What To Eat Before Early Morning Workouts For Bodybuilding
What to eat before early morning workouts is one of the most common questions I’ve ever received and continue to hear right up to this day. Here’s an example of a concerned message I recently got on our Facebook page:
Hey Tom, I’m having trouble eating before my early morning workouts. I get up at 5:30 and do weight training and on non-lifting days I do cardio for 30 to 45 minutes. I’ve been told I should eat before I work out, but I just can’t lift or do cardio with food bouncing around in my stomach. I don’t even feel that hungry in the early morning. I also don’t feel like I lack energy training on empty, but I’m worried about whether I’m hurting my gains. Would it suffice to take an amino acid supplement like BCAA, or should I try to have a very small meal? I would really like to save my meals for when I’m actually hungry, since I only have 1900 kcal per day to eat and I do have a healthy appetite. I currently have 18% body fat and my goal is to get it down to 12% or less without losing muscle.
Lots of people train early in the morning, and for a lot of reasons. That includes, it might be the only time they have due to work and family obligations during the day and evening.
Training in the morning also gets it done and out of the way, so there’s no worry of blowing off a session that was scheduled in the evening if you feel tired or something unexpected comes up.
By starting the day with a positive healthy action step, you’re more likely to continue taking positive action throughout the day to stay consistent with how your good day started. You’re more likely to eat healthy after training in the morning because psychologically, you don’t want to undo the good work you just did. On the other hand, if you start the day on the wrong foot, for example, with a junk food breakfast, you’re more likely to go through the entire day thinking “This day is already shot, so whatever happens, happens. I’ll start over tomorrow (or next Monday).
So training in the morning is motivating and effective on many levels. If that’s your scheduling preference, then stick to it, regardless of what anyone tells you (or even what any study says):
The Challenge With Pre-Workout Meals Early In the Morning: Your Time And Your Stomach
A problem that many people face is that out of necessity, you need to train early, get it done fast, and then quickly move on with your busy day. Yet many people don’t have time to prepare a full breakfast and sit around waiting for that big meal to digest before being able to train comfortably without nausea. That’s the conundrum you face, but there are some simple solutions.
When to eat the meal before your workout is usually dictated by stomach comfort. Most sports nutritionists will recommend that you allow enough time between finishing your pre-workout meal and training as you need so that the food has more or less emptied from your stomach, or at least it doesn’t feel like you have a full belly.
That amount of time is a very individual matter, but typically it’s between 30 minutes and two hours. If you start getting more than three to four hours away from your training bout, we probably wouldn’t call that a “pre-workout” meal anymore.
Eating Before Lifting Versus Eating Before Cardio (Endurance Training)
Pre-workout nutrition guidelines can vary dramatically based on whether we are talking about endurance training or resistance training, as well as on the intensity, duration, and volume of the workout.
Let’s assume we’re not talking about pre-competition (race) nutrition for endurance at all, and focus mainly on resistance training that you would typically do for fitness, strength, muscle development and improved body composition. (If you train for and compete in endurance events, consult a coach for guidelines on proper pre-, during- and post-exercise nutrition.)
Just one quick note about cardio in the morning for fitness and fat loss: Most people usually have no energy problems when doing low intensity or even moderate intensity cardio for less than an hour, even totally fasted. Some people still believe that fasted cardio actually helps them with fat loss, especially the final bits of stubborn fat, but the weight of scientific evidence says fasted cardio is no more effective than fed cardio.
Fat loss depends on calorie deficit at the end of the day, consistently maintained over time, not whether you’ve eaten before training or not. (See the latest science on fasted cardio here).
Pre-Workout Food Intake And Training Performance – A Major Consideration
One reason many people eat (and hydrate) before all types of training is to fuel up for optimal performance and energy. Good lifting performance translates into better adaptations including more muscle and more strength. On the other hand, anything you do nutritionally or otherwise that reduces your lifting performance is something to avoid if practical and possible.
The newest study on how lifting on empty may hurt your training was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It was called, “Breakfast omission reduces subsequent resistance exercise performance.” That title sums up what happened: Lifting performance decreased in the group that didn’t eat breakfast. Specifically, the repetitions were 15% lower in the back squat and 6% lower in the bench press. (link to study).
