Building muscle and strength is not just about lifting heavy weights and doing intense workouts; it’s also about fueling your body with the right foods at the right times. One of those times is your pre-workout meal.
It ensures you get enough energy to power through your strength training sessions and that your muscles have access to all the right nutrients they need to grow.
This article gives you the tools you need to understand the importance of fueling your body before a training session and provides practical tips to optimize your pre-workout routine.
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The Importance and Benefits of a Good Pre-Workout Meal
Whether you’re a professional athlete or new to strength training, proper pre-workout timing can help you achieve your fitness goals and perform your best, especially if you want to optimize your strength training sessions and build muscle.
Fueling your body with the proper nutrients at the right time can significantly affect your performance and results.
If you ask ten bodybuilders or athletes about the best pre-workout meal plan, you’ll get ten different answers.
- Some prefer training after a hefty meal and feel that a full stomach helps improve their workout intensity.
- Others feel bloated with too much food in their stomach, instead preferring to fuel their muscles with the bare essentials to maintain high energy levels and provide the building blocks necessary to kick-start muscle growth.
- Some even enjoy a fasted strength-training workout and feel the most energized on an empty stomach.
While there is no “best pre-workout meal” that suits everyone, understanding the principles of sports nutrition enables you to select the best foods for your individual needs and time your pre-workout meal for optimal performance.
Some of the benefits of a good pre-workout meal include:
Enhanced Energy Levels
Lifting weights requires energy, primarily in the form of carbohydrates, and a well-timed pre-workout meal ensures that your body has an adequate supply of fuel.
Consuming carbohydrates before a workout provides readily available energy to power your muscles and maintain training intensity, especially during sessions lasting 45 minutes or more.1
Increased Muscle Protein Synthesis
Protein is vital for muscle growth and recovery. A good pre-workout snack or meal with some protein provides the amino acids necessary for protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis is not elevated during your workout, but your body can use pre-workout protein to build muscle after the training session.2
In other words, a little bit of protein before training helps create a positive muscle protein balance and promotes muscle growth after the workout.
Improved Focus and Mental Alertness
Pre-workout meals can also enhance mental alertness, focus, and concentration, enabling you to optimize your training session and maintain proper form, intensity, and technique.
This does not apply to all lifters, however. Some feel lethargic when working out after a meal and are more focused on an empty stomach—one reason to try different approaches to find the best pre-workout routine for you.
Understanding Nutrition for Strength Training
For strength training, both macronutrients like protein and carbs and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals are vital in your nutrition strategy for building muscle.
Protein, carbohydrates, and fats are the three macronutrients essential for health and muscle growth.
Proteins, the building blocks of muscle mass, are vital for muscle repair and growth. They provide your body with amino acids, which your body uses to build muscle.
You want to get at least 1.4–2.0 grams of protein per kilogram (0.65–0.91 grams per pound) of body weight per day when you’re training to increase lean muscle mass.3
Your total daily protein intake is, by far, the most crucial factor, not when you eat it.
That being said, eating or drinking protein around a training session, before or after, enhances muscle protein synthesis more than the same amount of protein at any other time.4
If you train later in the day and eat a protein-rich meal the hours before your workout, you might not need another pre-workout protein meal, especially if you’re going to eat again afterward.
Still, a pre-workout protein shake or a protein bar doesn’t hurt and ensures your muscles have the building blocks they need.
Carbohydrates act as the primary energy source for your workouts.
Your body breaks them down into glucose, filling your glycogen stores and fueling your muscles during high-intensity exercise.
Six high-intensity sets of an exercise can deplete your glycogen stores by almost 40%.5
That means you want plenty of muscle glycogen when it’s time to head to the gym. Again, your total daily carb intake is the most important factor in ensuring your glycogen reserves are full.
However, pre-workout carbs can improve performance and increase training volume if your workout lasts for more than 45 minutes or if you haven’t eaten for eight hours or more, like after an overnight fast.1
Foods like brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole grains are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates that offer sustained energy. However, for a pre-workout meal right before training, you might go for simple carbs that digest easily without weighing you down.
