When it comes to strength training, figuring out how to do the exercises has always come pretty naturally to me.
But the diet component of getting strong and making gains has been a perennial source of confusion. Especially when it comes to the purpose, timing, and make-up of pre- and post-workout meals.
Like most men who have done strength training for much of their lives, I’ve heard my share of bro-science tips in the locker room. For example, until fairly recently, I was convinced that if I didn’t consume protein within 15 minutes after my workout, I completely missed the “window” to getting bigger and stronger muscles. Thanks, high school football teammate.
Tired of being confused about strength training and nutrition, I did some research on the subject as well as asked my coach and bud Matt Reynolds for some insights. Below I share what I’ve learned. (Note: This is geared for men who are strength training. If you’re doing endurance sports training, the information below really won’t apply to you much.)
The Two Overarching Rules of Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
Before we get into the nitty gritty of pre- and post-workout nutrition, here are two general rules to keep in mind:
Rule #1: Don’t Overthink It
A lot of guys make the mistake of overthinking their pre- and post-workout meals. They’ve got this idea in their head that if they optimize the content and the timing of their meals just right, then they’ll have gainz so massive that people will accuse them of taking steroids.
The reality is that your overall diet for the day is much more important than what you eat before and after your workout. If you eat like crap the rest of the day or aren’t meeting your daily macronutrient goals, it doesn’t matter how optimized your pre- and post-workout meals are — you’re not going to see the progress you want.
So while diet is a huge part of any fitness program, you don’t need to obsess over the pre- and post-workout components of it.
With that said, we should spend some time thinking about our pre- and post-workout meals because they’re opportunities to optimize our performance inside and outside the gym.
Rule #2: Experiment
Everyone’s body is going to respond differently to different diets and strength training regimens. In order to find the ideal pre- and post-workout meals for you, you’ve got to self-experiment.
If you find that you get really sleepy during a workout, it may mean you need to cut back on the pre-workout carbs. If you feel lethargic or like the weight is heavier than usual, you may need more carbs.
To successfully experiment, record everything. (I use MyFitness Pal.) Don’t just track what you eat, but also how you performed and felt during the workout. Tweak things, record, and tweak again until you find the pre- and post-workout meal plan that’s right for you.
Goal of pre-workout meal: Give your body carbs to provide energy for your workout and protein to begin protein synthesis.
During a heavy weight training session, your body uses glycogen stored in the muscles to power your body. Glycogen is made up of glucose that comes from carbs. That’s right — your muscles store carbs. Through glycolysis, your body converts glucose into ATP, which powers muscle contractions when you lift. For optimal performance in the weight room, we need to ensure that our muscles are fully replenished with glycogen by consuming carbs beforehand.
During a workout, muscle damage occurs. As soon it does (like when you finish a heavy squat set), your body begins to remove and repair damaged muscle tissue through a process called protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is what makes you bigger and stronger. To optimize the protein synthesis that occurs immediately after doing a heavy set, we need to have some protein in the system before the workout begins. Not a lot, just some.
Timing: Ideally 60 to 90 minutes before your workout. This will give your body time to turn those complex carbs into glycogen in your muscles.
But what if you work out first thing in the morning?
During your sleep, your liver uses up about 70% of glycogen stores. (Quick tangent: This is why when you weigh yourself first thing in the morning you weigh less and why when you look in the mirror you look more “shredded” than normal. Each gram of glycogen is bound to 3-4 grams of water. Because you have less glycogen in your muscles first thing in the morning, your body is storing less water; less water means you weigh less and look less puffy.)
While less glycogen in your muscles lets you experience the glimmerings of a six-pack for a few minutes, it’s terrible for your performance in the weight room. Remember, heavy weight training depends on carbs to fuel the energy system for muscle contraction. So we need some carbs, but how do you get those carbs without having to wake up an hour earlier than your already early workout time?
Well, there are two options:
First, you could train in a fasted state and simply chug back some BCAAs before you work out. This option will only work if you had plenty of carbs the night before so that when you wake up and hit the gym, you have enough glycogen in your muscles even after a night of sleep. The BCAAs provide the building blocks for protein synthesis and the body absorbs them quickly. You’d only need to consume the BCAAs 10 to 20 minutes before your workout. Much better than 60 to 90 minutes.
