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Best Post-Workout Habits for Muscle Growth

We only have one question for you: Do you want to be a lemming or a leader?

To build muscle and look leaner, you'll need to choose between two post-workout paths: Follow the masses to a juice shop for a whey protein shake (that will only end up bloating your belly), or strike out on your own with the advice of top trainers to guide you. We think the right answer is obvious.

We had four trainers spill their secrets for building better biceps. Start using their post-workout tips today to lose weight and tighten up:

Honor Days off

Some call it counterintuitive; we call it plain smart. Jake Vogel, a workout consultant based in New York City, sees countless new gym rats make the mistake of hitting it hard — every day of the week. Equating more gym time with better, faster results actually impedes your progress because your body needs adequate time to rest. "Most people don't realize that you don't get stronger in the gym. You get stronger recovering outside of the gym," Vogel says. In fact, recovery time is when the most important muscle-building process takes place. "Muscles get microscopic tears in them [while you workout], and they will continue to breakdown if you don't take days off. A day of rest between workouts is when muscles repair themselves and develop," explains Chris Varano, Fitness Specialist at Hilton Head Health (H3), a world-renowned weight loss destination. And the results of this are the last thing you want: "You won't see development or strength gains, and you may increase your risk of injury," he adds. Basically, bros don't let bros skip rest day.

The 3:1 Rule

post workout habits high protein snack

Nailing this balancing act can help you build muscle: Eat too soon after your workout and you risk unpleasant side effects like nausea, wait too long and you won't get the most out of your meal. "Make sure to eat within 30 minutes of your workout to refuel," says Varano. "Your body is [prepared for muscle growth in a phase referred to as an] anabolic state after you complete your workout, and the quicker you can get your recovery drink or meal the better," explains John Lippitt, certified clinical exercise physiologist at Hilton Head Health (H3). But before you reach for the closest bagel, make sure your meal will help you build your ideal physique as much as your gym time. "You want a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein for maximum recovery," Lippitt advises. Varano suggests trying a healthy smoothie made with spinach, berries, flaxseed oil and protein powder; this simple and portable snack balances your blood sugar levels for hours of energy thanks to its protein, complex carbs and healthy fats.

Check Your Urine

In case you didn't have an overzealous coach telling you to "train right, pee white," we're here to tell you not to underestimate your urine. Yes, you read that right. Cat Smiley, author of The Planet Friendly Diet, explains: "Your urine is a snapshot of how hydrated you are. If it's clear or almost clear, you're hydrated enough to enjoy a latte when you leave the gym. This surprising post-workout snack will help reduce muscle pain and delay the onset of muscle soreness — meaning you can get back to your workouts faster tomorrow so you'll get fitter faster." Unless you're drinking enough to get you jittery, the water content in coffee balances its diuretic effects and won't dry you out post-workout. Its pain- and tension-taming effect is thanks to caffeine, which also happens to be great at burning fat. Note: If your urine is darker, it means you're not hydrated enough for coffee; drinking a cup of joe will further dehydrate you since it acts as a diuretic.

Don't OD on the Protein

post workout habits protein shake

Protein may be the golden child of the health industry, but that doesn't mean your body treats it any differently than other nutrients. Just like with slow-digesting carbs and healthy fats, more protein is not always better. In fact, your body can only handle so much at a time: "Your body can only digest about 25-30 grams of protein max at one time. The rest will be wasted," says Lippitt. Sorry folks, excess calories are excess calories — even if they come from protein. And, unfortunately, your body isn't the only thing suffering from this common misconception. "Supplements with over 30 grams of protein are wasting your money," he adds. So don't be fooled by the sales language. Rely on protein powder that focuses on quality instead of quantity or get your protein naturally — these high-protein snacks are perfect for post-workout fuel.


It's easy to forget to drink enough water in your post-workout high or think that your shake is adequate for hydration. Sorry, it's not. "Weigh yourself before and after the workout. For each pound of weight lost, drink 24 ounces of water," Lippitt advises. To make it more enjoyable to knock back that much H2O, jazz up your water with cucumber rounds and lemon wedges for a refreshing cooler. You can also try adding jalapeno slices and a pinch of cayenne for a metabolism-boosting kick, or try one of these detox waters we love. If you're worried about your body clinging to all these cups, spike your drinks with lemon wedges. This underestimated citrus fruit packs de-limonene, an antioxidant touted for its diuretic — and belly-flattening — effect. It also encourages sluggish bowels to get moving, doubling the flat-belly benefit.

