When you embarked on your quest for a healthy lifestyle, you were undoubtedly told of the importance of the post-workout meal and making sure you don’t miss out on the “anabolic window.”
You were also likely told that your workout would be “wasted” if you failed to consume a post-workout shake within 30 minutes of your last set.
After all, bodybuilders and gym bros alike have been waxing rhapsodic about the vitality of the post-workout meal for decades, and they’re some of the biggest, strongest human beings on the planet.
So, they’ve got to be onto something about the importance of post-workout nutrition, right?
However, on the other side of the spectrum are the individuals that say that so long as you consume adequate calories and protein each day, it doesn’t matter if you have a post-workout meal or not.
And, they’re right to a certain extent. Consuming enough total calories and protein each day will have a much more significant impact on your ability to gain muscle and strength than whether you had a post-workout protein shake or not.
So, does that mean post-workout meals are entirely unnecessary?
As with virtually everything in life, context plays a fairly prominent role in determining just how “vital” that post-workout meal is.
In this article we’ll discuss what post-workout nutrition is when a post-workout meal becomes a priority as well as what are some of the best options to include in your post-workout meal, should you desire to have one.
What is Post-Workout Nutrition?
Your body is in a constant state of building and breaking down proteins. This process is called “protein turnover,” and under normal circumstances, the two occur at relatively even rates. 
When you exercise, your body initiates protein synthesis, but the longer you train, the more damage is done to muscle fibers, and when you stop training, muscle protein breakdown begins to outpace muscle protein synthesis. 
In other words, intense exercise is a catabolic process.
This is why you hear so frequently that you don’t “grow” when you’re in the gym training. Exercise provides the stimulus that your muscles need to change and adapt, but your body does its repair, recovery, and growth when its outside the gym, not training.
Now, for your muscles to grow bigger, muscle protein synthesis must be greater than muscle protein breakdown. 
During this time, when protein synthesis is greater than protein breakdown, your body is in an “anabolic” (muscle building) state.
Therefore, if you want to build as much muscle as quickly as possible, you want to do everything in your power to maximize the amount of time your body spends in an anabolic state.
Following an intense workout, glycogen stores are depleted, muscle fibers are damaged  and insulin sensitivity is heightened, making your body primed and ready to absorb anything and everything you throw its way to support the repair, recovery, and growth processes.
This period immediately following your workout is known as the post-workout (or “anabolic”) window, and the food you consume immediately following your workout is the post-workout meal.
Now, before we delve into what foods are best suited to the post-workout meal, let’s first discuss why you might want to consider eating a post-workout meal.
Why Eat a Post-Workout Meal?
For you to understand why post-workout nutrition is so essential, it would probably be useful to understand the purpose of post-workout nutrition.
So, what is the purpose of post-workout nutrition?
Generally speaking, post-workout nutrition has three main goals:
- Replenish Glycogen
- Reduce Muscle Protein Breakdown
- Increase Muscle Protein Synthesis
In other words, individuals working out want to:
- Replenish Energy Stores that were Depleted During Training
- Kickstart Muscle Repair
- Enhance Muscle Building
- Accelerate Recovery
By consuming a proper post-workout meal, you can accomplish all of these goals.
So, Is Post-Workout Nutrition Necessary?
This is a bit of a loaded question.
Most people with a degree from the University of Google and a Ph.D. in abstract reading will point to the recent review by Aragon et al. titled “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?”  as proof positive that nutrient timing is mostly irrelevant.
But, saying that post-workout nutrition doesn’t matter is a gross over-exaggeration, simplification, and misinterpretation of the research.
Honestly, the truth is that the “necessity” of a post-workout meal depends on a few factors, as we mentioned above.
If you’re training consists of hopping on the elliptical 2-3 times per week for 30 minutes at a time or just doing some light circuit training a couple of time per week, then, by and large, you don’t need to worry about having a post-workout meal.
You’ll do just fine to focus on getting insufficient amounts of protein and enough total calories each day.
