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Nutrition For Strength Athletes

nutrition for strength athletes

Strength and power athletes are typically looking to enhance power relative to body weight. This means some sort of resistance training is going to be a big part of their training. As with any type of training, proper nutrition has a significant impact on how well your body responds to and recovers from training.

In strength training, nutritional objectives include:

  • meeting caloric needs
  • providing the optimal ratio of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, and fat)
  • incorporating specific timing of meals/nutrition  
  • providing optimal micronutrients (vitamins, minerals)
  • ensuring sufficient hydration

Energy, nutrient needs, and nutrient timing can differ vastly from person to person or in the context of different sports and training modalities.

Just a few of the factors that come into consideration are age, gender, height, weight, level and intensity of training or competition, training experience, personal goals, and activities of daily living such as a sedentary or taxing job.

There are a few basic rules that apply when considering overall nutritional strategies to optimise strength training. 

1/ Your body needs to be in a net positive state of nitrogen balance. Nitrogen is a component of the amino acids that make up proteins. 

Your body uses amino acids to build the proteins that are used for all body functions. Just a few of the functions of protein include building or repairing muscle tissue, connective tissue, organs, skin, the creation of enzymes, cell signalling, and much more. 

functions of protein

Nitrogen balance measures total body protein metabolism. If it is negative, this indicates that the body is breaking down more proteins than you are consuming, i.e. you are in a catabolic state.

In an anabolic state, you are consuming more protein than your body is breaking down. This means you are in a state of positive nitrogen balance which allows your body to synthesize proteins (such as in building and repairing muscle tissue). 

Consuming enough protein will ensure you are in a net positive nitrogen balance. 

2/ It is rarely effective to attempt to gain strength or muscle mass while in a calorie deficit. 

Building muscle is a calorically expensive process for the body. There may still be some improvements in training, through skill refinement for example. Although it is possible under some circumstances to gain muscle without a calorie surplus, it is typically not the most effective or efficient way.

Research into how large of a calorie surplus indicates that highly trained athletes typically require a smaller calorie surplus than beginner or novice athletes to effectively add muscle mass without adding excessive body fat. 

A surplus of 200-300cal would be a good starting point for an experienced athlete to avoid unnecessary fat gain, whereas a beginner would likely benefit from a 500 calorie surplus. 

3/ Carbohydrate intake is typically associated with better performance in exercise settings, especially those of higher intensity. 

There is some evidence low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets may be effective in reducing body mass without compromising certain types of resistance training, powerlifting or Olympic lifting performance. However, for specific performance improvement, the weight of evidence supports a moderate to high carbohydrate intake.  

How much protein should I be consuming?

As mentioned, optimal protein is crucial in strength training. The Australian nutrient reference values give a recommended daily intake of 0.84 g/kg/day or roughly 64 g/day for the average person to remain healthy. 

This is fine for general health and preventing deficiency. However… if you are doing more than just ‘being alive’ it’s likely you may need more protein than this!

For example, a protein intake of 0.86 g/kg/day in strength athletes shows decreased whole-body protein synthesis compared to 1.4-2.2 g/kg/day. In sedentary people, a protein intake of greater than 0.86 g/kg/day did not prompt any increase in protein synthesis. (i.e. just eating more protein isn’t enough to gain more muscle – training is part of the process!)

There have been similar findings in regards to squat and bench press strength improvements with low protein (LP) vs high protein (HP) intakes.

high v low protein squat bench

Over the last few decades, a wide range of studies has been performed exploring HP vs LP intake in combination with resistance training and muscle gain.

The general consensus as supported by the International Society of Sports Nutrition is that:

table of protein requirements

In some circumstances, suggested protein intake may be slightly higher again, such as in competitive bodybuilders where at least 2.2g/kg/day is recommended.

In many sports (ie weight lifting, combat sports, weight class events, physique sports) additional benefit is gained from reducing body fat to reduce weight while maintaining as much strength or muscle mass as possible.

