You are laying on the ground, lungs burning, quads with the most insane pump you have ever head.
That drop set of squats to finish leg day just destroyed your legs… and your soul.
As you lay there, only two things are going through your mind.
Am I going to die? If I don’t die, what is my post-workout meal going to be to maximize my gains?
The post-workout meal is a thing of almost mythical stature. It has been placed on this pedestal and is almost sacred in the world of fitness.
Due to this mythical stature there are a lot of myths floating around.
Let me cut through them with some science and give you 5 tips to perfecting your post workout meal.
1. Chill Out About Protein Timing
Remember the 1990s when the anabolic window was a real thing and you were terrified that if you didn’t slam that post workout shake you would die… or at a minimum your gainz would be lost?
Well turns out, the anabolic window is more like the anabolic sliding glass wall. The opening is quite large and even 6 hours post workout can get you virtually the same long term results as scarfing down your food immediately after you finish your pump session.
This is something we intuitively knew based on a handful of studies that came out between the 90s and today, but my friends Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld really cleared this up in an awesome review paper and a subsequent meta-analysis they published a few years back in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition1,2.
In the super famous meta-analysis (the paper has been accessed 219,387 times while I am writing this). They essentially showed that total daily protein intake was far more important for determining muscle growth than the timing.
One important thing to note though is in the study it was fairly clear that consuming protein closer to training wasn’t a bad thing and there may be a very small potential benefit for some people.
So when we talk about timing, eating within a few hours, especially protein, is a good idea but you don’t need to sweat it or rage if you left your shaker at home, you can get your total daily protein and your biceps will still grow.
Keep it simple stupid.
For most of us post workout nutrition can be fairly simple. Get some protein (between 15-45 grams depending on size and goals), some easily digestible carbs at about a 2:1-4:1 carb to protein ratio, and an appropriate amount of fat based on your total daily needs but don’t make it super fat heavy.
I know this might sound sacrilegious to say “it can be simple and you can eat fat post workout”, but that is what the science says. The idea that post workout dietary fat in moderate quantities slows recovery or impedes gains has zero scientific evidence to support it.
I went down the PubMed hole pretty deep and couldn’t find anything compelling to suggest some peanut butter with your banana is going to diminish your gains.
Also, the exact source of these foods appears to not really be a big determiner of how you recover from a purely muscle glycogen standpoint. That sounds crazy, but it is true3.
Now that doesn’t mean you should be rolling through that McDonald’s drive-thru every day after training (more on this in the micronutrient section below), but it means that you shouldn't freak out if you're put in a situation where you have to eat something that isn't "ideal" post workout.
3. Know Your Primary Goal
Just like your training, your post-workout meal should be aimed at your primary goal. For example, if you are trying to maximize muscle growth you should be eating substantially different than if you are trying to maximize fat loss.
If you are trying to maximize your gains there are a few key concepts you need to focus on:
This order might surprise you but let me walk you through this.
When it comes to building muscle there are two things you must have to maximize your capacity to build new tissue: stimulus and energy. To grow muscle you have to send your body a gigantic growth signal. That comes in the form of you training.
Then you have to provide the energy to build new tissue. Building muscle is a very energy intensive process. It doesn’t really matter if you have the building blocks for it (i.e. amino acids) if you don’t have the requisite energy to assemble them.
Next on the hierarchy is carbohydrates. This is where most people miss the boat, they think that protein is the next most important but honestly, it is likely carbohydrates. If you are trying to maximize muscle growth you need both protein and carbs, and most people who are fitness minded get enough protein but are severely lacking carbohydrates due to a recent trend toward low carbohydrate diets.
The research is abundantly clear that combining protein with carbohydrates is far superior for stimulating muscle growth than just protein alone4,5. Here you can push toward the higher end of 3:1 or 4:1 carb to protein ratio.
Then you simply need to meet the protein requirements that appear to maximize the capacity of protein to be used for muscle tissue. This appears to be somewhere between 0.7 grams per pound to about 1.5 grams per pound for most practical purposes (this is still debated quite a bit about what the magic number is but this is a good range to start in).
If you are trying to lose weight, the hierarchy is a bit different, it usually goes:
When you are attempting to lose weight you have to follow thermodynamics and burn more than you expend. Now it makes a LOT more sense to run a deficit at a higher calorie intake as you upregulate a lot more adaptive processes (more on that in a future article) but you can’t lose weight without an energy deficit.
Then the next priority for your post workout meal should be to prevent muscle loss, which means protein takes priority. This is where you place protein as a higher percentage of your daily and post workout calories. Between 15-45 grams (depending on size) appears to be a solid dose to maintain muscle mass.
Then you just round out the rest of your post workout calorie allotment from carbs and fats and you are good to go.
4. Think About Digestion
Fun fact: during training the blood moves away from your gut and toward your muscles and your ability to digest food is impaired. If you are consuming fairly large post workout meals immediately after hard training sessions it would be smart to make digestion as easy as possible.
Easily digestible proteins are things like whey protein (isolate, concentrate, and hyrdolysate), egg whites, low fat milk, greek yogurt, and sometimes lower-fat proteins (like chicken and turkey) are often easier to digest than higher fat protein.
Typically starches and simple carbohydrates like rice, potatoes, pasta, bananas, and dates are more easily digestible than higher fiber content foods like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and even things like lentils.
Fats appear to be a more individual thing when it comes to digestion where some people can consume moderate sizes of fat immediately post training and do fine, whereas other people report large amounts of GI distress. This is a good self-experiment.
Now if you use that giant anabolic sliding glass door and eat a few hours after training when your digestive system has fully recovered, then this isn’t something you need to sweat too much.
5. Don’t Forget Micronutrition
I told you I would come back to why McDonald’s and other processed foods might be fine for muscle glycogen but not a great idea for long-term recovery. I always keep my promises so let’s dive into this.
While the quality of the food you consume might not impact recovery from an immediate muscle glycogen standpoint, you bet your sweet glutes that they are super important to your overall recovery as an athlete.
Think about it this way. Macros as the gas in your car. They provide the chemical energy that your car turns into mechanical energy and your engine runs.
Micronutrients are your spark plugs and your oil. Things like magnesium run almost all the reactions in your body things like vitamin B12, Vitamin D, vitamin C, choline, etc. help facilitate the reactions that turn amino acids into usable stuff: muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons.
This means that when you think about your overall nutrition, including post workout nutrition, food selection actually matters in the long run. It is pertinent to make sure that you get adequate micronutrition through your total daily nutritional intake.
Specifically getting them post workout is not of critical importance, similar to protein intake, but make sure your post-workout meal occurs in the context of getting adequate micronutrition throughout an entire day.
The Wrap Up
When we talk about nutrient timing, your total daily caloric and protein intake trumps any specific window.
Getting a meal within 90 minutes of training is a good strategy but if you wait 2-3 hours your gains won’t disappear.
Make sure that your post workout nutrition matches your overarching goal. Keep it simple as the really small nuances don’t matter for 98% of the planet. Use the rules of thumb we touched on in each main section.
Your micronutrition plays a key role in your long-term recovery and ability to make gains so make sure your post-workout meal occurs in the context of a micronutrient rich diet.
- Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?
- The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis
- Postexercise Glycogen Recovery and Exercise Performance Is Not Significantly Different between Fast Food and Sport Supplements
- Minimal whey protein with carbohydrate stimulates muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise in trained young men
- Leucine-enriched essential amino acid and carbohydrate ingestion following resistance exercise enhances mTOR signaling and protein synthesis in human muscle