So it’s been a long time coming, but eventually I got around to creating an article version of a Powerpoint I’d developed a while back, detailing a series of nutritional habits & principles I work, train & live by, so here goes. I’ve trained & worked as a chef for years, and I’ve competed & coached in Powerlifting for anyone unfamiliar with my background, so the following is a culmination of the two. It’s a long one, but I promise it’s worth the read. The whole piece will be split into 3 sections:
Nutritional Principles to be applied to everyday life & that should make the finer details much easier to work with
B.I.Y (Build it yourself) where I’ll list the finer details of calories and macronutrients (g/kg bodyweight) and all of that jazz; basically what you’ll need to take your own habits and refine them to an athletic level of discipline – don’t worry if you’re unsure what any of this means, there’ll be explanations along the way
Nutritional Strategies,so how to go through different phases of eating to perform, and things like monthly and yearly planning in the competitive schedule. (Note: what you’re about to read is catered mainly towards powerlifting and strength sports, so take it all with a pinch of salt if that’s not your field, but feel free to learn, apply & experiment as you see fit. Speaking of salt; salt pepper & lemon juice, easiest way to fix any meal)
Without further ado . .
Section 1: Nutritional Principles; Habits To Live By
- Eat With A Purpose
If you take nothing else away from this article, take this. Your mind-set is the single biggest factor influencing how nutrition will affect your performance. How you perceive food will decide how you do with it. My best advice is this; don’t just think of it as food, think of it as fuel. I know too well how tempting it is to try to reward every tough day/week with a takeaway, some vino or a night on the absolute tear in town, but this is the secret to top performance. Food can be a great reward mechanism, and it can be damn tasty, but ask yourself; how will what I consume today/tomorrow/this weekend effect my training, and will it help me achieve what I want to achieve?
We’ve all been there; bright lights, chalk, talc, ammonia, adrenalin, fear, nerves, roars from the crowd to you & you to the bar; everyone wants to hit new personal bests. You do the calculations, the smart training, the hard slog, the grind. Could you honestly be happy if you knew/know it could be better, or if it could be the decider, if what you ate was catered to performing to your absolute best? Most of you will know what good food is; good whole lean meats, rice, pasta, veg, water, sweet potatoes, dairy, poultry, eggs, the list goes on. Don’t worry about amounts yet, or timings, or any of that craic. If you change your mind-set, and take every chance to choose foods that’ll help you eat to perform, that is by & far the most positive change you could make to your training. It’s not just food; it’s fuel. Eat to perform.
Weren’t expecting to see that on a nutrition piece, were you? As important as food, as important as training, planning, consistency, is the big one. Eat. Sleep. Lift. Repeat. Nutrition, recovery, exertion & consistency is what it all boils down to. Sleep is, in my eyes, the greatest benefit, with the least effort (it’s virtually negative effort) in the least amount of time required. The whole training process can be improved, and better results where it counts, by taking it easy & recovering from stress with this. A good place to aim for, and likely optimal for most, would be the ol’ 8 hours a night recommendation. Now, some can get by with less (once upon a time I managed to improve on 6 a night & more at the weekends, with all other variables managed extremely well) but if you’re not where you want to be, here’s where to shoot for. There’s many a recovery issue that can’t be fixed with a litre of milk (surplus/significantly extra calories) and 1 hour more sleep every day.
- Make It A Habit
One of the keys to long-term consistency in the nutrition world is to make it second-nature; whereby you do what you need to do & get where you need to be without feeling like you’re trying anything special at all. It’s habit. Apparently it takes 21 days for a habit to form or change, and this is similar here; a prolonged stretch of time spent actively doing something positive makes it more likely to become a habit. Good habits are what will save you in times when you’re under stress, when life isn’t really going your way yet you can seek comfort in that you’ll have your good habits on autopilot, you’ll still get where you need to go, and overall these good habits will make the process of success unnoticeable & almost effortless. It may take more time, or less, but good habits are what make us. And the best thing? Success builds success, and so good habits lead onto better habits.
- Resources & Reality
This is a bit of a detailed and potentially controversial one, so bear with me. There are three states of being in nutritional terms; (I) isocaloric, or maintaining your weight (calorie intake equals energy expenditure) aka Homeostasis (II) hypocaloric, or losing weight (calorie intake is less than energy expended), (III) hypercaloric, or gaining weight (calorie intake is greater than energy expenditure). The first is simply a balanced state of being, an equilibrium. The second is necessary for weight loss (generally fat), and the third is necessary for weight gain (generally muscle). Now, with each of these states comes some realities. During maintenance (I), all is in balance, so the training you do is met by the food you eat & the sleep you get. All’s well, rainbows & daisies galore. A nice state of balance, and one of the better states to be in when strength training; your needs are met (indicative by your weight in most cases) so you can be assured that you’re recovering, generally. Next we have a caloric deficit (II), a state necessary for losing fat/weight and thus improving your coefficient (a formula based on weight lifted versus own bodyweight), but the state I regard as least optimal for strength training, and here’s why; by definition, your needs aren’t being met (you’re taking in less calories than you need, and calories play a huge role in recovery) so you’re running a high chance of not recovering from training, and by definition, not getting stronger. It’s a situation where I’ll likely not change my stance on anytime soon, but the definitions are there. Now I’d never outright discourage someone & say you can’t EVER put up better numbers whilst in a deficit, but here’s my view: any improvements here I’d likely attribute to improvement in technical efficiency (in fact here’s a great period of time to focus purely on technique) but the harder you push things on a deficit, the higher the risk of burning-out, and risking major setbacks like poor performances or injuries, and no injury is worth a trimmer waist or better Wilks score, considering how long they take to rehab and come back better from. If you want to train on a deficit, manage it well (a small loss a week such as 1%), get more sleep to cover the gap, knock back the stress in training a bit and work on refining that technique. Or run some unworthy risks. Finally, a caloric surplus (III) is by and far the best state to strength-train in. You have, by definition, more than you need, and if you’re gaining weight weekly (even if it’s as little as ½ to 1lb a week) you have a very strong indication thay you’re recovering & therefore getting stronger. However, you better make damn sure you make use of this time wisely; high volume training, high-rep sets, the lower end of strength percentages (60-70%) and don’t ever leave the gym knowing you could have done more reps. Take it as a challenge to outwork your metabolism. Once upon a time I was on 6000+kcal on non-training days, and doing an enormous volume of work to make use of it. If you do little, you’ll likely gain majority of weight in fat, so work harder than ever and rest adequately, and be confident you’re building slabs of muscle that you can reap huge rewards from later. Mass moves mass, and bulkin’ ain’t easy, baby.
