Do You Need to Eat After Lifting Weights to Gain Muscle?

Want to gain muscle? Then…

1. Lift weights.

2. Eat — a lot.

If you’re doing those two things — you’ll grow.

However, according to many sources, when you eat might be more important than how much.

Protein Shake

Learn what the research really says about whether or not you need to eat after a workout to gain muscle.
Photo via Flickr

In theory, you’ll recover faster and gain more muscle and less fat if you eat as soon as possible after your workout.1,2 Preferably within at least 30 minutes — a period called the
“anabolic window.”

There are a few rare situations when this is probably true. Most of the time, however, you don’t have to be this rigid about when you eat to achieve optimal muscle growth.

Note: This article covers the need to eat after weight lifting for muscle growth, not after endurance training for recovery. That’s for another article.

3 Reasons Eating After a Workout Might Increase Muscle Growth

After extensively reviewing the literature on this topic, Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld summarized the three main theoretical reasons why it’s important to eat after exercise for muscle growth:3

1. Replenish muscle glycogen.

2. Halt protein breakdown.

3. Stimulate protein synthesis.

1. Replenish muscle glycogen.

Training with low muscle glycogen has a negative effect on muscle growth.

After exercise, your muscles are better able to turn glucose (sugar) into glycogen. This effect disappears soon after a workout. Therefore, eating carbs about 1-2 hours after a workout will restock glycogen levels much faster than if you wait. This will, in theory, increase muscle growth and recovery.

2. Halt protein breakdown.

If you want to gain muscle, protein synthesis (anabolism) has to be greater than protein breakdown (catabolism).

Protein Building – Protein Breakdown = Muscle Growth or Loss

After a workout, muscle proteins degrade and rebuild faster than normal (increased protein turnover). In theory, consuming protein and/or carbs soon after a workout will stop muscle proteins from being broken down sooner, largely by spiking insulin levels. If fewer muscle proteins are destroyed after each workout, this could increase muscle growth over time.

3. Stimulate protein synthesis.

Eating protein after a workout is supposed to optimize the other side of the same equation by increasing muscle protein synthesis. This boost in protein synthesis after each workout is supposed to increase muscle mass.

All of these theories make sense. However, there’s good reason to believe none of these short-term effects are as important as they might seem.

Why Most People Don’t Need to Eat Immediately After a Workout for Optimal Muscle Growth

Muscles

In most cases, you don’t need to eat immediately after lifting weights to optimize muscle growth.
Photo via Flickr

If you wait to eat carbs several hours after your workout, your glycogen levels will still be restocked about 8-24 hours later.4,5

The only time it’s probably necessary to consume carbs in the post-workout window is if you perform at least two glycogen depleting workouts, with the same muscle group, within eight hours.6 If you don’t eat carbs soon after the first workout, you may not be ready for the second.

Even if you exercise the same muscle group twice per day, you’ll still probably have enough muscle glycogen to perform well in the second workout.

A moderate volume workout of around 6-9 sets per muscle group only depletes about 36-39% of your muscle glycogen.7,8 If you do more than that in two workouts within eight hours, eating carbs soon after your first workout is a good idea.

You’re probably still digesting your last meal after a workout.

If you’ve eaten a normal meal several hours before your workout, your insulin, amino acid, and glucose levels are still going to be high several hours after the workout.

Most mixed meals will keep your insulin levels high enough to stop protein breakdown for 4-6 hours.9 A 45-gram dose of whey protein will do the same for about two hours.10 Technically, a single meal before your workout could “… function as both a pre- and an immediate post-exercise meal…,” writes Aragon and Schoenfeld.3

There’s also emerging evidence that increased protein synthesis, rather than decreased protein breakdown, may be the main trigger for muscle growth after exercise and eating.11 Interestingly, eating protein post-workout doesn’t seem to matter for this purpose either.

You don’t need to eat immediately after exercise to maximize protein synthesis (and it might not matter if you did).

Most studies have shown that if you eat protein before, immediately after, or several hours after your workout, your muscle protein synthesis will be about the same.12-14 As long as you consume enough protein by the end of the day, your body generally has no trouble growing new muscle tissue (assuming a semi-normal meal schedule of 2-4 meals throughout the day).

