Eat This, Lift That! The Beginners Guide To Nutrition For Weight Lifting
Many bodybuilders will say weight lifting is all about the form you use to lift weights.
Given what we know about nutrition, though, the form you use to lift food to your mouth might be just as valuable.
Just like a diet to lose weight is often said to be 70% nutrition and 30% exercise, you can make the argument that nutrition is even more important for weight lifting.
Why? In this case, it’s simple math. In order to gain weight, you’ve got to eat more than you burn. And in order to gain muscle, you need protein to repair the muscles you’re breaking down.
If you aren’t eating enough, and aren’t eating enough of the right stuff, you’re not gaining any muscle. You’re not going to get stronger. And before you know it, you might be giving up on weight training.
To make this as simple as possible, we’re going to break down 10 questions a beginner might have about their weightlifting nutrition.
Why should I even start lifting weights in the first place?
I see we’re kicking this off with an attitude. Fortunately, we’re here to make sure you get the answers you need.
After all, with a simple weight lifting schedule three days a week, you’ll enjoy the following benefits:
- You’ll build muscle (which is important for both your Instagram profile and for maintaining a healthy body into old age)
- You’ll burn fat efficiently (naturally boosting your metabolism for a better weight loss than a low-calorie diet)
- You’ll strengthen bones and joints (not as great for your Instagram profile, but even better as you reach middle age and beyond)
- You’ll reduce your risk of injury (by strengthening around joints and creating stronger tendons)
- And you’ll make your heart healthier (we know you love gains, but this time, we’re celebrating the losses: you can reduce the risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40% to 70%)
So, weight lifting is pretty great. To take advantage of all its potential benefits, it’s helpful to start from the basics, whether that’s getting back into your weightlifting routine or approaching your weightlifting nutrition.
You’re saying nutrition like I know what you’re talking about. Isn’t weightlifting nutrition complicated?
Weightlifting nutrition isn’t any more complicated than making sure you know a few basic principles.
When you’re ready, of course you can dive into the more advanced principles of weightlifting nutrition like macros, counting macros, IIFYM, and flexible dieting.
For now, let’s think about two things: proteins and carbohydrates.
I know proteins are in, like, spinach and meat. Do I need to eat more spinach and meat to lift weights?
Beginning weight lifters do need to up their protein intake if they’re going to build muscle. Fortunately, you can find protein in more than just spinach and meat.
As for how much spinach, meat, and other protein you should be looking for, consider the following rule of thumb:
Consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. Every day.
For someone who weighs 180 pounds, that’s 180 grams.
I’m not hungry - do I still have to keep eating?
Though it may feel unpleasant at first, eating constantly throughout the day is a fundamental part of weight training nutrition. Instead of two or three meals, you should be eating six meals a day.
Not only does six meals a day help with your muscle mass, it makes it easier for your body to absorb all the protein you’re ingesting.
That’s because (science alert!) this regular flow of protein keeps your body’s cortisol levels in check. Cortisol is catabolic, meaning it breaks down molecules and inhibits protein synthesis, so all that spinach isn’t going to do much of anything at all.
Does lifting weights at least mean I can eat all of the carbs I want?
If you’re lifting weights to gain weight, you do need carbs.
But before you celebrate by taking a chocolate cake straight to the face, know that they need to be the right carbs. And… you need a lot of them.
These carbs are the fuel for your body, letting you push yourself in the gym. And to bring back the science of it all, they also help to bring the amino acids from all that protein you’re ingesting into your muscles so they can build back even stronger.
Also, complex carbs are going to be your friend. Potatoes, whole-wheat bread, pastas, oatmeal, that kind of thing. Natural simple carbs, like those in fruit and milk products, are less effective. In last place are processed and refined carbs, like candy, sugar, and syrups.
In case you’re wondering, a low-carb diet won’t do you much good here. You’ll find you’re lacking energy nor will you be getting as much protein to your muscles. Plus, low carb diets are low in fun.
To plan what you’ll eat, think about carbs as 2x your proteins. That’s 2 grams of carbohydrates per pound, or 360 grams for a 180-pound person.
At some point I’ll start lifting weights, right? Should I eat something beforehand?
You seem to be hungry… for knowledge!
While you may not want to eat anything right before you go to the gym, eating an hour before is key to a strong workout. This makes sure your muscles are fueled up with those useful complex carbs and that you’ll have protein at the ready to prevent your muscle breakdown.
