Here’s a fact nobody ever likes to hear: All your hard work in the gym is meaningless if you don’t have proper pre- and post-workout nutrition. The nutrients you provide your body will determine how long and hard you can train in the gym, how well it recovers from a grueling training program, how strong you can become, and how good you’ll look at a given time.
Just as you wouldn’t put low-quality gasoline in a luxury car, you need to make sure the fuel (aka food) you’re putting in your body can help it perform at optimal levels. What you eat before and after your workouts can be the difference between reaching your goals and coming up short on stage or the lifting platform.
In this article, we’ll discuss the importance of pre- and post-workout nutrition and give you some suggestions — with the help of a registered dietitian — on what you should eat before and after lifting some heavy iron.
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
What Are the Best Pre- and Post-Workout Macronutrients?
There’s no magic formula for pre- or post-workout macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats). What works for one person won’t work for another, and your eating plan will vary based on your height and weight, your individual goals, and your eating habits.
Before we get into general numbers, we have to talk about one group of people — those who eat nothing before a workout.
Can I Train on an Empty Stomach?
People prefer to work out on an empty stomach for multiple reasons, either because they’re trying out intermittent fasting or they don’t like working out on a full stomach. Despite what some people might try to tell you, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.
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Sylvia North, MS, RD, a New Zealand-based dietitian, even suggests it for some of her clients. “If an athlete can train fasted, this can be a good strategy for enhancing fat adaptation and metabolic flexibility,” she says. “If it’s not a competition or game day and if the session is less than 90 minutes in duration, I often advise athletes to ‘train low,’ meaning show up either fasted or after a low carb meal. By having stable blood glucose and lower insulin coming into a session, you’re more likely to burn fat.”
That said, don’t think that fasted training will provide you with magical results either. One study showed no difference in body composition between runners who trained fasted and those who had a meal before running. Another found that fasted training doesn’t result in more fat burned and that athletes should avoid high-intensity sessions on an empty stomach. (1) (2)
We can discuss some of the suggested macronutrients for pre- and post-workout meals with that out of the way. We say suggested because, again, it’s going to come down to a variety of factors that you and your nutritionist should sort out.
Most importantly, it’s going to depend on how intense your workouts will be and what you’re training for. An ultra-distance runner, for example, might scarf down a Nutella-laden bagel, whereas a bodybuilder may want to reach for a small bowl of rice and steak.
Here’s a general guide: medium protein, high carb, and low fat is probably the best way to go. You want anywhere from one to four grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight, 20-30 grams of protein per meal, with the rest of your calories coming from high-quality fats. (4)
You can also use our macro calculator to find a solid starting point. Again, this is just a starting point, and you may need to adjust your numbers based on which way the scale tips and how quickly.
Again, the rules aren’t that rigid, but a few rules of thumb can help you achieve your goals. Protein after a workout is a must, but you don’t have to chug a protein shake immediately after your last set (more on that in a minute).
Why protein? Remember that during a workout you’re stressing the muscles and creating microscopic tears in the muscle tissue. Protein is the building block of all muscle, so it needs plenty of this vital macronutrient to rebuild your muscle tissue after intense physical labor.
Equally as important are carbs — yes, the macronutrient mainstream society and Instagram influencers everywhere have demonized is actually vital toward your physical fitness. Carbs help replenish glycogen, which provides energy for your muscles.
Multiple studies have found that ingesting carbs and protein after a workout is better for glycogen replenishment. (5)
“Post-workout is the best time to replenish with carbs and provide protein for recovery,” North adds. “Carbs included here help provide a good surge of insulin to promote growth and deliver carbohydrates to be stored as glycogen in the muscle. If you’re picking one meal to go high carbs in, this is it.”
Keep in mind that you should always seek out high-quality carbohydrates and protein, as studies have shown the quality of a macronutrient is vastly superior to how much of it you eat. In other words, a chicken breast with whole wheat toast will always be preferable to deli meat on white bread because the former is packed with more nutrients. (6)
[Related: How Much Protein Do You Actually Need Per Day?]
Should You Limit Fat Around a Workout?
If it doesn’t affect your performance, there’s likely no problem. Yet personal trainers and nutritionists will sometimes advise against eating much of this macronutrient before a workout.
Fats digest slower than simple carbohydrates and protein, thereby stopping spikes in blood sugar — an effect that some people want from their pre- and post-workout meals. It takes the body about six hours to convert fat into energy, whereas it takes about half that time for it to tap into carbs for fuel.