On the other hand, one study found that consuming essential amino acids and sucrose (sugar) before strength training did not increase muscle protein synthesis afterwards compared to fasting.15 These inconsistent results imply that “…the available data lack any consistent indication of an ideal post-exercise timing scheme for maximizing MPS [muscle protein synthesis],” writes Aragon and Schoenfeld.3

It’s also debatable how important the immediate rise in protein synthesis is after exercise, since a significant portion of muscle growth occurs later. Protein synthesis rises significantly about 3-4 hours after exercise, peaks at about 24 hours, and returns to normal 36-48 hours later.16-18 Furthermore, the short-term rise in protein synthesis after exercise does not always predict long-term muscle gain.19

Assuming the short-term rise in protein synthesis after a workout will produce long-term muscle growth, “…is speculative, at best.”3

If you eat enough protein by the end of the day, you probably aren’t losing anything in terms of muscle growth, regardless of whether you eat it post-workout.

On the other hand, several studies have shown that eating protein and/or carbs around exercise can increase muscle growth and strength, compared to eating earlier or later.

However, subjects in two of these studies consumed pre- and post-exercise nutrition20 (and in one case, also creatine),21 which makes it impossible to tell if the post-workout meal increased muscle growth. In contrast, two other studies have found no difference in muscle growth or strength when subjects ate protein immediately before and after workouts compared to those who did not.22,23 Overall, the evidence is not clear if eating post-workout will help you gain more muscle.

In another study, the group who ate immediately after exercise also ate more total protein, which may have helped them gain more muscle.24 Several of these studies also used untrained or older subjects, and the results might not be as relevant for trained weight-lifters or younger athletes.

That said, there are a few times when you’ll probably gain more muscle if you eat soon after a workout.

When Eating After a Workout May be Best for Muscle Growth

After fasted training.

If you train after an overnight fast (i.e. in the early morning before breakfast), you may get better results if you eat protein and carbs immediately afterwards.

Protein breakdown is higher after fasted training.25 Eating soon afterwards will decrease protein breakdown, which may increase muscle growth over time.26

If you don’t have time to eat after a fasted workout (or don’t want to), you may be able to limit protein breakdown by consuming some protein beforehand. As little as 6-10 grams of essential amino acids or 20 grams of whey protein can keep your amino acid levels high for around 2-3 hours.14,27,28

You can probably get the same benefits from branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are thought to be the most important amino acids for muscle growth. 29-33 They can also favorably affect gene expression for muscle growth when consumed before fasted training.34

There’s also some short-term data showing fasted training might be better for muscle growth, assuming you eat afterwards.35

Training more than 3-4 hours after your last meal.

Training 3-4 hours after a meal isn’t technically fasting, but it may be long enough to make post-workout nutrition more important for muscle growth.

A normal mixed meal will keep amino acid levels high for about 5-6 hours.36 After a 45-90 minute workout, plus time to shower, drive home, etc, your amino acid levels almost will be back to fasting levels. In this case, eating some protein (>25 grams) may be best if you’re trying to gain muscle.3

However, you can still probably work around this by consuming a small amount of protein beforehand like you would for fasted training.3

If you’re leaner and/or more experienced.

If you’re leaner or you’ve been training for a while, you may need to be more careful about eating around your workouts. However, it’s still up for debate if you need to eat post-workout. Eating several hours pre-workout may work just as well.3

If you’re depleting the same muscle group of glycogen multiple times per day with exercise.

If you perform at least two glycogen-exhausting workouts, with the same muscle group, within eight hours, you may need to eat within 1-2 hours after the first workout.6 If you don’t, you may not be recovered for the next session.

However, most people trying to gain muscle don’t train this much or this often. You’d probably have to do about 20-30 sets per muscle group in each workout (at least twice a day) in order to require an immediate post-workout meal to optimize recovery for the second workout.

If you’re an older athlete trying to gain muscle.

Older people often don’t gain as much muscle with the same amount of weight training and protein intake as youngsters, a phenomenon called “anabolic resistance.”37 Eating extra post-workout protein may help overcome this problem.3

One study found that 74-year old men who ate protein and carbs immediately post-workout gained more muscle and strength than those who ate 2-hours after exercise.38 However, another study found that elderly men did not gain more size or strength when they ate protein immediately before and after exercise or a placebo.39

A Simple Formula for Eating to Gain Muscle

In the same review mentioned earlier, Aragon and Schoenfeld created a simple formula for around-workout nutrition to maximize muscle growth:3

Eat about 0.4-0.5 grams of high quality (high in BCAA) protein per kilogram of lean body mass in your pre- and post-workout meal.

Here’s how to use this formula if you weigh 100 kilos at 20% body fat:

1. Find your lean body mass.

100 kilos (220 pounds) * lean body mass (.8) = 80 kilos

2. Multiply your lean body mass by 0.4 and 0.5.

80 * 0.4 = 32

80 * 0.5 = 40

In this case, you would want to eat between 32 and 40 grams of protein in your pre- and post-exercise meal. This would be equal to about 1.5-2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, or 1.5-2 scoops of whey protein.

