Exploring Eating Before Lifting

hack squat
Photo credit: forums.steroid.com

I mentioned yesterday how difficult hack squats were on Wednesday morning compared to how I lifted two days before, and found myself wondering if weightlifting on an empty stomach within an hour or so of waking up might be the problem.

I didn’t get an answer from anyone, either here on my own blog, or on Lethally Fit’s blog spot where I also passed on my query (she’s been under the weather, and so probably hasn’t spent much time visiting her blog).

So I did what I always do, turned to Google. I picked the top four search results and came up with some interesting answers.

Of course when you consult a discussion forum, you get many competing results, so no help there.

Livestrong.com provided a short and sweet (not literally sweet) answer:

When you’re lifting weights, your body will be utilizing primarily carbohydrates as fuel; protein facilitates recovery and the muscle-building process. As a result, Northern Arizona University Athletics recommends consuming a small meal consisting of low-glycemic carbohydrates and a quality protein before your workouts. Carbohydrates that are low glycemic provide you with a steady supply of energy because they take longer to be digested, which is ideal before your workouts.

By “small meal,” they mean, for example, “a bowl of rolled oats with a scoop of whey protein and some peanut butter, milk and sliced banana” consumed about 60 to 90 minutes before actually lifting, which should give your body enough time to digest.

I hate working out on a full stomach which typically results in “abdominal pains from gastrointestinal distress.”

They also said something highly relevant to me:

If you lift weights first thing in the morning, eat a banana and whole wheat bread at least 30 minutes before you begin.

That seems to be the statement that best describes my situation, since I get out of bed anywhere from 3:30 to 4 a.m. and am at the gym ready to lift by 5.

But Livestrong tends to write for the person doing an “average” workout, especially older folks. What about older folks like me, who like to “push it” a little?

rogue gym
Photo credit: bodybuilding.com

For the answer, I consulted an article published at my old standby source, Bodybuilding.com.

Actually, Matt Danielsson, the author of this 2007 missive, wrote something about doing Cardio first thing in the morning I wish I’d known about before now:

…this is THE time to get some fat burn going. As you haven’t had any major meals for several hours, there’s very little carbs floating around in your system that can be used as fuel instead of bodyfat. Bad news is, as there’s little carbs around, the body doesn’t mind cannibalizing some muscle mass along with the bodyfat. Yikes! Frontal assault on objective one!

Uh-oh. Is part of my problem with hack squats that I’ve been burning off muscle mass during my 40-minute cardio sessions three days a week because I’m hitting the elliptical on an empty stomach (except for water and coffee)?

The answer has several parts, and this is just for cardio day:

The task here is to spare the muscle, and further stimulate bodyfat to be used to fuel the workout. The first part is solved by gulping down a protein drink with at least 40 grams of high-quality protein (preferably Whey, which is high in L-Glutamine). This way, the inevitable lost protein is taken from your bloodstream, not your biceps (keep in mind that muscle IS protein!).

drinking water at the gym
Photo credit: breakingmuscle.com

The second part can be done a couple of different ways. First off, drink plenty of water!! Water is an absolute necessity to make this happen! Secondly, pop a couple of fish oil or flax seed oil capsules. Getting a couple of grams of “good” fats can help jump start the fat burning process in your body. Also, if approved by your physician, caffeine/ephedrine-based fat burners can do wonders in both releasing stored bodyfat into the bloodstream, AND crank up your metabolism to burn even more calories.

As for the timing, try to get your protein drink, fish oil, and fat-burn pills into your system about an hour before the workout. In other words, it’s a good strategy to do this first thing as you wake up, and then do the normal morning chores until it’s time to head for the gym. 45 minutes is the bare minimum you want to allow for the nutrients to enter your bloodstream.

So, to recap a quickie early morning breakfast before doing cardio:

  1. Whey Protein
  2. Water
  3. Fish oil tablets
  4. Coffee (the heck with caffeine pills)
Photo credit: foxnews.com

I do the water and coffee every morning before going to the gym, and usually protein and fish oil tablets (along with the rest of my supplements) with and after breakfast after my cardio session.