Healthy fats provide long-term energy and regulate hormones that aid your muscle-building efforts.
Fat is not the primary energy source during high-intensity exercise like weight training. If you enjoy some healthy fats, like a spoonful of peanut butter or a slice of avocado toast, before training, go for it, but you don’t have to include them in your pre-workout meal.
Micronutrients and Hydration
While the focus is often on macronutrients, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals also play a vital role in overall health, recovery, and performance. However, timing them before a workout is not a thing. What matters is your total daily intake.
Pre-workout hydration matters, though. For optimal performance, maintaining hydration is crucial.
Dehydration severely compromises your ability to perform your best during a resistance training session.6
If you work out almost immediately after leaving bed, you won’t have time to hydrate properly. Drink a large glass of water the first thing you do, and continue to drink regularly during your training session.
During longer workouts or if you train in a hot environment and sweat profusely, a sports drink with electrolytes like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium can help maintain your fluid balance.
Timing of Your Pre-Workout Meal
The timing of your pre-workout meal is important to perform your best in the gym and to provide your muscles with the nutrients they need.
Ideally, you should not separate your pre- and post-exercise meals by more than 3–4 hours.7 If you’re training between two large meals, however, you can extend that interval to 5–6 hours.
If you’re aiming for a full meal before working out, try to eat 2-3 hours before your training session.
Doing so provides enough time for digestion and absorption of nutrients.
A hefty meal 15 minutes before a squat session will only lie in your stomach and can make you nauseous instead of energized. It’s not dangerous, but hardly ideal. You want to maximize blood flow to your muscles when you lift, not to your stomach for digestion.
If you train first thing in the morning or cannot eat a full meal beforehand, a small snack with some protein and simple carbohydrates 15–30 minutes before your workout is a good idea. It gives you energy, stabilizes your blood sugar levels, and provides amino acids to kick-start post-workout muscle protein synthesis.
What About Fasted Strength Training?
Lifting weights on an empty stomach isn’t the best way to fuel a high-intensity training session for most people, although others swear by it.
It is safe to do so, provided you are healthy, and it certainly isn’t a wasted effort, like some might tell you.
However, if you train fasted, your post-workout meal becomes all the more critical.
In the fasted state, your muscle protein balance is negative, meaning muscle breakdown is greater than muscle protein synthesis.
It doesn’t turn positive until you eat protein.
The most important thing is to listen to your body and adjust your meal timing to fit your schedule and individual needs.
If you enjoy training on an empty stomach, go for it. You’ll build muscle if you eat enough calories and protein during the day. Just don’t train fasted and then continue fasting for many hours.
If you feel weak and tired without eating first, make time for some pre-workout fuel, even if it’s just a few grams of carbs and 20 or more grams of protein in the form of a shake.
Components of an Ideal Pre-Workout Meal
The best pre-workout foods are a combination of carbs and protein for both energy and muscle-building material.
A good rule of thumb for pre-workout protein intake is 0.4–0.5 g/kg of lean body mass.7
That typically gives you between 20 and 40 grams of protein, depending on your body weight. It is also the amount needed to maximize muscle protein synthesis.
For example, if you have 70 kilograms of lean body mass, you’d aim for 28–35 grams of high-quality protein.
Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and lean meats are great ways to include protein from whole foods in your pre-workout meal.
Another option is a shake with, for example, whey or soy protein as a quickly digestible quality protein source.
Carbs are your body’s preferred fuel source during high intensity exercise.
For a pre-exercise meal an hour or more before your workout, aim for a mix of simple and complex carbs for immediate and sustained energy. Fresh fruit and oatmeal are good pre-workout choices.
For pre-workout carbs immediately before training, rapidly absorbed carbs like dextrose or maltodextrin mixed in water can be a good choice if you don’t like working out with food in your stomach.
