For decades we all huddled in the corners of the gym slamming our post workout shakes in a sacrificial offering to the gainz gods.
This was part of the bro bible, it infused us to our core.
Then we found out that the anabolic window probably wasn’t real and that you can get away with not eating for several hours.
Many called this the death of nutrient timing… but they missed something. Well actually, a lot of somethings.
They missed about 30 solid years of research showing that the important aspect of nutrient timing is before (and during) training, not after.
Yes, if you are chasing maximal gains and optimal performance you better start thinking about what you are eating before you train.
The Myth of Training Fasted
For decades people were prescribed fasted training, specifically cardio, to help maximize fat loss. This first got started because of an observation that when you haven’t eaten and you train at a low level of intensity your body oxidizes more fat for fuel than it does if you just ate.
While this is an interesting observation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this increased short term fat oxidation leads to greater fat loss.
A few years ago scientists actually investigated this claim and showed that 8 weeks of training fasted had no real benefit on changes in body fat when compared to training fed1. So it seems that right out of the gate we can kind of set aside the fact that going into training fasted and not fed has any real benefit on body composition.
So what does this tell us? It means that there is no real reason to not eat before exercise. So any rationalization you tell yourself about how you aren’t eating before training so you can stay lean is just not supported by the evidence.
More Training = More Gains
Broscience lore from the past 50-60 years circulated this idea that high volume training was the key to gains. Recently, broscience lore has largely been proven correct by a series of studies that have tried to examine what the best type of training is for muscle growth.
When you look at all these studies collectively you see that low-rep, high weight and high rep, moderate weight training yield almost identical results in terms of muscle growth when you account for total training volume (essentially the amount of work you do).
You are probably asking yourself, “this article is about workout nutrition so why is he debunking the training fasted myth and talking about training volume as key for gains”?
Excellent question! Let me tell you why. Based on those two things it is abundantly clear that your pre-workout nutrition needs to be focused on:
- Being fed going into training
- Maximizing the amount of work you can do in a given session*
*At some point the law of diminishing returns sets in and more volume is just more volume. I don’t think we have found the peak amount of volume yet though.
The World’s Most Ergogenic Aid
There have been countless studies on supplements that increase your work capacity in training (aka ergogenic aids) and I would probably guess that in the last 20 years more than 50 billion dollars has been spent on expensive pre workout supplements.
Despite fancy formulations and trying to find the newest pre-workout supplement there is one thing that has repeatedly been demonstrated to be a powerful ergogenic aid for long training sessions: The Mighty Carbohydrate.
Yes. I am telling you that pre workout carbohydrates are one of the best supplements on the planet for maximizing the quality of your training. Here is the how and why of how this works and what makes carbohydrates so key for training.
When you start exercising at an even fairly modest intensity your body starts using muscle glycogen to fuel your training and as time goes on you begin to use glucose from your blood to keep things moving along.
The glucose from your pre workout meal begins driving in your blood stream not too long after eating it and continues to show up for 1-2 hours after you eat. This provides that additional fuel directly to muscle tissue and keeps your training going2,3,4.
Armed with that knowledge we could probably guess that consuming carbohydrates right before or during training would increase performance and training capacity? Well, that is exactly what the science shows. There are very clear performance benefits of consuming carbohydrates before or during training5,6.
Protein Makes Carbohydrates Even Better
We just hammered the point that carbs are the bee’s knees for improving training capacity and increasing work volume, but it appears that protein can make carbohydrates even better at increasing performance during training and might help augment recovery.
In terms of outcomes, consuming protein before training, especially when combined with carbohydrates has been shown to improve muscle growth7. Even without carbohydrates, consuming protein alone before training can improve muscle protein synthesis8. So even if you aren’t slamming back bananas or Gatorade, a little whey before training goes a long way.
How Much Do I Need Before Training?
So, now we know you need some carbohydrates and protein before training to maximize your training capacity, recovery, and your gainz. But how many grams do you need to eat?
This can either be really, really complicated, or super easy depending on how crazy you want to get. To get ~95% of the benefit follow this simple heuristic:
If you are training using a body part split, consume about 20 grams of protein and roughly 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates around 30-60 minutes before training.
If you are training using a full body routine and it is an extended training session (>90 minutes), consume about 40 grams of protein and roughly 120 to 160 grams of carbohydrates around 30-60 minutes before training.
It really doesn’t need to be much more complicated than that.
Post Workout Nutrition Isn’t Really Dead
Ok, I may have gotten a little bit carried away in the introduction. Post workout nutrition is actually far from dead. The study people often cite looks at muscle growth, strength, and a very “binary” view of if protein was consumed within 2 hours or not, not anything else specifically9. When you actually look at the rest of the parameters, post workout matters quite a bit8.
When we talk about where post workout nutrition really matters one word comes to mind: RECOVERY.
One of the most well documented aspects of sports nutrition is that consuming carbohydrates within 30-60 minutes of training allows your muscle glycogen to recover faster than if you wait a few hours. So while your muscle growth might not be directly hampered by waiting a bit for protein, your muscle glycogen is definitely not filling up very quickly if you skip the carbs.
If you consume ~0.5-0.7 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight within 30 minutes of training you are covered and are doing what you need to do to ensure you start the recovery process off the right way10.
Also, it doesn’t really matter if those carbs are your super secret liquid shake, or a solid meal with rice or potatoes. Both will work just fine to help you maximize recovery11.
Not only does it look like post workout nutrition aides recovery but it actually can matter for your gainz, it just doesn’t have to be immediately after. In a review of nutrient time, Kerksick et al. concluded that consuming protein and carbohydrates (in amounts similar to the pre-workout recommendations above) helps increase muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth6.
The Wrap Up
Pre-workout nutrition is probably more important than post workout nutrition as it is one of the easiest ways to make sure your training quality and quantity is maximized. Carbohydrates are critical for maintaining high workloads and protein can augment carbohydrates and aid in recovery.
Consuming ~20 grams of protein alongside ~60-80 grams of carbohydrates before a normal workout can set you up really nicely. For longer, more intense sessions ~40 grams of protein and ~120-160 grams of carbohydrates is a little more optimal.
While pre-workout probably matters more, post workout is also a key aspect to optimize your recovery and your muscle growth.
The window for post workout carbohydrate consumption maximizing glycogen recovery is shorter, at about 30-60 minutes, while protein consumption for muscle growth has a wider window of 1-3 hours (maybe even out to 4 or 6).
- Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise
- Regulation of endogenous fat and carbohydrate metabolism in relation to exercise intensity and duration.
- The effects of increasing exercise intensity on muscle fuel utilisation in humans
- Substrate metabolism during different exercise intensities in endurance-trained women.
- A systematic review and meta-analysis of carbohydrate benefits associated with randomized controlled competition-based performance trials
- International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient timing
- Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy.
- Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength.
- The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis
- Glycogen resynthesis after exercise: effect of carbohydrate intake.
- Influence of liquid and solid meals on muscle glycogen resynthesis, plasma fuel hormone response, and maximal physical working capacity.