Drink Your Veggies, Too

post workout habits weight loss smoothie

If you're aiming to look less apple-shaped, ditch the fruit juice and stick with veggies. "[Drinking] fresh-pressed veggie juice after your workout will encourage your body to release insulin, which helps prevent muscle loss and stops your body from cannibalizing proteins from your muscle tissue to convert to glucose," explains Smiley. This ensures that instead of being eaten away for energy, your muscles continue to grow. But that's not the only benefit to staying on the savory side of the juice shop menu. "Vegetables are also lower in sugar content than fruit, so they'll keep you satiated longer," she adds. Less sugar means fewer spikes and dips in your blood sugar levels, which keeps you from feeling lethargic and craving a quick-hit energy boost like the kind you get from processed snacks.

Massage Yourself

Get your head out of the gutter, folks. "Myofascial release, a type of muscle therapy that targets pain in soft tissue, helps break up the connective tissue to ease muscle soreness and restore range of motion. Try self massaging with a foam roller, lacrosse ball or rolling pin," suggests Varano. In fact, several studies have linked massage to a wide range of benefits including improving your range of motion, lowering pain levels and even increasing circulation in combination with stretching and exercise regimes. In addition to massage, don't underestimate the importance of treating your muscles to some TLC during off days. We suggest lengthening yoga routines, Pilates and even simple guided meditation.


Plus, if you're looking to take your workout to the next level. Stock up on these recommended eats to ensure you're properly fueled for your next workout. After making these simple diet tweaks, we're confident you'll start seeing those results you crave!

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You… Strength Train in the A.m.

If you prefer to get your swole on before the sun comes up, proper nutrition must start the night before your workout, explains Jim White RD, ACSM HFS, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. He suggests having a cup of brown rice, a cup of steamed broccoli and 3 to 5 ounces of lean protein for dinner, and then having a small snack like a banana with a tablespoon of almond butter in the morning before hitting the weights. "You won't have enough time to digest a bigger meal if you want to fit in a workout before heading to the office," he notes.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You… Strength Train in the P.m.

If you want to get the most from your after-dark sweat session, you'll need to eat a combination of complex carbs, veggies and protein two or three hours before lacing up your sneakers. A medium-sized sweet potato, a cup of steamed spinach and 3-5 ounces of chicken breast, lean ground turkey, or white fish fits the bill says White. Speaking of healthy eats, get your flat-belly fix with the essential 42 Foods to Stop Belly Bloat.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're… Taking a Pilates or Yoga Class

There's nothing like a rumbling belly to ruin your zen. Doing downward dog with a stomach full of food? Also, not ideal. Keep energy levels high and ward off hunger without weighing yourself down with a low-glycemic, carb-rich snack about an hour before class, advises Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian with Just For Today, a nutrition counseling and yoga center. "Some healthy picks that fit the bill include whole-grain toast, a banana, an apple, a pear or some veggie sticks and hummus."

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're… Trying to Lose Weight

If you're sweating it out in an attempt to slim down for your upcoming beach vacation, you'll want to consume a carb-laden snack (like a slice of whole-wheat toast or a piece of fruit) an hour before jumping into your workout, says Kaufman. Totally shocking, we know, but here's why: "Eating carb-rich foods before hitting the gym aids weight loss because your body burns this nutrient first. Once the carbs have been used up, the body can start using stored fat for fuel." Armed with this information, it may be tempting to work out on an empty stomach to burn more fat, but Kaufman assures us this isn't safe or any more effective.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You…do Cardio in the A.m.

