By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, Starting Strength Staff, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
Updated 01/26/2015: Finally, I have updated what has been the most viewed blog post on this website. This has been a long time coming, mainly to incorporate some changes as to how my thinking has evolved over two years as well as update some of the formulas, charts, and links. In any event, I appreciate everyone who has read, shared, and learned anything from this post. Finally, I should give credit where credit is due. My good friend Cory B. generated the phrase “To be a beast, you have to eat like a beast” back in high-school when he introduced me to the weight room. I’m forever in your debt, Cory- but since I introduced you to your wife I’d say things are almost even. Thanks again!
The funny thing about nutrition is that it’s both really complicated and really simple all at the same time. The interactions of different nutritional parameters can be very complex depending on how far down the rabbit hole you want to go. While the recipe for losing body fat or gaining muscle mass is elementary, the execution can be very challenging.
What seems to be happening all too frequently in our strength training niche’ is that people are getting spun out on the details of nutrition or radical protocols and missing the forest for the trees. What follows is a no-nonsense guide to setting up your own nutritional template. I’ll cover what I’ve learned to be important variables when it comes to improving one’s physical development via the combination of personal and professional experience as well as scientific research. I’ll also include three case studies that represent the most common situations with regards to training and nutrition. Given the format of this article, I won’t be providing peer-reviewed literature because the citation list would be extremely long- to the point of not wanting to write this thing in the first place. In future publications, e.g. a book, this will obviously be necessary. That said, I will make references to existing data that I am familiar with in addition to pulling from my personal and professional experience, research, and formal education to put this together. As an aside, I’m a raw powerlifter who competes in the 198 (90kg) weight class at a bodyfat somewhere between 13-16%. My competition best lifts are a 640 squat, 430 bench press, and 725 deadlift. Anyone wishing to know more about me, my background, lifts, etc. can post a comment or contact me directly through the Barbell Medicine forums.
Nutrition: Back to Basics
Truth be told, there are only a handful of nutritional parameters that actually matter when it comes to physical development. Primarily, these are caloric load and macronutrient totals- though I would argue that macros determine calories and thus, the two things are equal proxies. Slightly less important in the nutritional game, but perhaps useful for optimizing a person’s nutrition are the secondary nutritional parameters: meal timing, meal frequency, and food quality. There are, unfortunately, many experts and gurus with loud voices/many social media followers who would have you believe that calories don’t matter, carbohydrates are bad, that you have to eat a certain amount of times per day, or not eat for a certain period of time during the day. These claims, while helpful to some, do not take the individual into account. I could go through each of these claims and debunk them both scientifically and anecdotally, but instead I’ll refrain and simply say this:
“Your individual goals, training, genetics, history, and compliance will determine exactly what you need to do to get where you want to go.”
Calories do matter, as any bodybuilder or weight class athlete will attest to, and so do macronutrient levels, as any coach worth their pay has witnessed. Many people have gotten good results from manipulating meal timing, frequency, and food quality- whether it be weight maintenance, muscle gain, or more commonly weight loss. At the core of each effective nutritional protocol out there is a strategy that somehow boosts the person’s compliance that ultimately results in a change in calories (or macros) that produce either a caloric deficit or surplus. Paleo, carbohydrate cycling, intermittent fasting, Atkins, cyclic ketogenic, Zone, low-fat, low-carb, and all the other various diets are simply providing the user with a set of tools designed to increase compliance to their diet. For some, the protocol they are using spontaneously results in the correct amount of calories and macronutrients. More commonly, however, The problem is that this is not precise enough for a hard-training lifter who really wants to see performance gains or improvements in bodyfat/other metrics.
A good coach doesn’t just tell his or her new lifter to go squat after teaching him or her the lift, as this would be irresponsible. The coach works with the lifter to determine the proper loading, set, and rep scheme that is appropriate. From this point, systematic modifications are made to the training. In the Starting Strength Novice Program outlined in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training (3rd ed) a lifter simply adds weight to the bar workout to workout. After a few weeks however, the coach may introduce the glute-ham raise to replace one of the deadlift training sessions and relegate heavy pulls to a frequency of once per week. Sets, reps, loads, and exercises are all recorded and tracked by the lifter and the coach to ensure progress. We can all agree that this is a recipe for training success, but why is this style of nutritional programming dismissed as too complicated?
Counting calories, tracking macronutrients, weighing and measuring foods, and recording all of this data as it correlates to weight, body composition, and performance information seems like a good idea to optimize one’s nutritional program with respect to their own training and goals. While this may add a layer of complexity to one’s daily life and it’s not always necessary for a particular individual, if a person desires a high level of performance and/or optimal physical development this is a necessary task, in my opinion. Moreover, this rewards a person willing to engage in these acts with invaluable information on how their body responds to different levels of macronutrients, calorie totals, meal frequencies and timing, and how they can be flexible with meal choices. In my experience, information garnered here tends to be invaluable at later stages of training.
