Protein Power

Protein and body composition enhancement go hand-in-hand like peanut butter and jelly, movies and popcorn, false hope and the Chicago Cubs, or Samuel L. Jackson and mother******. It’s probably safe to assume that if you lift weights (regardless of what your goals are), you eat protein. Specifically, you eat lots of dead, cute, and furry animals. That being said, I am also going to assume that many of you reading this article are still curious to know the basics. Why else would you click on an article about protein, right?

What is it? What are the different types? What are its roles? When are the ideal times to ingest it?

How do dietary requirements differ between individuals who are trying to shed body fat as compared to those who or trying to add mass or who are involved in athletics? How is it metabolized? Will it help you get chicks? All are very prudent questions when discussing the topic of protein. So instead of me extending this introduction any further, why don’t we get right to it, eh?

“Eat all the protein you want. You will NEVER have a chance with a hot lady.”

Actually I Lied

Before I get into the meat (no pun intended) and potatoes, I want to preface all of this by saying that I did write a rather lengthy article not too long on the topic of carbohydrates. (The Carbohydrate Conundrum) If you actually read the entire thing, give yourself a medal. I know it wasn’t an easy read. In spite of that, I believe I was able to shed some light on this very “murky” topic and help to dispel a lot of the myths that are prevalent. When it comes to protein however, I feel that it’s not such a black and white debate, so I will spare you the novel. Everyone who is involved with training and/or athletics knows that dietary protein plays a major role in improved body composition (as well as several other key roles discussed later). Nevertheless, I feel that there are many people out there who may still be confused on the matter. As with carbohydrates, there is a major difference between NEED and OPTIMIZATION and I hope the information provided in this article will help to differentiate between the two.

The Basics (AKA…The Boring Stuff)

The word protein comes from the Greek word prota meaning “of primary importance,” which is meant to indicate its main role in human nutrition. [It’s also meant to give you the opportunity to impress your friends with your vast array of useless knowledge.] One key difference from carbohydrate and fat, which contain only carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, is that proteins contain nitrogen atoms. These nitrogen atoms give the name amino (“nitrogen containing”) to the amino acids of which protein is made. Amino acids are the molecules that, when joined in groups of a few dozen to hundreds, form the thousands of proteins occurring in nature.

There are 20 amino acids that occur in the diet. More than half of these can be synthesized by the human body and are commonly called non-essential amino acids because they DO NOT need to be consumed in the diet (the body can make them on its own from other sources). Nine of the amino acids are essential because the body cannot manufacture them and they must be consumed through the diet.

Essential and Non Essential Amino Acids

Sources of Protein

Protein can basically be divided into two main categories, complete and incomplete sources. Complete sources of protein are those found from animals:

Animal Sources: if it swims, flys, or has four legs and is furry…it’s a great source of protein. Additionally, eggs and cottage cheese and various other dairy products would fall under this category as well.

Incomplete proteins are those found in plants, and include:

  • Plant Sources: beans (kidney, garbanzo, etc), soy, chickpeas, tofu, lentils, and a variety of whole grains (muesli, wheat, etc).
  • Protein Powders: these get their own category because it’s my article and I said so! Technically speaking, protein powders are more often than not derived from whey, which is the by-product of cheese manufactured from cow’s milk.

However, there are also protein powders made from peas, eggs, soy, and a host of other sources, which become more of a factor for those with specific food allergies (such as milk). But to keep things simple, let’s keep the discussion on whey protein and its variations.

  • Whey Protein Concentrate: contain fat, lactose, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and other bioactive compounds.
  • Whey Protein Isolate: are processed to remove the fat, lactose, and carbohydrates, and is typically more expensive.
  • Whey Hydrolysate (hydrolyzed whey): “broken down” whey proteins which are absorbed by the body more quickly and are typically the most expensive.

Note – Protein powders are ideal for Post-Training because the body absorbs them so quickly.

Interestingly, protein that comes from animals is considered to have a higher Biological Value (or quality) compared to those that come from plant sources. Biological Value (BV) is a value that measures how well the body can absorb and utilize a protein. The higher the Biological Value of the protein you use, the more nitrogen your body can absorb, use, and retain. Since protein is used in the construction of bodily cells the more protein that is retained indicates a higher level of biological utilization of the particular protein. The more nitrogen that is excreted as urine and fecal matter, the less utilizable the particular kind of protein.

Biological Value of some Common Protein Sources

And BV is Relevant Because?

I’ll take this opportunity to briefly discuss vegetarian diets. While I will be the first to admit that there are MANY vegetarians out there who thrive on not eating animal protein, I also know that there are even more who shoot themselves in the foot from a body compositional standpoint by leading such a lifestyle. Many people are under the impression that all animal protein is fattening and will result in high cholesterol levels and clogged arteries. As a result, their only sources of protein come from plants. While this rationale does have SOME merit, it’s all together untrue. If one is cognizant of choosing LEAN sources of protein (lean beef, chicken breast, turkey, tuna, egg whites, 1% cottage cheese, protein powders, and a host of other sources), this is a non-issue in my opinion

In the book “Nutrient Timing,” co-author Dr. John Berardi briefly discusses the downfalls of a vegetarian diet. He points out that there have been numerous studies which have demonstrated that a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (dairy and eggs allowed) can interfere with the positive body composition changes seen in meat-eating weight trainers. In one particular study, it was shown that after twelve weeks of training, the meat-eating group lost about 2.9 pounds of fat while gaining 3.7 pounds of lean mass. However, the vegetarian group gained about 0.2 pound of fat and LOST about 2.4 pounds of muscle. And to think that this was WITH dairy and eggs allowed. I can only imagine what happens with “true” vegetarian diets.

Again, I want to reiterate that I know there are many vegetarians out there who have very impressive physiques and lead very athletic lives despite not eating any animal proteins. But I think that they are few and far between. In the end, it’s been consistently shown that diets containing animal proteins (therefore diets with a higher BV value), in conjunction with resistance training, tend to increase lean muscle mass and prevent LBM loss compared to vegetarian diets. It’s also been shown that people who eat animal proteins don’t look like weak, emaciated underwear models, but I digress.

Kind of hard to argue with science, although I will discuss a study later on which notes that resistance training ALONE preserves LBM, even when subjects follow a hypo-caloric diet. I am so going to blow your mind.

Protein Makes Me Swole, But What Other Roles Does It Play?

Well, protein itself DOES NOT make you “swole.” It’s often said that protein builds big muscles, which it does (kind of). Yes, the main role that protein plays is to serve as the building blocks of muscle. Specifically though, its main function is to REPAIR damaged muscle caused by the adaptive stress of resistance training. It’s not protein alone that makes you bigger (and stronger). It’s the adaptive response caused by the stress of training that begins the process of tissue repair. You train, muscles breakdown, you ingest protein, protein is broken down to amino acids, AA’s repair the damaged muscle, the muscles comes back bigger and stronger (assuming a proper training stimulus). While it’s borderline semantics, I just wanted to make that brief point.

  • Increased TEF: TEF refers to the Thermic Effect of Feeding. Your body burns calories just to digest, assimilate, transfer, and absorb the food you eat. That being said, the TEF of protein has been said to be almost double that of carbohydrates and fats COMBINED. It’s been shown that the body will burn upwards to 25-30% of protein calories during the digestive process. For example, if you were to ingest a 100 calorie meal of protein alone, the body will burn off 25-30 of those calories. This fact alone is one main reason why many people have improved their metabolic rate just by eating more LEAN protein.
  • Improved Hormone Status for Fat Loss: This is very simplified, but eating protein leads to the release of glucagon, a hormone that helps “release” free fatty acids from fat cells to be oxidized (burned).
  • Improved Body Composition: This pretty much ties in with the very first paragraph, but people who eat more protein, tend to have more LBM and less fat than those who are more focused on carbohydrates in their diet.
  • Increased Satiety: Protein takes longer for the body to breakdown, which helps prevent people from OVEReating during the day.
  • Reduced Cardiovascular Risk: In his other book, “The Metabolic Advantage,” Dr. John Berardi discusses several studies, which have “shown that increasing the percentage of protein in the diet (from 11% to 23%) while decreasing the percentage of carbohydrate (from 63% to 48%) lowers LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol concentrations.

These facts alone (along with a host of others) are why I tend to advocate that if people are going to overindulge on any of the three macronutrients, it should be protein. “When in doubt, eat protein,” a quote that I stole from a good friend, Cassandra Forsythe, a PhD student in exercise science and nutrition at the University of Connecticut. Use it as your mantra.

