When it comes to building muscle, workouts are definitely a priority. You're not going to get stronger unless you work your muscles, and doing strength training with progressive overload (gradually increasing your weight amounts) is the best way to do it — but diet is a key component as well. Fueling up properly, both before and after a workout, can support and spur on your muscle growth, while failing to do so can stand in the way of it.
You've probably heard that the few hours after your workout are a crucial time to refuel, and it's true — that's when your muscles are actively trying to repair themselves, and protein gives your body the amino acids it needs to make those repairs and rebuild the muscles bigger and stronger. You have so many choices when it comes to getting that necessary protein — protein bars, shakes, full meals, and more — that figuring out the best option can feel like a workout in and of itself.
According to dietitian Michele Fumagalli, RD, LDN, of the Northwestern Medicine Running Medicine Clinic, made it simple: to build muscle, you need both protein and carbs after your workouts. While protein helps to rebuild and grow your muscles, carbs do the work of replenishing your glycogen stores — the stored glucose that your body uses for energy, which gets drained during workouts. If you're doing strength training, you'll want slightly more protein; if you've finished a cardio workout, like jogging, swimming, or cycling, carbs will take more of a priority; but you definitely need both for both types of workouts if you want to build muscles.
So what's the best thing to eat after a workout? A full, balanced meal, if you can. A healthy meal will replenish your protein and carbs, but also give you fiber and vitamins — things that post-workout shakes or snacks might not provide. If you can eat a meal following a workout, Michele recommended dividing your plate into fourths. One fourth should be a healthy carb, like brown rice; one fourth should be a lean protein source, like salmon, chicken, pork tenderloin, or a flank steak; and the rest, approximately half of your plate, should be vegetables.
Not everyone can — or wants to — eat a full meal right after a workout. In that case, Michele recommended:
- Toast with two eggs
- A half cup of oats with berries
- Greek yogurt with muesli and berries
A nationally-ranked CrossFitter herself, Michele said she also loves eating a white or sweet potato after a hard workout. "They're a great carbohydrate energy source and good for glycogen storage," she said.
Love your protein shakes or bars? You can make that work, too. Michele said those quick, premade options are great for convenience if you're running errands after hitting the gym. "If you're going to eat a meal maybe an hour after your work out, then you don't worry about the protein shake," she said; you don't need the extra protein if you're already planning on eating a protein-rich meal within a couple hours. If you do need to hit that shake, Michele recommended drinking it with a healthy source of carbs on the side, like an apple or banana, since many premade protein shakes don't contain carbs.
Last but not least: don't forget to hydrate. "The biggest thing for me in post-workout is making sure that you're drinking a lot of fluids, especially water," Michele said. She recommended water with electrolytes as well, especially if you're recovering from a hard, sweat-inducing cardio workout. Electrolytes are important for keeping your body hydrated and balanced, and you lose a lot of them when you sweat.
As important as your post-workout meal is for making muscle gains, Michele reminded us that it's just one tool and just one meal out of many. "Look at the bigger picture," she said. "There are specific things we can do after a workout that can help us get stronger. But the bigger idea is that we want to make sure we're eating well throughout the day, too."