Pre-workout nutrition 101 (Avoid these mistakes!)

When I first started lifting, the first piece of advice I ever heard was about the importance of nutrition.

I was given the typical spiel about how "Muscle building is 80% nutrition and 20% training".

After hearing this, I gladly stuffed my face full of food, day in and day out, in the hopes that I would one day transform into a muscle-bound hulk.

pre-workout nutrition

I know, I know... it was probably a tad unrealistic, but I didn't know any better.

Fortunately, I learned through trial and error that dirty bulking wasn't the secret to fast muscle gains...only fat gains. 

And I started optimising my pre-workout nutrition instead.

Today, I'm going to share my simple strategies for maximising muscle and strength gains with your pre-workout meal. 

Here's what you'll learn:

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    The importance of the three macros: Carbs, protein, and fats
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    Why meal timing is less important than you think
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    13 Delicious pre-workout meal ideas 

And much more...​​

Let's dive in.

Understanding macros (and why they're important)

pre-workout nutrition

Macro-nutrients are the three essential food groups needed for optimal health and body function.

They are:

  1. Carbohydrates
  2. Protein
  3. Fats

If you want to maximise your performance in the gym, then you need to pay attention to your macros.

Each has its own benefits and this should be taken into account when setting up your pre-workout nutrition. 

Another factor to consider is your goals, body type, and (most importantly) the exercise you're performing


pre-workout nutrition

When digested in the body, carbohydrates are used to produce glucose

Glucose is then converted into glycogen, which is a primary fuel source in the muscles. 

When you're lifting heavy weights, the muscles burn through glycogen at a rapid rate...

And once your glycogen stores are depleted, it causes diminished performance.

By increasing your glycogen reserves, you can train for longer without a negative reduction in performance.

Want a quick boost to strength? Load up on carbs pre-workout for more energy!

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This is why studies have shown that carbohydrates taken pre-workout can increase strength and invariably lead to more muscle growth. 

A high carbohydrate intake pre-workout is even more important for long-distance endurance events. 

This is why athletes use what's known as 'carb-loading'.

It involves eating a very high carb intake 24 hours before the event, in order to super-compensate glycogen stores


You likely already know that protein is important for muscle growth...

But is there any advantage to taking it pre-workout?

Actually, yes!

Studies have shown that ingestion of amino acids pre-workout can stimulate protein synthesis (alone or with carbs).

This is significant because exercise is a catabolic activity...

Meaning it causes muscle breakdown (at least in the short-term). 

So by eating a serving of protein a couple of hours before training, you can prevent muscle breakdown during a workout.

But there's more:

Research has shown that eating protein pre-workout is also beneficial for:


pre-workout nutrition

This is known as the "crossover concept". 

But despite low intensity exercise appearing superior for fat burning, it's not the complete picture...

You also need to consider calorie expenditure during (and after) the workout.

Studies show that HIIT burns the same amount of calories as low intensity 1/2 the time. 

Your metabolic rate is also heightened for 24 hours post-workout, meaning the fat burning potential for HIIT is much greater overall. 

Pre-workout nutrition timing for bodybuilding (does it matter?)

pre-workout nutrition

Unlike post-workout meal timing, which I'll discuss later, there is evidence to suggest that timing your food intake pre-workout can improve performance

The sweet spot is around 1-2 hours before training.

The best time to eat your pre-workout meal is 1-2 hours before training!

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However, if you're eating closer to a workout, then I recommend sticking to smaller, more simple meals to increase absorption and prevent stomach discomfort. 

For pre-workout supplements, such as caffeine, research has shown that taking them immediately before training boosts its ergogenic effects. 

Therefore, I would advise taking it during your warm-up sets or before you head to the gym to be safe. 

On a side note, make sure you're properly hydrated too!

Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can lead to diminished performance.

If you want to avoid this, I suggest having a tall 8oz glass of water before training. 

You should also sip water in-between sets.

Intra-workout carbs

If you're training for over 1 hour, then it's a good idea to take intra-workout carbs to the gym.

