Thursday 1 September 2011

Food facts for weightlifters

David Rogerson has kindly agreed to write a guest article for weightlifting epiphanies and I think you will agree that it will drop an awful lot of knowledge bombs on an awful lot of people. David is the lead sport nutritionist at Podium Performance as well as a member of the academic teaching team at Sheffield Hallam University. David currently delivers nutrition consultancy services through the athlete support programme, conducts interactive seminars and workshops as part of the SHU Wellness service and assists the Podium Performance strength and conditioning programme; he is also a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Thanks again to David, and here it is:

The sports nutrition world can seem a little daunting to the uninitiated, with contradictory information, pseudoscience, real science and heavy links with industry making it a bit of a melting pot of useful and misinformation. Lots of popular internet sources and lay press articles are clearly influenced by bodybuilding culture where high protein diets and (potentially heavy) supplement use seems norm, and on the flip-side, it seems like much academic writing is written for full time and / or endurance athletes and can be typified by (sometimes) very high carbohydrate intakes and lower protein diets; it’s no wonder that people get confused about what information is useful and what’s probably bunk. The weightlifter, or coach, is probably wondering where the sport fits into the sports' nutrition world and what the necessary nutritional requirements for the athletes are. Well the goal of this article, really, is to hopefully shed some light and provide a little context, and hopefully, allow the reader to form some reasonable judgement and opinions about how plan and construct a reasonable diet for a weightlifting.

When looking at a sport, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, physiologists, therapists, etc, will most likely perform some form of ‘needs analysis’, which provides useful background information about the physical peculiarities of a sport and an individual and his / her situation as it relates to performance. This is important, and the above staff would likely use this info to form their respective programs and support systems. When asked by folks what is the best diet, I will often be a little cagey and say, ‘that depends’, and clearly it depends on the information provided by such analyses. Let’s have a brief look at weightlifting as a sport, considering the demands of training and the demands of competition separately, which are often a little different. This also depends on your training philosophy and is something that I cover a little later, and map out some general ideas about how to create a basic dietary template. Perhaps in a future article or two I can go into a little more detail about a few specifics such as supplements, weight loss, weight gain, etc, but to get the ball rolling I will cover the major macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates and fats to begin, anyway onto our ‘needs analysis’.


We all know that weight lifting is a brief, maximal intensity sport requiring masses of strength-speed, maximal strength, mobility, coordination, etc, etc. From an energy perspective, most lifts tax the immediate energy systems mostly, the ATP-PC system being most notable. The fuel for this comes from the immediate provision and recycling of stored ATP, which we have stored in very, very small amounts. Contrast this to another sport or activity, such as the marathon or even a 400m sprint where energy is obtained from a variety of systems and fuel sources throughout the duration of the event(s); fats, carbohydrates and proteins are all probably utilised to a noticeable degree from most if not all of the available systems, particularly for the marathon. The fuels required for effective performance in these activities are different and really the diet needs to reflect this. Weightlifting poses an interesting challenge to the body structurally, we see muscle, soft tissue and bone adaptations and consistent heavy loading places tensile stresses on our bodies’ structures, which can damage them. Intense training also leads to inflammation, which is important for the structural adaptations that we want to occur, but can also make us feel sore, tired and quite stiff. With higher frequency training, typical of some weightlifting systems, we have to deal with this most of the time. Each of these factors, and many more, can (and perhaps should) be addressed with the athlete’s habitual diet.


This is where things can be a little tricky. Consider the effect that your training methods are likely to have on your dietary requirements: with higher volume training it’s likely that more overall energy is being used, and perhaps more overall calories and carbohydrates specifically are needed. Lower volume training requires less of each. We know that pre and post-training meals are important from a recovery perspective, and if you train multiple times per day, then perhaps you need to eat more frequently to reflect this. Maybe you periodise your training such that you have higher volume phases, lower volume phases, higher frequency phases or days and at certain points you may need to gain or lose weight depending on a few things. Again, I would suggest that your diet would need to reflect this.

However, my goal isn’t to baffle you with possibilities or to make my job seem that more complicated and scientific than it needs to be. Rather, my preference with most things in general is when in doubt, simplify. So, let’s explore some basic and easy ideas that we can all incorporate into our training.


