When you want to smash your strength workout session but you’re also feeling pretty hungry, it can be difficult to decide what to do. Do you go to the gym with an empty stomach or is it better to grab a quick snack beforehand?
It’s not recommended to strength train when you’re hungry. If your goal is to build muscle and strength, then this is going to hinder your process by stalling muscle growth and decreasing your energy levels. For the best strength results, eat first, or if you can’t, take pre-workout before your workout.
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Why You Shouldn’t Strength Train While Hungry
There are many reasons why strength training while you’re hungry is a bad idea.
For one, if your goal is to improve your strength and muscle gains, then training on an empty stomach is not going to get you closer to your goal.
Not to mention, it’ll make your workout more strenuous, both physically and mentally.
IT CONTRIBUTES TO MUSCLE CATABOLISM
Muscle catabolism is the breakdown of muscle tissue.
When there isn’t enough fuel for the body to use as energy when exercising, aka food, then it has to turn to another energy source—muscle. When you’re strength training, you want the opposite of this, which is muscle anabolism, the process of building muscle.
So if this is your goal, then strength training when you’re hungry, which is a sign your body is giving you that it needs more fuel, means you’re going to be hindering your ability to build muscle and improve your strength.
Related Article: 16 Best Healthy Bulking Foods For Hard Gainers
IT CAUSES LOW ENERGY LEVELS
When you’re hungry, it’s normal to feel like your energy levels are decreased. You may feel more fatigued and even lazy. These emotions can reflect on your training performance as well.
When you have lower energy levels, you’ll find it more challenging to lift the same amount of weight or the same volume of weights as you would if you were full and satisfied, with more energy.
Not to mention, low blood sugar levels can make you feel light-headed, nauseous and even dizzy which is not only not ideal when lifting weight but dangerous as well.
So don’t be surprised if you might not be able to perform to your normal standard or as well as you thought you would if you’re strength training whilst hungry.
IT ACTS AS A DISTRACTION
Another disadvantage of strength training while you’re hungry, is that your hunger may distract you.
Whether you’re getting hunger pangs or your stomach is grumbling, it’s not uncommon for your feeling of hunger to take top priority in your mind and be the main thing that you focus on.
Strength training may work to distract you from wanting food, however, for most, it could do the opposite and in fact, distract you from your workout instead.
If you want to be able to focus on your workout with no disruptions or interruptions, then it’s best to fuel your body before your session.
Related Article: Lifting Weights While Fasted: Should You Do It?
When Should You Eat Before Strength Training
So we know that you should eat before a workout so that you don’t go into it hungry, but when is the best time to do that?
There is no right answer as to when you should eat before strength training as the answer depends on how large or small of a meal you want.
The best time to eat a full meal before heading to the gym is 3 hours before. This allows enough time for digestion so that you don’t feel too bloated or end up with a stitch.
If you’re looking for a small snack and something lighter, then you can eat up to 30-minutes before a session.
Foods To Eat Before Strength Training
If you want to eat before strength training, there are food options that you can choose that will not only curb your appetite but can actually enhance your performance at the gym. What you should eat before strength training though, does depend on how much time you have before you go to the gym.
The main macronutrient that you want to focus on is carbohydrates.
Without enough carbohydrates in your body, you’ll feel weak in the gym. This is because carbs = energy! Carbs break down glucose which then passes through your muscle cells and is stored as glycogen—your main energy source. This is used to fuel your workouts, which is necessary because strength training depletes your glucose stores. Eating enough carbs before a session can replenish these stores so that you don’t feel as tired or weak as you would if they were empty.
So, here are some meal and snack ideas that’ll help your hunger as well as your strength training. Remember, the larger the meal, the more time you’ll need to digest before your workout, so keep this in mind also.
2-3 HOURS BEFORE STRENGTH TRAINING
If you’re looking to eat 2-3 hours before strength training, then you’re in luck. This is enough time before your workout to have a complete meal. For the best options, have a meal that has a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats, with a healthy serving of vegetables. Some examples are:
Sweet potato, broccoli and chicken
Tuna on toast with a side salad
Brown rice, tofu and stir-fried vegetables
Try to avoid having too many excessive calories here as it could leave you feeling too full and bloated before your workout, which can be detrimental to your energy levels and performance.
AN HOUR BEFORE STRENGTH TRAINING
The best macronutrients to have on your plate 40-60 minutes before a workout are carbohydrates that are easy to digest, as well as some protein. A lighter meal is beneficial as you don’t want to be too full when training or risk a tummy ache.
Some meal ideas include:
Oats with fruit
This is a meal that is full of fiber and complex carbs. The carbs in this meal will release slowly, meaning that you will have a consistent production of energy nearing the time of your workout and throughout it as well. Oats are full of vitamin B, which facilitates in the process of converting carbohydrates to energy so you can expect a rise in energy levels.
Apple or Banana slices on toast
Bananas are such a great pre-workout food snack to have, as it’s full of antioxidants and potassium which will prevent muscle cramping. Not to mention, your potassium levels deplete during training so this will assist in keeping those levels up. Apples is another great option for a pre-workout meal 60 minutes before training. That, combined with consuming toast before training can get your blood sugar supply ready for a workout.