Opponents of this method would rather have you eyeball your portions or simply eat a little less/more, however this is still measuring, albeit a less accurate method of doing so. While I agree that the eyeballing method can work in the short-term for some, it has been my experience that there will come a time when more precise measures are needed to help people continue to gain weight intelligently, lose body fat while improving strength, or otherwise optimize performance.
When designing a template for someone it helps to have information on what they’ve been eating previously. People’s metabolic rates vary wildly and the influence of dietary habits cannot be overstated. Let’s take 2500kCal* to illustrate this example. One could get 2500kCal from 250g protein (1000kCal), 250g carbohydrate (1000kCal), and 55g fat (495kCal) or from 100g protein (400kCal), 350g carbohydrate (1400kCal), and 78g of fat (700kCal). These two isocaloric (iso- meaning “equal”, calories meaning calories) diets are not equivalent because there are intrinsic properties in the differing protein, carbohydrate, and fat levels that manifest as a different metabolic cost. In other words, even though the calories are the same- the body burns different amounts of calories to derive energy from the macros and this is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Protein and fiber tend to be more thermogenic, i.e. they are more expensive to turn into raw energy than simple carbohydrates or fats. So we can see, while calories are absolutely important I’d make the argument that macronutrient levels (protein/carb/fat) are actually more important. My argument hinges on the fact that macros determine total calorie intake whereas a specific calorie level does not specify a particular macronutrient level, a known variable in total caloric expenditure. The fact that differing macronutrient levels also influence things like satiety, muscle protein synthesis, food reward, etc. all support my bias that macros are relatively more important than calories when discussing nutrition protocols.
*Kilocalories and calories tend to be synonymous when discussing the energy derived from food, however imprecise this actually is.
In general, without an overt disease most folks who don’t regularly weigh and measure their food tend to ingest an amount that maintains their body weight over a period of time. Daily fluctuations are normal, but deviations upwards or downwards from week to week or month to month are often the result of a concerted effort to alter one’s weight. While many will undereat or overeat periodically, these are generally balanced out in the long-term by overeating or undereating, respectively. So by knowing what someone has been taking in previously I can start to get a clearer picture of where they’ve been at calorie and macronutrient wise and how they’ve been responding. Say, for instance, a person wants me to help with their nutrition and they report they’ve been eating 2000kCal/day for the last 2 weeks consistently and they even have the MyFitnessPal screenshots to prove it. Let’s also say that this person has lost 3lbs in the last two weeks since undertaking this nutritional protocol. I know that this represents some level of caloric restriction from their previous maintenance intake and thus, my recommendations are more accurately guided because I have this information. So my initial suggestion to all folk looking to start an intelligent nutritional plan is this: Use MyFitnessPal to track your intake over a week WITHOUT CHANGING your current intake and get the scoop on what you’re actually taking in and how you respond to that level of calories and macronutrients.
It’s no secret that in order to gain weight you need to take in more calories than you expend. How much more and from what exactly are topics that can only be answered retrospectively for each individual. I’d like to present this working theory I have about weight changes and nutrition. There exists a certain threshold that you must either exceed (to gain) or be under (to lose) to alter your weight. This threshold represents the normal fluctuations of one’s metabolic rate that is, of course, influenced by dietary intake, training volume (reps/sets/number of training days/conditioning volume/etc.). What I aim to do is find this threshold, wherever it is, and go slightly above or below it, then push the hell out of it until it just won’t go anymore. In other words, I want a person to be eating the most amount of food whilst losing body fat. Similarly, when a non-emaciated person wants to gain body weight I want them to do so in a slow and controlled manner with minimal increases in calorie intake over time so as to not introduce a catalyst for rapid fat gain. Practically speaking, a person who is looking to add mass needs to eat above this threshold and a person looking to lose body fat needs to eat under this threshold- again, the upper and lower limits of this threshold are constantly being influenced by many variables. Consider a previously untrained person, i.e. someone who has never done a formal training program consistently. They likely need to increase their intake quite a bit to gain weight once they begin training as compared to a veteran trainee because we can’t forget to take into account what training does to metabolic rate both acutely (during the training session) and chronically through things like excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and the metabolic requirements of recovery and remodeling muscle tissue. Dr. Jeff Volek has found this increase to be about 100kCal/day immediately- though there are many things that will increase this number over the long-term such as increased body weight, training volume, training stress, etc.
On the other hand, weight loss, or more specifically body fat loss, can prove to be more difficult. Occasionally people will present with self-reported “broken metabolisms”, eating disorders, or symptoms of a medical problem that will preclude them from reaching their body composition goals until they take the time to tease out any issue that is preventing them from creating a sustainable caloric deficit.
Metabolic Damage is a term being used on the Internet these days despite no scientific consensus on what it actually is. The most commonly used definition describes a decrease in basal metabolic rate (BMR) secondary to a reduced calorie intake and/or adaptation to current training that is halts weight loss or, in some cases, produces weight gain without eating more calories. To be clear, the current scientific evidence does not reflect metabolic damage being anything other than a reduction in BMR due to loss of body mass (and body surface area) on the order of 30 calories per kilogram of bodyweight lost.
