Anyone with a little common sense and a decent amount of training experience knows that workout nutrition is not that complicated.
Unfortunately, what you should put in your mouth and when it needs to happen has been confused by outrageous claims from sports nutrition marketers and uninformed individuals.
Add to that the ridiculous dietary information coming from the media, and you’re in for some serious workout nutrition madness.
This article will tell you what we know for sure based on the research and provide practically-based workout nutrition pointers for a lean and muscular life.
#1: The perfect diet varies for each person and is informed by genetics. Same goes for the ideal workout nutrition plan—it’s individual and should be based on all the following factors:
• Training status plays a huge role in dictating nutrition needs. Untrained, deconditioned individuals have vastly different nutrition needs from physique-oriented trainees or elite athletes.
For example, if you’re untrained, your focus should be strictly on eating high-quality whole food at meals. For athletes, workout nutrition is a priority that should supplement diet.
• Gender. Women burn more fat during exercise than men, which means they will use as much as 25 percent less muscle glycogen, so refueling guidelines are different.
• Age. Both quality and quantity of protein are more important for older trainees than youngsters.
• Volume, intensity, and training mode. If you’re trying to lose fat, training in a state of low glycogen is not a bad thing, whereas if your goal is long-distance performance, low glycogen is bad news.
• Training fasted or fed. Eating before working out makes during-workout nutrition unnecessary unless you’re doing an ultra-distance event. Working out on an empty stomach increases the benefit of immediate post-workout nutrition.
#2: How to apply individual needs to achieve fat loss if you’re a novice.
Focus on getting high-quality protein (10 grams of essential amino acids), beneficial fat, and vegetables at every meal.
Depending on how frequently you’re eating, you may benefit from one post-workout shake (preferably whey protein) with about 20 grams of protein and zero sugar or carbs.
Also, there’s no need for pre-workout carbs because muscle glycogen stores will have already been replenished by previous meals. Other workout nutrition supplements, such as caffeine, carnitine, creatine, or beta alanine are all “icing on the cake” and shouldn’t be considered until you’ve got your diet dialed in.
#3: How to apply individual needs to lose body fat if you’re an experienced trainee.
Focus on the nutrition goals listed above with the following variations:
Assuming you’re doing high volume training that will induce muscle soreness, take 20 to 30 grams of protein (preferably whey) post workout. Please note that this recommendation is for fat loss, not mass gaining.
There’s no need for supplemental carbs unless you are training twice-a-day and doing exhaustive workouts. High-intensity training with moderate volume (6 to 9 sets per muscle group) has been shown to reduce glycogen by up to 39 percent.
Assuming, workouts are at least 24 hours apart and you are eating carbohydrates (say, upwards of 100 grams a day) glycogen can easily be restored without strategic carbohydrate supplementation.
#4: How to use protein when trying to put on muscle.
A review of studies suggests that if you eat a high-quality protein meal pre-workout, getting protein either in a shake or meal in the 30 to 60 minute “window” of opportunity after training is not necessary unless you are an advanced trainee such as a body builder.
But, the realities of a busy life make not eating in the few hours before training a common practice. If this is you, post-workout nutrition is well worth it to promote recovery and prevent catabolic processes. The best source is fast-digesting whey protein to promote muscle growth.
If you ate a protein-rich meal before training, post-workout you can go for either whey protein or a high-protein meal containing 10 grams of essential amino acids any time in the 2 hours after your workout.
What if you ate a meal pre-workout and were planning on eating a full meal 2 hours after training—should you take whey protein?
Go for it. This is where individual needs and common sense come in. If it doesn’t suit you for some reason (too busy, can’t afford it, don’t like it, are allergic to protein powder, forgot it at home, you’d rather eat real food, or your dog ate it), don’t take it. You won’t start losing muscle or massively delay recovery.
#5: Specific nutrition strategies to get the most out of muscle building workouts:
• Always eat high-quality protein before and after training, Pair protein-rich foods with beneficial fats and antioxidant-rich green vegetables and possibly fruit or starchy veggies for carbs.
• Shoot for upwards of 1.6 g/kg of bodyweight of protein a day. Up to 2.4 g/kg a day may be beneficial for packing on muscle.
For example, a 12-week 2005 study of college football players who were doing high volume training and eating a 2.36g/kg dose of protein daily produced an average increase in lean mass at 1.1 kg. A smaller protein group (1.2g/kg) gained no muscle.
One thing that may have prevented larger muscle gains was that overall calorie intake was a bit low based on the volume of training and activity performed by the football players.
• Strategically increasing your protein intake to coincide with muscle building phases is indicated by the literature. Research that shows that in studies that test the effect of multiple protein intakes on muscular growth, there is evidence of a “protein change” effect.
In practice this means that increasing protein intake by at least 60 percent over normal during a muscle building training phase will produce superior gains.
The amount you should increase protein intake will depend on what you normally eat. For example, if you’re eating 1.5g/kg of protein, you could easily bump that up to 2.4g/kg and expect to experience greater growth with training than if you just increased to 1.8 g/kg because the “change” is 60 percent.
