We work out for all sorts of reasons—from supporting our overall health, to de-stressing, to building strength. If you’re getting sweaty specifically to build muscle, know this: What you eat outside of the gym is crucial to your success.
Why Nutrition Makes Gains
When you’re in the business of building muscle, you’ve got to eat strategically—and two macronutrients are of the utmost importance: carbs and protein.
“These two macronutrients support muscle protein synthesis, the process through which the body lays down new proteins to increase muscle mass,” says Joshua Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and member of The Vitamin Shoppe Wellness Council.
Though carbs may have a shaky reputation right now (ahem, keto), they’re critical for anyone working out to build muscle.
Why? Carbs provide our body with the type of fuel it needs to power muscle-building exercise, like strength training.
“Whenever we eat any type of carbohydrate, whether it’s pure sugar or vegetables, we break it down into glucose,” says Axe. We then use this glucose to fuel higher-intensity exercise—or store it in our muscles and liver as glycogen for later use.
This energy helps our muscles work harder during exercise, which ultimately promotes greater growth.
It also saves our muscles from breaking down their own tissue for energy, which they resort to when carbs are scarce.
Just keep in mind that not all carbs are created equal.
“Complex carbohydrates (like legumes, veggies, oatmeal, and whole grains) consist of long chains of simple sugars, which means they take longer to break down,” says Axe. “Simple carbs, on the other hand, contain one or two simple sugars, and are released into the blood quickly.”
Axe recommends focusing on complex carbs as much as possible to promote overall health, balanced blood sugar levels, and stable energy.
Fueling workouts with simple or processed carbs (think baked goods and sweetened sports drinks) often leaves you feeling fatigued and nutrient-deprived later on, he says. Plus, excessive consumption of simple sugars can contribute to inflammation, weight gain, and other health issues in the long run.
While carbs provide our muscles with the energy they need to work hard, protein provides the molecules they need to recover and grow.
“Protein is made up of smaller units called amino acids, which are the body’s main building blocks for tissues like muscle,” says Axe.
The more (and harder) we work out, the more protein our muscles need. That’s why consuming ample protein is important for active people—especially those looking to build muscle.
Axe recommends eating whole proteins, like:
- Grass-fed meat
- Pasture-raised poultry (chicken or turkey)
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Wild-caught fish
To Build Muscle: Eat Around Your Workouts
“In order to prevent muscle breakdown and build more muscle, consuming carbs and protein before and after your workouts is crucial,” says Axe.
Before Working Out
Fueling up pre-workout helps keep your body in an anabolic (muscle-building state) throughout your training session, says Axe.
The result: You crush your workout and stimulate greater muscle growth.
When To Eat
Ideally, you’ll eat your pre-workout snack or meal an hour to 90 minutes before training, says Axe. This gives your body time to digest and absorb its nutrients—and prevents you from feeling too full or nauseous during your workout.
What To Eat
Just how much you should eat pre-workout depends on a few factors, like your size and fitness level—and the intensity of your upcoming workout.
However, if you’re working out hard to support muscle-building, research suggests eating somewhere around 50 grams of carbohydrates and up to 10 grams of protein before training.
A few of Axe’s go-to’s:
- protein smoothie made with protein powder, almond milk, fruit, and spinach
- eggs with whole-grain toast
- rolled oats with unsweetened yogurt and berries
- banana with hard-boiled eggs
After Working Out
Though recent research highlights the importance of fueling up before your workouts, “many experts still consider post-workout crucial for refueling, recovering, and building muscle,” says Axe.
Without the carbs and protein needed to recover, your body may break down muscle—and you may experience:
- Excessive soreness
- Increased cravings for sugary or processed foods
- Brain fog
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of later workout performance
- Increased incidence of fitness-related injuries
When To Eat
Axe recommends refueling within 30 minutes to an hour of finishing up your workout. During this period, known as the ‘anabolic window,’ your muscles are especially receptive to carbs and protein in their attempts to recover.
What To Eat
The International Society of Sports Medicine recommends eating a meal consisting of two parts carbohydrates and one part protein. (Think 40 grams of carbs and 20 grams of protein, for example.)
Axe’s recommendations include:
- protein smoothie made with protein powder, almond milk, fruit, and spinach (it’s always a winner!)
- salad with chicken and quinoa
- chicken or turkey with sweet potato
- kale salad with shrimp and corn
- beef stir-fry with brown rice and veggies
The Bottom Line
Though pre- and post-workout fuel are both crucial for maximizing muscle-building, following the proper training routine and getting plenty of rest also determine your success. Whether you’re in the gym or in the kitchen, listen to your body! If you’re not seeing results despite your hard work (and smart fueling!), talk to a dietitian or certified trainer about any tweaks you might need to make.
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