- Let The Goals & Results Dictate The Process
What I mean by this, essentially, is having a plan & sticking to it. Start off with set end goals (weight would be one example), set in place the processes you need to undertake and set in action in order to reach those goals (so looking to add or subtract 500kcal every day, and doing this every day for say 12 weeks) and lastly, stick to these strictly. Alter necessarily if they are not working for whatever reason, but not without due diligence. It’s too easy to get caught up in the moment & the momentum of it all; a classic example of this might be losing weight at a slow yet consistent pace (at or under 1lb/week) and feeling overly enthusiastic & cutting MORE calories out of the plan in a hope that you’ll end up with a better result. It’s a very hard balancing act, weight loss & strength training, and if you push something farther than it needs to, you’ll end up hitting a wall very soon, be it a lack of progress or major incurred fatigue, or injury. Likewise, if you’re gaining weight and get the notion to push the calories up even further to encourage a higher level of weight gain (over 1lb/week) without adding in more work/training volume to make use of it, you’ll find yourself with some excess unwanted fat once the period is finished, which in order to become the most efficient athlete you can be, will require a time spent losing fat that could’ve been spent getting stronger. If you have a well-prepared plan, be confident in its effectiveness & stay the course you’ve plotted. If for some reason it isn’t working (determinable by whether it adheres to the above rates of weight change), stick with it for a little longer, maybe a week, just to ensure it isn’t any sorted of initial teething problems or just a general lag (the body tends not to want to disrupt the nice, stable homeostatic state it rests in, so may be a little resistant/slow to change) and if the problem is still there, adjust via a controlled alteration (i.e. knowingly add/subtract a consistent, controllable 300-500 to it) and once again stick it out. Strength training is HARD on the body, plenty of fatigue builds up, so stick to the plan & all will be ok.
- Take (A) Control
How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re starting from? With every process whereby set, undeniable results are desired, you need to establish a control, a base from which you will build, progress and/or make changes from. In our case, it involves primarily establishing a set calorie level (e.g. 2300kcal/day) and, most importantly, sticking to it consistently for a significant period of time (e.g. 7-10 days) and seeing how your body reacts to it. I’ll provide some numbers to work from later that have worked for my clients & I amongst others, and with all of these you can build a fantastic DIY diet plan for yourself, but bear in mind no 2 people are alike, and what may work for someone similar to you may not for whatever reason suit you. Choose numbers to work off, and see how your body reacts, and decide from there what alterations are needed to make it work. When you have set numbers to work from, you can address any issues such as poor recovery or other issues without any guesswork. Once details are picked, you can further this consistent nutrient intake to consistent food type intake, i.e. eating a similar meal structure every day. Foods don’t have to be the exact same, but the similarities can be held and adhered to with equal results (once calories & macronutrients are equated for). This will make life easier in the long run. For amounts, bringing in kitchen items like cups, spoons (tools that are consistent but have a set limit) will make the portions easier to manage. A great tool here is the “Rule of 1”, whereby you use one standard unit for each meal component, e.g. ONE chicken breast, ONE spoon of nut, TWO sweet potatoes, will make things easier to remember when you’re out & about. But all of this consistency is rooted in having a strong, set base. Treat it scientifically. Take Control, by Taking A Control.
- Make It Easy
Once the controls are under control, look for ways to make life easier on yourself. Food prep can be tough at times, and 6, 7, 8, 9 weeks down the line you’ll probably get fed up of the ritual of prep & Tupperware every night. Things like meal prep services, batch cooking & portioning, shop-bought solutions that will fit & work, eating generally the same foods/structure most of the days, down to using flavours you enjoy (dry spices and things like stock cubes, lemon/lime and herbs will realistically make no change to the plan’s stats but make the thing a whole pile easier – experiment with flavours) will make the whole thing smoother. Using solutions like foods you enjoy or similar-tasting alternatives will really help the enjoyment. One big thing about all this is also to have a back-up plan for any meal that could potentially be an issue. Most meals you could likely assemble from shop-bought solutions, and this will make sure you have a safety net if ever something should happen. The lip-ups along the way don’t matter, the reasons why don’t matter; in the end all that really counts is the result, so make life as manageable as you can & this can help it all come to fruition.
- Today’s Food = Tomorrow’s Session
One of the biggest keys to strength gains is recovery, and a proper nutrition plan will do wonders for your training. A key part within this is eating enough of the right things (so getting enough calories in, along with getting enough protein, carbohydrates and fats within those limits/parameters. If you’re consistently under-reaching these targets, your training WILL suffer, no question. Likewise, poor training (either too little work or FAR too much work to recover from) will lead to poor utilisation of all the hard work you put into designing, planning & enacting your nutritional plan. Better food on the day before & of training, WILL lead to a better one-time performance in the gym, and just as we do many training session to achieve one larger end result, so too must we stick to a good plan day in day out until our goals are achieved. Believing is half the battle, and if you are confident in what you have created and are sticking to, then a positive mind-set should start to come about; you’ll feel better for what you are doing, and each success will usher in & enable another success. And lastly, when you nutrition is on point, you can allow yourself to work harder in training; you have a rock-solid, performance-orientated plan in action so you have no reason not to work harder, push yourself harder and reap some brilliant results from it.
