No one has a louder voice when it comes to all things bodybuilding than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Holder of seven Mr. Olympia titles and host of bodybuilding's biggest weekend sports festival that's now a runaway success on four continents, The Oak has also penned a number of hugely popular books and articles on training. But his approach to performance nutrition is less well known.
Arnold has a lot of timeless advice for anyone looking to step on stage, get ripped, or build muscle. Below, The Oak himself shares 13 nutrition tips that are as relevant today as they were nearly four decades ago when he built the world's best and most famous physique.
1. Up Your Nutrition Knowledge
While many lifters critically consider training philosophies and techniques, the study of nutritional principles gets far less attention, so dietary practices often hold a bodybuilder back from his true potential.
As I stated in the "New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," a book I wrote nearly two decades ago, the basic principles of nutrition are as valuable to a bodybuilder as the basic concepts of training.
The most successful bodybuilders are those who study and understand nutrition and actively seek out cutting-edge information. Sure, there's a lot of information—and misinformation—on the subject, but a solid understanding of nutritional science will help you better identify BS when you see it.
Let me be crystal clear: If you want to succeed as a bodybuilder, invest in learning as much as you can, and even consider taking a college-level nutrition class.
2. Prioritize Protein
The importance of protein for a hard-training lifter can't be overstated. Everything I ate as a competitor was geared first and foremost to how much protein it had. My diet was based less on what I was hungry for and more on ensuring I met my daily protein requirements.
Steak, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy were the main whole-food choices I consumed—all sources of complete protein containing all the essential amino acids—and, unsurprisingly, these remain the best foods to build muscle today.
3. Calculate Your Protein Intake
The rule of thumb I go by when talking about protein intake is to eat 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight daily. I've seen reports that suggest you need less (usually based on nontraining individuals) and anecdotal evidence of bodybuilders who consume a lot more. But the single most important reason I prefer the 1 gram for pound rule is its simplicity.
With this method, it's easy to compute how much protein you need daily and at each meal. The amount you come up with ensures you have the amino acids necessary for repairing and building muscle. Don't take away any protein when on a cut. If anything, add a little more daily to ensure you retain your hard-earned muscle mass in a caloric deficit!
4. Don't Trash Your Yolks
For many years, bodybuilders discarded egg yolks because of concerns about saturated fats and cholesterol. If you're trying to lose body fat, or have high levels of LDL or total cholesterol, such concerns might be warranted. However, the yolk contains almost as much protein as the egg white, as well as a majority of an egg's vitamins and minerals.
If you're concerned about limiting fat in your diet, my suggestion is to do so by eliminating other foods rather than discarding the best part of the egg. Eggs, in fact, are one of the highest-quality protein sources around—well above poultry, fish, and even meat.
5. Don't Fall for Fat-Free
A few years back, reducing dietary fat was popular in American culture—it became a villain as obesity rates began to rise. At the time, "fat-free" products became increasingly marketed to consumers, many of whom didn't notice the products were often loaded with sugar instead. Too much dietary fat can be problematic, given that fat contains 9 calories per gram, but reducing your fat intake to an extreme level can have negative repercussions.
Dietary saturated fat is necessary for your body to create testosterone, which you don't want to hamper if building muscle, exercise recovery, and even fat loss are among your goals. Any efforts to drastically eliminate what was once mistakenly considered a bad guy can actually have negative repercussions on your muscle-building efforts, so don't buy into fat-free.
A good rule of thumb: Get about 10-15 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat sources, including beef, poultry, dairy, and eggs.
6. Supplement with Protein
The quality of protein supplements in my competitive years was about what you'd get with nonfat dried powdered milk, which, all things considered, wasn't too bad and fairly convenient. When I was 15, I even combined skim-milk powder, eggs, and honey with water in a Thermos. But advances in technology have isolated whey and broken it down into faster-digesting individual components that make today's protein powders infinitely superior to what we were using a few decades ago.