Physiologically, the mechanisms at play aren’t perfectly worked out but there appears to be some it’s likely this “adaptation” occurs at the level of the mitochondria, i.e. the little energy producing powerhouses of the cells that turn glucose (carbs) and lipids (fats) into raw energy (ATP). There are proteins called uncoupling proteins that are involved in energy production by the mitochondria that, as you might have guessed, uncouple the reactions that make ATP from glucose or lipids.
An increase in these uncoupling proteins makes someone more calorically inefficient, i.e. it takes them relatively more calories to produce the same amount of energy. Certain illicit fat loss agents like Dinitrophenol (DNP) or toxic doses of common over-the-counter drugs like aspirin (salicylates) can cause an increase in uncoupling proteins too. This causes increased heat production, hyperthermia, kidney issues, and slowed breathing. All in all, the rapid increase in these proteins INCREASE caloric expenditure. On the other hand, the current mechanism of decreased metabolism induced by poor dietary habits or chronic endurance training is though to be based around decreased uncoupling protein number, i.e. decreasing caloric expenditure.
That said, there’s currently no evidence that suggests people will stop losing weight because their calories are too low (e.g. starvation mode) or because they adapt to it via a greater-than-predicted decrease in metabolic rate, as world hunger is still currently a “thing.”
Despite the lack of evidence to support their claims, some coaches will use “metabolic damage” under the guise of a scientific argument that for marketing or other business purposes. They cite examples like the following:
A 30 year-old female who has dieted for 16 weeks or so to get on stage and compete in a figure competition. She has a hard time losing the last 10 pounds for meet prep and subsequently, she has to drop her calories “very low” and do “extreme amounts of cardio” to get in shape for the show. Additionally, after the show she puts on body weight- primarily fat- very rapidly despite not “eating more” than she did before. Metabolic damage is cited as the cause for her hardship despite it having never appeared in the literature as a case report and not having a plausible physiologic mechanisms have been described or even proposed.
So, what’s going on here? Is metabolic damage really a thing? Well, in the above example our competitor has been in a caloric deficit for some time and as an adaptive process, the body slows down many calorie-burning processes to preserve homeostasis. We predict that the rate of weight loss will decrease as this occurs. No surprise here and decidedly not metabolic damage. We also assume that as she adapts to the training that she will become more efficient at it since it is no longer “novel”, but again is not metabolic damage. Additionally, we would expect that after the show her metabolism would increase back to previous levels if she returned back to her baseline levels of caloric intake and training (pre competition prep), but there are many factors that may conspire to make all of these things look abnormal.
Consider that it is likely that the incidence of eating disorders, psychological issues, and other emotional problems that are masked (or even encouraged/rewarded) by “figure prep” and/or “constant dieting”. Many times there is a subsequent period of overeating or binging (significantly above pre competition diet intake) that results in an abnormal adaptive response. With a significant caloric surplus most people will store fat and gain weight rapidly, but, this isn’t metabolic damage either, however.
Certain medical problems like hypothyroidism and many medications may alter a person’s metabolic rate, appetite, or general eating habits. Non compliance with calorie and exercise prescriptions is another large issue here that is often (incorrectly) chalked up to metabolic damage. Macronutrient/Calorie and training recommendations will have to be appropriate for each individual and there is too much variance between individuals to say, “This is the average,” or “This is what we expect,” when it comes to calorie or macro levels and/or rate of weight loss or gain.
To clarify, there are times when people will be on very low calorie diets (<1200kCal) or high levels of cardio frequency and/or volume – though these aren’t terribly common. Still, we need to select the correct tool(s) and prescription for the job and while it is de rigueur to cite metabolic damage, hormone problems, or “not eating enough”* as the causes of stalled weight loss, it’s much more likely that the person is eating too many calories rather than having a pathology that has no evidence that it even exists.
*Imagine if you are unsuccessfully dieting and someone whom you admire/trust/hold in high regard tells you that you can lose weight eating more calories than you are now. How attractive would that be to you and how would it make you feel?
What I like to do is take 2-3 weeks with recomposition and fat loss clients to get them acclimated to my initial nutritional plan, then adjust from there. Honestly, a lot of people under report their calories, have crazy cheat meals and not tell me about them during their initial data collection or food journal, or don’t do their conditioning as they report. These types of things force me to make more extreme initial recommendations than I’d like to, as I’m led to believe they’re doing something completely different from what they actually are. Look, if you tell me you’re eating 1500kCal/day in addition to an hour of cardio 7 days a week and your food and training journal reflects this, I’ve gotta take that at face value and make recommendations from there in the best interest of you, the client. Unfortunately, similar situations occur later on down the road with long term clients. After ruling out non compliance with macronutrient intake and conditioning rec’s, I sometimes have to make the gut decision to take down macros against my better judgement. Most times I remain suspicious if things don’t jive with previous experience with literally thousands of people. At times, I’d like to just say “You’re not doing the program” (YNDTP), but since they’re actually paying me I’ve got to do some hand-holding even if I think there might be more to the story.
