The Best Pre-Workout Meal for Bodybuilding Based on Goal

You don’t just head to the weight room to work out. You go to the gym with a mission. You’re on a quest to build the most muscle possible. Maybe that means you’re entering your first bodybuilding show. Or you might be just using bodybuilding methods to get that elusive X-frame.

Whatever your reasons for pursuing bodybuilding, you know that what you do on the platform needs to be matched by what you do in the kitchen. As a bodybuilder, you don’t only have to fuel your workouts (though that’s crucial). You must also give your body what it needs to build all that muscle.

Three plates with different foods.
Credit: Tere Crystal Enns / Shutterstock

To get the gains that you’re seeking, make sure you’re setting yourself up for success in the kitchen before rolling out to the gym. The best pre-workout meal for bodybuilding — whatever your fitness goals — lie ahead.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

Nutrition for Bodybuilders

Bodybuilding is about so much more than cable machines, heavy dumbbells, and leg extensions. Arguably as or more important than how you train is what you put in your body to support your workouts.

Bodybuilding Phases and Nutrition Calculators

First things first: traditional bodybuilding nutrition involves a lot of numbers. Calculating macros and calories and weighing your food is common practice for bodybuilders during meal prep and other meal times. The dietary strategies a bodybuilder will use fluctuates a lot throughout any given year. 

Bodybuilding goes in phases: cutting (dramatic weight loss), bulking (dramatic weight gain), and muscle maintenance. Each phase requires different levels of macronutrients and amounts of caloric consumption to fuel both workouts and physique goals.

Macronutrients — that is, protein, fats, and carbohydrates — are what make up your daily caloric intake. Calories are the units of energy you get from the food you eat. Many bodybuilders will track their macros intake to ensure that they’re optimizing their macros ratio for the best performance and results possible. Check out BarBend’s macros calculator here:

Macronutrient Calculator

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Some athletes don’t keep a close eye on their macros, but they do watch their overall calorie counts. If you want to learn to calculate calories for achieving your goals during any of your bodybuilding phases, check out BarBend’s calorie calculator:

Calorie Calculator

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BMR estimation formula

[Read More: Can You Eat Intuitively as a Bodybuilder?]

Risks of Bodybuilding Dietary Practices

This meticulous tracking combined with the extreme weight changes often associated with bodybuilding is very stressful on the body and mind. Going from cutting to bulking and back again can take a big physical and psychological toll, especially when nutrition isn’t being guided by a health professional.

Bodybuilding has been associated with low self-esteem and increased risks of developing body image disorders and eating disorders. (1)(2)(3)(4) Studies suggest that most bodybuilders that engage in extreme nutritional practices do so without consulting with nutritionists and other health professionals. (1)(2)(3)(4)

Researchers often recommend designing and monitoring nutritional and bodybuilding programs in consultation with mental health and dietary professionals. (1)(2)(3)(4)

Best Foods to Eat Before a Bodybuilding Workout

The best pre-workout meals for bodybuilding will contain different types and quantities of food depending on what phase of the season you’re in and how much time you have before your actual workout.

For example, what you’ll eat a few hours before a bulking workout is different than what you’ll eat a few minutes before a cutting workout. Don’t worry — we’ll sort out the details for you. 

Meals prepped in containers and ready to eat.
Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of how the meals themselves shake out, it’s helpful to know which foods you might be choosing from. Of course, this list is very limited and is meant only as a starting point for the culinary diversity you can choose from.

While your pre-workout food close to training time will be more like snacks than full meals, here’s how to stack your plate for meals (more than three hours before workouts).

Want the best options to choose from? Here’s the breakdown by macros:

Best Protein to Eat Before a Bodybuilding Workout

Best Carbs to Eat Before a Bodybuilding Workout

Best Fats to Eat Before a Bodybuilding Workout

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Olive oil

You’ll also want to emphasize veggies (like spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) in your daily meals, as well as fruits ranging from bananas and blueberries to nectarines and peaches. 

If possible, try to find out what fruits and veggies are available locally and seasonally.

Pre-Workout Supplements: With or Without Food?

If you take pre-workout supplements, you’ll generally do so about 30 minutes before working out. These supplements often include ingredients like caffeine and creatine, all meant to enhance your performance in the gym. Sometimes, pre-workouts are centered around focus; other times, designed to improve your pump; and still other non-stim pre-workouts are meant to give you extra energy without caffeine.

You don’t need to take it with food, but you definitely need to take pre-workout with liquid instead of dry scooping. After all, that’s what your shaker bottle is for. On the other hand, if your stomach is sensitive to any of the common ingredients in pre-workout (like caffeine), taking it with some food may feel a lot better.

