Fail-Safe Optimal Pre-Workout Nutrition
When is the optimal time to consume whey protein? What are the best pre-workout ingredients? What should I consume before I train? If you find yourself asking these questions—or anything else in regard to the optimal nutrition or supplementation in the hours leading up to your workout—then you’re in the right place!
There is a lot of good information, and just as much bad information, circulating on proper pre-workout nutrition and supplementation. The goal of this guide is twofold:
• To help you sort through some of the current ideas circulating regarding pre-workout • supplements and nutrition.
• To provide you with an all-in-one pre-workout nutrition and supplementation guide.
When addressing pre-workout nutrition, you must first recognize what you are trying to do: prime your body to perform at its highest level. On the nutritional side of things, this involves providing adequate energy for your workout, along with the nutrients needed to mitigate the muscle breakdown and damage you incur while training. A well-thought-out pre-workout meal will provide just that! When addressing pre-workout nutrition, you must first recognize what you are trying to do: prime your body to perform at its highest level.
The macronutrient responsible for giving energy to your body is carbohydrates, so you want to make sure you are consuming both the optimal quantity and type. I am a big proponent of consuming about 50 percent of your daily carbohydrate intake in your pre-workout meal and your post-workout shake. So, if you consume 300 grams of carbs daily, you’ll consume 150 of them before and after training. I personally split this amount right down the middle, choosing to consume 25 percent of my daily intake before my workout and 25 percent after my workout. Aim to consume these carbs from relatively quick-digesting sources. My personal favorites are white rice, red potatoes, and baked potatoes.
The macronutrient responsible for providing your body the nutrients it needs to sustain existing muscle tissue, as well as make growth possible, is protein. By consuming an appropriate amount of the right kind of protein before training, you can increase performance and jump-start recovery, since your body will be in an anabolic (muscle-building) state due to the elevation in protein synthesis.1 I recommend keeping your pre-workout protein source very lean, choosing foods such as chicken breasts, lean ground meat (98 percent or leaner), white fish, or egg whites. I believe in spreading your protein intake pretty evenly throughout the day. To determine how much protein to eat in your pre-workout meal, simply take your daily total protein goal and divide by the number of meals you plan on consuming, making sure to count your post-workout shake as one of your meals. For example, I personally aim to consume about 360 grams of protein per day, in seven meals. So that means I need to consume roughly 50 grams of protein per meal.
The final thing you want to remember when designing your pre-workout meal is to keep the fats low, even if they are healthy fats.
The reason for this is because fats can slow down the digestive process, and the last thing you want is your food sitting like a brick in your stomach when you consume your pre-workout drink and start training.
Always look for reduced-fat, low-fat, or no-fat alternatives to your nutrition choices whenever possible.
While on the subject of food sitting in your stomach like a brick, let’s talk about when you should consume this meal. You want to time you pre-workout meal so it isn’t sitting in your stomach undigested when it’s time to train. But at the same time, you want the nutritional benefits from the meal.
It’s been my experience that the sweet spot for pre-workout meal timing is about an hour and a half to two hours before you start your first set. Notice how it didn’t read two hours before you leave for the gym, or two hours before you drink your pre-workout. Doing things on this timeline should put you in the golden land of having a fueled, primed body without feeling full or bloated.
Few topics cause more confusion, debate, or frustration than pre-workout supplementation. Everyone has their own opinion as to what the best ingredients are, yet many people don’t fully understand what a pre-workout should do for you.
Your pre-workout should positively benefit you in three areas:
• Strength/muscular endurance
• Mental focus/energy
There are countless products on the market that claim to help in these areas, but a handful have distinguished themselves as tried-and-true pre-workout performance enhancers, as long as they are consumed in effective amounts. Effectively dosed formulas are paramount to any successful pre-workout, as all the research on the effects of the performance ingredients in pre-workouts is done using certain amounts of the ingredients. If you’re not consuming those amounts, you can pretty much throw the research out the window. So read the label. If it doesn’t contain effective amounts of your chosen ingredients, either choose a different pre-workout or purchase additional single ingredients to boost the amounts to where they’re up to the job. The second option ends up being much more expensive and time-consuming, so pay attention and invest your hard-earned money on an effective formula!
Now that you know what to look for in a pre-workout, let’s discuss what I believe to be the most effective pre-workout performance ingredients, and the amounts they should be dosed at.