That’s not necessarily a nail in the coffin for fasted lifting, because there were some nuances in this study. For one, the subjects were doing multiple sets with the reps in the hypertrophy range to failure. This tells us that pre-workout high-carb intake may be more beneficial when you train with high volume and high intensity. If you’re doing a shorter, lighter, less intense workout, then training fasted (or with just protein) is less of an issue.
One more detail, and this is an important one that a lot of people don’t think about, is that the subjects in this study were habitual breakfast eaters. If you’re used to eating breakfast before a morning workout, and then you start skipping breakfast, it’s not surprising that your performance would take a serious dive. But it’s possible that people who are habituated to not eating breakfast may not have the same problem.
If you’re able to work out only lightly fed or even on empty and your workout performance and energy is not suffering at all, that’s one concern you can cross off and not worry about. Some people can, some people can’t. Do not under-estimate how different individual responses can be and that’s why it’s so important to experiment and see what works best for you.
The research is still somewhat limited so far, but it wouldn’t be smart to dismiss the possibility that weight training in a fasted state could decrease performance in the gym for many people. It’s very possible that you might not be fueled up properly if you lift fasted (especially if your muscle glycogen gets depleted from high volume training).
Nutrient Timing And Muscular Adaptations (Response To Training)
Fueling up before a workout so you perform your best during the workout is one reason to consider pre-workout nutrition. Another reason people eat before weight training is to optimize the muscular adaptations or response (protein synthesis, prevention of protein breakdown, reduced cortisol, etc).
Most meals, including the pre-workout meal, should include healthy carbs and protein, but studies have shown that at least having a serving of quality protein (containing essential amino acids) prior to the workout is ideal to get the maximum results from your weight training, especially intense weight training.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) wrote a concise position paper called The Role of Nutrient Timing in the Adaptive Response to Resistance training and they summarized it into this take home message:
“Consuming a combination of carbohydrate and protein during the pre-exercise and post-exercise window will expedite recovery, improve performance, enhance various health parameters, and promote gains in lean body mass.”
“It is apparent from a growing body of literature that consuming protein (amino acids) or a combination of protein plus carbohydrate is important for enhancing the adaptive response to exercise. Believe it or not, as little as 100 calories may be of benefit. Based on the existing literature, it is apparent that you can consume protein / amino acids pre- and post-exercise (even without carbohydrate) and get significant benefits in terms of muscle fiber size and performance.”
“The data, albeit limited, also suggest that essential amino acids plus carbohydrate is the best way to promote skeletal muscle protein accretion, particularly if consumed pre- and post-workout. Nevertheless, the data are quite robust regarding the benefits of consuming protein/amino acids, protein plus carbohydrate or essential amino acids plus carbohydrate post-exercise.”
“From a practical standpoint, it would make sense that athletes should be advised to consume some type of meal before and after training. For the sake of convenience, this meal may be consumed as a ready-to-drink beverage.”
“Strength-power athletes would likely need to place greater emphasis on protein (and less so on carbohydrate) because of the dietary needs related to skeletal muscle growth whereas endurance athletes may need proportionately more carbohydrate with protein to promote skeletal muscle glycogen repletion.”
Options For Optimizing Nutrition While Dealing With Stomach Discomfort During Early Morning Workouts
If you can’t stomach a full meal before weight training or any intense workout in the early morning, what you can do is to have a light meal, a snack, or a drink (protein or protein plus carbs), as your pre-workout “feeding” (not really a whole “meal”). Then have your first primary meal (feeding number two for the day) relatively soon after training. Although this might not get you through a marathon training session, the research shows that it doesn’t take a lot of nutrients before a training bout to elicit some favorable responses.
Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld wrote a paper for the International Society of Sports Nutrition Journal and came up with a formula for pre- and post-workout window. Seems pretty much spot-on to me, so I included it in the nutrient timing recommendations in our Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle program. They wrote:
“High-quality protein dosed at 0.4 – 0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the currently evidence showing a maximal anabolic effect of 20-40 grams…. Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre- and post-workout meals should not be separated by more than 3 – 4 hours, given a typical resistance-training bout lasting 45-90 minutes.”
Research shows that it takes as little as 20-25 grams of protein to turn on protein synthesis. It seems to top out somewhere around 40 grams, so the response to protein seems to be more like an on-off switch than a dial. Eating more won’t hurt, but apparently won’t improve muscle growth or recovery.
