Pre-Workout Meal: Fueling Your Gym Workout

Written by the Boostcamp staff
Apr 9,2024|22 min| 2775

Power Your Workout: Pre-Workout Meal Essentials

Pre-workout nutrition is essential because it gives you energy, helps you sustain longer periods of activity, and improves your concentration and focus. The intensity and duration of your planned workout have a significant impact on the number of calories and type of macronutrients you need in your pre-workout meal or snack because the body relies on different fuel sources as these factors of your workout change. Fueling your body with solid pre-workout meals is the best way to ensure you’re making the most of your time in the gym. A well-balanced meal or snack with protein and carbs can keep you from feeling weak, dizzy, or lightheaded at the gym, especially if you’re following a high-volume workout program like 5/3/1 Building the Monolith.

Still, many gym-goers struggle with what and when to eat before training. They crash midway through their workouts because too much time has passed since their last meal or they get sick because they ate too close to their workouts.

To help prevent the same thing from happening to you, I’ll cover the following in this article:

  • How much protein, carbs, and fat you should eat before working out

  • How soon before your workout you should eat your last meal or snack

  • Examples of what to eat before a workout, depending on how much time you have between your last meal and your training session

  • Supplements to consider taking before a workout

How Much To Eat Before a Workout

The size of your snacks or meals depends on how soon you’ll hit the gym after eating and how many calories, in general, you eat each day. That said, snacks and meals between 200 and 500 calories are best, though you can eat more or less based on your individual needs and workout schedule.

When it comes to the amounts of protein, carbs, and fat your pre-workout meals should have, there are some general guidelines you can follow. 

How Many Carbs To Eat Before Strength Training

Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy and the macronutrient that should be prioritized before working out. It’s recommended to consume 0.25 to 0.4 grams of carbs per pound of body weight prior to training to ensure that the body has enough energy to perform well. If you weigh 150 pounds, this could be anywhere from 37.5 to 60 grams of complex carbohydrate. However, you can eat more if you won’t work out until about four hours after eating.

How Much Protein To Eat Before Strength Training

Most people know the importance of eating protein after a workout but don't realize how necessary it is to consume it before training. Eating an adequate amount of protein before you hit the gym helps initiate muscle protein synthesis (the process of building new muscle). Protein also contains amino acids, which can help you perform better in the gym and delay the time it takes for your muscles to fatigue. Recovery is a crucial part of muscle building, and protein intake plays a crucial role in the process of repairing muscle fibers and promoting the development of new muscle tissue for muscle growth.

For most people, 20 to 30 grams of protein before working out is ideal. But like carbs, you may want to bump that up a bit if there is a several-hour window before your last meal and your workout.

How Much Fat and Fiber To Eat Before Strength Training

We lumped fat and fiber into the same category because you should limit both before a workout. Fat and fiber slow digestion, which can delay the time it takes for carbs and protein to reach your bloodstream. Fiber can also make you feel gassy or bloated, which can slow you down.

Keep your pre-workout meals to less than 15 grams of fat and 8-10 grams of fiber to prevent digestive distress during your workout. An exception to this is if you eat about four hours before exercising. In that case, fat and fiber can be higher. Since they take longer to digest, they’ll increase your fullness levels and keep your energy levels up.

How Much Water To Drink Before Strength Training

Drinking water is just as important as eating before a workout. If you don’t drink enough water, you can become dehydrated, which can increase feelings of fatigue and negatively impact your performance.

The exact amount of water to drink before exercising will depend on how much water you’ve already had throughout the day and how hot or humid your training environment is. However, a good guideline is to drink 17-20 ounces of water two to three hours before working out.

