Pre- & Post- Workout Supplement Timing: What To Take & When

Pre- & Post- Workout Supplement Timing: What To Take & When

When you start an elite lifting program, you spend lots of time in the gym perfecting your form, carefully calibrating your workout to get the results you want, and monitoring your calories like a hawk.

Your overall nutrition needs change in a big way, too. Now your body requires supplements to maximize gains, speed recovery, and minimize muscle soreness. And when it comes to taking supplements, timing matters—you need the right nutrients to hit your metabolism at the right time to stay in tip-top shape and keep developing muscle.

But how do you choose the right pre- and post-workout supplements when you're still the new guy or gal at the gym? And how do you keep track of when you should take what? Here's everything you need to know to keep your pre- and post-workout supplements straight—from what you should take to when you should schedule the supplement into your day.

Pre-Workout Supplements

When you spend a lot of time in the gym, you need the right fuel to keep you going. Most bodybuilders depend on pre-workout shakes to keep their energy up when they tackle tough sets and big lifts. But if you truly want to make gains, speed recovery, and eliminate soreness, you'll need to take the right pre-workout supplements at the right time. Here's what you should take to amp up your next workout.

The supplement: Nitric oxide booster

What it does: Increases blood flow to muscles

When to take it: About 30 minutes before your workout

Whether you want to get as much out of your workout as you can, or you need to speed along your workout recovery times, nitric oxide boosters will help you get there. Nitric oxide helps increase blood flow and oxygen to your muscles, which makes it easier for muscles to get all the nutrients they need for recovery after a tough workout. Mix in a scoop of nitric oxide powder with your pre-workout shake about 30 minutes before your gym sesh to feel results.

The supplement: BCAAs

What it does: Helps alleviate muscle soreness and beat back fatigue

When to take it: With pre-workout, about 30 minutes before your workout

Branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are some of the most important components of protein—in fact, when you eat protein, your body starts breaking it down into BCAAs to deliver them to your body for energy.

In a cutting phase? BCAAs might give you the energy you need once you start eliminating carbs, says registered sports dietitian Amy Goodson. "Branched-chain amino acids are a source of energy in exercise and become a more substantial fuel source in endurance exercise when carbohydrates stores are low," Goodson told Shape.

Take a BCAA supplement about half an hour before your workout to chase away fatigue and improve your performance in the gym.

The supplement: Beta-alanine

What it does: Improves performance and builds lean muscle

When to take it: As part of a pre-workout formula, about 30 minutes before your workout

Finding the right balance of amino acids is essential to a high-performing workout. Beta-alanine is a type of amino acid that has been shown to improve workout performance and help build lean muscle.

How does it work? Beta-alanine is the amino acid most crucial to carnosine synthesis—one of the most important factors for reducing lactic acid build-up post workout. By taking beta-alanine supplements, lifters can help defeat muscle soreness the next day, while also enhancing performance in the gym and nipping muscle fatigue in the bud. Many studies show that beta-alanine supplements increase strength, power, muscular aerobic capacity, training volume, and overall performance.

Post-Workout Supplements

You've finished your last set. Your muscles are pumped. You know you've left everything you have on the gym floor. Now it's time to think about re-fueling, recovery, and rest—and you'll need supplements to help you with all three. Post-workout supplements are designed to help you support muscle growth as you bulk up, decrease muscle soreness, and speed your recovery. Here's everything you need to know about what to take after you head home from your daily workout.

The supplement: Casein and whey protein

What it does: Supports muscle growth

When to take it: Within an hour post-workout

Protein supplements, especially those made with whey or casein, help support muscle growth and repair muscle fibers. Even though whey and casein proteins are metabolized at different rates, taken together, they'll help you build and retain muscle. Whey is metabolized quickly, within about 20 minutes, which means it works well as a pre-workout supplement, too. Casein takes longer to metabolize—about 3 to 4 hours—which makes it the perfect protein supplement for overnight recovery.

Without increasing your protein intake, you'll never be able to gain muscle mass—and you'll be incredibly sore after a tough workout, too. To maximize your post-workout supplementation, consume protein in a shake or as part of your meal within an hour after your workout.

The supplement: Creatine

What it does: Prevents muscle soreness

When to take it: Within an hour post-workout

Creatine restores the compounds your muscles expend during resistance training, helping you to recover quickly and with minimal soreness. According to one study published in the Journal of International Sports Nutrition, male athletes who consumed creatine supplements after a bodybuilding workout gained more lean muscle mass and increased their rep max, compared to men who took creatine as part of their pre-workout supplement regimen and followed the same workout. Like all supplements, creatine takes time to absorb. Take your dose within an hour post-workout.

The supplement: Glutamine

What it does: Improves metabolization of protein and minimizes muscle breakdown 

When to take it: Within an hour post-workout

In a "cut" phase? Glutamine supplements will become your new best friend. An amino acid that helps fuel your muscles with nitrogen, glutamine burns up quickly when you're strength conditioning and needs to be replenished after workouts. Because glutamine also helps your body metabolize protein and minimize muscle breakdown, it's a great supplement to take if you're trying to maintain muscle when you're "cutting." You can feel better about getting rid of fat—without losing all the muscle you just worked so hard to gain!

An Overall Note on Timing

While there tends to be a lot of anxiety about hitting the "anabolic window" for pre- and post-workout supplements, the best rule of thumb is to eat lean proteins and lots of leafy greens throughout the day to power your workouts.

According to Dr. Krissy Kendall, a kinesiologist, the early studies that touted the importance of consuming protein and other supplements within an hour after your workout were often based on fasting subjects.

"Because fasting itself will put your body in a catabolic state, eating immediately after a workout is crucial for promoting muscle protein synthesis and glycogen storage," explains Kendall at "But unless you train at 5 a.m. on an empty stomach, there's less urgency when it comes to consuming your post-workout meal," she adds.

You're better off being consistent with your overall health and nutrition, which includes consuming enough protein—as much as 20 grams—before a major workout. If you're launching into a workout after a fast, you'll want to eat 20 to 35 grams of protein after you're finished, notes Kendall.

While the "anabolic window" shouldn't necessarily make you panic, it's still important to give your body the nutrients it needs to work hard and recover after every gym session. Our guide to supplementing pre- and post-workout should help you maximize your gains and minimize your recovery time.

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