Proper nutrition is essential for weight training. Eating the right foods and carefully timing your food intake ensures that you get the nutrients you need to perform well during a workout and maximise muscle synthesis after the training session is complete.
A weight lifting food plan doesn't need to be complicated or expensive. Use these tips and suggestions to fuel your training sessions more effectively.
Essential macronutrients—carbohydrate, protein, and fat—are necessary to provide energy, build muscle, and keep your cells healthy. When calories from these basic nutrients are provided with a balanced approach, they help your body to build and maintain lean tissue and decrease fat.
For strength-trained athletes, it is recommended that you consume 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. You should also aim to consume 5 to 12 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day with the higher end of 8 to 10 grams of carbohydrates reserved for those training about 12 hours per week. There is no specific recommendation regarding fat intake, but healthy plant-based fats are advised.
Timing of when you fuel your body with these nutrients is also important. Meal timing can influence your performance either in training or during an event. Some research also suggests that proper timing can enhance recovery and tissue repair, increase muscle synthesis, and even boost your mood.
The first step to making sure that you get the most from your workouts is making sure that you consume enough calories each day. If your body is in an energy deficit (you consume too few calories), it is harder to build muscle.
You can use a calorie calculator to estimate your caloric needs. You can also reach out to a registered dietitian to get a personalised number. Keep in mind that because you are a strength training athlete, you will need more calories than a typical sedentary person of your size.
Some studies have estimated that elite strength athletes require approximately 43 calories per kilogram of body weight per day to maintain weight.
Men generally require a slightly higher calorie intake while women require fewer daily calories. Your personal number, however, will vary depending on the intensity of your training, how often you train, your size, and sex.
Once you know how many calories to consume each day, you can start to create a food plan that accommodates your training schedule.
You'll want to plan:
Fluids during the activity
Pre-activity foods and fluids
Post-activity food and fluids
Keep in mind that how you should eat for weight training is different from eating to maximise a lengthy endurance training run, swim, or team sports session. Workouts that involve continuous aerobic exercise for 2 hours or more require more carbohydrates and a different balance of food and fluids.
Since you're focused on weight training, you'll want to follow guidelines for meal timing that are specifically designed for building muscle.
What to Eat Before Training
The pre-training meal is essential as it isn't optimal to exercise hard on an empty stomach. Providing your body with some carbohydrates and protein will give you the energy you need to perform well during your workout.
Aim to consume a meal 60 to 90 minutes before your training session. This recommendation can vary depending on how you tolerate food in the stomach when exercising. Some people need to consume a meal as much as 3 to 4 hours prior to training.
A smart pre-workout meal consumed 60–90 minutes before exercise should contain 30–45 grams of both carbohydrates and protein. Smaller individuals need fewer grams and larger individuals need more.
Sample meals might include:
One large banana and 1 cup of cottage cheese
Two slices of whole-wheat toast and one whole egg plus three egg whites
Whole wheat tortilla and 1 cup chopped chicken breast
Remember to add some healthy fats such as avocado or chia seeds to balance out the meal. If you can't eat 60–90 minutes before your training session, prepare a lighter meal closer to your workout but decrease the number of carbs and protein you consume.
For example, 30–60 minutes before your session consume 20–30 grams of carbs and protein each. If you can't eat until 15 to 30 minutes before your workout, you can grab a lighter snack containing 10–20 grams each of carbs and protein.
Your pre-workout snack or meal will not only give you the energy you need while training but it will affect your ability to recover as well. Research suggests that a small quantity of protein consumed before a weight training session helps with protein assimilation and muscle rebuilding in the recovery phase.
Lastly, before your workout session, drink sufficient fluids so that your urine colour is a light lemon and not a dark yellow. This signals that you are well-hydrated.
How to Fuel During Training
Unlike endurance athletes, you don't need to consume food during your training session. But you should consider a hydration plan if your workout is over 60 minutes.
Research has shown that consuming a carbohydrate beverage solely or in combination with protein during resistance exercise increases muscle glycogen stores and helps your body make training adaptations more effectively.
If you plan on training for longer than an hour at a reasonably high intensity, you should take about 14 fluid ounces of a sports drink (about 7% carbohydrate or 25 grams of carbohydrate) every 30 minutes. If it's very hot and you sweat heavily, you may need a little more fluid, but not too much more.
Hydrating properly will keep blood glucose levels normal and you won't drain your muscle glycogen stores as quickly—enabling you to perform better.
What to Eat After Training
There are differing opinions about the timing of your post-workout meal. Some research suggests that there is a 30-minute window after exercise where high-quality protein (such as whey protein isolate) should be consumed to maximize muscle repair. Other research suggests that the window is open for at least 3 hours after exercise.
However, other studies suggest that there is no magic window of opportunity. As long as total macronutrient goals are met for the day, the timing of macronutrient intake doesn't matter.
So where does that leave you? Try this refuelling strategy, but don't worry if you miss the golden 30-minute window.
Carbohydrate: Consume 50–100 grams of carbohydrates soon after your session.
Fluids: In the first hour or so, try to drink enough fluids to recover what you have lost plus 50% on top of that to compensate for the post-exercise energy expenditure, especially if you plan to train again that day. You can measure fluids lost by weighing yourself before and after exercise. You can also keep an eye on your urine colour, making sure that it stays light yellow.
Protein: Consume 10–20 grams of protein with carbohydrates within 30 minutes of your session. Less may be appropriate for lighter training programs.
One of the most popular and widely studied post-workout snacks is a large glass of chocolate milk which contains 8–16 grams of protein and 26–50 grams of carbohydrate.
Other post-workout snack ideas include:
Greek yogurt with oats and chia seeds
One banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter
Whole wheat toast with sliced turkey