What to Eat Before, During, and After Workouts to Build Muscle and Improve Performance
The idea that you can maximize progress by altering what you eat before, during, and after a workout is nothing new. This concept is called peri-workout nutrition, and it has been around for a long time.
In fact, one of the first bits of nutrition information I remember reading about was on peri-workout nutrition.
In the early 2000s, muscle magazines ran the fitness industry. Flex, Muscle and Fitness, Muscular Development, Iron Man, and Musclemag owned the culture.
The world was a different place before social media.
If you wanted content on building muscle, it showed up in your mailbox once a month. The information was pretty good. As a naïve teenager, I certainly ate it up. However, it was easy to see where the advertising dollars came from. Supplement companies had their fingerprints from cover to cover. It was content marketing 101.
The magazines had information sprinkled between multi-page spreads promoting the newest supplements. If the advertisers did their jobs well, it was hard to decipher between the content and marketing material. It was part of the game.
You may be wondering how this relates to peri-workout nutrition?
During this period, it was thought nutrient timing played an integral role in building muscle. The concept was popularized by John Ivy and Robert Portman’s research and book, Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition. This is where the post-workout “anabolic window” was born.
Supplement companies took this information and ran with it. And, who can blame them?
In my opinion, supplement companies played a role in artificially inflating the importance of peri-workout nutrition. The advertising during this era was some of the best the fitness industry has ever seen.
It was hard to find anyone who took their training seriously who did not pay attention to what they consumed around their workouts. Locker rooms were filled with guys mixing up protein shakes to shuttle nutrients to their starving muscles as quickly as possible.
However, with more research, the narrative began to shift. Suddenly, the effectiveness of nutrient timing was drawn into question. People began wondering if the anabolic window was more hype than substance.
Over time, peri-workout nutrition went from conventional wisdom to bro-science. It was common for evidence-based practitioners to completely dismiss the notion that nutrient timing made any difference. It essentially became grouped in with IIFYM and the flexible dieting movement where daily macros are the only thing that matters.
As with most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
The truth is, what to eat before, during, and after training is a nuanced topic. There are many things to consider. Although peri-workout nutrition may not be as important as once thought, it can make a difference. Besides, often there is no downside to implementing these strategies.
Since you have nothing to lose and potentially some to gain, it’s worth it to give peri-workout nutrition some thought.
Nutritional Layers of Importance
Before we get too deep into what to eat around the workout, it’s important to point out where it fits into the layers of nutritional importance.
#1: Energy Balance / End of Day Calories
As you have heard many times before, when it comes to building muscle and losing fat, it’s all about energy balance.
Energy balance is the relationship between calories consumed through food and drink (energy in) and calories used for all daily functions (energy out). In other words, the energy balance equation can be defined as calories in vs. calories out.
When the goal is to build muscle, you need to consume slightly more calories than your body requires to maintain weight. On the other hand, when the goal is fat loss, you need to eat slightly fewer calories than your body requires to maintain body weight.
I hate to put it that simple, but that’s how it works.
Before we worry about anything else, we need to have the energy balance equation in our favor.
After calories, protein intake is the second most critical factor in building muscle and losing fat.
To build and maintain muscle, you need to boost muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown. The best way to do that is through resistance training and eating enough protein. In addition to helping you build and maintain muscle, protein can help you lose fat, too. Out of all of the macronutrients, protein is the most satiating. Getting into the nitty-gritty of protein intake is a subject for another time. But, if you want to look and perform at your best, a high protein diet is highly beneficial.
The old-school recommendation of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is pretty accurate. It is easy to remember, and it puts us right in the ballpark of what the current research supports.
However, if you are overweight, don’t base protein intake on your body weight; base it on your goal body weight. For example, if you are over 300lbs but your goal weight is 225lbs, consume 225g of protein per day.
Before we worry about post-workout protein intake, we need to get adequate protein throughout the day.