Your pre- and post-workout meals should be at most 3-4 hours apart, assuming your workout is about 45-90 minutes. If you eat your protein in a mixed meal (with carbs, fiber, fat, etc.), you can probably wait 5-6 hours.

If you train fasted, eating about 6-grams of essential amino acids or branched chain amino acids, or 20-grams of whey protein before your workout can let you delay your post-workout meal for another 2-3 hours. When you do eat, it’s probably best to shoot for the upper end of the protein recommendations — 0.5 grams per kilogram of lean body mass or slightly more.

It doesn’t matter when you eat carbs for muscle growth as long as you eat enough by the end of the day.

The Post-Workout “Anabolic Window” is Much Wider Than You Might Think

If you want to gain muscle, you need to eat after exercise. How soon you eat is not usually as important.

Over the long-term, most studies have shown that you don’t need to eat immediately after exercise to optimize muscle growth. There are certain situations where it may be more important, but there are still a few shortcuts to make your eating schedule more flexible.

As long as you hit your total calorie and macronutrient goals by the end of the day, post-workout nutrition is not usually crucial for muscle growth.

In later articles we’ll explore nutrient timing for endurance sports. Click here to subscribe by email to have these articles delivered to your inbox.

A special thanks for Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld for their excellent review on this topic that was the primary inspiration for this article. Alan was also kind enough to review and approve this article before it was published.

Did you enjoy this article? Click here to get exclusive member’s-only articles and podcasts. Only want to learn how to lose fat? Click here to buy my book, Flexible Dieting.

References

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5. Fox AK, Kaufman AE, Horowitz JF. Adding fat calories to meals after exercise does not alter glucose tolerance. J Appl Physiol. 2004;97(1):11–16. Abstract: http://pmid.us/14978010 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/WFkQ3 

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14. Tipton KD, Elliott TA, Cree MG, et al. Stimulation of net muscle protein synthesis by whey protein ingestion before and after exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2007;292(1):E71–6. Abstract: http://pmid.us/16896166 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/CTr45 

15. Fujita S, Dreyer HC, Drummond MJ, et al. Essential amino acid and carbohydrate ingestion before resistance exercise does not enhance postexercise muscle protein synthesis. J Appl Physiol. 2009;106(5):1730–1739. Abstract: http://pmid.us/18535123 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/1Z3VT 

16. MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, et al. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 1995;20(4):480–486. Abstract: http://pmid.us/8563679 | Full Text: NA

17. Phillips SM, Tipton KD, Aarsland A, et al. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. Am J Physiol. 1997;273(1 Pt 1):E99–107. Abstract: http://pmid.us/9252485 | Full Text: NA

18. Rennie MJ, Tipton KD. Protein and amino acid metabolism during and after exercise and the effects of nutrition. Annu Rev Nutr. 2000;20:457–483. Abstract: http://pmid.us/10940342 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/g6Nc8 

19. Mayhew DL, Kim J-S, Cross JM, et al. Translational signaling responses preceding resistance training-mediated myofiber hypertrophy in young and old humans. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(5):1655–1662. Abstract: http://pmid.us/19589955 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/mDtFe 

20. Hulmi JJ, Kovanen V, Selanne H, et al. Acute and long-term effects of resistance exercise with or without protein ingestion on muscle hypertrophy and gene expression. Amino Acids. 2009;37(2):297–308. Abstract: http://pmid.us/18661258 | Full Text: NA

21. Cribb PJ, Hayes A. Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006;38(11):1918–1925. Abstract: http://pmid.us/17095924 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/iMt7v 

22. Erskine RM, Fletcher G, Hanson B, et al. Whey protein does not enhance the adaptations to elbow flexor resistance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44(9):1791–1800. Abstract: http://pmid.us/22460474 | Full Text: NA

23. Hoffman JR, Ratamess NA, Tranchina CP, et al. Effect of protein-supplement timing on strength, power, and body-composition changes in resistance-trained men. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2009;19(2):172–185. Abstract: http://pmid.us/19478342 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/J05jw

24. Willoughby DS, Stout JR, Wilborn CD. Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength. Amino Acids. 2007;32(4):467–477. Abstract: http://pmid.us/16988909 | Full Text: NA

25. Pitkanen HT, Nykanen T, Knuutinen J, et al. Free amino acid pool and muscle protein balance after resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(5):784–792. Abstract: http://pmid.us/12750588 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/XuAO0 

26. Kumar V, Atherton P, Smith K, et al. Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. J Appl Physiol. 2009;106(6):2026–2039. Abstract: http://pmid.us/19164770 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/fHL1X 