• Branched-chain amino acids 5 grams
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are crucial before, during, and after your workouts for a several reasons. First, supplementing BCAAs provides an immediate source of fuel for your muscle tissue. Unlike whole-food proteins, or even whey isolate, BCAAs are easily absorbed into the blood stream. This nearly instant rise in blood levels of BCAAs provides your muscle tissue with the readily available fuel it needs to carry out protein synthesis. This means your body will rely more on the BCAAs taken in supplement form than on breaking down muscle proteins to release more BCAAs, which can lead to muscle loss.
Supplementing BCAAs provides an immediate source of fuel for your muscle tissue. Unlike whole-food proteins, or even whey isolate, BCAAs are easily absorbed into the blood stream. Another main reason to supplement with BCAAs before your workout is that they can lead to less soreness and a quicker recovery. Additionally, leucine, one of the three amino acids that make up BCAAs, is a key initiator of protein synthesis and can help suppress muscle protein breakdown and reduce markers of muscle damage.
Lastly, supplementing BCAAs helps fight fatigue, allowing you to push even harder through your workouts. When exercising, tryptophan is taken into your brain and converted to serotonin, which in high concentrations can signal that the body is fatigued, impacting performance in a negative way. BCAAs can reduce the uptake of tryptophan and the conversion to serotonin, thereby delaying fatigue. Supplementing with BCAAs has been shown to reduce ratings of perceived exertion, reduce mental fatigue, and improve time to exhaustion.2,3
• Creatine 3 grams
Creatine is a molecule produced by your body. It’s also found in food sources such as red meat, eggs, and fish. In skeletal muscle—the muscles you train in the gym—creatine exists in equilibrium with its phosphorylated form, which is called creatine phosphate or phosphocreatine. Why is this important? During intense exercise such as lifting weights, your body uses ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, for energy at an alarming rate. This energy is provided by breaking a phosphate bond, releasing a high-energy phosphate group and forming a new molecule called ADP, or adenosine diphosphate. The energy provided by ATP can only last a couple seconds before the body has to begin regenerating ATP.
This is where creatine supplementation comes in. Supplemental creatine ensures your muscles are saturated with phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine can actually donate its phosphate group to the ADP molecule that is created when your body uses ATP for energy, therefore regenerating ATP and allowing your muscle to contract longer and harder.4 Research shows that a dose of 3 grams of creatine monohydrate is an effective amount of creatine to reach saturation in the muscles. That being said, there are different forms of creatine, such as creatine ethyl-esther or kre-alkalyn, that may call for less creatine to achieve the same effect. Be sure to research what is considered to be an effective dose of the type of creatine you choose to use.
• Beta-alanine 2 grams
Beta Alanine is a modified version of the amino acid alanine, and one of two peptides that make up carnosine. The other peptide is histidine, but beta-alanine is the one that limits carnosine production, which is really important. Carnosine acts as an acid buffer in your body, and when you exercise, your muscles become much more acidic due to the accumulation of hydrogen ions. The drop in pH in your muscle tissue is one of the key contributors to muscle fatigue—and really painful, to boot! So, it only makes sense that increasing carnosine stores in skeletal muscle tissue will lead to increased muscular endurance, since your muscles have an increased ability to buffer acid. How much does supplementing beta-alanine aid carnosine production? Studies show that it increases carnosine by 60 percent after four weeks, and up to 80 percent by week 10.5 Research suggests that the proper daily dose of beta-alanine is between 2 and 6 grams. I wouldn’t recommend more than 3 grams at one time; anything more is likely to cause the harmless, but very annoying, beta-alanine tingles (technical term is “paresthesia”) that you may be familiar with.
• Citrulline 1,000 mg
Citrulline is a dietary amino acid that, when used to enhance sports performance, can reduce fatigue and increase performance in the body. Citrulline achieves this by relaxing blood vessels, a process called vasodilation. This allows more oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to reach the target muscle, leading to better performance and a skin-tearing pump.
I haven’t included arginine in my list, because when your body processes citrulline, it’s converted to L-arginine in the kidneys. This provides much higher blood levels of arginine than supplementing with arginine in the first place. What’s more, supplemental arginine is broken down at a very fast rate in the digestive system. The high level of arginine in the blood provided by citrulline creates a perfect environment for arginine’s conversion to nitric oxide, which is responsible for the aforementioned performance effects. The most popular form of citrulline is citrulline malate. Attaching citrulline to a side group of malate adds stability in the body. Citrulline malate is most effective when taken in a dose of 1,000 mg.
