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5 Nutrition Hacks to Ensure Optimal Progress in the Gym

Dummbells on a rack
Training is only one piece of the equation when it comes to getting good results in the gym. Without adequate nutrition, not only does your body lack the fuel it needs to push through a tough workout, it is unable to effectively recover and grow after each session.  This article will outline 5 nutrition hacks to ensure that you are getting the full benefits out of each session.

1) Ensure You Are Consuming an Appropriate Number of Calories

Energy Balance

Consuming the correct amount of calories per day is vital to ensure you are seeing progress at the gym.

Your ideal calorie intake depends on a variety of factors such as goals, age, gender, resting metabolic rate and current training load.

For those looking to gain size, you will require a calorie surplus. Too large of a calorie surplus will lead to more fat gain than necessary. Too small a surplus and you are leaving potential gains on the table.

Large Calorie Surplus Compared to Small

For those looking to get lean, a calorie deficit will be the best approach. This means consuming fewer calories than you expend each day.

Similarly, too large a deficit and you will lose a significant amount of muscle, while also under-fueling for your training sessions. Too small a deficit and you won’t get lean as quickly as you could. Luckily, however, it is easier to hold onto muscle than it is to gain it, so often a deficit can be slightly larger than the size of a surplus before it becomes counterproductive.

In terms of the size of surpluses/deficits I recommend:

  • 500kcal surplus (the equivalent of 1/2kg weight gain per week) for males looking to gain size who are un-trained/detrained, on a good training program, getting good sleep and living a relatively low-stress life.
  • 200-300kcal surplus (the equivalent of 1kg per month) for most people looking to gain size who do not meet the majority of the above criteria.
  • 1000kcal deficit (the equivalent of 1kg per week) for individuals looking to lose weight relatively quickly who are un-trained/detrained, on a good training program, getting good sleep and living a relatively low-stress life.
  • 500kcal deficit (the equivalent of 1/2kg per week) for individuals who do not meet the majority of the above criteria.

Keep in mind that water fluctuations will impact the first week or so significantly e.g. a 1000kcal deficit will result in more than 1kg weight loss in the first week due to changes in carbohydrate and sodium consumption which carries over into lower glycogen stores and decreased water retention. There are also exceptions to these rules based on personal preferences.

2) Focus on Your Macronutrient Intake

Eric Helms Pyramid of Nutrition Priorities

Calories are made up of macronutrients. These macronutrients are carbohydrates, protein and fat.

Carbohydrates = 4kcal/g
Fat = 9kcal/g
Protein = 4kcal/g

Since calories are made up of macronutrients, you could literally hit your calorie target just by hitting a specific macronutrient target.

But focusing on calories without an emphasis on macronutrients is sub-optimal.

For those looking to optimise body composition through gaining muscle or dropping body fat, consuming a sufficient amount of protein is the priority.

Most people taking the gym seriously would benefit from aiming for 1.6-2.2g/kg of protein per day. So for an 80kg individual, this would be 128-176g protein.

There are outlier situations of course. Somebody who has a lot of body fat likely requires less protein than that since needs are mostly based on how much muscle you have. Meanwhile, if somebody was super lean and going through a comp prep for bodybuilding, they would benefit from a higher amount such as 2.3-3.1g/kg of fat-free mass per day.

From a body composition standpoint, there are no major downsides to going slightly higher protein than these recommendations. It just wouldn’t add any additional benefits. The main downsides are that it would take away from your opportunity to consume other nutrient-dense foods, in addition to the potential benefits of consuming more carbohydrates that could fuel your training slightly better.

After setting a protein target, it is important to consume an appropriate amount of fat. Going too low fat has potential negatives from a hormonal perspective. One example seen in the research is a decrease in testosterone for those on very low-fat diets.

Obviously lower testosterone will make it harder to gain or maintain muscle. The safe cut-off for most people is to consume at least 0.3g/kg/day. Sticking to at least 0.5g/kg/day could be a more cautious approach that would also have no downsides.

Going above this level of fat intake doesn’t really provide many additional benefits beyond helping to fill out the rest of your calorie requirements, while also potentially adding some beneficial micronutrients depending on the food sources you use.

Dietary Fat Intake

The next step is to fill out the rest of your calorie requirements with carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates are such a great fuel source for training, it could be argued that it is beneficial to keep fat just slightly above that minimum level so that you have more room for carbohydrates.

Since your protein needs and fat needs don’t significantly change depending on whether you are looking to gain size or get lean (outside of certain scenarios such as comp prep), but your calorie needs change, this obviously means that carbohydrates are likely going to be what fluctuate the most depending on your goals.

There isn’t a major downside to filling out more of your diet with fat though if you have met your calorie and protein needs though, so personal preference is also important.

3) Don’t Skip on That Pre-Workout Meal

Once you have worked out your optimal calorie intake, the next thing to do is to tailor the timing of your meals and snacks around your workouts to ensure optimal performance and progression. Eating correctly pre-workout helps prevent muscle glycogen depletion and reduces muscle protein breakdown. Thus, by ensuring that your body is adequately fuelled before your session, your body has the energy it requires to help you train harder while also priming your body for muscle protein synthesis.