So most folks are aware that carbohydrates and fats provide energy and protein is used to repair damaged tissues primarily, along with a few other important functions. Let’s start with protein intake, as that seems to be the nutrient most associated with strength and power sports. A topic of much academic debate, it seems pretty straightforward that strength and power sports require a good chunk of protein in their diet; most bodybuilding sources recommend values ranging from 1.0g to 1.5g x lb of bodyweight, or around 2.2g to 3.3g/kg. So using these values, a 70kg / 154 lb lifter would require around 154g to 231g or so (no need to be too specific) per day. That is a lot of protein. Certainly the academic / scientific literature suggests that are clear benefits for athletes to eat lots of protein, with values up to 2.2g /kg being beneficial; there doesn’t appear to be any additional benefits (that are measurable at this time) with values beyond that, but eating more probably isn’t all that harmful either, as long as the lifter doesn’t have any pre-existing kidney problems. This is where things get interesting. Some of the academic research suggests that people need more protein when they start new training programs, as the training represents a new stress on the body, but that over time, as people become accustomed to the training, they need less. I suppose if we look at it anecdotally, when we start a new training program we tend to get pretty sore and beat up for a period of time ( 5 x 5 anyone?), but that as the weeks progress we tend to adapt. The scientific press also suggests that more advanced trainees require less protein than beginners too, as they have become pretty effective at adapting to training loads. Well, if you periodise your training into distinct blocks then I suppose we could argue that due to the fluctuation and variation of training stresses, chances are, you may need more protein at certain times. If however, your training is much more stable, akin to a higher intensity, specific model like the ‘Bulgarian – style’ then perhaps you need less overall protein due to the comparative stability of the training. Now to keep things simple, perhaps then for those systems that segregate training into distinct training phases, we could suggest that they need an overall higher protein intake throughout the training calendar (no need to vary the protein amount because, chances are, the training phases change somewhat frequently anyway). Let’s say for these athletes, something like 2.0 – 2.4g / kg per day perhaps equating to 140 – 168g per day if my maths is correct for the 70kg chap, and for those with more stable training systems, something like 1.8 – 2.2g / kg would probably be fine, working out to be around 126 – 154g per day this time. In the real world, the values don’t differ drastically for either system, probably the equivalent of an extra protein shake or so per day, but it provides interesting food for thought (sorry). I would also add (I thought I was keeping things simple – sorry!) that when trying to lose weight / cut for a competition the relative importance of protein as a nutrient increases, to help prevent the loss of muscle mass. So if you need to lose weight, perhaps keep your protein intake consistent as you cut kcalories from fats and carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates, the energy currency

Well we know that carbs provide easily usable energy and we mentioned earlier that because weightlifting is a maximal intensity strength/power sport, we rely on the immediate energy systems for energy provision mostly. Well, during training we use up the immediate energy supply pretty quickly and tap into other energy stores as time goes on, we also use energy obtained from foods to replenish these depleted reserves when we rest and recover. The academic writing has paid a lot of lip-service to carbohydrate intakes, and we can find some pretty massive amounts being recommended to some athletes. I would argue that for a weightlifter, these values (sometimes up to 60 – 70% of your total energy), are probably a little too high. If we consider that other sports spend much more training time using energy systems that rely on stored carbohydrates and fats, like team sports, most running and cycling activities and even bodybuilding, then perhaps we can see that a weightlifter’s requirements are probably a little less given that weightlifters don’t perform so many cyclic / repetitive activities. Generally I don’t really like advising specific ratios for nutrients, as these don’t tend to factor in body-size, overall kcalorie intakes, etc, but I think that a more balanced approach is probably better where the three major macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) are eaten in fairly equal amounts, give or take a few here and there, for most weightlifters most of the time depending on some stuff I will detail below. An interesting caveat is that the more carbohydrate you eat, the less your requirement for protein (and fat) is likely to be: carbohydrates ‘spare’ other nutrients being used for energy when the diet contains sufficient amounts of total energy / kcalories. As a (very) general guide then, I recommend that values somewhere around 2 to 3g / kg per day are a good starting point if training volume is fairly low or about 140 to 210g for our 70kg lifter and perhaps up to around 3 to 5g per day if training volume is higher, which would work out to be 210 to 350g per day. If you want to work these recommendations into your current program, specifically if you have some sort of periodised plan, then perhaps the higher values could be used for the higher volume training phases and the lower values used for lower volume phases leading up to competition. Inadvertently, this can help lifters lose a little weight if the values above helps to put them in an energy deficit (where and individual burns more energy / kcalories than they ingest). For some folks carbohydrates can be tricky, so I suggest that you play around a little with your intakes to find what seems to work for you. As a guide, for most people I personally like them to eat as much food (and carbohydrate) as they can before they gain weight, the larger intake can infer some metabolic advantages and the more wiggle room you have to play with, the easier it can be to cut weight.
A quick note about nutrient timings, I like to use the sponge analogy when talking about pre/post training nutrition: after training your body is incredibly receptive to the food that you eat and will soak up nutrients and absorb them like a dry sponge does when submerged in water. Consider that the overall effect of training is to take away your body’s energy reserves and to damage the tissues that contribute to the training, and then when in this position your body is essentially crying out for nutrients to ameliorate the damage and depleted reserves. So, a big chunk of the sports nutrition research looks into the effects of ingesting protein and carbohydrate meals or supplements before, during and after training and certainly. This drip-feeding of nutrients seems to assist recovery. Perhaps I can cover this later, but let’s say for now though that eating or drinking something with protein and carbohydrates before and after your training is a good idea, and maybe having a little something during your longer sessions could help as well. This doesn’t have to be an expensive supplement, whole food is awesome, but I will say that if you are training multiple times per day ingesting a liquid meal after training could help you recover a little quicker between sessions.