But that’s just for ab and cardio day. What about eating first thing in the morning before serious (for me) weightlifting?

First thing when you wake up, is to eat something that’ll give you a good load of carbs and protein. Oatmeal porridge, egg whites, a fruit, a glass of juice, and a glass of low-fat milk is THE power breakfast. Give yourself a variation of fast and slow carbs, and don’t forget to get some good fats in there as well. Allow for at least an hour to digest this food. You don’t want to go to the gym and find that your body is still busy trying to digest the breakfast.

Let’s see. That breaks down into:

  1. Fast carbs
  2. Slow carbs
  3. Protein
  4. Good fats

That pretty much mirrors the advice I read at Livestrong.com and it’s something of an adaptation of the cardio day breakfast apart from the carbs.

Danielsson also has advice about what to eat immediately after lifting:

One thing the Weight Training shares with the Cardio, is the need for fast carbs (sugar!) immediately after the training. Remember – after a workout, your muscles are in a state of catabolism, and the only thing to save them from getting cannibalized is to feed the body something else to eat instead of your own muscles. And it has to be fast!

protein powder
Photo credit: simplyshredded.com

I usually blast down a protein shake the second I get home from lifting, but I can see I should probably include some fast carbs as well.

Here’s something he wrote in conclusion about mixing lifting and cardio in the same session related to food:

One thing I’d like to point out though, is that it is close to impossible to combine the two kinds of morning training in one session, with good results. If you do the “cardio breakfast”, you’ll burn fat alright, but when you try to hit the weights you’ll not be as strong as you could be, while sacrificing muscle mass for no reason. Likewise, a “weight training breakfast” will make the weight training part work fine, but when you step onto the treadmill (or whatever), you will burn mostly carbs (in your bloodstream), and very little bodyfat. In addition, by eating carbs, you’ll probably have triggered a release of Insulin, which in turn seriously hampers your ability to burn fat for hours afterwards.

Pick one, don’t mix it up. Designate different days to different types of morning training.

So, back in the day, when I’d do 30 minutes of weight training followed up by 25 minutes of cardio, at least according to Danielsson, there would have been no good way to eat and optimize both workout types. This is also why I favored weight training before cardio. Doing it the other way around made my lifts suck.

Looks like my current routine of alternating lifting and cardio days is more effective, both for building strength and muscle and for burning off fat. Good on me.

The last resource produced in the top four Google search results was Jason Ferruggia’s website.

Jason Ferruggia: Photo credit:

From his About page, Jason describes himself thus:

I help guys get fit, get focused & live free. I believe in constantly challenging the status quo. I know there’s a more effective way to train & live; most people just haven’t been shown how. That’s what I’m here to do. I’ve been featured on & in ESPN, CBS, Men’s Health, Shape, Fast Company, & Details. I’m an adviser to Men’s Fitness, Schwarzenegger, LiveStrong, & Muscle & Fitness. And I’m obsessed with rhubarb pie & all things 90’s.

Apparently, he’s also obsessed with using ampersands (&) in his writing.

That’s the short version of his bio, in case you were wondering why to listen to his advice.

Here’s his basic message:

With only an hour to spare eating is a toss up. As long as you feasted and replenished your glycogen stores with a decent amount of carbs the night before you should be fine with no food. But don’t train completely fasted.

After you finish your Renegade coffee have ten grams of branched chain amino acids (BCAA). This will prevent any potential muscle loss during the workout.

THIS is the brand I use and recommend.

By the time you brush your teeth, shower, make coffee and drive to the gym you should be closing in on an hour. If not you will be by the time you get half way through your warm up.

Since Jason likes to recommend specific brands, I included the links in the quote above.

Arnold Schwarzenegger eating
Photo credit: pinterest.com

His suggestion is a bit different from the other two. Just coffee and ten grams of BCAA before the workout, with the caveat that you “feast at night,” so the carbs from the last meal of the day will carry over into the morning workout.

I’m going to have to play around with this a bit and see what works for me. The take away is to eat but not much, and to consume a combination (if I set aside Jason’s advice for a moment) of protein and carbohydrates, but just enough that they’ll be digested and not sitting in my stomach when I start my first weightlifting set.

