“I’m absolutely stuffed; I feel like I’m going to explode. I’m so dead from eating all of this food but I can only eat so much (incredible laughter ensues)...On the way home, can we stop at a gas station to grab a few muscle milks?” While sitting in a Chipotle in Columbus, Ohio, Zach Hadge sat complaining about his “sour belly” from the bolus of food he just had. Except, bolus is an exaggeration and it was maybe more like a forkful
Immediately after hearing this I started laughing because I knew once I looked at his plate it was going to be full. Sure enough, it was, it literally could have been returned for full price. It looked like he did nothing more than twirl around some sour cream. He should have been starving, on account of the fact that he missed breakfast, and trying to gain weight for the Arnold. Instead, he ate minimal food, and drank maybe two of the four muscle milks we got on the way home.
Now I am not sharing this with you to show that Zach is an elite level food waster, it is to show how incredibly intelligent and resilient the human body is. I also programmed for Zach leading up to this Arnold and I saw the stress from training Zach put on his body. How can sub optimal nutrition somehow fuel a world champ? Really...think about how big of a deal it is to be a world champion in something, even for a short period of time. Knowing how big of a role nutrition plays in performance, how is it possible that anyone can get to that level without perfect macros?
This is because everything works in nutrition. It has to...because if it doesn’t, you die.
It really is that simple: the human body is incredibly adaptive.
If your body couldn’t adapt to the non paleo, gluten filled, GMO stuffed food like substances we consume, you would slowly deplete to death. This adaptive process, however, is what makes nutrition so difficult to manage. You can count every macro and eat for absolute optimal health and still end up with a heart attack, and you can eat candy and be a world champ.
At a lean 230 I can almost guarantee Zach was not taking in much more than 3000kcal leading up to the Arnold World Championships due to an inconsistent appetite. It's typical for Zach to eat sour patch kids and/or snickers intra workout. Some people just have the predisposition to put on lean mass very easily, while keeping body fat very low. Of course, I am picking out the worst nutritional habits Zach had, but his daily approach was far from what many would consider an optimal performance based weight gain diet.
With that in mind, anyone who is looking to take their performance or health to the next level should put some effort into their nutrition. With nutrition being the broad topic it is, most people are left with a few options:
- 1. Hire a coach
- 2. Forge your own plan
- 3. Steal one from a teen girl magazine
- 4. Go on without self improvement.
Well not everyone has the means or the desire to work with a coach, teen girl magazines haven't gotten anyone to an above average level in ever, and if you have any level of motivation, not making a change isn’t an option.
This leaves you with forging your own plan. Scary, huh?
With all of these different methods, it can be difficult deciphering exactly how to go about drawing up a nutrition plan. Thus, I have outlined the most important steps you must take into consideration to have an effective meal plan.
There is a hierarchy of importance in nutrition. Many people will argue the amount of energy (calories) taken in each day will play the largest role in what direction a meal plan will take. The biggest misconception about this is the “clean eating” fad where people eat as much as they want as long as the food carries the healthy connotation. Yes, it is a step in the right direction for many people and it does drive results to some degree, however, it is far from the most important step.
To put this in better perspective we will use the example of John. John is a 190lb male that has been resistance training with intent for a few years and has developed some respectable strength. He is already relatively lean and follows the clean eating approach. Most lean individuals who train regularly do not necessarily have a haphazard enough habitual meal plan to see negative effects, like decreased body composition, getting weaker, tired all day etc. However, he is certainly not getting the most out of his meal plan.
The next step is to attack intake directly, or the amount of calories a person should be taking in. Caloric intake is completely dependent on the individual. Factors like lifestyle, genetics, body comp, training frequency, past nutritional habits, allergies, diseases...and the list goes on and on. In simplest terms, if you’re a shredded 250 you can handle significantly more calories than a sloppy 175.
Sounds simple, but that means there is a little bit of math involved using information you must obtain from yourself or your client. This means there should be an extensive and confidential exchange of information regarding current and past health, goals, current eating habits, activity level etc.
Here are two examples on how I came to find the appropriate caloric intake for two different athletes:
BW*1.5 easy estimation of maintenance kcal for a trained population
Female, 26, novice strength athlete, 130lbs:
Training Day: 2100kcal
Non Training Day: 1800kcal
Baseline: Approx 1900-2000
This is a simple meal plan: she trains at the same times 4 times a week with her only goals being improved body composition and strength. I had previously worked with this client for some time trying to increase her intake, and based on how her bodyweight responded to the changes we made over several weeks I estimated she was between 1900 and 2000kcal to maintain her bodyweight. I simply did slightly under that for her non-training day to allow her to consume more on her training days. This should tip the scale slightly close to or over 2000kcal.
