The Best Pre-Workout And Post-Workout Meals, According To Science

WHY IS PRE & POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION IMPORTANT?

Most people love to push themselves in the gym, but still never look like they lift because their nutrition doesn’t match the way they train.

Your training is like the gas pedal. But your nutrition is the fuel in the tank. Without proper (or enough) fuel, you’ll never go far... no matter how hard you push the pedal.

This perfectly illustrates why pre and post-workout nutrition is so important for physique development.  

Today’s blog teaches you how to stop under-fueling / under-recovering, and finally achieve the physique you’re already doing the work in the gym for. 

THE BEST SCIENCE-BASED MEAL TO EAT PRE-WORKOUT

When teaching online clients how to get the absolute most out of their training, we typically start with the pre-workout meal. 

This is because (for most), a solid pre-workout nutrition strategy will yield the most “bang for your buck” when it comes to improving performance, recovery, and results.  

If your pre-workout nutrition is optimized, what you do intra and post-workout is much less important. 

There are three key things you want out of your pre-workout meal: 

  1. Your pre-workout meal should improve your ability to train intensely in your upcoming workout 
  2. Your pre-workout meal should minimize catabolism (the breakdown of muscle tissue) during your training 
  3. Your pre-workout meal should provide your body with the amino acids that it needs for to recover from your workout, and build new muscle tissue.  

We’ll focus on macro-specific recommendations first (protein, carb, and fat recommendations), before concluding with some collective recommendations.

HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD YOU EAT PRE-WORKOUT?

Protein is a key component of your pre-workout meal due to something called net protein balance

Your muscles are essentially built from protein (or more specifically, the amino acids that you consume within protein)

→ Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the process of your body repairing/adding to your current muscle protein. 

After you consume protein, levels of MPS “spike” for the next 2-3 hours before returning to baseline. The size of the spike depends (to an extent) on the amount and quality of protein consumed. 

Resistance training also spikes MPS. 

But it’s not just as simple as eat protein, train, spike MPS, build muscle. Because there’s another force at work here...   

→ Muscle protein breakdown (MPB) is the process of your body breaking down muscle protein. 

Your muscle proteins are stuck in a constant battle between MPS and MPB. Sometimes rate of MPS is greater than MPB, sometimes vice-versa. 

→ To build muscle - We need positive net protein balance (More MPS have occurred than MPB) across any given timeframe. 

→ To lose muscle - We need negative net protein balance (more MPB than MPS must have occurred) across any given timeframe. 

Now, net protein balance is related to more than just how much protein you're eating...

When you’re training hard, your body enters a what we call a sympathetic state (better known as fight or flight mode)

In this state, more of the hormone cortisol is released. 

Cortisol (along with a few other byproducts of an intense training session) increase the rate of MPB. 

Because lifting weights will stimulate MPS, post-workout both MPS and MPB are elevated (1)... so it’s not like your muscles are just deteriorating in front of your eyes like the Nazis at the end of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of The Lost Ark. 

But, your net protein balance will be negative post-workout if you haven’t consumed adequate protein recently. 

So how can you avoid this?

By consuming an adequate dose of protein pre-workout, you’re giving your body the amino acids it needs intra and post-workout to further spike MPS and create a scenario where muscle growth is possible. (This is also why if you haven’t eaten pre-workout, getting in protein post-workout becomes much more important.)

RECOMMENDATION:  

To optimally stimulate MPS pre-workout, research indicates (2) that consuming 20 grams of protein will allow for an almost maximal increase in MPS, while consuming 40 grams will yield a 10% higher MPS rate than 20 grams, making it slightly more optimal. 

→ Eat 20g of protein in your pre-workout meal to create a near max MPS response, or 40g+ if you want to ensure you’re ticking all the boxes.

WHAT KIND OF PROTEIN SHOULD YOU EAT PRE-WORKOUT?

Ideally, you want this to be a lower fat, fast digesting protein source that also contains a good amount of the amino acid leucine. 

This is because the amino acid leucine is essentially the "trigger" for MPS. 

Leucine content varies by protein source, which in turn impacts whether you optimally stimulate MPS or not.  

So along with the 20-40g dose of protein mentioned earlier, we need 2.5g+ of leucine (this is the "leucine threshold) to optimally stimulate MPS. 

That said, you don’t need to overcomplicate this too much. 20-40g of protein from most animal-based sources or a quality plant protein powder will tick the leucine box here. 

