Being big and strong doesn’t mean you need to grow a big gut just to lift heavy weight. It’s becoming more and more common now days to see lean weightlifters and powerlifters who look like bodybuilders but also lift a tonne of weight. Ever wondered how they do it?
There’s a science behind the nutrition required for getting stronger. Sure, eating loads will get you results, but it will get you a belly along the way. Here’s the 6 most important tips if you want to optimise your nutrition to gain as much strength (and size) as possible while also keeping fat gain to a minimum.
1. Tracking your energy intake & expenditure
TRACK?! You mean get a little food scale and be one of those compulsive freaks?! Well yes and no. While you don’t need to be accurate to the T, knowing roughly how much energy you require on an average day can help you to easily manipulate your weight while not going overboard. This means slow gains/cuts which result in optimal strength gain and fat loss.
The way to lose or gain weight is determined by your overall energy intake in relation to energy expenditure, but lets dive a little deeper.
There are two common measurements for energy intake. These are kilocalories (kcal) and kilojoules (kJ). We’ll go by kcal as this is the most commonly used measurement.
Your overall energy intake is made up of macro-nutrients:
- Carbohydrates (CHO) (4kcal per gram)
- Protein (4kcal/g)
- Fat (9kcal/g)
- (& Alcohol (7kcal/g) (will not be discussed in detail in this article))
These are important to consider as each macro-nutrient type has a different effect on the body (as you can probably already tell based on their caloric values per gram). We’ll explain these a little later into the article.
Many factors make up energy expenditure, but typically the only one we can manipulate is physical activity. This obviously includes any exercise or weight training you do, but can also include activity we don’t necessarily think about such as fidgeting you do throughout the day. These all add up to make a fairly significant difference to your overall energy expenditure.
So, how to I determine my own energy intake?
- Assess average energy intake through inputting an average day of your diet into a food diary (like MyFitnessPal)
- Weigh yourself every day under the same conditions (for example in the morning before eating/drinking)
- Compare the average week to week weigh ins
Following this, adjust energy intake slowly (increase or decrease 100-200kcal per couple of weeks) to get the desired rate of weight change.
2. Protein Intake
As I mentioned earlier, different macro-nutrients have different effects on the body. So lets start by analysing protein why it is important.
Adequate protein is required to recover from training and support growth/adaptations. Protein is also useful to keep you full (has a high satiety value per amount of energy they provide) so high intakes are particularly useful in a fat loss phase.
Remember, even though it is important to get “optimal” strength/muscle adaptations, it’s not as important as total energy intake!
So how much protein should you be having in a day? The recommendations are dependent on whether you are in an energy deficit or not:
- Balance (maintenance): 1.4-1.6g/kg (2)
- Surplus: 1.5-1.7g/kg (2)
- Deficit: 1.8-2.7g/kg (8)*
*Note: the upper end of the deficit range is highly speculative and not necessary unless extremely lean and in a large energy deficit. The lower to mid end of the range will be applicable to powerlifters/bodybuilders in a weight loss phase.
Surpassing protein recommendations may displace CHO (carbohydrate) intake to a level not optimal for supporting training and recovery (10), especially during an energy deficit.
Thus, it is important to have a protein intake around the range just discussed. Given the same energy intake, too much protein can be a detriment to training performance due to CHO displacement!
Assessing Protein Intake
Weighing out foods out and observing nutritional labels for each individual food is the most accurate option but can be tedious when you aren’t accustomed to it.
- Alternatively, you can estimate serving size and link it with the nutritional label (or tables such as below)and remember that serving size for future consumptions
3. Fat and CHO
Now lets discuss the other two important macro-nutrients: Fat and CHO (carbohydrates).
The rough recommendations are for CHO intakes to be between 4-7g/kg (9)
Fat recommendations: a general population recommendation of between 20-35% of total energy will reduce likelihood of eating too much saturated fat, as well as allowing sufficient intake of essential fats (7).
There is a large amount of research regarding this area. We’ve just touched the surface as these general guidelines are really all you need to know for optimal strength training.
