What is Best for Pre-workout & Post-workout Meals?


by Sean Nalewanyj

What is the best pre workout meal to consume before your weight training workout? A proper pre workout meal should accomplish two basic things:

1.) Maximize performance during the training session. This is the single most important factor. If your strength and energy levels are near their peak while you train, you’ll be able to create the most powerful muscle building growth stimulus possible.

2.) Provide the raw materials needed to assist muscle recovery and growth for when the session is over. Though most people will generally consider this to be the job of their post workout meal, this is not entirely accurate. Because nutrient absorption is such a gradual process, it is actually the nutrients from your pre-workout meal that are being broken down and absorbed after your training session is over. How do we accomplish these two goals? Let’s break it down into simple terms.

Best Pre Workout Meal: What To Eat

An effective pre-workout meal does not need to contain anything complicated or fancy. A basic combination of high quality protein and carbohydrates will easily get the job done. The protein will provide your body with the amino acids needed to facilitate recovery and growth following the session, while the carbohydrates will provide your muscles and brain with the energy needed to optimize performance. Any high quality protein source will work here. Whey protein is ideal because it’s light on the stomach and is high in branched-chain amino acid content, but if you prefer chicken, fish or red meat that’s fine too. As for carbohydrates, a minimum of 20-30 grams from any basic source is acceptable. Fruit, pasta, oatmeal, rice – it’s really up to you.

Here are 2 other quick points to take into consideration:

1.) I would generally recommend that you keep the fat content of your pre-workout meal on the lower end. Fats slow down the movement of foods from the stomach to the small intestine which may increase the chances of feeling bloated/sluggish during your workout.

2.) Though some people swear by it, I don’t believe that training in a fasted state is going to be ideal for the majority of people. A pre-workout meal will maximize overall intensity and performance, ward off potential unwanted muscle loss and increase post workout fat burning due to an increase in thermogenesis.

That said, if you prefer fasted training for whatever reason, 10g or more of a BCAA supplement taken prior to the session may be useful to maximize performance. (Though technically this no longer qualifies as being truly fasted since BCAA’s do have caloric value)

Best Pre Workout Meal: When To Eat It

The specific time that you consume your pre workout meal is largely an issue of personal preference. The bottom line is to eat your pre workout meal at whatever time allows for the best strength, energy and stomach comfort for you. For most people, around 1.5 – 2 hours pre-workout is going to work best. If you prefer it, an even longer time frame is fine. Any sooner than this and there’s a good chance you’ll end up feeling bloated or even nauseous during the session. Intense training causes the body to divert blood away from the stomach and to the working muscles. As a result, any food in the stomach will simply sit there undigested. For that reason, a plate of chicken and rice 30 minutes before hitting the gym is probably not the best idea.

Best Pre Workout Meal: Quick Review

As you can see, structuring an effective pre workout nutrition approach is pretty straightforward.

Here’s a quick recap:

a.) Consume a high quality protein and carbohydrate source at least 1.5 – 2 hours prior to your workout. If you prefer to wait longer, that’s fine.
b.) Keep the fat content of the meal on the lower end.
c.) Fasted training is generally not recommended for the majority of people. If you do decide to train without consuming food, take in at least 10g of a BCAA supplement instead.

Best Post Workout Meal: What To Eat

Post workout nutrition has become like a religion in bodybuilding circles. Known as the “window of opportunity”, the 3-4 hour period immediately following a workout session is considered a critical time to provide your body with high quality protein and carbs to support muscle growth. Ask almost any “bodybuilding expert” out there, and they’ll tell you that in order to maximize your gains, you must consume a high protein/high carb “post workout shake” immediately after your workout, followed by another solid food meal an hour or so later.

But is post workout nutrition really all it’s cracked up to be? What is the best post workout meal? First off, let me refute 2 of the major claims made by those who continue to emphasize the “critical importance” of post workout nutrition.

Post Workout Nutrition Myths

Claim #1: You must consume a liquid protein shake immediately following your workout.

The reality is that protein digestion is a very slow and gradual process. Even the fastest absorbing proteins are still only released at a rate of about 8-10 grams per hour. What this means is that if you consumed a pre-workout meal within a couple hours of your training session, that same protein is still being broken down and utilized both during and after your workout. For that reason, consuming a new serving of protein immediately after your workout is simply unnecessary.

Claim #2: You must consume a serving of simple carbohydrates along with your protein shake in order to restore glycogen levels and “spike your insulin”.

Glycogen levels are only depleted by a maximum of about 30% after an intense weight training workout. Even then, there is no need to immediately replenish those levels unless you were training the same muscle groups again on the same day. As for “spiking insulin” levels, proteins elicit a significant insulin response from the body on their own, making additional carbohydrate consumption far less important than most people think.

Given these two points, it’s fairly clear that there is no need to immediately consume a post workout meal after your training session is over. Your body still has ample protein in circulation and glycogen levels do not need to be replenished. Now, I’m NOT saying that you shouldn’t eat a post workout meal; all I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be consumed right away. You certainly want to provide your body with some high quality protein and carbohydrates to facilitate recovery and growth… but if your appetite isn’t there yet, don’t feel bad waiting a couple hours.

