Before we get started, I want to make one thing clear: your diet is not going to make or break your powerlifting success. It might make or break your success when it comes to improving your physique, though, and improving your diet habits will absolutely not hurt your strength (unless you diet down to really, really low levels of bodyfat). So it's worth your time and effort to improve in this area, but if you're gearing up for a max squat, don't expect miracles.
And, while this is an article about peri-workout nutrition, you might also want to check out this overview of my approach to dieting. I think it will give you a good frame of reference for the rest of the article.
What is peri-workout nutrition?
“Peri” is a fancy prefix meaning “around,” so peri-workout nutrition includes everything you eat around your workout: before, during, and after. It’s a trendy term, but peri-workout nutrition is more important to focus on than post-workout alone, because "anabolic window" hype aside, your goals for nutrition should be broader than just recovery. How you eat can help to prepare your body for a heavy training session, keep it going during that session, and, yes, help it recover afterward.
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that peri-workout nutrition is the single most important part of your diet. But “most” doesn’t mean “only!” I’ve found that excellent peri-workout nutrition can make up for many minor shortcomings in your eating at other times during the day. “Minor” is the key word there.If the rest of the diet is crap, you’re not going to see a whole lot of benefits just from improving your peri-workout nutrition. If your overall diet is pretty decent, then stepping up your peri-workout game might help quite a bit.
So, assuming you don’t eat like an asshole all the time, let’s take a look at how you can build a stellar peri-workout plan.
Science or common sense?
Actually, before we go there, I want to make a bit of a disclaimer. I’m a big believer in science and the scientific method. I try to stay up-to-date on the literature by reading MASS and staying in touch with my friends from the Kinesiology department at the University of Texas (where I earned my doctorate).
But I don’t base all of my decisions on science. If you’ve even scratched the surface of the dozens of Internet gurus who tout the most “scientific” protocols for this and that, you know that there are studies to support almost any approach, some of which might even seem conflicting. Trying to uncover the “right” answer from a scientific perspective is, in my opinion, an exercise in frustration.
So, I don’t try to back up all my decisions with science — I go with what I find works. And I find what works through trial and error, making small changes over time, and observing my response to them. That’s the same approach I teach in Unf*ck Your Program, with good reason: it just works.
Keep this section in mind while you’re reading the rest of the article (and, for that matter, everything I write). I’ll refer to the literature when I think it’s relevant, but if you want me to give you a source for everything I recommend, I’ll have to disappoint you — because I don’t have one.
Now that that’s been said, let’s more on to the good stuff!
When you’re thinking about preworkout meals, you want to start thinking ahead: how is eating this going to make you feel during your training? Personally, I like to feel full, but not stuffed, while I train. I coach quite a few athletes who don’t even like to feel full, and I’ve lifted with guys who just go for max bloat in the preworkout meal. None of these approaches is wrong — again, the most important thing is that you feel good while you’re lifting. However, your definition of “good” is going to have a big impact on what you eat and when you eat it.
If you’re a middle-of-the-road guy or gal, like I am, you’ll probably be best off with a pretty balanced approach to macronutrients and timing. Your meal should be fairly high in carbohydrates, with moderate protein and fats, and you should eat it anywhere from 1-2 hours before you train. I like a 55/25/20 ratio of protein/carbs/fats, but you can tweak those a bit to find what fits you best.
If you’re in one of the other two groups — the very light eaters or the maximum bloat brigade — I actually recommend you cut back on the fat and protein a bit, and make your preworkout meal pretty carb-heavy. It might seem strange that two very different goals would have the same recommendation, but carbs tend to be easy to eat and digest fairly quickly. That means that if you’re going for the bloat, then you can really pound the carbs about an hour before training, along with plenty of sodium and fluids. If you’re trying to feel fairly light, and just eat more sparingly, about 2 hours before training. A 70/15/15 macro ratio would probably work well in either case.
No matter what your ideal pre-workout feel is, you absolutely must eat something before training if you’re concerned about your performance (again, body composition is a different story). In the long run, you simply will not perform as well in a fasted state as you will with even a little bit of nutrition.
