Let's talk about eating. Nutrition is just as important as lifting for improving fitness, looking good, and gaining strength. When the two go hand-in-hand, amazing things are possible.

You already know if you eat too few calories you'll starve your muscless—and feel awful. If you eat too many you'll gain extra body fat. But the story doesn't end there. Although how many calories you eat in a day is important, your ideal nutritional plan for maximizing gains is also about what types of food you eat, as well as meal timing.

How Important Is It to Have a Pre-Workout Meal?

Nutrition is perhaps the most important factor in the fitness lifestyle. The right vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, calorie levels, and meal timing are needed for the body to function at its very best. Quality nutrition fuels our bodies for maximum performance.

What you eat before a workout determines whether or not you will have the energy to achieve your greatest potential during each session. It can make a big effect in getting a extra couple reps, or increasing the amount of weight during your lifts.

Pre-workout nutrition is very underrated. Plenty of lifters see the importance of the post-workout meal, getting in the fast-digesting protein and carbs, when in fact the pre-workout meal is just as important—and for many of us, completely nonexistent.

Eating before training fuels your body for ideal performance. Failing to eat before you work out means you are missing a huge opportunity to keep your body in an anabolic (muscle-building) state.

By paying special attention to nutrition before you train, you can also maximize how much of your food is used to build lean mass, and minimize how much of it becomes body fat.

What to Eat Before A Workout

Eating the right foods before a workout makes all the difference. The idea of pre-workout nutrition is to give your body what it needs to perform at maximum intensity, and prepare your muscles for growth.

A pre-workout meal should increase glycogen levels in the body and help prevent catabolism.

Protein is made up of individual amino acids. These are the building blocks of muscle, help prevent catabolism, and fight off hunger cravings. Calories from carbohydrates affect your blood-sugar levels, giving you a quick burst of energy if they are simple and quick-digesting, and lasting energy if they are more complex. Fats help maintain optimal hormone levels and provide slow-burning fuel for longer sessions.[1]

Your pre-workout fuel should be composed of medium- to fast-digesting proteins and slower-digesting carbs.

Pre-Workout Meals to Burn Fat and Build Muscle:

  • Egg Whites and Whole Grain Bread: Egg whites are quick-digesting, and whole grain bread is a quick and convenient medium-digesting carb.
  • Low-Fat Milk and Oatmeal: Oatmeal is a good pre-workout meal, especially when you add protein. Milk contains whey, which is an ideal pre-workout protein, and the slow-digesting oats keep you feeling full and focused as you pump out those reps!
  • Chicken and Yams: A bodybuilder classic, chicken and yams are the perfect pre-workout combo. You can also eat them post-workout to cut down on meal prep!
  • Tuna and Brown Rice: Any light, low-fat fish will do, but nothing beats tuna for convenience, and the brown rice adds flavor and fuel for your lifts.
  • Ground Turkey and Black Beans: Add a bit of seasoning to the ground turkey and a couple of corn tortillas, and you have a low-fat, high-energy, pre-workout snack you can eat on the go.

Since fat delays food leaving the stomach, known as "gastric emptying" it can slow down your body's uptake of nutrients and should be avoided pre- and post-workout.[2] The only exception would be if you plan on working out intensely for longer than 90 minutes, in which case your body could use that fat calories as fuel.

How Much Time Should There Be Between Your Pre-Workout Meal and Your Workout?

Pre-workout meal timing is an important piece of the picture. For most people, the perfect time for a pre-workout snack or meal is 1-2 hours before training. This depends on your metabolism, how big the meal is, and perhaps what type of exercise you're doing.

The fuel you ingest before training will only be available in your bloodstream for a few hours, so you don't want to wait too long—like 4-5 hours—before working out or you'll lose those pre-workout nutrients. However, you also don't want to cram down a huge, veggie-packed meal right before Tabata cycle sprints.

Eating an hour or two before you work out provides the perfect opportunity to feed your muscles strategically while you work out. During resistance exercise, your muscles will fill or "pump up" with blood and become extremely sensitive to the nutrients you've consumed.[3]

This is why pre-workout nutrition is so important. What you ingest can go straight to the areas being trained.

What Foods Should You Eat While Working Out?

Eating mid-workout doesn't make much sense, not only because it's inconvenient, but also because your body would expend energy digesting food when it should be focused on the workout.

That said, you definitely burn fuel during intense training. During a heavy training session your body uses up plenty of carbs, which are broken down into glycogen. That's the fuel your muscles need for exercise, and without it performance suffers.

