Strength training was once considered the province of the elite athlete. That is no longer the case. Advances in our knowledge and understanding of the human body have proven the benefits of strength training for all. Studies show that strength training and weight bearing exercise are incredibly beneficial, particularly as we age. The issue I see so often in my practice is the lack of understanding of the role that nutrition plays in strength training, no matter the level of training that’s being undertaken.
It’s easy to forget that without good nutrition your body won’t be fuelled properly. Without the correct diet, the maximum benefits of training won’t be achieved. Inadequate nutrition can lead to nutritional deficiencies, which will also negatively affect training sessions. A diet that isn’t tailored to your needs may still give you improvements, but they are often slower and may not give you the maximum benefits.
With the right daily eating plan you can achieve maximum gains from your training sessions. It may be tempting to simply adopt the latest meal plan finding favour in the media, one size does not fit all and a successful diet is different for each person. This is the key to training. Your needs will depend on your body and your specific requirements, including the type of strength training you are undertaking. Initially, adding structure to your meal plan will help build a good foundation, and with a structured meal plan in place we can then modify things to meet your individual needs.
It’s important to define your exercise goals.
This is something I encounter often in terms of exercise programmes versus what people are actually looking for nutritionally. You can’t be fit, strong, and lose weight all at the same time. You need to be able to prioritise your goals.
I’m reminded of one of my recent clients. She was a young woman with 5kg to lose. She came to me with a number of goals. Firstly, she wanted to lose weight. Secondly, she wanted to be fit, and lastly she wanted to be strong. I put a meal plan in place so help her achieve her first goal. In the meantime she changed her exercise programme by switching to a personal trainer.
Under the supervision of her personal trainer she increased her weight training dramatically. Over time she ended up gaining weight rather than losing it. She was understandably frustrated! She was getting strong but not seeing her main goal achieved. It is possible to lose weight while training, but your dietary intake needs to be tailored very specifically in order to achieve it. Having your dietitian work in conjunction with your exercise physiologist and physiotherapist will help to ensure the best possible outcome for you.
As I mentioned earlier, the right daily eating plan will help set you up for success with any form of strength training. The basic rule for healthy eating is that balance is best. In practical terms it means that we need to eat a variety of foods.
Contrary to almost everything you hear in the media, there are no ‘good foods’ and no ‘bad foods’. How we use foods to meet our individual requirements determines whether foods are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I prefer not to use those words. For example, a fruit smoothie with ice cream and fruit juice may be suitable for an athlete but it may exceed the kilojoule requirements for a slightly built, middle-aged female who exercises recreationally.
The value of food must be looked at in an individualised context. You need to work out what your energy requirements are and then what you are trying to achieve. Again, the key message is that balance is best.
If you are looking for a quick guide to the basics of healthy eating, The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating is a good place to start.
When it comes to strength training, it is important to understand your daily fuel needs and in particular the role of carbohydrates, protein, fats and fluid in achieving your goals.
A balanced diet generally contains the following macro-nutrient breakdown
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet and help keep you healthy. They have gotten a bad rap in the media because they are seen as the culprits of weight gain. This is incorrect. Weight gain has to do with the total amount of energy that you consume and this energy can come from any food source.
Carbohydrates are the source of fuel for many vital organs and the only source of fuel for your central nervous system, kidneys and brain. That’s the one that I find a lot of people don’t understand. The only fuel for your brain is blood sugar. Carbohydrates are the source of blood sugar for your brain. There is a back up source of energy for your brain, called a ketone.
Ketones are formed when your body breaks down fatty acids. This happens during periods of starvation, using carbohydrate restricted diets, participating in prolonged intensive exercise or in uncontrolled diabetes. If you use ketones for energy this is called ketosis. It’s a very inefficient source of energy. When you are in ketosis it feels like your brain is slow, you are tired; it almost feels like you are walking through mud.
Not all carbohydrates are equal.
Whole grain carbohydrates tend to be the better form unless you are training for something specific or during intense exercise. A few years ago I spent a week at the Australian Institute of Sport and the cafeteria would be a bit of a shock to most. Ice cream, lollies, cordial and more and in plentiful supply. In the midst of intense training elite athletes need this level of energy. For your general population though, the whole grain cereals are best. Fruit and vegetables are an important source of energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals and they are required to optimise health and performance.
There are a few different energy systems that engage when you exercise, they are:
- The anaerobic a-lactic system
- The anaerobic lactic system
- The aerobic system
The first two systems work in the absence of oxygen, while the aerobic system requires oxygen to work. During a typical Keiser weight training session all three systems would be engaged.
The body’s main source of fuel for exercising muscles is obtained from carbohydrates. When carbohydrates are digested in the stomach, they make different kinds of sugars, which are absorbed in the small intestine and transported to the blood stream. Some sugar remains in the blood while the rest is stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen.
The body’s ability to store carbohydrates is limited and the depletion of those stores is directly linked to the duration and intensity of exercise. It’s important to consult your trainer and dietitian to work out how your meal plan can optimise your individualised training programme.