How Soon To Eat Before Strength Training

Pre-workout meal timing can be the difference between feeling energized and strong or sluggish and unfocused at the gym. If you don’t eat enough, or you eat the wrong foods so that you burn through your pre-workout meal too quickly, you will have low energy, won’t be able to lift as much, and hunger pangs may distract you from being able to focus on getting a good workout. If you eat too much too soon before your workout, your body won’t have enough time to digest your meal, and you may feel nauseated or get a stomach ache. If you eat too far in advance, you may run out of energy mid-way through your workout and struggle to complete it. It is a good idea to experiment with several pre-exercise snacks/meals and stick with the few that work best under given circumstances.

A good rule of thumb is to eat about two to three hours before working out. Your body will have enough time to digest, but it won’t use up all of its energy stores before you need them the most. If your meal is large and around 700 calories or so, you can even eat closer to four hours before your workout.

But what if you train first thing in the morning? Is it better to eat before or after your workout?

This is largely based on personal preference. Some lifters prefer training on an empty stomach, while others need at least some carbs and/or protein in their systems to perform well.

If you fall into the latter camp, eating soon after waking is vital to give your body enough time to digest. Ideally, you should wake up early enough to eat a small amount of food and drink fluids 30 minutes before your workout.

Sample Meals and Snacks To Eat Before Strength Training

When Eating 30 Minutes Before a Workout

Knowing what to eat 30 minutes before a workout is something many people struggle with. When there’s only a tiny window between the time you eat and the time you train, a small snack with a high amount of carbs and a moderate amount of protein is ideal.

The best pre-workout snack is also low in fat and fiber. As discussed, these nutrients can leave a heavy feeling in your stomach, making it difficult to get through your workout.

Below is an example of a good pre-workout snack that is easy to digest. It’s also quick to make, so it’s a good option if you’re unsure what to eat before a morning workout.

  • 40 grams of a low-fiber cereal like Special K 

  • ¾ cup of skim milk

  • Half a scoop of whey protein powder

  • 1 Scoop creatine

This snack has the following calorie and macro breakdown:

  • Calories: 275

  • Protein: 26 g

  • Carbs: 40 g

  • Fat: 1 g

  • Fiber: 1 g

sample pre-workout meal

When Eating Two to Three Hours Before Working Out

If you aren’t working out for at least a couple of hours after eating, you can have a larger, more well-rounded meal. Fat and fiber should still be low, but you don’t have to avoid them completely since your body will have more time to digest your meal.

Here’s an example of a good meal two to three hours prior to a workout:

  • One whole egg and half a cup of egg whites, cooked in half a tablespoon of avocado oil

  • One cup of cream of rice

  • One cup of strawberries

  • One cup of blueberries

This meal has the following calorie and macro breakdown:

  • Calories: 492

  • Protein: 31 g

  • Carbs: 60 g

  • Fat: 13 g

  • Fiber: 7 g

When Eating Three Hours or More Before Working Out

If you don’t work out until three or four hours after eating, you can have a larger meal that will keep your energy levels up for a longer time. You can also eat more fat and fiber because they will keep you full for longer, preventing you from getting hungry or lightheaded while training.

A meal like the following can keep you satiated and energized until you get through your workout:

  • Six ounces of grilled chicken

  • One and a half cups of white rice

  • Half an avocado

  • Calories: 705

  • Protein: 50 g

  • Carbs: 90 g

  • Fat: 18 g

  • Fiber: 12 g

Best Supplements To Take Before Strength Training

Pre-Workout/Caffeine

Caffeine is beneficial before a workout because it can help delay muscle fatigue, enable you to perform more repetitions, and reduce muscle soreness. (1) For best results, you should take three to six milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight (1.4–2.7 milligrams per pound) 45 to 60 minutes before a workout. This can be in the form of coffee, a pre-workout supplement, or caffeine pills.

However, it’s important not to exceed 400 mg of caffeine per day. (2) Excessive caffeine consumption can cause insomnia (you need sleep), increased anxiety, accelerated heart rate, and other dangerous side effects.

Creatine

Creatine is one of the most widely researched supplements. Studies show it can positively affect energy levels, power output, and cognitive function. (3) While most research recommends taking creatine immediately after a workout for the best results, some studies suggest there are benefits to taking it before a workout. It is not a banned substance or anabolic steroid, so if you are competing drug tested you do not have to worry.

