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Becoming a powerlifter - Feeding the strength

I don't often write about my personal "fitness journey" - I'm pretty sure that's the term we use nowadays to talk about what we eat, how we train and where it gets us - because I don't think such specific navel gazing is particularly helpful for other individuals.

That said, if you really do want to know more about the intricacies of my dinners and workouts, you should totally follow me on Instagram.

But I did promise to take you on my powerlifting adventures with me, so it's only fair we talk about my favourite bit of training - fuelling it.

Prepare for a nerd-out

My maintenance diet

Before I started meet preparation in earnest, I was working with a slight calorie deficit (200 calories - ish) as I was still working on adjusting my body composition - for less fat, more muscle - on a slow and steady basis.

Working on a weight loss goal at the same time as training for strength requires some serious protein, so I have been tracking my macros at about 30% of calories from protein, for me that works out at between 120g and 210g of protein daily (my energy expenditure varies vastly between training days and rest days because of my particular needs for recovery) I cap my protein at 210g (3g/kg bodyweight for me) because if my calorie expenditure gets any higher than that (over about 2500 for the day) I'm going to need more carb based calories for fuel. If I'm struggling to hit my protein target on food I might take 20-40g of protein in shakes.

I generally split the rest of my calories as 30% fat, 40% carbs, because I'm a carb driven beast and that works well for me, but I'm not hugely worried about this split so long as my fats don't get below 25%.

I eat mostly whole, minimally processed foods, but I have an 80/20 rule - I can eat up to 20% of my calories as processed foods, which leaves space for some cake or the odd ready meal, because life needs that stuff.

I take a daily multivitamin with B complex and magnesium. I also take glucosamine and chondroitin for my joints.

On the whole may maintenance diet is your basic nutrition castle - appropriate calorie balance, whole food based, protein, veggies, water, a bit of fun and consistency. And that in essence is a plan that will suit the majority of people, even athletes, just fine.

Moving into competition preparation, I decided to take the opportunity to play with some extras, and see what that did to my performance.

My meet prep diet

It's all about small steps, little tweaks here and there. The basic framework I was previously consistent with would be fine for an athlete, just as it would be for your average person, but I'm a scientist and experimenting is fun....

Calories, weight and all that nonsense

My current weight sits at about 1-2kg below the upper limit for my competitive weight class. This is great because it means I don't need to lose weight to compete, but I do need to not gain any, whilst also gaining muscle mass - so I'm going to be shifting a little fat, hopefully. My calories are now set at a maintenance ratio - calories in = calories out.

It's really important for me to eat enough at the moment. I don't want to risk fasting where my body might start to fuel itself by breaking down hard-earned muscle, and I want to make sure that the training I do gets turned into muscle gains by having the fuel and building blocks available. This is actually one of the hardest things - some days I'll burn my way through about 3500 calories, that's a lot to eat in unprocessed food! Previously I wouldn't have worried about under-eating for the day, but now that's a no-no.

If I did end up putting on a little weight, I could always do a small water cut before weigh in - this is where an athlete dehydrates themselves using a systematic protocol, to lose weight, then carefully rehydrates after weighing and before competing. I would generally rather avoid this though as it puts extra stress on the body and I want to enter my first competition at my absolute best, without any extra hassle.

Tracking my weight regularly allows me to make slight adjustments, if I see it creeping up, I can make a tiny cut in my caloric intake to set things on the right track, rather than having to make a big loss in a short while and compromise lifting performance.

My macros (protein, carbs, fat) are much the same as before, but I am playing a little with timings and cycling....

Carb cycles and pre/post workout meals

Most of the time I don't worry too hard about when I eat. I eat when I am hungry, and I use my hunger cues to decide how much to eat, it's simple. But right now I am trying to squeeze a bit more efficacy out of my nutrition and that means thinking a bit more about when I eat.

