Think back since you’ve started training: How many sets and reps articles have you read? And going beyond that, how many have you actually tried? The truth is that everyone is looking for the bullet-proof training regimen, guaranteed to put X amount of pounds on your frame or your lifts. What if I told you that what you did OUTSIDE of the gym was just as, if not more important, than what you do in it…would that get your attention? The truth is that if you train 4 days per week, you are only spending 8 hours of your week in the gym. So the question is this: What are you doing with the 160 hours per week you AREN’T in the gym?
Iron Evolution is based on a new ideal; that strength athletes don’t have to be thought of as fat, overweight, out of shape, inflexible, etc. This article series is designed to help you better understand the other factors that play into your training and lifting performance, and how you can make them work in your favor. This first article will discuss nutrition and how proper diet can affect and improve your performance.
Before I delve into specific diet tips, you need to understand the building blocks of nutrition, and that’s the macronutrients. The macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates and fats. Below is a brief synopsis of the role each macronutrient plays:
- Protein – Protein is the building block for all tissue in the body: Bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles and organs are all built using protein. Proteins are built using individual amino acids, and amino acids are classified in one of two categories: Essential and non-essential.
- Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source by your muscles and central nervous system (CNS). Carbohydrates are the most energy-efficient fuel source, meaning it’s relatively easy for your body to breakdown and use carbs as energy. Carbs can be broken down into two categories: Starches/complex carbs and simple sugars.
- Fats – Fats are an alternative fuel source, and they also synthesize and produce hormones. Fats are classified by their saturation level and can be categorized as follows: Monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, saturated and trans fats.
Now that you have a basic idea of the role each macronutrient plays, let’s examine each one more closely and see how you can improve your selection of each.
As stated previously, protein is the macronutrient that helps us build and repair tissue in the body. Animal products are generally regarded as the best source of protein since they contain all the essential amino acids. Grains that contain protein do not have all the essential aminos, and therefore must be mixed with another source to form a complete protein (e.g. rice and beans can be mixed in a meal to get a complete protein). With that being said, the majority of our proteins should come from lean animal products. Below are just a few options you can choose from next time you go to the supermarket:
- Fish (salmon, cod, and tuna are all good choices)
- Lean red meat
Beyond the whole foods that you eat, you also need to consider getting your protein in the form of a supplement. Unless you want to be eating a big protein meal every 2-3 hours throughout the day, a supplement will be an integral part of your daily diet. A product that contains casein (the protein found in milk) is usually a good choice, as it tends be absorbed and utilized slowly, keeping you in a positive nitrogen balance for a longer period of time.
In recent years carbohydrates have taken a beating in the mass media. It seems like everywhere you go, restaurants, supermarkets and the like are all offering
low-carb meals or foods. Certain fast food chains are even offering low-carb burgers with the meat wrapped in-between two pieces of lettuce! I’m here to tell you that carbohydrates are not as bad as some would have you believe, and that low carb diets over the long term are not the best option for strength athletes.
First of all, carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for not only your muscles but your central nervous system as well. Below, I’ve outlined the difference between complex carbs/starches and simple carbs.
Starches/Complex Carbs – Starches/complex carbs are made up of long, complex chains of many sugars. When referring to complex carbs, we are often alluding to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Complex carbs are a much better choice when compared to simple sugars, simple because they supply your body with more vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Simple Carbs – Simple carbs are very short chains or single sugars. When referring to simple carbs, we are often talking about pop, candy, or sweetened foods. For the most part, simple carbs should not be a mainstay in your diet because they are low in nutrient density (e.g. there isn’t much bang for your buck with regard to nutritional value).
Now that I’ve discussed the difference between complex and simple carbs, let’s discuss some good options to include in your diet. First of all, you want to eat carbs that are low on the insulin (II) and glycemic indices (GI). When you take in a lot of high glycemic/high insulin carbs you promote the release of insulin, which helps to clear excess glucose from the bloodstream. Insulin is like a gas pedal; anytime insulin is introduced to your blood stream it speeds everything up. The first option is to store this glucose as muscle or liver glycogen, but when those stores are topped off the next option is to store it in your friendly fat cells! Obviously if you are reading this you are probably already satisfied with your fat cell content and if anything you would probably like to reduce it. But what are some good options of GI/II carbs?
