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The Perfect Post-Workout Meal

You’ve made it to the end of your workout, sweaty and so pumped that you can’t reach your head anymore. Life is good. Your stomach is fired up and ready for a huge meal. All you can think of is...a burrito! After all, you’ve just kicked your own butt for an hour in the gym, you’re hungry, and you feel you’ve earned a big meal. But is that going to capitalize on your efforts? Not really.

Remember this: the post-workout meal is the MOST important meal of the day for maximizing the results you’ll get from your workouts, whether you’re aiming to build muscle or burn fat. Nutrition science research and hardcore bodybuilders alike have proven this. It’s very important to get this meal right.

You have a window of opportunity which lasts for 20 – 30 minutes after any hard workout (cardio, weights, basketball, etc.) to give your body the nutrients it needs so that it can immediately begin repairing the muscle damage inflicted during the workout. Do it right, and the body will kick into high gear by raising important growth hormone levels, shuttling new protein to the muscles and recharging your tired body with fresh energy. Your body will be in an anabolic (muscle building) state. Do it wrong, and your body will be sluggish because of low blood sugar, you hormone levels will drop and your hard-earned muscle fibers will be scavenged for nutrients. This is called a catabolic (muscle wasting) state.

So what does your body really need after working out to ensure that all your efforts weren’t in vain? Ok, you need protein, but what else? Sugar. Yeah, I said it. Doesn’t seem right, does it? Read on and it’ll all make sense.


During any hard workout the primary energy source that your body uses is sugar (glucose). Sugar is a carbohydrate and carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel source. Carbs are used so heavily because they are abundant in a balanced diet (usually providing 40 – 60% of your energy) and because they can be rapidly converted into ATP (the type of energy used to contract muscle). Fat is used for energy, too, but not as effectively because it takes longer to be converted into ATP.

Since you’re using so many carbs during your workout, your blood sugar will be low afterwards. If you don’t replace those blood sugars immediately (within 20 – 30 minutes), your body will start breaking down muscle and turning it into sugar through a process known to exercise nerds like me as gluconeogenesis. Your energy will also plummet. Either way, the body will eventually get the sugar it needs.

Research has shown that by combining sugar with protein in your post-workout meal, you create an insulin spike that decreases the time it takes for protein to get to your muscles and dramatically increases the rate of muscle building, known as protein synthesis. The effectiveness of this combination is significantly superior to supplementing with either sugar or protein alone after a workout.

What are good sources of sugar to use? Ideally, you need high glycemic index sugar, which means taking in carbs that can be rapidly converted to blood sugar when they hit your stomach. Some household examples are fruit juices of all kinds (grape juice is a popular and effective choice), sports drinks, honey, bananas, pineapples, and raisins. These ingredients can be easily blended into a smoothie with some protein. Or, if you don’t have time for a smoothie, you can eat the fruits whole. When none of those options are available, you can get good sugars from: all other fruits, rice, cereal, skim milk, soy milk, chocolate milk, low fat yogurt, low fat cottage cheese, bread, pita, bagels, pasta, potatoes, crackers, and even fat-free candies like jelly beans! All these sugars will do the trick, but not as efficiently as your first options.

For those of you who consider yourselves hard core, go to your nearest nutrition supplement store and buy a jug of maltodextrin and a jug of dextrose (also known as glucose—yes, the same sugar that is already in your blood!), which are moderately sweet sugars with some of the highest glycemic indexes—the #1 choice for your post workout meal. Use a 50/50 mixture of the two in your shake, so if you need 60 grams of sugar, use 30 grams of each. Maltodextrin and dextrose are quite cheap: you should be able to get them for $1 – $2 per pound.


Most people are aware of the importance of protein in building muscle since, after all, muscle is made of protein. Actually, muscles are 75% water, but you get the point. There are so many types of protein on the market, though! Which is best, and how should it be taken?

Quite simply, the best protein is whey protein. If you want to get fancy, go for the ion-exchanged, ultra-filtrated whey protein isolate, which some research has shown to have an edge over basic whey protein. Is it worth the higher cost? You be the judge.

The reason whey protein is so good is because it has the highest bioavailability, which means your body wastes very little of it during digestion. It’s so good, in fact, that no whole food source of protein can compare (eggs come closest). But don’t worry, whey protein isn’t some crazy chemical concoction made in a lab alongside twinkies and ho-hos. Whey is actually a natural extract of milk protein.

You can buy decent whey protein supplements at any sports nutrition store and even most grocery stores these days. Regular whey protein can be bought for $5 – $10 per pound. For the fancy isolate, you should be paying $10 – $15 per pound.

If you can’t be bothered with making a shake for yourself, you can also get your protein from skim milk, soy milk, low fat yogurt, low fat cottage cheese, nuts, beans, protein bars, and protein drinks. Though not ideal, these are good options, and far better than not eating anything.


Ideally, you shouldn’t have any. If there is fat mixed in with your post-workout meal it will slow digestion. In other words, the protein you’ve eaten won’t get to your muscles as quickly, and the carbs you’ve eaten will take longer to hit your bloodstream. Do your best to minimize the fat content of this important meal.


The best way to get all this stuff into your stomach is in liquid form. That way, your stomach can more easily break down the food and get the necessary nutrients into the blood stream. Therefore, combining these ingredients into a smoothie is the perfect method. Remember, though, that the stomach digests more quickly when plenty of fluid is present (water, milk, juice, etc.), so make sure your shake has enough liquid to keep its consistency relatively thin. Depending on the size of your shake, there should be around 2 – 4 cups of fluid in it. If you don’t like it that way, then chug a big glass of water after you’ve had your shake. Also, try to avoid taking in a lot of fiber immediately after your workout because it will slow digestion.

Whether you have a shake or some of the solid food options as described above you should have this meal as soon as possible after the workout (as soon as you can stomach it), but no longer than 30 minutes post-workout or you’ll be missing that important window of opportunity. Let it sit for 45 – 90 minutes in your stomach, then have a balanced meal of real food.


How much sugar and protein do you need? The bigger you are, the more you need. 10 – 15 grams of protein and 20 – 30 grams of sugar will take care of the smaller people (about 130 pounds or less). An average sized man (150 – 180 pounds) should get 20 – 30 grams of protein and 40 – 60 grams of sugar. Cut that in half if you’re a woman in this category trying to lose weight. Muscle heads (200+ pounds) will need as much as 40 – 50 grams of protein and 80 – 100 grams of sugar in their post-workout shake. Again, half of this for women in this category. Use your best judgment to find where you fit on that scale. If you’re trying to gain size, you’ll need a large shake. If you’re aiming to lose body fat, have a smaller shake. The calories add up quickly!

Now use this information to your advantage...or as an excuse to eat some sugar! Follow these guidelines, and you’ll finally be making the most of all that hard work.

Diverge Personal Training Gym opened in 2008, yet it has had its roots within the Hillcrest neighborhood for over 10 years. The co-owners Brian White and Derek Heintz have been helping the community with their fitness goals since 1998.