Nutrition is one of the most vexing challenges facing trainees who are new to barbell training.
People who take up lifting typically have some sense that they have to eat a lot of food to support their training, but often don’t have a frame of reference for what “a lot of food” actually is. It is common for new lifters to think they are eating enough while actually be consuming an inadequate amount of calories, protein, or both.
The most surefire way to tackle this problem is to measure and track your food intake. While this may at first seem like a lot of work, it is actually a simpler and less labor intensive process than many people may at first think. The purpose of this blog post is to give lifters a simple and straightforward way to approach the problem in order to get the most out of their training.
A quick recap of the training process (and nutrition’s role within it)
Before getting into the details of how to measure and track your food intake, let’s quickly review why it matters.
Effective barbell training consists of the correct application of the Stress / Recovery / Adaptation cycle. The first step of the cycle is stress: the trainee goes to the gym and does their planned workout. The second step is recovery: the lifter goes home and recovers over the course of the next day by resting, sleeping, and eating. As a result of proper recovery, adaptation occurs, and the lifter ends up a little bit stronger than they were before the initial stress was applied.
Long term strength acquisition consists of the diligent and repeated application of this cycle. Obtain an appropriate stress, recover, and adapt to be a little bit stronger. Repeat.
It is no exaggeration to say that recovery is half your training. If you do not recover, you do not adapt. In this case, you have put in the hard work of lifting heavy weights, but do not get the payoff of becoming stronger.
The three ingredients of recovery are sleep (7-8 hours a night), rest (don’t run 5 miles on days in between lifting sessions), and nutrition.
This blog post is focused on the last of those items. So, let’s talk about what you need to eat, and how to make sure you’re eating it.
Your individual macronutrient requirements
First things first: how much do you need to eat to meet your goals?
Answering this question is not an exact science, and ultimately involves some degree of trial and error. In his highly valuable article, To Be a Beast, Starting Strength Coach Jordan Feigenbaum offers a table of factors to calculate your macronutrient requirements. Depending on your biological sex and your training goal (muscle gain, recomposition, fat loss), you multiply your body weight in pounds by a given set of numbers to obtain your goals for total calorie, protein, carbohydrate, and fat intake.
Take a minute now to consult the table and calculate your macronutrient requirements (henceforth to simply be referred to as ‘macros’). For the purposes of this blog post, we will assume these numbers are accurate.
Why you need to measure, weigh, and track your macros
Now you know what you’re supposed to be eating every day. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re a 150 lbs female with a goal of becoming stronger. In this case, you’d need to be eating 2,235 calories with 150g of protein every day.
Those calories and protein numbers should be spread throughout the day with 3-5 hours between meals in order to optimize muscle protein synthesis. Assuming you’re sleeping 8 hours a night, that gives you 4 meals a day with 4 hours between each meal. That means you’ll need to eat about 38g of protein in each meal.
Now here’s the big question: how do you know what 38g of protein looks like? The honest answer is that unless you are measuring and weighing the food you consume, you don’t. There are about 38g of protein in 122g of boneless, skinless chicken breast – but there’s no way you know what 122g of chicken breast looks like unless you are in the regular habit of weighing out the food you prepare.
The same goes for everything else you eat. Unless you are regularly using a measuring cup to parcel out a cup of cooked rice onto your plate at dinner time, you don’t actually know how much rice – and therefore how many calories or grams of carbohydrates or protein – you are consuming.
It has been my experience as a coach that with rare exception, new lifters do not eat enough food. They either underestimate how much they need to eat, or overestimate how much they are actually eating, or both. Measuring, weighing, and tracking your macros is therefore not just a good idea, but an essential aspect of effective training.
How to measure, weigh, and track your macros
Trainees frequently balk at tracking their macros because of the perception that it is a lot of work. But the reality is that provided you are already preparing any of your food at home, measuring and weighing your food takes minimal additional time.
Here’s what you need:
- MyFitnessPal installed on your phone
- A kitchen scale (available for $10-$20 online)
- A set of measuring cups
- A set of measuring spoons
Hopefully as a full grown adult you already have the latter two items. You can order the kitchen scale online and have it within a couple days. MyFitnessPal is free to install on your phone and it takes just a couple minutes to do so.
Now you have all the tools you need to measure, weigh, and track your macro intake. How do you do it?
As an example, let’s say your next meal consists of rice, baked chicken breast, and some steamed veggies. (Not the most exciting meal, I know).
Take your empty plate and place it on top of your brand new kitchen scale. Turn the scale on, or press its tare button. This zeroes the scale out so that it is not counting the weight of your plate.
Now, serve yourself some chicken. If you’re our hypothetical 150 lbs female with a goal of becoming stronger, you’ll need 122g of chicken on your plate. Keep putting chicken on your plate till you’ve got your 122g. Next, use a measuring cup to pour a cup of rice onto your plate. Now it’s time for the veggies: zero out your scale again by pressing the tare button. Now put a nice large portion of your veggies on your plate, and take note of the scale reading. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’ve got 100g of broccoli.