It’s ideal that this protein source is lower fat, because we want your stomach to be empty when you start training. This isn’t the same thing as your pre-workout meal being fully digested (which takes quite some time), but if your body is still digesting food in the stomach when you start training, performance will suffer (more on this later)

Leaner protein sources will (typically) digest quicker, as fat can potentially slow the digestive process. 

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

→ Whey protein 

→ Plant-based protein powder 

→ Chicken breast 

→ Lean ground beef (93%+) 

→ Lean ground turkey (93%+) 

→ Egg whites

HOW MANY CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT PRE-WORKOUT?

There are three primary reasons carbs are helpful in a pre-workout meal:

1. Managing glycogen stores. Glycogen (carbohydrates stored in your muscle and liver) is going to be your body’s preferred fuel source while training.  

During a training session...

1. First, muscle glycogen stores are depleted.  

2. Next, liver glycogen.   

3. At this point, your body will start converting amino acids to glucose (via the process of gluconeogenesis) to use as fuel.

Gluconeogenesis (the process of converting amino acids to glucose) is very energy expensive, and an additional stress for your body to recover from, which will slow your recovery time (and potential muscle growth).

To simplify - when training for aesthetics like most of our online clients are, your body is literally using carbs (which also = blood sugar) as the primary fuel source for your training. 

As you’re depleting your body’s current carb stores in your training, if more carbohydrates aren’t available, many will experience a lower blood sugar “crash” about halfway through their training.  

This of course is counterproductive to the level of performance you need to have in order to get the physique results you want from your training.

So having some carbs pre-workout to “top off” glycogen stores is smart for better recovery after your session. 

2. Carbs and protein both stimulate an insulin response (the hormone insulin is released into the bloodstream after consumption). Insulin has been shown to suppress muscle protein breakdown, as insulin has an inverse relationship with the catabolic hormone cortisol.  

As cortisol levels are elevated during training, it’s thought that a combination of protein + carbohydrate consumed before (or during) training could be an effective way to create an “anti-catabolic buffer” by reducing cortisol levels and protein breakdown, allowing for full recover sooner. (3

3. Carb intake could potentially send your body the signal that “plenty of fuel is available”, allowing you to train harder. Some interesting research on “carb-rinsing” (swishing a sugary solution around in your mouth before spitting it out) seems to potentially show that sending your brain the signal that it’s just taken in more carbohydrates/energy leads to increased levels of performance. (4)(5)

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

Here, assuming you’re training in a bodybuilding-ish manner like our online clients are, you won’t need a huge amount of carbs pre-workout (although there’s nothing wrong with more carbs either). 

→ Most will feel best aiming to get .25-.5g of carbohydrate per pound of body weight. 

IMPORTANT CONTEXT: PRE-WORKOUT CARBS WHEN BUILDING VS. CUTTING 

If you’re in a calorie surplus (consistently eating more calories than you’re burning), muscle glycogen stores will likely already be full, and thus carbs in this meal (if you feel fine training without them) are less important. 

If you notice that you’re having trouble focusing or pushing yourself during training while in a surplus, it’s smart to experiment with decreasing carbs and increasing fats. Sometimes the large insulin spike that comes with a large amount of carbs can actually hinder your focus and leave you feeling lethargic. 

In a calorie deficit (for already lean individuals), carbs in the pre-workout meal will be more important as they’ll help maintain your glycogen stores. 

WHAT KIND OF CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT PRE-WORKOUT?

The primary thing you want is a carb source that can digest quickly (both to prevent you from feeling sluggish during your training and to top of muscle glycogen stores sooner) - higher glycemic index carbs/starchy carbs tick this box (so probably still smart to focus on these if you’re eating closer to training), but really you’ll primarily want to ensure that fiber is lower in the carbs you’re consuming here, as fiber will slow digestion. 

I like Chris Barakat’s recommendation from our episode on Body Recomposition: 

Ideally, your pre-workout carbs would be from a mix of starch and fruit, which gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout.   

RECOMMENDATIONS:  

Starchy/High GI Carbs  

→ Rice cakes  

→ White rice 

→ Cream of rice 

→ Instant oats 

→ White potato 

→ Bagels 

→ White bread 

→ Cereals 

→ Corn  

Fruit 

→ Berries 

→ Bananas 

→ Pears 

→ Apples 

→ Peaches 

→ Kiwis  

...ok this list could go on, but you get the idea. 

HOW MUCH FAT SHOULD YOU EAT PRE-WORKOUT?

Fat (for most) should stay relatively slow pre-workout. 

