Post-workout nutrition gets lots of hype – but what about pre-workout nutrition?
It’s easy to get the impression that pre-workout nutrition may be somewhat of an afterthought. Pre-workout nutrition, much like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect!
While there are many pre-workout supplements, most of them focus on increasing nitric oxide, pump, and energy. Very little is thought of the actual macronutrient components as they relate to optimal anabolism. However, there’s evidence that pre-workout nutrition may be just as crucial to optimal gains as post-workout nutrition. In this article, we’ll break down pre-workout nutrition that will prime you for growth!
Pre-Workout Nutrition: Protein
It seems that any weightlifting discussion on nutrition begins with protein, and with good reason: Protein is the only macronutrient that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Increasing muscle protein synthesis is crucial to new muscle gain and proper recovery from a workout.
In regard to pre-workout nutrition, however, consuming protein to stimulate protein synthesis is beneficial because some studies have demonstrated that protein synthesis declines during a workout. Consuming adequate protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis may help prevent the exercise-induced reduction in anabolism.
In fact, one study performed at the University of Texas suggested that pre-workout nutrition may actually be more important than post-workout nutrition in terms of maximizing anabolism. Whether that’s the case is up for some serious debate, but that’s a topic for another article. What’s clear is that consuming adequate protein to maximize muscle protein synthesis pre- and post-workout is a must if you’re looking for big-time gains.
How Much Protein?
So the logical question is, “how much protein?” Based on the available data we have, it seems that the amount of protein required to maximize muscle protein synthesis depends upon its leucine content. Leucine is the amino acid in protein responsible for actually stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Various protein sources have different leucine contents, but it seems that around 0.015 grams per pound of leucine will max out protein synthesis at a meal.
So, in a 200-pound person, this would correspond to 3 grams of leucine. That would be equivalent to about 30–40 grams of protein for most protein sources. For a protein source such as whey, it would only require about 28 grams of protein because it has a very high leucine intake. Something like chicken or beef would be closer to 35–40 grams of protein.
Since many people have sensitive digestive systems and heavy whole-food protein sources can make them feel sick during a workout, it may be preferable to consume a whey shake one to two hours before a workout since it’s a high-quality protein source that’s rich in leucine and easy to digest. If you prefer whole food, however, that’s fine, but you may want to wait a bit longer (two to three hours) before working out.
Carbohydrates are probably the most controversial macronutrient in terms of recommendations, and with good reason: everyone tolerates them very differently. Some bodybuilders need 800 grams of carbs per day just to maintain their weight, and others put on fat like a bear about to go into hibernation from anything over 200 grams of carbs. So there’s a wide range of carbohydrates that encapsulate what may be optimal for your daily intake. For the longest time, it was theorized that you needed a large dose (75–100 grams) of a simple carbohydrate such as dextrose to maximize muscle protein synthesis and muscle glycogen content.
However, carbohydrates in and of themselves aren’t anabolic, as they don’t increase protein synthesis by themselves in adults. Carbohydrates and insulin do, however, have synergistic effects on protein synthesis when combined with amino acids. Carbohydrates will also spare muscle glycogen, which may improve performance. Again, the question becomes how much is optimal?
“Carbohydrates in and of themselves aren’t anabolic”
Recent research from the University of Texas Medical School suggests that far less carbohydrate may be required to maximize the protein synthetic response when combined with amino acids/protein than previously thought. These researchers gave amino acids (i.e., the building blocks of protein) with either 30 grams or 90 grams of glucose and measured rates of muscle protein synthesis. They found that both treatments maximize the anabolic response in the muscle.
Based on these data, it seems that, in adults, glucose and insulin only need to be present in modest amounts to maximize muscle protein synthesis. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind.
- The average weight of the subjects in these studies was 165 pounds, so for people who weigh more, it may take proportionally more carbohydrate to elicit the same response.
- While 30 grams may maximize muscle protein synthesis when taken with protein/amino acids, a greater amount may be required to fulfill an individual’s overall caloric requirement and carbohydrate target and to maximize muscle glycogen. Pre- and post-workout are the times at which carbohydrate can best be tolerated by the body, so a proportionally larger amount of carbohydrates (anywhere from 20–35 percent of total daily carb intake) should probably be reserved for pre- or post-workout meals.
- Carbohydrate has actually been shown to increase the thermogenic response to exercise when consumed pre-workout, another reason to keep carbs relatively higher at your pre-workout meal compared to other times of the day.
What this new research does mean is that for people who don’t tolerate carbohydrates well or those who are calorically restricted while dieting, they aren’t missing out on major anabolism by not drinking 100 grams dextrose solutions pre- and post-workout. In fact, since insulin really only needs to be modestly increased, it’s quite likely that moderate- level GI carb sources such as oatmeal, fruits, or rice will be sufficient to maximize the protein synthetic response when combined with protein while possibly preventing excess fat gain that may be associated with consumption of large amounts of high-GI carbohydrates such as dextrose.
Fat is probably the least important macronutrient where pre-workout nutrition is concerned. Out of the three macronutrients, it’s probably most wise to limit fat compared to protein and carbohydrate intake for a few reasons.
First, because you will likely be consuming a greater proportion of carbohydrate intake with your pre-workout meal compared to other meals during the day, you don’t want to combine that with a high fat intake, as greater levels of insulin will drive more dietary fat into fat cells, exactly where we do not want it.
Second, fat intake above 10 grams before a workout has actually been shown to decrease the growth hormone response to training. While it’s debatable how important the growth hormone response to training is to the anabolic response to weight training, it cannot be a good thing to reduce it, and we always want to take advantage of every hormone we can to maximize anabolism.
Third, high-fat meals have actually been shown to also reduce testosterone release, and that’s obviously another hormone we would like to optimize for exercise.
Fourth, fat slows gastric emptying and will reduce the rate at which nutrients reach circulation, which may be advantageous at certain times of the day, but not before a workout, as we want the nutrients from our pre-workout meal to flood the bloodstream and reach the muscles without impairment in order to optimize the anabolic response. Slowed digestion may also cause gastric distress and stomach aches during training due to more digested food being present in the gut, which is also something we want to avoid for optimal performance.
Your Pre-Workout Prescription
While less glorified than the post-workout meal, pre-workout nutrition obviously is very important for maximizing the anabolic effect of a training session.
We suggest eating a pre-workout meal with adequate protein and carbs to maximize anabolism and limiting fat below 10 grams anywhere from one to 2.5 hours before a workout depending upon how your digestive system tolerates food before a workout and how fast the foods you choose digest.
Whey and liquid carbohydrate can be consumed much closer to a workout than something like a chicken breast and oatmeal. Both can work well; they just need to be timed accordingly. Now hit your pre-workout meal and prime yourself for growth!