Like most things bodybuilding, the subject of preworkout nutrition is riddled with contradictions.
Should you eat protein before you train? Carbohydrates? Fats? If so, what types and amounts of food are best? Or does pre-workout nutrition not matter? Will eating before training have no appreciable effect on your training or gains? Or, last but not least, is fasted training the best, as commonly claimed by many proponents of intermittent fasting?
Well, let’s get to the bottom of these questions and come to some definitive, science-based conclusions as to what is best when it comes to pre-workout nutrition. Let’s start with pre-workout protein.
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Table of Contents
As you probably know, how much protein you eat every day dramatically affects your body’s ability to build muscle. Eat too little and you will hinder your gains in the gym.
But what about when you eat protein? Does that matter? Is eating protein before a workout particularly helpful?
Some people say it doesn’t matter, and they’ll cite studies such as this and this to back up their claims. On the other hand, you can find evidence that pre-workout protein does enhance post-workout muscle growth in studies such as this and this.
Well, a big “invisible” piece of this puzzle has to do with when study subjects had last eaten protein before eating their pre-workout meals.
You see, when you eat food, it takes your body several hours to fully absorb the nutrients contained in the food. The larger the meal, the longer it takes (research shows that absorption can take anywhere from 2 to 6+ hours).
This means that if you had eaten a sizable amount of protein an hour or two prior to working out, your plasma (blood) amino acid levels would be quite high come workout time. In this state, it’s unlikely that more protein before training would make much of a difference in terms of helping you build more muscle because your body is already in an anabolic state.
On the other hand, if it had been several hours since you last ate protein, and especially if the amount last eaten was small (less than 20 grams), your plasma amino acid levels would likely be low come workout time. In this case, research shows that pre-workout protein likely will help you build more muscle due to it spiking plasma amino acid levels (and thus protein synthesis) before training.
Most people seem to train early in the morning or several hours after lunch (after work, before dinner), and this is why I generally recommend 20 to 40 grams of protein about 30 minutes before training.
If, however, you train within 1 to 2 hours of eating at least that much protein, you can probably skip the pre-workout protein and not miss out on any extra potential muscle growth.
So, with that out of the way, let’s talk types of pre-workout protein. Are some better than others?
And while any form of pre-workout protein will elevate amino acids to some degree, you’ll get the quickest and greatest elevation from a faster-digesting form like whey protein, which is also very high in leucine.
In terms of which whey protein product I use and recommend, I’m very picky when it comes to artificial sweeteners and food dyes, MSG, and other chemicals commonly found in whey protein powders.
I like my workout supplements naturally sweetened and as free of artificial additives as possible, and recommend the same for my readers.
These requirements have really limited me in the past, and the whey protein powders I used were particularly expensive (upwards of $25 – 30 per pound).
Fortunately, I’ve been able to leverage my success as an author to launch my own line of naturally sweetened, filler-free workout supplements, and it includes a 100% whey protein isolate product.
It’s called WHEY+, and it’s essentially the whey protein powder I’ve always wanted.
Fortunately for us, the research on pre-workout carbohydrates is much more straightforward: they improve performance–period.
I say directly stimulate because while eating pre-workout carbohydrates doesn’t accelerate protein synthesis, it can help you push more weight and reps in your workouts, thus indirectly helping you build more muscle over time (so long as your training and diet are right).
So, if pre-workout carbohydrates are good, what types are best?
Again, the research is pretty straightforward: low-glycemic carbohydrates are best for prolonged (2+ hour) endurance exercise, and high-glycemic carbohydrates are best for shorter, more intense workouts.
In terms of what to eat, I don’t like pre-workout carbohydrate supplements. They’re little more than over-hyped, overpriced tubs of simple sugars like dextrose and maltodextrin. Don’t buy into the marketing BS–there’s nothing inherently special about these types of supplements.
Instead, I much prefer getting my pre-workout carbohydrates from food. My favorite sources are rice milk (tastes great with whey protein!) and bananas, but other popular, healthy choices are instant oat meal, dates and figs, melon, white potato, white rice, raisins, and sweet potato.