The first part of this answer is to eat carbs that are made of whole grains; pretty much all the white pastas and flours you’ve been eating for years are high on the GI/II scales. Luckily for all of us, however, we are getting more and more products that are made using whole grains, and that’s what you need to start eating. Hodgson Mill is an excellent brand which makes 100% whole grain spaghetti, lasagna, noodles, and flour. If you are in doubt, learn to read the nutrition labels: The first ingredient should always be 100% whole wheat or 100% whole grain. Also, beware of the word bleached…basically this means that the product was stripped of all its natural nutrients and the producer put back in what he thought you needed!
Another part of the answer is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Both of these are loaded with vitamins and minerals that your body needs, along with being an excellent source of fiber as well. Many people have tried to bad-mouth fruits in the past saying that they will make you fat like any other carbohydrate, but the main sugar in fruits (fructose) doesn’t produce the same type of rapid insulin response that glucose does. In case you are still leery of eating fruits, here are some low II/GI fruits you can incorporate into your diet:
- Fresh peaches
- Fresh pears
Our final carbohydrate recommendation is to get more fiber in your diet. According to the The American Dietetic Association’s website (www.eatright.org), the daily goal for fiber intake is 20-35 grams per day. If this doesn’t sound like a lot, write down all the fiber you take in on an average day to find out your intake. The ADA goes on to state that the average American is only taking in 12-17 grams per day, or roughly half the recommended amount. Fiber not only decreases the insulin response when you eat food, but it also helps with gut motility and decreases your chances of developing colon cancer. Eating more whole grains and fruits/veggies alone will significantly increase your fiber intake, so strive to include more of each in your diet.
While carbs are the whipping boy of the 90’s and new millennium, fats were avoided like the plague in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It wasn’t too long ago that every product was labeled as
reduced-fat. Everyone was jumping on the bandwagon at a rapid pace to get with the newest diet fad, even if it meant stuffing your face with yummy treats like rice cakes! Only in recent years have the positive roles of fats in diet been understood. When discussing fats, we need to break them down into the different types as classified by their saturation level (it is also possible to classify them based on chain length, shape and structure, but that’s beyond the scope of this article).
Saturated fats have no double bonds; e.g. they have the maximum number of hydrogen atoms and are usually solid at room temperature. Saturated fat has often gotten a bad rap for several reasons such as raising bad cholesterol levels (LDL) as well as total cholesterol, increasing your risk of heart disease. However, more current literature seems to shower that it’s not quite as dangerous as they once thought. The key is to get the majority of your saturated fat from your animal proteins (like lean red meat) and not from poor food choices such as chips, fried foods, etc. Below are some examples of saturated fat:
- – Animal proteins (listed above)
- – Butter
- – Whole milk
Monounsaturated fats contain only one double bond. Unlike saturated fats, monos are liquid at room temperature. Monounsaturated fats are beneficial because they may help lower LDL levels, thus reducing the risk of heart disease. Below are some examples of monounsaturated fats:
- – Olive oil
- – Canola oil
Polyunstaurated fats contain more than one double bond and are similar to monos in the fact that they are liquid at room temperature. When discussing polyunsaturated fats, we must also mention the Omega fatty acids, and even more specifically the Omega-3’s. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, meaning that we must EAT THEM to enjoy their benefits. Some of the benefits of Omega-3’s include it being a natural anti-inflammatory, as well as being anti-catabolic (muscle wasting).Below are a few examples of polyunsaturated fats. Beyond these benefits, polyunsaturated fats in general are similar to monos in that they help decrease LDL levels. Below are a few examples of polyunsaturated fats:
- – Salmon (and other fish oils)
- – Flaxseed oil
- – Walnut oil
Trans-fats are probably the worst type of fat you can put into your body. Trans fats are mono or poly unsaturated fats that the producer has actually ADDED hydrogen atoms (e.g. hydrogenation) to give the product more taste. In essence, this is usually a man-made fat that has no nutritional value whatsoever (all though do occur naturally in some animal products such as dairy products). Trans fats are especially bad because they have a tendency to lower good cholesterol levels (HDL) and increase LDL levels as well: A double-whammy! One benefit for us, as consumers, is that with the increased awareness as to how bad trans-fats are for us, more and more producers are removing them from their products. Just make sure to read the label and know what you are consuming! General Nutrition Tips
Tip #1 – Eat a Balanced Diet (No Extremes!)