[Related: How to Gain Muscle — A guide to Eating For Mass]
As we discussed in the last section, high-quality macros are the key to success. Yet, we know most people in Western society are eating sub-par fats like chips and hydrogenated oils. If you’re eating good fats like avocados and olive oil, you’ll be on a better track. (7)
That said, you need fats for more than energy. Fats help facilitate hormonal functions, such as testosterone — a necessary hormone for muscle building and…other activities. A quick note on fats: Fats are more calorically dense than carbs. There are nine calories in a gram of fat than four calories in a gram of carbs or protein. So choosing quality fats is important, and this macro is vital for your health. However, indulging in fats too often will usually leave you hungry and a few hundred calories down. When planning out your meals, you’ll normally ingest ample fats residually from meats. A tablespoon of olive oil, while healthy, will also cost you 140 calories and do nothing to fill you up/
Sample Pre-Workout and Post-Workout Meals
Here are some suggestions that North likes to enjoy herself.
- Oats, Greek yogurt, fruit
- Eggs, spinach, and potatoes
- Meat, rice, vegetables
- Smoothie with berries, avocado or nut butter, and protein powder
- Greek yogurt, fruit, and grain-free granola
- A protein shake made with two banana, whey protein powder, and whole milk
Hydration and Electrolytes
The level of hydration and electrolytes you’ll need will once again come down to your body and the intensity of your workouts. And it’s not just water — electrolytes are a key part of staying hydrated, too.
To start, you should never enter a workout thirsty or dehydrated. Traci Thompson, MS, director of PEAK at University of Utah Health’s Wellness & Integrative Health, says this can lead to a host of problems down the line.
“Dehydration impairs your body’s ability to regulate heat, which causes your body temperature and heart rate to rise. This causes you to feel more tired during exercise,” she says on the university’s website. Dehydration can also impact your motor control, decision making, and concentration, Thompson says — all things you need when lifting heavy weight.
People often assume you can become dehydrated just by sweating, but it can also be caused by urination or excessive mouth breathing (the vapor on your tongue evaporates).
[Related: What Are Workout Splits and Which Is the Best One?]
So how much should you drink? Here’s a good trick to find out: weigh yourself before and after a training session (in kilograms) and subtract those two numbers. Then add how much fluid (water or sports drink) you consumed during your training session, and you get your sweat-loss volume. (Tip: one liter of water is one kilogram, so half a liter is .5 kilograms)
So if your initial weight is 90 kilograms and your post-training weight is 89 kilograms, and you drink half a liter of water, your sweat-loss volume is 1.5 kilograms. Make sense? This number is important because you should strive to ensure your sweat-loss volume is less than two percent of body mass. So that 1.5-kilogram number is acceptable for the 90-kilogram athlete.
And it’s not just the water you lose you have to keep an eye on either. Overhydration is a genuine threat to athletes that can lead to conditions like nausea, headaches, and confusion. These symptoms are caused by water-electrolyte imbalances or when there’s too much water in your system and not enough electrolytes. (8)
The Importance of Electrolytes
Electrolytes are simply minerals with a small electrical charge (don’t worry, you’re not going to get electrocuted). These electrical charges help the body regulate your heartbeat, muscle contractions, fluid regulation, and more. They also help maintain the balance of fluids in and out of your cells — you don’t want to have too little or too much fluid in them.
Electrolytes only work when they’re dissolved in water.
Some of the most common electrolytes are:
Some research has found that an hour of sweaty activity can produce seven grams of lost sodium; the FDA’s recommended daily intake is 2.3 grams. Those recommendations are made for the average, sedentary person, so make sure you consume enough sodium to support your athletic goals. (9)
A lack of proper electrolytes can lead to increased heart rates and physical discomfort, and in extreme cases, can lead to heart attacks and even death. Talk with your nutritionist or general physician to ensure you’re getting all the necessary electrolytes.
Pre-Workout Vitamins and Minerals
Generally speaking, vitamins and minerals will only improve your workouts if you’re low in those nutrients. Vitamin B12, for example, is important for energy production, but taking a bunch of pre-workout B12 won’t give you extra energy.
[Related: Fat Loss For Athletes — The Right Way to Approach Calories and Hormones]
It certainly won’t make or break your workout, but it’s always a good idea to have a source of Vitamin C with a meal anyway, particularly since it makes it easier to absorb iron.
What Workout Supplements Are Best?
The pre-workout supplement world is way too enormous and complicated to tackle in this piece alone. We strongly recommend you take a look at our list of the best pre-workout supplements to get a handle on which compounds might be most useful for you, but here are a few that have the most research behind them.