There's nothing like getting your workout out of the way while most of the world is still asleep—it makes you feel so accomplished! But fueling up beforehand can be a bit tricky. "I typically recommend that people wait an hour or two after eating to exercise. However, when you workout in the morning this can be unrealistic," says Katie Cavuto, M.S., R.D., dietitian for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia Flyers. "I recommend sticking with a small, easily digestible snack like 6-ounces of yogurt and a half cup of fruit." This combo is easy on your stomach and gives you the rev your body needs. If dairy doesn't sit well with you or you're a vegan, Cavuto recommends substituting in silken tofu for the yogurt and blending it with the fruit to make an energy-packed smoothie. (Make sure you're choosing the best creamy treat for your body by stocking up on brands that made our list of the Best Yogurts for Weight Loss.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You…do Cardio in the P.m

Going for a run or a bike ride after a long day at the office is a great way to blow off some steam—just make sure you fuel up properly prior to hitting the pavement. "Since you've already eaten two meals earlier in the day, I recommend eating a light snack an hour before your training session, says Debora Warner, founder, president and program director of Mile High Run Club. "I typically eat a bowl of mixed fruit or fresh papaya before heading out on a run. The high water content, potassium and vitamins help keep me hydrated and energized."

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're…hitting the Hiking Trail

As the weather begins to warm up, you may consider hitting the trail for a fun weekend workout. While hiking may not leave you winded like some other forms of exercise, it's still just as important to eat properly beforehand. "Choose a snack or meal with staying power by combining lean proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates. A bowl of oats with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of nuts or seeds will do the trick," suggests Cavuto. "If you're short on time, grab a nut-based bar like KIND Nuts & Spices and pair it with some fresh, whole fruit like a banana or apple."

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You…do HIIT

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is well, intense, making your pre-workout nutrition of the utmost importance! To power through your workout without running out of gas, White suggests fueling up with protein oatcakes. Here's how to make them: Combine three egg whites, one whole egg, a cup of rolled oats and half a cup of blueberries in a bowl. Mix them together until thoroughly incorporated, and then throw them onto a skillet until they are cooked through. If you typically head to the gym after work, throw the hot cakes into a Tupperware container. Reheat and eat them about an hour and a half before your workout. If you have a bigger build, you may need additional carbohydrates to power through your sweat session. Adding half of a small banana on top of the oatcakes should do the trick, notes White.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're…Crossfitting

If you're striving for a PR during tonight's WOD, you've got to fuel-up properly. "Crossfit workouts focus on both strength training and endurance, so it's important to have between 300 and 600 calories before your workout," says White. A combination of protein, carbohydrates and fats will help maintain energy levels throughout your workout and ward off extreme hunger pains after your workout, he explains. "Before heading to your box, make a chicken sandwich with whole-wheat bread, 3 to 5 ounces of grilled chicken, an ounce of mashed avocado and as much spinach as you can fit in between. If you Crossfit too early in the morning for a chicken sandwich, substitute the chicken for egg whites and add reduced fat mozzarella cheese." (Want to keep your metabolism humming long after your Crossfit session is over? Burn, baby, burn with the essential 6 Quick Ways to Boost Your Metabolism.)

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're…endurance Training.

Whether you're running your first half or looking to take home a triathlon PR, you've got to eat right before your training workouts. "I recommend consuming a combination of fiber and healthy fats about an hour before an endurance workout. This winning nutritional duo slows the release of insulin, keeping energy levels even keel," explains Warner. A banana with peanut butter, an organic whole-milk yogurt with ¼ cup of blueberries, or half a mashed avocado on whole grain toast are all good bets. Don't forget, if your training session exceeds two hours or you're running more than 15 miles, you should refuel mid-workout. Warner likes Clif Shot BLOKS.

The Best Pre-workout Fuel if You're…heading to a Hot Yoga Class

When you're stretching, bending and sweating in a sauna-like room for an hour, hydrating and eating properly beforehand is key. "I recommend having a fresh-pressed juice or a water-rich fruit such as an orange, peach or banana at least an hour before hitting the mat," says Sunshine Daidone, Founder of POE Yoga in East Hampton, NY and Far Hills, NJ. "Eating or drinking too close to the beginning of class may lead to indigestion or bloating, interfering with your practice. I like these water- and carb-rich snacks because they keep you energized and alert, but don't weigh you down," she adds.



Perri O. Blumberg
Perri O. Blumberg is a freelance food, health, and lifestyle writer. Read more about Perri O.
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