And while many people out there tout the dangers of high protein diets (namely those who say that high protein diets damage the kidneys), I feel that the advantages FAR outweigh the “never proven” disadvantages. Go to Pubmed or any variety of research journals and try to find ONE study that shows that diets high in protein cause damage to HEALTHY kidneys. I am more likely to make out with Natalie Portman than you are in finding such a study.

Basically, it’s not going to happen. All studies that I have seen or have been brought to my attention dealing with high protein diets and renal (kidney) failure have been done with people who have had PRE-EXISTING renal conditions in the first place. Well duh!

Protein Metabolism (I’m Keeping This Short On Purpose)

Before I discuss requirements, I think a few brief comments on metabolism are in order. Now, I am not going to go into any great detail, because to be honest, even I would get bored to tears. However, I do feel that it’s valuable to know that, “of the 20 physiologically important amino acids in the human body, only seven play a significant role as an intermediary in skeletal muscle metabolism: glutamate, alanine, glutamine, aspartate, and the branched chain amino acids (BCAA) isoleucine, leucine, and valine (1). Because it is generally accepted that BCAA oxidation (break-down) is accelerated during exercise, many experts have long advocated that trainees supplement with BCAA’s pre and post training. As evidenced by a study done by Phillips, et al, which showed that leucine oxidation increased in both males and females during prolonged endurance activity (2).

All that being said, the contribution of amino acid oxidation to the TOTAL energy expenditure is negligible during short-term exercise, regardless of intensity, and likely accounts for only 3% to 6% of the total ATP supplied during prolonged exercise in humans (3). The energy contributed by amino acids may be greater under certain conditions, such as when carbohydrate stores are low (4). In spite of this, the dominant substrates broken down for energy during EXERCISE are carbohydrates and fat.

As Forrest Gump would say, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

Requirements (What You Probably Skipped to Anyways)

Now this is where things get interesting and is where most people tend to differ with their opinions. No one really argues about the importance of protein or the roles that it plays in enhancing body composition. However, people DO argue about requirements and how much protein is really needed by any one individual. Let’s look at several different scenarios.

The ADA (American Dietetic Association) recommends that protein intake should be 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Their recommendations are based solely on providing the bare minimum to stave off DEFICIENCY. So, according to these guidelines, my daily protein requirement would be ~73 grams of protein per day.

200 lbs/2.2= 91 kg
91 kg x 0.8= 73 grams of protein per day.

I never knew I was a 14 year old girl! I think it’s safe to assume that my protein requirements are going to be more than 73 grams per day to maintain my LBM and to help me recover from three to five training sessions per week. As I mentioned above, the ADA guidelines are the BARE MINUMUM required to stave off deficiency. They’re geared towards average Joe Schmo who does nothing but commute to work, sit in front of a computer all day, goes home and watches three to four hours of television, and repeats the same cycle day in and day out. Because he isn’t very active, he won’t have a negative nitrogen balance and he obviously won’t need more protein in his diet. But what about those individuals who DO lead an active lifestyle?

Substantial evidence now suggests that exercise can indeed alter protein turnover—either acutely during activity or during recovery—but the magnitude of change depends on the type, intensity, and duration of contractile activity as well as nutrition and training of the individual. The muscle response is broadly subdivided into aerobic (endurance) and resistance (weightlifting) exercise, as the adaptive response, and hence requirements, induced by chronic training differs between the two types of activity.

Aerobic Exercise: Unfortunately, from what I have found, the effect of aerobic training on protein turnover in skeletal muscle has not been determined in humans. That’s not to say that protein is not broken down during aerobic activity, it most certainly is. Case in point…take a look at the majority of endurance athletes (such as marathon runners) who have low body-fat levels, but little to no lean body mass. To say that aerobic exercise does not break down protein (muscle) would be false. However, when it comes to PROTEIN TURNOVER (breakdown/synthesis), there is no significant research that says that aerobic activity does anything definitive.

Resistance Exercise: On the contrary, there is a plethora of information in regards to resistance training and skeletal muscle turnover. Phillips and colleagues (5), confirmed that the rate of muscle fractional breakdown acutely increases three hours post-exercise and is still elevated after 24 hours, but returns to basal levels within 48 hours. In studies done by the same researchers, the effects of an eight week resistance training routine (in a fed state) showed that rates of fractional synthesis and breakdown (turnover) is muscle protein were both higher at rest FOLLOWING training. Very few studies have failed to detect significant increases in muscle protein synthesis following an acute bout of resistance exercise, and those that have, were conducted on trained individuals (suggesting that they have adapted to the exercise stimulus).

That being said, here are the protein requirements for “active” individuals based off of the research (6):

Protein requirements for “active” individuals

Because most athletes do not fall neatly into one category (aerobic or strength), a general recommendation of 1.5-2.0 grams per kg of body weight has been suggested by the NSCA (6). Personally, I have found that 1.0 grams per lb of body weight works well for the majority of people I work with.

Additionally, one’s nutritional status will effect protein requirements as well. Those who follow a ketogenic diet, generally have diets high(er) in protein (to make up for calories lost from subtracting carbohydrates). The most critical aspect of protein intake for these people is to PREVENT lean body mass loss (or is it?).

During a ketogenic diet, atleast 120-150 grams of protein are needed per day (regardless of total calorie intake) to maintain nitrogen balance and to provide glucose for the brain (7). Anymore, and you sacrifice leaving ketosis (58% of dietary protein will appear in the bloodstream as glucose).

Table of Protein Intake and Grams of Glucose Produced (7).
(assuming a 58% conversation rate)

If you remember from my “Carbohydrate Conundrum” article, I stated that the brain needs roughly 75 grams of glucose per day to function properly. I am not going to go into specifics here because you can read the article for more details, but as you can see from the table above, anything more than 150 grams of protein per day and you risk leaving ketosis.
Personally, I am not a fan of ketogenic diets (although I am fascinated with the physiology behind them), but I just wanted to point out that an individual’s nutritional status will also affect their protein requirements and that these are STILL higher than what the ADA recommends for the majority of people.

Something Interesting

Earlier, I mentioned that the main function of protein during hypo-caloric diets is that it helps to PREVENT loss of lean body mass. Because of this, many people believe that protein requirements INCREASE while dieting and that this alone will help prevent LBM loss. While I don’t mean to “rock the boat” or make things even more confusing, I do want to touch on a study that was brought to my attention concerning Very Low Calorie Diets (VLCD) and LBM gains/loss.

VLCD diets (geared towards weight loss) typically result in loss of LBM and a decrease in Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). To offset this, many people think that adding cardiovascular work will help prevent this cascade of events. In short…it makes things worse. The purpose of this particular study was to examine the effect that high volume RESISTANCE training in conjunction with a VLCD had on these parameters.

Two groups were made: C+D (cardio plus diet) and R+D (resistance training plus diet). Both groups consumed 800 kcal/day liquid formula diets for twelve weeks. The C+D group exercises one hour per day (4 times per week) by walking, biking, or stair-climbing. The R+D group performed resistance training three times per week at ten stations increasing from two sets of 8-15 reps to four sets of 8-15 reps.


Maximum oxygen consumption (Max VO2) increased significantly, but equally in both groups. Body weight decreased significantly more in C+D than R+D. The C+D group lost a significant amount of LBW (51 to 47 kg). No decrease in LBW was observed in R+D. In addition, R+D had an increase in RMR O2 ml/kg/min (2.6 to 3.1). The 24 hour RMR decreased in the C+D group (8).

That’s an eye opener! Essentially, what this study shows is that the addition of resistance training (not increasing protein intake) resulted in the preservation of LBM and RMR, even while drastically hypo-caloric (800 calories per day). How you like dem apples?

My Concluding Thoughts (It’s About Time)

Protein. It’s a wonderful thing. It serves MANY crucial roles in enhancing body composition and it’s darn tasty. Like with anything in life, people tend to get into the mindset that “more is better.” There are only a handful of things that people need MORE of.

1. More exercise
2. More sex
More cowbell

I think people tend to swing the pendulum too far to either side. On one side, you have those who feel all you need is the bare minimum to stave off deficiency (regardless of activity level), and on the other you have bodybuilders who eat upwards of 400-500 grams per day. There is no ONE perfect requirement. Hopefully I was able to shed some light on the topic and to answer some of your questions. I have a steak to go eat.

Written by Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, CPT

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Protein Power discussion thread.