Fats are awesome and traditionally undervalued in mainstream nutrition media. Most likely, this was based on research the links intakes of saturated fats with poor health. This is not something I want to discuss here as it opens a proverbial can of worms but I will say that fats serve some very important functions and that habitually low fat intakes could be detrimental to health and performance. Fats help us to absorb fat soluble vitamins as well as assist the production of important hormones and help form cellular structures amongst other things. It seems as well that certain types of fats posses’ metabolic and anti-inflammatory functions as well as helps us to feel full and improve the taste and sensory qualities of our food. As a guide, values of around 0.8 - 1g per kg of bodyweight will probably be about right, so the 70kg lifter will probably ingest around 58 – 70g per day. Personally, I would opt for the higher value, but that’s just my preference. What types? Well don’t be afraid of the animal-based saturated fats, so please do eat red meat, dairy products, butter and whole eggs but try to balance this out by being sure to ingest other sources of fats too, particularly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. We can get these from things like olive oil, nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, flax seeds, etc. Probably one of the easiest ways to make this stuff work is to use some olive oil each day, eat good quality sources of meat and eggs, and have some fatty fish regularly. I would also recommend a fish oil supplement too and anecdotally, they do seem to aide recovery and help some folks with joint problems when taken daily due to their inherent anti-inflammatory properties, something to the tune of 6g or so depending on the strength of the product you buy.


Simply, the more you sweat the more you need to drink. Maintaining a hydrated state will help an abundance of physiologic and thermoregulatory processes, and remember, the body likes to maintain homeostasis, or essentially an even keel, like anything, if a little is good more is not necessarily better. You can drink too many fluids which can dilute the concentration of important minerals in your body. Outside of training times I would say drink when you feel the need to but be sure to maintain a clear urine colour; you should urinate every couple of hours or so too. During training, just be sure to drink something and if you want to get a little more technical, perhaps weigh yourself before and after training and be sure to replace any weight loss with fluids. Roughly 1kg or weight loss will equate to 1 – 1.3L of fluids.


