Ultimate Guide to Nutrition for Strength Training
Food is fuel.
Just as a car converts gasoline into energy, your body uses the food you eat as fuel for activity.
The quality of your fuel dictates your performance. You cannot expect premium performance if you’re supplying your body with subpar fuel.
We can determine the quality of fuel our body receives by looking at our macronutrient consumption.
Macronutrients (or “macros” for short) are, by definition, “substances required in relatively large amounts by living organisms”. In the human diet, the three primary macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrate. Each macronutrient provides energy, but each one serves a different purpose.
Protein provides four calories per gram. Proteins are made up of amino acids; there are nine amino acids which we consider “essential”, because our bodies cannot make them on their own - they must come from our diet. Proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass.
Fats provide nine calories per gram - the most of any macronutrient. Fats do not make you “fat” - they are essential for fuel, protecting your organs, and, of most interest to strength training, regulating production of hormones like testosterone.
Carbohydrates provide four calories per gram. The body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose, which can easily be used for energy - or saved in muscle and fat stores for later use.
“My friend said I need to be eating low-fat and high-carb to get strong. But everyone seems to be talking about low-carb diets nowadays. Which one am I supposed to do?”
You’re not going to like this answer. But I also don’t like lying to you, so, I’ll be honest:
It depends, and I don’t know.
Some people cannot function without carbohydrates. Others, like Dr. Dominic D’Agostino, are able to deadlift 500 pounds for 10 reps after fasting for a week and following a ketogenic (low/no-carb) diet.
We simply haven’t discovered why some diets work well for some people, yet cause other people problems.
The only way to figure out what will work best for you is to experiment. Try out a low-carb diet for a month and see how you perform. Try a “zone” diet (where you consume all three macronutrients in equal or near-equal volume), or a high-carb diet, and see what happens. The important thing is to 1) take quality notes and 2) keep other factors (stress, sleep) as constant as possible.
As long as you are eating enough calories (more on that in a sec), you will be ok as you experiment with finding the right macronutrient ratio that works for you.
When we are building strength, we not only need quality calories, but we’ll need to increase the quantity of our calories as well.
Your body burns a certain amount of calories to perform the basic functions that keep you alive: breathing, circulating blood, controlling body temperature, and so on. All of these functions require energy - in the form of calories. This is known as your basal metabolic rate.
Strength training adds a new stressor to your body. On top of keeping you alive, it must now devote energy (calories) to functions such as repairing muscles and restoring glycogen, not to mention slinging heavy-ass weights around several times each week.
If you do not supply your body with adequate calories, it does not have enough energy to recover from your workouts - let alone to become stronger. Instead, it will continue to shunt what energy it has to basic functions, leaving you gassed for your workout and stalling on your lifts.
“Sounds great. How do I figure out how much to eat?”
Pick an amount, any amount. 2000 calories is a nice, round number. Weigh yourself in the morning after using the restroom. Then, eat 2000 calories per day for a week straight. Weigh yourself at the end of the week.
Did you lose weight? Repeat this, but eat 2200 calories per day.
Rinse and repeat until you DON’T gain or lose weight.
This is the amount of calories per day you should consume. Keep in mind that we’ll have to adjust this number over time as your strength training progresses.
You may have caught on to this by now, but in case you haven’t: you need to count calories while trying to gain strength. Many people who think they eat “a ton” really only bring in 1800 - 2000 calories per day. You’d be surprised at how little you’re actually eating until you start recording it.
1 - What to Eat
Macros - Amounts
Protein: aim for a minimum of 1 gram protein per pound bodyweight per day. So, if you weigh 170 lbs, you’ll want to consume 170g of protein. For optimal results, you may need 1.5x grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day.
Protein is the most important macronutrient to building strength.
Honestly, the ratio for fats and carbohydrates doesn’t matter. Find what works for you. Just make sure you’re eating more than you burn off.
Macros - Food Sources
Here are good food sources for each of the three macronutrients. These foods should make up the bulk of your diet.
Protein: chicken breasts, chicken thighs, steak, ground beef, seafood (tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines), yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, protein powder.
Fats: Steak, eggs, seafood (good source of quality fat), avocado, nuts (almonds, walnuts), extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter.
Carbohydrates: Vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli, romaine lettuce), fruits (blueberries, strawberries, oranges, bananas, pineapples, apples, beans/legumes/lentils (also decent in protein), sweet potatoes, potatoes, quinoa, rice, oats
2- How Often, and When, To Eat
Now that we know what to eat, let’s talk about meal timing.
Since you’re consuming more calories than usual, you are going to need to expand your eating window.
I don’t recommend using something like intermittent fasting, unless you’re the type that can consume 1000+ calories in one meal and do it again in 3-4 hours.
Assuming that ISN’T you, you’re going to want an eating schedule along the lines of:
- Snack #1
- Snack #2
The time of day doesn’t matter. Spread it out however works best for you. The important part is bringing in enough calories to repair your muscles to recover enough in time for your next workout.