1. Hargreaves, M., Spriet. Exercise Metabolism (2nd Ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.

2. Phillips SM, Atkinson SA, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDougall JD.Gender differences in leucine kinetics and nitrogen balance in endurance athletes. J Appl Physiol. 1993 Nov;75(5):2134-41.

3. Tarnopolsky MA, Atkinson SA, Phillips SM, MacDougall JD. Carbohydrate loading and metabolism during exercise in men and women. J Appl Physiol. 1995 Apr;78(4):1360-8.

4. Lemon PW, Mullin JP. Effect of initial muscle glycogen levels on protein catabolism during exercise. J Appl Physiol. 1980 Apr;48(4):624-9.

5. Phillips, S.M., K.D. Tipton, A.A. Aarsland, J.C. Cortiella, S.P. Wolf, and R.R Wolfe. . Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology. 1997. 273: E99-107.

6. Reimers, K., Ruud, J. Nutritional factors in health and performance. In: Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (2nd Ed.) Baechle, T.R., Earle, R.W.., ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.

7. McDonald, L. The Ketogenic Diet. 1998

8. Bryner RW, Ullrich IH, Sauers J, Donley D, Hornsby G, Kolar M,Yeater R.
Effects of resistance vs. aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate.J Am Coll Nutr. 1999 Apr; 18(2):115-21.

The Carbohydrate Conundrum

There are only a handful of things in life that I can say with 100% confidence are true:

1. Jessica Alba is smoking hot.

2. Her boyfriend is a lucky son-of-a-bitch.

3. The majority of people are completely confused when it comes to the topic of carbohydrates.

On one end of the spectrum, we have those people since the 1980’s who have advocated diets high(er) in carbohydrates, claiming that as long as you don’t eat a lot of dietary fat, you won’t get fat. People took the whole concept out of context and ended up overindulging on fat-free cookies, thinking they were a guilt-free pleasure. End result? An epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes that is costing the Healthcare industry billions each year. On the flip side, we now have the majority of “experts” who advocate fad diets (that focus on short-term fixes rather than long-term results) that are almost deficient in carbohydrates (Atkin’s, Southbeach Diet, etc) to the point where people curl up into a ball and cry for mommy at the mere sight of the word.

Who is right? Personally, I believe that people all too often tend to swing the pendulum too far to either side and need to bring focus back to the middle in some way. Both high carbohydrate and low carbohydrate diets have their place and it really comes down to the individual. However, the purpose of this article isn’t to take part in this ongoing debate, but rather to give you a solid reference point about what role carbohydrates play in your diet. What are they? What are the different types? Are carbohydrates “needed” in the diet? How are they metabolized? And most importantly, how can they be optimized to enhance performance and promote lean muscle gain?

The Exciting and Thrilling World of Carbohydrates (a hint of sarcasm)

Certainly it would be absurd to write an article on carbohydrates (CHO) and not first briefly discuss what they are and the different categories of each. To put it simply, carbohydrates are a superb source of energy for the body.

However, at the lowest level of cellular function, the only form of energy that the cells of your body can use directly is a big “sciency” word called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The body has three (well, technically four) distinct pathways to produce ATP. The creatine phosphate system (CP) is the easiest way, providing fuel for quick and powerful bursts of energy up to twenty seconds. Glycolysis (breakdown of glucose) is the next one in line and can be divided into anaerobic glycolysis (without oxygen) and aerobic glycolysis (with oxygen). Anaerobic glycolysis is the primary energy source in activities lasting between 20 seconds and two minutes, and continues to “aid” in supplying energy lasting up to ten minutes. Aerobic glycolysis starts to kick in after about five minutes and is the predominant energy system utilized during this time.

Lastly, there is the oxidative system (fat), which is the most efficient fuel source for the body, providing fuel for long duration endurance events. However, because this article deals with carbohydrates (glucose) and how they can be used to enhance performance, I am going to be discussing them solely.

Upon consumption, carbohydrates have one of three fates:

  1. Broken down immediately upon ingestion and converted to energy to fuel activity.
  2. Stored in the liver or muscles cells and converted to glycogen to be used later.
  3. Under extreme (read: chronic overeating) conditions the remainder are converted into triglycerides and transported to adipose tissue and stored as fat . (1)

As such, carbohydrates themselves can be divided into a two main “categories”….simple and complex. They can also be further divided into “sub-categories,” based upon their chemical make-up or structure.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple Carbohydrates include naturally occurring sugars in fresh fruits and some vegetables and in milk and/or milk products (as well as sugars in concentrated form such as honey, corn syrup, or table sugar). Simple carbohydrates can be divided into two sub-categories: monosaccharides and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides are known as simple sugars. These include: (2)

Glucose: is a natural sugar found in food and also goes by the name of dextrose of blood sugar. It’s also the main carbohydrate used in the body for energy and the production of ATP.

Fructose: also known as fruit sugar, is the sweetest naturally occurring sugar, estimated to be twice as sweet as sucrose (see below). Fructose is absorbed slower than glucose because of its lengthy metabolic pathway in the liver. As such it has often been recommended to not use fructose as a main source of CHO post-training to replenish glycogen stores.

Galactose: unlike glucose and fructose, galactose is not found in plants, but rather only in dairy products.

Disaccharides are formed from two monosaccharide molecules. These include: (2)

Sucrose: also known as table sugar, sucrose is the most commonly found sweetener in the industrialized world. And it’s also the one of the main causes of obesity because it’s found in all the foods that most people tend to OVEReat (candy bars, pastries, cakes, etc).

Lactose: found in milk and other dairy products. Unfortunately, as many of us grow up, production of lactase gradually ceases. And we are then unable to metabolize lactose and as a result, gastrointestinal discomfort ensues in the form of embarrassing first date stories.

Maltose: also known as malt sugar and found in various cereals, beers, and germinating grains. And I am sure the only word many of you saw in that last sentence was beers.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex Carbohydrates basically entail your starches, as well as fiber. Complex carbohydrates (particularly starches) tend to be a bit of a misnomer in that many people are under the impression that complex=good, and simple=bad. While this assumption does hold SOME merit, it’s not inherently correct. Complex basically refers to a plethora of glucose molecules crammed together (rather than just ONE or TWO as with simple carbs).

Take white bread for example (which is a starch and hence considered “complex”). White bread is nothing more than HIGHLY processed flour, which the body can easily break down into glucose molecules due to the fact that the bonds are broken down so easily (simple carbs). In essence, eating white bread is kind of like eating simple carbs. Starting to see the paradox?

But I digress. Complex carbohydrates can also be divided into a few sub-categories:

– formed from multiple chains of monosaccharides. These include: (2)

Dietary fiber can also be classified into two separate categories: soluble and insoluble.

Soluble Fiber – mixes well with water and helps to prolong stomach emptying and enhances feelings of “fullness” (satiety). Soluble fiber also lowers total cholesterol (specifically LDL’s, or “bad” cholesterol). Examples would include: rolled oats, oat bran, dried beans, nuts, psyllium husk, various fruits and vegetables.

Insoluble Fiber – does not mix well with water and helps with moving bulk through the intestines and keeps you “regular.” Examples would include: fruit skin, green beans, flax seeds, and whole wheat products.

What’s interesting about fiber is that unlike “regular” carbohydrates which yield roughly 4 calories per gram, many people have heard or are under the assumption that the body can’t derive any calories from it. On the contrary, it has been shown that various bacteria found in your gut breaks down fiber and it has been given a rough approximate caloric value of 1.5-2 calories/gram (3). However, unless you’re consuming a TON of it per day, you can generally ignore the caloric value of fiber.

Carbohydrates: “Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them.”

Now that we know what carbohydrates are and the different types, we can now delve into the more “exciting” stuff and see how they can be utilized to enhance performance and aid in lean muscle gains.

Carbohydrates serve many integral roles in the diet. That is a fact that I will not deny. But I often find it comical when I hear people proclaim, “I NEED my carbs, I can’t live without them!” To many, the idea of going days without their sugar fix is like asking Lindsay Lohan to stay out of the tabloids for a week. It more than likely won’t happen. That being said, I’d like to take the opportunity to differentiate between the concept of NEED and OPTIMIZATION. Albeit briefly, because the subject alone could constitute a book in of itself.