Now, if you are more physically active, where you train several days in a row, or perform two-a-days, then the importance of post-workout nutrition becomes a bit larger.
The more active you are and the closer your training sessions and competitions are to each other the more critical post-workout meals become as they are necessary to replenish depleted energy stores and supply your body with the essential building blocks it needs to repair damaged tissue.
Furthermore, if you’ve plateaued with your progress in the gym, or finding yourself horrendously sore for days on end following your intense workouts, then chances are pretty good that you can benefit from proper post-workout nutrition.
Essentially, it boils down to this:
The faster that you can get nutrients into your body following a workout, the quicker the recovery process starts.
The faster you recover, the more frequently you can train, and the more productive you’ll be in those training sessions.
Do this continuously over a long period, and you’ll make substantially better progress than what you’ve been doing.
When Do I Eat My Post-Workout Meal?
No talk of post-workout nutrition is complete without discussing the “anabolic window.”
As you’re likely aware, the “anabolic window” is the 30-60-minute window immediately following your workout when you should eat your post-workout meal to capitalize on all the gains made during your training session.
And as we stated up top, failure to consume your post-workout meal in this timeframe leads to gains left on the table and a “wasted” workout.”
But, is this true?
Is it essential to slam your protein shake the second you finish performing your last set of curls in the squat rack?
As we said before, it depends — context matters.
In this case, the immediacy with which you need to consume your post-workout meal depends on when your last meal was.
If you ate a substantial mixed meal (protein, carbs, and fats) an hour or two before your workout, then the urgency to get in your post-workout meal is considerably less as your body is still digesting, absorbing, and utilizing the nutrients from that meal. [5,6]
However, if it’s been 4-5 hours since your last meal, then you might want to hurry up and get that post-workout meal in your body.
Will you lose out on “all kinds of gains” by not having your post-workout meal shortly after your workout?
Not really, but you’re not doing yourself any favors as the recovery and growth process can’t begin until you give your body some fuel to do the work.
So, what qualifies as an excellent post-workout meal?
What to Eat Post-Workout: Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
Earlier, we stated that your muscles are primed to utilize anything and everything you throw their way, and while you could go and crush a dozen doughnuts following a tough workout, that’s not exactly ideal.
Fortunately, you don’t have to do much guessing when it comes to figuring out what to eat post-workout, as numerous studies have been conducted investigating this very issue.
Following training, blood flow and insulin sensitivity increases, which increases amino acid transport and uptake into your muscles. As such, it would make sense that consuming some protein following your workout would be helpful.
After all, you just spent the better part of 60-90 minutes breaking down muscle tissue, which is made of protein.
Therefore, by including protein in your post-workout meal, you’re helping stop muscle breakdown as well as providing the building blocks your body needs to repair and grow the muscles you just spent time breaking down.
Beyond that, research shows that protein consumed immediately following exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis to a higher degree than when an equivalent amount of protein is consumed at other times of the day. 
As far as how much protein do you need post-workout, research has shown that 20 grams seem to be the minimum necessary to stimulate protein synthesis maximally. [8,9]
Ok, so we know protein is essential following a workout, but…
Are Carbohydrates Necessary Post-Workout?
The issue of whether or not carbohydrates are beneficial or necessary post-workout has been a hotly debated topic as of late especially when you consider the current mass carbophobia that’s been permeating throughout the fitness industry recently thanks to low/no-carb diets like Paleo, Primal, Keto, and Carnivore.
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the fear-mongering of fad diets for our post-workout nutrition recommendations; we have human studies to look to for answers.
A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that subjects consuming protein alone were just as effective as protein + carbohydrate when it came to repairing or building muscle. 
However, the group consuming carbohydrates experienced better recovery than the group that consumed protein alone.
