There is a lot of confusing information about workout nutrition out there that can make it nearly impossible to figure out how much protein to take or if carbs are beneficial, let alone whether other supplements can support your results.
That’s why we’ve put together this quick and easy guide to workout nutrition—it’s the perfect tool for making sure your hard work doesn’t go to waste.
Because different training goals require slightly different nutrition practices, this guide will give you tips to match each goal.
Part 1: Workout Nutrition for Fat Loss
The goal is to consume the most nutrient-dense food that allows you to avoid hunger and cravings, while supporting efficient energy metabolism so that you feel energized and motivated for intense workouts.
#1. Your number one priority should be to establish sane, simple, sustainable nutrition habits. Plan all your meals and eat a higher protein diet centered on whole foods such as meat, fish, eggs, plan yogurt, nuts, beans, vegetables, and fruit.
#2. You don’t need to eat carbs pre-workout for “energy.” It’s highly likely your muscle glycogen stores are full as long as you have a fairly normal and consistent eating pattern (which is highly recommended for anyone who wants to lose fat). Muscle glycogen provides more than enough fuel for an hour workout.
#3: Eating carbs post-workout is not necessary. Nothing bad will happen to you if you don’t eat carbs post-workout if you prefer to save them for later or are simply on a lower carb diet. But after training is a good time for carbs if you enjoy them…
#4: Post-workout is one of the best times to eat higher carb foods (anything besides green vegetables and low-glycemic fruits), for the following reasons:
• Your metabolism is elevated and you’ll be burning calories at a faster rate.
• The body will use carbs to replenish muscle glycogen instead of storing them as fat.
• The increase in insulin caused by carbs has a protective antioxidant effect on muscle because insulin helps suppress inflammatory products that you produce during training. (Still, carbs are not essential because foods high in protein will also elevate insulin).
• Eating higher glycemic carbs after training can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can improve body composition over time. But, you could also reduce cortisol by eating a lower glycemic meal (veggies, select fruits, protein), so again, high-carb foods aren’t a must. They’re a choice.
#5: At night is another beneficial time to eat higher carb foods because they will calm the nervous system down and can help you go to sleep. If you’re on a low-carb meal plan, you may want to save your higher carb foods for dinner. This comes down to what works best for your individual genetics and sanity.
#6: Supplemental protein can be useful when trying to lose body fat because it’s a practical way of meeting your protein goal daily, but it’s not necessary if you prefer to get your protein from food.
#7: Opt for about 20 grams of whey protein that is free of added sugar when using protein post-workout. Whey protein is a far superior protein source for all goals, and it is especially useful for fat loss for the following reasons:
• Highest thermic effect of all protein sources—whey causes the body to burn more calories during digestion than other proteins such as casein or plant-based proteins.
• Improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance over the long-term despite causing a large release of insulin. This effect improves metabolism: One study found that overweight men who supplemented with whey lost body fat despite changing nothing else about their diet, exercise, or lifestyle habits.
• Reduces hunger and leads people to eat fewer calories at subsequent meals.
#8: Drinking caffeinated coffee before training can boost mood, reduce muscle soreness post-workout, and help you get the most out of your workouts—all factors that support the goals of fat loss. Three points to consider:
1) Caffeine can interfere with sleep. If this is you, don’t use it—sleep is paramount for fat loss.
2) Coffee can increase anxiety in some people. If this is you, avoid it because this has to do with how coffee influences cortisol release.
3) Caffeine probably needs to be cycled to get the greatest effect, with habitual users getting minimal benefit.
Part 2: Workout Nutrition to Build Muscle
The goal is to eat a high-protein diet that concentrates on essential amino acid consumption around workouts and spread protein intake out over the course of the day so as to continually stimulate protein synthesis for lean mass gains. Supplements aren’t necessary but can be beneficial and convenient.
#9: To build muscle, prioritize a nutrient-rich, high-protein diet, and training that is smart (programmed progressively), hard (produces metabolic stress), and intense (overloads the neuromuscular system).
#10: The purpose of carbs when building muscle is to replenish glycogen stores, provide calories, and support hormone balance and neurotransmitter function. Carbs do not trigger protein synthesis and an insulin spike is not necessary post-workout.
#11: Get enough carbs (either through diet or supplementation) to replenish glycogen stores after intense training so that your energy levels are topped off for your next workout. Glycogen storage takes time—a pre-workout carb meal isn’t going to do much for glycogen.
#12: Timing your carb intake is most important if you train multiple times a day and/or are very active (an athlete or training for an endurance sport). In these cases, take advantage of the 60-minute post-workout “window” to restore glycogen by consuming fast-digesting, simple carbs.
#13: If you train less frequently—say, every other day—precise carb timing is less important. Just be sure to reach your total daily carb goal and prioritize eating carbs at some point in the hours after training or in the evening.
#14: Shoot for above 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.