When I talk about how many grams of fat and carbohydrate to eat, I like to group them together. When we know how many calories and protein we need to consume, all calories left go toward fat and carbohydrates. At this point, it really comes down to personal preference. Do you want more fat or more carbs in your diet? In terms of body composition, if calories and protein are controlled, low fat and low carb diets result in similar body composition changes.
As we will talk about later, determining the right amount of carbs around your workout needs to account for the totality of carbohydrates in the diet. The need for peri-workout carbohydrate intake varies between low carb and high carb diets.
#3: Micronutrients, Fiber, and Hydration
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals. The best way to ensure you are hitting the recommended amount of daily micronutrients is to eat plenty of lean meats, complex carbs, fruits, and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables will make it a lot easier to hit your daily fiber intake, too.
Fiber helps with digestion, prevents constipation, maintains bowel health, improves a feeling of fullness, lowers cholesterol, and helps control blood sugar.
However, there is a specific prescription that is best. Too low fiber intake and you do not benefit from everything I just listed. On the other hand, if you consume too much fiber, there is a chance of gastrointestinal tract issues, feeling/looking bloated, and poor nutrient absorption. This is especially important in the pre-workout window.
Fiber is another number we need to track in addition to protein, carbs, and fat. Most people would do well with 10–20% of carbohydrate intake coming from fiber. For example, if you have 200g of carbs per day, aim for 20–40g of fiber.
You may wonder why hydration is not in a different category since water plays a substantial role in our survival. The reason is quite simple. If you get your calories, macros, and micros in order, as long as you drink when thirsty, it takes care of most hydration needs.
Our thirst mechanism does a great job of taking care of how much water we should be drinking without requiring much effort.
With that being said, performance can be negatively impacted by modest dehydration. Consuming extra fluid around the workout can help prevent that from happening.
Consistency is a critical factor for any diet. You can have the best diet on paper, but if you can’t follow it, it won’t matter.
When it comes to nutrition, ask yourself, “Is this something I could see myself following for an extended time?” If not, it’s probably not the best diet for you. This is where most restrictive diets fall short. Yeah, keto works, but what are you supposed to do, not eat carbs again for the rest of your life? The more restrictive the diet, the harder it is to follow long-term.
#5: Peri Workout Nutrition
Peri-workout nutrition is the next place to look once you have layers 1–4 dialed in. Nutrient timing around the workout is like icing on a cake. There is no need for icing without the cake, but amazing icing can put the experience over the top.
Pre Workout Nutrition
Pre-workout nutrition refers to the window of time within 4 hours of training. If I had to make an argument for the most important meal of the day, the pre-workout meal would be my answer.
We have four goals with pre-workout nutrition:
- Provide adequate fuel to optimize performance and prevent premature fatigue.
- Create an anabolic environment for training.
- Avoid stomach discomfort.
- Start the workout appropriately hydrated.
Pre Training Fuel
The body relies on blood glucose and glycogen for energy during resistance training. Therefore, carbohydrates are the only macronutrient that can impact short-term exercise performance.
Theoretically, this would presume carbohydrate intake to be extremely important to maximize performance. However, the research on pre-workout carbohydrates is mixed. Some studies show carbohydrates improve performance, and others that report no benefit.
One possible explanation for the mixed results in the literature comes down to carbohydrate availability. Pre-workout carbohydrates will likely result in improved performance if glycogen levels are low. This can be due to an overnight fast, calorie deficit, or low daily carbohydrate intake.
On the other hand, if glycogen levels are elevated, additional carbohydrates are unlikely to offer much of an advantage.
Most people who have a well-balanced diet will have plenty of muscle glycogen to fuel their workouts. But, there is no downside to having more carbs than you need. The key is to make sure we are not training glycogen depleted. Adding carbohydrates to the pre-workout meal ensures glycogen stores are filled at the start of the workout, plus can provide an additional energy source.
Anabolic Environment for Training
Similarly, the totality of the diet plays a critical role in creating an anabolic environment during the pre-training window.
