How to Eat to Fuel Your Strength Training Workout

Do you want to get the most out of your strength training routine? Focusing on your nutrition is key. What you eat both before and after your workout routine can impact your strength gains as well as your recovery time. To help, we asked two of the nation’s top sports dietitians to share the secrets they use with their clients to fuel strength training workouts.

The most essential nutrients for strength training

Should you focus on protein or carbohydrates when it comes to strength training? The answer is both. “You should consider fueling your body with protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes around the times you’re training for optimal performance and muscle recovery,” says Angie Asche, MS, RD, CSSD, of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of Fuel Your Body.

Protein provides the building blocks for muscles and essential fatty acids needed to nourish those muscles. Carbohydrates provide the fuel that will give you energy during your strength training workout. A good strategy: Incorporate both protein and carbs at each meal and snack, whether it’s before or after a workout session. 

“Resistance training studies consistently show better resistance training performance, faster recovery and greater muscle growth if you regularly eat enough total carbohydrate (over the course of the day) to fuel your training,” explains sports dietitian Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD.

Timing your meals for maximum benefits

It’s not just what you eat, but when you eat that matters. “The faster you consume carbohydrate and protein after strength training, the faster you start the recovery process,” explains Spano. Whether you are a competitive athlete or an avid exerciser looking to increase muscle gains, timing is key. “In the 45 minutes post-training your muscles rapidly take up carbohydrate and store it for your next training session,” adds Spano.

Consuming quality carbohydrates before a workout is also important. “Consuming carbohydrate before strength training can help decrease muscular fatigue and may also improve strength training performance,” explains Spano. She points out that this strategy is especially important for those who exercise first thing in the morning after an overnight fast, or those lifting weights directly after a high-energy activity such as endurance or speed training.

The ideal protein to carbohydrate ratio

“There is no ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein after resistance training,” shares Spano. “Your protein and carbohydrate needs will vary based on your total muscle mass, sport or training program, overall calorie intake, and goals.” And Asche agrees, “Portion sizes will vary depending on the individual, their total energy needs, and the timing of one’s workout.”

To find the exact balance of nutrients needed to match your workout and goals, consider consulting with a sports dietitian to help you determine the best strategy for your individual needs. If you aren’t ready for that step yet, Spano and Asche offer a few general guidelines to follow:

Meal planning guidelines for strength training

Balance your protein out evenly between meals. “Research shows the average American diet contains little protein at breakfast, a moderate amount of protein at lunch, and then a lot of protein at dinner. It’s best to even this out and consume approximately the same amount of protein at each major meal,” explains Spano.

Choose high-quality proteins. “We know that quality protein sources that contain essential amino acids help to promote muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Some examples include eggs, yogurt, whey protein isolate, poultry, fish, any soy,” shares Asche. 

Incorporate carbohydrates with protein. “Even if your goal is muscle building and fat loss simultaneously, you need energy (calories) to lay down new proteins in muscle. Taking in some carbohydrate post-training will help provide the energy needed to build new muscle tissue,” explains Spano. Complex carbohydrates such as sprouted grain bread, oats, rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes can make excellent choices. 

Pre and post-workout snacks aren’t always necessary. “There’s a common misconception that there should be pre and post-workout snacks added into your day, along with your meals and any other snacks. This may not be necessary depending on the timing of your meals and workouts,” explains Asche. For instance, if you will be having dinner within about an hour of your strength training session, this can count as your post-workout recovery meal. Just be sure to make it a balanced meal with a source of quality protein, complex carbohydrates, and nutrient-rich produce to round it out.

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