What is important is the timing of the consumption of carbohydrates in order to make the most of your strength training. If you are exercising on an empty stomach your carbohydrate stores will be depleted before you begin. This will compromise your training, decreasing your ability to train properly.
If you’ve ever watched a long distance run or an endurance event like a triathlon, sometimes you might see people ‘hit the wall’. This occurs because their muscles are depleted, the liver is depleted and there are no carbohydrate stores left. The body switches from carbohydrate metabolism (using carbohydrates as an energy source) to using fat.
Fat metabolism is a very slow process and it literally looks like someone ‘hits the wall’, they may even drop to the ground. With their body now using fat as it’s energy source, they will eventually get up but it will take quite a while and their performance will suffer. This is what makes carbohydrates so important for exercise!
To summarise, your carbohydrate requirements are based on how much fuel the muscle needs, and that depends on the type and amount of exercise that you’re doing and also the size of your muscles.
This charts the carbohydrate needs for a 60 kg person as an example. For minimal exercise, you are looking at about 3-5g per kg body weight each day, which for a 60 kg person is around 180-300g of carbohydrates a day. A moderate exercise program is about an hour a day, so for a 60 kg person you are looking at 300-420g of carbohydrates per day. High intensity or endurance programs, involving 1-3 hours per day of moderate to high intensity exercise require approximately 420-600g of carbohydrates.
The final category is for extreme exercise and would include events like Tour de France. The requirements at this level are as extreme as the effort, 600-720g of carbohydrate per day. The estimated consumption of a Tour de France cyclist per day on the tour is about 45,000kj compared to 8,700kj for the average adult. Putting that in context, if you broke that down into slices of bread you would be eating 48 slices per day!
It takes two hours for carbohydrates to be digested and absorbed and it’s recommended that you top up your carbohydrate stores after exercise as quickly as possible. There is a 2-hour window post exercise during which there is maximum carbohydrate absorption, replenishing the muscles and the liver.
The recommended amount of carbohydrates post exercise for athletes is 1.2g per kg body weight and for a 60kg person this equals about 72g of carbohydrates or nearly 5 serves of carbohydrates. In my opinion, for your average person, this is too much. It’s not practical, can blow your kilojoule budget and it could see you putting on weight. 1-2 serves of carbohydrates post exercise, as soon as possible within the 2-hour window will top you up.
There are many other examples, but here are a few to give you ideas.
Strength and stability are important for pretty much everything we do all day. Tasks like standing up, walking or putting plates in the cupboard require degrees of strength and stability. As we age we slowly start losing skeletal muscle mass. This is called sarcopenia, and is made worse by chronic illness, poor diet and inactivity.
A loss of muscle mass can increase the risk of falls. Eating the right amount of protein combined with the right exercise program – the two go hand in hand – will help keep and even build muscle mass. It’s not either or, it’s both. You can’t build the muscle without the right nutrition and even if you have the right nutrition but not the right exercise plan, muscle building will be compromised.
As a dietitian I work with exercise physiologists, exercise scientists and physiotherapists to ensure that my clients get the best possible outcomes when it comes to nutrition and strength training.
Protein should make up about 15-25% of your daily energy intake. Eating the right amount of protein, combined with the right exercise programme can protect you against the loss of muscle mass, it can promote muscle gain and it can also increase strength and it protects you against falls risks, especially in older people.
I recently came across some interesting research in the area of dementia. According to Ngaire Hobbins, APD, research into dementia is investigating possible links between muscle mass loss and the onset of dementia. The theory being tested is that losing muscle mass is considered an inflammatory effect in your body. Dementia is also considered an inflammatory disease, so researchers are investigating if there is a link between the loss of muscle mass and the onset of dementia.
Either way, strength and weight training are good for you!
So, what are the functions of protein? Proteins are required for body building and repairing of tissue. They form an important part of our immune system and they are essential for increasing muscle mass and strength. Your protein requirements depend on your weight, your age, your state of health, and activity level. It is important to note that the human body can’t store protein and so will excrete any excess protein consumed.
Consuming too much protein is a waste of time, as your body cannot store excess protein. The aim is to get the right amount of energy to complement what you are trying to achieve and then to work out the correct carbohydrate and protein proportions. Getting the balance right will improve the quality of your training.
The total protein requirements for the average person are about 1g of protein per kg of body weight. This amount of protein is generally gained from a healthy and balanced diet.
Protein supplements are generally not required for recreational exercise in a setting such as Kieser. What is important is the timing of the protein for recovery, muscle building and repair. Studies show that when protein is strategically eaten about an hour after a weights workout, there’s a marked increase in protein synthesis or muscle building, which helps to create new muscles and increase strength.
10-20g of a good quality protein seems to be the right size for a recovery snack with studies showing that anything over 25g of protein will lead to an increase in the use of protein as fuel, defeating the purpose for which it’s being consumed.
You need to get the right amount of protein in after your workout, otherwise you’re wasting energy. Protein is important; it’s required to build your muscles and to increase your strength, but just the right amount.
Again, this is just a sampling of how to meet your protein needs in the hour after strength training.