An interesting, new ingredient I have been seeing is called citrulline nitrate, which is citrulline with a nitrate molecule attached to it. This form of citrulline is interesting because in addition to providing all the effects discussed above, it provides a side group of nitrate, which converts to nitrite in the body in a pathway independent of the NOS (nitric-oxide synthase), meaning you get the benefit of increased NO from both the citrulline and the nitrate. Research is still being done on this form of citrulline, but anecdotal evidence suggests effective dosing starts at 1 gram taken pre-workout.
• Taurine 2 grams
The popular amino acid taurine is a must-have in your pre-workout stack for several reasons. First, taurine has been shown to increase blood flow, which allows your body to work more efficiently at delivering oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to the muscle you’re training. Taurine also acts as a cell volumizer, much in the way creatine does, and actually pulls water into the muscle cell, boosting cell hydration. Perhaps the most interesting benefit of taurine, however, is its stress-reducing effects. Taken at 6 grams a day, taurine has been shown to significantly reduce norepinephrine excretion in urine, meaning that the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for your “fight-or-flight” reaction) is suppressed by the supplemental taurine.6 This decrease in stress can lower cortisol levels, as well as increase feelings of well-being. Research suggests the acute, sports-performance-enhancing capabilities are in full effect at 2 grams, and so I would recommend supplementing with that amount pre-workout.
• Caffeine 350 milligrams
Caffeine is probably the most common stimulant in the world, and for good reason. Not only is there ample research proving its capabilities as an energy and focus booster, it also has sports-performance-specific applications. Research shows that caffeine can increase endurance, as well as blunt perceived pain response, which can delay perceptions of fatigue.7 Individual sensitivity to caffeine varies greatly, so make sure to assess your tolerance. Start at 100 milligrams and work up to an amount that makes you feel stimulated and alert. Don’t exceed 600 milligrams in one serving. I fully believe, and research shows, that the human body develops a tolerance to caffeine, so I would recommend you rotate stimulant and nonstimulant pre-workouts to keep your sensitivity at an acceptable level.
• L-tyrosine 1,500 milligrams
L-tyrosine is an amino acid used to produce noradrenaline and dopamine. During times of acute stress, such as a hard training session, your body tends to deplete its noradrenaline. Supplementing with tyrosine can help combat this effect. By doing so, you will have longer-lasting energy, as well as increased mental function and cognition while under stress.
• Huperzine-A 1,000 micrograms
Huperzine-A is a cognitive enhancer, meaning it boosts brain function. It does so by inhibiting an enzyme that otherwise degrades the “learning” neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. As an added benefit, inhibiting this enzyme also leads to better muscle contractions, since acetylcholine is a critical neurotransmitter to skeletal muscle.
PRE-WORKOUTS THE BIG PICTURE
While supplements are extremely helpful performance boosters, keep in mind that they’re intended to supplement a healthy, balanced diet, and provide added performance benefits to your training. A pre-workout meal containing an appropriate amount of carbs (about 25 percent of your daily intake) and protein (divide your daily protein goal by the number of meals consumed to find the appropriate amount of protein) will provide more muscle building, performance-enhancing fuel than any pre-workout supplement or ingredients will, guaranteed. But when you combine that picture-perfect pre-workout meal with a stout pre-workout formula, strap yourself in and prepare for an awesome workout that will have you feeling focused, energized, and pumped!
- Tipton, K. D., Elliott, T. A., Cree, M. G., Aarsland, A. A., Sanford, A. P., & Wolfe, R. R. (2007). Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 292(1), E71-E76.
- Blomstrand, E., Hassmén, P., Ek, S., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1997). Influence of ingesting a solution of branched?chain amino acids on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 159(1), 41-49.
- Mittleman, K. D., Ricci, M. R., & Bailey, S. P. (1998). Branched-chain amino acids prolong exercise during heat stress in men and women. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 30(1), 83-91.
- Feldman, E. B. (1999). Creatine: a dietary supplement and ergogenic aid. Nutrition Reviews, 57(2), 45-50.
- Hill, C. A., Harris, R. C., Kim, H. J., Harris, B. D., Sale, C., Boobis, L. H., … & Wise, J. A. (2007). Influence of beta-alanine supplementation on skeletal muscle carnosine concentrations and high intensity cycling capacity. Amino Acids,32(2), 225-233.
- Mizushima, S., Nara, Y., Sawamura, M., & Yamori, Y. (1996). Effects of oral taurine supplementation on lipids and sympathetic nerve tone. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 403, 615-622.
- Green, J. M., Wickwire, P. J., McLester, J. R., Gendle, S., Hudson, G., Pritchett, R. C., & Laurent, C. M. (2007). Effects of caffeine on repetitions to failure and ratings of perceived exertion during resistance training. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2(3), 250.
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Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.