Roughly 50-100 grams of glucose per day is needed by the brain to prevent ketosis (4). [Relax, keep reading. I know some who just read that last sentence just shit a brick and cursed my name]. Beyond that need, carbohydrates serve as a main source of fuel for energy, especially to enhance performance during high(er) intensity activity. When carbohydrates are absent or deficient in the diet, the body will enter a state called ketosis, where overall metabolism shifts from utilization of glucose for fuel to fat. The end result is the formation of ketone bodies, which are the by-product of the incomplete breakdown of free-fatty acids in the liver. Why is this relevant? Well, more than anything else, it’s a way for me to debunk the whole mantra that “the body (more specifically, the brain) NEEDS at least 50-100 grams of dietary carbohydrates per day in order to function,” that I hear being spewed out all the time.

In all actuality, the body can make all the glucose it “needs” through a process I alluded to above called gluconeogenesis (making of new glucose from non-glucose agents. When it has to, the body can make glucose from several other substances, such as glycerol, lactate, pyruvate, and amino acids (from muscle protein), to name a few. As I stated above, carbohydrates (glucose) serve as a main source of energy for the body and every tissue in the body has the capacity to use glucose. When carbohydrates are absent and the body shifts to the utilization of fat, all tissues in the body have the capacity to use fat for fuel as well……..with the exception of the brain. This is where ketones enter the picture. In a non-ketogenic state, yes, the brain utilizes around 100 grams of glucose per day (in the form of carbohydrates) to function normally. However, when dietary carbohydrates are absent, the brain can actually derive up to 75% of its energy requirements from ketones by the third week of sustained ketosis (4). So, while it’s definitely entering the world of semantics, it’s still not inherently correct to say that the body (or brain) NEEDS 100 grams of carbohydrates per day in order to function. It can get the glucose it needs from other sources as well.

Writer’s Note:
Go back and read that last section again. It took me awhile to understand the whole concept too (wink).

Now That You’re Back

The perception that all athletes (or people in general) need and should consume diets high in CHO’s needs to be dispelled as well. While it’s true that the majority of athletes do benefit from a diet that is higher in carbohydrates, it’s also true that there are a select few that do not. The amount of dietary carbohydrate that is “needed” by any one athlete/person really depends on training intensity, program design, frequency of training, and sport being played (aerobic vs. anaerobic) to name a few. Below is a chart which shows recommended carbohydrate intake for certain athletes (5).

Recommended carbohydrate intake for certain athletes

Also, do not forget the fact that the body has a limited storage capacity for dietary carbohydrates (glycogen). “In an average sized man, about 525 grams of glycogen are stored in the muscle with another 25 grams of glucose in the blood. The liver stores an additional 100 grams of glycogen, which can be broken down to glucose and released into the blood stream. The amount of energy stored as carbohydrate in the body is about 2,600 calories. This is enough energy for about two hours of moderate exercise,” (6). This is quite relevant because many studies have shown that continuous depleted muscle glycogen levels during strenuous activity, decreases performance. This is why it is crucial for many athletes (not all) to replenish glycogen stores after training on a regular basis (more on this below). This is also relevant for those who do not exercise regularly. Essentially, whatever excess carbohydrates you ingest over capacity are “spilled over” into adipose tissue and stored as fat. This is where OPTIMIZATION is key.

Insulin and Its Role In Optimization

Insulin is a hormone that is produced and secreted into the bloodstream by the pancreas, which is a glandular organ located in the abdominal cavity, behind the stomach. You have probably heard the phrase numerous times before, but it bears repeating. Insulin is a “double edged sword.” On one side, you have the VERY anabolic (muscle building) properties. The primary role of insulin is to regulate the level of sugar in the blood (when CHO’s are ingested), by shuttling glucose to muscle tissue. It not only shuttles glucose, but it also shuttles amino acids to muscle, hence why it’s considered an anabolic hormone. On the other side however, are the lipogenic (fat promoting) properties of insulin. Insulin serves as a “lock and key” in some regards. To put it simply, insulin can make you fat (by causing fat storage) and keeps you fat (by barring access to fat stores to be used for energy). Remember, insulin is a “storage hormone” and it shuttles nutrients to their respective destinations. Fat is a nutrient, and as such, is shuttled to adipose tissue. In addition, the body is going to use whatever fuel is most readily available for energy. If carbohydrates are ingested all day long and insulin is constantly elevated (not being optimized), the body’s ability to use fat for fuel is ZERO (assuming a caloric surplus of course). This helps explain why the whole “high carb, low fat” craze did not work. So as you can see, the “lock and key” analogy has quite a bit of merit. But I digress. The purpose of this section is to show you how to optimize insulin (carbohydrate intake) to take advantage of its profoundly anabolic properties. Not to throw fuel into the “carbohydrates are evil” fire.

One of these two people has learned how to optimize their carbohydrate intake. Can you guess which one?

So How the Heck Does Insulin Help Me?

Muscles need ATP to function. There is only enough ATP stored in muscle to withstand a few seconds of maximal effort, so as a result ATP needs to be replenished. Glycogen (stored glucose) it one major way to do this. It’s a well known fact that depleted muscle glycogen during strenuous activity leads to decreased performance. Such findings are relatively well known nowadays, especially if you have been reading for any amount of time and/or have read the writings of Dr. John Berardi. The timing of carbohydrate consumption (and in essence glucose uptake in muscle via insulin) can have a major effect on performance and post-exercise recovery, not to mention increases in lean muscle mass.

As intensity increases, so does the body’s reliance of CHO for fuel. This is why the topic of pre and post-workout nutrition has gained a lot of notoriety in the past few years. Supplementing with CHO, either by increasing the availability of glycogen in muscle BEFORE exercise or by ingesting CHO during exercise, enhances exercise endurance (7). It has been shown that a pre-training/event meal providing an adequate supply of complex carbohydrates taken anywhere from 2-4 hours prior, can significantly improve performance.

As far as post-training, carbohydrate consumption has been highly debated amongst fitness professionals. In the end, in my opinion, it really comes down to the intensity, duration, and frequency of training. As a rule of thumb, endurance athletes typically deplete glycogen stores at a higher rate compared to non-endurance athletes. However, what can’t be debated, is the fact that numerous research has proven that:

“the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise is strongly influenced by the timing of carbohydrate ingestion (spiking insulin). Researchers led by Dr. John Ivy at the University of Texas at Austin discovered that drinking a 23% CHO solution instead of water immediately after exercising notably increased the rate of muscle glycogen synthesis above the basal rate the first two hours of recovery. It was also noted that the delay of CHO ingestion by only two hours resulted in a slower rate of glycogen re-synthesis (8).”

Again to reiterate, most research in this area has been done on endurance athletes, and because of this, I am always reluctant to simply tell people that what is found in the research applies to them. If you are in fact an endurance athlete (and sorry, walking two miles per day does not mean you are), then I would most certainly say that you should follow the protocols mentioned above. However, as far as power/strength athletes are concerned, the research is limited (albeit more IS being done as we speak), and all I can say is that it depends on your volume and intensity.

To summarize, here is a simple chart to put things into perspective on the roles insulin plays in performance:

Insulin’s Anabolic Actions – (Excerpt from Nutrient Timing, pg. 28)Metabolism of Carbohydrates

The topic of carbohydrate metabolism during exercise is confusing and to be honest, quite complicated. However, I think it’s important to know some of the general basics concerning the matter. Not to mention it will give you some great ammo for pick-up lines with the chicks. Women LOVE a man who knows his carbohydrate metabolism.

The ingestion of carbohydrates and the subsequent uptake of glucose during exercise occurs by facilitated diffusion with the help from certain transport proteins in the muscle cell; namely GLUT-4. GLUT-4 increases sarcolemmal glucose transport in response to muscle contractions during exercise and to elevated insulin after a meal. However it should be noted that exercise is a more potent stimulus for glucose uptake in skeletal muscle compared to that elicited by maximal insulin stimulation (9). This is a huge reason why I always tell people that the TIMING/optimization of their carbohydrate intake is important. Essentially, during this time, you will “use those calories and not wear them.” In the end, glucose uptake in muscle increases in proportion to exercise intensity (10). However, it should be noted that the glycogenlytic/glycolytic pathways that metabolize carbohydrate and ultimately provide “anaerobic ATP” with the production of lactate, also provide pyruvate for the oxidation of CHO and aerobic ATP production (11). In short, carbohydrate provides the substrate for BOTH aerobic and anaerobic ATP production and is why they are considered such a superb fuel source during exercise.

