I received a really good question the other day. Someone asked me, “If I want to gain muscle, should I eat a big meal right after I workout, or should I eat before I workout?”
The answer is a little bit surprising. If we examine the question as is, then my answer is “it doesn’t really matter.” The timing of your pre and post workout meal doesn’t have a direct link to building muscle. It’s more important to focus on the time between meals.
A good rule of thumb is to space out your meals by about 3 – 4 hours. This gives your body time to use the protein from your last meal to build muscle. It is also important to point out that the type of pre-workout meal and when you eat it, can have a positive effect on your training performance and lead to better workouts.
You will get a better workout if you feel energized instead of heavy and sluggish. A good training session can also increase your motivation and the joy you get from working out. If you enjoy working out then it’s easier to stay consistent. Consistent resistance training is a strong indicator of increased muscle mass overtime. So timing and contents of pre-workout meals can have a sort of indirect effect.
Here is my take on meal timing and composition in relation to a training session:
Your pre-workout meal should be something with low fat, moderate protein, and high carbs. Try to eat this 2-3 hours before training. It may take some experimenting to figure out the exact timing and foods that work best for you.
My go to pre-workout meal is very basic. 4-6oz chicken, 6oz white rice, some veggies for fiber, consumed about 3.5 hours before training. This leaves me a little hungry going in, but I realized I perform WAY better that way (weird.) Start with 2 hours before training, and adjust the variables to find what works best for you.
Your post workout meal can be a snack. It should be at least 3 hours after your pre-workout meal. It should contain at least 20 grams of protein. Most high quality protein shakes meet this criteria. You should wait at least another 3 hours before consuming your next serving of protein. Spreading out your protein consumption by 3 hours will maximize muscle growth. This rule has to do with muscle protein synthesis, which I will not cover in this blog.
Focus your attention on: your caloric intake, macronutrients, training program, and consistent training. Those are the keys to what will build muscle.
If you are attempting to gain muscle then you’ll need to do 3 basic things in addition to meal timing:
1) Be in a caloric surplus, about 200-300 calories per day.
2) You’ll need to consume adequate protein to stimulate growth. Defining “adequate” is based on a variety of factors. But, to keep it simple, try to eat 20-40g of protein per meal/snack. An example of a day’s eating is: breakfast 20g/ lunch 20g/ post-workout snack 20g/ dinner 20g.
3) You are engaging in a training program designed to stimulate muscle growth.
If you are doing all these things consistently, you’ll gain muscle. Once those criteria are met, then it makes sense to focus on meal timing.