If you do take your pre-workout with food, prioritize quick-digesting, energy-boosting foods like bananas, applesauce, or a homemade fruit smoothie. This will help you make the most of both a pre-workout meal and your supplements.

Pre-Workout Meal Timing for Bodybuilders

Though timing your macros consumption strategically around your workouts may help maximize certain aspects of your performance or recovery, it doesn’t seem like it’s the end-all-be-all that some athletes make it out to be. (5) As long as you’re getting enough calories and nutrients throughout your day, specific timing may matter less.

But if you’re sensitive to changes in blood sugar, or food tends to dramatically impact your mood or energy levels, there’s no harm in figuring out a meal timing plan that works for you. (6)(7

In other words, if you feel like you get a better workout after eating a meal or pre-workout snack, then more power to you. It certainly doesn’t seem to diminish performance as long as you’re not feeling bloated or weighed down by heavy or hard-to-digest foods that might not sit well in your stomach.

Best Pre-Workout Meal for Bodybuilding During a Cut

Competitive bodybuilders might do extreme prime cuts for a week or two in the lead-up to a show. But cutting diets may also refer to a fat-loss phase of bodybuilding that can last for up to 12 or 16 weeks.

Cutting to the extreme might feel like it will make you more successful in the gym, but be aware of the risks of not maintaining nutritional balance. 

Even during a cut, it’s important for cis male bodybuilders to maintain more than the bare minimum of four to five percent body fat to avoid psychological problems, cardiovascular risks, hormonal imbalances, and muscle atrophy. (8) Athletes of all genders may want to check in with qualified healthcare professionals to ensure that their target level of body fat is safe to achieve.

30 Minutes Before a Workout

When tough exercises are imminent, you’ll want carbs that will kick in to give you energy quickly. These foods will ideally digest easily so that you can focus entirely on your mind-muscle connection instead of your digesting tummy while training.

This is especially important during a cut, since you’ll be in a caloric deficit and will need to ensure that you’re getting enough carbs to fuel a safe and effective workout. (9)

  • Unsweetened applesauce

This is by no means a meal, but regardless of your phase, you probably don’t want to load up too heavily directly before a workout. Having a lot of food in your belly might take a lot of energy — since your body will be busy digesting — and you might not like that bloated feeling right after eating. Consider this a pre-workout snack rather than a meal.

1-2 Hours Before a Workout

You’ll need to emphasize and calculate your protein intake during a cut especially. The more weight you lose during a cut through caloric deficits, the more likely you are to start losing weight from muscle mass. (10

Toss some protein and a more complex carbohydrate into your pre-workout meal a couple of hours before your workout. It will contribute to helping maintain your muscle mass while safely fueling your workout. Try this small meal on for size.

Feel free to spice it up with some cinnamon and nutmeg.

3-4 Hours Before a Workout

During a cut, you’ll want to maintain a very high protein intake to maintain muscle mass. You might want to consume as much as 1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass to support muscle maintenance during a cut. (11)(12

Especially if you’re fairly far out from your next workout, you can have more of a substantial meal. You’ll have more time to digest and be less weighed down or likely to cramp from working out with a full stomach. Try the following bowl with your favorite spices.

  • Quinoa
  • Chicken or tempeh
  • Cooked kale
  • Avocado

Create different variations of this bowl to help maintain variety for both micronutrients and enjoyment.

Best Pre-Workout Meal for Bodybuilding During a Bulk

When a bodybuilder is in their offseason, it’s generally time to bulk. For physique athletes, bulking refers to working to gain muscle mass, often while trying to avoid gaining a corresponding amount of body fat.

Research suggests bringing your daily caloric intake up by 10 to 20 percent above your maintenance level, with the goal of putting on 0.25 to 0.5 percent of body weight per week. (13) Practically speaking, this might look like adding 300 to 500 extra calories on top of your maintenance level of calories. (14)

Just like advanced bodybuilders need to be more precise than newcomers about their progressive overload in the gym, they might also want to proceed more conservatively with their bulking weight gain.

Each day, you might want to aim for:

  • 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (13
  • 0.5 to 1.5 grams of fats per kilogram of body weight (13
  • Remaining calories from carbs, amounting to at least three to five grams per kilogram of body weight (13

30 Minutes Before a Workout

Even when you’re bulking, you probably don’t want to have a full meal right before a workout. You don’t want that mid-digestion bloating feeling while you’re trying to do a high-intensity training session.