#15: Eat high-quality protein at every meal and in the few hours before and after training to provide a steady supply of amino acids for protein synthesis. For example, taking supplemental protein can enhance muscle protein synthesis by as much as 150 percent, and because resistance exercise stimulates the body to build muscle for up to 48 hours, you can enhance that process by continually eating the optimal protein dose.
#16: Whey protein is a superior supplemental protein source, providing the greatest array of amino acids for protein synthesis. It is the most rapidly digested protein, allowing the amino acids to hit the muscle very quickly, making it preferable to casein, or plant-based proteins.
#17: For younger trainees (under 40), about 20 grams of protein will maximally stimulate protein synthesis post-workout. Older trainees (over 40) need more—possibly as much as 40 grams of protein for maximal protein synthesis.
#18: A high concentration of the amino acid leucine is most important for older trainees to trigger protein synthesis. Research shows that with a post-workout whey shake that had 41 percent leucine, men over aged 50 experienced protein synthesis rates that were equal to that of 20-year-olds, whereas with only 26 percent leucine there was no increase in protein synthesis over baseline in the older men.
#19: If it doesn’t keep you awake, get protein before bedtime to sustain protein synthesis overnight. A study of young men found that taking protein at 11:30 p.m. before subjects went to bed increased protein synthesis by 25 percent and it was maintained all night.
#20: Try creatine. Supplementing with between 5 and 20 grams of creatine has been shown to double muscle gains (one review found an extra 2 to 4 pounds of muscle mass gained during 4 to 12 weeks of training in athletes).
#21: Get enough fish oil. It’s possible you could get all the DHA and EPA omega-3 fats you need from your diet, but for anyone who isn’t eating fish or grass-fed meat frequently, supplemental fish oil can reduce inflammation, improve protein synthesis, and boost insulin sensitivity, which have all been found to improve protein synthesis in studies.
#22: Use caffeine from green tea or coffee. Caffeine can help you get more out of workouts because it reduces pain, boosts neurotransmitter production for greater drive, and reduces muscle soreness and strength loss.
For example, women who took 20 grams of green tea powder in conjunction with a total body training program gained 3.1 kg more lean mass and boosted leg press 1RM by 23 kg more than a placebo group.
#23: Eat blueberries & tart cherries. Blueberries, tart cherries, and similar antioxidant-rich fruits can speed recovery after you thrash your muscles, whether from lifting massive loads or doing repeated sprints.
For example, after trainees did 300 muscle destroying eccentric leg extensions and then drank blueberry juice, they performed better on strength tests on the two recovery days after training. They also had less oxidative stress. Tart cherry juice has similar benefits, and it raises melatonin for better sleep.
Part 3: Workout Nutrition To Improve Athletic Performance
Workout nutrition for peak athletic performance must be specific to the energy requirements of the sport. Supplemental protein and carbs provide fast-digesting nutrition for quick assimilation.
In addition to the ergogenic aids listed under the muscle building section (creatine, antioxidant-rich dark-colored fruits, omega-3 fats, green tea, and coffee), a few effective ergogenic aids that can enhance athleticism are included below.
#24: Focus on eating the most nutrient-dense foods possible: Whole protein from meat, fish, and dairy, high-quality fat from coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, butter, and avocados, and complex carbs from all veggies and fruit. Use beans and grains to pad carb intake when necessary if they suit you.
#25: For peak sports performance lasting longer than 30 minutes, supplemental carbs can be useful to improve nervous system drive even when glycogen stores are not depleted. Carbs may be most indicated for precision sports such as gymnastics or soccer—one study found that when elite female gymnasts took carbs after an exhaustive circuit they had fewer falls during subsequent balance beam training because their accuracy was better.
#26: You don’t necessarily have to consume the carbs to get the benefit: A carb mouth rinse that you spit out appears to be just as effective for boosting performance as ingesting carbs. There are receptors in your mouth that are able to sense the upcoming availability of glucose and communicate it to the brain even if the glucose isn’t present.
#27: Use fast-digesting whey protein to maximally triggers protein synthesis for tissue repair. Whey also improves muscle force performance during a second workout when two-a-days are done. Researchers encourage strength athletes to focus on consuming protein in close proximity to their exercise bout, especially during and after training.
#28: Eating 20 grams of protein at frequent meals (no more than 5 to 6 a day) will improve protein synthesis and recovery from intense athletic training.
#29: Use beta alanine to prolong all-out athletic performance in all strength and power sports, but especially those that require continued full body force production such as combat sports. Beta alanine stabilizes muscle pH by eliminating buffering hydrogen ions produced during energy metabolism.
#30: Take carnitine to improve work capacity by improving energy transfer in the body. Carnitine can increase blood flow, improve androgen hormone release, and help spare muscle glycogen during moderate intensity exercise by increasing fat burning, making it useful for both endurance and team sport athletes.