Putting time in at the gym is an important part of gaining muscle, but a lot of us may not realize how equally important our pre- and post-workout nutrition is for maximizing our performance and fueling our recovery. Even for people who do recognize the significance of what they eat before and after the gym, what to eat and when to eat it can become a little complicated. How much protein should I eat? How important are carbohydrates? Do I need to drink a protein shake after my workout? When should I take in protein? Questions regarding muscle-building nutrition are on the minds of most amateur weightlifters, but only a few swallow their pride and ask. Let’s take a look at some pre- and post-workout eating tips that are an essential part of gaining muscle:

“To fuel, or not to fuel, that is the question!” Nutritionist Rania Batayneh, author of The One One One Diet, told Medical Daily in an email. “Oftentimes, I find that clients who work out early in the morning report that they skip a pre-workout snack. However, I recommend that they get something in their system. By eating and working out, you really give your body a “double” boost on your metabolism.”

Pre-Workout

In spite of dieting fads in the past that asked us to completely cut out carbohydrates from our diet, carbs before we workout are an important part of muscle building and a great way to fuel up. The key is differentiating between simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs, which are made up of one or two sugars, are quickly digested by the body. They can be found in processed cereals, candy, soda, or fruit juice and are clearly not an ideal source of nutritional value. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are made up of three or more sugars that are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They include oats, sweet potatoes, whole grains, broccoli, and spinach. Out of all three of the essential macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) carbs are crucial for pre-workout nutrition.    

Since it takes longer for the body to digest complex carbs, they help keep blood sugar and glycogen levels on an even keel. Glycogen, or the body’s storage of carbohydrates that is depleted as you workout, is essential to keeping your muscles fueled during an intense workout. Your first two to three meals of the day before your workout should include a balance of carbohydrates and protein (2:1 ratio), but remember not to overdo it. My personal recommendations include 4 egg whites, 3 turkey sausage links, and a cup of oatmeal for breakfast; 1 grilled chicken breast, three-quarter cups of brown rice, and a cup of vegetables for lunch; and a bowl of oatmeal mixed with a scoop of protein powder before my workout. Nutrition experts agree that a small carb-dense meal 30 to 60 minutes before your workout is optimal for keeping your muscles fueled up and getting a head start on post-workout muscle recovery.

Post-Workout

Now that we’ve got our workout for the day under our belt, let’s see what our nutritional options are after we leave the gym. For up to two hours after an intense workout, our muscles are ready to respond to whatever we put into our bodies. Yes, this does mean protein, but some of us may not realize that sugar is also important. The key to post-workout nutrition is fast-digesting protein and sugar. This is why many gym rats turn to protein shakes to start off their two hours after a workout, also known as the “anabolic window.” Compared to food source protein such as chicken breasts, eggs, fish, and turkey breasts, protein shakes can be consumed quickly and on the go. If you’re new to the protein shake game, pick one that’s ingredient list includes whey protein isolate as opposed to whey protein concentrate, which takes longer for the muscles to absorb. Experts agree on around 20 grams of protein within 30 minutes of a workout.

Remember blood sugar and glycogen levels, and how they are depleted after a workout? Well, to restore them the body requires fast-digesting sugars that can reach muscles quickly. No, this does not mean you should go out and grab a sugar-laden soft drink or a bag of candy after you leave the gym. Your best bet for fast-digesting sugar is a banana, which satisfies both your sugar and carb needs after the gym. That’s right, you need to take in even more carbs after the gym to help buildup blood sugar and glycogen levels alongside a fast-digesting sugar. To round out your macronutrient goal for the day, consider health fat sources including almonds, walnuts, and avocado before and after your workout.

My personal eating regimen in the 30 minutes after a workout includes a protein shake consisting of 2 egg whites (to add protein and thicken your shake in the blender), 2 tablespoons of Greek yogurt, a scoop of protein powder, half of a banana, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, a cup of water or milk, and handful of ice. Alongside the protein shake, I’ll eat two rice race cakes topped with peanut butter and the other half of that banana to hold me over until dinner. Around 30 minutes after my post-workout protein shake and two rice cakes, it’s time for dinner, which looks like a piece of chicken breast, tilapia, or lean steak, three-quarter cups of brown rice, a cup of vegetables for carbs, and half of an avocado for healthy fats.  

“For me, I always recommend a combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat at every meal and snack (this is the basis of The 1:1:1 Formula in my book),” Batayneh said. “The body uses carbohydrates as an immediate energy source- great for the cardio routine but remember your muscles need recovery after resistance/strength training which is where protein comes in. The key thing when we are fueling for activity is that our energy is sustained and that our blood sugar is stable, otherwise we will be in store for a lack luster workout and a desire to likely overeat afterwards due to sheer hunger. This is why the combination of all 3 macronutrients in key (Fats that we typically find in healthy and clean bars/snacks area likely to come from seeds and nuts).”