While this may not sound like much of a tip, you’d be surprised how many people actually don’t follow it! One of the keys to consistently getting stronger and putting on muscle is feeding your body appropriately. By eating a well-rounded and nutritious diet, you ensure that your body has the essential tools to build itself bigger and stronger after each and every training session. Very low-carb diets, on the one hand, don’t provide sufficient energy for most train intensely. If you can’t train intensely, how are you going to get stronger? On top of that carbs are the preferred fuel source of your central nervous system, and that’s why people on very low-carb diets refer to getting the ‘blahs’ where they aren’t as mentally sharp as they would like to be. On the other hand, very low-fat diets are usually VERY high in carbohydrates, and we all know where those excess carbohydrates are stored! Beyond that, fats are essential in the production of hormones and mono and polyunsaturated fats are also very beneficial in lowering the risk of heart disease. But what is a balanced diet, you may ask? Again, it comes back to eating plenty of lean meats and protein, fruits, veggies, whole grains, and good amounts of mono and polyunsaturated fats: These choices should make up 90% of your diet. I really don’t believe in giving strict macronutrient breakdowns because everyone is individual and needs to try different things to see what works best for them.
Some current literature is also finding that there are added body composition benefits if you break your meals into two types:
- Meals that contain proteins and fats, and
- Meals that contain proteins and carbohydrates
For those of you who are interested in how specific meal programming can improve your body composition and performance, I highly recommend you check out John Berardi’s website at www.johnberardi.com. Not only are there plenty of articles regarding nutrition, but also quite a bit of practical advice on meal planning, improving diet, etc.
For those of you looking to lose weight, a reduction in carbs may be in order. To make things simple, water binds to glycogen so when you use up that glycogen you also shed water. Especially pre-contest you may have to cut some carbs out to shed those excess pounds, but I wouldn’t recommend anything extreme. Just as a side note, anytime you decrease your carbs you need to increase your protein intake as well. In a reduced carb state the body will begin to break down muscle tissue to use as fuel, so giving it that extra protein will reduce any muscle loss that may occur.
Tip #2 – Set an Eating Schedule
If you’ve been training for an extended period of time, you probably have a set time of day you train and your body is used to it. The more engrained your schedule is, the better your body can respond and consistently perform at an optimal level.
It’s the same way with your diet; you need to set a consistent eating schedule and stick to it. Plan your meals and snacks approximately 2-3 hours apart and eat at the same time every day. This will allow your body to adapt and make the most of your nutritional program. Obviously you don’t want to eat a full meal at each setting, so strive to eat 4 meals per day, and then mix in 2 or 3 more
meals that consist of protein shakes, snacks, etc.
Tip #3 – Increase Protein and Total Kcal
Most trainees, whether they want to gain OR lose weight, could benefit from increasing both their protein intake as well as the total caloric intake. First of all, protein uses the most energy to be digested of all the macronutrients, so eating it will also cause a concomitant increase in calories expended. Protein should also be consumed in EVERY meal throughout the day. This will help keep the body in a positive nitrogen balance and give it the building blocks to make your body bigger and stronger.
Increasing total calories may seem obvious for someone trying to gain weight, but what about someone trying to lose weight? Often when people are cutting, they keep eating less and less; but instead of losing weight, they are staying about the same. The sad fact is that the body becomes extremely efficient in storing and utilizing energy in a depleted state. The answer is to eat (especially protein) to kick your metabolism into high gear. If anything you want to make your body inefficient (e.g. burning more calories than it’s taking in).
Tip #4 – Eat a good Breakfast
Breakfast (along with the post-workout shake) is arguably the most important meal of the day. Now, please note that I said eat a GOOD breakfast! Rolling out of bed and slamming a Mountain Dew and some cold pizza does not count. Eating a good breakfast is extremely important because your body has been in a fasted state for up to 10 hours and needs nourishment. Not only does it give you energy to start your day, but it also gets your metabolism up and running.
But what is a good breakfast, you may ask? Here is one of my personal favorites. I start off with four egg whites plus one yolk; you can either scramble the eggs or make an omelette. Cut up a 3 or 4 oz. chicken breast and add it in the mix; if this isn’t quite enough flavor you can add in a pinch of shredded cheese that’s made with 2% milk. On the side, you can have a piece of dry whole wheat toast and some sliced up fruit to give you a nice mix of protein, fat and carbs to start your day off right!
