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You've been lifting for the past 2 years. You gained a few pounds initially, but you hit a plateau about... 15 months ago. What happened? You've tried every training method there is, you tried 2-day splits up to 6-day splits, but you haven't gained a pound. You're strength has creeped up a bit over that time, but other than that you've gained nothing.
What could possibly be going wrong? This is something you hear a lot about with teenagers, who may be training right, but are neglecting the most crucial ingredient in accomplishing any goals in bodybuilding: Diet. The word 'diet' has a bad stigma, bringing up connotations of losing weight, which is often not what people want. Most importantly, diet needs to be broken down into two parts.
First though, I must set a ground rule. FOOD IS NOT FUN. There is a frightening trend in America now, that food is a game. McDonalds, BK, KFC, and DQ would have you believing that food is meant to be enjoyed. Food has one purpose: to supply your body with nutrients. Cavemen didn't care if what they found tasted good, they just ate what they got.
The first key is to let go of the idea that food is intended to be enjoyed. It's not. Yes you can enjoy what you can along the way, but the main key is to feed yourself properly, if you can get food that tastes good along the way, then fine. But do NOT sacrifice nutrition for taste, under any circumstances. Now, moving along...
The off-season. Some people see this as a time to relax, and just eat for fun. Sadly this can be a costly mistake unless you are an ectomorph of the highest degree, or know your body like Lee Priest and can shift from grossly obese to shredded on a regular basis.
Saying you're bulking does not give you a free pass to eat like a maniac, unless you feel like dealing with an extra 20 lbs or so of fat in a few months. The main goal in bulking is to pack on muscle, not just any weight you can. Of course some fat will come along as well, after all your caloric intake is above your expenditure, but the secondary goal is keeping fat gain to a minimum.
The flip-side. Contest season, the time of the year most associated with diets. The key here is to keep your muscle while losing fat. People also get a misconception here and don't feed their bodies right, and end up losing more muscle mass than fat. The body is an amazing thing, and will do whatever it takes to stay alive. What this means is that if your body thinks it is starving, it will eat muscle before anything else, THEN fat. I know this personally, having survived anorexia, so don't go and tell me it doesn't work that way. Now, onto the macronutrients.
You need protein, plain and simple. And you can't rely on powders to get it all to you, you need real food. I know vegetarians aren't going to like me for this, but eat meat. Meat, and lots of it. I personally consume a few pounds of meat a day. It's the simplest way to get a lot of protein.
Our ancestors ate meat for 68% of their diet, and they survived, strong enough to hunt buffalo. That should tell you something. However, you should be careful about how your meat (in particular, beef) is made, as grass-fed cattle produces much more high quality meat.
Indeed, the beef from them holds 5 times more Omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed, and the fats in the are most often polyunsaturated, the good fats. At around 22g of protein a serving, it's a great deal. Tuna is another great source (over 35g protein per can), comes in a can and is easy to prepare. Hard boil some eggs (6g protein per egg), throw in some fat-free mayo and you have tuna salad, which tastes great.
Chicken is yet another good source, and I have already mentioned eggs. All real foods that are packed with protein and low in fat. Just make sure you have the fewest white stripes in your beef, and strain out MOST, but not all, of your egg yolks. Powders are for supplemental purposes, used only post workout, and for when you need quick protein. Aim for at least 1g per pound of bodyweight at all times. During cutting, some more may be necessary due to the lack of carbs your body has and once you hit ketosis you need all you can get to avoid losing muscle mass.
The overlooked area. Also your bodies prime energy source. Since low-carb diets are very popular in the bodybuilding world, people often don't get enough. People think low carb at all times, when you need carbs if you want to grow. Go for 2.5x your body weight here.
However, you have to realize that, like protein, not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbs are the name of the game, here, with sugars only coming into play post workout and, to a lesser extent, first thing in the morning. Whole wheat breads, non-sugar cereals, pasta, fruits, vegetables. These are your carb sources, use them wisely.
Post workout, as mentioned, you will need sugars, I find 50g works nicely. And of course your milk sugars, which can and should be used at any time of the day. This keeps your glycogen levels up, your energy up, your muscles full, and your waist as trim as possible. Beware of weight gainers with lots of sugar. You'll gain weight, but not like you want to. Here's a hint: Twinlab's Gainer's Fuel 2500 is a bad idea, with its 257g of sugar.
Unless you weigh in the double digits, avoid such products. While cutting, obviously you want few carbs, I found getting 50 or less a day works wonders for cutting, those only coming post-workout, with maybe some milk in the morning. Quality gainers are good during bulking. AR's Xtreme Mass, HDT's Solid Gains, Worldwide's Sizeup, all good gainers. And of course the famous N-Large II.
Something that is slowly losing its taboo status. Fat is a really concentrated form of energy (9 cals per gram, instead of 4), and is infinitely more anabolic than carbohydrates. However, you still don't need as much of it. 20% of your cals from fat is plenty. As mentioned in the protein area, you should watch what fats you get. You don't want trans fats and saturated fats. Sorry, but a big mac and fries isn't a good way to get your daily fats, unless you want a heart attack.
Another recent study found that even one fast food meal increases blood pressure. Good fat sources are fish, avocados, margarine, flax, nuts (peanut butter is a great source, just make sure it's natural. And have some milk handy, it's sticky as heck).
Omega 3s and 6s are key here. Your body needs these to dissolve vitamins. So while you are going for lean meats, few egg yolks, and in general low-fat items, be sure to get enough fats from good sources. This can be very damaging if missed. After all, if any one of these three parts is missing, you'll be shortchanging yourself.
That's a breakdown of the nutrients, but most already know these things, the important thing is how to use them.
You need 6, count 'em 6, a day. Bulking or cutting, you need 6 meals a day. Every three hours at the longest. Carbs early in the day, and post workout. Here's a sample meal for a day, I do this when cutting. I'm still perfecting my bulking diet, being somewhat endomorphic.
1 scoop protein powder in water
2 Egg whites
1 Egg yolk
1 can tuna
2 slices fat-free cheese
3 egg whites
1 big spoonful fat-free mayo
2 scoops protein powder
12 oz. milk
2 spoons peanut butter
1.5 lbs chicken/1 lb steak.
1 cup sugar-free ice cream
Half-pound of turkey
1 cup Egg Beaters
2 slices fat free cheese
1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 scoop protein powder
1 scoop peanut butter
Now that's just an idea. Everyone has different caloric needs, so you can tweak this depending on how your body responds. I found that that diet right there worked wonders. Should get all you endos on the road. I'm sorry to exclude the more hard gainer-types, but dieting is pretty easy for you guys, bulking is the hard part, and there's enough of that around bb.com already.
Cheat meals: sure you can take one a week, at the most. I don't do cheat meals, personally. I did before, and found that it worked against me. Endos may want to learn from this. A cheat meal can ruin a week of good eating. Limit yourself to a cheat meal every 3-4 weeks. Even then, watch it. Don't splurge. I've found that most often people who consider themselves as endomorphic are only such because of a tendency to binge. Watch it. The 6 meal plan should help greatly curb snacking habits and binging.
Snacks: Not really necessary unless eating every three hours is too much of a stretch. Snack-foods you find are all carb-rich, usually with saturated fats as well. Cottage cheese is a good snack, once you get used to it. Snacks should be as low-fat/carb as possible. Jerky is good, but high in sodium, so up your water intake. Milk is always a good idea. But keep it skim.
That's all for now, see you in my next article, where I finally get to the training part of life! And happy dieting!