The old saying that you are what you eat is especially true when it comes to your pre and post-workout meals. What you eat before and after your workout will have a big impact on how well you perform at the gym, how quickly you recover, and the results that you’ll see in the mirror.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to build muscle or burn fat, you’ll be at a disadvantage if you completely ignore your pre and post-workout nutrition. While many nutrient timing principles have been debunked, what you eat around your workouts continues to remain important because nailing down your pre and post-workout meals can help speed up your progress more than any other meal you eat throughout the rest of the day. So let’s start first with pre-workout.
When we workout muscle protein breakdown rates will shoot up. Whether your goal is to bulk up and build muscle or burn fat while preserving muscle you’re going to want to do your best to keep protein breakdown rates lower and protein synthesis rates higher.
Since amino acids are the building blocks to your muscles they are absolutely essential for increasing muscle protein synthesis. Without those amino acids circulating through your bloodstream not only are you missing the fuel necessary for the synthesis process, but your protein breakdown rates will stay elevated, putting you into more of a catabolic mode where your body is breaking down muscle…which we obviously don’t want.
Now some studies show that having protein before your workout won’t enhance muscle growth (1). Meanwhile, other studies (2) show the exact opposite – having pre-workout amino acids and carbs can even provide more benefits for your muscles than having them post-workout.
The reason why these studies show two completely different results is because it depends on what you already ate throughout the rest of the day. If you’ve already had a meal with enough protein a couple of hours before your workout, taking in even more amino acids with something like a protein shake right before your workout that won’t really make much of a difference in decreasing muscle breakdown rates during your workout.
On the other hand, if you haven’t had any protein within three to four hours before your workout, it’s a good idea to eat twenty to forty grams of protein to get some amino acids into your bloodstream.
You can do this by eating a regular meal. If you have about an hour or two to digest it before your workout, chicken breast, eggs, turkey and fish are a couple of good sources of protein that you could have.
But if you work out first thing in the morning right after waking up, you can have a protein shake instead since it’ll digest a lot faster. While there may be some debate about protein, there isn’t much debate about pre-workout carbohydrates.
Your body uses glucose from carbohydrates to fuel your workouts. Unfortunately, the glucose stored in your muscles and in your liver is limited and it’s constantly being used. So, by replenishing it before a workout, it can help you postpone fatigue.
Also, according to a study (3) published in the Journal of applied physiology, when researchers compared two groups, one on a very low carb diet and another on a high carb diet, they found that when the high carb diet is maintained, their strength better recovered faster from their workouts and they were more in an anabolic muscle-building state.
While this study looked at overall carbohydrate intake for the entire day, there are other studies (4) that look directly at what happens when you have carbs before your workout versus a placebo. They also find that eating carbohydrates before exercise will provide your muscles with additional fuel for your workouts.Eating carbohydrates before exercise will provide your muscles with additional fuel for your workouts. Click To Tweet
This will allow you to lift heavier weight for more reps during your workouts which will lead to more muscle growth. If you’re bulking and less muscle loss, if you’re cutting, if you’re going to be doing a short intense workout lasting less than an hour-long you should aim to have high glycemic carbohydrates like white rice potatoes and bananas before your workout.
On the other hand, if you’re going to be doing a longer duration endurance type workout, you should go for low glycemic, slower digesting sources of carbs like brown rice, sweet potatoes, and oats.
I recommend having at least 30 to 40 grams of carbs before your workout but many bodybuilders recommend splitting 50% of your total daily carbohydrate intake between your pre and post-workout meals.
So, if you were eating 300 grams of carbs per day, you would have 75 grams of carbs before your workout and the other 75 grams of carbs after your workout and then the last 150 grams of carbs throughout the rest of the day.
If your main goal is to build muscle or get stronger this strategy can be particularly useful. If you happen to be Keto and you want to take advantage of having more strength and energy before your workouts, you could do what’s called a targeted ketogenic diet where you would have 20 to 50 grams of carbs before an intense workout.
If you’re lifting heavy most of that glycogen will be burnt off during the workout and you’ll be getting right back into ketosis afterward. Eating fats before a workout really won’t impact performance one way or the other so you could eat some fat beforehand but you shouldn’t expect the strength and energy benefits that you would get from eating carbs.
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Now, what about fasting? Some studies (6) show that fasted workouts can help you burn more fat during the workout but other studies (7) show that you’ll just spend the rest of the day burning a higher percentage of carbs to balance out the fat that you already burnt off during your workout.
While it is still debatable if fasted training will help you burn more fat, it’s a fact that some people do better while training on an empty stomach while other people do way worse. If you have no energy during your workouts unless you eat something beforehand then you should definitely have a pre-workout meal.
On the other hand, if you take a long time to digest your meals and you find yourself feeling nauseous or having acid reflux during your workout then it may be a better idea for you to work out fasted especially since some research shows that exercising while fasted will make your body like a sponge after the workout and increase the post-workout anabolic response to food.
Regardless of this, you have to understand that if you exercise on an empty stomach, protein breakdown rates will spike up quite a bit. So, if you’re trying to burn some fat, you can incorporate fasted training but if your main goal is to build muscle, you’ll be a lot better off with a pre-workout meal.