I’ll just have to get organized when I first get up to put something in my gut while my brain is still rising to the surface of consciousness.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

The realization that all beginnings are difficult makes the task of beginning easier.

Rabbi Shraga Silverstein


12 thoughts on “Exploring Eating Before Lifting

  1. You know I am anti-morning-lifting . : . But since you INSIST on doing it wrong . : .😂

    Ima give you more ‘advice’ . . . Eat within 10 minutes of waking up. Protein & crabs. And if you insist on working out, hit the crabs a little harder. Then crabs & protein when wow is done, this time hitting the protein harder.

    Then go to the office and find a dark corner for a power nap😉


    1. I’ll pretty much have to eat within 10 minutes of waking up since I’ll only have between 60 and 90 minutes between awakening and being at the gym.

      There are days when I really wish I could take a nap at work, but I have to settle for coffee.

      Thanks for the advice. 🙂


  2. Wow, thanks!! Excellent article James, unfortunately we don’t give food the importance it deserves. We should study deeper into this subject. Thank you very much!!!!


    1. You’re welcome. Finding something to eat at 3:30 in the morning when I don’t even feel hungry was a bit of a challenge, especially since I didn’t want to wake everyone by cooking. Settled on a can of tuna (protein) and a roasted tortilla (carbs). Probably not the best selections, but they were quick.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve got back to you now, and yes, I’ve been sick and not blogging very much over the past couple of weeks. Back on my feet now, and almost up to getting back to the gym. Here’s my response to your question (which I also posted at http:lethallyfit.wordpress.com

    Hi – I normally lift just after 9 am, once I’ve got the kids off to school. I find that I have to have breakfast on lifting days otherwise I feel weak, and my usual breakfast on those days is a couple of eggs (fried but just with spray oil) and some cooked spinach (about a cupful of microwaved then pan cooked). I don’t drink coffee, but I drink a lot of water, and sometimes have a cup of green tea in the morning.

    I’m guessing that having breakfast beforehand might really help with your lifting. I’m no expert, and have just gone with what works for me, but I find that having the big, high protein breakfast really makes a difference for me. I’ve got friends who lift on an empty stomach, and I have no idea how they do it!

    I’ve also heard of a lot of people who go for those protein shakes, and have them after they lift. I don’t bother. I find that eating beforehand is the key for me. But then, I’m convinced that those protein shakes are basically junk food. I think you can’t go past real food to build muscle, hence the eggs! 🙂


  4. Having read the responses to your question that you posted above in your blog post, I’d like to point out that Bodybuilding.com make a LOT of money from selling supplements. That’s where their income comes from. So while I’m in agreement that you should be eating some protein before a heavy workout, I re-emphasize my suspicion of the supplement industry generally and the processed, overpriced crap they’re selling.

    Put it this way: I didn’t notice any improvement when I was taking that s**t (like everyone, when I started out, I thought I needed to have all the supplements to be a “proper” bodybuilder), but when I actually started sorting my diet out, and quitting the crap in it, *that’s* when things started improving.

    Re my eating lots of spinach in the morning. I do this because a) it’s cheap, b) it’s a great source of iron and c) it means no matter how I stuff up my diet through the day (I’m nowhere near perfect!) I know I’ve had the equivalent of 3-4 serves of good quality greens to start the day with. I’m one of those people who thinks that one of the big mistakes a lot of bodybuilders make is we tend to eat lots of animal products and neglect the veggies, yet what science is repeatedly telling us is that veggies, particularly green ones, are vital for our longterm health.

    Do what works for you. But I guess I should also point out that almost all (I’d say *all* but there must be a few exceptions so I won’t) bodybuilders you see get to stage are on performance enhancing drugs. They’re absolutely rife in the sport. I’m not, because I’m an older woman who wants to keep on looking like a woman (!!), and the changes hey make in women are pretty scary (have a look at earlier and later pics of Dana Linn Bailey, in particular her chin, nose and forehead – and she’s at the top of the sport, has obviously been REALLY careful with what she’s taking, and yet still is looking weird 😦 ).