Some people react to simple pre-workout carbs with feelings of low blood sugar. If that’s you, try to consume complex, slow-acting carbs instead, and don’t eat them just before training.
Aim for at least 15 grams of carbs within three hours of your training session.8
More is not necessarily better, but if you’re doing a high-volume session, you can likely benefit from a higher intake. If you feel more energized after a larger, high-carb meal, there is nothing wrong with that.
Although fats digest slower, a small amount of fats in your pre-workout meal won’t hurt. It’s not something you have to go out of your way to include, though.
Hydrating before a workout is crucial. A sweat session can lead to water loss, so starting your workout hydrated is an intelligent move.
Ideally, you should be well-hydrated before you begin your workout session.
- Two hours before training: drink 15 to 20 ounces of fluids.
- Thirty minutes before training: drink 5 to 10 ounces of fluids.
- During exercise, drink five or more ounces every 15 minutes.
It doesn’t have to be plain water; other beverages are as good or better for hydration purposes.
Sample Pre-Workout Meals
Based on the general guidelines above, here are five ideas for easily digestible pre-workout meals, perfect 2-3 hours before training.
Grilled Chicken Breast with Sweet Potatoes and Steamed Broccoli
- Grilled chicken breast: A lean protein source that aids in muscle repair and growth.
- Sweet potatoes: Complex carbohydrates that provide sustained energy and replenish glycogen stores.
- Steamed broccoli: A nutrient-dense vegetable rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Salmon with Quinoa and Roasted Vegetables
- Grilled or baked salmon: A great source of omega-3 fatty acids and high-quality protein.
- Quinoa: A complete protein grain that offers sustained energy and additional protein.
- Roasted vegetables (e.g., bell peppers, zucchini, carrots): Fiber-rich and packed with vitamins and minerals.
Lean Beef Stir-Fry with Brown Rice
- Lean beef (such as sirloin or tenderloin): A protein-rich option with essential amino acids to fuel muscle growth.
- Brown rice: A complex carbohydrate that provides a steady release of energy.
- Stir-fried vegetables (e.g., bell peppers, broccoli, snap peas): Colorful and nutritious additions to boost fiber and micronutrient content.
Omelet with Whole Wheat Toast and Avocado
- Omelet (made with egg whites or whole eggs): A versatile protein source that gives your body the ideal protein for building muscle.
- Whole wheat toast: Provides complex carbohydrates and fiber for sustained energy.
- Avocado: A source of healthy fats that aid in nutrient absorption and provide additional energy.
Greek Yogurt with Mixed Berries and Almonds
- Greek yogurt: High in protein, calcium, and probiotics, supporting muscle growth and digestion.
- Mixed berries (e.g., strawberries, blueberries, raspberries): Antioxidant-rich fruits that offer carbs, vitamins, and fiber.
- Almonds (or other nuts/seeds): A source of healthy fats and additional protein for sustained energy.
If you haven’t had any food throughout the day or if you train early in the morning right after waking up and don’t have the opportunity to prepare a full meal, a simple snack such as a piece of fruit combined with a protein shake can provide the necessary fuel to energize you without causing any discomfort.
Remember that these are just examples. The best pre-workout meal for you will depend on your individual preferences.
Pre-Exercise Nutrition Tips for Aerobic Exercise
Contrary to popular belief, strength training is not the only type of exercise. Aerobic exercise does wonders for that other muscle: your heart.
Let’s say you want to perform your best when doing cardio.
Aerobic training eats through your muscle glycogen faster than lifting weights. Therefore, it’s a good idea to up your pre-exercise carb intake, at least before longer sessions.
If you’re doing low-intensity exercise, protein is enough. But if you want to maximize your performance during a high-intensity workout, adding generous amounts of carbs to your pre-workout meal can give you the best results.
Common Myths and Misconceptions
Let’s dispell some common myths and misconceptions about pre-workout nutrition while we’re at it.
Myth: Exercising on an empty stomach will burn more body fat.