- Weeks & Weekends
The reality is that we all have different regimes for our weekdays & weekends, and the eating patterns to go with it too. Rigid structure during the weeks versus lazy days in, restaurants, comfort food nights and, yes, going for a few scoops on a Saturday night. What we need here, so, if we wish to be successful, is different solutions for differing times. Understand what you are working from & what you would need to eat to fulfil the requirements, and by all means eat different foods for this. Having something like this can help make progress & consistency easier & more interesting in the long term, and that’s what matters. But here’ the kicker; you have to be truly honest with yourself is these differing regimes are leading you to fall off the wagon. If the results are coming, then great!! But if not, be aware of what you’re doing & if it is really working for you. If not, change. As for the liquid leisure nights of the weekend, if you can have one or two & meet your goals, then fantastic, but one too many will lead to poor nutrition along with a host of other problems such as disrupted recovery, altered & inhibited sleep patterns, poor follow-on food choices on the day after, along with poor mood and likely lethargy. None of which will help your efforts. So, have different but equally effective regimes, but be aware and be honest with yourself.
- Give Yourself A Break
Imagine this as the nutritional equivalent of a deload in training. Every so often, it’s no harm to give yourself a break from your strict, structured plan, and eat/drink a moderate amount of something that is off-plan but just simply makes you happy. Only, however, should this happen if you are actually achieving the results you want to see. This break can also help improve your discipline & self-control, by allowing yourself to digress but being able to reign it in when you need to. And just like a deload, only use it when needed; time spent eating poor food is time that could be spent working further toward your goals one meal at a time and bettering your results, but if you’re really struggling and this minor controlled break would help, then have it. But remember, it is earned, not given.
Section 2: B.I.Y. – Build It Yourself
So, following on from the positive habits & general principles outlined in Part 1, here is where I’ll go through some terms & definitions and provide the finer details for planning a nutritional regime for yourself. These only really matter if the above are already well in place & under way, so no need to venture further if you’re not on board with what we’ve already gone through, but undoubtedly if you work these finer details into place, you will end up performing better in training, and getting to some incredible places. The Devil, supposedly, is in the details.
So, the definitions:
- Calories (kCal) – A measure of energy, in either food or activity. Your bodyweight state will depend on the calories you take in versus the calories you expend (kCal in vs kCal out).
- There are 3 states when it comes to your bodyweight & calories;
- Isocaloric, whereby kCal in = kCal out (aka maintenance, or Homeostasis)
- Hypocaloric, where kCal in are less than kCal out (aka a deficit, or weight loss)
- Hypercaloric, where kCal in are greater than kCal out (aka a surplus, or weight gain)
- There are 3 main macronutrients in play:
- Protein (P), which is involved in the repair and growth of tissue (recovery). It is also the most satiating (filling) macro, so protein-heavy meals tend to make you the fullest and thereby help curb hunger. Good protein sources include fish, meat, eggs, milk, dairy (esp. cottage cheese & whey), tofu/soy, and in lesser but also decent amounts in legumes (beans/lentils), nuts, and Greek yoghurt. Protein has 4kcal/G of the pure macronutrient.
- Carbohydrates (C), the body’s preferred immediate fuel source (think how quickly you get a buzz after sugary foods and you get the idea) and plays the biggest role in fuelling & re-fuelling the body (namely the immediate supply of glucose to the body around exercise & replenishment of muscle glycogen stores). Athletes should prioritise comsuming sufficient carbohydrates to fuel training & performance & recover from such with it. Furthering this, we have the Glycaemic index (GI) which is a measure of how quickly carb-based foods get into your bloodstream (low GI being slow digesting, and High GI being quick-digesting). Good carb sources include rice, pasta, potatoes & sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, and around training (i.e. higher GI sources) fruit & sugary foods (yes, even sweets have their place). Carbohydrates have 4kCal/G.
- Fats (F) are a slow-burning fuel (best kept outside the raining window – think outside .5-2 hours before & beyond 1.5-2 hours after training as they slow down the digestion of whatever they’re eaten with), and don’t play as big a role in performance as the 2 former, but play a role in keeping hormones balanced and most of all, act as the caloric filler/buffer in your diet. So, if your protein & carb requirements are met, fats would be the filler you’d use to meet your daily calorie requirements (and likewise would be the first thing to add/subtract if you needed to change it up). Fats come in at 9kCal/g and are the least satiating macro here, so are easiest to alter kCal with (a little less/more fat-heavy food will equal a significant change in your nutrition plan). Good fat sources include nuts, seeds, cold-pressed oils (like olive, walnut, rapeseed), avocado, cheeses, butters & nut butters, coconut & even cream.
And now for the finer details:
- Determining kCal requirements: A good place to start I’ve found, from work with my clients, other individuals & I, is to find your bodyweight in pounds (lbs) & multiply by 14 & 17 for rest days (non-weight-training) days & training days respectively. To emphasise; this is a START, not the finished product. Try it, consistently stick with it, and see how you react to it. Work from there. (Note: if you know you have a notably lower metabolism than most others you’ve spoken with, try 12 & 14 as the multipliers. This could also be the case for women but most athletic individuals I’d recommend the 14/17 for a performance diet, regardless of gender.
- To get Protein Requirements: For most people, an optimum level would be about 0.8-1.0g protein per pound of bodyweight (P/lb BW). Going much more than this whilst still within calorie constraints would result in having to take in less of the other nutrients and risk sub-optimal performance for all your hard work. (The Calorie Constraint Hypothesis states that, seeing as we need a certain amount of kCal to gain, lose or maintain weight, and all macros have a certain level of kCal per gram of the nutrient, they all take up space within our calorie levels and thus we should aim for the most optimal, efficient use of all of the macros so as to get the most out of our calories & perform to our best given our calorie constraints). I may go as high as 1.0-1.2gP/lb when programming for someone who is a hungrier individual, likes more meat, or if on a fat loss plan could keep them fuller (calorie here would likely be swapped out from some fat sources, which to a certain level is totally fine)
- To get Carbohydrate Requirements: Here, I would go for anywhere from 1-3g Carbs per lb bodyweight (C/lb BW), going from rest days to hard, hard high-volume training days respectively. So, think 1g C/lb bodyweight on rest days (or less if you like, you may just find it harder to recover under this), around 2g C/lb for your standard training day (where you’re working hard but nothing extenuating) and up to 3g C/lb for your highest-volume days (so think high set, high rep hypertrophy work, a fatigue-accumulation block, or training 2x a day). Try to stick within these, as going much higher than these unnecessarily could lead to a lower level of insulin sensitivity (basically the carbs you take in aren’t being used as optimally as they could be) and could more be more likely to be stored as fat rather than used as fuel (think sedentary/lazy lifestyle and plenty chips, Doritos and sweets and you get an idea of what this can become). Carbohydrates are an amazing tool for the athlete but with great power comes great responsibility.