But, if you’re already at 2g/kg, you have little room to increase protein much without serious force feeding. This reality makes the idea of cycling protein to coincide with high volume training an option, though it has not been tested in studies.
• Whey protein is not only fast digesting; it produces superior muscular development over other protein sources such as casein, soy, or rice protein.
• Make it a priority to get as much of your protein from high-quality food sources. Supplement to reach the daily intake goals.
If you need to supplement more than the 20 or 30 grams post-workout, try dosing protein every 3 hours on training days because this was found to sustain muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than taking 10 grams every 1.5 hours, or 40 grams every 6 hours.
#6: How to use carbs when trying to put on muscle.
First, let’s review when carbs are not necessary: They aren’t needed to trigger protein synthesis or produce an insulin spike.
For example, recent study found there was no difference in muscle protein synthesis or protein balance when 25 grams of whey protein or the same dose of whey with 50 grams of carbs were supplemented after strength training.
Many trainees think the extra insulin spike from carbs will further enhance muscle building, but this is not supported by the research.
However, it is possible that taking carbs with protein over the longer term has some additive effect on muscle gains by enhancing the hormonal environment.
Plus, carbs add calories, which can be essential if you’re an extremely active athlete like the football players mentioned above who weren’t hitting their recommended calorie intake.
#7: How to use carbs for athletic performance.
Consuming carbs during training can improve central nervous system drive, boosting performance even in cases when glycogen stores are not depleted.
For example, when elite female gymnasts took carbs after an exhaustive circuit they had fewer falls during subsequent balance beam training than a placebo. Precision and focus was better, and the carbs allowed the gymnasts to overcome the limiting factor of reduced neuromuscular activity.
You don’t necessarily have to consume the carbs to get the brain-body performance benefit either. Using a carbohydrate mouth rinse in which you take a carb solution into your mouth and then spit it out appears to be just as effective as ingesting the carbs.
Scientist think there are receptors in the oral cavity that are able to sense the upcoming availability of glucose and communicate it towards the brain even if additional glucose is not present. This allows for greater central drive from the brain so that you can keep going.
#8: What Foods to Eat & What to Avoid Before Training
There are some things you simply shouldn’t eat before asking your body to perform at a high level during a workout because they either produce an inferior metabolic response, or they cause other gut or brain issues.
Here’s what to avoid before training:
• Sports drinks that contain sugar in any form whether it’s high-fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, or sucrose.
• Foods that are high in fructose because they reduce the body’s use of fat for fuel and can cause problems in the gut during training. Fermentable fruits such as apples and pears are not ideal.
• Foods that are fermented in the gut are generally not well tolerated during training. These include wheat, most grains, beans, and for some people, dairy.
• Huge amounts of caffeine and other stimulants because they can stress the adrenals, which will only cause problems in the long run. Caffeine can radically enhance performance, but you don’t need all that much—1 to 4 mg/kg of bodyweight will do the trick.
• Proteins that contain problematic nutrients such as beans, milk (whey protein is generally not a problem because high-quality sources will be lactose free), and fatty animal products.
Beans contain a type of carb called a-galactosides, which we don’t digest but the gut bacteria will. Therefore, when you eat them, you feed the beneficial gut bacteria, but you also may have gut issues in the process.
Milk contains lactose, which is not easily digested by some people.
Some animal protein sources like bacon, cheese, and fatty meats contain large amounts of saturated fat, which take a longer time to digest. But, if they suit you, go for it.
Here’s what to eat pre-workout:
Lean meat and fish tend to be your best protein choice because these foods don’t contain other nutrients that cause problems. If you’re okay with lactose, Greek yogurt is a good, “quick” protein source.
Useful fat sources for cooking are those that are easily used by the body like medium chain triglycerides such as coconut oil. They bypass digestion and are absorbed directly into the liver to be used as an energy source.
The omega-3 fats in fish are also recommended because they are anti-inflammatory and enhance blood flow.
Nuts are another good fat source since they don’t contain other compounds that are more challenging for the body to deal with.
Vegetables and low-fructose fruit take a while to digest but they tend to be tolerated well as long as you don’t eat large amounts. They do contain water and fiber, both of which may be disagreeable when training, in which case don’t eat them.
#9: What To Eat After Training
If you’re eating low-carb, or just generally mindful about carbs, this is the time to eat them, especially if you want to eat high-sugar carbs.
You probably depleted glycogen somewhat while training so the carbs you eat will go to replenish them rather than be stored as fat. Higher fructose fruits such as pears, apples, and grapes are generally okay as well.
If you’re doing twice-a-day training, competing in a tournament, or did endurance exercise for longer than 90 minutes, consuming a carb supplement, or eating fast digesting carbs such as white potato, sweet potato, yam, or white rice is indicated. Pair it with high-quality protein for faster glycogen repletion.
Animal protein provides a greater array of amino acids than plant protein, making it ideal—beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and wild game are all good options. Plant protein sources are recommended as condiments or for variety.
Caffeine should generally be avoided, especially if you consumed it pre-workout, in order to give the adrenals a rest.
High-antioxidant foods such as green veggies and dark colored fruits are highly recommended because they will reduce oxidative stress and accelerate recovery.