Flipping through the latest issue of any reputable bodybuilding or fitness magazine can be a daunting process for many individuals new to the lifestyle, not because chiseled abs or squatting three times your bodyweight seems unattainable—we fitness freaks are an ambitious bunch.
The pages of Flex, Muscle & Fitness, and the like are daunting because they are overflowing with expensive supplement ads and recipes featuring pricey ingredients. There's a pill for cutting, a powder for bulking, and dozens of fancy foods for simply maintaining.
These publications inevitably mislead a reader into thinking that without a Stimulus-Plan-sized personal budget, personal bodybuilding goals are simply out of reach. This is untrue.
As an individual who has competed in bodybuilding competitions with minimal income during college, I know the major obstacles as well as pitfalls and will outline the basics of achieving your bodybuilding goals on a reasonable budget.
Supplements are just that—substances taken to complete a diet or address a nutritional deficiency. Supplements are not, as some believe, necessities. As a beginner, a balanced diet with adequate nutrients combined with a steady training regimen will certainly result in quality mass and increased strength.
If a few simple rules regarding timing and composition of meals are followed, there is no need to throw hard-earned money at a slew of pills and powders, especially during the outset.
For example, protein consumption is a topic that many beginners and advanced bodybuilders focus on, due to its importance in muscular repair and subsequently, muscular development.
Rarely mentioned, though, is the fact that the body can only utilize a certain amount of protein for amino acid synthesis, with the rest being stored as muscle glycogen and eventually, unwanted body fat. There is much disagreement, but I believe that between 1.1 and 1.3 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight is adequate consumption, so a lean portion of meat at every meal combined with dairy, beans, and/or nuts throughout the day is enough for most beginner bodybuilders.
A protein supplement immediately after training is always wise, but there is no need to consume three or four protein shakes/bars a day. Doing so does not improve gains and hits the wallet in the long run.
Supplements are also not replacements. Taking a protein powder instead of lifting hard and heavy will only result in accumulated body fat and swallowing fat burning capsules instead of adhering to a cardio regimen will yield little success and possibly even result in negative side effects.
In my view, novice bodybuilders should therefore keep supplementation to a minimum during the first few months, simply to establish a habit of training naturally and to gauge the body's organic receptiveness to resistance training.
Beginners have the unique advantage of high marginal returns; in other words, with the same diet and exercise regimen, those new to lifting weights gain more muscle at a quicker pace than seasoned veterans simply because their bodies are not used to such stress and fatigue. So ignore the myriad supplement ads for now and divert focus and funds to healthy foods.
Any seasoned bodybuilder will affirm that gains come mainly from the kitchen, not the weight room; this is due to the relationship between a bodybuilder's diet and mass gained, body fat lost, and everything in between. So besides the all-important gym membership, a novice bodybuilder must focus on and allocate funds to a hearty, healthy nutrition plan.
The body needs so many different macro and micronutrients and there are many options, though, so it is often difficult to decide what foods should become essential parts of a diet and which foods are auxiliary.
I will touch upon the key building blocks of a successful beginner's diet from a budgeting perspective, but I will not go into great depth about the composition, timing, preparation, and nuances of specific diets.
The amino acids in protein are literally the building blocks of muscles. Browse your local supermarket, however, and you will find that these building blocks do not come cheap. A few steaks here and salmon filets there, and little money will be left over to purchase other key foods. Additionally, many common sources of protein are high in calories and saturated fat, a key saboteur of muscle definition and "cut."
From my personal experience, the three cheapest and leanest common sources of protein are canned tuna, eggs, and chicken. Depending on geography and which brand is purchased, a can of tuna can be purchased for less than a dollar, a dozen eggs for a little over two dollars, and chicken breasts for as little as two or three dollars per pound.
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Geography cannot be easily changed, but brands purchased can be varied, and these choices will make a significant impact on a budget. Since brand decisions are based on personal taste and preference, there are no clear-cut rules. Just keep in mind that for some foods, the difference between name brands and generic brands is merely the package while for other foods, there is an unmistakable discrepancy in quality.
Canned tuna packed in water is very versatile, as it can be added to salads, sandwiches, or even eaten plain for those who do not mind a little blandness. When stored correctly in a cool environment, it keeps for a long duration, which makes buying this product in bulk when on sale wise for any bodybuilder.
Aim to buy eggs in the traditional Styrofoam or cardboard container and remove the yolks yourself instead of purchasing the more expensive cartons of prepared eggs. When the yolks are removed, eggs are a low-calorie source of protein that can be scrambled, hard-boiled, or made into omelets.
A single egg white has about six grams of protein and only 20-30 calories, making this food one of the best sources of protein in terms of calories-to-protein ratio. Add to this the fact that a three-egg-white and one-whole-egg omelet costs around 75 cents, and this food is a clear-cut winner.
