Nutrition is as much an art as it is a science. With so many theories being thrown around, it can be hard to know what you really need eat for strength and why.
The more we hear about bodybuilding nutrition, from all of the ongoing research and all of the articles, books and programs out there, the harder it can be to condense it all down to the facts we really need.
Every week, there’s a new supplement, a new theory or a new research study. Here’s a straightforward rundown on some of the most talked about and least understood topics in eating for strength, leanness and muscle gain.
1. Eating a High Protein Diet
Protein is your body’s concrete. Protein is the macro that your body uses to build or repair almost everything. It is especially important for building muscle. You gain size when you work your muscles enough to create micro-tears in the muscle tissue and your body uses protein to repair those tears.
Since your body also needs protein for just about every function, it prioritizes the way it uses the protein you eat. First it takes what it needs for essential function. If there’s any protein left over, your body uses that to rebuild and repair muscle.
On the flip side of that, if you’re working out and NOT getting enough protein over and above what your body already needs, it may catabolize your muscles, which is a fancy way of saying it’ll break down muscle tissue to get the amino acids that it needs for essential function.
This is why you have to know how many grams of protein you need for essential function and then eat over and above that for muscle repair.
Even if you’re working on strength more than gains, you need the protein to support that strength. At minimum, you need to be getting 1-1.5g per pound of body weight per day.
2. Eating a High Fat Diet
Most of us know that we need all three macros to be healthy, get strong and gain muscle mass. But of the three, (protein, carbs and fats) fats are the most misunderstood.
One of the areas people have trouble with is which fats are good and which are bad.
Should you eat saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated? The truth is, you need all of them. They each have a different function in building and maintaining strength and muscle.
You also need them for heart health, brain function, vitamin metabolism and about a thousand other essential things. You cannot do without them and you won’t build strength or muscle if you get too little, either.
One of the best fats to eat for building muscle and making strength gains is coconut oil.
It’s full of medium-chain fatty acids, which are easily absorbed and used for energy. Coconut oil has also been shown to help boost testosterone levels, which has a huge impact on both strength and gains.
Another great fat food is macadamia nuts. They’ve always gotten a bad rap because they’re so high in fat, but they’re all monounsaturated fats. In fact, they’re higher in monos than olive oil.
The point is, you need plenty of healthy fats in your diet to get results and reach your goals.
3. Planning Your Carbohydrate Allowance
This may sound unkind, but carbs are what you get when you’re already in good shape. Aside from the vegetable and fruit carbs you need to be healthy and work out, your carbs have to be earned.
In my opinion, males with more than 10% body fat are fat and don’t deserve a moderate to high carb diet. Stick with mainly vegetable carbs and don’t even think about bulking up until your body fat levels are 10% or lower.
To replenish your energy levels, plan for one refuel meal (I don’t like the term ‘cheat meal’ because it ‘s associated with the feeling of guilt and shame) every fifth day and plan it after your workout.
Get plenty of dark, leafy greens, which are loaded with Vitamin C. Your body needs Vitamin C to produce carnitine, which helps in fat oxidation.
4. Eating the Right Breakfast – Try Meat and Nuts
We all know by now that what you eat in the morning is vitally important, but there’s so much debate going on about what to eat – do you go carb-heavy, do you stick with proteins, is it best to just have a shake?
Here’s what no one tells you:
The first thing you put in your mouth in the morning sets your neurotransmitters for the day. If you drink orange juice or other high-glycemic foods that cause a spike in insulin this will trigger serotonin, which will make you feel good, but it will also make you sluggish and tired.
Protein and low-glycemic nuts are critical for priming the neurotransmitters for the day.
The protein in the meat and the healthy fats in the nuts are both awesome for helping to maintain your blood sugar levels. You get a steady, slow supply of energy and you don’t get those hunger pangs that can distract you from your training and lead you to grab unhealthy snacks.
The meat and nuts breakfast increase the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine, which are responsible for drive and focus. This is also an excellent meal to have before you train.
The worst thing you can consume before training is carbohydrates as they elevate serotonin levels – the same neurotransmitter released after a male orgasm. When was the last time you felt like hitting the gym hard after having sex?
5. Caffeine – Friend or Foe?
One of the reasons that caffeine is the subject of so many nutritional arguments is that most people are seriously attached to their coffee. Fortunately for them, the newest research shows that caffeine can have a very positive effect on your workouts.
Last fall, a study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that drinking some caffeine before working out can improve your focus, reduce the perception of exertion and pain, give you the energy to power through your workouts and also help improve muscle contraction.
An hour after drinking the equivalent of two cups of coffee, the guys in the study were able to do three more bench presses at 60% of their max load than they did after drinking a non-caffeinated drink. For the record, they didn’t know which drink was which.
So why does caffeine have such a positive impact on your strength training workouts? It’s all in your head. Caffeine has a positive impact on both your dopamine (the chemical that controls your perceptions of pain, exertion and fatigue) and acetylcholine (which is responsible for muscle contraction) levels.
The study I just mentioned also noted that in order to get the benefits of pre-workout caffeine, you need to be caffeine-free for about twelve hours prior to taking it.
So, if you work out in the morning, you need to stop drinking caffeine by 6pm or so the night before. Then drink around 2.3 milligrams of caffeine per pound of body weight about an hour before your workout. (An average cup of coffee has about 100 to 150mg)
6. Taking BCAAs during your workout
Many people believe that they are unnecessary if you hit your daily protein needs but the scientific literature doesn’t support that suggestion.
BCAAs are a group of amino acids. Nine of them are essential amino acids, like leucine, which our bodies can’t make – we have to get them nutritionally.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a hot topic these days, but a lot of people don’t really know what they are, why they need them or when to take them.
These 35 amino acids are responsible for too many important functions to list here, so I’ll talk about what they do in relation to building muscle.
First of all, BCAAs stimulate insulin production, which is very important to growth because insulin allows sugars to be absorbed by your muscles’ cells to be used as energy. It also increases protein absorption by the muscle tissue.
When you’re working out hard, your body is in a highly catabolic state. This means that your body is breaking down proteins so that it can use your muscles’ amino acids for fuel. At the same time, protein synthesis slows down as your energy reserves get used up.
By drinking BCAAs during your workout, you ensure that your body doesn’t have to rob your muscles of amino acids for energy and it also doesn’t have to use the protein in your muscles to fuel your workout and also makes sure that you have plenty of amino acids on board for protein synthesis.
Another benefit of taking BCAAs is that some research shows it lowers the levels of serotonin in your body. Serotonin affects your perception of fatigue, so having less of it in your bloodstream can help you to increase the intensity of your workouts.
7. Creatine – This old school supplement is still
Creatine has been a hot supplement since the 1990’s and there’s a reason it’s still so popular: it works.
Creatine isn’t some developed compound; it’s a naturally occurring combination of three important amino acids: glycine, methionine and arginine. Together, they help the body to produce more ATP (adenosine-triphosphate).
Your body’s quick, forceful muscle movements are powered by ATP, but your body only has enough to last for about 10 seconds of muscle contraction, then it needs to make more. Creatine helps your body to do that by supplying your body with plenty of phosphate molecules.
If you have enough ATP, you can work out harder, longer. Research has also shown that creatine supplementation can help to increase the intensity your workouts and speed and improve muscle recovery.
Building muscle, gaining strength and getting lean are as much about nutrition as they are about working out, so it pays to get good information and to focus on eating the right macros and micros at the right time and making sure that you get plenty of healthy, whole foods to fuel your goals.