I usually train in the mornings, and right now, the hardest thing is eating enough at breakfast to fuel my training. I can burn through 1500 calories by 11.30 so I need to get in a hearty breakfast that I might not have the stomach for. At breakfast I focus on getting a good portion of protein with some carbs and fats to fuel my workout.

I walk to the gym (about 20 minutes), lift for an hour or so, then walk back.

My lunch is usually my post-workout meal, and that will also contain a good portion or two of protein, plus a decent portion of carbs to take advantage of my post-workout glycogenesis window (we store carbs as glycogen in our liver and muscles for later use, we do this a bit better in the couple of hours post-workout, so this is a good time to stock up ready for the next workout). If I am training post-lunch, I might have a protein bar with a good carb content as I leave the gym.

Training days tend to represent my greatest calorie output, and I take those "extra" calories in as carbohydrates.

On rest days, I keep my protein intake up for recovery, but my carb levels drop, I reverse the macros on my fats and carbs to take in more fats as fuel than carbs. Fats make good fuel for low level activity, like the long walks I tend to take to "walk off" any muscle stiffness or DOMS. What this might look like in practice is things like dropping from 2 slices of toast to one, and adding in an extra egg or some avocado.

Creatine for extra strength

I've started supplementing creatine. Creatine is a key component in the anaerobic creatine phosphate system which releases energy for short bursts of work - that's sprinting and heavy lifting. Supplementing creatine is known to improve strength performance. I wouldn't usually bother with this as it is just a case of increasing the numbers on the bar - but if I'm aiming to set new best lifts, and already eating and training at my optimum level, it seems reasonable to supplement. I use Creatine Extreme (!) from The Protein Works. It's a decent blend that contains suitable complementary supplements like taurine (that needs to be kept in balance with creatine levels) and beta-alanine (which is useful for delaying anaerobic fatigue - or "the burn").

Interesting story. A side effect of beta-alanine is that it can cause pins and needles type sensations as a side effect. I found this particularly unnerving when it first happened: First my ears, then my forehead and finally my cheeks and hands felt very weird for about 20 minutes. It's also really not helpful when training (and it is recommended by many that creatine is taken pre-workout) as I find it hard to deadlift when my hands feel funny and my ears itch. Thankfully I discovered that if I take 4, rather than the recommended 5 scoops of supplement, I don't have these symptoms and I am still within the effective dose of 3-5g of creatine daily.

So now you know!

There you go! That's your little insight into the geekery of my current nutrition plan. I want to make it really clear that this is not at all how I would expect the vast majority of my clients to eat - or how I intend to continue post-meet - I'll be back to palming portions and eating to hunger and generally being pretty chill about things. The best diet for any individual in general is almost never the optimal diet for athletic performance and this level of attention to detail in nutrition isn't psychologically healthy in the long term, it's a short term measure. It's also the "turrets and flags" of the nutrition castle - useless without a firm foundation of consistency in healthy eating.

Balancing nutrition and training!

Once upon a time, if you wanted to know how to train and what to eat, you would go and ask the biggest dude in the gym, because he's probably doing OK. This usually led to excessive protein shakes. Nowadays however you can hire me as your nutrition coach, you can even hire me as your online (or in person) personal trainer. You should look into that!


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It's the most common question people ask me when they find out I'm a Nutritionist:

"What's the best diet?"
So today, I am going to tell you... You are welcome.

The best diet for what?
So the first question I will ask is... what are your goals? What are you actually trying to achieve?

Gym culture tends to revolve around bodybuilders, because it tends to glorify that aesthetic. But a bodybuilder's eating habits are really not very helpful for someone who is working out 3-4 times a week and trying to lose weight.

Eating for performance is a very different beast from eating for weight loss, and both of those can be very different from eating for good health.

[for instance the protocols I would use to help a physique competitor cut fat for stage are very different from how I would handle a non-athlete wanting to lose fat for health; and also very different from how I would support a weight-class athlete, like a boxer or powerlifter, cut weight for competition.]