Fact: There is no evidence that this is the case.
While it’s true that your body will turn to fat stores when no carbs are available, it doesn’t necessarily mean more significant fat loss overall.
In fact, a pre-exercise protein meal increases your fat oxidation and the number of calories you burn after your workout.9
Overall, the timing of your meal, before or after training, has little to do with your body composition.10
Myth: Post-workout meals are less crucial than post-workout meals.
Fact: Both can be equally important.
Pre-workout nutrition can be just as crucial as post-workout nutrition.
The proper pre-workout meal can provide the energy needed for a productive workout, while post-workout meals aid in recovery and muscle gain.
It’s highly individual:
- If you feel great and perform your best working out on an empty stomach, then a pre-workout meal isn’t as essential for you.
- If fasted training leaves you lightheaded and underperforming, pre-workout meal timing is essential.
Myth: Consuming pre-workout supplements is better than whole foods.
Fact: Both have their place.
While pre-workout supplements can provide a quick and convenient energy boost, they should not replace whole foods. Whole foods provide essential nutrients that are often missing in supplements.
Then again, the quality of your diet should not stand and fall with your pre-workout meal.
If your workout is in 20 minutes and you don’t have much time to eat a proper meal, a liquid pre-workout meal of whey protein and some simple, fast-digesting carbs can be a great way to boost your energy levels without making you feel stuffed.
That’s it! You’ve reached the end of this guide to pre-workout nutrition.
- The two most essential components of your pre-workout meal are protein and carbohydrates.
- In addition, make sure you’re adequately hydrated when you grab the barbell.
- If you prefer working out on an empty stomach, that’s fine too. Just make sure you eat reasonably quickly after your training session instead. Protein is the most critical nutrient; your muscles can’t flip the switch to growth without it.
- A good pre-workout meal 2–3 hours before training includes complex carbs for sustained energy and 20–40 grams of protein.
- For a pre-workout meal during the hour before your training session, opt for something easily digestible that agrees with your stomach—a piece of fruit and some Greek yogurt or a protein shake, for example.
Pre-workout nutrition is all about two things:
- Providing your body with enough fuel to perform at its best during your strength-training workouts.
- Giving your muscles the building materials they need to grow bigger and stronger.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to your pre-workout meal, but as long as you give your body what it needs – energy, protein, and fluids – you’re good to go.
Whether you enjoy a healthy mixed meal a couple of hours before training, chomp down on an English muffin with some string cheese, or gulp a protein shake right before hitting the weights, a well-planned pre-workout meal can help maximize your strength training results.
Remember that your pre-workout meal is just one piece of the puzzle.
A balanced diet, adequate recovery, and a well-structured training program are all crucial components of muscle-building and strength development.
Nutrition is a powerful tool for reaching your fitness goals. Your pre-workout meal is not the most crucial factor for success, but it can help set the stage for the training sessions that will get you there.
- Sports Med. 2022 Nov;52(11):2691-2712. The Ergogenic Effects of Acute Carbohydrate Feeding on Resistance Exercise Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44(10):p 1968-1977, October 2012. Preexercise Aminoacidemia and Muscle Protein Synthesis after Resistance Exercise.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14:20. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise.
- Front Nutr. 2018; 5: 83. Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training.
- J Appl Physiol (1985). 1991 Apr;70(4):1700-6. Muscle glycogenolysis during differing intensities of weight-resistance exercise.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39(10):p 1817-1824, October 2007. Effect of Hydration State on Strength, Power, and Resistance Exercise Performance.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013 Jan 29;10(1):5. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?
- Nutrients 2022, 14(4), 856. The Effect of Carbohydrate Intake on Strength and Resistance Training Performance: A Systematic Review.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018 Nov 29;15(1):56. Metabolic impact of protein feeding prior to moderate-intensity treadmill exercise in a fasted state: a pilot study.
- J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014; 11: 54. Body composition changes associated with fasted versus non-fasted aerobic exercise.