We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat.” Assuming the axiom is true, it stands to reason that if you want to get big and strong, you have to eat with those goals in mind.
Strong Rule #1
Tomorrow’s workouts are built on today’s fuel. From a nutritional standpoint, it’s not just the day of a workout that matters. Fueling up the right way the day prior to heavy training in the gym is equally important. That’s because it takes time for the body to convert carbs from foods such as rice or potatoes into blood glucose and then glycogen, which is a form of carbs stored in muscles and used as energy when needed.
“I make sure that the day prior I have taken in enough carbs [3-4 grams per pound of bodyweight] to increase my muscle glycogen levels,” Cutler explains. “It’s all the food you eat the day before that’s going to give you energy the day after. Your diet has to be in check 24 hours before a workout.”
Strong Rule #2
If you want strength, you need carbs. The primary fuel sources your muscles use when you train heavy are creatine phosphate (which burns out after about 10-20 seconds) and muscle glycogen (which kicks in heavily after the creatine phosphate has run out, to fuel the remaining reps). So, to be strong set after set, your body requires plenty of carbohydrates, which are stored in muscle as glycogen.
You should shoot for 2-3 g of carbs per pound of bodyweight per day and as many as 4 g per pound the day before a big lift day. That’s 400-800 g of carbs for a 200-pound guy. Good sources include oatmeal, rice, potatoes, pasta and whole-grain bread.
Don’t limit carb intake to only preworkout. Kennelly who can do a 905 pound bench press consumes plenty of carbs, especially after workouts. “We go to a buffet [after training] and get all the good stuff: mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, rice,” he says. “Carbohydrate intake and protein intake are what I focus on. When I bump up my protein I can feel it in the gym strengthwise, and when I bump up my carbohydrates I can see it on the scale. High-protein, high-carb intake is a great combination for strength. That’s a little different from bodybuilding, but in powerlifting, you can eat what you want and be strong.”
Strong Rule #3
Protect your muscle mass with protein. Protein is essential for driving muscle growth. When you lift extremely heavy, protein is critical for several reasons, the most important being to protect your muscles. The heavier you lift, the more mechanical damage your muscle fibers endure, and thus the more recovery they will need. More damage and recovery actually translates to greater growth. When lifting heavy, ensure ample protein to aid recovery and further enhance muscle growth by getting in about 1.5 g per pound of bodyweight per day. That’s 300 g per day for a 200-pound bodybuilder. Good sources of quality protein include eggs, beef, poultry, fish and low-fat dairy products.
As Warren confirms, “In the morning before a workout, I’ll have my bodybuilder meal: egg whites, oatmeal and steak. For the next meal, I’ll have some turkey, some beef and potatoes. The third meal of the day is basically the same as the second, and then I train.”
Strong Rule #4
Dietary fat in moderate doses can be your friend. Unsaturated and saturated fats are important for bodybuilders and powerlifters for several reasons. Research shows that athletes who maintain higher fat intake, particularly saturated fat, have higher testosterone levels than those who eat lower-fat diets. Beef, which contains high-quality protein, is also a great source of saturated fat.
The health benefits of the unsaturated type of fat are numerous, plus it can help you stay lean and assist in joint recovery from the stress of workouts. Good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats are olive oil, mixed nuts, avocados and peanut butter.
For essential omega-3 fats, choose fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and white tuna, or other foods such as flaxseed oil and walnuts. Many trainers, like Heath, get their omega-3s at the sushi bar. “Offseason, it’s OK for me to go eat a ton of sushi with white rice,” he admits. Aim to get about 30% of your total daily calories from fat, and 10% of those calories from saturated fat.
Strong Rule #5
Load up on calories. There’s no way around this one: you need ample calories each day to power heavy workouts. As long as you follow the previous four rules, you should hit your mark of about 20 calories per pound of bodyweight, or 4,000 calories for a 200-pound man.
