A post workout supplement is geared towards accelerating your body’s recovery after training, especially following your toughest workouts.
These supplements use a combination of compounds like branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), creatine, anaerobic buffering agents, and electrolytes to maximize your recovery capabilities and lift your fitness to new heights.
Here are the key benefits of a post-workout supplement, plus tips on how to optimize dosage and minimize side effects when incorporating a post-workout into your supplement stack.
1. It’s not just your workout that counts. It’s how you recover from it.
Boosting your workout recovery capabilities can help you adapt to your workouts better, and it can also allow you to push yourself harder with longer, more difficult training sessions, because your recovery capabilities are augmented.
With the right post workout supplement, you’ll be able to leverage both of these abilities to improve your fitness.
2. There are a few key ingredients to be on the lookout for in a post workout supplement
Whether you are training strength, power, speed, or endurance is going to influence which is most important to you.
One ingredient that should be in pretty much any post workout supplement is branched chain amino acids.
Branched chain amino acids are known to prevent muscle damage during exercise as well as enhance muscle recovery following exercise. The mechanism by which this happens was detailed in a 2006 scientific paper in the Journal of Nutrition by researchers in Japan (1).
In it, the researchers demonstrated that post-workout muscle soreness was lower in a group of people who performed squat exercises when they were given a branched chain amino acid supplement.
3. Branched chain amino acids prevent muscle breakdown
Branched chain amino acids, according to the authors, prevent the breakdown of skeletal muscle during exercise, because the body is able to use the supplemental branched chain amino acids instead of the branched chain amino acids that make up your muscles.
Leucine, one specific branched chain amino acid, also seems to boost rates of muscle protein synthesis following exercise. This suggests that branched chain amino acid supplements which deliver leucine will increase your body’s ability to adapt to your training.
This is good for two reasons: first, it means that you will gain more benefits from the same workout, and second, it means you can actually push yourself harder in training without fear of overtraining or exceeding your body’s recovery capabilities.
For these reasons, it should be obvious why you want branched chain amino acids in your post workout supplement.
4. Creatine is key for power athletes
If you are a power athlete engaging in sports or training that lasts for very short bursts of time (less than ten seconds or so), getting some creatine in your post-workout supplement is likely to be helpful.
Creatine is one of the best supplements for increasing your raw strength, and there’s plenty of evidence for its efficacy. A 2003 paper in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research demonstrated the effectiveness of creatine supplementation (2).
In it, the authors reviewed several different papers on the use of creatine for strength increases. They found a difference in strength increase of 8% in subjects who received a creatine supplement compared to those who received a placebo.
Both groups tend to improve, of course, after strength training, but people given a creatine supplement tend to improve more.
5. Beta alanine can help anaerobic power athletes
Athletes who do longer bouts of high-intensity exercise which lasts for at least 60 seconds may seek out post-workout supplements that include compounds that can boost your anaerobic power, like beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine works to increase the ability of your muscles to continue working when there is a lot of acidity being generated from tough, anaerobic workouts.
Beta-alanine functions as a precursor to a compound called L-carnitine, which buffers acidity during high intensity exercise. If you can buffer more acidity during exercise, you can maintain higher levels of workout intensity for a longer time.
A review article published in 2014 reviewed the efficacy of beta-alanine supplementation and found moderately strong evidence that it had a direct performance-enhancing effect in high-power physical exercise tasks (3).
The advantage is largest for “power sports” that require bursts of intense energy expenditure for at least 60 seconds, though not long, low-intensity efforts like marathon running or hiking.
6. Glutamine could reduce soreness and prevent strength loss following a difficult workout
Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid, meaning that your body is capable of synthesizing it in most circumstances.
However, some research has found that it can be a useful addition to a post-workout supplement for improving recovery following very tough training sessions.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness makes the case that glutamine could reduce muscle soreness and strength decreases in the wake of a particularly tough workout (4).
The results showed that the subjects who took the glutamine supplement lost less of their muscular strength after performing a fatiguing box jump protocol, and experienced lower levels of soreness, compared to those who took the placebo.
Thanks to these results, a post-workout supplement that includes glutamine is a good idea, particularly if you do very fatiguing eccentric exercises at the gym, like squats or deadlifts.
Post-workout side effects
The key components of a standard post workout supplement are pretty safe. Branched chain amino acids are found in countless foods, so even if you overdo it on the dosage, it’s hard to encounter real problems.
Likewise for creatine. One of the reasons why it has become such a popular supplement in its own right is its excellent safety profile.
Even long-term use of creatine is safe. Studies on creatine use over periods of several years have found no adverse effects, according to a 2002 study on long-term use of creatine in college football players (5).