I've always said that protein powders are most useful for bodybuilders who don't have the time to prepare complete whole-food meals or snacks over the course of their 5-7 meals a day. This— not to mention the fact that whey is also an incredibly high-quality protein source, right up there with eggs—makes having a shaker and quality protein supplement on hand the single best nutrition investment you can make.
7. Grab a Multi
The U.S. government has gone to great lengths to establish the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) on labels, but if you're a hard-training athlete, you may actually need more vitamins and minerals than the RDA suggests. That information is more suited for a sedentary population, not necessarily a hard-working lifter.
If you train hard and want to perform at your peak—and especially if you follow a diet without a lot of variety—you can become deficient in one or more micronutrients. The easiest way to ensure you get the vitamins and minerals you need is to take a quality multivitamin/mineral daily.
8. Sack Sugar
When President George Bush appointed me to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports some 25 years ago, the average American's diet was fair, but since then it has taken a turn for the worse. Skyrocketing obesity rates—not to mention people who are simply overweight—have contributed to a host of problems and diseases. There are many causes, but two of the biggest culprits are a lack of exercise and excessive sugar intake.
If I could encourage individuals to make just one dietary change, it would be to eliminate sugary foods—including corn starch, high-fructose corn sweetener, maltodextrin, and others—from their diet. Sadly, companies load aisles in the supermarket with foods that may be fine when consumed in moderation, but can quickly add extra empty calories to your diet and leave you wanting more, leading to weight gain and swinging energy levels.
9. Pick Your Foods Carefully
In the gym, some exercises are better than others. It's the same in the kitchen: Some foods are better choices than others. Eating clean, healthy foods will go further toward building your physique than if you rely on processed meals, fast foods, and other landmines that dot the typical American diet.
Today, you hear a number of fitness pros and bodybuilders say you can't out-train a bad diet, and that's absolutely correct. Why spend an hour or more in the gym training hard, only to compromise your results by eating the wrong kinds of foods?
10. Make Your Post-Workout Meal Count
I liked to eat a meal shortly after lifting in my competitive days, but even then I believed a protein shake with added carbs right after training was the best thing to help me recover. The simplicity of downing a shake the moment I left the gym was far easier than trying to prepare a complete meal right away. If you're training twice a day like I often did, it's especially important to get quick nutrients into your system after a workout.
11. Eat More For Mass
If your training is on point and your diet is clean but you're still struggling to gain weight, consider adding an extra snack worth 350-500 calories to your daily meal plan. Drinking these calories in the form of a shake is both easy and convenient, and because a shake digests faster than whole foods, you'll still be ready to eat a whole-food meal on your regular schedule.
If your training is on point and your diet is clean but you're still struggling to gain weight, consider adding an extra snack worth 350-500 calories to your daily meal plan.
Don't add too many calories beyond this amount, however, or you could end up gaining the wrong kind of weight.
12. Ditch Dessert
I like to eat out, and you'd be right if you guessed dishes from my native Austria like schnitzel, goulash, and sauerkraut and dumplings are high on my list. But when competing, I favored lean cuts of protein-rich foods, especially steak.
I was known around town in Santa Monica for liking very large portions, but you have to eat the right foods. Big steaks are great during a mass-building phase for the boatload of calories, especially protein, and even the natural creatine they provide. But massive portions of dessert won't really help you reach your goals.
Eat big, but eat smart. Filling up on protein-rich foods is better than feeling hungry after a meal and opting for a sugar-rich dessert because your stomach is still growling for more.
13. Eyeball Your Portions
Competitive bodybuilders write down everything they eat so they can account for every last calorie, but few recreational lifters want to invest that kind of energy into measuring food. One of the biggest mistakes a bodybuilder can make is never learning how to eyeball a given amount of food. What does an 8-ounce chicken breast look like? Does it have 12, 24, or 48 grams of protein? Should I put one or two breasts on the grill?
Getting a handle on basic portion sizes for your go-to whole protein foods, as well as key complex carbohydrates, gives you a great advantage when it comes to choosing and preparing meals. You don't need to memorize every food, just the basic ones that make up the core of your bodybuilding diet.