decided to write this piece on workout nutrition because the Internet is full of contradicting “scientific opinions” about what you should put in your body in order to get any benefit from weight training:
“You need shakes with sugar and protein before working out to stimulate maximum muscle growth during workouts!”
“If you don’t drink carbs during your workout, you’ll be weak and your performance will suffer!”
“You’ll lose all your gains if you don’t slam a post-workout shake within 73 seconds of your last rep!”
I’m all for finding beneficial workout nutrition—I’ve been experimenting with mine for over a decade—but there are a few very important things to remember:
1) You are an individual with unique genetics, a unique lifestyle, and unique goals.
2) You can find studies that “prove” almost anything.
3) Just because someone says it works for some doesn’t mean that it’s ideal for you. Experiment!
With these thoughts in mind, let’s address the 3 components of workout nutrition: pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout.
Do you need a pre-workout shake or supplement?
The short answer here is a resounding NO. Can some people benefit from a pre-workout shake? I’m sure they can, but here are two main things to consider:
– What are your goals? Are you looking to gain or lose weight?
– What have you eaten all day? When was the last time you ate?
If you’re trying to gain weight, having a pre-workout shake is probably a pretty good idea. You want to be anabolic. You want to build. More food, more often than not, is a good way to achieve this. However, if you’re trying to lose weight or stay lean, you might want to weigh your options a bit more carefully.
In regard to taking pre-workout supplements for energy, if you feel that you absolutely need this in order to have a good workout, you might want to take a step back and look at the big picture. If you’re lethargic or weak during workouts when you haven’t had a pre-workout supplement, don’t chalk it up to the benefits of the supplement; chalk it up to something that’s wrong with your lifestyle. If you absolutely need that pick-me-up, it’s likely because you’re not getting enough quality sleep or your nutrition is off the rails. It doesn’t matter if you’re working out in the AM or PM—if you feel like crap before lifting, don’t rely on a Band-Aid solution; analyze your lifestyle and recovery and make the appropriate changes to improve your overall energy levels.
Recommendation: Make sure that you’re well-recovered and have eaten enough quality food prior to working out; if you’re looking to bulk up, a protein shake pre-workout is likely a good choice.
Do you need intra-workout nutrition?
This one is pretty cut and dry. For the average gym-goer, intra-workout nutrition is unnecessary. Unless your workouts are intense and longer than an hour, water is all you need while you work out. For athletes and individuals who have long, intense workouts, including a source of diluted protein during your training sessions is advisable to provide an extra source of energy and prevent muscle-wasting. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) will get to the muscle faster than any other source of protein and are the best option for these extended training sessions.
Recommendation: For the average gym-goer, drink water while you workout; aim for 1–1.5L per one hour workout. For athletes and those with long, intense workouts, include BCAAs.
Do you need a post-workout shake?
If any one thing is clear in regard to workout nutrition, it’s that you need to provide your body with nutrients after a workout. Do you absolutely have to drink a whey protein shake or take in loads of carbs? No. Is it critical to have your shake within minutes of your final reps? Despite what you’ve heard, this can actually be detrimental to your goals. People overstress about this aspect of nutrition, but it’s not as complex as you think. When your workout is over, drink some water and take some time to stretch and let your body relax (weight training is stressful in its very nature!). This period of time will allow the body to clear damaging waste products that were released during resistance training (reactive oxygen species) and will promote optimal cellular function and recovery; if you introduce nutrients too soon after a workout, you’ll actually limit potential gains. The goal should be to eat something roughly one hour after your training session. This will enable the body to maximally capitalize on important catabolic processes before the switch to equally important anabolic processes, which won’t be as profound if you don’t allow catabolism to fully run its course. My personal preference is to have a whey protein shake with Carb Shock™ about 60 minutes after lifting and to eat a solid meal shortly thereafter. You absolutely want to get nutrients to your muscles after working out, but rushing to do this as soon as possible will be counterproductive.
Recommendation: Get your workout in, clean yourself up, and eat after you’ve settled down a bit. You’ll increase your gains and maintain your sanity.
What about carbs?
When I started to take weight training seriously, I hammered carbs before, during, and after training sessions. I wanted to be bigger and stronger, so I went with the generic strategy that “more is better.” Over time and through a great deal of experimentation, I realized that manipulating carbs was the key differentiator not only for strength and body composition, but also for performance in and out of the gym. The only protocol that I’ve found to cover all the bases—get strong, be lean, feel good, and perform well—is Carb Backloading™. What this means is consuming no carbs before and during training, but lots of carbs in the evenings to prepare the body for the next battle. Loading up on carbs before and during workouts does nothing but make me feel like crap and wreaks havoc on my body composition; there is no benefit for me in carb loading pre-workout or intra-workout. For anyone who Carb Backloads, I recommend you do the exact same. At least try it and see how your body reacts; I would bet that you’ll be surprised.
Mixed diets are fine and there are different ways to do everything, but why be inefficient when there is a better solution right in front of your nose? If you come to me for advice, I’m going to suggest you start Carb Backloading to rapidly increase your health, performance, and body composition in one fell swoop! I’ve worked with clients for many years and once you see the results for yourself, there’s no looking back. I started my pursuit of fitness with the common knowledge that carbs are king, but if you give them the throne at the wrong time, they’ll royally hold you back. When it comes to workout nutrition, keep it simple and you’ll position your body to give you the best results in the least amount of time.