I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately. Like, a lot about food.
My inability to consume enough calories is the one thing holding me back from achieving my strength goals. Caloric and sleep deficits are the biggest complaints that college strength and conditioning coaches have about their young athletes, according to my deeply unofficial poll. I’m starting to understand why.
Let me say that I recognize that my inability to eat enough food is a profoundly unimportant obstacle in the scheme of the universe. With so many people suffering from obesity on the one hand and malnutrition on the other, I should be happy with the fact that I’m able to consume the calories that I need to stay alive and feel healthy. I also grew up in a household in which eating real food and lots of vegetables was more often the norm than not. So I’ve never had a problem with being an overweight kid.
But I do have goals in the gym, and effort under the barbell isn’t the major impediment in the way of me achieving them. Rather, it’s those many hours outside of the gym that have been getting in my way. The last month or so have been valuable for me as a coach because I’m learning how hard the lifestyle changes most of my clients need to make can actually be. I’ve hit a stride with my eating lately, so I thought I’d share with you how I’ve been able to eat more calories and how you might infuse my own approach into your lifestyle–even if your goal is a caloric deficit with some weight or fat loss.
I’m generally not an advocate for spending several hours in the kitchen on a Sunday and cooking enough food for a high school football team. It turns cooking–what can be a beautiful, soulful, and sometimes even sensual process–into an assembly line Henry Ford would have been proud of. Yet I’ve had to learn to build a bit more assembly line cooking into my food week in order to eat more. On Sundays I’ll cook up more chicken breasts than I think I’ll need, more vegetables than I think I’ll need, and some sort of starchy carb (like rice or sweet potatoes). This provides me with easily accessible lunches that hold enough calories and nutrient density to fuel my days.
- Fat loss version: Looks almost exactly the same. You’ll be surprised how much food you need to prepare in order to eat well. Vegetables are cheap compared to other foods, so buy a lot of them and make it your specific goal to eat ALL of them. Also, don’t make this too complicated. Instead of making a bunch of different types of vegetables, make one big batch of, say, spinach and broccoli sautéed together. Then switch up next week.
Considering the food part of the workout
This is probably the most important mindset shift I’ve made, and it corresponds with my numbers in the gym moving rather dramatically in the right direction. I’m deadlifting numbers for multiple repetitions now that I previously would have been happy to get off the ground once or twice. What’s the difference?
Several months back I would do a heavy deadlifting workout and then rush to train a client somewhere across town. Having my own gym space has allowed me to lift hard and then fuel myself immediately. I can’t overstate how important this has been to my development. Now, I don’t consider the workout done until I’ve eaten. Replenishing my pool of amino acids with protein and my glycogen stores with carbohydrates in the aftermath of my workouts has helped me mitigate soreness while also preparing my body for the next round of lifting.
- Fat loss version: The connective tissue between solely focusing on strength as I am and focusing on losing body fat as you might be is the retention of muscle. If you’re trying to lose body fat and you’re in a caloric deficit, your priority needs to be holding onto as much muscle as possible. If you’re losing weight, at least some of that’s going to be muscle. That’s okay, but you’ll hold onto more muscle the more your diet consists of protein. Consider, as I have, a quality protein supplement.
Focusing on what’s next
As much progress as I’ve made, I don’t always achieve my goals. Sometimes I’ll skip a meal. Sometimes my breakfast is not enough or I’ve failed to plan properly. The thing I do that probably most “failed dieters” don’t do is I move on. I simply ask “what’s next?” like President Bartlett. I don’t wallow. I accept that I’m a human being and that I’m not always perfect and then I put my head down and work hard to ensure that the next meal is on point.
- Fat loss version: So you gave in to temptation and you ordered a pizza. Or you failed to plan properly and you ended up at a drive-thru window. Tell yourself two things–1.) You’re in control of your very next meal. 2.) You’re not an idiot, loser, or weakling. You just didn’t have a plan. Stop what you’re doing and make a plan for the rest of the week. Always remember, nine times out of ten it’s not willpower. It’s organization.
Setting concrete process goals
You have to earn your way to specific caloric intake or macronutrient percentages. I know my own strength program would be more effective if I ate more specific percentages of protein, for example. But if I’m not even eating three square meals a day, the percentages aren’t going to matter much. I need to get my calories up if I’m going to get stronger, so I’ve set the process goal for myself of eating three square meals a day and supplementing with two protein shakes. Once I’m hitting those goals consistently, then I can start to zero in on the details.
- Fat loss version: It’s remarkable how often people come to me and ask for body composition help when they’re watching several hours of television a night and drinking multiple sodas a day. When I tell them we’re just going to focus, say, on the soda for now, sometimes they’ll say “but what should my diet be!?” Focus on the obvious, low-hanging fruit first and then we can talk percentages and calories and such.