27. Tipton KD, Rasmussen BB, Miller SL, et al. Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2001;281(2):E197–206. Abstract: http://pmid.us/11440894 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/wydFc 

28. Drummond MJ, Glynn EL, Fry CS, et al. An increase in essential amino acid availability upregulates amino acid transporter expression in human skeletal muscle. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2010;298(5):E1011–8. Abstract: http://pmid.us/20304764 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/gejZj 

29. Yoshizawa F. Regulation of protein synthesis by branched-chain amino acids in vivo. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2004;313(2):417–422. Abstract: http://pmid.us/14684178 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/JFPy6 

30. Kimball SR, Jefferson LS. Regulation of protein synthesis by branched-chain amino acids. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001;4(1):39–43. Abstract: http://pmid.us/11122558 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/JFPy6 

31. Rennie MJ, Bohe J, Smith K, et al. Branched-chain amino acids as fuels and anabolic signals in human muscle. J Nutr. 2006;136(1 Suppl):264S–8S. Abstract: http://pmid.us/16365095 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/6U7U2 

32. Matthews DE. Observations of branched-chain amino acid administration in humans. J Nutr. 2005;135(6 Suppl):1580S–4S. Abstract: http://pmid.us/15930473 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/SC0Ar 

33. Garlick PJ. The role of leucine in the regulation of protein metabolism. J Nutr. 2005;135(6 Suppl):1553S–6S. Abstract: http://pmid.us/15930468 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/Cp1U5 

34. Karlsson HKR, Nilsson P-A, Nilsson J, et al. Branched-chain amino acids increase p70S6k phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2004;287(1):E1–7. Abstract: http://pmid.us/14998784 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/A7M0B 

35. Deldicque L, De Bock K, Maris M, et al. Increased p70s6k phosphorylation during intake of a protein-carbohydrate drink following resistance exercise in the fasted state. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2010;108(4):791–800. Abstract: http://pmid.us/20187284 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/DF3Am 

36. Layman DK. Protein quantity and quality at levels above the RDA improves adult weight loss. J Am Coll Nutr. 2004;23(6 Suppl):631S–636S. Abstract: http://pmid.us/15640518 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/KKLwR 

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39. Verdijk LB, Jonkers RAM, Gleeson BG, et al. Protein supplementation before and after exercise does not further augment skeletal muscle hypertrophy after resistance training in elderly men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(2):608–616. Abstract: http://pmid.us/19106243 | Full Text: http://goo.gl/CW8lr 

Comments

  1. says

    Fantastic article Armi! In the later article regarding eating after cardio, could you address eating after lifting if you plan to do a hard cardio workout later that day? Or if you do a hard cardio workout and want to lift later that day?

    Thanks man–this was incredibly well written and researched.

  2. calvin says

    A lot of times hard gainers have a hard time packing on muscle just because of the body make-up. genetics, High or low metabolism or what ever the case may be, in any case its not so much of how you eat its what and when. I find the this beneficial for Hard Gainers http://tinyurl.com/orfy8uv

    • says

      Calvin, genetics definitely play a role. Do you have any evidence that nutrient timing or food quality is more important than total calorie and protein/BCAA intake for muscle gain?

  3. Phil Saunders says

    How to get over tiredness is my big issue because it makes me irritable with my wife of 51 years. My metabolism stays elevated for hours, so I keep sweating, Has been like this for half century. What do you suggest?

    • says

      Hey Phil, for tiredness, it really depends. Getting enough quality sleep is huge (see this podcast for more info), as is minimizing stress.

      For sweating, eating less close to bed time helps. Same with exercise — try to keep it at least 3-4 hours before bed time. Other than that I’m not aware of much you can do, besides maybe chug some ice water before bed.

      Let me know if that helps,

      - Armi

  4. says

    Hi there, very very nice and informative article but i have a problem. As soon after gym workout, if i try to eat or even drink something then i feel that it is coming out. I feel like vomiting or something like that even if i drink single glass of water. Have you any suggestion regarding this. I’ll be delighted. Thanks for sharing such nice info.

    • Cashoholic says

      I would say we need more info. What kind of workouts are you doing? Cardio, weight training or both? I find this happens when eating more towards a workout. Also do you take protein shakes or any other suppliments? Do you normally have a weak stomach, picky eater or other allergies or disorders?
      I’m a skinny type hard gainer with a high metabolism. I can eat something, and work out pretty much right after and then even eat again or drink a shake right after. I’ll feel really full, but that’s about it.
      I actually found out now that you should wait at least an hour post before eating or taking a shake as your body is producing growth hormone and eating conflicts with this process, thus slowing muscle gains. Also digestive issues can play a big role. Drink 3 liters daily and keep those pipes flowing lol.
      Hope this helps.

