Eating for Strength – What, When, and Why to Eat | Learn: Your Fitness Business Resource

Eating for Strength – What, When, and Why to Eat

Tyler Spraul is the director of UX and the head trainer for He has his Bachelor of Science degree in pre-medicine and is an NSCA-certified strength and conditioning specialist. He is a former All-American soccer player and still coaches soccer today. In his free time, he enjoys reading, learning, and living the dad life. He has been featured in Shape, Healthline, HuffPost, Women's...

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UPDATED: Aug 25, 2020

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  • Here’s a straightforward rundown on some of the most talked-about and least understood topics in eating for strength, leanness, and muscle gain.
  • By optimizing your nutrition in a way that caters to your goals, you will be able to reach them faster.
  • Building muscle, gaining strength, and getting lean are as much about nutrition as they are about working out, so it pays to get good information and to focus on eating the right macros and micros at the right time and making sure that you get plenty of healthy, whole foods to fuel your goals.

Nutrition is as much an art as it is a science. With so many theories being thrown around, it can be hard to know what you really need to eat for strength and why.

The more we hear about bodybuilding nutrition — from all of the ongoing research and all of the articles, books, and programs out there — the harder it can be to condense it all down to the facts we really need.

Every week, there’s a new supplement, a new theory or a new research study. Here’s a straightforward rundown on some of the most talked-about and least understood topics in eating for strength, leanness, and muscle gain.

When attempting to optimize your nutrition for strength gains, it’s important that you first have a strength or bodybuilding-routine in place. Sign up for an PRO plan today for access to goal-oriented workout plans that have strength and muscle-growth in mind. Go PRO now.

#1 – Eating a High Protein Diet

Protein is your body’s concrete. Protein is the macro that your body uses to build or repair almost everything. It is especially important for building muscle. You gain size when you work your muscles enough to create micro-tears in the muscle tissue and your body uses protein to repair those tears.

Since your body also needs protein for just about every function, it prioritizes the way it uses the protein you eat. First, it takes what it needs for essential function. If there’s any protein leftover, your body uses that to rebuild and repair muscle.

On the flip side of that, if you’re working out and not getting enough protein over and above what your body already needs, it may catabolize your muscles, which is a fancy way of saying it’ll break down muscle tissue to get the amino acids that it needs for essential function.

This is why you have to know how many grams of protein you need for essential function and then eat over and above that for muscle repair.

Even if you’re working on strength more than gains, you need the protein to support that strength. At minimum, you need to be getting 1-1.5g per pound of body weight per day.

#2 – Eating a High Fat Diet

Most of us know that we need all three macros to be healthy, get strong, and gain muscle mass. But of the three, (protein, carbs and fats) fats are the most misunderstood.

One of the areas people have trouble with is which fats are good and which are bad.

Should you eat saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated? The truth is, you need all of them. They each have a different function in building and maintaining strength and muscle.

You also need them for heart health, brain function, vitamin metabolism, and about a thousand other essential things. You cannot do without them and you won’t build strength or muscle if you get too little, either.

One of the best fats to eat for building muscle and making strength gains is coconut oil.

It’s full of medium-chain fatty acids, which are easily absorbed and used for energy. Coconut oil has also been shown to help boost testosterone levels, which has a huge impact on both strength and gains.

Another great fat food is macadamia nuts. They’ve always had a bad reputation because they’re so high in fat, but they’re all monounsaturated fats. In fact, they’re higher in monos than olive oil.

The point is, you need plenty of healthy fats in your diet to get results and reach your goals.

#3 – Planning Your Carbohydrate Allowance

Carbohydrates are fuel for the body. Aside from the vegetable and fruit carbs you need to be healthy and to obtain the necessary amount of micronutrients your body needs to function, carbohydrates should be consumed in a way that benefits your individual goals.

For example, if you are someone with a significant amount of body fat and your main goal to drop excess fat, consuming a moderate-to-high carb diet may not be suitable for your weight loss goals. Stick with mainly vegetable carbs and don’t try to “bulk” until you drop a significant amount of body fat.

To replenish your energy levels, plan for one refuel meal (note: refrain from calling it a “cheat meal” because the word “cheat” is associated with feelings of guilt and shame) every fifth day and plan it after your workout (preferably after a lower-body lifting day).

Additionally, get plenty of dark, leafy greens, which are loaded with Vitamin C. Your body needs Vitamin C to produce carnitine, which helps in fat oxidation.

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#4 – Eating the Right Breakfast – Try Meat and Nuts

We all know by now that what you eat in the morning is vitally important, but there’s so much debate going on about what to eat – do you go carb-heavy, do you stick with proteins, is it best to just have a shake?

