What Should You Eat Before A Workout? Part 1. Fat Loss
Workout nutrition isn't the same for everyone. Different goals means different meals for different people.
Clear Cut Fitness is all about individuality so we can’t give you an end all be all answer. But, we will give you a few scenarios in which you should eat different things based off your goals. There are many different methods when it comes to nutrition, but we’re about to show you the most simple, science-backed methods that we’ve been using successfully with our clients for years.
We’re breaking it into a 2 part series:
Part 1: Fat Loss
Part 2: Building Muscle
If your goal is fat loss, you still want to eat a good quality meal before working out. Some people work out on an empty stomach thinking that they will only burn fat in their fasted state. Well, by doing that you will burn some fat, but you'll also burn muscle. Not cool! Maintaining muscle mass while trying to lose fat is one of the most important aspects of healthy fat loss. It keeps your metabolism high, while allowing yourself to lift heavier weights and more overall volume each workout which equates to greater fat loss and more energy burned in a workout.
The same rule applies to people who eat a meal 5+ hours before they workout. They are usually much too tired and lethargic to put work into a good workout. Your body performs best when fed and still has some glucose in the blood stream which gives you a steady stream of energy feeding the muscles. It’s not the main supplier of energy however. That would be your muscle glycogen. Essentially, muscle glycogen is the glucose that is pre-stored in your muscles and liver. Once your muscles are out of glycogen, it resorts to blood glucose that enters the muscle cells to be burned. If you continue to exercise, the intensity will decrease but your body will shift to burning fat. This usually means you’re training aerobically.
What does this have to do with fat loss?
Training aerobically will actually burn more fat during the bout of exercise but THAT’S IT! Research has shown time and time again that intense resistance training for a similar duration will elicit a larger EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) effect, meaning that your body will continue to burn fat long after your workout is over. ***I’ll save the details of this for another article but some quick guidelines can be found at the end of this one.*** If we perform a resistance training workout without adequate glycogen stores, fatigue sets in quick and you aren’t able to push yourself through a higher volume workout which is necessary for giving you this EPOC effect of fat burning.
***When I talk about resistance training for fat loss, I’m particularly talking about the type of lifting that uses/burns the glycolytic system. The best way to smash the glycolytic system is to use relatively heavy weights within the 6-20 rep range.***
Dude, get to the point, what should you eat before your workout?
Chill, there’s one last important part. If you don’t wanna read it, skip to “Some Examples”.
Your pre-workout meal really shouldn’t be much different than a regular meal if your trying to lose fat and get lean.
You want to consume a balanced meal that contains proteins, carbs and fats.
Protein is important so you don't burn off muscle while working out and to support healthy muscle tone at the same time. Animal sources have the highest content of EAAs (essential amino acids) which are most important for muscle retention. 1-2 Palm sized protein servings (like a chicken breast or piece of salmon) is all you need to cover your protein needs.
Fats are great to slow down digestion of carbs and amino acids so you’re body gets a more gradual flow of energy in the body/muscles which prime your muscles pre-workout. You don’t want to add too much fat as it can interfere too much with digestion and even upset your stomach mid-workout. 1-2 servings of healthy fats the size of your thumb will cover your fat needs. Nuts are great because they contain fats and fibers to control digestion (two thumb sized servings is nearly a small handful for nuts).
Carbs are the controversial macronutrient in the debate. This is because a low carb diet is usually very effective for burning fat. This is even the case if you consume a low carb meal before training. But here’s the catch…
Not consuming carbs before your workout can leave you weak, low energy, and unable to handle the volume you normally can in the gym.
This is because carbs are the body’s #1 macronutrient used for most weight training and gym exercise we perform.
There are 2 simple solutions to this problem:
- Continue your Low Carb Meals:
- Continue to burn fat at an impressive rate
- Quickly Sensitizes Insulin Receptors (opposite of insulin resistance)
- Decreased performance (strength, endurance and stamina)
- hunger signals and cravings increase big time
- mental and physical fatigue may be reached sooner
- Carb Cycling
- Increased performance
- Burn fat at a high rate due to EPOC
- Helps you control/satisfy carb cravings (if applicable) post workout without feeling guilty
I hate to sound biased but I can’t think of any specific cons when it comes to fat loss. A few things I’ve heard but I don’t necessarily agree with are:
- They can make you rely on the carb days and make you hate low carb days
- People tend to overdue their carbs on days where they workout. Instead of having carbs pre/post workout, they load up all day.
In my experience coaching, I’ve yet to see any of those cons with myself or my clients. Some people prefer other methods such as Flexible Dieting, Vegan, Paleo, etc. but my clients have seen amazing results with simply eating healthy balanced meals and utilizing carb cycling.
In this case, Carb Cycling refers to the careful delegation/cycling of carbs around your diet. For fat loss, we believe that you should “earn your carbs”, meaning, if you’re going to have a big workout, plan most of your carbs before and/or after the workout where your body is most likely going to utilize these carbohydrates during the workout. The rest of the time, you should continue to moderate carb consumption, especially on rest days. To make this clear:
- Lower Carb on Rest days where you aren’t performing intense exercise
- Carbs are encouraged before and/or after workouts on days that you are performing intense exercise. This allows you to maintain a high level of performance while still burning fat.
It’s preferred that you eat slow digesting carbs pre-workout. This is because we want a steady release of glucose into the blood stream for your workout. Some great examples include:
- Whole Grains
If you choose to eat carbs post workout, you’re allowed to eat something a bit more processed and quicker digesting. (You don’t have to. You’ll be just as well off continuing to eat minimally processed foods). Some of these include (but definitely not limited to):
- Refined Sugar
- White Bread/Bagels
- Other Highly Processed Foods
Some Examples Of Using The Carb Cycling Method:
Let’s say you break down your day into 4 meals:
Dinner (pre-workout): 5pm
Post Workout Shake or Meal: 9pm
These numbers aren’t set in stone, just examples.
You might eat a low carb breakfast that can help kick-start your metabolism into a fat burning mode in the morning. This could be something like a simple eggs + avocado meal as it has a higher protein and fat ratio.
For lunch, go for your typical balanced meal. Proteins, carbs and healthy fats. Maybe a bowl or wrap with chicken, baked beans, tomatoes, chopped veggies (onions, peppers, etc) and guac.
Dinner would be your pre-workout meal so make sure you include a healthy low GI carb that will release a slow and steady stream of glucose into the blood. So instead of white bread, go for some fruit, or nuts. This could be something like a plate of steak, salad, rice or corn and your favourite sauce/dressing.
After your workout is when you can usually afford to eat carbs that are higher on the GI chart. This could be a pasta and meat sauce dish with a salad, or a sandwich with a high quality protein source (atleast 1 palm size of beef, chicken, fish, etc). I personally love super shakes post workout. There are endless combinations for Super Shakes and they allow you to consume great tasting post workout nutrition. Click this link to find my favourite (and very simple) shake.
This isn’t an open invitation to stuff your face with absolutely anything you want. You still want good quality protein and fats, and I still believe you’ll see better results by sticking to minimally processed foods. But, your body is less likely to store carbs as fat and more likely to shuttle them back into the muscle post work-out regardless of your carbohydrate selection.
If you have additional meals after your post workout meal, you should go back to a low/moderate carb intake with minimally processed ingredients. Now you know what to eat before hand and if you’re about to workout, you’re welcome!