Post-workout supplements with beta-alanine can cause tingling and flushing. When you start pushing the boundaries with muscular power boosting supplements like beta-alanine, you may start to see some adverse effects associated with higher doses in the short term.
The most salient of these is flushing, a rush of blood and a feeling of warmth in your face or extremities (5). This occurs when some people take high doses of beta alanine, but does not appear to cause any long-term problems.
Branched chain amino acids are widely studied, but there is a lot of variation in the dosage that athletes are given.
BCAAs: Aim for 3-18 grams per day. Typical research protocols call for anywhere from three to 18 grams of branched chain amino acids per day.
The most common dosage range is between six and nine grams per day, though larger athletes with more muscle mass may want to veer towards the high end of the dosage range.
Creatine: Aim for 20-25 grams per day initially, then cut to 5 grams per day. When it comes to creatine, the optimal dosage for the first few weeks of a new supplementation routine should be high: 20-25 grams per day, to boost your muscular creatine content (6).After this, you can move to a maintenance phase with a lower dose of 5 grams per day.
Beta-alanine: aim for 2-6 grams per day. Beta-alanine should be dosed between 2 and 6 grams per day (7). Ideally, you’d use a progressive strategy, taking more after the first few weeks to further increase your muscular carnosine content.
The dose should be split up into smaller pieces to be taken throughout the day if you want to avoid flushing.
Post-workout supplement benefits FAQ
Q: How does a post-workout compare to pre-workout?
A: Pre-workout supplements are designed primarily to increase your exercise performance on the day you take the supplement.
In other words, they help you work out harder and perform better today. These supplements achieve this by using compounds like caffeine, green tea extract, and other potential ergogenic aids.
Sometimes, they also include some ingredients to get you primed for post-workout recovery as well, but the focus is still primarily on immediate performance.
In contrast, a post-workout supplement is 100% focused on recovery. You won’t find stimulants in these supplements; instead, you’ll see much higher levels of protein, amino acids, and creatine, to name just a few ingredients.
Q: What is the difference between an intra-workout supplement and a post-workout supplement?
A: Intra-workout supplements are designed to help sustain workout performance when taking mid-workout (e.g. between sets). A post-workout supplement, on the other hand, is designed to enhance your recovery after you’ve finished.
It can be a little confusing because there is occasionally crossover between ingredients in pre and intra-workout supplements and post-workout supplements.
Beta alanine and carnitine are good examples; these compounds could help workout performance in the short term, but are better studied as medium to long-term supplementation strategies to increase your body’s anaerobic power output.
Q: How do you reduce post-workout soreness?
A: The soreness that you feel following a tough workout is a good indicator of muscle damage, and several nutritional strategies exist to combat it. Post-workout muscle soreness comes along with a measurable decrease in muscle strength over the following several days: it’s not just a feeling of fatigue in your arms or legs.
Soreness after workouts is particularly bad if your workout included eccentric exercises like squats or deadlifts, as eccentric exercise is known to cause more muscular damage.
The effect is so pronounced that researchers will even use eccentric protocols, like drop jumps or single leg squats, to experimentally induce soreness.
Even something as simple as a protein shake will help combat post-workout soreness, but some research has shown that a post-workout supplement that includes glutamine could help reduce both your feelings of soreness and the decrease in muscular strength that accompanies it.
Several of our top-rated picks for the best post-workout supplements on the market right now include glutamine alongside other primary ingredients, making them good picks for combating soreness after a hard workout that includes a lot of eccentric exercise.
Q: What’s the most important macronutrient for after a workout?
A: After you’ve finished a workout, a good source of protein is definitely the most important macronutrient. Protein provides critical amino acids for rebuilding and repairing your muscle fibers, which get damaged during a workout.
Since these amino acids are the building blocks for new muscle tissue, getting protein in after a workout is also critically important for muscle gains. Even given the importance of protein, it’s important not to overlook another important macro, which is carbohydrates.
After a long workout, especially if it included cardio, your muscle glycogen stores will be depleted. Some research indicates that the best way to restore your muscle glycogen levels is by a mixture of carbs and protein, in approximately a 4:1 ratio.
So, while protein is still king when it comes to post workout macros, it seems to work best in combination with carbs if you need to restore muscle glycogen.
Related: Our best post-workout picks
Need a supplement that can enhance your recovery after your toughest training sessions? A post-workout supplement is exactly what you need.
These supplements help you capitalize on the stimulus to your body given by your longest, toughest workout days, and are used by top athletes to achieve peak fitness levels.