Eating carbohydrates during an intense, long workout, can increase muscle glycogen and offset muscle damage.

For fast absorption, it's best to consume foods high in simple sugars, such as bananas.

This also prevents indigestion while training. 

I recommend having your intra-workout carbs half way through the workout.

E.g. If you train for 2 hours, then eat 1 or 2 bananas at the 1 hour mark. 

This gives the carbs time to kick in and provides a small energy boost for the rest of the workout. 

is fasted training a bad idea?

If your goal is to build muscle, then you should definitely eat carbohydrates and protein pre-workout.

This is the best way to increase energy, strength, and muscle growth.

However, this isn't to say that you should never train fasted.

In fact, fasted training has great benefits for fat loss:

  • It ​boosts lipolysis (fat burning).
  • It increases subcutaneous blood flow (which helps remove stubborn fat stores in the lower belly)
  • It's easier on the stomach, especially if you train early in the morning or late at night. 

The problem with training fasted is that it can accelerate muscle breakdown...

And this isn't good (especially in a calorie deficit).

Luckily, there is an easy workaround.

HMB (B-hydroxy B-methylbutyrate) is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine, which stimulates protein synthesis (the opposite process of muscle breakdown). 

This makes it ideal as an anti-catabolic agent during fasted training.

If you plan on training fasted, then I recommend taking 2 HMB tablets directly before training. 

4 amazing benefits of fed training

pre-workout nutrition

Fed training is without a doubt the best way to maximise performance in the gym.

Here are 4 reasons why you should consider eating a pre-workout meal.

Benefit #1 Greater energy

Loading up on carbohydrates before a heavy workout is extremely beneficial for performance. 

The increased glycogen stores will give you more energy and reduce perceived rate of exertion (RPE).

benefit #2 it prevents muscle breakdown

Whether or not you build muscle is determined by protein turnover rate.

This is the net balance between protein synthesis (muscle building) and protein degradation (muscle breakdown).

Protein synthesis is shown in Green and protein Degradation is shown in Blue

When you fast, insulin levels are lowered and fat becomes the preferred fuel source.

Muscle is also burned for energy in this fasted state.

After you've eaten a meal, insulin is raised and carbohydrates become the preferred fuel source instead.

Amino acids are also synthesised into new muscle tissue.

The longer your body remains in a 'fed state' the more time it has to repair and grow. 

By eating a pre-workout meal, you avoid muscle breakdown and keep the body in an anabolic state entering the workout. 

benefit #3 it's anabolic

Protein and carbohydrates are both extremely anabolic.

Consuming them before workouts will lead to more muscle growth, strength, and recovery in the long-term. 

benefit #4 it minimises muscle damage

If you're new to training, DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) can interfere with your recovery. 

Eating protein before a workout supplies the body with more amino acids to repair damaged muscle tissue. 

13 delicious pre-workout meal ideas (you need to try)

Crafting the perfect pre-workout snack doesn't have to be hard.

Here are 13 delicious pre-workout meal ideas...that are dead simple to make.

#1 Bananas

pre-workout nutrition

Bananas are a great source of potassium and contain simple sugars. 

They're also really convenient to eat when you're running late to the gym.  

#2 Chicken and rice

pre-workout nutrition

A good combination of protein and complex carbohydrates for weight training. 

#3 High-fat Greek yoghurt 

A solid mix of healthy fats and protein makes this perfect for low intensity cardio.

#4 Porridge with whey protein

pre-workout nutrition

Oats are high in fibre and release energy slowly.

You can easily add a scoop of whey protein for flavoured oats too!

(My favourite is chocolate. Yum).

#5 Homemade weight gainer

pre-workout nutrition

Blending oats, peanut butter, blueberries, and whey protein makes for a great weight gainer. 

I recommend having it at least 2-3 hours pre-workout, in order to avoid stomach cramps.

#6 Wholegrain toast with low-fat peanut butter

pre-workout nutrition

High in protein and low in fat, which makes it great for weight training.

#7 Apple slices with drizzled honey

pre-workout nutrition

This is an ultra-lightweight snack!