In both types of clients I start out by estimating their initial calories based on their goals, bodyweight, sex, training, and activity. Then I go about figuring their initial macronutrient levels using the same criteria. Finally I have some standard nutritional tips that I include. Each individual varies based on all of the things I’ve talked about so far but here is a rough guide to where I’m starting things off at:
I like to make fairly small modifications in the macronutrients and calories and honestly, I don’t typically add or subtract calories explicitly. Instead I reduce or increase the energy substrate(s), carbohydrates and/or fat, for the desired increase or decrease in calories. Remember the threshold I was talking about earlier? Instead of jumping the gun and adjusting calories by 500kCal+ increments I prefer a much more gradual approach along the lines of 10-30g of carbohydrates and 4-10g of fat. Changes are made based on progression of training, waist measurements, photographs, and weight changes. These are addressed more explicitly in case study #3.
|Sex||Goal||Calories (kCal/lb)||Protein (g/lb)||Carbohydrates (g/lb)||Fat (g/lb)|
For a 200lb male and a 150lb female, those numbers work out to:
|200lb Male||Fat Loss||2286||250||200||54|
|200lb Male||Muscle Gain||3380||220||400||100|
|150lb Female||Fat Loss||1709||173||135||53|
|150lb Female||Muscle Gain||2235||150||240||75|
*These numbers do not take into effect past dietary history, age, height, training volume/status, dietary restrictions/preferences, etc. In sum, I do not use the multipliers exclusively in my own practice. They are a starting point, nothing more and nothing less.
These represent average numbers of calories and macronutrients that I like to see over the course of a week for starters. I may employ some type of carbohydrate cycling, e.g. low and high carb days, in certain populations. This is discussed in greater detail in case study #2. I generally like to see people eating 4-5 times a day with a minimum of 3 hours and a maximum time of 5 hours between meals. I also like to have the majority of the carbohydrates, like 25-35% of total carbohydrates, come in the meals directly before and directly after training. I also like these periworkout meals to be a little skinny on the fat content, if possible.
The following three case studies allow for an expansion on what I’ve previously laid out. I believe in weighing, measuring, counting, and adjusting for all but the rank novice. There comes a time when eyeballing food is no longer appropriate and depending on a lifter’s level of commitment to physical development, it may be necessary to begin these tasks.
Case # 1- The Skinny Novice: Unmeasured
Johnny, a 23-year-old male who is 5’10” tall and weighs 160lbs, is starting his novice progression and needs some quick advice as to what to eat. The advice to do gallon of milk a day, a.k.a GOMAD, is appropriate for him to use for the initial 6-8 weeks while he’s on the program. If he does whole milk he’s getting 128g protein, 192g carbohydrates, and 128g of fat per 16-cups/1 gallon. Johnny is currently underweight and most likely was only averaging about 2000 calories per day throughout the week; otherwise he’d weigh more or less. By adding the gallon of whole milk his intake will be somewhere around 4400kCal per day. *If you’re wondering if GOMAD is appropriate for you here is an article entitled “A Clarification”, which is authored by Rip himself and covers the topic nicely.
Johnny’s macro intake are unlikely to fit within the constraints of an optimal template, as at this point we just need to make sure he’s gaining weight appropriately so that he can take full advantage of the novice progression with respect to rate of strength improvement. In short, he needs to start gaining body weight before the weight starts getting heavy.
In addition to the GOMAD recommendation, I’d have Johnny do three solid meals a day consisting of a palm-sized portion of meat or equivalent amount of whey, eggs, etc. This works out to be ~40g protein that I’d have him pair with a fist-sized portion of starchy carbs (~50g carbohydrates), along with vegetables and/or fruit as desired and a serving of fat like 2 tbsp of peanut butter. Again, all of this would be in addition to GOMAD. Before the milk, this puts him around 150g protein, 200g carbohydrates (assuming some fruit/vegetable intake along with trace carbs), and about 65g fat. When the milk is layered on top these numbers jump to 278g protein, 400g carbohydrates, 190g fat, and over 4400 calories from high quality food.
While the macros and calories may not be optimal for Johnny, he should be gaining weight during his initial 6-8 weeks while not turning into a slob. After this time we can reassess his training progress, body composition, and weight to fine-tune his nutritional approach. Two months into the novice progression is the appropriate time to start measuring and tracking intake and adjusting per the previously mentioned methods. The only times I would recommend starting earlier with any sort of quantitative analysis of a trainees food is if he/she is either very unhappy with their body composition or their body weight is not changing appropriately given the estimated intake. In short, if what you’re trying to do via not measuring is not working, we need to do something different like measure.
If he is not gaining weight or stops gaining weight while being compliant with the diet, then I would add a “layer” of calories in the form of a couple of tablespoons of peanut or almond butter with one or all of the protein shakes, depending on when this occurs and his current progress. This represents a bump in caloric load of anywhere between 200 and 600+ calories.
