The golden rule of any fitness program or lifestyle is that nutrition is king. Poor recovery between workouts can usually be traced to a lack of nutritional support. Muscle fatigue during a workout is normal; waking up and feeling like your body took a beating is not.
Without a proper nutrition regimen to complement your active lifestyle, you could be wasting your efforts, seeing the slowest—or non-existent—progress, or worse, putting your entire body at risk for a bevy of dysfunction, including injuries, hormonal imbalances, and adrenal fatigue.
Consider great champions like eight-time Olympia winner Ronnie Coleman. If he neglected to adequately nourish his body after his intense training sessions day-in and day-out, I doubt he'd be able to realize his full bodybuilding potential, nevermind winning the Olympia eight times.
While you may not come close to attaining Ronnie-esque proportions, you can still realize your own body's potential through an ideal balance of dedicated training and solid nutrition. Who better to ask for fitness nutrition advice than athletes who practice what they preach and have the results to show for it?
Cellucor athletes like WBFF fitness pro Jen Jewell, Karina Baymiller, IFBB physique competitor Craig Capurso, and strongman competitor Colton Leonard live the fit lifestyle every day. Here, they present the six pillars of nutritional success.
Pillar One Achieve Balance
You're eating chicken and broccoli for dinner again? Carving adipose fat from your body should not be a constant drudgery of eating the same ol' things. You can still achieve your dream body by adhering to a nutrient-dense eating plan 90 percent of the time and giving yourself the occasional treat. Fitness pro Jen Jewell agrees.
"I don't always turn down invitations to eat at a restaurant, and, no, I don't bring my pre-packed meals in Tupperware. I enjoy healthy, balanced meals 80-90 percent of the time with the remaining 10-20 percent consisting of a few of my favorites, like the occasional brownie or Mexican food.
"Knowing that I can enjoy these types of foods when I want them helps me stay focused, on track, and balanced on a day-to-day basis. No longer do cheat meals turn into cheat days or cheat weeks as they did in years past when I had been too restrictive. This has ultimately led to me achieving even better results year-round."
Being too restrictive, even when dialing down to single-digit body fat levels, can take a huge toll on your metabolism—sometimes permanently. Restriction deprives us of adequate nourishment and makes life plain miserable, which may undermine your efforts to achieve an ideal weight or your desired vitality.
Fitness model Karina Baymiller has pretty much perfected her dietary balance: "I was so obsessive about fat, carbohydrates, calories, sodium, sugar, and preservatives that I could count the number of foods I would allow myself to eat on one hand," says the former cheerleader, who also holds a B.S. in Kinesiology. ""Somewhere between these two extremes, I've found a sweet spot, a middle ground that combines the best of both worlds. It's something maintainable. It ensures both my physical and mental health are prioritized and it allows me to have my cake and eat it too—literally. This is what I like to call 'balance,' and it's the foundation of my nutritional approach."
For Jen and Karina, anywhere between 70-90 percent of daily calories come from nutrient-dense sources, and the remainder consists of typical "off-limits" fare. Karina says, "My diet includes things like lean proteins, organic dairy, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and nut butters, and seeds. The foods I consume the other 20-30 percent of the time are things I crave or just regularly want."
Pro strongman competitor Colton Leonard, one of many strength athletes who ingests maximal calories for maximum performance, also thinks balance is key: "It's all about balance. I do not recommend going long periods of time on low or extremely high carb diets. After long spurts of employing low carb days, athletes may find that they have a hard time maintaining muscle and they may also notice reduced performance. Low carb diets have their place, but try to limit these periods to spurts of 1-3 days max followed by higher, normal carb days."
Whatever the perfect mix is for you, make sure you keep a balance of nutritious foods that fuel both your body and mind.
Pillar Two Be Realistic
Be real with yourself. Know your body's limitations. Knowing when to say no and when to let loose are finely honed dietary skills that develop from knowing yourself. A dietary regimen that is hard to maintain or creates undue pressure isn't realistic for the long haul.
For long-term success, your nutritional strategy must be tailored to your realistic needs.
"I have learned that a sensible, balanced approach with a variety of foods to choose from is what works for me," says Jen Jewell. "Trust me, this was not an overnight process! Throughout my transformation journey, when I was attempting to shed some of my 33 percent body fat, I realized that I would be setting myself up for failure out of the gate if I started a super restrictive meal regimen. Sure, an overly restrictive approach may work for a few days, but I needed something that was realistic and sustainable; I was done with the unhealthy 'quick fix' approaches."