I recommend having it right before a workout.

#8 Egg white omelette with cottage cheese

pre-workout nutrition

A very high protein and low fat snack.

I recommend eating this with some carbs before weight training.

#9 Protein bars 

A quick pre-workout snack that's high in protein and carbs.

#10 Tuna and sweetcorn pasta

pre-workout nutrition

Pasta is very calorie dense and high in carbohydrates, making it well suited for endurance training.

#11 Jacket potato with baked beans

pre-workout nutrition

Potatoes and beans are a great source of fibre and release energy slowly. 

However, they can be heavy on the stomach so I recommend eating them a few hours before training.

#12 Fruit smoothies

pre-workout nutrition

Fruit smoothies are quick and easy to make, and they're perfect to consume before/during a workout. 

#13 Granola with berries

pre-workout nutrition

High in calories and fat, making it great for low intensity cardio.

How to pick the right pre-workout supplement 

If your pre-workout nutrition is solid, then you can enhance your gains even more through supplementation

There are a handful of supplements that can give you different benefits based on your goals/workout:

  • Creatine: Is a naturally occurring substance found inside the body. It converts into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is an energy molecule used to fuel muscle contractions. When you're lifting hard, your muscles burn through ATP rapidly, therefore increasing your creatine stores can improve performance. Studies have shown that supplementing with creatine can increase strength by 5-15%. In order to get the most benefit from supplementing creatine, you need to saturate your muscles with it first. This requires a loading phase of 7-30 days (depending on the doses you use). Once you've done this, I recommend maintaining with 5g of creatine either pre or post workout.    
  • Caffeine: Most pre-workouts include caffeine as a major ingredient because of its nootropic effects. It's also been shown to increase wakefulness and strength by 5-8%.  I recommend taking 100mg (a large cup of coffee) of caffeine immediately before a workout. 
  • Beta-alanine: When beta-alanine is ingested, it converts into the molecule carnosine (an acid buffer). It essentially prevents the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, allowing you to perform more reps/sets. Research has shown that it's most effective in the 60-240 second range (increasing endurance by up to 2.85%). One thing to consider is that most sets don't last anywhere near 1 minute.  This is why I don't recommend beta-alanine for most people. However, it can be useful for endurance training and volume workouts where you're performing ultra-high reps (30+).  The recommended dosage for beta-alanine is 2-5g pre-workout. *Note, beta-alanine can cause a tingly sensation known as 'paresthesia', but it's generally harmless.

why post-workout nutrition is overrated

Most gurus will tell you that post-workout nutrition is equally (if not more) important than pre-workout nutrition...

But this is false.

You see, the post-workout 'anabolic window' is a widely disputed myth.

It's based on the assumption that you're training fasted (where muscle breakdown is accelerated).

And research has shown that the food you eat before a workout is still being digested long after the workout is finished...

One study found that 20g of whey protein taken pre-workout can elevate amino aids to 4.4 times pre-exercise resting levels and last up to 3 hours after exercise too.

The bottom line is that post-workout nutrition is unnecessary (provided you're training fed).

BONUS: Pre-workout checklist


Carbohydrates, protein, and fats are vital for optimal workout performance:

  1. Carbs are the body's main fuel source for short, intense exercise (such as weight training). 
  2. Fat is used as an energy source in low intensity endurance exercise.
  3. Protein is needed for protein synthesis and to prevent muscle breakdown during workouts. 

If you're weight training:

  • I recommend 30g of protein and 50-100g of carbohydrates 1-2 hours before training.
  • Also, keep fat intake low (under 10 grams).

If you're doing endurance exercise (like cardio):

  • I recommend a balanced meal containing carbs, protein, and fat 1-2 hours before training.

Don't forget to hydrate before exercise too! Studies have shown that even a small amount of dehydration can decrease performance. 

If your goal is to build muscle, it's also beneficial to take caffeine pre-workout and creatine post-workout. 

Now, it's over to you!

What's your favourite pre-workout meal? And have you tried fasted training?

Let me know in the comments below.

(Image credits)

Lim Ashley

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