The second option is to have a light protein shake with some fast-burning, simple carbohydrates 10 to 20 minutes before your workout. More on the specifics of what that shake would look like below.
What to eat: If you can eat your pre-workout meal 60 to 90 minutes before your workout, shoot for a good mixture of protein, slower-burning carbs, and fat. We’re eschewing fast-burning carbs because we don’t want to have that big energy spike and crash that often comes with ingesting a lot of simple carbs right before our workout. The fat will help slow your meal’s digestion, which will help provide a nice, sustained energy throughout your workout.
Here are some sample pre-workout meals:
Matt Reynolds’ Pre-Workout Meal
- 2 scoops whey protein (~40 grams of protein)
- Pack of instant oatmeal (~27 grams of carbs)
- Spoonful of peanut butter (~8 grams of fat)
Sirloin Steak and Potatoes
- 6 ounces of sirloin steak (~46 grams of protein and 24 grams of fat)
- 1/2 large sweet potato (~20 grams of carbs)
Yogurt and Berries
- 7 ounces of full fat Greek yogurt (~18 grams of protein, 8 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fat)
- 1/4 cup of blueberries (~5 grams of carbs)
If you work out first thing in the morning and you’d like a little something more than some BCAAs and water, drink a light protein shake that includes some sort of fast-burning carbohydrate, like honey or fruit, and little or no fat. You want to ingest just enough carbs to give you energy during your workout, without feeling heavy, or getting a crash:
- 1 scoop of whey protein (~20 grams of protein)
- 1 tablespoon of honey or 1 medium banana (~17-27 grams of simple carbohydrate)
- 8 ounces water
Goal of post-workout meal: Encourage protein synthesis and replenish glycogen stores with low-glycemic carbs.
As discussed above, as soon as we perform a heavy lift, protein synthesis begins to repair damaged muscle tissue. Our pre-workout meal provided us some protein to help kick-start that process. Protein in our post-workout meal keeps the process going.
Besides protein, we also need to provide our muscles with plenty of carbohydrates to replace the glycogen we used during our heavy lifting session. At the end of a relatively intense workout, your body has used up anywhere from 30-40% of its glycogen stores. While eating carbs throughout the day will help replenish them, we’re going to kick things off with a higher carb meal right after our workout.
To avoid huge insulin spikes that can get in the way of protein synthesis and lead to carb crashes, we’ll eschew simple carbs and opt for the complex variety.
Timing: Within an hour after working out. If you don’t get it within that timeframe, don’t sweat it. The idea that you have to consume your post-workout meal within a certain timeframe to maximize protein synthesis is a myth. In fact, recent research shows that the so-called “window of gains” after working out lasts 24 hours. Again, overall diet is more important in the long run than pre- and post-workout meals. We focus on pre- and post-workout meals because there’s an opportunity to optimize performance, not because they’re deal breakers.
What to eat: Lean protein, complex carbs that are easy to digest, and little or no fat (fat gets in the way of digestion). Make this one of your more carb-heavy meals of the day.
Along with your post-workout meal, consume 5 grams of creatine.
Here are some examples of healthy, gains-maximizing post-workout meals:
Chicken & Sweet Potatoes
- 1 grilled chicken breast (~43 grams of protein)
- 1 sweet potato (~40 grams of carbs)
Pork and Rice
- 1.5 lean pork chops (~48 grams of protein)
- 1 cup of rice (~40 grams of carbs)
Eggs and Oatmeal
- 3 whole eggs (~18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fat)
- 6 ounces of egg whites (~18 grams of protein)
- 1 cup of oatmeal (~42 grams of protein)
Post-Workout Protein Shake
- 2 scoops of whey protein (~40 grams of protein)
- 1 packet of instant oatmeal (~27 grams of carbs)
- 1 banana (~17 grams of carbs)
- 16 ounces of water
- 5 grams of creatine
Pre- and post-workout nutrition isn’t the end all, be all of a strength training diet, but getting these meals right can help you reach your fitness potential in and out of the gym.
If you’d like more information on strength training and nutrition, I highly recommend checking out Barbell Medicine by Starting Strength coach and medical student Jordan Feigenbaum.