Nutritionally, the value of proteins is determined by the amino acid profile of a protein. An amino acid is a building block for a protein. If you liken amino acids to building a house, the amino acids would be the bricks and the wall would be considered the protein.
There are different types of proteins, divided into high biological value proteins and low biological value proteins. A high biological value protein is a protein that contains all the essential amino acids your body needs, such as animal based proteins. This includes dairy foods, eggs, meat, fish and chicken.
Plant based proteins may contain some of the essential amino acids and so are considered a low biological value protein. If you are vegetarian, it’s a simple case of matching the different kinds of amino acids in the different kinds of vegetarian foods. You can still get the amino acid profile you need, but in terms of muscle building the high biological value protein is the better option of the two.
A note on leucine: The amino acid leucine is topical at the moment in the weight-training arena because it plays a critical role in switching on muscle protein synthesis in order to build muscle mass. Leucine is one of the branch chain amino acids and is an essential amino acid. The research suggests that 2-3g of leucine maximally stimulates protein synthesis and this is equivalent to about 20-25g of high biological value protein.
The leucine content of food varies but some foods are naturally high in leucine including milk, whey protein and red meat. What this means is that your protein snack or meal post exercise is going to cover the amount that you need to increase protein synthesis and also give you the right amount of leucine.
Most people will be able to get their leucine requirements from milk and yoghurt without the need to purchase additional supplements.
Ideally, fat should make up 25-30% of your daily energy intake. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that less than 10% should be saturated fats, instead including more unsaturated fats such as mono and polyunsaturated fats in your diet.
They further recommend that you limit the intake of foods high in saturated and trans fats. Trans fats are unsaturated fats that have been processed and so act like saturated fats. Both saturated and trans fats will not only increase your weight but also increase your cholesterol profile, increasing the risk of heart disease.
Saturated fats can be found in foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries, deep-fried and high fat take away foods, palm oil, coconut, coconut milk and cream and cooking margarine.
Fluid is essential for life. We lose approximately 2.5L of fluid per day through normal bodily functions such as urine production, bowel movements, sweat and breathing. A common calculation for fluid requirements is 30-45mls per kg per day. For a 60kg person that equals around 1.8-2.7L per day. This is probably where the source of generic advice has come from to drink at least 8 glasses of fluid a day.
Fluid losses increase in hot weather, if we breathe in dry air due to air-conditioning, during high intensity exercise for long periods of time, and during episodes of diarrhoea or vomiting.
Altitude also often increases dehydration, so if you are on a long flight it’s always a good idea to top up with water. This may also help to decrease jetlag when you arrive at your destination.
Putting it all together!
We’ve explored the way carbohydrates, protein, fat and fluid work nutritionally and specifically in relation to strength training. Now is the time to pull all that information into a sample meal plan so that you can see what your day might look like in terms of daily energy intake and the timing of meals.
I need to stress that this is an example only and not to be taken as a prescription. It’s based around a 30 minute Kieser weight-training session for an adult female weighing 60kg with a daily energy intake of 8,600kj.
Remembering that it takes 2 hours for carbohydrates to be digested and absorbed, a good breakfast prior to a strength training session is important. My advice would change if you were looking at other sporting codes or wanting to achieve different results.
Let’s talk about caffeine. Caffeine can enhance performance. However, you need to be careful with caffeine use. Caffeine can be quite detrimental if you have any cardiac issues. It can actually knock your heart out of rhythm, so you need to talk to a qualified professional about your caffeine requirements in a day.
If you are able to manage caffeine, if your body’s able to sustain it, then it can be used to increase performance. Caffeine will peak an hour after you ingest it so if you are trying to increase your performance in a weight-training session I would recommend that you have it an hour before you train so that it peaks as you start training.
For our purposes I have included the Kieser training session from 9-9.30am with a snack at between 10-10.30am. I’ve included travel time from Kieser to where you need to be. This snack will both top up your muscles after exercise, and also meet your body’s carbohydrate requirements. Again, this is within the 2-hour post exercise window for maximum benefit. The rest of the meals are generic examples of how you would achieve an energy intake of around 8,600kj/day.
The key to this sample meal plan is the timing of the meals. Three meals and three snacks a day is good pattern for eating and will keep your blood sugar levels normal. If you are eating approximately every three hours you will be hungry but not starving at any point. This will help you choose better kinds of foods for your meals and help prevent overeating or responding to cravings.
Proper nutrition for life includes eating a variety of foods in balance. The same is true when undertaking strength training. Your energy intake and the timing of it are strategic in getting the most out of your exercise programme. The rough percentage breakdown for a balanced diet is 45-55% carbohydrates, 15-25% protein and 25-30% fat.
To get the most out of your strength training exercise programme, a carbohydrate based meal or snack is recommended within 2 hours prior exercise, which will provide you with optimal fuel for exercise.
A high biological value protein based meal or snack within an hour after training is also important so as to maximise protein synthesis. You can combine your protein with carbohydrates, for example yoghurt and an apple. Make sure you drink plenty of water and drink it frequently throughout the day. This will improve your hydration as well as your energy levels. Another benefit of good hydration is that it can decrease muscle soreness after exercise by ridding the body of any lactic acid buildup.