Aerobic Metabolism: Under oxygen rich conditions (such as a marathon), the end by-product of glycolysis (breakdown of stored glycogen) is pyruvate, which is then moved to the mitochondria of the cell to be converted to the coenzyme acetyl-CoA for entry into the Kreb’s Cycle, where it is then used to produce ATP for energy. Aerobic use of CHO yields 38-39 mmol of ATP for each mmol of glucose or glycogen consumed (12).

Anaerobic Metabolism:
Under oxygen low conditions (such as with resistance training), pyruvate is reduced to lacate and NAD in a process called oxygen independent glycolysis. Anaerobic use of CHO yields much less energy, providing only 3 mmol of ATP for each mmol of glucose derived from muscle glucogen. However, the rate of ATP provision is about twofold faster compared to aerobic metabolism (12).

Watch out ladies. ATP and GLUT-4 never seemed so hot did they?

And I Am Done

If you made it this far without falling asleep, then congratulations! Hopefully I was able to shed some light on the topic and to show you that there is more to carbohydrates then just the fact that they taste darn good. Other than learning about the different types and categories of each, I hope that I was able to shed some light and to get many of you to realize the importance of differentiating between the concepts of need and optimization. Particularly the crucial role insulin plays in the grand scheme of things as far as performance and body composition enhancement is concerned. Again, the goal of this article was to give you a reference point for the roles that carbohydrates play in the grand scheme of things. Above all, I hope it accomplished just that.

Written by Tony Gentilcore

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – The Carbohydrate Conundrum thread.


1. Faigin, R. Natural Hormonal Enhancement. Boca Raton, FL: Extique, 1998.

2. Boyle, M., Zyla, G. Personal Nutrition (3rd Ed). St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Company, 1996.

3. McDonald, L. Fat Loss Handbook: A scientific approach to crash dieting. 2005.

4. McDonald, L. The Ketogenic Diet. 1998.

5. Reimers, K., Ruud, J. Nutritional factors in health and performance. In: Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (2nd Ed.) Baechle, T.R., Earle, R.W.., ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000.

6. Ivy, J., Portman, R. Nutrient Timing. North Bergen, NJ: Basic Health Publications, Inc, 2004.

7. Coyle, E.F., Coggan, A.R., Hopper, M.K., Ivy, J.L. Muscle glycogen utilization during prolonged strenuous exercise when fed carbohydrates. Journal of Applied Physiology. 61: 165-172, 1986.

8. Siff, M.C. Facts and Fallacies of Fitness (6th Ed.) Denver, CO: 2003.

9. James, D.E., Kraegen, E.W., Chisholm, D.J. Muscle glucose metabolism in exercising rats: Comparison with insulin stimulation. American Journal of Physiology. 248: E575-E580, 1985.

10. Katz, A., Broberg, S., Sahlin, K., Wahren, J. Leg glucose uptake during maximal dynamic exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology. 251: E65-E70, 1986.

11. Spriet, I.L., Howlett, R.A., Heigenhauser, G.J.F. An enzymatic approach to lactate production in human skeletal muscle during exercise. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 32: 756-63, 2000.

12. Hargreaves, M., Spriet. Exercise Metabolism (2nd Ed.) Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.

You are what you eat – Part 2


Among the people with whom I have worked, protein is the most neglected macronutrient. Women in particular tend to have diets that are very deficient in protein. Why? Who knows? One reason may be that many of them seem to think that a container of yogurt is a good source of protein. Sure, it may contain about five grams of quality protein, but to deem yogurt a significant source of protein is altogether untrue. Another reason might be because many view animal protein as fattening. This is true to an extent, but if one takes precautions and buys LEAN meats, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Protein provides us with amino acids, the building blocks of muscle. If one is deficient in protein, this will lead to negative nitrogen balance, which in layman’s terms means that that individual will be hard-pressed to add any significant amount of lean muscle mass (or preserve it, for that matter). This is particularly crucial when one is dieting to get leaner. For most people, a caloric deficit is needed in order to lose fat; this state can leave the body in a muscle-wasting mode if one isn’t careful. Very generally speaking, making sure that you are ingesting ample amounts of protein (amino acids) will “protect” muscle tissue and prevent your body from breaking it down in order to use it for fuel. I say “very generally speaking” because other factors such as training stimuli, cardiovascular exercise, and total caloric intake also play vital roles in terms of preserving lean muscle mass while dieting (here’s a hint: you should be strength training during this time and not toying around with high reps and low weights to feel the “burn,” you big sissy).

Another great benefit of protein is the fact that it is has a very high Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) factor. TEF refers to the calorie-burn associated with the digestion and assimilation of food. If there is one macronutrient of which you should not be afraid of overeating, it is protein. Dr. Lonnie Lowery, one of the world’s top sports nutritionist has paid considerable attention to this point in many of his writings. Essentially, he explains that diets higher in protein require the body to burn more calories in digestion compared to diets that are lower in protein. Thus, excess protein calories aren’t as likely to be stored in the body as fat. Just to give you a frame of reference example, the TEF of protein is approximately 30%, compared to just 4%-6% for carbohydrates and fat, respectively (1). To put this into perspective; for a 100-calorie meal, protein will require a complete 30 calories just to process it, compared to a measly 4 or 6 calories expended to process carbs or fat. It seems pretty obvious to me which macronutrient you shouldn’t be neglecting.

Top-notch Protein Sources

Eggs – In terms of its biological value (a measure of protein quality, assessed by determining how well a given food or food mixture supports nitrogen retention), eggs are the best source for which you could ask. On a scale of 100%, egg whites have a BV value of 100%. Yay for the egg! And no, you don’t need to be like Rocky and down a raw egg shake in the morning (although it would be totally sweet if you could help bring an end to the Cold War by beating up a giant Soviet heavyweight). Actually, doing so will interfere with biotin absorption from the egg yolk due to the high traces of avidin found in raw egg whites. Besides, cooking your eggs denatures the protein, which increases its bioavailability.

Chicken Breast/Turkey Breast/Ground Turkey – All are great sources of lean protein and should be staples in your diet. They make great healthier alternatives in recipes calling for beef or other more fattening meats; I use these meats in chili, tacos, fajitas, and burgers. In order to keep costs down, I like to buy them in bulk and then just grill or cook them ahead of time and store them in Tupperware to last me the week. Doing so will save you a lot of time in terms of food preparation and you will always have a healthy snack available for those times when you have a case of the munchies.

Lean Ground Beef – While it is a bit more expensive to buy, lean beef is definitely well worth the extra dollar you will spend. The leanest cuts range from 93%-95%, so be sure to check the labels. Again, food prep enters the equation, so what I like to do is cook my beef in a big frying pan sprayed with Olive Oil-based Pam, drain the fat, and then add a jar of salsa and a bag of mixed veggies to it to spice it up a bit and make it a bit healthier. Presto! You have yourself a hardy 3-5 P+F meals to last you a few days.

Cottage Cheese – Of all the foods that I recommend to people, cottage cheese is the one that elicits the most groans and looks of sheer terror. The comments that I hear most often are, “Oh my god, I can’t eat that,” or “The texture! The texture! Please no, I can’t stand the texture!” You would think that I was suggesting that they eat a concoction from Fear Factor or something. Okay, I admit that cottage cheese isn’t the most palatable food in the world, but the host of benefits that it offers far outweighs the drawbacks, so suck it up, buttercup. I often recommend cottage cheese as a nighttime snack due to the fact that the main protein source in it is casein. Casein is a slowly absorbed protein with anti-catabolic qualities, making it a perfect food to eat right before an 8-10 hour “power nap.” Adding a scoop of chocolate protein powder and a tbsp of natty peanut butter makes for a welcome treat right before bedtime. Doing so will ensure that your body has a healthy dose of amino acids (as well as some healthy fat) to last through the night and serve as “protection” for precious lean body mass.

Tuna/Fresh-Water Fish – Regardless of its unpleasant scent, tuna is an easy and convenient source of quality protein. One can (or package, for that matter) generally packs 25-30 grams of protein that can be eaten straight up (only if you are truly hardcore), or used in salads, casseroles, and obviously as part of a sandwich. Stick to the variety that is packed in water and not vegetable oil.

Beef Jerky – As far as convenience is concerned, not many foods top this one. I get a lot of clients who work in an office setting, which makes it much harder for them to get enough meals in throughout the day because they can’t get away from their desk. One easy solution is to bring foods to work that are easy to store. Enter dried up cow meat in a sealed package! Beef jerky packs a ton of lean protein that can easily be eaten while sitting in front of your computer browsing the internet when you’re supposed to be doing your work. How cool is that? Just make sure that you go with a brand has less than 5g carbs per serving; otherwise, you’re eating something that the manufacturer has coated in sugar.