Here’s what no one tells you:

The first thing you put in your mouth in the morning sets your neurotransmitters for the day. If you drink orange juice or other high-glycemic foods that cause a spike in insulin this will trigger serotonin, which will make you feel good, but it will also make you sluggish and tired.

Protein and low-glycemic nuts are critical for priming the neurotransmitters for the day.

The protein in the meat and the healthy fats in the nuts are both awesome for helping to maintain your blood sugar levels. You get a steady, slow supply of energy and you don’t get those hunger pangs that can distract you from your training and lead you to grab unhealthy snacks.

The meat and nuts breakfast increase the neurotransmitters dopamine and acetylcholine, which are responsible for drive and focus.  Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to meat and nuts. Protein and healthy fats should be the main focus. Eggs and a slice of whole-wheat toast with avocado can be a great, filling breakfast that fills the body with the nutrients and energy needed to tackle the day ahead.

#5 – Caffeine – Friend or Foe?

One of the reasons that caffeine is the subject of so many nutritional arguments is that most people are seriously attached to their coffee. Fortunately for them, the newest research shows that caffeine can have a very positive effect on your workouts.

Why does caffeine have such a positive impact on your strength training workouts? It’s all in your head. Caffeine has a positive impact on both your dopamine (the chemical that controls your perceptions of pain, exertion, and fatigue) and acetylcholine (which is responsible for muscle contraction) levels.

If you work out in the morning, you need to stop drinking caffeine by 6 PM or so the night before. Then, drink around 2.3 milligrams of caffeine per pound of bodyweight about an hour before your workout (an average cup of coffee has about 100 to 150mg).

#6 – Taking BCAAs During Your Workout

Many people believe that BCAAs are unnecessary if they hit their daily protein needs but the scientific literature doesn’t support that suggestion.

BCAAs are a group of amino acids. Nine of them are essential amino acids, like leucine, which our bodies can’t make – we have to get them nutritionally. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a hot topic these days, but a lot of people don’t really know what they are, why they need them, or when to take them.

These 35 amino acids are responsible for too many important functions to list here, so we will talk about what they do in relation to building muscle.

First of all, BCAAs stimulate insulin production, which is very important to growth because insulin allows sugars to be absorbed by your muscles’ cells to be used as energy. It also increases protein absorption by the muscle tissue.

When you’re working out hard, your body is in a highly catabolic state. This means that your body is breaking down proteins so that it can use your muscles’ amino acids for fuel. At the same time, protein synthesis slows down as your energy reserves get used up.

By drinking BCAAs during your workout, you ensure that your body doesn’t have to rob your muscles of amino acids for energy, doesn’t have to use the protein in your muscles to fuel your workout, and makes sure that you have plenty of amino acids on board for protein synthesis.

Another benefit of taking BCAAs is that some research shows that they lower the levels of serotonin in your body. Serotonin affects your perception of fatigue, so having less of it in your bloodstream can help you to increase the intensity of your workouts.

#7 – Creatine Is the Holy Grail

Creatine has been a hot supplement since the 1990s and there’s a reason it’s still so popular: it works.

Creatine isn’t some developed compound; it’s a naturally occurring combination of three important amino acids: glycine, methionine, and arginine. Together, they help the body to produce more ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

Your body’s quick, forceful muscle movements are powered by ATP, but your body only has enough to last for about 10 seconds of muscle contraction, then it needs to make more. Creatine helps your body to do that by supplying your body with plenty of phosphate molecules.

If you have enough ATP, you can work out harder and longer. Research has also shown that creatine supplementation can help to increase the intensity of your workouts and speed and improve muscle recovery.

Building muscle, gaining strength, and getting lean are as much about nutrition as they are about working out, so it pays to get good information and to focus on eating the right macros and micros at the right time and making sure that you get plenty of healthy, whole foods to fuel your goals.

By optimizing your nutrition in a way that caters to your goals, you will be able to reach them faster.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

– How many calories should I eat?

How many calories you should eat depends on a number of factors. To get a rough estimate, check out this article.

– What is bulking? What is cutting?

Bulking and cutting are techniques used by bodybuilders to grow muscle and shed fat. Bulking requires eating in a surplus while weight training in order to build muscle. Cutting requires eating in a caloric deficit to shed body fat in order to “expose” the muscle built during the bulking phase.

– Do I have to bulk? Do I have to cut?

No. Unless you are a professional bodybuilder, you do not have to bulk or cut to lead a healthy, happy lifestyle.


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