Fat gain will happen, but it should be somewhat limited during this time period, as the new stress of training and recovery exert a profound effect on a previously untrained person’s partitioning of nutrients. The accumulation of fat, at this point, is not a problem because as his training progresses both the stresses imparted on his body from increased loading and his refined nutritional approach allows him to non-invasively alter his body composition Simply put, it is necessary for a rank novice like Johnny to put on 20lbs in two months while his squat goes up 130+ pounds. A failure to do so will result in missing reps and weights prematurely and leave him weak and small. Really, what’s 6-8 weeks of gaining a little fat while you massively increase your strength and muscle mass? When the mass gaining process becomes inefficient, i.e. when significantly more fat is added than muscle, we’ll alter the nutrition incrementally to allow continued progress in training while dealing with the pesky body fat. At this point however, the anabolic stimuli that a hard training novice trainee is experiencing tend to require a significant amount of fuel to recover from. Being that the novice phase is short-lived and that it represents the most rapid accumulation of strength that a person will ever have, it seems unwise to worry about body fat during that period of time. For the record, if you’re “doing the Starting Strength Novice Program” or similar for greater than three months, you’ve either modified it to the point where you’re no longer actually doing the novice program or you’re doing it wrong.
In sum, the novice program is done for a short period of time by new trainees who are often underweight like Johnny. It would behoove him to gain some weight via eating 3 square meals a day consisting of protein, carbohydrate, and fat on top of a gallon of milk a day. Should more explicit recommendations be needed for the variety of reasons outlined above, his intake will be changed subsequently to facilitate the goal.
Case # 2- The Skinny Novice: Measured
Our hypothetical novice, Johnny, is now 180lbs and squatting 255 x 5 x 3. He’s hovering around 20% bodyfat and he’s getting awfully squirrelly about having lost his abs. Marty Gallagher and his associates would likely say Johnny should weigh at least 220lbs (more like 242-275) to maximize his body’s levers for a strength sport like powerlifting, but since Johnny is only 180lbs and his body fat is creeping up to the point where he’s about to do something stupid like go on a “cut”, start CrossFitting 4 times a week, or start running everyday, we need to reign in his nutrition a bit.
Previously, Johnny has been taking in 4200-4800kCal a day with macronutrients averaging 280/400/190 over the course of a week. Johnny is still needs to be gaining, but in a more efficient manner. I’d now have him weigh, measure, and record his calories and macros, which would look something like 220/500/100 for protein, carbohydrates, and fats, respectively. This works out to just under 3800kCal a day and should provide enough of a decrease in calories to start more efficiently adding mass and reigning in the bodyfat. Johnny is also sick of the milk and wants to omit it for a while, which is understandable. The idea is that Johnny uses an app like MyFitnessPal and eats the foods he wants in order to hit the target macronutrients. I don’t particularly care where the macros come from as long as the numbers add up.This is not to suggest that all meals should be whey, ice cream, and pop tarts. No, not at all.
You see, I am a proponent of eating in a sustainable manner that produces optimal health, performance, and the desired results. I have a bias that there is an advantage to be had by getting most of a person’s dietary intake from what most would call “clean foods”. The designation of “clean” is clearly arbitrary, but I think most people have an idea what that means. I make the suggestion of “single-ingredient foods” when discussing “clean eating” and again, I think that about 80% of a person’s diet should probably come from these “clean” or “single ingredient’ type foods. My argument for this kind of limitation of junk or If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM) hinges upon developing good eating habits, altering food reward pathways that meld emotions with eating habits/desires, and maintaining a good vitamin, mineral, and fiber intake. I’ll save the full-blown discussion on this for another post, but I’d like to go on record and say that I’m a supporting of IIFYM provided there’s a fiber minimum and the diet revolves around single-ingredient foods.
Additionally, I am a proponent of starting out on the higher side of carbohydrates. I’ve found from both my own experience as well as clients’ experiences that omitting carbohydrates from the diet has a deleterious effect on muscle and strength gain. I was a low-carb Paleo guys for 2 years and found it difficult to recover well, put on muscle, and was generally flat all the time. I’ve seen similar things with people I’ve worked with. Conversely, it’s entirely possible to hit your desired macros within a Paleo-type framework. If this makes you feel better and/or perform better then go for it! Just make sure you’re actually getting the appropriate calories and macros in. With respect to carbohydrate sources, I do recognize that there is a potential (in some) for wheat and gluten-containing products to present a significant threat to gut health, optimal metabolic function, and inflammatory processes, so I for those who feel they have a sensitivity to it I recommend that starchy carbohydrate sources be limited to vegetables, fruits, tubers, rice, dextrose or similar recovery formulations, and oats (if tolerable). That said, I’ve found that most self diagnosed “gluten allergies” tend to be “large volume of gluten allergies”. In other words, the people say they have GI issues from eating the whole pizza, but not after a single slice of bread. Who’d have guessed?
I’ve also found it easier to manipulate nutrition variables when carbohydrate intake is initially higher, which allows some wiggle room to bring carbohydrates down. Low-carb diets certainly work, but I find that using them for punctuated periods of time along with strategically placed carbohydrate refeeds tend to produce better results with respect to leaning out, retaining strength, or dropping weight. In short, I want the higher carbohydrate intake to provide ample energy for the workout itself, the subsequent recovery, and protein assimilation in muscles. If body weight starts to be put on in an inefficient manner, i.e. more fat is accruing as compared to lean muscle tissue, then I now have something to adjust.
