You work hard in the gym — make sure your efforts aren’t wasted by creating a post-workout routine that will build muscle.
During exercise, your body is drained of important electrolytes and vitamins. On top of that, you’ve created tiny microtears in your muscles and their glycogen stores are depleted. Without the right post-workout routine, your body won’t repair properly and your muscle growth will be suboptimal.
The good news is, there are many ways to improve muscle growth and optimize recovery after high-intensity exercise. Post-workout recovery includes everything from diet to supplements and even the temperature of your post-workout shower.
Use this post as your ultimate science-backed guide to muscle recovery.
If you’re coming from an intense workout, rehydration is paramount. According to a study in the Journal of Athletic Training, dehydration from exercise can worsen muscle damage and delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
What should you drink? A study in the Journal of Sports Sciences tells us plain water is not the best way to restore body fluids. The better option is carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks. Compared to water, these are easier to absorb and make us retain more fluid.
Therefore, aim for a minimum of 16 ounces of high-quality carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks. This could be coconut water, fruit juice, a smoothie, electrolyte water, or milk — even chocolate milk counts.
Surprised to see milk on the list? It’s an effective way to rehydrate post-workout. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found milk is superior to both sports drinks and water. Those who drank milk after exercising remained hydrated one hour after drinking it. People who drank water or sports drinks had a “net negative fluid balance” one hour later.
Optimizing your fluid intake post-workout is a great first step, but it’s not enough. You also have to focus on what you eat.
You may put a lot of effort into your pre-workout meal without paying attention to what you eat post-workout. The truth is, your post-workout nutrition is just as important.
During intense exercise, your muscles use up their glycogen stores to fuel your activity. You also cause microtears in your muscles, which means muscle proteins become damaged. After exercise, your body wants to rebuild its glycogen stores and repair the damage in your muscles.
To support your body in these efforts, refuel with carbohydrates and protein. These help restore muscle and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, thereby facilitating muscle growth.
Here’s exactly what you need to focus on eating after your workout for optimal recovery.
Within 30 minutes of exercising, eat plenty of carbohydrates — try to consume 3-4 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight throughout the day if you’re highly active. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, this helps restore muscle glycogen.
For even better muscle glycogen replenishment, the International Society of Sports Nutrition advises you also add protein at a ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 — meaning three or four parts carbohydrates to one part protein. Over the course of the day, aim to eat 1.2 - 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
Try eating protein within three hours of working out, along with your post-workout carbohydrates. According to the previously referenced article from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, consuming amino acids within this timeframe “stimulates robust increases in muscle protein synthesis.” Focus on essential amino acids your body can’t produce on its own.
If you really want to maximize your muscle recovery, a study in the American Journal of Physiology says you should aim to consume around 20-40 grams of protein post-workout. If you apply the 3:1 ratio above, you should eat 40 grams of protein and 120 grams of carbs together.
Feeling tempted to take the "easy" route and skip the post-workout meal planning? If so, remember your meal-planning efforts won’t be wasted. According to the same article from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, people who consume varying amounts of carbohydrates and protein following resistance training have more strength and improved body composition than those who don't incorporate this into their post-workout routine.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition says that this enhanced muscle recovery is likely due to when you eat and what you eat. Specifically, the exact ratio of carbohydrates to protein is important. What matters less is how you consume these things — as whole foods or as supplements.
If you prefer eating whole foods after exercise, try the following post-workout snacks:
Next, we’ll focus on which supplements you should incorporate into your post-workout recovery plan.
As you can see, it’s essential to get the proper intake of protein and carbohydrates following your workout. You can do this by drinking protein shakes and taking certain supplements. We will detail exactly what supplements you should focus on post-workout.
Drinking a protein shake is a convenient way to get your recommended amount of protein.
Protein powder, especially whey protein, is among the most popular supplements for new gym-goers and bodybuilders alike — but not all products are created equal.
To ensure you get a high-quality protein product, look for options with no artificial flavors, sweeteners, colors, or preservatives. Ideally, products should also be gluten-free and non-genetically modified.
If you eat animal products, you can choose from whey and casein protein sources. If you’re vegan, there are a lot of options available for you too — rice and pea protein are a great combo. Not only are they high in protein — they’re also high in fiber.
You can also supplement with carbohydrates. For best results, look for supplements with a high-molecular-weight carbohydrate. Your small intestines will absorb this more moderately, preventing an upset stomach and insulin spikes.
Creatine is a nonessential amino acid-like molecule that your body uses to create chemical energy. According to the society, consuming 0.1 grams of creatine per kilogram of body weight per day may “facilitate even greater adaptations to resistance training.”
You can increase post-workout muscle growth even more by supplementing with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and glutamine.
A study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition shows supplementing with branched-chain amino acids after resistance workouts reduces exercise-induced muscle damage.
Additionally, the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found post-workout glutamine supplementation helps muscles recover faster and reduces muscle soreness. This effect may be greater in men than women, but more research is needed.
Beyond diet, you can make some lifestyle modifications to enhance your post-workout recovery.
A study in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation shows us cold showers may be worth the discomfort. When participants submerged themselves in cold water after resistance training, anti-inflammatory markers increased. This tells us cold water is likely effective at improving muscle recovery following exercise.
While a massage may sound more enjoyable after a hard workout, it may not be worth it. According to the Journal of Sports Sciences, massage “has not been consistently effective” in improving recovery post-workout.
When it comes to muscle building, what you do after you leave the gym is just as important as your actual workout.
By watching what you drink and eat, you can aid muscle recovery and optimize muscle mass and strength increases. For best results, consume carbohydrates and proteins in a 3:1 ratio after training. For example, if you eat 120 grams of carbohydrates, you should eat 40 grams of protein. While you can refuel within three hours following a workout, it’s ideal to eat sooner rather than later.
Workout supplements are an easy way to get your post-workout nutrition. You can supplement with protein powder as well as carbohydrate powder. Adding supplements like creatine, glutamine, or branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can further aid recovery.
Besides optimizing your diet, have a cold shower or an ice bath for even better post-workout recovery. However, the more commonly turned-to massage likely won’t help.
As a friendly reminder, we’re not healthcare professionals. Remember to work with a dietitian or other professional to optimize your post-workout recovery diet.