If you lift weights, you've got to fuel your body — but no matter what you pick, chances are somebody at your gym will tell you your choice of snack is the wrong one. So what is the "right" thing to eat? And does it really matter when?
Illustration by Elena Scotti/GMG.
How Food Fuels Your Workout
To be absolutely clear, we're talking about nutrition around workouts that involve lifting weights. If you're going for a long run, a bike ride, or a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout along the beach, your nutritional needs will likely differ.
And the truth is, not everyone needs to eat before a workout, especially if it's just a light workout. Most of us simply don't train hard or frequently enough to warrant a five-course meal prior, and your body already has energy stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
"The advantage of getting calories [around your] workout is that they will 'spare' some of these internal stores and prolong your time to exhaustion," says Trevor Kashey, PhD, a biochemist and nutrition consultant.
Other factors that depend on whether you should eat and how much to eat are:
- How long ago was your last meal
- How much body fat you have
- Underlying health conditions and medications
- How long your workout will be
- When you work out
More simply, if you're doing regular heavy strength training and trying to get super strong, eating something before your workout gives you more energy to get the most out of your workout and helps prime your body for speedy recovery after. Kashey adds:
I would much rather the athlete have the energy to train by eating beforehand than being a zombie through a training session and then having a massive meal after. That never made much sense to me. It makes more sense to take out an 'insurance policy' on a higher quality workout. Higher quality training sessions will yield higher quality results over time.
In other words, you'll feel better prepared to put in the work and squeeze out a few extra reps. That extra effort (intensity) and additional rep or two can make a difference in your overall progress and results down the road. So eat if you feel like your workout could suffer if you don't.
What to Eat Before a Workout
We often forget that there should be a greater emphasis on you, you, you when it comes to what to eat. In that sense, there are two primary concerns that only you can address. First, is what you're eating keeping your guts happy and comfortable? Because if the food makes you feel bloated, gassy, and gross, it's not right for you, no matter what that one dude at the gym said.
Before we get to actual food ideas, there's a second consideration: the size of your meal. The first stages of digestion can take between six and eight hours, and the last thing you want is to have your meal uncomfortably sloshing around in your stomach when you're trying to squat. If your workout is happening in two-ish hours, keep your meal small.
Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a board certified family and obesity medicine physician, says that he usually prescribes an easily digestible protein-rich meal within two hours of his patient's lifting session. This could be a protein shake with a piece of fruit of some sort or a Greek yogurt topped with berries and a bit of granola. If it's not too heavy, protein from an animal or plant-based source is fine, too, adds Dr. Nadolsky. For other ideas, Kashey provides these guidelines:
If you're closer to training (about 45 minutes), you'll want to prioritise foods that are easily digested and quickly absorbed. This may be something like a banana and a protein supplement. Assuming you have a warm-up period, this really turns out being about 30 minutes before you walk in the door of the gym and your warmup period.
The further you are from training (maybe up to the 90 minute mark), you'll want to prioritise a slower digesting meal to tide you over. Or, in other words, a typical meal with a typical distribution of nutrients.
Some people like to eat during the workout, which isn't usually necessary. Some exceptions are if you're training hard for longer than two hours, you haven't been eating enough calories (to lose weight perhaps), you feel like your energy is flagging, and/or your training program is highly demanding. If this is you, Kashey recommends a quick carbohydrate source like Gatorade or straight sugar (like maltodextrin) mixed with easy-to-digest whey protein.
Just please don't eat a whole turkey sub while you're sitting in the squat rack.
What to Eat After Your Workout
Lifters among hardcore circles might tell you to immediately slam a protein shake after your workout or you can say goodbye to your hard work! No, your muscles won't shrivel up and die if you don't eat immediately after.
As this review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition explains, your post-workout meal is less important if you've already eaten a couple of hours beforehand, don't have another workout later in the day, and you're not a highly trained competitor. As long as you eat a meal rich in protein and carbohydrates eventually (up to three hours after your workout, according to Precision Nutrition), you'll be fine. More importantly, as Kashey noted:
A perfectly timed protein shake and not getting enough protein in isn't going to be as effective as making sure you get the total amount of protein you need. As a beginner, it's easy to feel like you are doing all of the right things when you focus on complicated stuff rather than fundamentals and be left frustrated months (or even years) later.
For some people, carbohydrates are simply better tolerated after their workout, notes Dr. Nadolsky, so it's a good time to fuel up with carbs. If you train in the morning and train fasted, then making sure you have carbohydrates after your workout can help with replenishing your glycogen stores; and, more importantly, giving you enough energy to be a productive human the rest of the day, says Kashey.
It's worth noting that you typically don't use up that much glycogen that you need to immediately replenish your stores. For it to be that urgent you need to be pushing really heavy weight and have another workout soon thereafter. Also, keep in mind that lifting weights doesn't burn as many calories during the activity itself, so if you overdo it on the post-workout meal, it's easier to gain weight (unless that is your goal).
Some ideas as a post-workout meal:
- Oatmeal topped with fruit and a nice omelet
- Turkey sandwich
- Medium-sized sweet potato, four ounces of lean steak, and veggies
- Grilled chicken burrito bowl (easy on the cheese, guac, and sour cream for fewer calories)
It can be anything as long as the calories fit within your day's needs, has ample protein (25+ grams or so), and is a good source of carbohydrates.
If you're just starting out and/or lifting for fun, don't overthink it. You'll make way more progress if you focus on eating enough protein, lifting hard and consistently, and managing your food intake according to your fitness goals.