Protein Powders – I hear the same questions day in and day out: “What supplements should I be taking? Should I get some protein powder?” I usually retort with, “Before the word supplement even leaves your mouth, you should be more concerned with getting your overall diet squared away with WHOLE foods first. No supplement or protein powder is going to compensate for an atrocious diet.” However, I will admit that I don’t necessarily consider protein powder a supplement. I do feel that it plays a vital role in helping people reach their protein requirements each day. Sometimes, it is hard to eat 300-400 grams of protein per day through whole foods alone, so protein powders are a very quick and convenient way to ensure that individuals are able to meet their needs. Protein powders are also very versatile in that they can be added to things such as oatmeal, cottage cheese, and cereal – and obviously used to make shakes.

In addition, one has to take into consideration the timing of certain protein powders, as well as what types are convenient for them to fit their lifestyle. It is often recommended that whey protein be ingested immediately before, during, and after training due to the fact that it is absorbed more quickly and promotes protein synthesis; both of these qualities are ideal in the post-training “anabolic window.” At other times in the day, it’s best to ingest more slowly absorbed protein powders such as casein and milk-protein isolate, both of which have superb anti-catabolic qualities. For those who are vegetarians or have food allergies towards whey, casein, or MPI powders, other options include rice, pea and soy proteins (although these options are less impressive in terms of biological value). Needless to say, there are a plethora of options out there to fit everyone’s needs.

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I’m going to let you in on a shocking secret: dietary fat does not make you fat.

“Heresy,” you claim.

“Ludicrous,” you say.

“Absurd,” you assert.

Since the early to mid 1980s, people have feared fat as if it was an evil step-mother. Why? Well, it certainly didn’t help that the ADA and hundreds of “experts” started advocating diets that were low in fat and high in carbohydrates, claiming that fat was our primary nemesis. The rationale was that if people didn’t eat fat, they wouldn’t get fat: scientific reasoning at its best. The result? Rates of obesity and type 2 have reached all-time highs, leading to an epidemic where obesity is on the verge of overtaking heart disease as the nation’s #1 preventable cause of death.

That fact is that much of the fat content in foods was replaced with copious amounts of refined sugar. So, while people merrily ate entire boxes of fat-free cookies (assuming it was a guilt free pleasure), their waist sizes were growing faster than Kristy Alley’s during her post “Cheer’s” career. Okay, maybe not that fast, but you get the point.

In all actuality, as Rob Faigin stated in his phenomenal book, Natural Hormonal Enhancement, “Whether or not dietary fat is fattening depends on your hormonal state. If you are a sugar burner, your metabolism is geared toward carbohydrate utilization and incoming dietary fat is channeled to adipose tissue to be added to your fat stockpile. By contrast, as a fat-burner, the sugar-burning (glycolytic) pathway is suppressed and the fat-burning (lipolytic) pathway is activated. Consequently, incoming dietary fat is burned at a high rate along with its biochemical twin-sibling-body fat (2).”

If you are a “carb-junky,” insulin levels are constantly raised and incoming dietary fat is MUCH more likely to be stored as body fat. Individuals who control their insulin levels throughout the day don’t have so much trouble, though.

It’s important to also take into consideration the concept of calories in vs. calories out. Sure, one gram of fat contains more calories per serving than one gram of carbohydrate and one gram of protein COMBINED, but if one is eating at a deficit, then this doesn’t really matter much (taking into account a proper training stimulus and meal timing). That’s not to say, however, that you could eat 2000 calories worth of fat and get the same result as if you ingested 2000 calories worth of protein (assuming both are at a deficit). How your body metabolizes and partitions certain macronutrients varies to a great degree and hence will yield different results in terms of one’s body composition. Generally speaking, though, when someone is trying to “lean-up,” one of the key factors is calories in vs. calories out, not how little fat they eat.

All myths aside, dietary fat plays several other crucial roles beyond energy provision. First of all, there is this thing called vital or “essential” body fat. Essential means that your body will have a hard time functioning properly if it does not have a certain amount of body fat. For men, that number is approximately 3%, and for women, it is about 12%. So, for those people who eat very little fat in their diet in hopes of achieving lower body fat levels, they are doing themselves a huge disservice; your body NEEDS it! Dietary fat also helps with increasing serum testosterone levels, aids with the digestion of “fat soluble vitamins” (A, D, E, K; your body can’t digest these vitamins without dietary fat), and helps with satiety. Because fat takes a little longer to digest, it provides a more satisfied and full feeling after meals.

Just as I noted that not all calories are created equal, all fats are not created equal; there are “good” fats and “bad” fats. In terms of “bad” fats, I am just going to make your life simple and tell you to stay away from trans-fats whenever you can. Trans-fats (trans-fatty acids) are man-made fats that are created when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil in order to increase its shelf life. This process alters the chemical structure of fat from its natural cis- configuration to the unnatural trans- configuration, which raises LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), lowers HDL cholesterol (the good kind), and increases your risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, trans-fats are in many of the typical Western diet’s mainstays: fast food, donuts, cake, cookies, potato chips, and pastries (just to name a few). All are tasty foods that are made in mass quantities, are readily available, and perhaps most importantly, are convenient. When it comes to “healthy” fats, on the other hand, the choices aren’t as enticing and more often than not, take a bit more effort to work them into the diet. The benefits are, however, WELL worth it:

Monounsaturated Fats

Olive/Canola Oil – Whenever a recipe calls for vegetable oil, use EXTRA VIRGIN olive oil or canola oil instead. Several research studies, as well as real world evidence have shown that diets high in monounsaturated fats lead to increased insulin sensitivity and fat oxidation. What this means is that you tend to use more energy metabolizing this form of fat than the other forms. Pretty neat that eating a fat actually leads to a higher metabolic rate and, in turn, greater fat loss, huh?

Mixed Nuts/Seeds – The one caveat for this section is that peanut allergies are pretty common, so use caution. That said, mixed nuts make for a superb mid-afternoon snack. I prefer whole, raw almonds (which I buy in bulk), but most mixed nut blends would suffice. Pecans, walnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, and cashews are all viable options. Also, for the baseball player in you, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds make awesome snacks. Just be careful with quantities; it doesn’t take a lot of nuts or seeds before the calories add up (they tend to be very calorie dense). Try to limit yourself to a handful if you choose to include these in a meal. And please be sure to buy raw or dry roasted varieties. Many of the “snack” nuts and seeds tend to be highly processed and cooked in peanut/sunflower oil, which adds nasty trans-fat to the mix.

Natural Nut Butters – Again, if you happen to be someone who has an allergy to peanuts, then I wouldn’t recommend indulging in peanut butter too often. That aside, “Natty PB” is an awesome source of MUFA’s. Just make sure that when you go shopping for it, that the only ingredients that you see on the label are peanuts and salt. Steer clear of all the Jif’s, Skippy’s and Peter Pan’s; all of those brands are loaded with trans-fatty acids. You will be better served buying a generic brand natural peanut butter. Also, suck it up and buy the regular kind. There is no need to buy the “reduced-fat” variety, as the manufacturers simply replace the fat with sugar and over process the stuff like you wouldn’t believe. Also, for a true sense of what heaven on Earth must feel like, try to get your hands on some cashew or almond butter. While a bit harder to find (you may have to seek out your local Natural/Organic Food Store), these butters are well worth the effort.

Polyunsaturated Fats

Fish Oil – Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve likely heard about the numerous health benefits of implementing fish oil (more specifically the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA, and docosahexanoic acid, or DHA) into one’s diet. I won’t go into details as to why you should be using fish oil, as there is a plethora of information out there on the numerous benefits of it. Needless to say, if your quest to burn off that pesky fat has come to a standstill, adding some fish oil to the mix may be just the thing you need to stoke the fat burning furnace.

Flax Oil – This is a great source of alpha-linolenic acid, a polyunsaturated fat that the body converts to DHA/EPA in the body, albeit not all that efficiently. Some good products that use flax oil are Udo’s Choice Oil and a few varieties made by Health from the Sun. You can also buy ground flax seeds, which are pretty tasty to add to things such as salads and protein shakes; doing so gives them a bit of a “nutty” flavor.