But you also don’t necessarily want to go in without an extra kick of energy. So, try out this snack:

Making the smoothie at home can help you ensure high-quality ingredients with no additives that you don’t want.

1-2 Hours Before a Workout

For best results in terms of energy levels and supporting muscle growth, a high-protein meal can be helpful an hour or two before a workout (though the most important thing seems to be total intake rather than specific timing). (13)

During bulking, dietary fat can help you hit your calorie benchmarks without having to force-feed yourself or eat too much more than you want to. (15) Here, you’ll want a protein source that also contains a good share of dietary fats.

  • Nut butter on a whole wheat bagel

Depending on your goals and preferences, you might opt to choose unsalted nut butter without added sugar.

3-4 Hours Before a Workout

With about three or four hours to go before game time, you can have at it with your meal. Make sure you’re maintaining that commitment to high protein levels, while also getting in a fair share of fats and carbs. Here’s how to toss up a pre-workout bulking meal, stir-fry style:

  • Rice
  • Tofu or ground beef
  • Peppers, carrots, and sweet potatoes
  • Peanut sauce

Mix up your specific ingredients to add variety.

Best Pre-Workout Meal for Bodybuilding During Maintenance

Much of bodybuilding is pretty extreme. The training is intense, and so are the dietary practices. But maintenance is also a big part of bodybuilding. Once you’re in the place you want to get to, you’ll stay there for a while, attempting to maintain a particular body composition.

Whole wheat bread, tofu and veggies - an open sandwich.
Credit: Nina Firsova / Shutterstock

To do this, you’ll want to focus particularly on sustainability, as maintenance phases can last a while. Remember that as a bodybuilder, you’ll still be fueling intense workouts — so make sure you’re getting enough food to do so.

30 Minutes Before a Workout

With so little time before your workout, you’ll want to get a rapid burst of energy to get you going. Your choice here will be a simple carb to get you that quick jolt you need.

  • Banana

It’s a simple but effective healthy snack. Grab it along with your gym bag and enjoy on your way to the gym.

1-2 Hours Before a Workout

If you’re got a little more time on your hands before your workout — say, you’re starting to wrap up at the office before an evening training session — opt for a solid source of carbs along with a little bit of protein.

Instead of simple carbs, opt for a more complex carb with this much time to digest. That way, you’ll have a more sustained amount of energy that will take you into your workout.

  • Whole wheat bread sandwich (meat or tofu with some veggies)

Mix up the precise ingredients of your sandwich depending on your mood and preferences.

3-4 Hours Before a Workout

When it’s lunchtime and you’re not going to work out until after work, opt for a bigger meal. This time, consider making yourself a breakfast-style meal for variety. There’s no rule against breakfast at any time of day.

  • Sweet potato hash
  • Tofu scramble or scrambled eggs
  • Avocado slices

Add sriracha to your meal for an added kick.

Your Takeaways

Bodybuilding can be a complicated endeavor. Here’s the breakdown of what you most need to know about pre-workout meals for bodybuilding:

  • Extreme dieting practices often practiced by bodybuilders have been associated with eating disorders. When you’re mapping out your nutritional plan, consider consulting both a licensed nutritionist and mental health care professional.
  • In bodybuilding, you’ll likely cycle through cutting, bulking, and maintenance phases. These will dictate your pre-workout meal choices.
  • Think about pre-workout meals as helpful to maintaining your energy levels during training rather than the end-all-be-all of your gains.
  • Between 30 minutes and two hours before your workout, your “meals” will be more like snacks. Between three to four hours before training, you’ll benefit from a more solid meal.
  • A half hour before your workout, aim for a simple carbohydrate like fruit for immediate energy.
  • Between one and two hours before your workout, have a more complex carbohydrate along with some protein.
  • Between three and four hours before your workout, aim for a more complete meal, including carbs, protein, and fats. Make sure you’re getting your veggies in.
  • High protein levels are especially important during cutting phases to help you maintain muscle during a caloric deficit.
  • Dietary fats can be especially helpful during bulking to hit higher-than-usual energy requirements.

Cook, Then Train

As a bodybuilder, you’ll eat differently to fuel different components of your training and to support different goals. For example, if you’re trying to cut versus bulk, your pre- and post-nutritional strategy will be quite different. But don’t skimp on the pre-workout meals — you’ll need enough energy to both maintain and build muscles while getting safely through your workouts.

Make sure you’re maximizing your training by grabbing the best pre-workout meal for bodybuilding, whatever your goals. Because the kitchen is every bit as important as the sweat you shed on the platform.


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