Regular strength training is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. By doing squats, push-ups, deadlifts, and other resistance exercises on a regular basis you’ll not only look better naked, but also increase your protection against chronic disease, prevent age-related muscle loss, and achieve better metabolic health.
As anyone who’s been lifting weights for some time knows, to achieve optimal results, your training has to be supported by a high-quality diet.
After having worked out on a regular basis for so many years, my dietary habits are so ingrained that I sometimes forget that diet is often the most difficult thing for people to nail down when they first start lifting. We’ve all seen the scrawny 16-year-old who joins the gym, finds a bodybuilding routine to follow, and blasts each muscle group once a week, right? Nutrition is often the last thing on his mind, and the combination of a diet rich in highly processed foods and a poor training program stalls his progress to the point where even noob gains are hard to attain. Protein shakes are sometimes used in an attempt to make up for a terrible diet, but there is only so much you can really fix with a couple of spoons of easily digestible whey protein.
On the other extreme end of the spectrum we have the advanced lifter who always plans his meals, counts calories, and never goes more than two hours without eating. He/she is under the impression that strictness equals optimal results, and social events, dinners, and parties are for the most part avoided.
If you’ve been lifting for many years, you’ve probably spent some time in both of these camps. You may also have gotten to the point where you’ve realised that finding a more balanced approach is the key: you clearly shouldn’t eat whatever you want, but being too obsessed with your diet isn’t optimal either.
The dietary recommendations below, which apply to both men and women, are based on a combination of the following four factors:
- My own training experience
- My experience as a personal trainer/coach (the main goal of most of my clients over the years has been to improve their body composition)
- The scientific literature
- The evolutionary template
As a general rule, it’s more important to focus on what you eat, rather than how often you eat. However, that doesn’t mean that meal frequency is irrelevant.
I generally recommend that people who’re looking to gain muscle should eat 3-4 meals a day. If you eat less than 3 meals a day, you’ll have to consume massive servings of foods each time you eat in order to get enough calories and protein into your body. This can put excessive stress on your digestive system, particularly if you’re a big guy who needs quite a bit of calories each day to maximize muscle growth.
Some people find that only eating 2 meals works well for them, and in that case, there’s no reason not to continue with that habit. However, my experience is that for the majority, 3-4 meals a day is a better fit. It’s generally no problem to eat more than 4 meals, but some data seem to suggest that 4-5 meals are superior to 6-8 when it comes to maximizing muscle protein synthesis (1). Also, a lot of people find that eating many small meals throughout the day is time-consuming and stressful.
Contrary to what your dietitian might have told you, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day. On the contrary, if you’ve read up on the research, you know that there are many benefits associated with intermittent fasting (IF). IF is particularly effective for those who have trouble staying lean while gaining muscle and/or are looking to lose weight.
I generally recommend to eat a fairly large meal containing some starch, protein, and healthy fats 2-2 1/2 hours prior to your workout. If you’re going to eat less than 2 hours before you hit the gym, a smaller meal is better fit.
Fasted training is also a viable option. If you adhere to an IF protocol or consider giving IF a try, performing fasted training (usually in the morning prior to the eating window) is worth considering. However, it’s important to note that some people find that they don’t perform optimally on an empty stomach, even after they’ve tried to adjust to fasted training for some time.
It doesn’t matter whether you get some protein into your system directly after training or not: the anabolic window thing is largely a myth. Eat when you’re hungry! For some, this means directly after a workout, while others don’t feel the need to eat until 1 hour+ after their last set.
Eat a diet that is designed to reduce inflammation and optimize your health
This should be the number one priority for anyone who’s looking to maximize protein synthesis and achieve a muscular physique. An ancestral-type diet is the natural choice for anyone who’s looking to get the most out of their training.
Consumption of an unhealthy diet will result in low-grade chronic inflammation, hormonal imbalance, and oxidative stress, conditions that not only increase you risk of chronic disease, but also impar your athletic performance and ability to recuperate between workouts.