To reiterate, in the grand scheme of things, as Schutz (2004) wrote, whether or not your body will store excess body fat “is ultimately a problem of chronic positive energy balance mediated by a poor control of energy intake and/or a blunted total energy expenditure (not exercising),” (5). Also, you need to be cognizant of the TYPES of fat you are ingesting, not just the amount. Obviously, if your dietary fat comes from nothing but processed foods (trans-fats), you will suffer the consequences and be well on your way to a world of frustration. On the other hand, if your fat comes from “healthy” sources such as fish oil, olive oil, flaxseed oil, and mixed nuts, you will definitely be well on your way to a healthier and leaner “you”.

A Brief Word on Condiments

I’m not going to lie; condiments can be your best friend when you are dieting. They are useful tools for helping to break the monotony and blandness of your typical diet foods. However, one does need to carefully select which ones to use. Things such as mayonnaise, ketchup, and honey mustard should be avoided due to their high saturated fat (mayo) and sugar (ketchup, honey mustard) content. Miracle Whip, salsa, and regular mustard are much better options. In terms of dressings, I tend to lean towards vinaigrettes and light varieties (less fat and carbs); you can never go wrong with olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Also, there are many spices that one can use to add a little zest to their foods without fear of them backstabbing their fat loss efforts. Creole, oregano, seasoning salt, chili powder, crushed red pepper, salt, pepper, minced garlic/garlic powder, and Mrs. Dash are all spices that I recommend to clients. Don’t be scared to experiment with various condiments, as they can be a crucial element to your success. Just be cautious of some of the “hidden” calories I outlined.


WHEW! Who knew I could be so long-winded? Hopefully, I was able to keep your attention and shed some light on what types of foods should comprise the bulk of your diet. In no way am I suggesting that these are the only foods you should be eating; I’m just reflecting on my own personal experience and experience with clients of mine. In my opinion, these are the foods that will yield the best results in terms of health and physique improvements. Sure, they aren’t the most fun or tasty foods to eat, but if you want to be able to fit into those pair of pants that you haven’t been able to wear since Patrick Swayze was considered cool, or if you want to be able to walk down the beach without fear of twenty year old girls cringing in disgust, then I highly suggest that you take some of these suggestions to heart – and stomach!

Written by Tony Gentilcore

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – You are what you eat – Part II discussion thread.

You are what you eat – Part I

As a personal trainer, I am constantly seeing and hearing things in the gym that boggle the mind. Some of the more comical examples include:

1. Guys who use the same exact weight day-in and day-out for 3 sets of 10 and look the same now as they did three years ago.

2. An Epidemic of Inflated-Lat Syndrome (ILS).

3. “Universal Bench Day” (Monday, of course).

4. Women who wear make-up to the gym. Why?

5. “Dude, did you check out the latest issue of Muscle & Fitness? I am so gonna buy that Mass Formula Protein Synthesizer 3000 that this huge dude is pimpin’. My man got jacked using that stuff.”

Needless to say, the list could go on and on. While all these examples are quite comical, there are many issues that are just downright frustrating and make me want to pull my hair out. Most notably, it drives me crazy when I overhear someone’s tale about how they spend hours upon hours in the gym, and yet they just can’t get rid of that stubborn excess body fat. These are the same people that proclaim, “I eat so healthy; I just don’t understand why I am 20 pound overweight!” These are also the same people I see purchasing pizza and fried chicken fingers along with diet soda (cause it cancels out the pizza) in the cafeteria each day for lunch. With these misguided souls in mind, I decided to write this article. I like to think of it as the “Cliff’s Notes of Grocery Shopping for Newbies” – or those simply interested in a lean AND healthy body.

Let’s get to it!

There are many things in life that we covet. Some desire noble things such as world peace and a cure for cancer. Some desire tangible, pricey items such as a 60-inch plasma screen television, or a stereo system in their car that would rival that of any rap star or professional athlete you see on MTV “Cribs.” And others even desire outlandish things such as Jennifer Garner feeding grapes while on vacation in Hawaii, or a law that mandates that anyone caught curling in the squat rack shall be executed immediately. Personally, I am quite fond of the final two options. Then again, why have one Jennifer when you can have two? Come on down, Mrs. Lopez! Your husband is a skinny, no-talent tool, anyway.

Suffice it to say that many people want different things. If you’re reading Wannabebig, it’s probably a safe bet to assume that to some degree or another, you want a healthy, strong, and lean body. Many of you are quick to take up the latest training routine about which you’ve read, and you walk into the gym with a sense of dedication that would make any 30 year-old virgin proud. You spend endless hours counting your total number of sets and reps and calculate TUT with meticulous fervor

You make certain that you are constantly pushing yourself by lifting more weight with each training session and gauge your progress with complex mathematical formulas. All this devotion is fine and dandy – not to mention quite admirable – if you are willing to put that much effort into changing your body. However, while some may come across as Einstein in the weight room, many come across as Bozo the Clown when it comes to matters outside of the gym.

If you haven’t guessed already, I am referring to the fact that what people stuff down their pie holes has a HUGE impact on their progress (or lack thereof). It never ceases to amaze me how dense people can be when it comes to their diet. Many will automatically assume that since they just spent 90 minutes “working out,” they can eat whatever they want. I use the phrase “working out” hesitantly, because some individuals’ definition of “working out” consists of walking on the treadmill at a pace an 85 year-old grandmother could handle while watching Oprah. Or, these folks simply do chest and biceps three times per week because, well, deadlifts and squats “aren’t as fun and are too hard!” Sure, one of the many benefits of participating in a consistent training program is that you can get away with eating more food. However, I have seen people bust their tail in the gym only to follow that up with a meal consisting of pizza and french fries! Then they’re left perplexed when they try to figure out why they’re not getting any leaner despite spending inordinate amounts of time in the gym.

So I have compiled a list of the types of foods that I tend to give all my new clients when they want to “lean out,” or do a “clean bulk.” With respect to both of these goals, diet tends to be the X-factor and I often stress to my clients that no training regimen is going to compensate for poor food choices. Who woulda thunk it? After all, you are what you eat!


In recent years, carbohydrates have gained a notoriety that would rival only that of a BackStreet Boys reunion tour. In other words, people fear them. Today, we are bombarded with foods that use the term “net carbs” on their labels and many of the popular fad diets advocate few to no carbs, including fruits of all things! Sure, we all know that fruit is responsible for the modern obesity epidemic! Listen, carbohydrates are not your enemy. Going into depth about carbohydrate metabolism and storage is beyond the scope of this article and quite frankly is not necessary. Yes, carbohydrates do play a role in why obesity and type-2 diabetes have become serious problems in this country, but to say that carbohydrates in a broad sense are the sole culprit would be completely incorrect. More often than not, it’s the TYPES of carbohydrates that people ingest or poor meal timing and lack of regular physical activity that cause the problems. Needless to say, most people just need to learn that there are times in the day where you want to ingest certain types of carbs and times in the day when these carb sources are best left in the cupboard. Then, there are a host of carb sources that don’t belong in your cupboard in the first place!

And those times would be?

Significant carbohydrate consumption should be limited to the 4-6 hours post-workout only. The lone exception would be if you train late in the afternoon or in the early evening. In this scenario, it would be feasible to ingest some quality carbs as part of your breakfast in order to take advantage of normal circadian rhythms (preparing the body for the activity ahead in the day) and the fact that one has been fasting for 8-10 hours (therefore, liver glycogen is relatively low). Your body is most insulin sensitive first thing in the morning (after an overnight fast) and post-workout when muscle glycogen is depleted and glucose transport is working at optimum efficiency. Generally speaking, these are the times when your body is going to make good use of those carbs, not wear them.

Post Workout Carbohydrates (High GI) Maltodextrin and Dextrose

Results from numerous of scientific studies have demonstrated that supplementing with some fast acting (simple) carbohydrates, in conjunction with some protein, during and immediately following a training session will drastically improve performance as well as help with gaining lean muscle mass and losing body fat (3-5). This research is the basis for writing on the topic from many prominent fitness and nutrition experts such as Dr. John Berardi and Dr. Lonnie Lowery to name a few. Incorporating such nutrition during and after training sessions will replenish depleted glycogen stores, blunt cortisol secretion, and promote protein synthesis. If you don’t understand a thing I’m saying, just trust me, all are good things.