- Determining Fat Requirements: This is the easiest one to figure out, but also the easiest to go overboard with. When other macro needs are optimally met, and calories remain, use fat sources to fill the gap. Simple. They’re highly-dense calorically, so you’d only need a moderate, controlled amount to make up the difference. In order to avoid any potential hormone-balance issues, aim to have a minimum of 10% of your calories, regardless of day type, made up of Fat sources. Now, seeing as they’re high-density calorie sources, caution must be exercised; seeing as they are so dense, it’s easy to go overboard with them. Strict measurement is required (invest in a good scales, use set kitchen measures and/or pre-weighed, pre-packaged sources e.g. 50g nut packets.
- Honourable mention here should go to green, leafy veg; high-volume (filling) food type, with little to no calories in most cases, high-fibre, require work to break down in the mouth (which can also help quell hunger a bit) and best of all are packed with nutrients that will aid in recovery that little bit more. I’ll tell people in most diets (generally maintenance or weight loss) that if calories are met and hunger is still there, fill up on the green, leafy veg until satisfied. This won’t alter calories much or at all but will make all the difference in long-term success.
As detailed & precise as all the above recommendations are, they should all be treated as a starting point, and not the finished product. What works for some may not work for others, but this is why we start all performance nutrition plans with a control, and work from there. The biggest factor here is kCals, so once you’ve selected & adhered to a set calorie level for 10-14 days (should be enough for you to adjust to the rest and training days, along with a weekend regimen and get an honest opinion formed, along with finding solutions that work for you), you can look to adjusting calories. So if your weight isn’t budging & you’re looking to gain or lose, adjust by a moderate amount (300-500 kcals, or about 10-15% more or less a day should equate, in most cases, to 0.6 to 1 lb change a week). And remember, small controlled adjustments will ensure you move at an optimal rate, no more no less. Again if this change isn’t enough after 1-2 weeks, repeat the process; adjust, adhere & evaluate. When you have an end goal that is a set, tangible number, you work out what progression you would need to get there over the time period, work backwards to the start, and also have a standard to compare yourself too. So, you want to lose 7.2lbs over 12 weeks; that would equate to a rate of 0.6lb per week, and to a drop of 300kcal per day. Likewise, a percentage-of-bodyweight method could be used, either in place of or in conjunction with this.
I know a lot of this can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve never done any consistent long-term dieting before, so what I’ll do is lead by example. Below you’ll see a plan similar to one I followed for a 12 week hypertrophy period (primarily aiming to increase muscle size), which brought my weight from 83.6kg to 89.5kg over that time period, an increase of 5.9kg/12.9lb overall, the majority of which was muscle (some fat gain will happen in periods like this but can be limited with good planning)
So as you can see, the following features exist above:
– There was more of an emphasis on carbohydrates & more calories overall on training days,
– Timing of carbohydrates around training,
– Use of my afore-mentioned “Rule of 1” i.e. using whole units to make consistency easier,
– An even spread of protein throughout the day (roughly; no major benefits to stressing timing that would be worth putting superfluous effort into, and the amounts were close to even levels of protein per meal, but not exact – going to a more precise level may have brought slight benefits, but would have led to a harder challenge to adherence due to being so anal about the details),
– Fat sources used to buffer up the plan, but kept away from the training window
– Veg to satiate
– Use of convenient/store-bought items wherever would suit whilst still adhering to an effective level (luckily I work in a kitchen so I used the supplies available to fit the plan)
– Lower-GI carbs outside of training, higher-GI sources closer to training (so as to provide a drip-feed sort of supply rate outside of training and more immediacy nearer)
– Varied sources of all nutrients to get the best of as many worlds as I could (also kept it interesting)
– Use of flavoursome, favourable food sources and spices/herbs etc. where needed as this made the whole plan that much easier to stick to
Section 3: Nutritional Strategies: Cut, Maintain & Bulk
Nearly there, I promise.
So, in our final section, now that you’ve seen the main underlying principles that form the base of successful nutrition for performance, along with the more minute details involved in refining it & taking it to the highest level, what you’ll see here is the main caloric stages in further detail (iso-, hypo- & hyper-caloric) along with some more realities that exist within them, and some strategies to employ within them, and lastly how to develop & set in motion yearly nutritional periodisation & planning. Your calendar revolves around competitions, why shouldn’t your nutrition help do the same?
Isocaloric, a.k.a Maintenance Phase or Homeostasis – kCals in = kCals out
- Here is arguably the most important phase of all of them, with probably the least amount of visible end results. Why so important if nothing happens? We are establishing a control measure; we are finding out what simply works for you, without the added complications or ordeals of weight loss or gain. We determine what kCals & macronutrient amounts give you the best performance overall. But more importantly, we are establishing something called a “Set Point”. To reiterate, Homeostasis is the state of balance whereby nothing changes, and most importantly any immediate changes have attempts made by the body to return it to its resting place or set point. Ever see someone go on a diet for 3, 4 weeks or so, fall off the wagon and return back where they started? This is why. The body views change as a threat to existence, and does what it can to get back to normal, whether or not we desire this state or not.