Pre-workout nutrition doesn’t need to be complicated. It simply involves consuming both protein and carbohydrates before you train when possible. 

Ideally, your pre-workout meal should be relatively high in carbs, low in fat, low in fibre and moderate in protein. It should be easy to digest, to minimise the potential for GI distress, which is something that could hinder your performance.

It is quite individual, but most people find that having their pre-workout meal 2-3 hours before training is the sweet spot, with the potential addition of a small carbohydrate-based snack 1hr before. The small snack could be something like a muesli bar, piece of fruit or yoghurt, for example. 

If you can’t have a pre-workout meal due to training early in the morning, don’t stress about this. It is only a minor factor that can help improve your training. Sacrificing sleep to try to achieve this aspect would have negative effects that far outweigh the positive aspects of a solid pre-workout meal. 

4) Distribute Your Protein Intake Across the Day

Although it is very clear that total protein intake for the day is the top priority when it comes to protein intake, it is also important to distribute it across the day.

Based on the current evidence, it is safe to conclude that to maximise muscle growth, one should consume protein at a target intake of at least 0.4g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach that 1.6-2.2g/kg/day.

This is based on a combination of 0.4g/kg per meal typically being required to optimise muscle protein synthesis in response to a meal, while 1.6-2.2g/kg/day is required to optimise muscle growth

Optimising Protein INtake

Another aspect of protein timing people often refer to is the ‘anabolic window.’ This is typically discussed as a 1-hour window post-workout where it is considered important to consume at least 20-30g of protein to maximise muscle protein synthesis.

Luckily, it looks as if this window is actually 3-5 hours surrounding your workout, including before your workout.  If the meals and protein amounts are smaller, it would likely be at the lower end of that time frame. If the meals and protein amounts were particularly large, it could even get as high as 6 hours. 

This is why pre-workout protein often is a good idea as part of that meal 2-3 hours before training, but if you consume protein post-workout it won’t matter. Similarly, if you are unable to consume protein post-workout, it won’t be an issue if you have consumed protein pre-workout. 

For most people, distributing protein intake relatively evenly across the day means that meeting these criteria will be easy without much thought. 

5) Consider Appropriate Supplementation

Supplementation sometimes has a bit of a bad reputation since people like to point out that most supplements don’t provide many/any benefits. 

While that is true, I think disregarding supplements completely could almost be as bad as idolizing them.

Although there are only a few supplements that provide benefit and the benefit is only small, it is worthwhile considering using them.

Some examples could be:

Creatine – Creatine is one of the most studied sports supplements out there. It helps improve performance in the gym through improved ATP production, which can help you to perform a few extra reps here and there while training. 

While creatine can naturally be found in food (particularly red meat), supplementation is often required to maximise the body’s phosphocreatine stores. This builds up over time, so it is important to supplement daily. The recommended dosage is 5g per day, after an optional 20g per day loading phase.

Caffeine – Caffeine is well known for its positive effects on endurance performance, but it actually improves strength/power performance as well.

These aren’t massive improvements, but it is worthwhile being aware that caffeine has more benefits for strength performance beyond simply just hyping you up to train.

The recommended dosage for of caffeine for strength/power performance is even higher than what it is for endurance, at 3-6mg/kg pre-workout, with most studies utilising 5-6mg/kg. In comparison, endurance studies often show benefit at 1-3mg/kg. 

Beta-AlanineBeta-alanine can be useful to help improve muscular endurance through increased muscle carnosine levels. This increase in carnosine helps prevent pH from dropping by buffering H+ ions, which in turn helps to reduce feelings of fatigue. Similarly to creatine, this can help a lifter to squeeze out a few extra reps occasionally. 

The main difference between creatine and beta-alanine is that beta-alanine works best for sets lasting 60-240 seconds, while phosphocreatine only really affects the first 8-10 seconds of a set. 

The recommended dosage is 4-6g per day, split over multiple dosages to reduce the potential for paraesthesia (which is harmless, but could be offputting for some). 

Protein PowderProtein powder can be a convenient way to meet your protein needs. It doesn’t provide any additional benefit over food sources of protein, assuming you meet your total protein needs, coming from mostly high-quality protein sources. Oftentimes, a protein supplement can make it easier to meet these needs though. 

The recommended dosage would be anywhere from 0-60g per day depending on needs. The only reason I wouldn’t recommend going above 60g outside of certain circumstances is that food sources of protein also come along with a bunch of other micronutrients that can be helpful for health and performance. 

There are other supplements outside of this list that could be beneficial as well, but these ones mentioned are the ones that consistently seem to provide the most value. 

Time to Be Consistent and Make Progress

All of 5 of these nutrition tips will help you improve your progress in the gym. The key is implementing them consistently over the long term. Building muscle is a relatively slow process even if you are doing everything right. If you are training hard though, you want to be getting as much benefit as you can out of it. Taking action on these easy steps consistently will ensure that you are maximising your results.

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