As previously mentioned, consuming adequate protein boosts muscle protein synthesis and reduces muscle breakdown. This is the environment we want during training.
However, it takes multiple hours to digest and absorb most protein sources. When protein is evenly distributed throughout the day, chances are you will have amino acids circulating in your body consistently.
With that being said, it’s still a good idea to consume some protein in the pre-training window under most circumstances. Protein is highly satiating, and research suggests training performance is limited by hunger (1). Aside from being distracting, training while hungry can cause you to fatigue early.
Avoid Stomach Discomfort
From a practical standpoint, avoiding stomach discomfort pre-workout is the best tip I have. I know it is common sense, but we want to focus on foods that make us feel good and ready to train.
As a general rule, the closer the pre-workout meal is to the training session, the less food we want to eat. Also, if the pre-workout meal is close to the workout, avoid high fat and fiber foods. Fat and fiber slow down digestion, and we don’t want a lot of digesting during training.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to avoid sugar alcohol before training. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that are not fully absorbed in the gut and can cause gas, bloating, and cramping. Sugar alcohols are found in many protein bars, low-carb products, and chewing gum.
As previously stated, our thirst mechanism takes care of how much water we should be drinking without requiring much effort.
I recommend always having water available so you can sip on it periodically throughout the day. As long as you drink when thirsty, most hydration needs will be taken care of.
However, we want to ensure we are training in a hydrated state. Even a 2% reduction in body weight from water loss can increase fatigue and decrease performance.
If you train first thing in the morning or can’t consume fluids throughout the day, pre hydrating before the workout is needed.
When training in a hot and humid environment, an extra emphasis should be placed on hydration before and during the training session. In this situation, the thirst mechanism may lag behind.
Adding some electrolytes, specifically, sodium can be helpful before and during training. Sodium influences fluid regulation by helping to retain more of the fluid consumed.
Situation #1: Training Fasted / No Pre Workout Meal
Due to schedule or personal preference, many people opt to train fasted, and skip the pre-workout meal altogether. I currently fall into this category. For me, it is schedule-related. I wake up and go to the gym first thing in the morning. With three kids and busy life, the last thing I want to do is wake up earlier to have a pre-workout meal.
When training fasted, intra and post-workout nutrition become more important.
One strategy I have used to help with early morning training is shifting more calories to later in the day, the night before. As noted, low carbohydrate availability could limit lifting performance. To combat this, I eat a big dinner and have a snack before bed containing a slow-digesting protein, carbohydrates, and fat. I do this to make sure glycogen is less depleted in the morning.
Hydration is also of greater importance when training first thing in the morning. You went all night without consuming any fluid, so it’s common to wake up slightly dehydrated.
In the morning, drink 16–24oz of fluid before training. All fluid intake counts — water, coffee, pre-workout supplement, etc.
I like to mix in ¼ tsp of salt with my pre-workout supplement since sodium helps retain more of the fluid consumed. If you train later in the day, adding extra sodium to the pre-workout mix would be unnecessary.
Situation #2: Pre Workout Meal 1–4 Hours Before Workout
In a perfect world, everyone would eat a pre-workout meal between 1 and 4 hours before training.
Following this approach offers a ton of benefits. For one, there is a decent amount of time before the workout. You don’t need to change your daily routine. A typical mixed meal containing protein, carbs, and fat works well.
What do I mean by a typical meal? Just one of the 3 to 5 meals you eat throughout the day to meet your calorie and macronutrient goals. When you eat a pre-workout meal in this window, you don’t need to do anything special outside of picking foods that sit well in your stomach and make you feel good.
The size of the meal will depend on personal preference and overall daily calorie intake. Some people like to feel full when training, while others do not.
With that said, you don’t want a ton of digestion happening during the workout. It is a delicate balance between not having an abundance of digestion and avoiding hunger. The further away the pre-training meal is, the larger it can be and vice versa.
For digestion and GI reasons, I like to keep fiber under 10g during this meal. I would avoid high fiber veggies and high fiber products pre-workout.