As bad as this may sound, there’s both good & bad points to this state. The bad being the potential to wind back in our original (potentially undesired) state, but the positive aspect is that, when we establish a certain “set point”, everything we have achieved thus far in terms of muscle gained or fat lost is ours henceforth, and is far, far less likely to be lost when we venture into a phase of change (so we risk much less muscle loss when losing weight and have a better chance of keeping our lean state when trying to gain weight at a steady rate). No worries unless we enter into a state of change. You can even relax the dieting measures a little, if your goals (weight maintenance and good performance) are being met, obviously within reason. So, we can really push our training as much as we can and provided our weight is steady, and we generally aren’t exhausted every day, you can be assured you’re recovering & improving. In fact, you can even try to push the boundaries of your workload, and try roughly to match it with a moderate increase in calories (so the same state is achieved, just with higher numbers) and end up stronger for it in the long run.
Now, it takes time to establish a set point, about 1 month to be more exact (one month at least where your weight maintains the same every day or the same on average throughout the week, if you suffer from water fluctuations or other such issues naturally) so at the start of your performance nutrition career, or at the end of EVERY phase of change, spend at least 1 month maintaining your weight to ensure that all you’ve earned isn’t lost, and to bring into play a new base to work off of (bear in mind every successful phase of change will bring about a new bodyweight to work the numbers off of). There’s no real drawbacks to staying at maintenance for any longer, so in theory you could stay at maintenance indefinitely and perform superbly. It’s probably the easiest of all states, and also serves as a great time to try out different foods/recipes within the restraints, so enjoy it while you can.
Hypercaloric a.k.a deficit, cut, weight loss – kCals in < kCals out
- Most people I’ve worked with, and myself included, have all wanted one common thing: the dream of getting lean, ripped, chiselled, whatever you want to call it. Same or more muscle, and much less fat. This is fine in most cases, and generally a sensible caloric deficit with a good plan behind it will get you where you need to go, give or take a few tweaks, But as strength athletes, we throw another MAJOR factor into the mix, which changes the dynamic extremely. In order to get stronger, we must recover from what we put ourselves through. How would you expect to recover as normal if you have LESS to recover with? I’ve seen people work just as hard as usual but whilst putting themselves through a period of significantly less calories, stall or burn out or worse, and then wonder what the hell happened. Strength training whilst running a calorie deficit is truly a case of care & carefulness. Less food can equal less recovery.
So, how do we train for strength on a deficit? Well, as mentioned earlier, I’d largely attribute any gains to improvements in technical proficiency and delayed supercompensation from a heavy period of incurred fatigue. So, here is a good chance to work on refining your technique to an elite level of proficiency. Another suggestion would be to bring in an RPE-based element to your training if you’re not doing so (basically only doing what you can on the day, and not beating yourself up to try and force more). In fact I’ve even noticed a phenomenon whereby the body recovers BETTER than it did before, whilst on a deficit, purely due to the much-improved quality & structure of the athlete’s diet, the quality of food composition, along with the optimisation of nutrients & nutrient timing. However, as the body becomes used to this being the norm, this effect can and will only take you so far, so please keep this in mind if things start to derail. (You could also go the other end of things and look to significantly upping work volume whilst keeping calories strictly the same, but bear in mind this poses the same risks and recovery issues, so care and control is needed.
But most of all, what you should be looking to raise whilst cutting, is the amount of sleep you get every single night. You have less recovery to work with, so you need to balance the equation, and sleep is a powerful tool in fighting fatigue and getting stronger. Aim for one hour more of sleep a night, on top of already-consistent levels, every night without fail. 8 hours or more a night, every single night. Better still, if this becomes the norm for you, you’ll go into the following phases (maintenance and bulking) with a much higher recovery capability, and one more reason to work to your absolute fullest potential in the gym, one less thing to hold you back from being the strongest version of yourself.
To incur a caloric deficit, calories must be reduced, so our best option (if all other levels are at optimal) is to remove our calories via taking out some of our fat sources (this will bring the least physical change to our plan and our hunger levels, whist getting us where we need to go. 300-500kCal of a change should do the trick, or 10-15% of our intake. As regards food/eating strategies when cutting, you’re going to want the most satiation & satisfaction with the least negative impact, so you’ll want to start lining your plate with fibrous, leafy, beautiful green veg. This will fill you up with little to any caloric impact. Once this is done, look to the amount of nutrients you’re getting for your calories, specifically to protein. As mentioned earlier, 0.8-1.0g P per lb Bodyweight is optimal for this, however you could swap some things around and change that to up to 1.2g P per lb, whilst removing the equivalent in calories from fat sources (provided fat calories don’t drop below 10% of the day’s overall kCal allowance, this is fine).
As always, make the adjustment, assess and evaluate. But most off, stick to the plan, and the planned rate of change. It won’t be easy, but the above will definitely make it easier. As a side note, you may have come across people dropping sizeable amounts of weight in the same or less time than you. In almost any case I can promise you this is an initial water-drop due to a reduction in carbohydrates from their old, unhealthy ways. Carbs retain 2-3g water for every 1g of the nutrient, so big carb reductions for the average person will lead to an initial and temporary “weight loss”. This is just water, and this is just temporary. This is also why short-term, carbocidal cuts “work”; water loss. You may even notice some initial weight loss in the maintenance phase, due to the change/regulation of carbs, but again this is a temporary trait; give it a week or so. Slow steady & sensible will lead to the long-playing results we desire. As for trying to go off track, push something too far, or give into temptation of hopping on to a bigger deficit in an attempt to “lose weight fast(er)”, I’d like to leave you with a quote from my good friend & mentor, Trevor Naughton.
Man who chase 2 rabbits catch nothing, and often fall down.
Hypercaloric a.k.a gaining, bulking, massing – kCals in > kCals out
- Now we reach what I consider the absolute prime state for strength training. Here, we can push our work level, our sets, our reps, to the absolute limits and beyond what we think possible. For the bulking phase is the pinnacle of recovery; by definition, you have more than you need, so your needs are virtually guaranteed to be met in this front. The body needs surplus calories to build significant amounts of muscle, just as a reduction is needed in order to use the energy from fat stores to fuel activity; you need something more to build more muscle with.