And last but not least, how much pre-workout carbohydrate should you eat, and when?
I recommend you eat 25 to 50 grams of carbohydrates 30 minutes before training to feel a noticeable improvement in performance.
Almost all talk of pre-workout nutrition revolves around protein and carbohydrates. What about fats? Do they not matter?
Well, there are theories that by increasing pre-workout fat intake, you can reduce carbohydrate utilization during exercise and thereby improve performance. Research has proven otherwise, however:
A review conducted by researchers at Deakin University contains the following conclusion about pre-workout fat intake:
“Thus, it would appear that while such a strategy can have a marked effect on exercise metabolism (i.e. reduced carbohydrate utilization), there is no beneficial effect on exercise performance.”
So, feel free to have dietary fat before you work out, but don’t expect anything special to come out of it.
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Most people equate “fasted training” with training on an empty stomach, but that’s not quite it.
Whether or not your body is in a “fasted state” depends on plasma (blood) insulin levels.
You see, when your body digests food, it breaks it down into various types of molecules that your cells can use (amino acids, glucose, vitamins, minerals, and so forth). These molecules are absorbed through the walls of your small intestine into the bloodstream. Insulin is released as well and its job is to shuttle these molecules into cells for use.
Now, depending on how much you eat, your plasma (blood) insulin levels can remain elevated for several hours (anywhere from 3 – 6+), and when your body is in this “fed” state–when its insulin levels are elevated and its absorbing nutrients you’ve eaten–little-to-no fat burning occurs. This is because insulin blocks lipolysis (fat “mobilization’).
When your body finishes absorbing all the nutrients eaten, plasma insulin levels decrease to a low, “baseline” level, and research has shown that in this state, exercise-induced fat loss is accelerated. Weightlifting in a fasted state has proven to be particularly effective in this regard.
There is also evidence that fasted training favorably affects the post-workout anabolic response to food, but more research will need to be done on this mechanism before we really know what’s happening here.
There are downsides to fasted training, however.
All things considered, fasted training is a useful tool for weight loss purposes, but if you’re maintaining or bulking, I recommend you have carbohydrates before training to get the substantial performance boost that they provide (as you’re trying to maximize muscle growth, not fat loss).
If you’re interested in accelerating fat loss with fasted training, check out this article to learn how.
Pre-workout supplements are incredibly popular, but are they worth it?
Unfortunately, the majority on the market are more or less junk, and are notorious for several deceitful practices:
Including ineffective ingredients to make long, impressive nutrition labels.
Citing misinterpreted, cherry-picked, flawed, or biased studies to sell you on the effectiveness of certain ingredients.
Under-dosing key ingredients and hiding it behind the “proprietary blend” labeling loophole. This allows companies to not disclose the actual composition of each part of the blend, and thus hide the truth about what you’re actually buying.
Using substantial amounts of caffeine and cheap carbohydrate powders like maltodextrin to give a kick of energy. This is an easy, inexpensive way for supplement companies to make you think their product is good.
Using chemical names of everyday compounds to mislead you into thinking the products have special ingredients. For instance, epigallo-3-catechin-3-O-b-gallate is just green tea extract, and 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine is just caffeine.
Why do these things?
Because it’s extremely profitable.
What most consumers don’t know is supplement companies make very little money on certain products, like protein powder, and need to make up for that by making exorbitant profits on others. The pre-workout supplement is one of them.
The scam is very simple: fill the product with cheap stimulants and skimp on everything else. In many cases, you’d feel just as wired on a few caffeine pills (and save a bunch of money).
There are, however, several other safe, natural molecules that can improve your performance…if they’re dosed properly.
Well, you’ll find 6 of the most effective performance-enhancing ingredients in my pre-workout supplement PULSE:
And what you won’t find in PULSE is equally special:
The bottom line is if you want to know what a pre-workout is supposed to feel like…if you want to experience the type of energy rush and performance boost that only clinically effective dosages of scientifically validated ingredients can deliver…then you want to try PULSE.