bulk up!

4. Hummus and Pita

The protein you use in your pre-workout meal doesn't always have to come from an animal. A vegetarian-friendly option that includes two complementary proteins works well, too.

Hummus and pita

Combining hummus with pita bread provides not only complete protein, but the long-lasting energy you'll need for your workout. Other complementary pairings to consider for your pre-workout meal include rice and beans, peanut butter on whole-grain bread, or a black-bean burrito (beans, veggies, and cheese in a whole-grain tortilla). These all provide that perfect combination of carbs and protein to keep your workout humming.

About the Author

Paul Salter, MS, RD

Paul Salter, MS, RD

Paul Salter, MS, RD, CSCS, received his BS in dietetics from the University of Maryland and his MS in exercise and nutrition science from the University of Tampa.

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