Let’s discuss some of the competitive demands and how this relates to food. Firstly, the lifter needs to weigh in, and so for everyone but the superheavyweights, this is probably your first concern on competition day. For most, this means dropping bodyweight be it through fat loss, water loss or a combination of the two. Clearly diet is hugely important for these to be achieved without detriment to a lifter’s performance and is something that we can manipulate to good effect. This is perhaps a topic in detail for another day, but a strategic reduction in overall energy and carbohydrate intake in the days / weeks leading up to a competition, plus a little water manipulation through strategic over consumption and restriction in the days leading up as well (if needed), will get the job done as long as the lifter isn’t a million miles away from their target weight. After the weigh in it is important that the lifter re-hydrates and fuels up for the competition with appropriate fluids and foodstuffs. The goal of this is to get back into you what you took out with your cutting procedures, so, hypotonic sports drinks are handy here to get some fluids and minerals back in quickly (those drinks without all of the added sugars and carbohydrates, such as Powerade zero, Lucozade hydroactive, etc – read the labels carefully). If not, dairy products, milkshakes and coconut water will also provide the necessary minerals too, as well as plenty of other nutrients as well, but you may have to drink additional water with these. In addition to the fluids, you want to eat a mixture of proteins and carbohydrates immediately after the weigh in, something easily digestible and something that agrees with your gut tolerance. Probably little need to get overly concerned with stuff like Glycemic Index or Glycemic load at this point and go for something that you enjoy, can eat manageably and gets into the blood stream fairly quickly; sugary foods are fine for this purpose if you want to eat / drink them but remember to have some protein in here too. I generally recommend that if you haven’t eaten yet, have a piece of fruit, fruit contains fructose (and other carbohydrates and fibre) which can help replenish liver glycogen, which is generally lower in the morning or when we are fasted and is important for maintaining blood glucose. An added benefit is that some research also suggests that combining glucose and fructose carbohydrates helps to replenish muscle glycogen faster, which is important if you are depleted and have finite time before you compete. So get some fruit in you as well as anything else you eat. I’d generally recommend that you make all this food, and the other stuff you may eat during competition, to be things that you have eaten habitually for a while though. The last thing you need to be worrying about during a lift is if the worrisome gurgling of your gut and potential gassiness as you catch a heavy snatch or clean. As a rule, I say to folks that you probably want to eat little and often during a competition and snack, rather than eat meals. Eating larger portions of food can make you feel a little sluggish, full and lethargic for a while thereafter, and it seems that eating little and often tends to keep you more on an even keel in this regard. If you like to feel fuller as you lift (as I do personally), I would recommend a larger meal / snack immediately after you weigh in and then snack and drink fluids after that to maintain that satiety, rather than go for an all out binge before you lift. If you have time, eat / drink something small after you snatch, before you clean and jerk. The goal of these frequent feedings is to keep overall blood glucose fairly consistent within reason. If your blood glucose drops too much feelings of fatigue and exertion can creep up on you that aren’t just due to the exertion of the competition, low blood glucose can increase effort perception, so, if you do opt for sugary carbohydrate foods beware that blood glucose can drop rapidly (for some people) after eating them. A small amount of carbohydrate, something to the tune of as little as 10g can help ameliorate this, and some research also suggests that a simple carbohydrate mouth rinse could potentially do something similar. So, to recap, after weigh ins drink and eat and get your weight back up, get the fluids, minerals and carbohydrates back into your body and then graze thereafter. If you simply cannot eat due to nerves, go for liquid meals: protein supplements, meal replacements and flavoured milk shakes will get the job done. After the competition, well, I will leave that up to you. What I will say though,is if weight is a concern for you and you have another competition coming up, consider the overall amount of lifts that you perform during a competition and warm ups; chances are, even with all the nervous energy, you probably aren’t burning too many total kcalories and probably not as much as you would during a normal training session, and when eating little and often, it is easy to overeat if you are not careful, especially if you decide to inhale your bodyweight in food / drink after the competition too.


So there we have it, a basic introductory guide to some nutritional recommendation for a weightlifter. None of this is revolutionary stuff I would argue, but I would hope that it at least makes you consider how the amount and type of training you do could impact your dietary requirements and how things don’t always have to be static. One of the tenets of this article is that we alter our training volumes and training stressors to coincide with our objectives and goals; I think that it is generally a wise idea to do the same with our diet as well, to at least match the demands of the training with the dietary tools that enable and assist your adaptation to the training. Because really, training is a stimulus for adaptation and diet and recovery are some of the tools that enable to it happen effectively. I will get off my soapbox for a moment and say that for most people most of the time, counting every kcalorie or nutrient you eat is not necessary to simply getting better as a lifter, but I think that having a systematic approach to your diet is useful, especially when it comes to gaining and losing weight. If we step back for a minute and assess what I have written as a whole and simplify the information, in sum:
• Eat a good amount of protein, eat more / less based on your training objectives,
• Eat carbohydrates to coincide with your training volume,
• Eat / drink protein and carbohydrates before and after training, especially if you train multiple times per day, maybe even have some as well during your longer sessions,
• Fats need to be eaten in reasonable amounts and be sure to eat a range of foods that contain all of the important fatty acids.
• Drink to sustain hydration, measured by urine colour,
• During competition, replace any fluids and energy sources that you have depleted and drip-feed foods throughout the day.

But most of all, and something that sometimes gets omitted from nutrition articles, just enjoy your food. The best diet / nutrition program is one that you can stick to long term.


tomhry said...

Thanks for sharing it is really helpful tips or you can say Training .......!!!!!

Kelly said...

Awesome info!

Will said...

Great post, very interesting read!

Terrence85 said...

Very detailed. I will share it with my class at

Anonymous said...

Great blog!


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