Since you’ll have ZERO excuse to hold back in your training, you better damn well use it. More sets, more reps, more work. You may find you’ll have to increase calories even more than the initial raise, which is fine; just try to keep pace with the high work output. It’s the ultimate First-World problem to be struggling to eat the increase in foods that will meet your activity levels & still bring about a weight gain, but with good planning it can be made much easier. Tactical bulking exists, and it is a beautiful thing.
Here, we’ll be looking to get the most calories with the least satiation/filling (or the same level of fullness as maintenance but with more calories), so high-calorie, low-density, low-voluminous foods are what we will be looking for, and the answer lies again in altering the fat sources. Again, once all other requirements are met & at an optimal level, we would look to add 300-500kcal or 10-15% extra calories in the form of fat sources such as oils, nuts, cheese, nut butters, butter, egg yolks, avocado and maybe even cream if that works for you. 56ml of oil will give you 500kCal in the easiest way possible, the equivalent of a large, double-shot glass of the liquid bulking agent. Now, different fat sources will have different benefits (to go to further detail, there exists mono- & poly-unsaturated fats which are of great benefit to you, saturated which bring some benefit, and homogenated or trans fats which bring ZERO benefit at all) so look to keep it varied for the best of all worlds, and stay rightly away from fast foods to get the job done. You’re an athlete, eat like one.
The reason we should look to gain weight (specifically muscular weight) is that mass moves mass; the more muscle you have, the more you have to lift with and the stronger you can get. It may not happen immediately (immediately after higher-rep hypertrophy/muscle-building phases, your body is primed for higher rep work, so it just takes a little time and effort to prime it for 1 rep max work and getting the most neuromuscular efficiency to happen) but it will undoubtedly happen. For this reason we shouldn’t be looking to marry a weight class early on in the sport. The best place for us a strength athlete is the class where we can carry the MOST muscle possible, with the lowest level of body fat that won’t hinder performance (so think 10-12% body fat for men, 18-20% for women if you want something to aim for) and then water-cutting can bring a different element to the table, but that’s a slightly different matter for now. The fact is, the more muscle we carry, the stronger we can get. Likewise, excessive fat won’t do you any good, except maybe save on the heating bill. Worried about excessive fat gain, or gaining at a rate higher than listed above? Do more work. Get more jacked. Simple.
Now, a note should be made for the female strength athlete reading this. I know that many will have concerns over what weight gain will do to them, muscular or otherwise. I know that for many there’s a stigma attached to weight gain. I know and I’ve seen athletes hinder their potential due to fears of getting “bulky” or alternatively risk regression or worse with consistent lowering of calories in order to lose weight. I know issues exist. I know. I’d never pretend to fully understand these issues, I’ve had my own self-consciousness problems in this ball-park, but they likely don’t compare in magnitude. Ill provide a link to more resources that are written by female strength athletes that address a host of issues far better than I ever could. And if even this isn’t enough, help does exist for anything you need help with, if it goes beyond the reach of pre-written nutritional pieces. What I can offer, though, is an alternative take on things: if you take the chance to fully invest yourself in becoming the best athlete you can be, it can help make the decision-making process that bit easier and line it up more in favour of achieving your goals. It can help take your mind off of the problems, and soon you become so immersed in reaching your goals and working for them that you may well end up improving your body composition and helping solve some body issues without even realising it. Tunnel vision when working for a goal can be a beautiful thing.
- So now that you’ve seen what it takes to get to where you need to go, in terms of body composition & athletic performance, now it’s time to start putting plans into action. As a strength athlete, generally we’ll have an idea of what upcoming competitions we’d want to do over the year ahead of us. Bet case scenario, we’ll have next year’s schedule already locked in mentally. So, how do we make the most efficient use of nutrition to aid performance here?
We’ll start by defining the time lengths we’re working with. As mentioned, it takes at least 1 month to establish a new compositional “set point” (so that we establish a base but also to cement in place all we’ve developed already), and as mentioned, after every period of change we need to go back to another phase/month of weight maintenance so as to permanently establish what we’ve worked so hard to achieve. So every period of change will always have at least one month extra added onto it. Now, the reality of trying to change our composition is that, the longer we work at it, the more it starts into the negative elements of change & in order to optimise everything, we want to find the sweet spot where we get the most out of the good changes without slipping into the bad changes. To put it simply, if we spend too much time cutting, even with a well-devised plan, the loss starts to shift more into muscle loss & less fat loss per unit of weight loss. The opposite is true for gaining; the longer we spend deliberately gaining weight, the more the body shifts inti gaining more fat & less muscle per unit of weight gained. As if life wasn’t hard enough as it is.
So what is this sweet spot? Generally, about 3 months is the upper end of what I’d recommend most to push for. Much longer, and the uglier ends of change start to rear their respective heads. Now there’s no need to change for this full length of time, less is absolutely fine, but this is generally optimal & the upper end of what you can achieve if you push yourself. You may also find a momentum effect whereby you’ve spent 6, 8 weeks working, are already well underway & everything is manageable, so carrying on isn’t that big of a deal. Or you may be sick to death of the hunger or the eternally-full belly, and that’s fine too. Since we’ll need a month of maintenance at the start of a proper performance nutrition plan, along with one more after each phase & between 2 phases, this leaves us with a clear picture of how to optimally try to change our composition over the year all whilst performing our best. Never forget, performance is & always will be the key. Over a year, the most phases of change we can therefore undergo optimally is 3, each 12 weeks in length, with a 4-week block on either end of this all adds up to 52 weeks. A year that could resemble the following (where M = Maintenance, C = Cut, and B = Bulk):
- 4 wks. M / 12 wks. C / 4 wks. M / 12 wks. B / 4 wks. M / 12 wks. C / 4 wks. M, or alternatively
- 4 wks. M / 12 wks. B / 4 wks. M / 12 wks. C / 4 wks. M / 12 wks. B / 4 wks. M
So you can see the best way to make use of your time with regard to getting the most change. Remember, you don’t have to change for as long or stay at maintenance for as little as above; you can spend less time in the former and more in the latter, only undergo 2 or maybe 1 phase of change, or heck you can even just spend the year at maintenance. I promise you your performance won’t suffer. As for deciding what phase of change is best for you or how to start, look at your composition objectively: if you’re a heavier individual, you may be best off going into a cut for your first phase of change, likewise if you’re leaner/skinnier you’d be better served to use a bulking phase as your first choice. Reason for this being the phenomenon of repeated/prolonged exposure; the more body fat you carry, the less likely you’ll be able to optimally use all those calories/carbohydrates for performance and are more likely to be stored as fat due to a reduced level of insulin sensitivity & less-effective nutrient partitioning, and on the other end, if you’re already closer to the leanest end of performance composition (10% for Men/18% for Women), you run much more of a risk of using muscle to make up for the calorie deficit (there isn’t much else to use, is there?). A snowball effect of sorts that we’re forced to work with, but one that helps make the decision for us. And seeing as some forms of compositional change phases are better suited to certain types of training periods, we can also decide how to train best in conjunction with these:
- Gaining for hypertrophy, work capacity blocks, exceptionally-hard periods of strength training or blocks of large accumulated fatigue levels,
- Maintenance for general strength training periods or peaking
- Cutting for periods of technical refinement, of periods focusing on bringing out certain qualities e.g. explosiveness/speed, or also for periods of well-regulated general strength training).
