Home ResourcesNutrition Strength in Numbers: Understanding the Basics of Nutrition for Weightlifting

Strength in Numbers: Understanding the Basics of Nutrition for Weightlifting

by Katrina Borg

Katrina Smith // Married to My Macros

Show me a weightlifter who doesn’t love a good donut or jelly snake – I’ll wait. And while we might be on to something about the benefit of carbs for those in our sport, there’s probably some pre-workout fuel out there that will give us just a bit more of a competitive edge (and no, we’re not talking about Monster energy drinks either!). 

So what’s the best route to throwing around all the red plates? A little understanding about the way our body uses energy is key to making the choices on our plate match our effort in the gym. So, let’s review some basics:

We have three energy systems which work in tandem to help us get work done: The ATP-PCr system, the Glycolytic System, and the Beta-Oxidative System

Within the ATP-PCr system, muscular stores of ATP provide fuel for about 1-2 seconds of maximal muscular contraction (like a max lift!). When ATP is used, the Creatine Phosphate molecule splits, providing fuel for another 6-8 seconds of maximal output. This little gem is the primary system for high intensity, extremely short duration activities – like max effort weightlifting – thus why so many weightlifters find supplementing with Creatine helpful. Keep in mind though that you can ensure maximal or near maximal stores by eating a diet rich in quality meats and fish.

Where the ATP-PCr system is very short lived, the glycolytic system provides fuel for 10-120 sec of near maximal intensity exercise by breaking down glucose and glycogen. It is the primary system for high intensity, short duration activities, so you might well use this system with some of your larger working sets. Its Primary energy source is carbohydrates.

The Beta-oxidative system we’ll skip in the name of brevity here, but know that while also carbohydrate based, it fuels mainly longer, more aerobic work.

The point we’re trying to drive home here is that weightlifting is a creatine and carbohydrate driven sport, and thus, ensuring we’re consuming adequate amounts of these nutrients to fuel our sessions and help build muscle mass is essential if we want to progress. 

So how much should we be eating? Of What? And When? First off, it’s helpful to break down our carbohydrates into two categories: fast acting and slow acting. 

Fast acting carbs are anything that can be broken down, absorbed and made available as glucose in your bloodstream within about 30-45 minutes. Think of anything sweet: fruit, baby food, maple syrup, and honey – ideally over candies and gummies (which do provide carbs but no other beneficial nutrients). 

Slow acting carbs are those which require about 2 hours to be digested and broken down into glucose for the body to use. These would be items like your sweet potato, rice, oats, pasta and the like. 

If it takes about 45 mins for fast-acting carbs to come on board and two hours for slow-acting this should give you an indication about when’s best to consume them: ideally slow-acting carbs 2-3 hours pre-training (or comp), and fast-acting half an hour out or mid-way through a long session. It’s important to note that both fat and fibre slow the absorption of carbohydrates and thus should be minimized around training. This is why we don’t recommend donuts (high fat) as a pre-training top up – they’re actually a super inefficient fuel source and can leave you lagging in your sessions

Like any and everything nutrition related the “how much” portion of the equation is completely individual. Athletes can require anywhere from 2-7g carbs/kg bodyweight depending on your goals, training style, adaptivity, and body type. Typically we would recommend anywhere from 2-4g /kg /day, but this is something you should play around with, keeping an eye on energy, strength, training weights, and bodyweight as indicators that you might need to adjust up or down. We would typically consider a serving of carbs to be about 30-40g (usually a piece of fruit yields about 20g carbs, whereas you’re looking at something about the size of a fist for oats, sweet potato, rice etc.). At each meal consume 1-2 servings for each g/kg bodyweight you want to consume over the course of the day, plus a pre and post workout snack. 

While we may have knocked fats and fibre for their interference in our pre-workout fuelling these are definitely things you want healthfully sprinkled into the rest of your day. Fats because they form the basis of our hormones (testosterone, growth hormone etc) and we definitely want those to be functioning properly, and fibre for long term heart-health, gut-health, and satiety, so don’t go off thinking these aren’t essential as well. 

Finally, protein. We left this until the end because most weightlifters understand the importance of protein to muscle and strength development, but what about keeping our immune systems functioning well too? Generally speaking, 2.2g/kg/day is a good starting point, although more or less may be required by an individual based on your particular scenario. More than simply volume though, quality is important (just like your reps). Whole food proteins come with many other benefits beyond simply the promotion of musculature (micronutrients like B vitamins, selenium, and iron, and metabolism boosting properties etc). So while a shake is absolutely fine to have here and there, aiming to get the bulk of your protein from whole food sources is infinitely better. And take note: if there isn’t an identifiable protein source on your plate with each meal, there’s no way you’re getting close to goal intake, so start planning!

 More confused than when you started? Feel like you’re doing everything right but just not getting the results you’re expecting? Check out marriedtomymacros.com today and find out is customized nutrition programming is right for you!

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