Make sure water is available and continue drinking to thirst.
Below is an example pre-workout meal to consume 1–4 hours before training. Adjust calorie, protein, carbohydrate, and fat targets to meet your daily needs.
Pre Workout Meal Example: 1–4 hours pre-training
- 4oz chicken breast
- 8oz russet potato
- 150g watermelon
- 5g butter (on the potato)
- ¼ tsp salt (on the potato)
Macros of meal: 40g protein — 60g carbs (6g fiber) — 8g fat
In this meal, we are getting a good dose of protein, a quality carb source high in potassium, some fruit, a little fat, and salt.
Situation #3: Pre-workout meal 0–60 minutes before workout
When the pre-workout meal is closer to the training session, we want it to be easier to digest and lower calories. Again, the exact size will depend on personal preference and daily calorie intake. I consider this more of a snack than a meal. We are just looking to top things off and avoid hunger.
When eating this close to training, it’s good to keep fats and fiber on the low side to avoid GI issues.
Make sure water is available and continue drinking to thirst.
Pre Workout Meal Example: 0–60 minutes pre-training
- 1 scoop of protein powder
- 8oz unsweetened almond milk
- 1 medium banana
Macros of meal: 28g protein — 31g carbs (3g fiber) — 4g fat
With this snack, we are keeping it light and easy to digest. Under these conditions, I prefer a protein shake, but egg whites or low-fat Greek Yogurt could work. The key is finding food sources that sit well in your stomach. With a shake, we get the added hydration benefit.
When Should You take a Pre Workout Supplement?
Now that we went over pre-workout nutrition, how does pre-workout supplementation fit into the puzzle?
Pre-workout supplements are designed to improve training performance. The main ingredient in most is caffeine. It may come as a surprise, but you don’t want to be sipping on your pre-workout at the start of your training session.
Substantial increases in caffeine concentrations are observed within 15 minutes, but peak values are not typically reached until 30–60 minutes after consumption. For this reason, the sweet spot to slam your favorite pre-workout supplement is in the 30–60 min pre-exercise range.
If you train fasted, caffeine will reach peak concentrations faster. In this case, 15–30 minutes pre-training is where you want to be.
If you are worried about consuming your pre-workout too early, don’t be. The half-life of caffeine is generally estimated between 3 and 6 hours. In my opinion, the concern is taking it too late.
Intra Workout Nutrition
The goal of intra-workout nutrition is to improve performance and prolong time to fatigue. However, it’s not required for everyone.
A pivotal aspect of intra-workout nutrition is the existence of pre-workout nutrition. Quite frankly, the pre-workout meal determines how important intra-workout is. If you have a well-timed and well-structured pre-workout meal, the benefit of consuming anything intra-workout is low. Possibly even redundant. Considering the several hours it takes to digest and absorb a meal, pre-workout nutrition often acts as intra-workout nutrition.
When does intra-workout nutrition make sense?
- When you train fasted.
- When the last meal is over 4 hours before the workout.
- With long (high volume) workouts lasting over 60 minutes. Less benefit for training under an hour. Keep in mind, that this is 60 minutes of hard work, not extending a 45-minute workout into an hour and a half.
- During a fat loss phase/calorie deficit (low glycogen levels). Unless you are struggling with hunger, in which case, it may be a good idea to avoid liquid calories.
- When you have an abundance of carbs in your diet, consuming liquid carbs during training can be an advantageous way to hit daily carb totals.
What Should You Have Intra Workout?
If you don’t meet any of the criteria mentioned, the best thing to consume intra-workout is water.
If you do, let’s go back to our goal with intra-workout nutrition, which is to improve performance and prolong time to fatigue. With this in mind, carbohydrates are our best option. Protein is not an efficient energy source, and fats take too long to digest.
From a practical standpoint, a fast-acting liquid carbohydrate makes the most sense. It’s convenient and will make an immediate impact, plus you get the added benefit of hydration. I recommend sipping on your intra-workout drink about 30 minutes into the workout.
