One of the most important terms in the fitness world is “pre-workout”. The prep and dedication devoted to getting the most out of a workout for some is sacred. However, pre-workout prep isn’t limited to elite athletes and dedicated gym rats. Pre-workout means fueling the body so it has the energy and stamina needed to push limits and make progress or gains in a workout. While brightly colored powders and shaker bottles may come to mind, pre-workout is really just a nutritional prep period, and can come in the form of meals, drinks, and supplements. Every workout can benefit from a little nutritional prep and know-how, and here we’ll discuss the different kinds of meals, drinks, and supplements you can use to get the most out of your gym time.
Pre-workout nutrition starts with a good pre-workout meal. What you eat depends on when you eat it, and timing is about more than getting maximal muscle gains. To get an idea of what to eat and when, let’s take a look at the benefits and functions of each macronutrient:
Protein: Long hailed as the bodybuilder’s best friend, protein is a staple for both pre and post workout nutrition. Protein and amino acids are at the center of muscle building, and studies have shown that consuming protein before a workout as well as after increases muscle protein synthesis.1 A good pre-workout meal should have a good protein base to give your muscles what they need to rebuild and repair.
Carbohydrates: Demonized in this low-carb world, carbs are still important if you want to make serious progress in the gym. Carbs are the main energy source that fuel your muscles for quick, high intensity exercise, as they provide the glycogen muscles use for energy.2 When glycogen stores are used up, intensity diminishes. By eating carbs before a workout, you give your muscles a quick source of energy they can use to work to their outer limits.2 The best sources of carbs will come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy.
Fats: Coming into its heyday as a macronutrient right now is fat. Previously considered the enemy to healthy living and a trim physique, the importance of including good fats in the diet is starting to become more widely known. Fats provide energy for sustained or prolonged energy expenditure.2 In fact, one study saw trained runners increase their endurance time after changing to a diet that consisted of 38% fat.3 Fats for pre-workout purposes are best consumed well before the workout starts, as they take longer to digest than both protein and carbs.2
All three of the macronutrients are important when creating a functional pre-workout meal to provide the body with the muscle building components and energy it needs to push you through and make progress. When planning your pre-workout meals, aim to finish eating roughly 2 – 3 hours before you start your actual workout. This gives your body time to digest everything, including fats. Here, we’ve included some pre-workout meal ideas to get you started:
- Egg salad sandwich on wholegrain bread with veggie sticks or salad
- Chicken breast, brown rice, and roasted sweet potatoes
- 2 slices whole grain toast with avocado spread and a fried egg over each
If your regular routine is to hit the gym after work, try making these meals ahead and bringing them to work for lunch.
As much as we try to plan, sometimes life gets in the way and you don’t’ have time to make that perfectly portioned pre-workout meal. If you don’t have time to make the pre-workout meal, or you’re to 1 – 2 hours away from starting your workout, a pre-workout snack will go a long way towards helping you reach your goals and keeping you energized for the duration of your workout. As you get closer to your start time, start getting away from fats and building a snack around protein and carbs, which are easier and faster to digest. Great pre-workout snack options include:
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter
- Oatmeal with berries sprinkled over top
- Cottage cheese with tomatoes or strawberries (savory or sweet – your preference!)
If you’re within 60 minutes of hitting the gym, try sticking to easily digestible carbs to give yourself a boost of energy.2 Just remember to get the rest of your macros after your workout!
Snacks are great when you’re on the go, but drinks are even better. If you only have a few minutes to get out of the house, but you’ll be hitting the gym within the next 1 – 2 hours, try blending a smoothie together to take with you. Smoothies are easily customizable to include both easily digestible protein and carbs. Using milk or water as your liquid base, try adding frozen fruits and leafy greens like spinach for carbs, and a scoop of your favorite nut butter or protein powder. For a tasty burst of berry flavor, try using this smoothie recipe:
- 1 cup water, milk, or milk alternative
- 1 tbsp peanut butter
- ½ cup plain greek yogurt
- 1 cup frozen berry mix
- 1 generous handful of spinach
For a simple pre-workout drink when you don’t have time for a smoothie and you’re less than 60 minutes from hitting the gym, mix your favorite whey protein powder with low-fat milk to get some quick carbs.
Besides pre-workout nutrition, there are several different supplements you can take to help you maximize your efforts in the gym.
Creatine: Creatine is one of the most well researched and effective supplements for muscle building.4 Not only has it been found to help improve muscle strength and size, but helps increase muscular energy and power.4 Some studies have even seen creatine supplementation boost testosterone levels post workout.8 When choosing creatine supplements or pre-workout blends with creatine, make sure there is at least 3g of creatine per serving, as this amount will carry you through both the loading and maintenance phases required for it to be effective.4 You can also look for testosterone support supplements like HF Labs Delta Prime to compliment your pre-workout efforts.
Caffeine: Caffeine is another popularly used supplement for pre-workout. Not only has caffeine been shown to reduce fatigue and increase focus, but it has also been seen to improve athletic performance.5 If you want to include caffeine as part of your pre-workout routine, you can have a quick cup of coffee, or take a pre-workout supplement that also includes caffeine.
BCAAs: BCAA stands for Branched-Chain Amino Acids, which include valine, leucin, and isoleucine. Some studies have shown that taking BCAAs before workouts can reduce the muscle damage caused by exercising, and promote muscle protein synthesis.6 BCAAs can be easily found in supplement form on their own, or included in pre-workout supplement blends.
Pre-Workout for Women
The pre-workout nutritional needs for women will largely follow what we have outlined so far in this article. Women also need adequate levels of protein, carbs and fat to energize their workouts. How much of each macronutrient will depend on specific weight or fitness goals, and can be found by calculating your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure), and splitting up your macronutrients accordingly. While the amounts may change, the principles are the same – carbs, fats, and proteins should be eaten 2 – 3 hours before a workout, and carbs should be consumed just before a high intensity workout to supply the body with energy, even when following a low carb diet.2, 7