The protein issue is a complex one, to say the least. The common question is, “How much protein do I need?” This implies that someone wants to know how much protein someone has to ingest to not be deficient in the macronutrient when what he or she really wants to know is, “How much protein is optimal for me?” These are two different questions that are, at the time of this writing, unanswerable. What we do know is that super high levels of protein do not, in fact, cause kidney pathologies in otherwise normal functioning kidneys. We also know that it is possible to cause some damage to certain tissues with ammonia toxicity from chronically high (this is a relative term) ammonia AND that ammonia is a waste product of protein metabolism. However, whether or not chronically high levels of dietary protein intake raise ammonia levels to a point where any sort of new tissue damage in an otherwise healthy person is currently unknown .
Be that as it may, athletes seem to benefit from increased dietary intake of protein relative to the current recommended daily allowance (RDA). Moreover, protein sources that are leucine rich like whey, chicken, beef, and free-form BCAAs tend in increase protein synthesis quite nicely. While many may claim, “You need to be in a net positive nitrogen balance,” to argue that high doses of protein are required, because nitrogen is cleaved off the protein during digestive and metabolic processes, these people do not understand that being in a net positive nitrogen balance actually tells us nothing about whether more muscle is being assimilated or broken down. Conversely, we would like to know if protein synthesis is greater or lesser based on nutritional interventions. The gold standard for this kind of data is a tracer study where constituents of a protein is labeled and then data is collected based on whether or not it is incorporated into tissue, protein synthesis, or not. At any rate, with the potential risk from ammonia toxicity plain as day, it is inadvisable and unnecessary for me to currently recommend larger protein intakes. I write more about protein here, if you’re interested.
Another thing people might inquire about is the timing of meals and the macronutrient total in each specific meal. I basically like to see the macros evenly spread out across all the meals. The only deviations from this are the pre and post workout meals, which are a both skinny on fat content and high in carbohydrates. This prevents slowed digestion of the meals and the decreased transit time through the gut that occurs with higher fat content in meals. In this periworkout window I like to feed the athlete with some carbohydrates beforehand to fuel the workout and to replenish the muscles/initiate protein remodeling afterwards. Anything preventing the uptake of the digested proteins and carbohydrates, amino acids and glucose, respectively, does not aid in this goal.
It would be nice to know just how someone responds to a certain nutritional protocol’s calories, macronutrient composition, frequency, and timing, BEFORE they did it, but unfortunately we just need to use some simple trial and error to get the air/fuel mixture right. This is where some data collection becomes invaluable, yet it is often recommended against vehemently. By tracking calories, macros, meal frequency, and timing we can begin to piece the puzzle together, anything else is just an educated guess and does not help this novice trainee get a feel for their own nutritional requirements. We record and log our workouts’ exercises, reps, sets, and loads, yet recording nutritional parameters are somehow inappropriate? So step one, start writing down a daily log of your nutrition. Macronutrient totals will suffice on a meal-by-meal basis and then you can figure calories at the end of each day. There are many smart phone apps that will do this and store your data for long periods of time, but writing it down works well too.
What if Johnny does this exact protocol for a whole week, yet gained two pounds? Similarly, what if he lost a pound? Subsequent macronutrient and caloric manipulation will vary depending on the individual, obviously, but a good place to start would be by adding or subtracting a bit of energy substrate first. Again, I like to make much smaller changes to one’s diet, on the order of 15-25g carbohydrates and 4-10g fat, rather than larger adjustments like “add 500 calories from ______”. While adding or subtracting 500 calories at a time may, in fact, cause the desired change to start happening, where do you go from here when it stops working? 500kCal represents about 13% of Johnny’s baseline diet. When the nutritional protocol is modified on this large of a scale it is easy to miss how to optimize one’s nutritional strategy to most efficiently add muscle. Most likely, someone will haphazardly increase their calories by 500 or even 1000kCal for a week or two and then start to put on more fat than they want to. Granted, this is okay because we can surely take it off later, but if this precludes someone from continuing to eat enough to gain strength and size, i.e. they stop doing the program training and nutrition-wise, then the athlete is set up to stall, fail, and quit. Again, I prefer a slow and steady approach that involves consistently hitting your macros (within +/- 5g) day in and day out, modifying from that baseline as needed, and generally just being in it for the long haul. How many people do you know never actually got as muscular or as strong as they wanted because they thought they were getting fat so they quit? On the other hand, how many people do you know that never gained enough weight and stalled on the program so now they’re into being lean and conditioned? This stuff really isn’t that hard if you take an intelligent approach and get some data to work with. It’s exactly like the squat. You didn’t just load the bar with 405 on day one and try to squat it (and fail), then do it again on Wednesday (and fail), and then do it again on Friday (and fail), ad nauseam. Nope, you went in on day 1, figured out where you were and progressively titrated up from there. Maybe Rip should write a Starting Eating: Basic Fork and Knife Training so people will start taking the same approach to food.