Mixing them around and/or not employing a maintenance month after each, can lead to you coming into a competition heavier than you would want & having a worse co-efficient/place in your current weight class, not peaking/supercompensating properly for an important competition, or worse still you could end up trying to compete at an absolute maximal level at the end of a cut phase and end up much weaker on the day for it or potentially incur a major injury due to the maximal stress under lessened recovery. Not. Fun. At. All.
Since we are all athletes here, we have competitions to aim for, qualifiers to meet, titles to win, records to beat, our performance is our No. 1 priority. Now most competitive schedules have competitions spread at roughly 8-12 week intervals throughout the year & are of varying importance to us (from international competitions down to local, small-level comps that won’t affect your national ranking. So it’s in our best interests to be 100% primed for the most important ones (none of the excess concerns that could come with periods of weight loss or gain). Following on, we can use the smallest competitions as a chance to perform under sub-optimal conditions (trying to see what you can manage after a period of weight loss, for example, or seeing how well you can perform after a heavy period of accumulated fatigue, without the adequate time to peak). You could also use these as a chance to try out strategies such as water-cutting & re-composition, or maybe even a different training method altogether (best advice is to try this when in maintenance, so there’s less variables in play).
So, in an ideal world, this is how we could structure our nutrition to make the most out of a competitive schedule. However, we rarely have an ideal world, and must instead deal with the real world, which will have competitions & lots of other things that can throw spanners into works. While shorter-term & more immediate issues can only really be dealt with by making the most of a bad situation there & then. However, with a long-term plan & a full calendar of events usually available to us with plenty notice, we can look at the schedule, prioritise what events we need to, and make optimum use of our time. Below, you’ll see 2 different yearly schedules & 2 unique goals to coincide with them, and how I would advise making the best use of the time.
|–||SITUATION 1||SITUATION 2|
|JAN||Nat. Champs (wk. 4) Main||Main|
|MARCH||Bulk||College Comp (wk. 3) Cut|
|APRIL||Single Lift (wk. 2) Bulk||Cut|
|MAY||Main||Nat Qualifier (wk. 4) Main|
|JUNE||Cut||2 wk.Cut, 2 wk.Main|
|JULY||Euro Champs (wk. 4) Cut||Cut|
|AUGUST||Cut||Local Single (wk.2) Cut|
|SEPT||Local Meet (wk. 4) Main||Main|
|OCT||Bulk||World Champs (wk. 3) Main|
|NOV||Bulk 2wks, Main 2wks||Bulk|
|DEC||World Champs (wk. 4) Main||Bulk|
Here, we have a lifter who is currently in the mid to upper range of his weight class, looking to optimise his composition within these parameters. His main competitions are a National-Level Championship, where winning his category & hitting the national & international qualifiers would bring him a place in the upcoming European Championships, and qualification would take place here with numbers that aren’t too far out of his reach at all. His main aim is the World Championships at the end of the year, the last week of December i.e. New Year’s Eve (imagine the party after that one!). Between these we have 2 smaller competitions; a Single Lift (where he has chosen to really target his lagging Bench & could-do-with-improvement Squat by adding some more muscle to his weak areas (general upper body & quads) and a Local Meet where he has chosen to practice a water-loading strategy he has been eyeing up. Finally, he plans on using the September to Mid-November period to accumulate a high level of fatigue & tapering his plan to enable him to peak to the best of his abilities come Worlds (aka planned over-reaching / peaking).
So, he is recommended to do the following:
– January is spent in Maintenance, to establish a set point to work off. Also, he wants the least distractions from training & qualifying at the National Comp.
– February, March & April are spent adding some quality muscle to his frame. The single lift competition is going on during this time but it is of low priority so we aren’t too concerned about this.
– The month of May is spent in Maintenance to establish a new set point & cement all he has gained thus far.
– June through August are spent in a deficit/cut, to bring him back under his weight limit & lose some fat in order to make room for more muscle to be added later in the year. Now, a competition exists in this time period, a higher-priority one at that, so care is definitely needed to prevent injury, but luckily the athlete is already capable of hitting the international (European & world) qualification requirements at the very first comp of the year, so his main aim is to refine his technique over this time and just hit the qualifiers at the European level. Boring, undoubtedly, but a patient approach, and if there is more in the tank on the day that wouldn’t hinder his recovery or raise injury potential, by all means go for it.
– Another month of Maintenance occurs in September, to establish a new leaner set point. In week 4 of September exists a fun, local competition, where he plans on trying out a water-loading strategy to see how it works for him. This meet is purely used as practice for the big show later in the year, so no major stresses are to be incurred; jut refining the water-cutting & replenishment process. The athlete is now back to mid-table in his class similar to January, but with more muscle and less fat.