You also need amino acids, which is why your body breaks down any available protein when you lift. Topping up your stores while training helps spare glycogen, and decreases catabolism by providing a steady source of amino acids.[4]

A proper pre-workout nutrition plan can take care of all of this. By timing the pre-workout meal appropriately, you should already have these essential macronutrients for growth entering your bloodstream when you walk into the gym, ready to feed those hungry muscles. If this is the case, then all you need during your session is water.

What to Drink During Your Workout

If you know you’ll be training longer than an hour and a half, it might make sense to drink something during your workout to keep your energy levels up and maintain steady blood-sugar levels.

When you exercise for long periods of time, your body can enter a catabolic state and end up breaking down the muscle tissue you're trying to build. Sipping a protein shake during your workout helps counteract this protein breakdown, because it provides the body with exactly what it needs. During long training sessions, consuming a shake can be anti-catabolic.

When you exercise, blood rushes into your muscles and they become more receptive to nutrients.

This is why BCAAs are a popular intra-workout drink. They immediately provide you with essential amino acids and energy, and do not require any digesting. Remember, the last thing you want is to unnecessarily divert blood to your digestive tract![5,6,7] They also usually have low or no calories.

While it is not necessary to eat during a workout if your pre-workout strategy is in check, there's nothing wrong with consuming a shake or amino acids during your session, provided your stomach can handle it and the amount you consume does not require a lot of digesting. This is especially true if you prefer longer, more intense training sessions.

While it is not necessary to eat during a workout if your pre-workout strategy is in check, there's nothing wrong with consuming a shake or amino acids during your workout, provided your stomach can handle it and the amount you consume does not require a lot of digesting. This is especially true if you prefer longer, more intense workouts.

The Importance of Post-Workout Nutrition

If you are serious about lifting and you want the best results, proper post-workout nutrition is essential. Refueling your body after a workout is one of the most important parts of building muscle and recovering.

If you don't eat the right foods after training, or you don't eat them at the right time, your performance the next time will suffer, your gains will not be as good as they could be, and you could end up losing mass along the way. Plus, you're setting yourself up for extra soreness—not fun.

The most important reason to eat something after you work out is to elicit an insulin response. Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone, and spiking it halts protein breakdown and helps encourage protein synthesis.[8]

Skipping this meal means you will miss out on these anabolic effects. You will only encourage further protein breakdown, which over time leads to a loss of mass.

To put it simply: Eating after you work out helps builds muscle and end protein breakdown for better recovery.

What to Eat or Drink Immediately After Exercise

After an intense training session, your glycogen stores are depleted. Refilling them halts protein breakdown and increases protein synthesis.

As opposed to pre-workout nutrition, where complex carbohydrates are preferred, your carbs here should be simple and easy to digest in order to illicit an insulin response to build muscle, stave off soreness, and recover more quickly.

The best choices for immediately after the gym are fast-digesting proteins and faster-digesting, moderate-to-high-glycemic carbs.

Fats should be largely avoided here, as they were during the pre-workout meal. They slow down the digestive process, and this is the one time you don't want to slow the flow of nutrients into your body.

What Should Go in A Post-Workout Protein Shake

The goal of here is to replenish glycogen levels and give your body what it needs to recover. Carbohydrates alone can accomplish the first goal, but the response is greater when you consume carbs and protein together.[9]

This is why a recovery protein shake is used almost universally by serious gym goers. Liquid nutrients are the most readily digestible form—exactly what you are looking for immediately after you lift. If you are serious about your gains, an after-workout shake is a no-brainer.

No, it doesn't have to be right after you finish in the so-called "anabolic window," but it doesn't hurt to have it right after a workout. Why? The sooner you get that shake down, the sooner it can do its work, and the sooner you can eat again.

Whey is perhaps the best after-training protein because it is the quickest and most readily digestible protein available. Many companies have specific "gainer" protein blends with the ideal ratio of carbs and protein. A good ratio is 2:1 carbs-to-protein when gaining weight, and 1:1 or lower when cutting fat.

If you don't want to have a pantry full of protein powders, you could always add simple carbs such as dextrose to your protein shake to increase the carb to protein ratio and promote a stronger insulin response. But it's easy to go overboard on the carbs, so adding dextrose to your shake is usually not necessary unless you have some serious bulking to do. You can also just eat a banana with a whey protein shake.

In most cases, it's fine to mix your whey protein with water, since the fat in milk can delay absorption of nutrients in the stomach. If you subscribe to the "gallon of milk a day" bulking method, try to plan your dairy consumption so it won't interfere with absorption around your training sessions.[10]

And this isn't the time for your almond butter, chocolate, and chia smoothie. All that fat and fiber will just make the protein and carbs take longer to get where they're needed.

When to Eat Your Post-Workout Meal

Time your post-workout meal for no longer than 1-2 hours after you work out. If you consumed a shake during your workout, skip the shake immediately afterward and eat a meal about 30-45 minutes after that last sip of your intra-workout shake.