Man, intra-workouts have gotten really popular lately — and by “intra-workout,” I’m including everything from gummy worms to Granite’s Recovery formula. And don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge believer in intra-workout nutrition. But the truth is that the science behind these protocols is a little difficult to unravel. As is the theme of this article, I think you’re best off not worrying to much about the science, and instead focusing on how you feel during training.
Now, if you do care about the science, here’s what it shows (more or less):
- BCAAs — specifically about 7 grams of leucine, depending on your size — consumed during training can decrease catabolism and increase rates of muscle protein synthesis.
- This effect may be enhanced by including 10-20 grams of carbohydrate.
However, it’s difficult to say that these are the be-all and end-all of intra-workout guidelines, because studies are performed with such a wide variety of subjects and environments. So don’t tie yourself to those numbers.
I’m not a big believer in intras because of the science — I’m a big believer because I have consistently found that I perform better in the gym when I get some nutrition in during my training. This is even more obvious when I’m cutting weight. I can’t train productively in a caloric deficit without intra-workout nutrition. That’s not to say you can’t, but it’s worth considering.
Personally, I really do like Granite’s intra-workout product, Recovery. It tastes great and it’s convenient. But in the past, I’ve eaten everything from bananas and beef jerky to cereal and protein powder during my training, with great success.
Here’s the bottom line: I HIGHLY suggest you get some sort of intra-workout nutrition with 10-20 grams of easily-digested protein or amino acids, and the same amount of carbohydrates. What foods or supplements you choose should be based on how well you tolerate them during training. If you feel uncomfortable eating whole food while you lift, go with a supplement.If you like gummy worms and want a good excuse to eat some, go for it — just make sure you get that protein in, too.
Ah, post workout — the legendary anabolic window meal. The truth is, if I had no idea about the research, I’d tell you the preworkout meal was more important than the post. That’s because my number-one nutrition outcome is to feel full and strong during my training so that I can perform better. But research shows that during the time after your training, your body is most likely to build muscle, and that eating well here can increase both recovery and future performance. So the post workout meal is really important, too.
According to that research, there are two simple things you need to look for in your post workout meal:
- A large amount of carbohydrates
- At least 20 grams of protein
Now, we can, of course, get much more fancy with it — looking at aspects like insulin response, digestion rates, leucine intake, and so on. Again, in my opinion, that stuff just doesn’t matter (unless you plan to step on the Mr. Olympia stage in the next year).
Instead, I prefer to focus on the more practical aspects of a big meal. How can I get in a lot of carbs and a moderate or high amount of protein without feeling nauseated, stuffed, or sleepy afterward? After all, unless you train late in the day, you’re probably not going to bed right after the gym, so it’s important that you still feel pretty good even after a workout.
For me, that means sweet potato, oats, and some lean meat like chicken breast as a post workout meal. No, those aren’t rapidly-digesting foods, but they work great for me. If you struggle with eating whole food right after a training session, and you want to do a shake with whey isolate and dextrose, go for it — just don’t assume that a shake is necessary for recovery.
Your ratios here will depend more on your body than on your preferences. If you gain fat easily, you’ll want to limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat after training, but I’d still try for at least a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein, with a minimum of 20 grams of protein. If you struggle to gain muscle, on the other hand, you might eat as many as 150-200 grams of carbs and 50-60 grams of protein after training.
Look, at the end of the day, you really should pay attention to your nutrition, especially around your workout. At the same time, you need to avoid obsessing over it (or over anything else, for that matter). Finding that balance is crucial in a lot of areas of life, but when it comes to nutrition, so many people get wrapped up in finding the perfect solution, or the magic bullet. The truth is, if you can just avoid eating a bunch of junk, you’ll probably be in great shape.
Now, that said: if you do have all your other ducks in a row, improving your peri-workout nutrition can make difference in both your physique and performance (to varying degrees). I think good peri-workout nutrition is the reason I’m able to train heavy and stay lean without getting injured. And, it affords me flexibility during other times of the day: if I can’t get a meal in every two hours, I don’t stress about it, because I know how to fuel my body best when it counts the most.
Give the ideas in this article a try and see how they work for you. There’s a good chance you’ll end up bigger, leaner, and stronger.
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