I'm do a mixed workout intended to have both muscle-building and general fitness boosting and want to understand how meal size prior to it affects value of that workout. Here are the relevant facts:

Workout: hi reps bench press, pull ups, curls, tri push-downs, capoeira, treadmill running. Fairly intense, 2 hrs, ~3x/week. Burn ~1,000 calories, estimated.

Meal timing: Normally my workout is from ~5:40pm--7:40pm. I eat no breakfast other than a coffee w/ soymilk (9am) and then have a 500 calorie lunch (noon) and a 200-400 calorie snack later (3pm). My diet is a little low in protein due to being partially vegetarian, so I powder supplement though not strictly.

New datapoint: However, yesterday, despite having lunch, I attended an afternoon event and rather pigged out on free chicken strips, fruit with cream topping, cheese and crackers, and a macaroon! I felt somewhat full by 4:30pm and expected my workout to lag due to it. But, my workout then went very well--I lifted and ran something like personal bests for this time period.

Question: is there any evidence or conventional wisdom that a well-timed large meal can boost in-gym performance and/or the gains that result from it? What's known about this?

  • 1
    I admit that one datapoint does not data make; this good gym session may have just been due to weekend rest, luck, good sleep, workout progress, etc. Just interesting timing with that meal, so I thought I'd ask.
    – Chelonian
    Apr 24, 2012 at 18:54
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    You eat 900 calories before the workout...then what after the workout? I wonder if you're simply undernourished most of the time, and you experienced a good workout simply because you were well-fed for once. Apr 24, 2012 at 18:57
  • @DaveLiepmann No, I eat a normal, perhaps over-large, dinner and then do a lot of late night snacking; I'm actually maintaining being somewhat overweight during this period. Caloric deficit is currently not an issue! :D
    – Chelonian
    Apr 24, 2012 at 19:17
  • What do you consider "high reps" for these exercises? Are we talking in the 10 to 14 range or closer to 20? For me 8 to 10 is high rep. Apr 25, 2012 at 19:49
  • @RobertKaucher 15, 12, 8 for bench; 15, 12, 10, 8 for curl; similar for tris; pull-ups are more whatever I can do (11, 8, 6 then a few with added weight).
    – Chelonian
    Apr 26, 2012 at 5:04

1 Answer 1


Most studies regarding meal timing have provided mixed results. Sometimes not eating before helps, sometimes eating before helps. In short, it's both somewhat individual, and it depends on the work you do. You've listed a number of activities where endurance is important. Any time we are talking about endurance you will have increased energy demands.

Endurance Based Programming:

  • Responds well to higher carb content before exercise.
  • Leave at at least an hour between eating and exercise to allow your body to start digesting the food.
  • More energy requirements (burning 1,000 Calories is currently leaving you at a deficit before dinner)
  • Increased cortisol levels due to the higher stress of training

Essentially, having more Calories than you expect to burn before exercise is definitely going to help. However, it is possible to push yourself into over-training, where your performance in the gym starts going backwards (this is where the cortisol levels come in). While overtraining is still mild, your body responds well to feasting and sleeping to fully recover. If you are on a cut, it will take much longer to recover completely.

Intensity Based Training:

  • Meal timing doesn't have a big impact one way or the other. As long as you get all the daily requirements, everything is OK.
  • If you do eat before hand, still give yourself at least an hour to digest.
  • Energy requirements still high, but below endurance levels.
  • Lower cortisol levels due to lower overall volume of training

Intensity based training is more concerned with heavy triples, doubles, and singles and rarely includes sets over 5-6 reps on anything. It's usually used with compound lifts for greater economy of training. The limiting factor here is your central nervous system (CNS). The heavier you lift, the more muscle fibers you recruit for lifting. Sleep becomes the most important recovery tool, although food helps a lot.


  • If something is working for you, keep at it until it stops working.
  • A more systematic way of eating may help keep your energy levels more consistent throughout the day.
  • Both food and sleep are effective recovery tools.
  • Mixing both intensity training and endurance training makes you a better overall athlete.
  • You will have inexplicable good days and bad days in the gym. Don't get too cocky on the good days and injur yourself. And don't be too hard on yourself on the bad days.

Based on what you described, you probably should have a bigger lunch. Something that has helped me is to have a large lunch, a small after work snack (usually a protein shake), and a large dinner. Once I'm done with dinner and dessert, no more snacking.

If you plan your lunch and afternoon snack well, you can relax a bit at dinner. You'll be surprised at how many Calories your body really does need to maintain. If you eat too few, your cortisol levels will increase due to the stress of training without enough energy, which in turn tells your body to store fat and burn muscle. Yet, you do need to eat less than you burn to lose weight.

One way to address this conundrum is to use Calorie cycling. The basic principle is that you have more Calories on training days to provide the energy when you need it. Then you have fewer Calories on rest days when you can afford to do without. For example, if you have +5% Calories on training days and -20% Calories on rest days, you'll have a net Caloric deficit for the week but still have plenty of energy in the gym.

  • @Berin-in relation to your statement that "having consumed more calories than you expect to burn before training is definitely going to help", does this take into the calories the person is going to consume after the training session? As in, does that calorie intake that shoud be higher than the calories that are going to be burned include foods consumed following the training session? Thanks!
    – Bee
    Jul 29, 2012 at 11:58
  • @Bee, this just means if your exercise normally burns 1000 Calories, it's good to have at least 1000 Calories before you exercise. Still don't exceed your plan for the whole day, but at least give yourself enough energy to get through your training. Jul 29, 2012 at 18:44

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