The body naturally produces some creatine in the muscles, liver, kidneys, brain, and pancreas, but its creatine levels deplete rapidly during exercise. Taking three to five grams of creatine 30-60 minutes before a workout can help improve your body's endurance by increasing exercise capacity and reducing fatigue. This is particularly beneficial for short and high intensity exercises. (4)

Protein Powder

As discussed earlier, protein before a workout can kick-start the muscle-building process. But if you are working out soon after eating, meat, seafood, and other protein-rich foods may not be a viable option. Protein powder is easily digestible, so you won’t feel like you have something heavy sitting in your stomach. You can even sip on it as you warm up. Protein powder is also convenient if you want something quick and easy to consume in the car on the way to the gym.

For most people, 20 to 30 grams of protein powder around 30 minutes before a workout is ideal.

What To Eat After a Workout

Your post-workout meal is just as important as your pre-workout meal. Working out depletes your glycogen stores and causes tiny tears in your muscle tissue, and you may have lost water and electrolytes from sweating. Eating and drinking properly after training is essential for your recovery.

Similar to your pre-workout meal, protein, carbs, and insulin are the three most important macronutrients to consume after training. Protein helps repair the damage to your muscle tissue so your muscles can grow back stronger and larger. Carbs help replenish your glycogen stores, allowing you to overcome the fatigue you may experience after a hard training session and preparing your body to work out again the next day. Insulin, due to factors like increased blood flow and insulin sensitivity, boosts cellular glucose uptake and glycogen restoration, further aiding in the recovery process (Rosenbloom & Coleman 2012). Incorporating the right foods before and after exercise, such as a combination of protein, carbs, and insulin, can boost your results and help you make the most of your workout.

A post-workout meal also shouldn’t be high in fat or fiber because those nutrients can delay the absorption of protein and carbs.

Examples of good meals to have after a workout include:

  • A scoop of whey protein powder blended with low-fat milk, a large banana, and one tablespoon of peanut butter

  • Egg whites and turkey bacon on a whole-wheat bagel

  • Greek yogurt with berries and granola

  • Grilled chicken with a baked sweet potato

If you sweat a lot, a sports beverage like Gatorade or an electrolyte powder mixed in water will help replenish the electrolytes you lost.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is It Better To Eat Before or After a Workout?

It’s important to eat both before and after working out and strength training. Eating before gives your body energy, so you can train for longer and perform more sets and reps. Eating after helps replenish your glycogen stores and repair the muscle damage that occurs from lifting weights.

What Should I Not Eat Before Lifting Weights?

You shouldn’t eat high-fiber, high-fat foods before lifting weights. This includes fatty cuts of meat, deep-fried foods, fiber-rich vegetables such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and beans. These foods take a long time to digest, can make you feel gassy and bloated, and may cause digestive distress during a workout. You should avoid fizzy, carbonated drinks immediately before strength training as well. They can also cause bloating, gassiness, and other stomach issues during your workout.

What Should I Eat Before a Workout to Build Muscle?

When trying to gain muscle mass, eating the best foods, such as Greek yogurt, protein powder, grilled or baked chicken, and egg whites, before a workout can help jump-start the muscle-building process. These foods are known for being the perfect balance of fats, carbs, and protein, which can fuel your body, stave off hunger, fight fatigue, and even aid recovery. Carbs like rice, fruit, low-fiber breakfast cereal, and oats are also good pre-workout options because they provide the energy you need for sustained energy to get through your strength training session. Adding the best foods to your pre-workout routine can maximize your efforts in the gym and help your body prepare for the workout ahead.

What Should I Eat 30 Minutes Before I Lift?