Scientists are still debating which is more important, the pre- or post-workout nutrition, but as far as protein goes, it seems that before and after are both beneficial. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to get at least 20-25 grams of protein before your workout without overburdening your gastrointestinal system. You could get that much in one scoop of whey.
Go with whatever food or liquid that doesn’t cause you stomach discomfort. Some people have a whey protein shake (whey is very light, especially when mixed only with water). If you choose, add piece of fruit like a banana – also easy on the stomach. I know other people who have a Greek yogurt (20 grams or more of protein in a cup). Also, don’t be afraid to break out your blender – you can mix and liquefy breakfast staples like oatmeal and some people say drinking those same breakfast calories works for them, while a large bowl of cooked oatmeal in their stomach does not.
Skip The BCAA Supplements – Science Says They Are A Waste Of Money
Some people today are still taking branched chain amino acid (BCAAs) supplements (sometimes capsules but typically a powdered stirred into water to drink), but research has continued to show that BCAAs are essentially a waste of money. What studies have found is that there’s no benefit to BCAA supplements in people who are already reaching their total protein goal for the day. Quality protein foods already contain BCAAs.
Some people argue that they’re in the group that can’t eat anything before lifting or they feel sick, so they figure an amino acid drink before and or during the lifting session is the answer (bodybuilding supplement companies want you to think so). But if that’s your situation, whey would be the better choice because whey is not only high in BCAAs, it also contains all the other essential amino acids as well, making whey arguably superior to amino supplements in isolation.
Don’t Forget To Consider Your Evening Meal
One more thought that usually doesn’t even cross most people’s minds: If you train fasted in the morning, your last meal of the day the previous day was technically your pre-workout meal, even though it was many hours distant from your morning training bout. While the protein you eat before bed is not going to still be in your system for a morning workout, the carbs you eat can provide energy for the next day’s workout, because carbs can be stored as muscle glycogen.
In the past, many people with fat loss goals avoided eating a lot at night, especially carbs. But if you’re going to be training hard very early in the morning, you might experiment with having more of your same daily calories dinner including carbs (with protein). You might also try having your last meal later at night. Keep in mind that if your dinner was at 6 pm and you train the next morning at 6 am, that is not just training fasted, it’s training twelve hours fasted – something to consider for sure.
If you try it, pay close attention not only to your body composition (body fat levels) but to your performance in the morning workout. You may see your performance increase. Years ago, I remember Tom Platz – a Mr. Universe winner and the man known for having the most muscular legs in the world – telling us at a seminar to eat a big pasta meal the night before a big leg workout the next morning.
If you move more calories to late in the day, then you do have to ‘save’ them by eating fewer earlier in the day. You’re eating the same calories, carbs, protein and fat either way – it’s just a matter of where you put them in the day. If you fail to remember this, eating more at night on top of what you were already eating could simply make you fatter. You’re shifting the time of your calorie intake, not just increasing it.
What To Eat Before Early Morning Resistance Training Workouts: Summing It All Up
When it comes to pre- and post-workout nutrition, nutrient timing does matter, but the first and highest nutrition priority is that you consistently have your calorie and macronutrient goals met by the end of every day and that the majority of those calories come from healthy nutrient-dense whole food.
If you’re hitting those goals, and having great workouts, then you could consider any nutrient timing considerations as part of the minor details, not the big picture stuff, and not something to stress about.
Customize your meal plan schedule around your training to suit your own needs and personal preferences and don’t be afraid to experiment. Then use the “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle feedback loop system” and adjust your approach based on your results above all else.
Train hard and expect success!
Founder & CEO, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Author of The BFFM Guide to Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
PS. If you do your resistance training workouts early in the morning and you don’t have a lot of time to train because you have a busy day, then be sure to check out The New Body (TNB) Turbo. This style of training builds more muscle in less time, cutting your workout time by as much as 50%, at home or in the gym. Click the link below to learn more:
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
Antonio, J, Ziegenfuss T, The Role of Nutrient Timing in the Adaptive Response to Heavy Resistance Training, National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Aragon A., Schoenfeld B., Nutrient Timing Revisited, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10:5, 2013.
Nashrudin, M, et al, Breakfast omission reduces subsequent resistance exercise performance, Journal of Strength And Conditioning Research, 33:7, 1766-1772, 2019.