Eat plenty of high-quality protein
Stack up on foods that are rich in high-quality protein, such as meat (preferably grass-fed), eggs (preferably organic), and seafood. For those who are seeking to maximize hypertrophy, it’s particularly important to eat red meat (unprocessed, preferably pasture-fed) and/or other foods rich in creatine on a regular basis.
I’ve previously discussed the research on protein intake and muscle protein synthesis,. The weight of the evidence suggests that ~1,8-2.0 g protein per kg bodyweight per day is enough to maximize protein synthesis. Eating more protein than this is generally not going to have any adverse effects, but if there are any additional benefits to increasing protein intake above ~1.8-2.0g/KG/BW, they seem to be small (for most people).
It’s important to keep in mind that the body has its own mechanisms for regulating protein intake, meaning that as long as you eat a healthy diet and listen to the signals your body is sending you, your protein intake should naturally adjust to fit your needs.
A protein intake of ~1,8-2 g per kg bodyweight per day transfers into an average intake of about 20-50 grams of protein per meal (if you eat 3-5 meals a day). Closer to 20 if you’re a small female, and more like 30-50 grams if you’re a large male.
Consume plenty of vegetables (both fresh and fermented) and add some healthy fats to your plate
Besides eating foods rich in high-quality protein, you should also consume fresh and/or fermented vegetables and healthy fats (e.g., avocado, coconuts, olive oil, eggs) at every meal. Fruit, nuts, fermented dairy, and legumes are also worth considering including in your diet on a regular basis. If you have trouble gaining weight, giving your fat and/or starch intake a boost can help.
Bring with you healthy food when you’re on the go
Boiled eggs, salads, cans of tuna, greek yogurt, kefir, nuts, and fruit are some convenient foods that you can bring with you when you’re on the go.
Eat some starchy foods
If you’re reading this blog, chances are pretty high that you’re eating a paleo-type diet, which is generally low-carb compared to the typical Western diet or a diet based on official dietary guidelines.
While I’m all for a carbohydrate intake that is more in line with the carbohydrate intake of our primal ancestors, going very low-carb isn’t necessarily optimal, particularly for those who perform a lot of anaerobic training. When people go Paleo, they typically replace cereal grains with non-starchy vegetables and more fat and protein, and they thereby remove most of the starch from their diet. While this approach usually isn’t problematic for someone who’s relatively sedentary, those who do heavy strength training on a regular basis often need some starch in their diet to get optimal training results.
This doesn’t mean that you should start eating a lot of bread and rolled oats again. However, including some starchy tubers and roots in your diet – and perhaps some more dense sources of carbohydrate such as quinoa and white rice – is usually a good idea. Yes, I know some people manage to become “keto-adapted” and perform great on a very low-carb diet, but for most people who do a lot of anaerobic training, this is neither optimal nor practical.
Eat foods rich in omega-3 on a regular basis
Prioritize food over protein powder
I’m not a big fan of protein powders. I understand that drinking a protein shake is a practical and easy way to increase your protein intake, and I don’t think whey protein is the worst supplement you can take. However, if you can, get your protein from food.
It’s clear that from an evolutionary perspective, the consumption of a highly concentrated source of protein is a novel behaviour. This doesn’t tell us that protein powders are bad, but the evolutionary template provides a guide that we can use to determine what types of foods we are best adapted to eat. As I’ve previously laid out, there are some adverse effects associated with the consumption of protein powders. Whey protein is highly insulinogenic, can exacerbate acne vulgaris, and negatively impact the gut microbiota, among other things.
I hope this gave you some good tips as to how you should eat to maximize muscle growth. If you perform resistance training on a regular basis, but have never cared much about your diet, then you should definitely put more emphasis on the nutritional aspect of gaining muscle. However, if you’re someone who plans his diet in detail and never misses a meal, I recommend easing up. Don’t obsess over your diet. I recommend adhering to a Paleo-style diet, but sticking to a 90/10 rule is generally a good idea. It doesn’t matter much whether you eat some occasional “junk food” or drink alcohol now and then. Don’t make fitness your entire life.
Now I want to hear from you: Do you perform resistance training on a regular basis? If yes, what does the diet you use to support this weight training look like?