Additionally, other research has shown that the addition of carbohydrates to the post-workout meal stops catabolism (muscle protein breakdown), enhances muscle protein synthesis, and accelerates glycogen replenishment. [11,12]
It’s also worth noting that consuming carbohydrates post-workout increases insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps shuttles nutrients from the bloodstream into your muscles.
And, it just so happens that in addition to playing taxi driver for carbohydrates and amino acid, it also helps stop muscle protein breakdown. 
Now, a lot will be made of the importance of replenishing muscle glycogen immediately after training, but the simple truth of the matter is that if your next training session isn’t until tomorrow, you don’t absolutely “have” to eat carbohydrates post-workout.
However, if you’re a field sport athlete participating in multiple rounds of competition or training bouts in a single day, you want to get some fast-digesting carbohydrates in your following training, so your body has enough time to top off glycogen reserves ahead of the next go ‘round.
But, for the average trainee looking to build muscle and burn fat that only trains once per day, carbohydrates are secondary to protein in terms of post-workout meal importance.
What About Fat in the Post-Workout Meal?
If you want to include some fat in the post-workout meal you can, but it’s not going to confer any special muscle-building benefits like protein and carbohydrates can. It’s not going to hurt your muscle-building efforts or glycogen replenishment either if you’re only training once per day too. 
Fat adds flavor to food and helps keep you feeling full, but it also slows down the digestion of your meal. 
Now, this isn’t a big deal if you’re only training once per day, but if you are training or competing for multiple times per day, then you would want to minimize fat in the post-workout meal to allow for the carbohydrates and protein to be digested and absorbed as quickly as possible.
The Best Post-Workout Meal Foods
As we just explained, you want to focus on protein first, carbs second, and fats third.
The reason for this is simple. Intense exercise damages muscles and depletes muscle glycogen. Your top priority after training is halting muscle breakdown and initiating the repair and growth processes.
Protein and carbohydrates are the most effective macronutrients for accomplishing these goals.
Now, if you’re only training once per day, you don’t need to focus on how fast-digesting your meal is as your body will top off its glycogen stores over the next 24 hours, and you’ll be all set for tomorrow’s training.
If, however, you’ve got another round of practice, training, or competition later int he day, you want fast-digesting protein (such as whey protein powder) and fast-digesting carbohydrates (white rice, white bread, rice cakes, Cluster Dextrin, etc.).
Here are some of our favorite post-workout foods broken out according to their predominant macronutrient:
- Whey Protein Powder (such as Steel Whey)
- Greek Yogurt
- Protein Bar
- Sweet Potatoes
- Fruit (strawberries, bananas, apples, etc.)
- Chocolate Milk
- Green Vegetables
- Olive Oil
- Egg Yolks
- Nut Butter
Best Post-Workout Meal Examples
We’ll be honest; there is no “best” post-workout meal. As long as you’re getting in quality protein and carbohydrates, you can eat the foods that you enjoy eating.
Here are some of our personal favorites:
- Protein Powder + Oatmeal
- Protein Powder + Yogurt
- Steak + Baked Potato
- Turkey Sandwich + Fruit
- Pita + Hummus
- Greek Yogurt + Berries + Granola/Cereal
- Cereal + Milk
- Peanut Butter Sandwich (Jelly is ok too!)
- Cottage Cheese + Fruit
- Grilled Salmon + Sweet Potatoes
The Bottom Line on Post-Workout Meals
A lot has been made over the years about whether a post-workout meal is necessary or not. The honest answer is that it depends on what your goals are, how long it’s been since your last meal, and when your next training bout is.
All that being said, having a post-workout meal has almost no downsides, but it will halt muscle protein breakdown and start the muscle-building process.
The next time you finish a tough workout, give one of these post-workout meals a shot and let us know which your favorite is by tagging us on Instagram @steelfitusa!
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- Kumar, V., Atherton, P., Smith, K., & Rennie, M. J. (2009). Human muscle protein synthesis and breakdown during and after exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), 106(6), 2026–2039. https://doi.org/10.1152/japplphysiol.91481.2008
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