30-MINUTES BEFORE STRENGTH TRAINING
If you’re really short on time but am feeling hungry and want to grab a snack right before you train, then you need to keep it light and simple. Opt for easily digestible foods that also have sugar in it for a quick energy-boost.
A piece of fruit like a banana or apple
Like we mentioned before, fruit is a great pre-workout snack. If you’ve left things a bit too late, then opt for fruit but omit the toast from the previous suggestion. This way, you still get the benefits from the fruit and fast-digesting carbs so you can have energy for your workout without feeling sluggish or bloated.
Dried fruit mix
Dried fruit typically has a higher sugar content which is exactly what you want, right before your training. It is very easily digestible and will give you the energy you need, fast.
Other quick snack ideas are:
Granola or protein bar
A handful of candy
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Can Supplements Help With Your Strength Training If You’re Hungry?
If you don’t want to have a bite to eat before strength training but you still want something to boost your energy and curb your appetite, then take a look at some of these supplements which may be beneficial:
So if you’re feeling hungry and about to go and lift some weights with no food options available, what can you do to ensure that you still get a good, efficient workout in?
While food is the best option, especially when you’re hungry, pre-workout is a good option for those who have no food on hand and are about to head into the gym.
Pre-workout contains anywhere from 150-300mg of caffeine per serving. Other key ingredients in pre-workout supplements are beta-alanine and creatine.
Benefits of Pre Workout When You’re Hungry
Pre-workout works to give you the energy you’re lacking so that you can perform well in the gym.
It can boost performance by improving endurance and reducing fatigue.
Not to mention, it can really increase your concentration and hone in your focus on your workout, so you don’t get distracted by other things that are happening.
Also, pre-workout can assist in suppressing your appetite so that you won’t get hit by hunger pains or become preoccupied with your hunger while you’re strength training.
When To Take Your Pre-Workout
A good rule of thumb is to take your pre-workout approximately 30-60 minutes before you head to the gym to give it enough time to digest and produce the energy you’re looking for.
However, while the peak of the benefits tend to hit 40-60 minutes after consumption, the effects can last anywhere from 4-6 hours.
Keep this in mind if you’re intending to take pre-workout in the late afternoon or evening as this can potentially disrupt your sleep..
Another pre-workout supplement that you can take before strength training is creatine.
While most pre-workouts do contain creatine, if you want an extra boost of energy and strength, then you can take it on its own as well.
It’s best to take it with food but if not, then just make sure you consume it alongside plenty of water.
Benefits of Creatine When You’re Hungry
Creatine can assist in improving your strength during a workout, which is why it’s a great idea to take as a pre-workout supplement. It works to produce energy in the body quickly, ideal for those times when you’re hungry and feeling tired or fatigued.
When To Take Creatine
You’ll get the best results with creatine if you take it before a workout. Take 3-6g of creatine shortly before a workout. It typically comes in powder form which you can then mix with water or another liquid of your choice.
Caffeine is a household item that can assist if you’re about to go strength training but you’re feeling hungry.
Benefits of Caffeine When You’re Hungry
Caffeine is really good at boosting your mood as well as energy levels. If you’re feeling pretty tired, which tends to be a side effect of being hungry, then you’ll find the hit of energy from caffeine quite appealing. Not to mention, you’ll be able to train better in the gym.
Caffeine is also an appetite suppressant and may lower your hunger levels, reducing your desire to eat for a while, just enough time to smash out a great strength workout before heading home for a delicious post-workout meal.
When To Take Caffeine
Most people will take their caffeine in the form of coffee but there are also other options, such as caffeine pills. It’s best to take your caffeine 40-60 minutes before you intend to train as you’ll typically feel the peak boost of energy around 45-minutes after consumption.
A good rule of thumb is to ingest 3mg of caffeine per kilogram of bodyweight. But like pre-workout, be careful not to take it too close to bedtime, otherwise you may have trouble falling asleep that night.
One thing to remember regardless of whether you’re strength training while hungry or if you’ve eaten, is to stay hydrated. Drink water throughout the day to ensure you keep your hydration levels up. Even being slightly dehydrated can reduce your strength and decrease your endurance. Not to mention, it can hinder your muscle growth.
Try FitBod’s Strength Training Program
If you want a customized strength training program, then check out the FitBod app (click for 3 free workouts). Choose your fitness goals, the available equipment that you have and let the app build and generate a program just for you.
While everyone is different, it’s a good rule of thumb to not strength train when you’re hungry. Doing so can cause muscle catabolism which is the opposite of what you want when you’re strength training. Not only that, but with lower energy levels, it can negatively affect your performance. It’s best to have a pre-workout meal or snack, that focuses on carbs, depending on how much time you eat before your workout session, for optimal results.
About The Author
Lisa is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) with over 15 years of experience in nutrition, fitness, and mental health coaching and education. She studied Foods and Nutrition at San Diego State University and earned a Master of Science in Holistic Nutrition at Hawthorn University.
Having certifications and experience in group exercise, intuitive eating, coaching and psychotherapy, and digestive wellness, she’s enthusiastic about the relationship between the body and mind.
She’s dedicated to helping people understand how to implement healthy habit change, while gaining a deeper understanding of what makes them feel their personal best.