“Should I eat pre-workout?”
For optimal performance, yes. Consuming proper amounts of protein and carbs helps reduce muscle damage, increase muscle size, and improves your training.
“Ok, great, so how when should I eat before training?”
In my opinion, 2-3 hours before training.
Some people prefer an hour or even 30 minutes before. Which is fine, if it works for you I guess, but - eating this close to your workout leaves little time for digestion. You’re going to active your parasympathetic nervous system - the “rest and digest” functions that aren’t optimal for athletic performance.
If you’re going to eat this close to your workout, make it something liquid, like a protein smoothie.
The other issue with eating this close to a workout - it will blunt absorption of your pre-workout and effectively render it useless.
So, ideally, eat 2-3 hours before training. Go for moderate-high protein, moderate-high carb, and low fat. Stick with low-GI carbs (vegetables, beans/legumes, some fruits) versus high-GI carbs (juice, candy, potatoes, white bread, short-grain rice) - consuming too many high-GI carbs this far from your workout will cause a blood sugar spike before you hit the gym.
Here’s a sample pre-workout meal I’ll consume 2-3 hours before training:
- 8 ounces chicken breast (240 calories, 5g fat, 0g carbs, 44g protein)
- 1 cup black beans (110 calories, 1g fat, 19g carbs, 7 g protein)
- 1 cup spinach (neglible)
- ⅛ cup walnuts (100 calories, 10g fat, 2g carbs, 2.5g protein)
- 1 cup blueberries
- ½ tablespoon olive oil
“Do I need to eat or drink anything during my workout?”
Well, maybe. Some claim drinking a protein shake after working out doesn’t get into the bloodstream quickly enough. Some think it doesn’t matter at all. Some people believe wholeheartedly in BCAA’s.
Anecdotally - I have good success drinking a protein shake during my workout. Go with whey if you’re using a pre-workout, as it has lower levels of arginine compared to other types of protein.
But don’t sweat this too much. Drink a lot of water, eat enough each day, and you’ll be fine.
Don’t bother with sports drinks. Unless your training lasts longer than two hours (which it shouldn’t), you don’t need them.
“How soon after I workout do I need to eat? My friend told me I have a 10-minute window to take in lots of protein and carbs or I’ll lose all my gainz!”
There is no evidence that fast-digesting hydrolyzed microfiltered whatever protein are any better post-workout compared to “regular” protein powder - or whole foods high in protein.
It’s also unnecessary to stuff down a ton of fast-acting, liquid carbs (AKA sugar) immediately after your workout.
So, no, it isn’t necessary to slam back a bunch of liquid calories immediately after your workout.
It also won’t hurt - so if you want to do it, go for it! But if it isn’t convenient for you, or you prefer whole food, don’t sweat it.
The most important factor is eating a recovery meal within 2 hours of training.
I could go into all the science, but you probably know this from personal experience. I know I do. If I don’t eat within 1-2 hours after working out, my blood sugar crashes and I get real cranky and worthless.
Also, contrary to popular belief, fats won’t reduce the benefits of protein and carbohydrates post-workout. So, similar to our pre-workout meal, we’re shooting for a balanced, mixed-food plate.
Here’s a sample post-workout meal:
- 200g baked sweet potatoe (172 calories, 0g fat, 40g carbs, 3g protein)
- 10 oz sirloin steak (570 calories, 36g fat, 0g carbs, 58g protein)
- 1 cup broccoli (31 calories, 0g fat, 6g carbs, 3g protein)
- Water (a glass of wine is fine if you’re like me and feeling frisky and it's 8pm. ONE glass)
To grow and get stronger, you have to eat. Possibly more than you’ve ever eaten before.
Remember, this is a marathon, not a spring. Don’t go from barely eating two meals a day to 4000 calories per day overnight, or you’re gonna have a bad time.
Find your starting caloric needs, and work up from there. Stick to whole, nutrient-dense foods. Make sure you eat after training, but don’t stress if it isn’t within five minutes of leaving the gym. Drink lots of water.
Oh, and eat tasty food. Learn to cook. Life is way too short to eat bland meals.
“I eat 60% carbohydrates/fats/water and I’m strong AF! You are full of shit!”
Maybe. I can’t write a good that pleases literally everyone. I know from experience that the macros listed here will work for a good amount of people and that makes me satisfied. As I’ve mentioned, I 100% support self-experimentation until you find what works for you.
“Does it matter if I eat breakfast?”
No, but if you struggle to get in enough calories, you should.
“Can I drink alcohol?”
Alcohol blunts testosterone production, makes you dehydrated, makes it hard to concentrate, slows protein synthesis, and makes you tired.
Don’t over-do it. Don’t binge drink the day before you have a heavy training session unless you’re with mediocre results. Preferably, if you know you have a night of heavy drinking on the way, get your training session in BEFORE you go out.
Stay tuned for the Ultimate Guide to Supplementation for Strength Training, and our Ultimate Guide to Strength Training 6-Week Routine - coming soon!