Being realistic means you set small, achievable goals and habits. Instead of cutting out that whole milk you love to drink every morning, try replacing it with low-fat milk or coconut milk. Rather than simply telling yourself to eat less food, try swapping out all your dinnerware or Tupperware with smaller versions. It's all about small, manageable modifications that don't set off your internal alarm bells with the overwhelming nature of change.
Pillar Three Know Thyself
Before you set out on a journey, you must map out the course. Determine exactly what it is you want to achieve and plan on the basis of what works best for you, not what your well-meaning friends told you would work. If you can identify your exact strengths and weaknesses, you can play them to your advantage.
For example, maybe you know you're a morning person and are likely to get things done at that time. Plan your workouts in the morning to knock them out right-off-the-bat. Maybe your weakness makes a mere glance at pizza involuntarily fill your mouth with saliva, so you might be careful to avoid going near it or at least have a stash of snacks close by to curb your cravings.
This knowledge is powerful and comes from a long list of experiences. Closely monitor your training progress and daily eating to determine any adjustments you may need to make.
In observing her response to certain nutritional protocols, Jen Jewell has found that food deprivations can result in major setbacks: "Nothing is off limits, because I know myself too well. The moment I restrict of certain foods or specific carbs essentially sets me up for failure.
"Over the years, I've found that by having implemented a sensible and balanced approach, I never feel deprived or that I'm missing out on any of my favorite foods, because in reality I'm not. I eat them when I want in moderation."
Pillar Four Prioritize Protein
Protein is the building block of muscle and is incredibly integral to the diet of an active individual. As a general guideline, your protein intake should stay steady between 0.8-1.5 grams of protein per pound of lean bodyweight.
While fat and carbohydrate intake can be mostly modified according to your training plan and fitness goals, protein intake should remain relatively constant no matter what. This is especially true in times of calorie restriction for fat loss. Without adequate protein, your body may begin to cannibalize its own hard-earned muscle tissue.
Plus, protein is just more satiating. Imagine how much more difficult it is to consume 1,000 calories of protein versus 1,000 calories of carbs. It's the difference between one cream cheese Danish and a massive sirloin steak.
Pillar Five Carb Control
Carb: A four-letter word that polarizes the fitness population. Some love it, some hate it. The core of the argument is that the amount of carbs can "make or break" your physique.
The real question isn't how many carbs you should eat, but rather it is how many carbs your body can tolerate. Everyone has varying levels of tolerance toward carbs, and it's finding your optimum level that will guide you toward the body composition you desire.
Carbs seems to be more of a wildcard when calculating your macronutrient profile. Your carb intake may be adjusted up or down depending on your training level, physical progress, energy levels, and body cues. The best method for finding out exactly what that ideal carb consumption is to just ask yourself: "How's this working out for me?"
Colton Leonard believes carb control is an important variable to control when seeking size and performance benefits. The 300-plus-pound former linebacker says, "Many athletes put so much emphasis on protein that carbs are left to chance when, in truth, the carbs are in control.
"Eat only the approximate number of carbs you need to successfully reach your goals. There is no magic number; everyone reacts to carbs a little differently. Some individuals can handle large quantities, some can't. This may take trial and error, but once you find it, you will feel more in control of your nutrition than ever before. Keep in mind that your carbohydrate needs will vary based on your workouts. You may want more carbs on a leg day than you want on arm day. I like to consume a meal with carbs about one and a half hours prior to my workout and a carb supplement mixed with protein immediately following my workout."
Pillar Six Act Purposefully
For the movers and shakers of this world, a great sense of purpose precedes all action. Whether you want to achieve physical greatness, have attention to detail, or reach targeted goals, you need to act with conviction. This includes attacking a nutrition plan that helps you reach your physique goal.
Craig Capurso knows all about it. "Everything I do has a purpose, and nutrition is no different. Before I begin a diet, I do some self-reflecting. Am I trying to get bigger? Am I trying to remain at the same weight or reduce body fat? If fitness is a lifestyle for you as it is for me, don't think of your nutrition plan as a diet. Think of it as fuel to help your body adapt to your goals."
Capurso also believes that you must adjust your calorie intake based on your purpose: "Whether you are trying to put on size or trying to shed fat, you should set a goal, pinpoint your calorie intake, and strive for a balanced macro profile in your diet."
If I haven't drilled it into your head yet, the point I want to drive home is that nutrition is the cornerstone of fitness success. The occasional missed training session won't compromise your progress nearly as much as missed meals. A sound eating strategy will facilitate recovery and give you the energy needed to train with full focus and intensity. Ensure that your nutrition regimen is balanced, realistic, purposeful, nutrient-dense, and tailored specifically for you.