Finally, white-meat chicken, although pricier than canned tuna and eggs, is the most tasty and versatile source of protein, as it can be prepared in countless ways with endless other ingredients, all of which can be tailored to your specific bodybuilding goals-stir-fried with flavor for bulking, boiled and bland for cutting.
When chicken breast goes on sale at the local supermarket, be sure to stock up and store unused portions in the freezer to delay the onset of bacteria growth.
Carbohydrates are the body's main energy source, so experienced bodybuilders swear by the importance of consumption before and after training. There are countless carb-rich foods, but they are certainly not created equal; complex carbohydrates such as oatmeal, rice, and potatoes are both nutrient-dense and cost-effective.
Oatmeal should be purchased in the largest containers available to keep unit costs down. As such, avoid the individual, flavored oatmeal packets that are often overpriced and loaded with unnecessary amounts of sugar; opt instead to add ingredients such as fresh fruit, brown sugar, or cinnamon to plain oatmeal.
Like oatmeal, rice can be purchased in hefty amounts. Oftentimes, though, mainstream grocery stores do not carry such quantities due to lack of demand or limited shelf space, so ethnic grocery stores are often the best place to purchase these sacks of rice. Steamed brown rice, combined with a lean cut of meat and vegetables, constitutes a no-frills meal that will add quality muscle.
Finally, potatoes are a third carbohydrate source that can be purchased in large quantities and stored. A 10-pound sack of potatoes can cost less than five dollars and easily makes dozens of meals.
The advantage that potatoes have over oatmeal and rice is that they can be prepared in a variety of ways while still maintaining a low-fat profile. As a general rule, buy carbohydrates such as oatmeal, rice, and potatoes in large quantities for cost-effectiveness and store them in cool, dry places.
There are countless other foods in a successful bodybuilder's arsenal. Use prudent judgment to determine which foods can be purchased in bulk and stored and which foods should be purchased in smaller quantities to avoid spoiling. For example, fruits and vegetables provide key nutrients and act as a low-calorie filler to prevent overconsumption of higher-calorie foods such as carbohydrates.
Unlike carbs, though, fruits and vegetables should not be purchased in large quantities, as they tend to spoil quickly, even if refrigerated correctly. Instead, aim to buy fresh, in-season fruits and vegetables.
Avoid the pre-cut and/or pre-packaged varieties of apples, celery, lettuce, etc., as they sell for a high premium. Search for farmers' markets or no-frills vendors that specialize in fruits and vegetables; not only are their offerings more fresh, their low overhead costs get passed directly to the customer.
I've always held that planning ahead is the key to bodybuilding success. Everything from training splits to meals to rest days is more effective and convenient when planned in advance.
This advice rings especially true for bodybuilding on a budget because lack of planning inevitably results in the haphazard purchasing of meals.
The occurrence is a ubiquitous one, as drawn-out meetings, impending deadlines, and unforeseen emergencies force an individual to shuffle plans and reorganize schedules. Overspending is one possible result, as wholesome, pre-made foods are purchased in stores and restaurants at a gross premium when an individual is pressed for time. A poor diet is the other result, as junk and fast foods become a low-cost substitute for home-made meals. For an aspiring bodybuilder in this economy, both outcomes are equally nefarious.
To avoid such pitfalls, make Tupperware one of your go-to tools because cooking and packing your own food is the single preparation technique that can save money. Just as an extreme example, a salad of mixed greens here in New York City, complete with turkey breast and chickpeas for protein and tomatoes and carrots for various vitamins and minerals, costs about ten dollars.
If the various ingredients are prudently purchased local farmers' markets and supermarkets and prepared personally, however, the cost of this meal can be reduced to about four dollars. Add that up over the course of a few months, and the savings totals several hundred dollars.
Bodybuilding while adhering to a strict budget is within reach, as long as there is a concrete strategy and dedication to planning. Other than a gym or health-club membership, a novice bodybuilder should focus hard-earned funds towards constructing a sound diet that facilitates muscle growth, fat loss, and recovery.
The magazines and infomercials goad bodybuilders into believing that supplements are key to a chiseled physique, but superfluously purchasing pills and powders is dangerous and wasteful.
As a novice bodybuilder, lean on a multivitamin in the morning and a protein supplement post-workout; let a complete diet take care of the rest. Also indiscriminately buying food or simply visiting the grocery store when a need arises squanders both time and money.
Strategically planning your visits around sales, on the other hand, can slash food costs. Admittedly, eating on a constrained budget means sometimes sacrificing taste for quality and developing an indifference towards various brands and labels, but you already bench until it burns and squat until you can barely breathe, so it should be no big deal.