– The October to mid-November period is used to incur an enormous level of fatigue, to create a supercompensatory (over-reaching/peaking) effect come worlds. Here, the calories are upped and the training consists of a well-planned, high volume of specific strength work, to get the most potential out of the new muscle & refined technique. A higher volume than the athlete is normally able for, but can reap the rewards thanks to the increased calories & time to peak before the World comp
– And here we are, the headline act. Prep for Worlds. Here, a maintenance diet is employed so as to establish another set point of more muscle, whilst helping to peak optimally for the day & lastly take away a deal of worries – he won’t have to worry about being under or over his class; he’ll be sitting pretty and ready to reap the rewards of a serious peak.
Here we have an athlete who is in the lower range of a weight class he is not very competitive in (carries more body fat than he would like) but also knows he would out-perform the leaders in the class below him. Now, the main aim of the year will be aiming to maintain his competition best whilst at an ever-decreasing weight, and improving technical efficiency. Boring, but if this is your goal then all the power to you. There exists a lower-priority collegiate comp in the 3rd week of March, a National Qualifier in the last weekend of May, a local competition in the 2nd week of August, and the World Championships in the 3rd week of October. So in this scenario, the reccomend plan would be: A month of maintenance in January (re: Set Points)
– February, March & April are spent in a deficit/cut phase. Whilst there is a low-priority competition in this phase, the aim here would to be to try and go for high but not maximal numbers; 95% or more, but simply whatever is manageable on the day. Honestly, this competition could even be skipped altogether and equal or more benefit could occur; pick your battles. A water-manipulation strategy could be employed/practiced here, but care must be taken to properly recompose for this on the day, given the already-diminished recovery present in a calorie deficit. Again, this is low-priority, so it’s not worth getting hurt for.
– May would be spent in a maintenance month. With the National qualifying comp at the end of this month, work would be made to recover adequately, establish a new set point, and provide good conditions to perform at the higher-priority competition, maybe even set new personal bests if done well. A light level of water-manipulation would be employed to bring the athlete to just about where they need to be (imagine getting to 74.8 in a sub-75kg category). Qualifiers are met, and no unnecessary stress is to be incurred.
– A 10 week further deficit/cut would be employed (shortened to best avoid any major muscle loss; things have been pushed far as is) which would finish with the athlete competing in a local, low-priority competition, simply to give them an idea of what their absolute minimum performance level is; i.e. what they can achieve after 2 long calorie deficits, and at the immediate end of one of those too. Once again, care is taken to ensure no harm is done; it’s not worth it. Here, we would work up to maybe 90-95% at the most, and call it a day with whatever we can comfortably manage.
– So now we reach the run-up to the world competition. Weight has been comfortably reached, the athlete is as muscular as he was in the higher class but with far less fat to hinder his co-efficient. So, to be in best condition for Worlds, a maintenance phase not only cements our new-found improvements but also serves to help best fuel strength training in the run up to the end goal. Training here could resemble standard strength training/tapering due to the improved recovery, or if the athlete has become used to strength training under such a lessened state over the whole year, some over-reaching/peaking could be employed to get some fantastic results on the day. As for performance on the day? Go hell for leather. They’ll have held back enough all year; time to go hard or go home.
– Once the competitive season is finished, the athlete could go into a welcome change to schedule; a well-needed hypertrophy phase to pack some solid muscle onto that new, leaner frame. There are many benefits to the timing and placement of a gaining phase here: After such a long time training in a calorie-deprived state, along with the stress of multiple competitions throughout the year & a MASSIVE world competition to top it off, introducing a phase of gaining can be a fresh stimulus that ends up building more muscle than usual & in a quicker time to boot, due to the boosted recovery capability & the supercompensation that’s likely to occur after all of this. The body will be so used to losing weight that gaining weight will be such a big, fresh stimulus after all of that. Plus, a time spent gaining weight will help freshen the body to the process of losing weight once again & make it more effective (remember what we spoke about regarding repeated exposure to the same stimulus & how it becomes less effective over time). The time period here is November & December, which in the happiest of coincidences, plays beautifully into the Christmas period. If you follow a year structured like this, believe me, you’ll have earned a Christmas feast.
It is worth mentioning however, that as realistic as some of these situations appear, life as we know doesn’t exactly go to plan, from one day to another let alone over a whole year. It’s the best explanation I could find for arranging a year’s schedule & making the best use of it, but if problems arise or situations change, just try your best to do your best, and use your judgement to make the best of your predicament. And if all should fall around you, and maybe your competitive schedule drops off the face of the earth, then provided you’re still able to train, why not see out the plan you had worked so hard to devise? The initial reward may not be there, but now there’ll be less stress & absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Hard work will always stand to you.
So that about wraps it up for this massive piece that quite frankly started out innocently as a “moderately-sized” piece of light reading. I hope it’s been informative; every attempt was made to make it as clear & comprehensive as I could. Its likely gaps will still exist and questions arise, so for any help, please do not be afraid to ask. Ill provide a link to my own work, along with further recommended reading on all of the above; sources that do a far better job at explaining & educating than I ever could. But for now, thanks for reading.
Yours in Strength,
- The Precision Nutrition range by John Berardi, an exceptional source on building successful, healthy habits. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/
- The Renaissance Diet by Dr. Mike Israetel (with Dr. Jennifer Case & Dr. James Hoffman , a fantastic piece on the finer details of dieting along with explanations & the place of everything in context within the grander scheme. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/shop/the-renaissance-diet/
- Renaissance Woman, by Dr. Jennifer Case, Dr. Mike Israetel & Dr. Melissa Davis; a follow-on from the seminal piece above, but catered specifically towards the female athlete. Featuring an exceptional section on the psychological elements at play. Honestly, for this section, I cannot recommend it enough. https://renaissanceperiodization.com/shop/renaissance-woman/
- And lastly, a link to the main contact page of yours truly, for any further queries that I’d be only happy to answer: https://www.facebook.com/davidgagnonnutrition/