Some gym stereotypes refuse to die, including the ideas that lifting weights makes you bulky, that the weight room is full of grunting bros and that if you strength train, you must chug a protein shake post-workout. Just as you probably won’t bulk up from lifting and don’t need to grunt to build muscle, you don’t need to make a big deal about your post-workout nutrition.
“It depends on the length and intensity of the workout, your goals and when you’ll be eating your next meal,” says New York City- and Los Angeles-based performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass, RD.
IT’S OK TO SKIP POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION IF …
If the intensity was light or it was a quick workout, simply eat (ideally something with about 30 grams of protein) when you normally would and be sure to rehydrate with water.
1. YOUR WORKOUT WASN’T INTENSE.
A walk or yoga is good exercise, but there’s no reason to immediately down carbs and protein afterward, particularly if your goal is weight loss. “If your workouts are light-to-moderate and you aren’t engaging in muscle-building strength training, an extra post-workout meal or snack may work against you by preventing weight loss or contributing to weight gain,” Sass says.
2. YOUR WORKOUT LASTED LESS THAN AN HOUR.
“Even if you did 20 minutes of intervals, that’s hard, but if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s not worth the calories to eat right after,” says nutritionist Mike Roussell, PhD, author of “The Meta Shred Diet.” If you are training six days a week — three days weight training and three days cardio — there’s no way you’re depleting your muscle glycogen stores in 20 minutes. “Your body has at least 48 hours to take the food you will feed it and have that replenish the glycogen,” he says.
DON’T SKIP POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION IF …
On the other hand, long, intense sessions that break muscles down need to be followed by a decent dose of protein. Protein post-workout helps stop muscle breakdown and starts the rebuilding process, so if you skip it after a long, intense session, you’re hindering recovery, Roussell explains. “Exercise itself stimulates muscle protein synthesis, and if you add protein after exercise, it enhances the body’s ability to repair and rebuild muscle,” he says. “If you’re not getting adequate protein to fuel recovery, during your next session your muscles won’t be as strong, and you won’t progress as fast.”
Post-workout protein shakes are popular with those looking to gain muscle because the body easily digests and uses liquid protein, quickly stimulating the muscle-building process, Roussell explains.
However, research suggests the post-workout protein window actually lasts for hours, so your next meal could also support recovery. Sass prefers real food over shakes and recommends a combination of lean protein, vegetables, healthy fats, whole carbs and water (plus an electrolyte drink if you’re a heavy sweater) after exercise if …
1. YOU DID AN INTENSE, HOUR-PLUS WORKOUT.
When you’re trying to build muscle and doing continuous, vigorous strength workouts lasting more than an hour, it’s ideal to build in a post-workout meal or snack.
2. YOU’RE DOING ANOTHER HARD SESSION SOON
If you’re a two-a-days fan, post-workout fuel is key if you strength train hard and for more than an hour at a time, Roussell says.
TRY TO GET POST-WORKOUT NUTRITION IF …
There are two other instances where having something post-workout may be beneficial, but not absolutely required, Roussell adds.
1. YOU FOLLOW A VEGAN DIET
“A strictly plant-based diet isn’t innately robust with amino acids and would benefit from an additional dose of complete protein after exercise to support muscle building and recovery,” Roussell says. That way you’re getting the amino acids necessary to stimulate muscle synthesis.
2. YOU’RE UNDER A LOT OF STRESS.
Exercise is a stressor, but it comes at a small enough dose that the body typically recovers. But if you are under a lot of stress outside the gym, that may become too much for your body to handle, impairing your body’s ability to perform and recover from that activity. “When under stress, what is a normal dose of exercise is too much for the body to handle,” Roussell says. “But you can use nutrition to counteract those negative effects of stress.” Follow the post-workout tips above.