Strength training can be a fantastic addition to your fitness routine and is something you can do at home as well as in a health club or recreation center. While a formal weight-room, equipped with a wide variety of dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells and circuit-training machines is awesome, we can also accomplish a lot with just a few pieces of equipment.
Whether you’re at home or at the gym, paying attention to your diet will help you maximize the benefit of your weight training. Proper nutrition sets your body up for performing well during a workout, and optimizing new muscle synthesis in the recovery period.
While the science behind such nutritional strategies can be complex, the basic principles, which we’ll lay out for you here, are pretty simple. The two things to pay attention to are:
What you eat and drink, and
When you eat/drink these things.
We’ll begin by discussing the macronutrients that are the most important supports for strength training …
Essential Building Blocks: Carbohydrates, Proteins & Healthy Fats
The main dietary building-blocks for effective strength training are proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats. The exact amount of each of these that is ideal will depend upon your weight. According to sports nutrition experts:
“For strength-trained athletes, it is recommended that you consume 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. You should also aim to consume 6 to 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day. There is no specific recommendation regarding fat intake, but healthy plant-based fats are advised.”
So, for instance, if you weigh 150 pounds (68 kilograms), then your daily recommended protein intake would be in the range of 2.8-4.8 ounces (82-136 grams). And your daily recommended carbohydrate intake would be in the range of 14-24 ounces (408-680 grams).
In terms of total calories, the thing to keep in mind is that a strength training athlete will almost always require more calories than someone living a more sedentary lifestyle.
Timing Meals Properly for Weight Training Benefit
As mentioned above, both the timing and the content of your meals are important, to maximize their benefit. Proper timing can enhance recovery from workouts and increase muscle mass. Getting both the content and timing of your meals right can even have the biochemical and psychological effect of boosting your mood!
In this regard, the three time-frames to pay attention to are:
Pre-workout foods and fluids
Fluids during your workout
Post-workout foods and fluids
Let’s now look at each of these, in turn …
Pre-Workout Foods & Fluids
The most important thing to remember here is that your body needs protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats to generate the energy to perform properly in your workout, and to recover effectively afterwards. So, it’s really not a good idea to exercise intensely on an empty stomach.
A good rule of thumb is to have a small meal 60-90 minutes before your workout. This meal should ideally include both protein and carbohydrates, and some healthy fat too, if possible. Here are some examples:
A cup of whole-milk cottage cheese (with live active cultures) with a sliced banana and some chia seeds on top.
A cup of chopped chicken or turkey breast and a half avocado wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla warmed up in some ghee.
A couple slices of buttered whole-grain toast with two free-range eggs (or one whole egg plus three egg whites).
It’s also super important to be properly hydrated before your workout begins.
Fluids During Your Workout
While strength training athletes generally don’t need to eat during workouts, they do need to stay properly hydrated, and this means more than just getting adequate water. It’s also important to replace electrolytes: the essential salts and other minerals that leave your body via sweating.
Hydrating properly helps keep blood glucose levels normal, which means you won’t drain your muscle glycogen stores as quickly, and performance will be better.
The basic rule of thumb here is to drink 14 fluid ounces of a sports drink every 30 minutes. If possible, try to choose a sports drink that isn’t filled with refined sugars and artificial colors/flavors. Great alternatives to sports drinks, which also provide essential electrolytes, are young coconut water and Capra Mineral Whey.
Foods & Fluids After Your Training Session
The optimal refueling strategy is to replace lost fluids and have a snack or small meal within 30 minutes after your workout. That said, don’t sweat it if it doesn’t happen within that window!
As for the post-workout snack, experts recommend that it include 10-20 grams of protein and 50-100 grams of carbohydrate. Some examples of snacks or small meals that fit this bill include:
A tall glass of chocolate milk
A banana spread with peanut butter
Some Greek yogurt (with live probiotic cultures) mixed with granola and chia seeds
A sliced turkey and avocado sandwich on whole-wheat toast
The Best Foods to Help You Gain Muscle
Now that you have an idea of the general categories of foods that are most important for athletes engaging in strength training, and when it’s best to eat them, let’s expand the list of go-to foods for helping you gain muscle mass.
But first, a quick word about some foods that it’s best to avoid completely. Each of these substances tends to have damaging effects upon the body, and hence will undermine your strength training program.
Refined white sugar
Artificial sweeteners (e.g. Sweet ‘n Low, Nutrasweet, Equal)
White and refined wheat products (e.g. white bread, white pasta, refined wheat crackers)
Organic whole eggs—which contain protein, fats and vital nutrients to help build muscle.
Lean protein—which can include a range of high protein foods such as grass-fed beef, organic chicken, bone broth and wild-caught salmon. Excellent vegetarian sources of protein include lentils, black beans, yogurt/kefir, goat cheese and almonds.
Organic broccoli—which, along with other cruciferous veggies—contains essential nutrients for building muscle.
Wild-caught salmon and other fish—which contain omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and are vital for building muscle.
Almond and other nut butters—which are a great source of L-arginine and vitamin E, which can reduce damage from free radicals after a heavy workout.
Sweet potatoes—an awesome source of carbohydrates.
Bananas—packed with nutrients that support muscles health, and great in smoothies for some extra calories.
Healthy Fats/Oils—number one here is coconut oil, though also excellent are olive oil, sesame oil, avocado oil, almond oil, butter and ghee. All these healthy fats/oils support cellular function and the nervous system.
By following the tips and strategies we’ve laid out here, your diet can become a more and more effective tool for supercharging your strength training program.