So What Is The Best Post Workout Meal?

Well, you really don’t need to over complicate things here. Your 2 basic goals are:

a.) Elevate insulin levels in order to halt muscle breakdown.
b.) Provide the body with amino acids to stimulate protein synthesis.

There’s no need for some fancy, high-tech concoction of special foods, “high glycemic carbs” and specific fats in order to accomplish this. The best post workout meal will firstly be based on a high quality protein source. Whey will be the ideal choice here due to its strong amino acid profile and bio-availability, but ultimately any standard protein source will do. Beef, chicken, fish, eggs, lean pork, seafood. Any of these are completely fine choices. The second component of the best post workout meal will simply be any carbohydrate source you’d like.

You don’t need anything specific here. Rice, yams, potatoes, oatmeal, pita… whatever goes best with your protein. If you do want to go with a standard post-workout shake of whey protein and simple sugars, that’s also fine too. It’s really up to you. I personally don’t have much of an appetite following workouts and find that a post-workout shake fits nicely for me. So, that’s really all there is to it when it comes to the issue of the “best post workout meal”.

As long as you consume a good pre-workout meal about 1.5-2 hours prior to your training session followed by a post workout meal of high quality protein/carbs within a couple hours of your workout, you’re good to go. This combination will provide your body with a sufficient stream of amino acids, sugars and micronutrients to maximize muscle recovery and growth. You can continue to obsess about nitty-gritty details beyond this, but the only thing it’s likely going to do is unnecessarily over-complicate your nutrition plan.

Are Post-workout Carbs Necessary?

Dextrose, waxy maize, maltodextrin…

The practice of consuming huge doses of simple post workout carbs has pretty much become a religion in bodybuilding circles. You finish your workout, you mix up a post workout shake consisting of whey protein and “rapidly absorbing carbs”, and you make sure to consume it immediately following your training session. Consuming post workout carbs in the form of simple sugars seems to be a logical move. After all, your glycogen levels need to be re-elevated, and you need to “spike your insulin” in order to increase the absorption of your post workout protein.

Well, not so fast. While there is certainly nothing wrong with consuming simple carbohydrates after your workout, it’s not the critical bodybuilding “must” that virtually everyone has made it out to be. Let me dissect this myth for you in 2 simple steps.

2 Post Workout Carb Myths Debunked

First of all, a standard weight training workout does not deplete glycogen levels to any significant degree. Unless you’re performing exhaustive endurance work, your glycogen levels will only be depleted by a maximum of about 30% after an intense weight training session. And unless you were planning on training those same muscle groups again in the next 24 hours or so, this is really of no practical concern. This may be a legit issue for hard-training athletes who work out multiple times per day, but not for the average bodybuilder.

Because of this, the idea that you must immediately replenish these glycogen levels is simply false. By finishing your workout and resuming your regular nutrition plan, those glycogen levels will be naturally re-elevated and ready for your next workout. Secondly, the notion that insulin levels must be “spiked” in order to maximize nutrient absorption is unfounded to begin with. The reality is that the body always keeps blood sugar and insulin levels within a fairly precise range regardless of the specific foods (or amounts of those foods) you consume.

Not only that, but most high protein foods elicit a significant insulin response from the body in the same way that carbohydrates do. For example, beef has an insulin score of 51, which is around the same as that of brown rice, brown pasta or rye bread. Whey protein is also highly insulinogenic. With these 2 points out of the way, it should be pretty clear why slamming 80 grams of maltodextrin post workout is simply unnecessary. There is no need to immediately replenish your glycogen, nor is there any need to “spike” your insulin levels.

Is consuming simple post workout carbs going to hurt you?

No. That’s not what I’m saying. If you prefer it, and if it fits into your daily carbohydrate requirements, a liquid post workout carb source is totally fine. It’s convenient and is an easy source of carbs for those on higher calorie diets. In addition, many people find that they don’t have much of an appetite following workouts, and this is where liquid carbs can come in handy as well. The point here is merely to demonstrate that post workout simple sugars are not a necessity.

Whether you consume dextrose, maltodextrin, brown rice or potatoes, it’s not going to make any practical difference to your bottom line muscle gains. Keep your pre and post workout nutrition simple. Get in a good source of high quality protein and carbohydrates within a couple hours of hitting the gym, followed by the same thing within a couple hours of completing your workout.

About the Author:
Once an awkward, out-of-shape “social outcast”, Sean Nalewanyj is now a renowned fat loss and muscle building expert, best-selling fitness author and success coach. Through his mega-popular websites and his information-packed online email lessons, Sean has helped tens of thousands of average, everyday people from all over the world burn fat, build muscle and get into the best shape of their lives. Sean is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, has written articles for dozens of the top muscle-building and fat loss websites across the Internet and is recognized as an expert authority on the subjects of building muscle and burning fat fast.