Caffeine: This stimulant promotes wakefulness and alertness and has strong links to better reaction time, working memory, power output, and endurance. One hundred milligrams is the amount you’ll find in a small cup of coffee; some pre-workouts contain up to 350 milligrams. Choose what works best for your body. (11)
Related: How Coffee Naturally Boosts Your Workout Performance
Beta-alanine: Research published in Amino Acids, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and elsewhere have concluded that 1.6 to five grams may increase endurance and help with strength training sets in the eight- to 15-rep range. (12)
Related: The Best Beta-Alanine Supplements For Sprinters, Lifters, and More
Citrulline: Several studies, like one published in the European Journal of Sports Science, has found that about 5 to 8 grams of this amino acid may improve blood flow and circulation, which could potentially help with endurance and power output. (13)
Related: The Best Nitric Oxide Supplements For Citrulline, Arginine, and More
Creatine: An amino acid that’s really strongly linked to power output and muscle size, a great way to improve performance, but it doesn’t need to be taken before or after a workout — get five to 10 grams per day. Beware, though. Many foods have naturally occurring creatine, so limit your intake via a supplement to about three to five grams. (14)
Related: The Best Creatine Supplements For Bulking, Focus, and More
Is There a Post-Workout Anabolic Window?
Consuming the right amount of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients is vastly more important than when you eat. Your gains (probably) won’t go out the window if you don’t eat within an hour or two of your workout.
Recent studies have shown that the so-called “anabolic window” is only effective for dedicated bodybuilding athletes, so unless you’re dedicating your life to the sport, this doesn’t apply to you. (15)
“We don’t necessarily need to hammer in the food immediately as there is a natural delay in gastric emptying post-training,” says North. “As far as my understanding, the ‘60-minute window’ for consuming protein post-workout has been debunked. Eating nutritious food across the day is important for muscle recovery, and it’s not necessarily going to be negated if you have to wait over an hour to eat your next meal. Immediately after training, it’s best to prioritize hydration then get on to eating within approximately 90 minutes.”
Many sports nutritionists will tell you that when you eat is not as relevant as what you eat and how much of it you eat — but in the grand scheme of things, timing won’t necessarily be the difference between achieving or missing your goals.
Consume enough protein, carbs, and micronutrients, and results will follow both during and after your workouts. And be sure you’re getting ample sleep (at least seven to nine hours per night). Again, your overall caloric intake and daily patterns are much more important than the time you sit down with a fork and knife.
Consider seeing a dietitian or a nutritionist so that you know what numbers you need to be hitting.
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- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Wilborn CD, Krieger JW, Sonmez GT. Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):54. Published 2014 Nov 18. doi:10.1186/s12970-014-0054-7
- Karli U, Guvenc A, Aslan A, Hazir T, Acikada C. Influence of Ramadan Fasting on Anaerobic Performance and Recovery Following Short time High Intensity Exercise. J Sports Sci Med. 2007;6(4):490-497. Published 2007 Dec 1.
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- Luc JC van Loon, Wim HM Saris, Margriet Kruijshoop, Anton JM Wagenmakers, Maximizing postexercise muscle glycogen synthesis: carbohydrate supplementation and the application of amino acid or protein hydrolysate mixtures, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 72, Issue 1, July 2000, Pages 106–111, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/72.1.106
- Shan Z, Guo Y, Hu FB, Liu L, Qi Q. Association of Low-Carbohydrate and Low-Fat Diets With Mortality Among US Adults. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Apr 1;180(4):513-523. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.6980. PMID: 31961383; PMCID: PMC6990856.
- Kopp W. How Western Diet And Lifestyle Drive The Pandemic Of Obesity And Civilization Diseases. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. 2019;12:2221-2236. Published 2019 Oct 24. doi:10.2147/DMSO.S216791
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- Godek SF, Peduzzi C, Burkholder R, Condon S, Dorshimer G, Bartolozzi AR. Sweat rates, sweat sodium concentrations, and sodium losses in 3 groups of professional football players. J Athl Train. 2010 Jul-Aug;45(4):364-71. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-45.4.364. PMID: 20617911; PMCID: PMC2902030.
- Bentley DJ, Ackerman J, Clifford T, et al. Acute and Chronic Effects of Antioxidant Supplementation on Exercise Performance. In: Lamprecht M, editor. Antioxidants in Sport Nutrition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2015. Chapter 9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK299045/
- Smirmaul BP, de Moraes AC, Angius L, Marcora SM. Effects of caffeine on neuromuscular fatigue and performance during high-intensity cycling exercise in moderate hypoxia. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Jan;117(1):27-38. doi: 10.1007/s00421-016-3496-6. Epub 2016 Nov 18. PMID: 27864638; PMCID: PMC5306327.
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