You don’t need to overeat at this point, especially if it makes you uncomfortable. Still, it’s better to feel a bit full, as it’s a reminder that you’re ready for your workout.
Looking for an easy meal to start with before your workouts?
Consider a medium chicken breast and a medium baked potato. Eaten together about two hours before the gym, you’ll enjoy a sustained level of energy in the gym - while knowing full well your muscles are getting the right amount of protein, too.
For other light snacks or meals, keep them between an hour or an hour and a half before going to the gym (unless you like doing crunches on a full stomach). If you’re having a fat or fiber-heavy snack, it may be best to have those about three hours before given how long they take to break down. This includes your main meals of the day.
Carbs (the complex, mysterious kinds) are your friends here. Ones like nuts, beans, fruits, and sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index will help you. Since they are slower to digest, you get a slower, more consistent burn of energy.
As you sneak up on your workout, especially in the 20-to-30 minute range, it’s time to get the liquids going.
Next you’re going to tell me I have to keep eating during my weightlifting? Can’t I have a break?
Actually, you can take a break. Barring actual marathon training, there isn’t much need to take in nutrients while you work out.
For reasonably intense workouts of an hour or less, you’ll be fine with a few sips of water or a sports drink (about 14 ounces or so) every half hour. Of course, if you’re really getting your sweat on or it’s in a warmer environment, you can drink more.
The goal with hydrating is to keep your blood glucose levels about normal. By not draining them during your workout, you’ll be sure to finish strong.
Because once you finish, it’s time to think about eating again!
I finished working out… which I’m guessing means I have to start to eat?
You’re starting to get the hang of a nutrition guide for weight training!
If there’s a critical time to get your grub on, it’s now. Though the window you have to fuel is debated in some circles, it’s important that you get some protein in. That’s because your muscles are looking for that sweet glucose to store up and be ready for your next workout. Starve them now, and you’ll feel the pain (or the soreness… or the sluggishness) the next time you get to the gym.
Don’t overthink it: within 30 minutes of setting down the last barbell, aim for 20-30 grams of protein and 50-60 grams of carbohydrate.
I know, I see the look on your face. We’ll translate those numbers for you!
So, for that amount, there’s no need to fuss around in the kitchen - you can grab a protein powder and shake it up, then enjoy fast-digesting carbs like cookies (fat free, preferably), fruits, muffins, and others.
This combination is like a cocktail for your muscles (should we have used another word? Because good weight training nutrition likely means limiting alcohol… and cocktails). Proteins and simple carbs block the muscle breakdown and kickstart the rebuilding process.
Carbs supply the energy, protein gives your muscles recovering and building. It’s the ultimate combination. Like Red Bull + Vodka, but good for you.
Get that snack within 30 minutes, then enjoy a full meal around two hours later.
Why can’t I just use supplements all the time?
I knew I shouldn’t have tempted you with that protein drink after your workout. Supplements are just that: they’re supplements.
You’re more than able to get your daily protein from chicken, fish, milk, and some red meat.
If you really want to add in a dab of creatine (3 to 5 grams before and after your workouts) and a multivitamin or a mineral, we won’t fault you. But beyond that, your focus should be on real foods.
Can’t you just tell me what to buy already?
Happily! There are a thousand guides all over the internet with detailed meal plans and intricate shopping list. To us, what matters is getting started on the right foot. With that, we’ve put together a list that’s designed for ease of use with no more than five items in each of the most important categories to get you started.
Here is our Simple Shopping List For Beginning Weight Lifters:
- Chicken and turkey breast
- Sirloin steak
- Lean ground beef
- Pork tenderloin
- Salmon or shrimp
- Sweet Potatoes
- Chia Seeds
- Nut Butters (Peant, Almond, Sunflower)
- Cottage cheese
- Low-fat milk
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Avocado oil
If after all that, you’re still hungry for more, feel free to check out our Strength Training IRLA Pack for a collection of real-life achievements that are all about rewarding those real-life gains.
DO YOU EVEN LIFT BRO?
These IRLAs are for those who stick with their dreams. Training programs require commitment, dedication, and sacrifice. Each new coin is a testament to the time you suited up and got after it. From hours at the gym to the prep at home, you set yourself up for success and now it’s yours for the taking.
Now go get those gains.
Let us know below if you’ve got any tips or tricks for getting started with weight training nutrition. We love hearing from you!