Anything from Gatorade, Kool-Aid, Dextrose, or Cluster Dextrin will work. There are theoretical advantages to some more than others. I suggest playing around with a few different sources and seeing what you like. At the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy the taste, you are less likely to consistently use it.
Above all, find something that sits well in your stomach. The biggest drawback to adding in intra-workout carbs will be GI issues.
What about actual food?
It’s popular in the lifting community to eat candy while training. Things like gummy worms, gummy bears, Sour Patch Kids, etc. It’s the same idea. The only difference is you are eating the fast-digesting carbs versus drinking them. As long as they sit well in your stomach and you portion out the correct amount, I don’t have a problem with people eating candy during training.
Another option would be to eat a piece of fruit, like an orange or banana. Again, this can work well if it doesn’t cause any GI issues.
I used to eat a Pop-Tart immediately before training during my warmup or in the middle of a training session. The one advantage to using food is it may satisfy hunger better than a liquid if hunger is an issue.
How Many Carbs?
A little bit goes a long way. You don’t need a ton of carbs to see a benefit. For most people, 15–30g works well. Even 5–10g may be helpful if you don’t have a lot of carbohydrates available in your diet.
In the right conditions, just swishing a carbohydrate drink like Gatorade in your mouth and spitting it out before each set has been shown to enhance lifting performance .
What About Protein?
Under most conditions consuming protein intra-workout is redundant and unnecessary. The anabolic effect of a protein-rich meal is typically between 3 and 5 hours. So, as long as protein is consumed during the pre-workout window, additional protein is unnecessary until after the training session.
However, training fasted presents additional challenges. Research from Bird and colleagues found that when subjects consumed a liquid carb and essential amino acid (EAA) supplement during fasted training, it suppressed lifting-induced muscle protein breakdown .
If you train fasted, I recommend consuming 10g of EAA or 10g of Whey Isolate, combined with 15–30g of carbs. The goal is to help suppress muscle protein breakdown and protect against muscle catabolism.
Branch chain amino acids (BCAA) are not included in my recommendations. Although BCAAs are still among the most popular supplements, research consistently shows no significant effects on body composition or lifting performance. This is a case of the whole being greater than its parts. Opting for a product that contains all 9 essential amino acids or a complete protein like Whey are better options.
Bottom Line With Intra Workout Nutrition
Typically, the people who benefit most from intra-workout nutrition train fasted and/or take part in long grueling workouts. During these long sessions, I have found clients start to fade towards the end. Throwing in some intra-workout carbs can be enough to delay fatigue and allow them to finish the workout strong.
Remember, not everyone will benefit from intra-workout carbs. As Eric Trexler wrote in a past issue of MASS, “You can’t have carb solutions if you don’t have carb problems.”
With that said, many people do find intra-workout carbs helpful. There could be a placebo or psychological effect at play, but if it helps, it helps. If intra-workout nutrition is preferred and you have the calories to work with, it won’t hurt as long as it doesn’t cause GI distress. There is little downside to taking 15g of carbs from another meal and consuming them during training.
Post Workout Nutrition
Post-workout nutrition refers to anything consumed within a few hours of the workout. The main goal is to begin the recovery process of repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue.
At one time, post-workout nutrition was the most popular nutrition topic amongst lifters. For decades, it was felt that consuming nutrients immediately after the workout was a crucial component of the recovery process. Although popular opinion has changed, specific post-workout nutrition still has value in some circumstances.
How big is the “Anabolic Window”?
The post-workout anabolic window was popular in the early 2000s. It was said, having fast-acting protein and carbs immediately post-workout could make or break muscular gains. In fact, it was even put up on a pedestal above daily calorie and macronutrient requirements. As more research came out, the post-workout period appeared larger and less important.
The timing recommendations for the post-workout meal have more to do with the pre-workout meal than when the workout finishes. The entire peri-workout period is the focus. The anabolic effect of a protein-rich meal is 3–5 hours, potentially longer. Ideally, we want to have a post-workout meal within 5 hours of the pre-workout meal.
