by Joel Sward
I get tons of questions about diet and nutrition as it relates to creating a positive anabolic environment and helping the body build lean muscle and strength. The truth is, I could write an entire book on the subject as the principles and theories involved in the arena of sports nutrition are numerous and vast.
Here I am just going to share some basic ideas to help you lay the foundation of a successful sports nutrition program. This is not so much about sports supplementation, although I will get into that some, it is more about basic ideas of how and when to eat real, whole foods, so you can get the most out of your training and achieve your desired results, whatever they may be.
The first step is to make an honest assessment of where you are in relation to your desired goals and then make a plan on how you can reach them. Are you a hard gainer who has no problem with body fat levels but can't seem to put on the mass and weight you desire? Are you a fast gainer who puts on muscle and weight relatively easily, but it is not the hard lean muscle you desire? Do you have a naturally fast metabolism or is it slow (due to genetics, age, etc.)? Do you want to gain weight or lose weight? Are you concerned with leaning up or do you just want mass? What I am asking you to do is to get a solid visual picture of where you currently are and then an equally solid mental image of where you want to be. Got it? Good. Let's move on.
If you are a hard gainer (we will get to fast gainers who are looking to lean up later) and you simply can't put on the weight and mass you are looking for, you probably need to change some things about your diet. What you want to do is pump solid nutrients into your body in the form of whole, solid foods (and supplements). I am talking about solid protein sources, like fish, chicken, lean red meat, turkey or even soy products. In addition to these protein sources, you should use a good whey protein supplement. Otherwise, it is just too difficult to get all the protein you need on a daily basis.
Well, how much protein do you need? The general viewpoint is that you need 1.0 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, every single day. I would err on the high side of this, as I truly believe that hard training athletes need much more protein than the average person who is not exercising with the same intensity and frequency.
This protein intake also needs to be spread out across the day as much as possible. I believe a minimum of 6 protein intakes has to occur everyday. Personally, I shoot for more than that. (At one point in my training, I was taking in 50 grams of protein, every 2 hours, 24 hours a day. I was even waking myself up in the middle of the night every two hours to eat!)
What about carbohydrates (carbs)? Well, a hard gainer, looking to put on mass and weight should not restrict carbs, but you shouldn't gouge on carbs either and you certainly want the carbs to be good, low glycemic index choices, like sweet potatoes, brown rice, green veggies, carrots, some fruit (bananas are great) and low fat dairy products.
Make good choices. Eat your carbs plain instead of dumping heavy oils, dressings, sauces, etc. on them. (We will get to fat next.) Choose rye bread over white or whole wheat if you have to eat bread. If you drink fruit juice, dilute it with water. (There is actually one time when you want to drink a highly concentrated fruit or energy drink, loaded with sugar, and this is during and directly after your workout. But besides that time, try to avoid sugar.) Choose low fat dairy choices and try to limit them. You also want to spread your carbs out through the day. Just eat them with your protein (and fat) and you will do fine. A hard gainer doesn't need to restrict carbs at any time.
Hard gainers looking to gain mass and size should eat slightly more calories than their basic metabolic rate (BMR). (I will get into BMR later.) You want to gain the weight slowly. I know this sounds contrary to what you want to happen. You want to get big fast! I understand that, but there is scientific evidence that shows that the most muscle a hard training athlete can gain is 15 lbs. a year. That is only a little over 1 lb. per month. Now I have seen guys on illegal steroids or pro hormones gain that and more in a much shorter amount of time. Some of that is water weight, but my point is the slower you gain it, the more confident you can be that the weight you are gaining is solid muscle and not fat.
Plus, if you "grow slow", you will be able to maintain your higher body weight more easily over time. Be in this for the long haul and gain solid muscular weight at a constant and steady pace. Believe me, this comes from years of experience. It is a lot harder to get into shape then it is to stay in shape, whatever your goal, so get into shape and stay there.
The one odd ball in all this carb talk is the high endurance athlete. If you are doing a large volume of high endurance, cardio-based training, you need carbs and lots of them. If you are training hard enough, you simply can't eat enough carbs, or any macro-nutrient for that matter, because your body is a metabolic furnace. I love high endurance athletes, even though I am currently not one of them, because they reveal what training can do for the metabolism. When you train you burn calories, plain and simple. Train harder and you burn more of them, no matter what your current level of training, your age, or genetics or any of that stuff. Get up and move! Well, before I digress let's move on. All set on carbs? Good. Now let's talk fat.
What about the final macro-nutrient: fat? Guess what? You need it! Don't get caught up trying to eliminate fat. Yes, you what to keep it low in comparison to the other macro-nutrients, protein and carbs (A good ratio for a hard gainer is 50% protein, 40% carbs and 10% fat.), but you definitely need some fat in your diet to build muscle and strength. The best fat is unsaturated and rich in omega 3 fatty acids such as flax seed oil, fish oil, oil from peanuts and olives, etc.
Well that takes care of the macro-nutrients for a hard gainer (and a lot of the micro-nutrients indirectly as good whole food sources are loaded with micro-nutrients.). The rest of your micro-nutrient intake should come from supplementation with dietary supplements (a whole different subject).
But what if you are not a hard gainer? What if you are a fast gainer who puts on weight relatively easily, but it is not the solid, lean weight you desire. You want to have muscle mass, but you want it to be lean, hard muscle, with low body fat levels. Many of the same principles I outlined above for hard gainers also apply to you. You definitely want to spread your food intake throughout the day, shooting for a minimum of 6 meals, and hopefully more. And the food choices you make are also basically the same -- good, lean protein, low glycemic carbs and omega 3 rich fats.
The ratio of macro-nutrients is a little different. You should be more in the range of 70% protein, 20% carbs and 10% fat. You also want to limit the intake of those carbs to times like first thing in the morning and directly before and after workouts. Try to avoid carbs after 6:00 p.m. and don't eat them again until breakfast. (When I am restricting carbs, I can't wait to get up and eat my bowl of oatmeal in the morning.) Don't totally restrict carbs though. You need some to train. Otherwise you will get tired, lethargic, you won't get your normal pumps in the gym and your workouts will suffer. You want to eat just enough carbs so you can get that tough, intense workout in everyday.
If you are trying to burn fat and build muscle at the same time, you need to understand what makes you gain and lose weight (or stay them same). Everyone has a basic metabolic rate (BMR), which is the basic rate at which you burn calories. If you eat more calories than your BMR on a daily basis, you will gain weight. If you eat less, you lose weight and if you eat right at your BMR, you stay the same. Your BMR is calculated by taking your current body weight x 10, plus your bodyweight. For example, I currently weigh 275lbs. so my BMR is 275 x 10 + 275 = 3,025. That means I can eat 3,025 calories on a normal day (meaning normal level of exercise for that day) and not gain or lose any weight.
If you are trying to lose weight, there are ways to raise your BMR, so you can eat more and still lose weight. You raise your BMR through training (and sports supplementation). So if I workout hard on a given day, I may have raised my BMR to 4,000 calories for that day, so I could eat 3,900 calories and still lose weight.
So basically, try to eat a little less calories than whatever your BMR is and you will lose weight. I say a little less, because you actually want to lose weight slowly. Remember, in addition to losing weight you are also trying to preserve or even gain muscle mass. The slower you lose the weight, the more muscle mass you will preserve and you will also find keeping the weight off is easier if it came off slow. Be diligent, but patient.
Well, there you have it. I know this information is basic and cursory. We could definitely go into much more depth on this vast subject. But hopefully you have a good idea of what is required to lay the foundation for a successful sports nutrition program whatever your goals may be.
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