You can’t mention sports nutrition today without also talking about supplements. Below is a brief synopsis of the most popular supplements in the strength training world today.
Creatine phosphate is stored in your muscle cells and is the primary energy source for brief, intense exercise. Your creatine stores are depleted 6-10 seconds after the initiation of exercise, so while it’s an excellent source of short term energy, it doesn’t have much staying power. The science behind creatine seems to indicate that by topping off our body’s creatine stores, we are allowed to train longer and heavier. Creatine is also one of the most widely researched supplements, having been proven effective in over 700 peer reviewed studies published to date.
Along with breakfast, the post-workout shake is arguably the most important meal of the training day. After you have trained hard and heavy, your muscles are torn down, your glycogen stores depleted, and your body in serious need of some performance nutrition. This is the perfect time to give it what it needs: A post-workout cocktail, precisely made to get your body on the road to recovery!
Current literature states that a liquid post-workout cocktail composed of .8 g/kg high GI carbohydrates (such as dextrose or maltodextrin) mixed with .4 g/kg of a fast acting protein (preferably whey) is the ideal drink. Now some of you may be thinking: Wait…he told us that I should only eat low GI/II carbs, what gives? This is the exception to the rule; you see insulin is a double-edged sword, but you have to remember it speeds up the storage of nutrients in the bloodstream. By using a fast acting carb and protein source following exercise, the body is more readily
accepting to store those nutrients in an efficient manner. In other words, the carbs will be stored as glycogen and the protein will be shuttled to the muscles. You must always remember that the body is smarter than we think, and after exercise it wants to use the nutrition you give it to rebuild itself bigger and stronger for the next training session.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are two supplements that have gained momentum over the last couple of years. While glucosamine and chondroitin are two individual supplements, they are typically packaged together because they both provide different benefits. Glucosamine is used to promote the formation and repair of cartilage, while chondroitin is used to promote water retention, increase the elasticity of cartilage and inhibit enzymes that break down cartilage. A typically recommended dosage is 1.5 grams of glucosamine and 1.2 grams of chondoitin per day. If you are someone who has weak connective tissue, suffers from arthritis or joint pain, or simply want to protect yourself from these things in the future glucosamine and chondroitin could be an excellent supplement to add to your arsenal.
The two main Omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA, which I discussed briefly earlier. The benefits of EPA and DHA on heart disease are numerous; just some of the benefits include increases in HDL (heart healthy) cholesterol, lowering triglycerides and helping prevent heart disease in general. Beyond the benefits to your heart, EPA/DHA taken regularly can also increase your insulin sensitivity, aid in joint lubrication, and play a role as a natural anti-inflammatory. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (such as Advil) have come under fire lately because while they do the job, it’s also been noted that they often slow down your body’s natural ability to heal itself. EPA/DHA is a more natural supplement that allows your body to heal itself while naturally reducing inflammation. Trainees who suffer from joint pain or arthritis could see benefits from supplementing with 2 grams of EPA/DHA 3 times per day.
The jury is still out on the role of antioxidants with regards to exercise. Anytime you train, you are using more oxygen and therefore releasing free radicals into your body. The sole purpose of free radicals is to wreak havoc on your body, so many trainees supplement with antioxidants to negate the free radicals. While I think this is important, I feel that supplementing with antioxidants is more important for keeping the immune system healthy and functional. Nothing can halt your progress quicker than being laid up for a week with a cold or the flu. The most well understood antioxidants are Vitamins C, E and beta carotene, with selenium also getting some press in recent years.
Not a whole lot needs to be said here. If you aren’t eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet then you need to start! However, a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral can help you cover all your bases, so to speak.
This article is just a nice preview when it comes to the wide world of nutrition, so if you would like to delve deeper into this field, please check out John Berardi’s website at www.johnberardi.com. John is a true expert in the field of sports nutrition, and his ideas have heavily influenced how I look at and apply nutrition to improving sports performance.
In this first installment of Iron Evolution, I hope I’ve shed some light on the fact that diet and nutrition are an extremely important part of the training process. The hard truth of the matter is that if you aren’t eating well and supplementing your diet as needed, you won’t perform at an optimal level. Whether you are a powerlifter, Olympic weightlifter, strongman competitor or just someone who wants to get stronger and look better, taking control of your diet can be a huge key in your success!
About the Author:
Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]