Male, 21, 166 NCAA Wrestler, 8-10 weeks out of a large tournament where he will cut to 157:
High Intensity Training Day: 2800kcal 3x a week
Moderate Intensity Training Day: 2500kcal 3x a week
Non Training Day: 2000kcal 1x a week
Weekly Intake: 2555kcal
This is a more complex situation to determine intake because of his goals and, more specifically, his lifestyle. Being a student athlete is difficult, being a student and a wrestler is very difficult, being a student and a competitive wrestler attempting to compete unaffiliated with the school while in school is insane. Adding a weight cut to that lifestyle demands special attention and a close relationship with the athlete to ensure success of the program. Especially when handling weight cuts it is important to have open and frequent communication with the athlete.
At this point, we are in a transitory period, switching goals from more off-season based to a specific tournament. Thus, I am putting minimal emphasis on weight loss, and focusing on maintaining weight while we transition in training.
As your training week changes and you intake different amounts every day it is simple to average your intake for the week. Just add up the kcal for each day of the week and divide by 7. This is a good indication of where weekly kcal is, and allows me keep a closer eye on his intake as his schedule changes.
As he transitions through a pre/off-season training block, where strength and general work capacity are high, keeping his intake high is essential to not only allow the adaptations to be more permanent but to ensure he can continue to adapt at a high rate.
The way you distribute their food is the next important concept. If you have someone eating 80% of their daily intake simply because it is easier to starve all day and binge eat at night, there is a 100% chance they will not comply long term to the plan. Creating an effective meal plan is about compliance.
- Macro Nutrient Breakdown and Distribution
The next step is the breakdown of your calories and how you distribute them throughout the day. Total calories is broken down into three macro nutrients: fat, carbs, and protein. At this point you must choose the type of meal plan you would like to use: high carb, carb cycling, high fat, intermittent fasting, and the list goes on.
Using your calories as 100%, convert each of the three macro nutrients into percentages that add up to 100.
Here are some general guidelines for a few common protocols:
Once you’ve individualized your macro nutrient distribution and have your percentages, the next step is to convert them into grams. Take your total caloric intake and multiply it by the decimal form of the chosen percentage. This will give you the amount of calories of the chosen macro nutrient. Finally, divide that number by the amount of calories per gram: 4 for carbohydrates and protein, and 9 for fat.
For the sake of examples, we will use 2500kcal as the daily intake for the three examples I outlined above.
Now that you have daily totals you can begin tracking your intake. While there are many ways to go about doing this, I’m going to share with you what has worked best for my athletes and myself.
Create a meal database. This will give you the opportunity to do less and less thinking in making and managing your own meals the longer you are compliant with your meal plan.
*Side note: Grams is an effective way to measure your ingredients because every food substance will have an unchanging mass for the most part. If you are using cups or spoons to measure, you are in fact measuring volume, which can change under certain conditions.
As you begin creating meals that both fit your macros and you enjoy, keep track of them on your phone, laptop, and/or notebook in a database. You can use google sheets, microsoft excel…really whatever goes. The goal is just to make an easy reference book of meals that you can turn to.
Distribution can be as simple as dividing your daily totals by four to have four evenly based meals throughout the day. You may also track what you eat in accordance to your natural appetite using modern day apps. This is an okay method although it has some inaccuracies and mathematical issues, but it is a reliable measure of intake if you are consistent.
The important concept to understand here is eating for compliance. You will not adhere to a meal plan if you're eating 80% of your calories at night so you can binge eat cake and pizza. This will not only ruin your energy levels and appetite/satiety axis, but it can have lasting effects on your metabolism as well.
- Peri Workout Nutrition
Outside of extreme cases, the goals of most meal plans involve some sort of physiological change related to exercise adaptation. Any sort of moderate to high intensity exercise, especially resistance training, gives major opportunity for a proper nutrition plan to synergistically work together and give you even better results.
There is an incredible amount of research to prove this, especially in diseased populations. That being understood, there is a lot to be said regarding nutrient timing in relation to exercise, this is coined peri-workout nutrition.
We can split peri workout nutrition into pre-intra-post in relation to exercise. The main variable in this equation is carbs. I will take you through my peri-workout training shake protocol, and give you some insight on the programming aspect of it.
If you are interested in learning more about the protocol itself, click here.
This should be a bolus of fast digesting carbs with a small amount of protein and minimal fat. The goal is to raise insulin levels to facilitate glucose into the muscle cell. This should be anywhere from 20-30% of your daily carbohydrate intake and 10-15% of your protein. The distinguishing factor with the pre training approach is that food or liquid are an option, whereas for the other two, liquid is strongly recommended.
I often utilize a liquid pre workout option that has an even split of dextrose and highly branched cyclic dextrin combined with whey isolate. The 50/50 split provides more optimal glucose uptake into the cell without bogging down sympathetic drive.