For example, if you have a pre-workout meal 2 hours before the workout and then train for 2 hours, you would still have an hour to eat a post-workout meal.
When you train fasted, the timing of the post-workout meal takes on greater importance. Since we are well beyond the 5 hours since the last meal, it’s a good idea to eat some protein as soon as possible following a fasted workout. Consuming an intra-workout cocktail of EAAs and carbohydrates may give us a little latitude on the timing. But there is no advantage to waiting any longer than necessary.
What to Eat Post Workout
In contrast to the pre and intra-workout periods, protein is the predominant macronutrient in the post-workout slot.
Consume at least 20g of protein either from a whole food meal or a protein shake. The evidence does not indicate that the specific post-workout protein source makes a difference in body composition or resistance training performance. It comes down to personal preference.
In most cases, I simply recommend eating your next scheduled meal. However, from a convenience standpoint, a protein shake is ideal if you have to go to work right after the gym.
If you only train once per day, consuming a specific amount or type of carbohydrates post-workout is unnecessary. 24 hours is plenty of time to replenish glycogen stores following a resistance training workout.
If you train twice or more in one day, replenishing glycogen in the post-workout window will be more crucial. In this case, you would definitely want to add carbs to the post-workout meal.
In any case, adding carbs to the post-workout meal won’t hurt. Additionally, since we are not concerned with shuttling nutrients as fast as possible, it’s okay to have a post-workout meal with fat and fiber.
Post-Workout Meal Example #1
- 6oz top round
- 145g white or brown rice
- 100g green veggies
- 1 medium apple
Macros of meal: 46g protein — 75g carbs (7.5g fiber) — 12g fat
We have a lot of options for this meal. It could be your typical lunch or dinner. A quality protein, carb source, veggies, and a piece of fruit.
Post-Workout Meal Example #2
- 1 scoop of protein powder
Macros of meal: 22g protein — 3g carbs — 0g fat
Simply having a protein shake post-workout is sufficient when you can’t eat a full meal. Follow this up with a full bite within a couple of hours.
Putting it All Together
- It’s a good idea to have a meal or a snack with carbohydrates and protein within 4 hours of training.
- Be mindful of food sources to avoid any stomach discomfort.
- If needed, consume extra fluids in the pre-workout window to ensure proper hydration at the start of the training session.
- Intra workout nutrition is not needed by everyone.
- If you train fasted, consume 15–30g of carbohydrates with 10g of EAA or Whey.
- Carbohydrates can be beneficial for long workouts lasting over 60 minutes.
- A liquid carb source works best, but low-fat candy or fruit can work, too.
- Consume fluids throughout to maintain proper hydration.
- Consume protein within 5 hours of the pre-workout meal.
- A whole food source or protein shake can be used. The evidence does not indicate that the specific post-workout protein source makes a difference in body composition or resistance training performance.
- If you train multiple times per day, consuming carbohydrates post-workout can be helpful.
- Naharudin MN, Adams J, Richardson H, Thomson T, Oxinou C, Marshall C, Clayton DJ, Mears SA, Yusof A, Hulston CJ, James LJ. Viscous placebo and carbohydrate breakfasts similarly decrease appetite and increase resistance exercise performance compared with a control breakfast in trained males. Br J Nutr. 2020 Mar 16:1–9. doi: 10.1017/S0007114520001002. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 32174286.
- Durkin M, Akeroyd H, Holliday A. Carbohydrate mouth rinse improves resistance exercise capacity in the glycogen-lowered state. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2021 Feb;46(2):126–132. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2020–0298. Epub 2020 Jul 29. PMID: 32726566.
- Bird SP, Tarpenning KM, Marino FE. Liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion during a short-term bout of resistance exercise suppresses myofibrillar protein degradation. Metabolism. 2006 May;55(5):570–7. doi: 10.1016/j.metabol.2005.11.011. PMID: 16631431.