    Other female bodybuilders look even scarier. I don’t want that – I’m doing this for myself, not to impress anyone else. Plus, I’m epileptic, and have had to take medication all my life with no choice in the matter – the last thing I want to do is take MORE drugs. I think taking drugs for sport is lunacy, but I’m also very aware of the fact that they exist – I hear the talk in the gym, and I’m not stupid.

    As for men, though, the drugs are everywhere, and supplement companies take advantage of this by pretending you’ll see the same results with legal, non-drug supplements. You won’t. I’d strongly advise against going down that route, but the fact is that without drugs you, like me, will need a rest day in between heavy lifting days – that’s why I train M, W, F for my heavy lifts, whereas you’ll see drug-enhanced athletes in your gym lifting heavy 5 days a week, which is naturally unfeasible. Even as a teenager at the sports institute when I was rowing, we staggered our training to alternate heavy days (this was back in the 1980s) – these days, of course, the elite athletes don’t need to do that because of the drugs, which facilitate very rapid recovery.

    What it boils down to is deciding what you’re doing it for. In my case, I made the decision when I went back to training after having kids that I was doing this for personal satisfaction, and that competitive results were secondary to my enjoyment of the sport. So drugs are NOT going to ever be a part of the equation for me. Other people put winning first, ahead of their health and honesty, and they go the drug route. But what I’m saying is don’t expect the same results as a souped-up 20 something on Bodybuilding.com. They won’t mention the drugs, but then, they never do.

    Hope this is actually useful 🙂


    1. Thanks for all that, Lethally. Actually, Bodybuilding.com is a local company where I live and at the software company where I work, most of our QA testers used to work there. I don’t buy any of their products, but their website seems to be pretty helpful, at least to me.

      Since during weekdays I’ve only got a 60 to 90 minute window to eat and digest before lifting, whatever I eat has to be light. Yesterday was my first go at it and I can’t say I noticed much of a difference besides what I chronicled here.

      I’ve also decided to make some changes to my routine. While I haven’t abandoned a heavy weight, compound lift, high sets, and low reps workout, I’m going to back off for a few weeks and work up to it again. Those hack squats and deadlifts are getting pretty tough for me, especially getting the barbell initially up off the floor.

      I don’t want to prove my wife right by injuring myself. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Today’s (Saturday) my last abs and cardio day for the week. Plenty of time for breakfast: a 2-egg omelet with ginger, garlic, onion, home grown kale (someone else’s garden, not mine), and a little feta cheese. That should fit the bill.

    Also water and my usual wife-recommended supplements.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely don’t prove ANYONE right by injuring yourself! (I think that’s one of the rules behind the “there is no fight club” rule 😉 )

      Bodybuilding.com is a useful site, you’re right – their video snippets on how to do a lot of the exercises correctly are some of the best around, and very helpful.

      Re the eating before working out, I wouldn’t expect you to notice differences in your performance (in terms of the amount you lift , strength etc.) immediately. These things take time. It’s also possible you’ve currently hit a wall, which might also take some time to push through – I know I hit several of them in getting to where I am currently, and I’m dealing with one now regarding my overhead press (can’t seem to get past 37.5 kgs in sets of 5). I’ll get past it, but it might take a few weeks.

      Changing your routine around every so often is a good idea. However, I’ve got to admit that I’m a BIG advocate of the big compound exercises. I’ve pretty much stopped all the little, fancy exercises in favour of sticking with the big stuff, and I’m getting better results in terms of looks and strength (i.e screw rope pull downs and cable ANYTHINGS in favour of deads, overheads, bench, push ups, pull ups etc.)

      Bodyweight exercises are also brilliant – find me an exercise that’s not a big compound exercise and that’s better for upper body strength than a pull up or a chin up and I’ll give you $50. On the spot.

      Keep up with it! 🙂


  6. Thanks, Lethally. I’m actually not giving up the compound lifts at all, just going lighter and more reps this coming week, and then each subsequent week, increasing the weight and decreasing the reps. The basic outline for the plan is HERE.


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