I time this about 30-45 minutes pre workout with any stimulants I use coming 10-15 minutes later. I utilize isolate to save a bit of money primarily, but this is facilitated by the gap in time after drinking and before training (30-45 minutes) which allows for longer digestion of the only slightly more intact isolate chains.
Intra training nutrition is one of the most highly experimented with modalities. Plenty of research has shown efficacy to intra training nutrition in improving recovery, and decreasing the dip in peak performance during a training session.
Intra training nutrition, however, has a very unique twist to it: you don’t want to spike insulin often or too high.
This is related to the autonomics of training and how they are almost inverse to the autonomics of nutrition. Simply put, insulin is a chief anabolic hormone, however, it is also a driver of the parasympathetic nervous system. All carbohydrates elicit some sort of insulin spike, the trick is picking the right balance.
Training must be a catabolic process facilitated by the sympathetic nervous system in order to illicit adaptation. The parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system work inversely, but one is always present. Ideally in training we want to minimize the parasympathetic system so we can further stress our bodies into adaptation.
Highly branched cyclic dextrin and hydrolyzed whey are my picks. While people have experimented with upwards of 70% of their daily intake for greater hypertrophy based adaptation, I tend to stick to 10-35% daily intake of carbs. As far as protein goes, keep the protein consumption low at roughly 5-10% of daily intake. Although it is not uncommon to see only BCAA’s used.
This is typically the best tasting shake, and should include a fast digesting carb that elicits a large insulin response. The parasympathetic system is what drives us to recover and adapt. After resistance training, muscle cells have a markable increase in insulin sensitivity, and this has even been been shown in diabetics. For that reason, I utilize a more balanced protein to carb ratio because utilizing them together can lead to greater glucose uptake (thanks to leucine and his friends), which drives recovery and makes you stronger for your next training session. 25-30% carbohydrates and 20-25% protein should suffice and refresh you after a tough session. I use dextrose and hydroylzed whey.
If we continued using the 2500kcal as our example my peri training shake combo would look like this
28g of dextrose, 30g of HBCD, 35g whey isolate
Fat: <2g (Incidentals due to protein)
Carbs: 56g (21%)
Prot: 28g (14%)
50g HBCD and 17g hydrolyzed whey
Carbs: 48g (18%)
Prot: 15g (7%)
67g dextrose powder and 48 hydrolyzed whey
Carbs: 67g (25%)
Prot: 41g (19%)
Something to Keep In Mind: Gut Health
Anatomy is typically what most people have memory lapses on, so here's a list of the organs of the gut: the gall bladder, large intestine, liver, oesophagus, pancreas, small intestine and stomach.
This is the system associated with digestion, nutrient absorption and expelling waste. Basically all of the organs in which food related substances travel through (they're kind of a big deal)
The most important tie in for gut health in nutrition is that it's a direct window into the immune system. This is incredibly important because it can really help or hurt you. If you're sick, putting the proper food into your system can help mitigate symptoms and improve recovery time.
We see this profoundly in our recovery to training. In fact, you can test this yourself:
Next time you have big training session make sure to start your recovery with no liquids and nothing but taco bell.
After your next big session have a shake of hydrolyzed whey, dextrose, and some salt. Follow that up with a large chicken breast cooked generously in coconut oil with some white rice 30-60 minutes later.
It's important to note that the immune system can also be nasty to bite back. Any food coming into the system that's not recognized properly will elicit an immune response causing inflammation. Over time this chronic, low level immune system activation can severely impair recovery and training readiness, as well as lead to a slew of cardiac and health based issues.
Luckily, it’s very simple to avoid. You just need to make sure you’re adequately, not under or overly, hydrated and eat foods that you can easily define.
If you have no idea how the food you're eating was made, its safe to say you should limit it. A very easy way to manage this is just prep a good majority of your own meals.
Also, you should not have excessive bloating or gastric distress from the foods you eat. Great foods to help this process are leafy green vegetables and fermented vegetables (saurkraut, kimchi, pickles).
For those who really want to optimize gut health, try not drinking water 10 minutes before or after a meal and limit it during. Water can dilute the enzymes in the stomach and change the PH to less than optimal for nutrient absorption.
There is nothing that pains me more than seeing people work their ass off just to have a lack of knowledge limit their success. While nutrition can be scary, there is a beautifully creative side to it as well.
And if you make sure you're properly managing the above criteria, then you're well on your way to creating an effective nutrition plan.
Don’t ever let knowledge be your limiting factor.
For more information on how to pick the right meal plan for you, see another of my articles:
about the author
Andrew Triana “The Leucine Frog” is a promising young coach who has an intense passion for his clients success and writing. It is evident in his work that he is relentless in his pursuit of excellence. At 20 years old Andrew has produced National champions, World champions, Pro strongmen, and has helped many others reach their goals. Follow him on Twitter (@AndrewTriana) and Instagram (@andtriana).