In the context of weight-loss for performance, higher protein intakes again seem to be beneficial. Higher protein intake during hypocaloric diets shows greater retention of muscle mass. 2.3 to 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of fat-free mass has been suggested to be most effective in retaining muscle mass while losing weight. The upper end of this range appears to be most relevant for those who are already quite lean, or those in a large calorie deficit.

How much protein to take at once

The dose of protein that appears to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) appears to be approximately 20-25 grams in most people. This estimate may be higher (up to 40g) for heavier athletes (i.e >100kg). Having more protein in one sitting isn’t going to impair protein synthesis, it simply doesn’t contribute to any further significant increases of MPS.

This DOES NOT mean that having more than 25g in one serve is pointless! It merely suggests that the rate of protein synthesis will not increase further with larger boluses of protein – not that once you consume over 25g in one sitting the body ‘can’t use the rest’.  

That being said – protein is definitely not calorie-free. Protein has the same amount of calories per gram as carbohydrates do. Overconsuming protein will contribute to fat gain, in the same way, overconsuming carbs or fat will, so this is worth taking into account if your thinking of triple scooping your next protein shake for ‘extra gains’…

Following this logic, protein consumption is best spread out across the day rather than consumed in one or two larger servings or backloading it after your gym session. This provides more opportunities to elicit a maximal protein synthesis response. 

This is well illustrated in the images below in which the muscle protein synthesis rates were tracked after resistance exercise along with 10, 20, or 40g servings of protein ingested across the day. 

protein bolus sizes
muscle protein synthesis rates

What about the other Macronutrients?

Intuitively after meeting protein requirements, filling up the rest of your caloric budget with a balance of high-quality fats and carbohydrates is the best option.

The exact percentages or amounts aren’t as important as with protein but there are a few guidelines i’d suggest:

Fat

Fat is needed for physiological functions such as: immune system modulation, hormone production, healthy cell function, padding for internal organs (think collision sports like rugby), provide fat-soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K), provide a source of essential fatty acids, and many other functions. 

Ideally, for strength athletes, I’d suggest dietary fat should make up no less than around 15% of your total calorie intake. For example, for someone with a calorie target of 3,200kcal, this would equate to 480kcal (or 53g) of fat.

Generally going over 30% of total calories in fat is also not recommended. Using the same 3,200kcal example as above, this equates to an upper limit of 960kcal (or 106g) of fat.

Mono- and polyunsaturated (“healthy”) fats should be targeted for the majority of fat intake. These types of fats are generally liquid at room temperature. 

Saturated fat should not contribute more than 10% of total energy intake. These fats are generally solid at room temperature. 

Trans fats should be avoided as they have shown to promote high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease and provide no nutritional benefit.

types of fat

Carbohydrate

Carbs are considered an indispensable fuel for high-intensity performance. 

A single resistance training session can deplete your muscle glycogen stores from between 24-40% depending on the time, type of exercise, and intensity of the session.

Having one specific carbohydrate target for everyone is unrealistic, but in a general sense, 4 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day has been shown to meet the needs of most forms of exercise. Somewhere in this range is a good starting point for strength athletes.

For example, when looking at resistance training for muscle mass, it has been shown that bodybuilders on 3 to 5g/kg/day of carbohydrate support the energy demands from exercise.

Larger ranges of carbohydrate may be necessary for athletes at who perform at high intensity for >12 hours per week.

Taking a guide of 5g/kg/day of carbohydrate, an 80kg athlete training for 60-90 minutes, 5 times per week, would need around 400g of carbs per day. With carbohydrate yielding 4 calories per gram, this equates to 1,600kcal per day coming from carbs. 

Putting all the macros together

Taking our example of an 80kg athlete, the following table would be a good starting point, which would then be further adjusted based on the athlete’s needs and results: 

example cal calc

For those in a calorie deficit, sticking to a minimum protein intake of 2.2g (to preserve muscle mass with weight loss), and a minimum fat intake of 15% of daily calories may not leave enough calories to support a carbohydrate intake this high.

