Let’s face it: most of the quality nutrition information comes out of the bodybuilding community and is aimed at bodybuilders. And that makes sense. Nutrition plays a huge role in improving body composition. But as a strength athlete, you don’t need to eat for aesthetics.
That’s not to say strength athletes can’t learn a thing or two from their jacked and tan counterparts, because they certainly can. But at the end of the day it’s important to remember the ultimate goal. As a strength athlete you are trying to get as strong as possible, while the bodybuilder is trying to look as strong as possible.
It doesn’t matter how effective your training program is, or even how good your genetics are, nutrition is important. If you want to be as strong as possible, you need to get your nutrition dialed in. There is no room for error in your quest to be the best.
How Much Should You Eat?
Let’s start off with the basics. First: how much should you eat? Daily caloric intake and macronutrient distribution is of the utmost importance. Nutrition is a game of numbers. The key is getting the numbers to work in your favor.
The absolute worst thing to do as a strength athlete is to be one of what I call the “Chronic Dieters.” These people are on a diet every time you talk to them. They ultimately spend 75 percent of the year in a caloric deficit, often times jumping from one fad diet to the next in an attempt to get shredded.
Don’t be that person.
The typical chronic dieter complains about being a “hardgainer” and deems it nearly impossible to gain size or strength. From an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to see what the issue is. It’s impossible for anyone, regardless of genetics, to gain muscle and strength while trying to cut calories for the majority of the year. In order to build muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. The exact amount of calories in excess you are able to consume is going to depend largely on your own specific metabolic capacity.
It’s easy to underestimate how many calories you need. To get this right you need to quantify exactly how much food you need to eat. Simply saying, “eat more” is not good enough, since eating more means different things to different people.
Consuming a diet consisting of only meat and veggies is not eating big and is not optimal for building muscle. On the flip side, eating fast food all day is not optimal for strength either. We need to find a balance.
In my experience, there is nothing that provides balance like following a flexible dieting (IIFYM) approach. Keep your plan as simple as possible. Since you are not looking to optimize aesthetics we don’t need to be quite as intricate.
Step 1 – Set Total Calories: Before you do anything you need to determine caloric intake. Sixteen calories per pound of body weight will create a caloric surplus for most people. Start with 16 and increase calories from there depending on your progress. Remember, protein and carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram. Fat is 9 calories per gram.
Step 2 – Set Protein: After you figure out how many calories you need, next is to determine protein intake. The tried-and-true 1g per pound of body weight works well for most people. An argument could be made for slightly more or less depending on the circumstances, but 1g per pound of bodyweight is simple and effective. However, if you are above 25 percent body fat, 0.6-.08g per pound of bodyweight would be a more accurate intake.
Step 3 – Set Carbs and Fat: This is where the lines get blurred a little. As a strength athlete it is not going to make much of a difference how you split up your carbs and fat. They are energy nutrients and are going to be responsible for fueling your workouts. As long as you get a good balance of both (don’t go extremely low carb or low fat) you can eat as you see fit.
Some people feel better with more carbs in their diet and some feel better with more fats. The key is being honest and not trying to “force” yourself into one or the other because of some bullshit you read online. At the end of the day, eat more of what you enjoy.
Hypothetical John and His Nutrition
Here is an example of how this all plays out. Let’s take a hypothetical man named John, who weighs 180lbs. John wants to try and add a little bit of muscle. John figures out in part 1 that he needs at least 2,880 calories a day to be in a caloric surplus.
Since he weighs 180lb, he is going to shoot for 180g of protein a day:
- 180g protein x 4 cal/g = 720 calories from protein
- 2880 total calories – 720 protein calories = 2160 calories left for carbs and fat
John decides he wants an equal distribution of carbs and fats, so this is what it breaks down to:
- 2,160 left over / 2 = 1080 calories
- 1080 calories worth of carbs = 270g (1080/4 calories per gram of carb)
- 1080 calories worth of fat = 120g (1080/9 calories per gram of fat)
- John’s Macros:
- 2,880 Calories
- Protein: 180g
- Carbs: 270g
- Fat: 120g
The beauty of this approach is you only have to hit two numbers: overall calories and protein intake. Carb and fat intake can fluctuate from day to day depending on how you feel and your workout for the day, as long as protein and calorie intake remains the same.
John’s Sample Meal Plan
I’m not a big fan of meal plans. I prefer everyone track their calories and macros and eat what they want. However, I know seeing food on paper laid out in a meal plan helps it set in for some of you.
Keep in mind that this is just an example, not something you need to follow.
- Meal 1: 6 whole eggs, 1 cup oats, 1 apple
- Meal 2: 6oz chicken breast, 1 cup rice, 1 serving green vegetables, 1.5 servings almonds
- Meal 3: 1 scoop of whey protein, 1 banana, 2 tablespoons peanut butter
- Meal 4: 6oz steak, 8oz potato, large green salad, 2 tablespoons salad dressing, 1.5 servings of ice cream
Adjust the portion sizes and foods to fit your macros and preferences.
Other Factors to Consider
1. Fiber: Fiber plays a number of beneficial roles in the body. However, just because it’s “good” doesn’t necessarily mean more is better. When fiber gets up into the 80-100g+ ranges, you may start to run into gastrointestinal tract issues and malabsorption of certain micronutrients. My general fiber recommendation is 10-20 percent of total carb intake with a minimum of 20g and a maximum around 80g. If you are on a low-carb diet, shoot for higher on that range, whereas if you are on a high-carb diet, shoot for lower on the range.
2. Pre, During, and Post-Workout Nutrition: This trio is not nearly as important as the absolute daily intake of nutrients. As a strength athlete you do not need fast-digesting carbs immediately post workout. In actuality you don’t even need to eat immediately post workout. Just make sure you are consuming a mixed meal of protein and carbs a few hours or so before and after training. They can be regular meals or a shake, it doesn’t really matter.
3. Meal Timing: In addition to nutrient timing, meal timing is largely irrelevant as well. There is no real difference between consuming two meals a day or eight meals a day, as long as daily calorie and macronutrient numbers are hit. It all comes down to personal preference. Between 3-5 meals a day seems to be the sweet spot for most people.
Eat for Strength
As a strength athlete, it can be confusing trying to figure how to eat for performance. Hopefully this article cleared up a few things. For the first week or two, weigh and measure everything you eat. This will help you figure out what portion sizes look until you get comfortable estimating. At this point you can become a little less strict on weighing and measuring everything. I do highly recommend always measuring fat sources because they are so calorically dense.
Always track everything with a website or app like My Fitness Pal. If you have never tracked your food intake before, trust me – it is easier than it sounds. Don’t let the numbers scare you. Keep it simple, and you’ll see results.
More on Strength and Nutrition:
You’re Not Overtraining, You’re Under-Recovering
More on Coaching Strength Athletes:
4 Phases of a Solid Strength Program