A proper strength training diet give your body the resources it needs to perform in the weight room and recover afterwards. Strength training can be very stressful on the body, so it's important to give your body what it needs.
Strength Training Diet
When strength training, your muscles are taxed more than usual. That means they're breaking down faster and need more fuel. Eating the right foods will replenish your muscles and help build them up bigger and stronger.
The major nutrients you need are called macronutrients. There are three of them: protein, carbohydrates and fat. Each plays an important role in helping you fuel up for and recover from your workouts. Micronutrients are the other category of nutrients, which consist of vitamins and minerals. If you're deficient in vitamins or minerals it can affect your performance and overall health.
You also have to worry about the amount of calories you're consuming. You can use a calorie tracking app like MyPlate to input your food and figure out your calorie intake for the day. You should try to maintain your weight while strength training, to ensure that you're consuming enough energy to replace what you're burning in your workouts.
Protein Recommendations for Training
Protein is one of the most important building blocks of your body, including your muscles. The protein you eat is digested and turned into amino acids, which are combined to make different proteins.
Your body reassembles amino acids to create whatever structures it needs. When you're strength training your muscles are stressed more than usual, which makes your protein intake requirements go up.
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests eating 1.2 to 2.0 grams per kilogram of body weight in protein per day if you're lifting weights. That comes out to about 17 to 28 percent of your total calorie intake. You can eat more than that, but try not to go below the minimum 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.
You need to eat a sufficient amount of protein to build muscles because strength training degrades your muscles. The damage caused by strength training increases muscle breakdown. If you eat enough protein then your body will build more protein than it breaks down, giving you a net gain in protein.
Food sources of protein should be lean animal sources like chicken and fish. You should try to limit the amount of red meat you consume, because it's high in saturated fat which can increase your risk for heart disease. Eggs and milk are also high-protein animal sources. Vegetarians can consume nuts, legumes and whole grains for protein.
Read more: Weight Training on a Calorie Deficit
Carbohydrate Recommendations for Training
Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy. Even your brain primarily runs on carbohydrates. Your body breaks the carbs you eat down into glucose, which is a simple sugar that it can send to different areas of the body to provide fuel.
When your body sends sugar to the muscle it's converted to muscle glycogen, which is stored inside the muscle for future use. This is one of the main energy sources your body uses when you lift weights.
Unless you're training multiple hours per day at very high intensity, you only need about 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight, according to an August 2018 article from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. From a meal planning perspective, carbohydrates should account for about 42 to 50 percent of your calorie intake for the day.
Low-carb and ketogenic diets have become increasingly popular. Theoretically, you don't need to consume high amounts of carbohydrates to perform well in the weight room. In fact, a small 21-person December 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine showed that subjects who trained while restricting their carb intake didn't see a difference from people who ate a normal amount of carbs.
This study shows that carbohydrates aren't necessary, but some experts would disagree. For example, the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition says that carbohydrates are essential to any type of athletic performance. It's up to you whether or not you want to include carbohydrates in your diet, but they're often recommended.
Whole grains, vegetables and fruit are the best forms of carbohydrate. Whole grains contain vitamins, minerals and fiber that are all essential for your health. Whole grain cereals, bread and pasta are all healthy choices. Fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals, making them an essential part of your diet.
Starchy carbohydrates like potatoes and pasta are also healthy to consume, particularly if they help you meet your carbohydrate goals for the day. Try to stay away from sweets like candy and focus on meeting your carbohydrate goals with whole foods.
Fat Recommendations for Training
Fat is the third and final macronutrient. It also provides energy and nutrients in the form of fat-soluble vitamins. Fat is an incredibly dense form of energy storage. The average person carries about 50,000 to 60,000 calories worth of fat on their bodies.
You only need about 0.5 to 1.0 grams per kilogram of body weight of fat per day if you're on a strength training diet. That's about 25 to 35 percent of your total calorie intake. The amount of fat you need is relatively low because it's so high in calories. There are 9 calories per gram of fat, as opposed to 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates and protein.