You don’t get any benefits as far as refilling glycogen stores or stimulating MPS from eating fat, and it can potentially slow the digestion of your carbs and protein, causing your ability to train hard to suffer. 

So this is an area that doesn’t require us to delve too deeply.

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

→ If eating 60-90 minutes pre-workout... most will feel best keeping fat intake between 5-15 grams of fat in the pre-workout meal. 

→ If eating 1.5-3 hours before training... fat can help slow digestion enough that you’re not hungry mid-training session. Here, most will feel best consuming 10-25 grams of fat in the pre-workout meal.

HOW LONG BEFORE WORKING OUT SHOULD YOU EAT?

This really depends a bit on what you’re eating, and your personal preference as to what makes you feel best. 

If your body is still trying to empty the food from your stomach, some blood (which we want to be pushed to your muscles while training) will be rechanneled to your stomach. 

But in general, somewhere between 1-3 hours pre-workout is a good time to eat. 

→ Eat 60-90 minutes before training if… you’re eating quick digesting foods like cream of rice or instant oats + a whey shake. 

→ Eat 1.5-3 hours before training if… you’re eating unprocessed foods that’ll take longer to digest, like sirloin steak + a potato. Do you have to eat before working out? 

TL;DR - THE OPTIMAL PRE-WORKOUT MEAL

PROTEIN: 20-40g of protein from a quick digesting, high leucine source like protein powder, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, or egg whites.

CARBS: .25-.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight from a quick digesting source like white rice, rice cakes, cream of rice, instant oats, or bagels.

Combining a starchy carb source (see above) and a fruit will potentially be more optimally for both quick and sustained energy. 

FAT: Keep it light. 

→ 5-15g if you’re training in <90 minutes. 

→ 10-25g if you’re training in >90 minutes.

TIMING:

→ Eat 60-90 minutes before training if… you’re eating quick digesting foods like cream of rice or instant oats + a whey shake.  

→ Eat 1.5-3 hours before training if… you’re eating unprocessed foods that’ll take longer to digest, like sirloin steak + a potato.

THE BEST SCIENCE-BASED MEAL TO EAT POST-WORKOUT

When it comes to your post-workout nutrition, much of the same logic behind food sources and the outcomes they’re meant to drive (managing glycogen stores, spiking MPS) carry over to the post-workout meal. 

So you’ll notice that many of the concepts are the same here as what we’ve discussed earlier.  

Because of the similarity between the pre and post-workout meals, if one of the two is honed in as far as food composition and timing, you can be a bit more “flexible” with the other. 

For example:

→ If you had a solid pre-workout meal, there likely aren’t any detriments to waiting 1-2 hours before eating your post-workout meal. 

→ If you’re training fasted, eating a post-workout meal as soon as you can after training becomes much more important 

There are two key things you want out of your post-workout meal: 

  1. Your post-workout meal should spike muscle protein synthesis (MPS)
  2. Your post-workout meal should help replenish glycogen stores 

Again, let's dig into post-workout nutrition on a macro-by-macro basis.

HOW MUCH PROTEIN SHOULD YOU EAT POST-WORKOUT?

Just like with the pre-workout protein, the goal here is to ensure that you’re providing your body with the amino acids it needs to build new muscle through the process of muscle protein synthesis (MPS)

If you recall, both MPS and MPB (muscle protein breakdown) are elevated post-workout. 

By consuming an adequate dose of protein pre-workout, you’re giving your body the amino acids it needs intra and post-workout to further spike MPS and create a scenario where muscle growth is possible. (This is also why if you haven’t eaten pre-workout, getting in protein post-workout becomes much more important.) 

That said, consuming another bolus of protein post-workout is an excellent idea… because even if you optimally stimulated MPS with the pre-workout meal, MPS will likely have returned to baseline levels (or will be within the next 30-90 mins) due to something called the muscle full effect. 

See, once enough protein is taken in to saturate the muscle, the “muscle full” effect happens:  

1. ~30 mins after consuming an adequate bolus of protein, rate of MPS ~triples.  

2. At ~90 mins, rate of MPS peaks, before returning to baseline levels at ~2 hours.   This return to MPS baseline occurs regardless of how much protein is still available in your bloodstream.

So to once again spike MPS, and ensure that rate of MPS > rate of MPB, you’ll need to eat some more protein post-workout.

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

The same logic as the pre-workout meal applies here: To optimally stimulate MPS post-workout, research indicates (2) that consuming 20 grams of protein will allow for an almost maximal increase in MPS, while consuming 40 grams will yield a 10% higher MPS rate than 20 grams, making it slightly more optimal. 

