Building muscle can sometimes be an art — planning your training, sets and meal times is often tricky and nuanced. Eating immediately after your workout or shortly afterwards may be just as important as how much you're lifting. Plan your meal times around lifting to see the best results.
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Whether you should eat immediately after lifting depends on a number of factors, including how long ago you ate your last meal, how intense your training was and whether you’re attempting to stimulate mass gain or weight loss. Eating healthy carbs and proteins a few hours after you lift will be beneficial to building muscles and endurance.
Your Body After a Workout
A lot of things are happening in your body when you lift weights, beginning first and foremost with muscle damage. While damage doesn't exactly sound beneficial, it is in fact the first phase in a series of cycles that triggers new muscles to grow stronger than before.
Repeatedly lifting weights, creating muscle tension or even endurance exercises like biking or running can create tiny tears in your muscle fibers. During the period of time following lifting or exercising, those muscle tears are rebuilt through food and rest, resulting in a variety of changes.
Your muscle fibers grow in diameter (hypertrophy) and length (sarcomerogenesis). There's also an increase in collagen tissue and tendon stiffness, capillaries providing blood inside the muscle and movement coordination, among others. All these changes work together over a long period of training to transform your body into that of a toned bodybuilder.
Overall, building muscle and strength can result in a lot of body changes, including becoming leaner, increasing your metabolic rate and reducing your risk of injury, according to an April 2016 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science.
Strength training can also build up skeletal muscle that is lost when you age. And for athletes, including runners, bikers and swimmers, building strength can assist in improving your speed and power of movement.
Depending on whether you're focusing on light or heavy lifting, it can have an effect on cardio as well. Lighter weights and high reps tend to be more of an aerobic workout, increasing your heart rate and burning more fat. Heavier lifting, meanwhile, mainly breaks down your muscle fibers. Typically, heavier lifting will result in more muscle mass and strengthened bone density.
A July 2016 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology; however, did not find significant differences in the development of muscle mass between people who did lighter and heavier lifts. In fact, it may be best to do a variety of lifting — both heavy sets and quicker, lighter sets to mix in some cardio.
If your goal is to lose weight and also build muscle, you may want to start out with lighter lifts. All of this will determine how much you eat, when you eat and what you eat.
Read more: Do You Gain Weight When Lifting Weights?
When to Time Meals
The most important part of building muscle besides the actual exercises is the food you eat. Whether you eat protein after weight training or consume more carbs, and when you time your meals, can have an effect on the results you see.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you need to eat enough food and drink enough fluids before, during and after exercise to maintain your blood glucose. Eating and drinking enough can also boost your physical performance during your workout and improve recovery.
Replenishing your body with energy from carbohydrates and protein is required during intense physical activity because it will keep your body weight healthy, refuel your glycogen and allow your body to repair muscle tissue. And if you're eating the right kinds of foods, you won't even need supplements.
Before your workout: It may be helpful to keep your body fueled for an intense lifting session by planning a meal a few hours before your workout. First, drink plenty of water two to three hours before you exercise. Eat something that won't upset your stomach, and make sure you eat it with enough time to digest before you start moving.
You also may want to aim for healthy, complex carbs like whole-grain breads, cereal or oats, as well as vegetables and fruits, according to the American Heart Association. Eating before your workouts may help you last longer during aerobic workouts, according to a May 2018 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.
In your pre-workout meal, you also may want to eat a little bit of protein but not too much, as this takes longer to digest and may slow you down. Protein can help you remain feeling full for longer, so you won't be hit with hunger pains during your workout.
During your workout: The most important thing is to stay hydrated during a longer workout, by drinking small sips of water. But if you're going for an intense, longer exercise that can last several hours, such as a long vigorous hike or a several-hour training session, you may want to pack a few 50-100 calorie carbohydrate snacks like bananas in every half hour or hour. The key is, of course, to not eat too much during a workout as this can be counter-productive.
After your workout: First, drink plenty of water and fluids. Second, you'll need to restore your body's energy and glucose levels with carbohydrates about 20-60 minutes after your workout, according to the American Heart Association. Finally, you will need to consume some protein after strength training, as protein is the key source of rebuilding your damaged muscles in the day following a workout.
You may not necessarily need to eat immediately after a workout, but you should eat something within an hour or two if you've done an intense lifting session. You can time your post-workout meal to whenever works best for you, as long as you eat something within a few hours afterwards.
A January 2013 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined whether or not there was truly an "anabolic window" post-exercise where eating immediately after a workout would be more beneficial than not. The study didn't find much of a difference between people who ate immediately post-exercise compared with those who waited two hours before eating.
However, the study did note that eating within a few hours after working out was important. The researchers found that consuming a combo of protein and carbs after two hours of cycling and sprinting showed a higher increase in muscle glycogen compared to an only-carb meal.
In short, you should eat a combo of protein and carbs within a few hours following exercise or lifting. The only scenario where eating immediately after a workout might be absolutely necessary is if you've fasted for the day prior to the workout.
Avoid these foods: You've just finished your intense lifting or cardio routine, and you're feeling hungry. But completing a workout doesn't necessarily mean you should be given free range to eat whatever you want, whether that's guzzling down a soda or ordering a fast food hamburger.
In fact, you'll want to avoid foods high in fat or sugar, as this slows down your metabolism, stops your body from burning fat and doesn't provide you with the necessary nutrients your body needs for optimal muscle repairing. Stay away from pre-made smoothies or yogurts high in sugar, fast or fried foods, heavy meats like steak, simple carbohydrates like pastries or white bread, candy or booze.
Best Post-Lifting Foods
You got in your lifting session, you've avoided all the wrong foods, and you're aiming to eat within an hour or two afterwards. Planning out some great, easy meals or snacks post-workout will help you get the nutrition and fuel you need every day.
Remember the carb and protein combo. In the mornings, choose some Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese to eat with fruits, nuts or whole-wheat oats. Hard-boiled eggs or a healthy omelette filled with spinach and other vegetables are also a good choice, paired with avocado whole wheat toast.
You can also typically never go wrong with bananas, as they're packed with potassium, vitamin B6, magnesium and fiber. They also maintain blood sugar levels and are a healthy carbohydrate low in fat.
Other healthy carbs to pair with lean meats or fish for lunch or dinner include sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, oats or whole wheat pasta. Excellent sources of protein include certain types of protein powder, eggs, salmon, chicken or tuna. And you can eat some healthy fats as well, like avocados and nut butters.
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: "Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men"
- International Journal of Exercise Science: "Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training"
- Journal of Applied Physiology: "Neither Load nor Systemic Hormones Determine Resistance Training-Mediated Hypertrophy or Strength Gains in Resistance-Trained Young Men"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Nutrition and Athletic Performance"
- American Heart Association: "Food as Fuel Before, During and After Workouts"
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: "Effects of Fasted vs Fed-State Exercise on Performance and Post-Exercise Metabolism: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- Nutrients: "Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy With Resistance Exercise Training"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Nutrient Timing Revisited: Is There a Post-Exercise Anabolic Window?"