  5. says

    I do agree with all of the idews you have introduced in your post.

    They’re really convincing and will certainly work. Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for newbies.
    May you please lengthen them a little from subsequent time?
    Thanks for the post.

    my web-site meridia

  6. Steve says

    Great site Armi!
    I am a Leangainer (about a year now). I have tried both fasted training with 10g bcaa pre workout, and fed state training. I felt better doing fasted training. With that said, would taking 20g of whey pre workout and sipping on a carb drink (gatorade powder) while I train be more beneficial than taking just 10g of bcaa pre workout? I train mainly for strength if that helps.

    Thanks
    Steve

    • Perry says

      Thank you for this, Armi.

      Can you believe all the articles out there on carbs?

      We are going to eat carbs before and after a workout anyway, so it doesn’t even need to be said.

      Whatever happened to good ‘ol common sense?!

      As long as we have enough protein and carbs in our body, we don’t need to worry.

      On a side note: As for eating one to three grams of protein per pound, that too is BS.

      I eat only around a half to three-quarters of a gram per pound, and I am doing just fine.

    • says

      That’s not bad thinking, but just because it’s maximized then doesn’t mean it’s enough of a difference from baseline to worry about portioning your food intake toward that time. There’s a minimum amount of protein you need to stimulate protein synthesis, and if you’re eating a fairly normal meal pattern you’ll probably still have enough amino acids in your system to optimize protein synthesis.

  7. GG says

    Hi,

    Can you comment on this scenario. I’m Fasting for 24 hours, 5pm Monday to 5pm Tuesday. I do weight training at 5am Tuesday, then wait until 5pm to eat anything. So no post or pre workout meals, and no BCAA’s just plain water until I hit my 24hour fasting mark.

    Is this ok for my muscles?

    Thanks.

  8. Sasha says

    Armi~
    First, I love, love, love (yep, that’s three “loves”) your blog. It’s refreshing to find a source that’s based on real research/science. Ok, I need your professional (or unprofessional) advice on something. How much “good” fat is acceptable daily? I follow a Paleo diet for the most part and take in around 75 to 80 grams of “good” fat per day (from nuts, avocado, coconut flour, coconut oil, etc). Compared to my protein which is only around 50 grams/day (I know, I need to get that number higher) and my carbs which are usually around 100-120. So is ok that my daily fat intake is so high? Moreover, that my daily fat intake is often HIGHER than my protein? FYI, I’m 5’7″ and weight 108 lbs. I lift heavy weights 4x’s/week and have a really tough time building/keeping muscle on. Seems like the typical fitness sources tout a daily fat intake of around 30 to 40 grams/day. I have that many by lunchtime! Perhaps my high fat intake is inhibiting my muscle growth??? Would love your two cents!
    Cheers, Sasha~

    • says

      Hey Sasha, thanks so much for the kind words. I love, love, love hearing that. :)

      Regarding your fat intake, it depends:

      There’s little evidence that it’s harmful or bad for you from a health perspective, especially given you’re eating so healthily and staying active.

      The reason you’re having trouble maintaining or gaining muscle is probably more to do with your low protein, carb, and calorie intake. I’d slightly reduce your fat intake, and then increase your protein and carbs in that order. If you want to gain muscle, I’d definitely start eating more total calories.

      In short, eating a lot of fat probably isn’y hindering your progress, but not eating enough protein, carbs, and total calories likely is.

      - Armi

      • Sasha says

        Thanks, Armi! I noticed you offer a monthly subscription. I’d love to get some consulting from someone like you who truly understands modern-day, science-based fitness/nutrition. Recently I’ve hit both a mental and physical wall and I’m over putting in the work but not seeing measurable results. I have no doubt it’s because my fitness (i.e. need to lift heavier, need to incorporate more HiiT, etc) as well as my nutrition (i.e. protein/fats/carbs/daily total calories) isn’t on point. So should I sign up for the monthly sub…or do you offer one on one consulting? Let me know if I should send you a separate email on this. I’d like to turn my skinny biceps into a version worthy of wearing “welcome to the gun show” t-shirts :)

        Sasha

        • says

          Hey Sasha!

          If you’re interested in coaching, definitely email me: armi@evidencemag.com.

          As far as the subscription, that will cover everything I do in coaching, but it will take longer for me to put it down on paper and I won’t be able to guide you through it with the same care.

          I look forward to hearing from you, and good luck getting into the gun show :)

          - Armi

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