There are many sources of fats, and some are healthier than others. Trans fats are the worst type of fat and most directly linked to heart disease. You should avoid this type of fat entirely. Check the nutrition labels on food to see if there are trans fats included.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally considered to be the healthiest fats. They're found in foods like vegetable oil, nuts and avocados. Whereas trans fats are dangerous for your heart health, unsaturated fats can actually help your heart by reducing inflammation of the arteries.
Saturated fats are acceptable in limited amounts, but they shouldn't be the bulk of your fat intake. They're found in red meat and dairy products. Try to cut down on these fats and add more unsaturated fat to your diet.
Number of Meals Per Day
The number of meals you eat per day isn't the most important factor in your meal plan. However, it's important to be as consistent as possible. Most people do well with three meals per day. You can also do four smaller meals or two large meals, depending on how much time you have to cook, prepare, eat and clean.
The most important thing when designing your weight lifting meal plan is that you eat enough food, with the proper macronutrients and healthy food sources. Keep in mind that if you eat fewer meals per day, it'll be more difficult to eat all of your required calories.
An August 2016 study published in the European Journal of Sport Science studied subjects who restricted their eating to a four-hour window. The subjects were allowed to eat as much as they wanted during that small window. However, they ended up eating on average 650 fewer calories per day than the group that wasn't restricted.
In the study, the researchers found that eating less didn't have a negative effect on resistance training, but it was also a short-term study. It's possible that eating less would hamper strength training in the long term.
Eating three meals per day should leave space between meals to digest food so that you're not too full throughout the day. There's also time to snack between meals. Try to consume protein, carbohydrates and fat in each meal.
For example, your breakfast can consist of eggs, spinach, tomatoes, oatmeal and an apple. In one meal you have fat, protein and carbohydrates. If you evenly distribute your macronutrients, you can have balanced meals. Remember that carbohydrates will be a large portion of most of your meals, so expect to eat more carbohydrates than any other macronutrient at each meal.
Pre- and Post-Workout Nutrition
Structuring your meals before and after your workout is important. You don't want to eat too much before a strength training session because it can make you feel sluggish or even nauseous. However, you should eat roughly two hours beforehand to give your body enough energy to make it through your workout.
You should try to eat a protein-rich meal after your workout as well, with about 20 to 30 grams of protein. That will quickly deliver protein to your muscles and help you recover from your workout.
Carbohydrates are also important to have after your workout. They can be absorbed and stored by the muscles for your next workout. You can drink or eat about 35 grams of carbohydrates after your workout to give your body a boost.
While your post-workout meal won't make or break your results, it will optimize your recovery. Try to include one small post-workout meal in your meal plan, or time your workout so that you're eating one of your three daily meals after.
Supplements for Strength Training
Many supplements are marketed towards weight lifting diets. For example, protein powder, creatine and pre-workout supplements are popular among bodybuilders and recreational gym-goers. Protein supplements can enhance gains from strength training, according to a March 2018 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
However, nutrition supplements shouldn't be a priority in your meal plan. They are meant to supplement an already substantial diet. If you find that you're unable to hit your protein requirements, for example, consider buying a protein powder.
Vegans and vegetarians are particularly vulnerable to low protein levels. They can supplement with protein powders to boost their protein intake to normal levels. Other vitamin and mineral deficiencies can be fixed by taking multivitamins. Supplements can be useful, but they shouldn't be a crutch.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "A Systematic Review, Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression of the Effect of Protein Supplementation on Resistance Training-Induced Gains in Muscle Mass and Strength in Healthy Adults"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- European Journal of Sport Science: "Time-Restricted Feeding in Young Men Performing Resistance Training: A Randomized Controlled Trial"
- American Heart Association: "Trans Fats"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "How Many Calories Are in One Gram of Fat, Carbohydrate, or Protein?"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "ISSN Exercise & Sports Nutrition Review Update: Research & Recommendations"
- Gatorade Sports Science Institute: "SSE #59: Fat Metabolism During Exercise: New Concepts"
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: "Effects of Short-Term Carbohydrate Restrictive and Conventional Hypoenergetic Diets and Resistance Training on Strength Gains and Muscle Thickness"
- American Heart Association: "Meat, Poultry, and Fish: Picking Healthy Proteins"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"