Your post-workout meal should include veggies and other whole foods, and not be just another protein shake. Your body needs fiber and vitamins from real foods!

Once again, pay attention to protein, fat, and carbohydrate content as this will have an effect on how your body recovers and rebuilds tissue. Since you've already consumed the nutrients your body needs quickly with your shake, you can include a little bit of fat in this meal.

Examples of Post-Workout Meals

  • Pork Loin and Baked Red Potatoes: "The other white meat" gives you a blast of protein, and the starchy potatoes are a source of fast-digesting carbs.
  • Chicken Breast and Pasta: Toss with tomato sauce or season with herbs to add more flavor to this simple meal. Adding a little olive oil isn't a bad idea, either.
  • Salmon, Carrots, and Green Beans: Salmon is a natural source of healthy omega-3 fatty acids that fight exercise-related soreness. Veggies like carrots and green beans are low-calorie and high in vitamins for optimum gains.
  • Lean Beef Patty, Whole-Wheat Bun, and Sliced Avocado: Lean beef is an iron-rich protein source, the whole-wheat bun is a healthy source of carbs, and the natural healthy fats of the avocado also add delicious flavor!
  • Smoothie with Greek Yogurt and Fruit: A great breakfast if you train early in the morning, the whey and casein combo of the yogurt helps support protein synthesis, and the sugar in the fruit helps raise insulin.

Simple Vs. Complex Carbs Post-Workout

After your training session, you can either create another insulin spike with fast-digesting, simple carbohydrates, or use complex, slow-burning carbs to stabilize blood sugar and prevent unwanted fat gain.

Insulin is anti-catabolic when raised right after exercise, and anabolic when raised at rest. Put simply, an insulin spike stops protein breakdown right after working out, and you can encourage anabolism by creating another spike with your post-workout meal.

Of course, you have to work out for insulin to help you build muscle. You can't just slam a shake and sit on the couch expecting massive gains.

Your other option would be to include complex carbs like oatmeal, rather than simple carbs like candy. Insulin is as much a fat-storing hormone as it is an anabolic hormone, so if you want to avoid gaining extra body fat while you build mass, it makes sense to keep your blood-sugar levels stable after you train and not spike them a second time.

Many people claim they experience "leaner gains" when they switch to slow-burning complex carbohydrates.

The arguments for fast-burning, simple carbs versus slow-burning, complex carbs both have merit, so ultimately it depends on your goals, and what you feel your body best responds to.

For more information on which carbohydrates may be right for you, check out "Post-Workout Carbs: Best Choices to Grow and Recover."

References
  1. Wang, D. D., & Hu, F. B. (2017). Dietary Fat and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: Recent Controversies and Advances. Annual Review of Nutrition, 37, 423.
  2. Schwartz, R. S., Ravussin, E., Massari, M., O'Connell, M., & Robbins, D. C. (1985). The thermic effect of carbohydrate versus fat feeding in man. Metabolism, 34(3), 285-293.
  3. Tipton, K. D., Rasmussen, B. B., Miller, S. L., Wolf, S. E., Owens-Stovall, S. K., Petrini, B. E., & Wolfe, R. R. (2001). Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281(2), E197-E206.
  4. Nosaka, K., Sacco, P., & Mawatari, K. (2006). Effects of amino acid supplementation on muscle soreness and damage. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 16(6), 620.
  5. MacLean, D. A., Graham, T. E., & Saltin, B. (1994). Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 267(6), E1010-E1022.
  6. Shimomura, Y., Murakami, T., Nakai, N., Nagasaki, M., & Harris, R. A. (2004). Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. The Journal of Nutrition, 134(6), 1583S-1587S.
  7. Gualano, A. B., Bozza, T., De Campos, P. L., Roschel, H., Costa, A. D. S., Marquezi, M. L., ... & Junior, A. H. L. (2011). Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 51(1), 82-8.
  8. Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2005). Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance exercise and training. Sports Medicine, 35(4), 339-361.
  9. Rahbek, S. K., Farup, J., Møller, A. B., Vendelbo, M. H., Holm, L., Jessen, N., & Vissing, K. (2014). Effects of divergent resistance exercise contraction mode and dietary supplementation type on anabolic signalling, muscle protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy. Amino Acids, 46(10), 2377-2392.
  10. Tipton, K. D., Elliott, T. A., Cree, M. G., Aarsland, A. A., Sanford, A. P., & Wolfe, R. R. (2007). Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 292(1), E71-E76.

About the Author

Heather Eastman, NSCA-CPT

Heather Eastman, NSCA-CPT

Heather’s mission is to use her passion for fitness and her knowledge of training and nutrition to educate and motivate others to enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle.

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