→ Eat 20g of protein in your post-workout meal to create a near max MPS response, or 40g+ if you want to ensure you’re ticking all the boxes.

WHAT KIND OF PROTEIN SHOULD YOU EAT POST-WORKOUT?

Similar to pre-workout, this should be a lower fat, fast digesting protein source, as research seems to show this will be more optimal for muscle growth than a slower digesting source. (7)

RECOMMENDATIONS: 

→ Whey protein 

→ Plant-based protein powder 

→ Chicken breast 

→ Lean ground beef (93%+) 

→ Lean ground turkey (93%+) 

→ Egg whites

HOW MANY CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT POST-WORKOUT?

The primary role of carbohydrates post workout is to replenish your muscle glycogen stores so that you’re able to train hard again in your next session. 

Waiting just two hours post-workout can reduce the rate of glycogen replenishment by up to 50%. 

But this is likely only really important if you plan to train again in the same day. It seems as long as you eat enough carbs across the day, your body will likely refill muscle glycogen stores again by your next session (whether you had lots of carbs post-workout or not). 

So the primary outcome we want from post-workout carbohydrates is taking advantage of the inverse relationship between insulin and cortisol we mentioned earlier to reduce cortisol levels (and in turn MPB) and create an environment that's more anabolic/conducive to muscle growth.

RECCOMMENDATIONS:

Typically we recommend online clients try to get at least 1/2 their daily carb intake peri-workout (pre/intra/post-workout), so if you're lighter on the carbs pre-workout, go heavier here.

→ Aim for at least .25-.5g of carbohydrate per pound of body weight in the post-workout meal.

WHAT KINDS OF CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT POST-WORKOUT?

Very similarly to your pre-workout carbs, we want these to be fast digesting. 

This will typically mean lower fiber, starchy carb sources.

RECCOMMENDATIONS:

→ Rice cakes  

→ White rice 

→ Cream of rice 

→ Instant oats 

→ White potato 

→ Bagels  

→ White bread   

→ Cereals

HOW MUCH FAT SHOULD YOU EAT POST-WORKOUT?

Again, we want to keep fat lower post-workout.   

You don’t get any benefits as far as refilling glycogen stores or stimulating MPS from eating fat, and it can potentially slow the digestion of your carbs and protein, slowing the delivery of these nutrients to your recovering muscles. 

That said, this also isn't the biggest deal - the difference in gains made from eating 10g of fat in your post-workout meal vs. 30g is likely so small it wouldn't even be measurable.

So for online clients who's post-workout meal is typically dinner with their family (and usually a bit higher in fat), we typically instruct to not stress the extra bit of fat - just be sure to hit your protein and carb targets here as well.

RECOMMENDATIONS:  

If you want to optimize every detail, keeping this <20g of fat is likely a good idea. But again, just being sure to get plenty of carbs and protein is much more important than the amount of fat here.

HOW LONG AFTER WORKING OUT SHOULD YOU EAT?

Again, how soon you need to eat post-workout is very dependent on what your pre-workout meal looked like.

→ Eat as soon as possible if... you're training fasted.

You're ok to wait 1-2 hours if... You ate a pre-workout meal that fit the above guidelines.

Really, I like Alan Aragon's recommendation here...

Make sure there is no more than 3-5 hours between eating your pre-workout meal and your post-workout meal.

TL;DR - THE OPTIMAL POST-WORKOUT MEAL

PROTEIN: 20-40g of protein from a quick digesting, high leucine source like protein powder, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, or egg whites.

CARBS: At least .25-.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight from a quick digesting source like white rice, rice cakes, cream of rice, instant oats, or bagels. Try to get 1/2 (or more) of your daily carb intake fit into the pre and post-workout meals.

FAT: Much less important than ensuring you have plenty of carbs and protein in this meal. But could be slightly more optimal to have <20g.

TIMING:

→ Eat as soon as possible if... you're training fasted. 

→ You're ok to wait 1-2 hours if... You ate a pre-workout meal that fit the above guidelines.

→ Don't let there be more than 3-5 hours between your pre-workout and post-workout meal.

And that's the science-backed way to most effectively fuel your training and recovery with your pre and post-workout meals.

These are the same science-backed strategies we implement with our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process.  

If you're ready to be coached 1-1 by our team to your best physique ever, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.


about the author

Jeremiah Bair is a certified nutrition coach, strength coach, and owner of the online coaching business Bairfit. Check out his Podcast and Instagram  for more educational content.

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