The last thing before we move on to post-workout nutrition it’s on the topic of pre-workout supplementation. Pre-workouts can be used as a great tool to help you break through strength plateaus, lift more weight and ultimately build more muscle.
But they’re a double-edged sword. If you take pre-workouts too often, you’ll build up a tolerance and not only will they not give you a boost in energy during your workouts but you’ll also need to take a free workout just to gather the motivation to get into the gym.
That’s why I only recommend that you take pre-workouts no more than twice a week on the days that you’re really planning to lift heavy and work hard look.
For pre-workout supplements that contain caffeine, beta-alanine, and citrulline malate out of all of these, caffeine may be the most important since studies (7.5) show that when men take a caffeine supplement they’re able to bench press and deadlift more than those that take a placebo supplement.
Let’s now turn our attention over to what to eat after your workout. Once you finish training, the rate of muscle protein breakdown increases. Unless you do something about it, it’ll outstrip the rate of protein synthesis and you’ll actually start to lose muscle tissue. That’s why it’s important to get about 20 to 40 grams of protein into your body within a couple of hours after finishing your workout.
The type of protein that you have should be a fast-digesting source like a whey protein shake for example. This will quickly deliver the amino acid leucine to your muscle cells and leucine is a powerful stimulator of protein synthesis.
It’ll also release more insulin which will help prevent muscle protein breakdown. Studies suggest that taking protein immediately after a workout will help you build more muscle than taking it later on in the day.
It used to be believed that there was an anabolic window where you would need to get your protein into your body within 30 minutes of completing your workout. The truth is that it depends on when you last ate protein. If you’ve had protein within three to four hours of starting to work out, which you would if you had a pre-workout meal then the timing of your protein intake after the workout is not as important as long as you get it within a couple of hours you’ll be fine.
But if you haven’t taken in any protein within that time your protein synthesis will be lower after your workout. So, if you didn’t have a pre-workout meal, the sooner you can take down some protein after a workout the better it’ll be for your muscle.
For example, if your training fasted, you want to have that post-workout shake or a meal sooner rather than later.
Now, let’s talk about post-workout carbs. For a long time, it’s been suggested that post-workout carbs would spike insulin which would increase protein synthesis.
However, protein alone can provide the spike in insulin that you need to increase protein synthesis. This is why you can still build muscle with a targeted ketogenic diet.
You wouldn’t be having carbs after a workout but this doesn’t change the fact that if you’re not following a keto diet, adding carbs will boost this process even more since insulin levels will rise faster and remain elevated for longer.
Another reason to take in post-workout carbs is to restore glycogen levels in the muscle cells. Like I already said, having more glycogen in your muscles will help increase your performance and help you lift heavier weights. For your next workout, your muscles are in a sponge-like state after a workout, ready to absorb carbohydrates rather than storing them as fat.
This is why some studies (12) recommend having even as high as half a gram of carbs for every pound of body weight after your workout. However other studies show that your body can just continue slowly refilling the glycogen stores and your muscles with the carbs that you eat throughout the rest of the day.
So, if you don’t want to have the majority of your daily carbs post-workout then you don’t need to have such a high amount of carbs unless you’re working out twice a day or something like that.
With all that said, to take advantage of the increased insulin response to slow muscle breakdown rates and to promote positive muscle-building hormones like growth hormone, I recommend still getting a minimum of around 30 to 50 grams of fast-digesting carbs like potatoes bananas or white rice after your workout.
Now, as far as dietary fat post-workout, many people believe that you shouldn’t have any fat after a workout because it’ll slow the digestion of your meal or your shake. However, one study (13) showed that muscle glycogen resynthesis was not negatively affected even after having a very high-fat meal after working out.
So, if you want to have some healthy fats with your post-workout meal, go ahead but it’s not necessary. If you’re trying to get nutrients to your muscles faster after a workout, it may be a good idea to keep fat intake on the lower end post-workout and instead focus mostly on taking in protein and carbs.
The last thing that I want to touch on is post-workout supplementation. We’ve already gone over how a fast-digesting source of protein like a whey protein shake can benefit you after a workout but other than some protein powder, the only other supplement that I recommend after a workout is creatine.
Creatine supplementation will boost energy production in muscle cells to improve performance. A study (14) showed that one meta-analysis creatine supplement led to an 8% increase in one-rep max and a 14 percent increase in reps at a lower percentage of one-rep max.
So, taking up to five grams of creatine after a workout can help although it doesn’t really matter as much what time of the day you take creatine to feel its effects.
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11. “Insulin responses are positively correlated with plasma leucine, phenylalanine, and tyrosine concentrations.” “..carbohydrate can be applied as a nutritional supplement to strongly elevate insulin concentrations.”
14. A 2003 meta-analysis showed individuals ingesting creatine, combined with resistance training, obtain on average +8% and +14% more performance on maximum (1RM) or endurance strength (maximal repetitions at a given percent of 1RM) respectively than the placebo groups.