Author: James O’Sullivan • Fact checked by: Gainful Registered Dietitians • May 19, 2022
Supplements can be important for those looking to get the absolute maximum out of the time they devote to their fitness goals. From professional athletes to those who hit the gym to maintain mental and physical health, most people can benefit from incorporating supplements into their daily routine.
Broadly speaking, two of the most popular classes of supplements are pre-workout and post-workout. Pre-workout supplements are commonly used as a way to provide energy and focus before resistance exercise or other activity, while post-workout supplements are designed to replenish nutrients that are depleted during exercise.
And while supplements may not be mandatory for success with your goals, there are several reasons why you may want to incorporate one or both types into your approach to fitness.
In this article, we're breaking down the biggest differences between pre-workout and post-workout supplements, talking about their common ingredients, and explaining why you may want to try them if you haven't already.
As the name implies, pre-workout supplements are designed to be consumed anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes before you hit the gym, field or studio for a workout. The specific timing of your pre-workout consumption depends on what's in it and how fast your digestive system works.
Pre-workout supplements are formulated to help you perform better during a workout or competition. They typically come in the form of a powder that you mix into water or another beverage like low-fat milk or juice. Caffeine is a very common ingredient in most pre-workout mixes, because of its uplifting effects. Caffeine is also known to reduce the effects of fatigue, making it helpful for people who need to workout when their energy levels may not be highest.
Creatine is another popular variety of pre-workout supplement, specifically for those looking to add muscle mass. It can also be used during or after a workout. Research suggests that creatine may be related to improvements in both muscle performance during workouts and the recovery period after, during which the body responds to exercise with muscle protein synthesis and other restorative processes.
Some pre-workout supplements may also include nutrients to replenish the body, especially proteins and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) like leucine and valine. However, it's more common for these and other important nutrients to be part of your post workout nutrition, instead of consuming them before activity.
Pre-workout nutrition can vary depending on your workout. If you're going to be performing an activity for a relatively long period of time, such as a long-distance run or a multi-event athletic competition, it's probably wise to include some carbs in your pre-workout supplement. This helps with glycogen replenishment, which is important for recovery from prolonged periods of exercise.
Supplements that are designed to be taken after exercise – usually anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours from the time you finish – are classified in the post-workout category. These kinds of supplements are mostly focused on making repairs to the body by delivering nutrients for replenishment after the stress of intense physical activity.
Protein shakes are a common form of post-workout supplement. You need to consume a sufficient amount of protein to maintain or build muscle, especially if you're also following a strength training routine. Protein powder is a common type of post-workout supplement, because it's convenient and packs a lot of protein in each serving – many contain between 20 and 30 grams of protein. Whey protein and casein protein are the two most common varieties available on the market today.
Carbohydrates are also common in post-workout supplement mixes, since they help the body replenish energy burned off during exercise. As mentioned, carbs are valuable for helping restore glycogen levels throughout the body. An ideal post-workout supplement is balanced and also includes micronutrients, minerals and vitamins.
When it comes to protein timing or thinking about how long after your workout you should wait to consume a post-workout supplement, it depends on a few factors. Some believe in the idea of an "anabolic window" after working out, which is a period of roughly thirty minutes during which it's most important to eat to maximize muscle gains. However, research into the existence of the anabolic window is inconclusive.
Practically speaking, you should consume your post-workout supplement whenever it's best for your body and daily schedule. Some people prefer having it immediately after finishing exercise or activity, while others prefer to wait a bit longer.
By no means is it a requirement that you take pre-workout or post-workout supplements to achieve your fitness goals. Some people prefer properly timing a pre-workout meal or post-workout meal so that they can get nutrients from whole foods. Common food items like greek yogurt, oatmeal, chicken breast, brown rice and veggies can all be used as a light snack or part of a larger meal before or after you hit the gym. Eating solid foods can also be beneficial because they typically make you feel more full than a drink.
However, supplements are valued mainly for their convenience. Cooking even a single meal takes an investment of time, especially when you need to prepare the ingredients. When you have a busy lifestyle it's often easier to mix up a shake than it is to prepare turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cook up some chicken breast.
Supplements are also great because they can be used in different ways. For example, someone who wants to build muscle might use protein powder on top of their existing diet as a way to add more grams of protein per day. But someone who is looking to control their weight might use protein powder to help control their appetite. The same kinds of supplement ingredients can be used for different applications, depending on your goals.
Remember that none of the information included here should be taken as expert medical or dietary advice. Before you change anything about your daily nutrition or decide to incorporate a new supplement, make sure to consult with your physician or a registered dietitian/nutritionist. These professionals will have the best understanding of your specific needs and can help guide you towards making the right decision.
Whether you decide to go with a pre-workout or post-workout supplement – or both – the key to success is selecting one formulated to meet your unique needs and dietary preferences.
While you could shop around at a local health store or online trying to find the perfect blend of ingredients, why not cut out all the time you spend searching and create it yourself? With Gainful's line of protein powders and pre-workout, you decide which ingredients are in your supplements, personalizing them to your exact specifications. You can choose everything from traditional ingredients like caffeine and whey protein to more modern inclusions like organic oat protein and BCAA blends.
Get started today by taking a short quiz that will help determine what kind of nutrition system and supplements will be best for you.
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