One of the critical reasons that strength training is as successful as it is results from it being a lifestyle change under the guise of going to the gym a few times a week. I speak from experience when I say, after the first few weeks in the gym, you get protective of your gains. You like what you’re seeing and want it to continue. Once that mental switch flips you’re willing to take a look at the other parts of your life to see what else you can improve.
Getting stronger is the result of stressing your body in the gym and recovering properly outside of it. Recovery is governed by how you eat and sleep.
Eating for Recovery and Gains
The Internet is encrusted with websites telling you what to eat. Rather than get crazy about specifics, let’s talk about your weight goals, strength goals, and how to address them.
There are three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbs. All food is comprised of these three macronutrients along with water, indigestible bits (fiber), and micronutrients.
Most fashionable diets on the market focus their energy on demonizing either carbs or fats. Much has been written about the glycemic index and controlling one’s blood sugar. Or the evils of sugar in general. This is ironic because in America, since we’ve just gone through a period of about 20 years where people are scared to put fat in their food. Even now, grocery stores are littered with “fat free” foods that, by all accounts should contain fat.
Rather than get into a literal food fight about the best diet, I find it helpful to group the three macronutrients (called ‘macros’ from here on out) into two groups:
- Energy Macros
- Structural components
How Much Protein?
If you think of macros in this fashion, your diet will start to naturally fall into place. Most people fundamentally eat too many energy macros and not enough protein. The rule of thumb for protein is 1 gram per pound of body weight. For most of us, that puts us in the 125-250 grams of protein per day range. The US recommended daily allowance is 60 grams. Clearly not enough.
Think about that, if you eat 60 grams of protein in a day at 4 calories per gram, that’s 240 calories. Presuming we stick to a 2,000 calorie diet (and who does that?) that means over 75% of our calories should come from energy units? Is it any wonder we all walk around with an excess of energy around our midsection?
Not only that, it takes more calories for your body to digest protein than it does carbs or fats.Roughly 25% of the protein you eat is burned through the process of digestion. Compare that with 6% for fats and 2% for carbs!
An easy way to get more protein in your diet is with a high quality protein supplement. Whey protein is such a staple among lifters that it’s not even considered a supplement. It’s just food in powder form.
When it comes to how many fats and carbs you should eat, you have options. Some people like to focus on getting in mostly fats because they find that they can easily control their cravings this way. Some people like to time their carb intake around their exercise. That way they get some quick energy but also use it up during the activity. And some people don’t care. They’re strictly calories in, calories out.
The truth is, if you’re not a highly trained athlete, as long as you’re maintaining a caloric limit, it doesn’t really matter whether you eat carbs or protein for energy. The difference isn’t going to show up in how you look. The difference will be in your hunger levels. As a general rule, the more carbs you eat at once, the faster you’ll get tired after eating and the quicker you’ll be hungrier later.
The bottom line is this: Make sure you’re getting enough protein. Aim for 1 gram per pound of body weight. Don’t sweat the other macros but do keep track of your total calories. Add or subtract calories on a weekly basis depending on the results you want and how your body is responding to your regimen.
One last tip: Eat more fiber. Protein can act like gut cement, especially if you’re having to eat high quantities of it. Getting enough fiber is not only good for you, since it both exercises the intestinal tract and feeds beneficial gut bacteria, but it keeps the protein moving.
Sleep: The Key Ingredient for Recovery
If you’ve been in the gym and you’ve gotten your protein intake up to appropriate levels, all that’s left is to give your body the time to build itself. The science behind it is complicated but essentially during Stage 4 and REM sleep, hormones are secreted that tells the body to secret hormones. (Yes, you read that right.) This causes the largest burst of growth hormones, which tell the body to get serious about adapting to the stress you’re giving it in the gym.
How much is this? A good round number is 8 hours. Most people notice a lack of ability in the gym with anything under 6 hours consistently and research on athletes who have their 1-rep max tested before and after three days of only getting three hours of sleep saw a drop of 20 lbs. in all of their major lifts.
That’s right, if you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll actually be weaker in the gym. Sleep is when the brain rewires itself, myelin sheathing grows, muscles are repaired, and trophic growth factors are coursing through your body. It’s crucial to get enough sleep.
Aim for 8. If you can sneak in a little more, do that. Your gains with thank you.
If you do these three things consistently: hit the gym, get enough protein and adjust your calories for your goal, and get plenty of sleep, you’ll rapidly change how you look and feel for the better.