In Johnny’s case, I’d add 20g of carbohydrates and 10g of fat if he lost more than a pound. If he gained 2 pounds, I’d have him hold steady and keep the same macros and calories and then reassess next week. If he continued to climb up I’d wait until this number started to decrease before bumping the nutrition up (20g carbs & 10g fat). I like to keep protein levels between 25-35% of the diet most of the time when talking about gaining weight. I’m starting Johnny off right at 35% of total calories coming from protein. When this percentage gets close to that lower end I’d bump up his protein by 25g increments and on that week and leave the fat alone (not add an additional 10g of fat). This is so simple it will never work, some say. Well, all those skinny guys who are “hard gainers” and eat 5000+ calories a day SHOW ME the calories! I have failed to see these people actually eat this many calories day-in and day-out for extended periods of time. Sure they will crush a pizza one night and their calories for that day will be huge, but the next day they’ll eat less, or the day after that, you get the picture. Just like training, you can’t just haphazardly train and expect to get really strong and you can’t eat haphazardly and expect to get really big and beastly.
If Johnny keeps a good log of his training and nutrition, in 3 months’ time he’ll have amassed a greater knowledge of how his body responds to particular nutritional parameters and he’ll likely be weighing north of 190 with a good body composition while squatting 300+ for reps. He’ll likely also be closing in on the end of his novice progression and thus, he’ll be able to decide just exactly he wants to do. If he wants to be involved in a barbell sport he’ll likely have to push his weight up towards at least the 198lb class for powerlifting or 94kg for Olympic lifting. To maximize his levers without better living through chemistry though, he’d probably have to be a 220lb powerlifter or 105kg Olympic lifter- maybe more, depending on his frame.
Case # 3- The Fluffy Novice/Intermediate: Measured
In the case of the lifter whose current body fat is too high, which I consider to be above 20%, we have to be more fastidious in our nutritional regimen. It is important for this lifter to still get adequate nutrition so strength gains are still progressing nicely, but we must also take into account recomposing this lifter’s body for both health and performance goals. No one would argue that all else being equal, a person at 20% bodyfat is healthier than the same person at 30%. While this simple metric has a limited rate of return, i.e. is 10% bodyfat really healthier than 15% bodyfat, it is important for directing how we manipulate the nutrition.
Performance tends to be higher relatively with those of a lower body fat at a higher weight because leverage is better. Remember, fat doesn’t flex and when aiming for performance goals we should strive to get our trainee to the top of their weight class with the best body composition. A 242 lifter with 15% bodyfat has a greater muscle cross-sectional area than a 242 lifter with 25% bodyfat. All things being equal, the first lifter has a greater potential to produce force with this increased muscle mass available for recruitment.
Our hypothetical lifter, Jim, is 34 years old, 6’0 tall, 240lbs, and 35% bodyfat. He’s starting on the novice program and is wondering what he should be eating to both allow recovery while improving his body’s composition. I would be a little tighter with caloric recommendations, starting out around 13kCal per pound of body weight. This has Jim eating 3100kCal per day. Again, some may say this is low but let’s face it, Jim is considerably older than Johnny and he also has a lot of fat mass that will be available to fuel various metabolic processes in the body.
As far as macros are concerned, I’d like to see Jim start out with 275g protein, 300g carbohydrates, and 85g fat. After two weeks on this nutrition protocol I will begin to learn whether Jim is relatively more sensitive to carbohydrates, as older folks or more female folks tend to be or if he simply prefers more fats based on his palate. However, by starting out with a moderate approach I’m not in any danger of screwing the pooch from the get go. Seeing as Jim is 34 years old and likely has an occupation, I’ll assume that he trains at night. Since he’s also carrying a lot of bodyfat I can also assume that he’s not super insulin sensitive either. For this reason I’d like to load 30-40% of the day’s carbohydrates around his training time while also limiting the fat intake in these meals to less than 20g. Again, I’d subject Jim to the same “Do IIFYM with the caveats that there is a fiber minimum and 80% of your diet should come from single ingredient foods.” Hopefully, he’d use a tracker like MyFitnessPal and get within +/-5g of his initial macronutrient goals. I would also like to employ one of the following conditioning strategies:
1: HIIT- 5 minute warm up, then 20s on: 140s off x 7 rounds, 10 minute cool down*
*I would prefer this to be done on a prowler or C2 rower as running hills or sprinting would be deleterious to Jim getting strong in my opinion. This could be done on rest days (Tuesday/Saturday) with the carbohydrate percentages we talked about earlier surrounding these training sessions.
2: Fasted LISS cardio- 30 minute walk after a cup of coffee first thing in the AM before breakfast x 5-6 days per week*
*This old-school bodybuilding holdover is a good tool to use for body recomposition if the proper equipment for HIIT is not available or too much recovery ability is being sacrificed. Yes I know you burn more calories doing cardio AFTER eating, but this method has worked for years and offers the advantage of inducing a positive feedback loop mentally. If a person will roll their butt out of bed and go for a walk 5 days a week, he or she will likely also comply with the diet and training.