If this is the case, carbohydrate intake should be prioritised around training sessions, with the 2 hours either side of training being the most important. Carb intake should be weighted towards these meals to promote a higher quality of training and recovery.

Nutrient Timing

Specific pre and post-exercise nutrition through carbohydrate, protein, and other supplements can be effective in supporting increases in strength and improvements in body composition. 

For a strength training session, you should ensure good carbohydrate availability for training sessions. This can easily be achieved by having a carbohydrate-rich, moderate protein meal 2-4 hours before training, as well as around 20g of simple carbs as a snack 15-45 mins before training. 

Post-exercise there should be a strong focus on consuming 20-40g of a high-quality protein source within 2 hours of training. Ideally, the protein should be highly digestible and have a good amino acid composition. 

Leucine is an essential branched-chain amino acid and initiates protein synthesis most strongly out of all amino acids. Animal protein contains all essential amino acids and is the best whole-food source of leucine. If using plant-based proteins, a combination of different plant proteins is needed to obtain a full amino acid profile.

animal vs plant foods for leucine

Total daily protein should be relatively evenly spaced throughout the day, as mentioned earlier, with multiple intermediate-sized protein feedings being the most efficient at maintaining a higher MPS throughout the day. 

If there is a short turn-around between repeat training sessions, additional carbohydrate should also be consumed acutely in the post-workout period. Although this may not further increase MPS if you are getting enough protein, it will help to replenish muscle glycogen that has been used during the training session. Around 0.8g of carbs per kg of body weight (ie 64g for an 80kg athlete) with your post-workout protein is the maximum you’ll need for this.

Consuming casein protein (~30–40 g) before sleep can promote recovery and acutely increase MPS and metabolic rate while you are asleep, without negatively affecting the fat stores your body normally breaks down for energy during the night.

Supplements and Hydration

The addition of creatine at 0.1 g per kg of body weight per day to a carbohydrate and protein shake may facilitate even greater adaptations to resistance training. That equates to about 8g for an 80kg athlete in this instance. We’ve done an in-depth write up about the benefits of creatine HERE.

Dehydration at various levels can have significant negative consequences on exercise performance and health.

At levels as small as 2% of body weight fluid loss, dehydration can begin to impair performance, and as this increases, the rate of perceived exertion for the same amount of work increases, concentration is impaired, and there is increased weakness and laboured breathing.

Fluid losses of 3% body weight can impair VO2max by 5%, and at 5% body weight fluid loss work capacity drops by up to 30%.

Dehydration can be exercise-induced and can carry over from once session into subsequent sessions if you have not rehydrated sufficiently. In the few hours following training aim to drink approximately 1.5x the amount of weight lost in the training session.

Key Summary

Protein is the key. Aim for 1.4 to 2g per kg of body weight per day, spaced across the day. Ensure 20-40g of this is taken within 1-2 hours post-workout.

Carbs are critical for high performance and the rapid production of the energy required by fast-twitch muscle fibres during strength training. Except in cases of extreme activity, 4 to 7g per kg of body weight per day is likely sufficient.

If you are in a calorie deficit, prioritise carbohydrates either side of the training window to maximise training quality and recovery.

Dietary fats play many important roles including hormone production and the provision of critical fat-soluble vitamins. In most general cases for a strength athlete, they should contribute at least 15% of your daily calories.

Supplements such as creatine can help further enhance training and therefore improvements in strength, but don’t outweigh the importance of proper nutrition.

Hydration is important, as even levels as small as 2% can have negative consequences on performance. This one is a no brainer. Don’t turn up to training dehydrated.

Everybody is different and will respond differently to various diet compositions and training programs. For individually tailored performance nutrition plans, working with a dietitian experienced in exercise science and sports nutrition is your best bet!

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