You’ve measured and weighed everything you put on your plate, so now it’s time to track it. Open MyFitnessPal on your phone, and for this meal (let’s say it’s lunch), find and enter the appropriate amounts of each food. You have 122g of chicken, 1 cup of rice, and 100g of broccoli. Put all that in – MyFitnessPal will total up the calories and macro nutrients in each food item for you.
All told, this is a minimal amount of additional work compared to how you would ordinarily serve yourself. It just means using a measuring cup for your rice and taking literally seconds to put your plate on top of your scale and record what the scale says.
What about when I’m not eating at home?
The more you can prepare your own food, the better this will go. But everybody eats out sometimes. What do you do then?
The answer is: make an educated guess. If you are measuring and weighing your food when at home on a regular basis, then your visual estimates of the amount of food on your plate at your favorite restaurant will generally speaking be more accurate than they otherwise would be. Of course you will still only be making a ballpark guess, but that’s certainly better than the alternative of guessing blindly.
MyFitnessPal even has entries in its database for meals at popular restaurants, which is pretty useful. Of course these are not 100% accurate since there is always variance – a burrito bowl at Chipotle is never exactly the same, even at the same Chipotle – but it’s at least as good as your ballpark visual estimate would be.
The trials and travails of MyFitnessPal
Before concluding, a few quick words on some quirks of MyFitnessPal are warranted.
First: MyFitnessPal’s free version allows only some approximate control of your macro goals. You can either pay for the premium version, which gives you more fine grain control, or fiddle with the free version’s rough controls to get your macro goals in the app to be as close to your actual goals as possible.
Second: MyFitnessPal also offers you the option to track calories expended through exercise. You are best off not using this feature at all. MyFitnessPal has no actual way to know how much weight you are lifting or how many calories you are burning doing it. Calculate your macro requirements based on your body weight and training goals, and leave it at that.
Third: MyFitnessPal sometimes has entries for both raw and cooked food. Be sure to use the correct one. If you are using the above suggested method for measuring and weighing your food, you are weighing it when it is cooked, so use the cooked food option.
Fourth: do a sanity check when entering food into MyFitnessPal. If you enter in your serving of rice and MyFitnessPal logs it as 1,000 calories, you made a mistake somewhere along the way. It is highly unlikely you are eating 1,000 calories of rice in a single sitting! Check to make sure you didn’t enter in uncooked rice or something similar.
Track your macros
Ultimately, tracking your macros is a routine like any other. Once you are in the habit of doing it, it becomes second nature.
Barbell training is hard work. Get out of it what you put into it. Track your macros.
Myfitnesspal is about the best you can do in terms of tracking. However, the challenge I’ve faced is that we cook most of our meals at home, and maybe 20% of those are as simple as the example in the article.
Most of the time, the meals have sauces, many types of vegetables, oils, some canned things, some fresh, etc. Measuring each item that goes to make the full meal, then dividing it into the portion you’ve served yourself is the thing that has discouraged me most.
That excludes having your wife and kids ask you what the hell you’re doing with a kitchen scale again and why dinner isn’t ready yet! Even if only one meal per day falls into this “complex” category, your numbers could be off by 10-20% if you get it wrong.
Unless you have found a better solution for these situations, expect to spend more time entering recipes into MyFitnessPal on a regular basis. At least there is an “import recipe from website” feature in the premium version, but it’s hit or miss as to how it interprets the data, so you’ll be typing away for a while.
Thanks for your comment Andres. You make a fair point! I did use a very simple example for ease of illustration, but a lot of meals are not quite that simple.
I think the general rule for approaching these situations is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Make a decision about how you’re going to approach these scenarios, then stick with it, even if it’s not perfect.
As an example, let’s say you’re making a meat sauce for pasta in a single pot. There are two ways you could go about this. If you wanted to be more precise: you could weigh the pot, measure everything you put into the sauce, then weigh the finished sauce and pot and determine the total amount of sauce made. Then you can determine per serving of sauce what you’re consuming.
Alternatively, if that’s too much work, you can just measure what you put into the sauce, and then eyeball the fraction of what you’ve made that you serve yourself. It’ll be a little less accurate, but if you’re consistent with how you estimate, you can just adjust your macros down or up from there. In other words, if you’re off by 10%, but you are consistent in how you’re off by that 10%, that is not a deal breaker.
Hi Andres, I had the exact same problem you describe. Then a friend of mine recommended the app YAZIO to me. It is quite similar to MFP, but it is possible to save whole dishes so you only have to enter all the ingredients once and if you eat it again you already have it in the app. This feature made it a lot easier for me to track my nutrition. Maybe it’s helpful for you or for some others, too. This is the app: https://www.yazio.com/en/food-diary