A small snack with protein and carbs is best to eat 30 minutes before lifting weights. The foods you choose should be low in fat and fiber, so they don’t slow down digestion and make you feel sluggish or uncomfortable during your workout. Fruit, oats, small bagels, protein powder, Greek yogurt, chicken, or slices of turkey deli meat, such as a turkey sandwich, are examples of good pre-workout foods. Opt for lower-fiber, lower-water foods like porridge, bananas, energy bars, egg salad sandwiches, etc. to ensure you don't feel weighed down or "stuffed" during your workout.

How Long Should I Wait to Work Out After Eating?

How long you should wait to work out after eating depends on how much you eat. If you have a small snack, you can work out 30-60 minutes after eating. But if you have a full meal, you should wait at least two hours before working out. This will give your body enough time to digest the food so you won’t experience stomach discomfort, but you’ll still have the energy to power through your workout.

The Best Workouts

When it comes to the idea of a pre-workout meal, finding a good workout app with great programs to help you build up your muscle mass and strength and improve overall, check out the free Boostcamp App. You can find tons of different workout routines that will truly push you to the limit, and they are made by renowned evidence-based coaches. Boostcamp also lets you create your own custom routines and log your progress, which is great for tracking your progress and making linear progression.

To maximize your gains and simplify your fitness journey, consider using Boostcamp, the last lifting app you'll ever need. Boostcamp helps you track your progress, offers customizable training programs, and provides expert guidance to ensure you get the most out of your chosen workout program whether it's linear push pull legs or upper lower or whatever you choose. Start making the most of your workouts and download Boostcamp today!

Fuel Your Body Properly to Boost Your Performance in the Gym

While it’s best to eat around two to three hours before working out, you can eat anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours before a training session if you plan your meals properly. An ideal pre-workout meal should be large enough to keep your energy levels high but not so big that it leaves you feeling nauseous or uncomfortable during your workout.

If you’re unsure of exactly what to eat before a workout, stick with foods you know you can tolerate. Prioritize protein, carbs, and a balanced diet, and avoid high-fat and high-fiber foods. Once you find meals or snacks that work, keep those in your regular food rotation so you’re always prepared and don’t have to scrap something together at the last minute that may not sit well in your stomach as you’re training. Eating a balanced diet before you go can keep your blood sugar steady, providing plenty of energy for cardio and strength training.

Is your nutrition already on point, but you’re not seeing the results you want? Boostcamp has the largest app-based library of free workout programs for powerlifting, bodybuilding, powerbuilding, and bodyweight fitness on the internet. Download the Boostcamp app today to access dozens of programs that can help you reach your goals, whether you want to get stronger, build muscle, or both.

Also, be sure to follow Boostcamp on Instagram and subscribe on YouTube!

References

1. Hurley, Caitlin F.; Hatfield, Disa L.; Riebe, Deborah A.. The Effect of Caffeine Ingestion on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(11):p 3101-3109, November 2013. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a99477

2. Daniele Wikoff, Brian T. Welsh, Rayetta Henderson, Gregory P. Brorby, Janice Britt, Esther Myers, Jeffrey Goldberger, Harris R. Lieberman, Charles O'Brien, Jennifer Peck, Milton Tenenbein, Connie Weaver, Seneca Harvey, Jonathan Urban, Candace Doepker,

Systematic review of the potential adverse effects of caffeine consumption in healthy adults, pregnant women, adolescents, and children, Food and Chemical Toxicology, Volume 109, Part 1, 2017, Pages 585-648, ISSN 0278-6915, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2017.04.002.

Metabolism plays a crucial role in fueling your gym workout. It determines how efficiently your body converts the food you eat into energy. Understanding the relationship between metabolism and exercise can help you make better choices when it comes to fueling your body before strength training. By providing the right nutrients, you can optimize your metabolism and enhance your performance in the gym.

4. Ribeiro F, Longobardi I, Perim P, Duarte B, Ferreira P, Gualano B, Roschel H, Saunders B. Timing of Creatine Supplementation around Exercise: A Real Concern? Nutrients. 2021; 13(8):2844. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13082844