You need to eat more calories than you burn. Otherwise, your body will enter starvation mode, which doesn’t allow for adequate muscle regeneration and growth. “I’ve been changing up my eating habits, still sticking with mainly clean foods but trying to eat a little differently,” Heath says. “I want to be less restrictive and get more calories while I can in the offseason.”
Strong Rule #6
Chow down frequently. One way to make sure you’re taking in enough calories is to eat many times per day at relatively regular intervals. This will keep your metabolism and energy-producing mechanisms working consistently. When training for a big powerlifting competition, Kennelly says he would “eat every two hours,” which meant as many as nine meals a day. That kind of schedule may be excessive for an average bodybuilder, but a minimum of five or six meals a day (spaced out no more than every three hours) should be doable.
“Offseason, I eat five bodybuilding meals a day,” Warren says. “Eating that frequently not only ensures you get in adequate calories, but it keeps your body fueled, supplies amino acids to your muscle fibers continually, and keeps your metabolism running at full speed.”
Strong Rule #7
Eat before you hit the weights. Consider the meal you eat prior to training to be an insurance policy. It is your last chance to adequately fuel your body before the big effort to follow. Right before training, protein is the most critical nutrient, as it will help prevent your existing muscle mass from being broken down for fuel. It will also stimulate muscle growth immediately after the workout. Many guys choose a whey protein shake before workouts, as it is the most convenient form of protein and the most easily digested.
Other bodybuilders prefer whole foods before workouts. When Cutler was asked what he eats beforehand, he answered, “Definitely beef. I usually have egg whites for breakfast, and then my second meal [before training] is some kind of red meat.” Aim for about 20-40 g of protein before workouts, either in the form of a protein shake or a whole-food meal.
Strong Rule #8
Eat after you hit the weights. Immediately after your workout, you must refuel with fast-digesting protein and carbs. The protein will provide your muscles with an immediate source of amino acids for building muscle protein, and the carbs will restock depleted muscle glycogen stores, blunt the release of cortisol (a catabolic hormone) and boost your levels of the anabolic hormone insulin. Insulin drives nutrients like glucose, amino acids and even creatine into muscle cells, and also kick-starts the molecular processes that turn amino acids (from a protein shake) into muscle.
Postworkout, your best bet is 40 g of protein in the form of a shake, along with 60-100 g of carbs from sources such as dextrose, maltodextrin, Vitargo or sugar. You can also obtain fast-digesting carbs from white bread, plain bagels or white potatoes.
Strong Rule #9
Cut the junk food. When asked what foods he stays away from, Warren is quick to answer: junk food. “For me personally, if I eat junk food, I don’t feel good. I feel sluggish and tired. That’s why the first four or five meals of the day are good meals. If I do eat something bad, that’s just my mental break; I’ll only do that at night.”
Calories are important, as we state in rule number five, but they shouldn’t come from low-quality foods like candy, chips, pizza or French fries. Such foods pack an overabundance of what are often referred to as “empty calories,” which provide sugars and fats with little if any redeeming nutrients. Many contain trans fats, which are not only associated with cardiovascular disease, but also can limit muscle growth and encourage muscle breakdown. Although a fast-digesting carb like sugar is good after a workout, it’s horrible any other time of day for the same reason it increases insulin levels. Boosting insulin while at rest encourages fat storage and leads to pangs of hunger and drops in energy.
A particular problem is high-fructose corn syrup muscles can’t use fructose for fuel, so it’s sent to the liver where it is converted to glycogen. Once the glycogen levels of the liver are full, fructose is converted into bodyfat.
If we were to add a 10th rule to this list, it would be this: be consistent in following the other nine rules. Don’t go wrong by being inconsistent. Sometimes the inconsistency is in missing training days here or there; but more often, it’s in nutrition, where a lack of focus can put you off-track in a hurry. You can’t eat great one day and then poorly for two and expect to get stronger and build muscle.
Crafting a better and more powerful physique requires more than one great workout or a few random days of perfectly balanced, perfectly timed meals. It takes the complete execution of your training and nutrition plan, day after day, week after week. That type of consistency is what built the champions we quoted in this article, and it can work for you, too.