I personally like HIIT-style training for lifter’s as it tends to help with improving recovery from training and intraworkout stressors like repeated sets of heavy squats, power cleans, presses, etc. Many people are afraid of adding a small amount of HIIT training to their programs for fear of overtraining, which I think is a bit misguided. If you do HIIT 5x a week using a high-impact or other modality with a high eccentric loading, such as sprints, for instance, then yes you’re performance will likely suffer. On the other hand, doing a small amount of work with the prowler or C2 rower while training is easy, as it is in the beginning of the novice program, will allow for the appropriate adaptations to occur with respect to lactate buffering, capillary and mitochondrial density, energy substrate use, generation, and storage. Additionally, basal metabolic rate tends to increase in those who perform HIIT along with improvements in cardiorespiratory capacity. Two days a week is where I’d like to start for HIIT training and I’ll only titrate the frequency upwards if the trainee can tolerate it, isn’t interested in strength-related sports, or does not possess the requisite ability to push the intensity. I like to cap the frequency of HIIT at 3x per week during a strength phase and even then, recovery parameters and barbell training performance need to be watched closely.
On the other hand, LISS can be done very frequently because it is not stressful. However, it does not provide the same benefits as HIIT with respect to conditioning of the cardiovascular system, myofibrils, and metabolic rate. Nevertheless, many people have used it successfully and to omit this option would be fairly foolish. I write more about conditioning here, if interested.
With Jim I’d be looking at photos, waist measurements, weight changes, and training progression/regression. Each week I’d like to see a full-body picture in similar lighting to see what, if any, changes are occurring body composition-wise. I’d want an accurate waist measurement taken right at the level of the umbilicus, as his waist size should be going down slowly but surely. Finally, his weight should be decreasing slowly, as he is 35% bodyfat, and his training should be coming along nicely. If his weight does not go down 2-4lbs in the first 2 weeks, but rather it stays the same then I’d leave the macros alone for one additional week to see what happens. If his weight still didn’t go down or if it went up I’d remove 15g of carbohydrates and 5g of fat on all the days for the following week, as he really should be losing weight as this point. I’d continue to evaluate all parameters from week to week to make changes if necessary. If, or rather when, the weight training begins to stall, as a novice will eventually, then I’d try a few nutritional tricks to give Jim a chance at running out this progression a little longer. Note that this would likely be occurring 8-12+ weeks after beginning the program. His squat should have gone up by 150lbs minimum and he should also be sitting around 225-230lbs and somewhere in between 22-27% bodyfat. We obviously still have a ways to go to get him into the teens where I prefer, but this is still slow and steady progress while improving strength.
For informational purposes let’s have Jim do a reset on his weights while altering his nutritional protocol a bit to encourage losses in bodyfat and increases in strength/LBM. Jim just failed to get all his reps at 295 on the squat, so we’ll reset him 10% to 265 x 5 x 3. We’ll also make his second squat session of the week a recovery squat day, where he squats 80% of day 1’s weight. He’ll make 5lb jumps on both Day 1 and Day 3, which denotes that these days are his hardest training sessions. Now for the nutritional trickery, let’s make training days 1 and 3 higher carb days, training day 2 a moderate carb day, and the rest days lower carb days. On higher carb days we’ll decrease protein and fat a smidgen, whereas on low carb days we’ll bump protein and fat up a bit. Working off our original numbers of 275/300/85, Jim’s high days would now be 250/325/75, his moderate day would be 265/250/85, and his low days would be 275/175/90. This manipulation of the macronutrients might prove to be effective for body composition while still allowing hard training. Modifications will need to be made weekly as discussed earlier by removing 15g of carbohydrates and 5g of fat from all days when and if a recomposition stall is occurring.
This sort of carbohydrate cycling is where I like to start with intermediate and above trainees OR somebody with experience dieting/counting macros. It’s just more complex than a straight set of macros that someone repeats daily so I don’t like to start there.
In any event, I prefer to have the higher carbohydrate days on either the heaviest of training days, the days where the weakest or most underdeveloped lift or body part (for you bodybuilders) is trained, or on days with the highest volume. Optimally, the two high days would be separated by two or three days. Moderate and low carbohydrate days are not part of all my dietary recommendations, but some people need to drop their carbohydrates lower and lower, which is where the need for dedicated low days comes into play. These days are usually devoid of training, but if conditioning must be done on these days then 60% of the day’s carbohydrates should be split between the two meals surrounding the conditioning work.
If we can get Jim to comply with the nutritional parameters set here he will make great strength and physique gains for a long period of time. The goal isn’t to get him to lose weight as fast as possible, but rather to lose weight at the appropriate rate that preserves as much muscle mass as possible or even allows for hypertrophy. If he works hard and is consistent, 6 months later he’d be weighing around 210-220 and somewhere in the teens bodyfat-wise with a mid to upper 300lb squat for reps. Sounds like good progress to me.