4. Nutrition around Training
Now that we’ve got overall energy intake out of the way, lets discuss the infamous pre & post workout nutrition.
Implementing scientifically based pre & post (in some circumstances) workout nutrition strategies may be helpful in maximising training performance and adaptation.
Total daily CHO intake is key, however some research shows a moderate to high amount of CHO consumed pre-workout may be useful in improving performance (1).
Like with CHO, total daily protein intake is key, BUT 0.4-0.5g protein per kg of lean body mass (will fall between 20-40 grams) in both pre and post workout meals is a fail-safe general guideline (1) to increase protein synthesis and reduce muscle protein breakdown. These meals should be consumed within 3-6 hours of each other (higher end of the scale if pre-workout meal is large) (1).
A pre-workout meal should be consumed between 1-2 hours before training. If the pre-workout meal is consumed 3+ hours before training, 25g+ of protein should be consumed immediately before training if possible.
If you are training following an overnight fast, a meal of protein and carbohydrates should be consumed post-workout.
A post-workout meal can be consumed between the time-frame of immediately following exercise up to the top end of the 3-6 hour separation range without a likely difference in anabolic (muscle building) response.
So is pre & post workout nutrition really necessary? Well it depends. It may have benefits in some circumstances, but it certainly isn’t REQUIRED.
So what are we talking about here? Fluids, include plain water, as well as water derived from drinks and foods. That includes your large soda you got from McDonald’s (lucky for you).
Dehydration has been shown to significantly impair resistance exercise performance (6) .
Australia & New Zealand Recommendations (7):
- Men: 3.4L/day
- Women: 2.8L/day
These recommendations will obviously vary depending on amount of exercise and training you do since you will induce a greater amount of breathing and sweating.
An easy way to tell if your dehydrated is to look for urine which isn’t clear, however this is just a general guide and isn’t always accurate as urine colouration can be affected by a variety of things (even by the foods you eat).
6. Fibre and Micro-nutrients
An often neglected area of nutrition is fibre and Micro-nutrient intake.
The main role of fibre is to keep the digestive system healthy. Fibre has also been shown to benefit diabetes, blood cholesterol levels and weight control.
Australia & New Zealand Recommendations (7):
- Men 30g/day, or ~38g/day to reduce chronic disease risk
- Women 25g/day, or ~28g/day to reduce chronic disease risk
- OR 10-15g per 1000kcal eaten
Increasing dietary fibre is linked with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Source of fibre include: wholegrain foods, fruits and vegetables.
Like protein, high fibre intakes can assist with satiety making it more difficult to overeat, so can be extremely useful when attempting to lose fat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, in the situation where appetite is a barrier to weight gain, an amount of low fibre low satiety value foods should be eaten in order to ensure total energy intake targets are hit. i.e. it is OK, and even a good idea in some circumstances, to eat your favourite “unhealthy” foods in order to hit your caloric and macronutrient targets, so long as you are not ignoring the importance of fibre and micronutrients (as discussed below). No, eating ice cream, lollies, or chips will not have a negative effect on your performance or body composition goals, so long as you are still achieving daily energy intake, macro & micro-nutrient goals!
Micro-nutrients are vitamins and minerals you get from the foods you eat. Some food are more micro-nutrient dense than others, like fruits and vegetables.
Micro-nutrients give you many benefits depending on the vitamin or mineral, but to keep it simple, will maintain your overall health.
A diet aimed at maintaining optimal health and therefore performance should incorporate fruits and vegetables as well as a suitable intake of wholegrain foods within your energy goals.
An example of micro-nutrient importance: a low calcium intake can cause bone density to be lost, particularly when the diet is high in protein such as the diets of strength athletes. (3)
So hopefully, with these 6 important nutrition tips, you are now convinced that it’s possible (and pretty easy) to gain muscle & strength without growing a big gut. It’s not about nit-picking at little details in your diet, it’s about having a holistic view point and understanding what’s most important. Be a new age strength athlete, and optimise you nutrition using science for the best results possible!
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