Of course, a noteworthy debate actually rages on concerning post-workout nutrition and the use of fast acting carbohydrates in weight-training individuals. A resistance training session typically does not deplete muscle glycogen (stored sugar) stores nearly as much as an endurance training session, and the need (or lack thereof) to supplement with liquid carbohydrates or not is a matter of both exercise volume and intensity. In essence, one might not NEED to supplement with liquid carbohydrates in the post-workout period and could instead use whole food options. Truthfully, when I work with an ordinary person (with general fitness goals) who is trying to diet down, I often recommend that they just stick with the whole foods listed below. In my experience, when one is dieting, it is more fulfilling for them to eat their calories rather than drink them, but this can be highly individual. With that being said, a general rule to follow would be liquid carbs while “bulking” and whole food carb sources while dieting.

Other Times in the Day (Low GI)

At other times in the day, you should focus more on low GI carbohydrates in order to keep insulin levels in check. I advocate that you follow up your post-training drink with 1-2 meals consisting of protein and some of the following carbohydrates:

Rolled Oats – These are a superb choice for both breakfast and during the “anabolic window” following a training session. You get 32 grams of quality carbs (all of which are sugar free) – including 5g of fiber – from ½ cup of oats. I like to add a scoop or two of chocolate whey protein with some blueberries or a banana to the mix. Just be certain that you use 100% rolled oats and NOT the flavored, kiddy version oatmeal packets.

Sweet Potatoes/Yams – Okay, first off, for the love of all that is holy, a sweet potato is NOT a yam. While they are generally viewed as the same thing, they are actually quite different. Sweet potatoes originate from the root of a vine in the morning glory family and are native to the “New World tropics.” They often have pale/orange and smooth skin. Yams, on the other hand, originate from the tuber of a tropical vine and have a brown/ black and rough skin; they may grow to be up to seven feet long! That’s a whole lotta’ yam. Yes, I am officially a dork because I know this information. Yams are actually quite hard to find here in the US, but the Department of Agriculture requires that the label “yam” always be accompanied with “sweet potato” – hence the confusion. In any case, I like to cut them up, bake them in the oven, and then mash them up with Splenda and cinnamon to use as part of a post-training meal.

Whole Grains (Pasta, Bread, Cereal) – Any time you can substitute whole grain variations of food over their alternatives, you are better off. These variations tend to be less processed and therefore retain much of their original fiber, vitamins, and minerals after packaging. In terms of pasta, I like a brand made by Hodgeson Mills. This brand has whole wheat and spinach versions with added flax; they pack a whopping nine grams of fiber. However, almost any whole wheat or spinach pasta is a great choice. As far as breads are concerned, you have to make certain that you read labels. Many brands are sneaky and claim to be whole wheat when in fact they are just white bread with added brown dye. Seriously, be adamant about reading labels. I prefer flax and multigrain breads.

Cereals deserve their own section because they hold a special place in my heart. God created women, and he created the people who invented cereal, and I love them all. Depending on an individual’s goal, I recommend different types of cereal. If an individual is looking to lean up a bit, I recommend more whole grain cereals such as Fiber One and Bran Flakes. They may not be all that tasty, but they do have MUCH less sugar and are therefore more conducive to fat loss. Again, one way you can tweak them to taste better is to add some flavored whey protein or Splenda to them.

If someone is looking to “bulk,” I encourage them to go ahead and eat some “fun” cereal, as these cereals tend to be a little more calorie dense and lower in fiber. These two characteristics make it easier to meet caloric needs when someone is looking to eat at a surplus. Some good ones that immediately pop into my head are Smart Start, Fruity Pebbles, Golden Grahams, or anything that is in a really bright box and has a leprechaun, a silly rabbit, or a certain tiger with the same name as me on its cover.

Fruits/Veggies – This goes without saying, but your mother was right when she told you that you need to eat your fruits and vegetables. Doing this guarantees that you get a healthy dose of essential vitamins and minerals – the more variety the better. I strongly encourage clients to ingest some sort of fruit and/or vegetable with each meal. Let’s be honest – eating a bowl of veggies is about as enticing as a 20-rep set of squats. So a little trick that I like to do is to add vegetables to certain meals. In the morning I will add some mixed vegetables or fresh leafy spinach to my omelet; at night, I’ll put some broccoli in my pasta. As far as fruit is concerned, just be a little leery of eating it immediately post-training. The goal during this time is to spike insulin levels quickly so that it can do its job and shuttle nutrients into muscle cells. Fructose, while still a sugar capable of spiking insulin, must first be metabolized by the liver and converted to glucose, which takes time. Hence, it isn’t ideal to ingest fructose at this crucial time. A good way to ensure a wide variety of fruits in the diet is to buy certain fruits as they are in season; doing so will also be cheaper.

Enjoyed that? Check out You Are What You Eat – Part Two!

Written by Tony Gentilcore

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – You are what you eat – Part I discussion thread.

The Ten Commandments to Becoming a Magnificent Mass Monster

When it comes to the task of packing on muscle mass, the term “analysis paralysis” comes to mind. To be blunt, many people just make it more complicated than it really has to be. That’s not to say that adding any amount of significant muscle mass is an easy task. On the contrary, if it was easy, we would have a bunch of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Dave Tates walking around instead of all these “weenie girly men” who wear Under Armour to the mall in an attempt to impress the local 18 year-old girls.

Needless to say, I think many tend to over think things when it comes to packing on those slabs of man meat (or woman meat; I don’t want to leave out the ladies). Many will debate and discuss every minute detail regarding what the optimal macro nutrient breakdown should be and what new and advanced training program they will be following; in reality, all they really need to do is stick with the basics that have been proven to work for decades. In the realm of training and nutrition, nothing is really new or revolutionary, and many would be well served to just shut up and get down to business.

Come Hither, My Disciples

Wouldn’t it be cool to have your own personal time machine? Just imagine if you had access to one and the things you could do with it! If I had one, there are several key missions I would do with it. First, I would most certainly use it for purely selfish reasons. I would go back and tell myself not to throw that 0-2 curve ball to the jerk who hit the 450-foot home run off me in my first college start with five professional scouts watching in the stands. I would become best friends with Bill Gates. And, heck, I might as well throw in a chance encounter with Mariah Carey (circa 1995, before she turned into a hooch). Last, but not least, I would have to say that the main thing I would use it for is to go back and kick my own ass for literally wasting years with my training and eating habits.

I look back at my training and eating habits from when I was in school, and I have to cringe in embarrassment. Yep, you guessed it; I did three sets of ten for everything, hitting body parts once per week while not eating nearly enough calories. Sound like anyone YOU know? I trained this way for years, and while I made decent progress and was better off than most guys, I still wasn’t entirely satisfied. It wasn’t until I started looking past most (not all) mainstream magazines and the typical foo-foo weight room banter, and started reading and educating myself on the more “old school” principles (as well as the more recent research) that I started to make the gains that I had always coveted. To say “I wish I knew then what I know now” would be an understatement of epic proportions.

With that being said, I think another important mission I would undertake with my time machine would be to go back and play God, and instead of telling Moses to write the 10 Commandments as we all know them, I would have him write “The 10 Commandments to Becoming a Magnificent Mass Monster.” Oh, and since I would be taking on the role of God, I would also make a point of ensuring that George Lucas never made those last two pieces of crap he calls Star Wars (Revenge of the Sixth excluded).

The 10 Commandments (As They Should to Have Been Written)

1. Thou Shalt Use Compound Movements

These are the movements that should make up the bulk (I’d say ~ 80%) of any program you follow – PERIOD.

In order to get big, you have to do movements that will make you big. So, it is high time that you do away with those isolation biceps curls and leg extensions, Peggy Sue, and start doing some deadlifts, squats, bench presses, dips, pull-ups, good mornings, and rows. These are the movements that will allow you to use the greatest amount of weight and promote a MUCH greater growth stimulus in the muscle cells. Think about it; what do you think it going to elicit a greater growth stimulus – a set of leg curls using 120 lbs. or a set of deadlifts using 300 lbs.? Not only that, but doing the compound movements (in conjunction with doing them HEAVY) will automatically activate high threshold motor units, which have the greatest potential for growth, and since these movements target the largest muscle groups in the body (thighs, hamstrings, mid/upper back, chest), you will be getting bigger in the right places. And let’s not forget strength. As I noted, compound movements will allow you to use more weight and I always stress that one cannot get bigger without getting stronger first. Ever seen a really small strong person? So, implementing these movements to get stronger now will undoubtedly lead to more significant hypertrophy gains in the future.

As an aside, I would also like to mention that these compound movements should also be used when one is trying to “lean up.” And yes, ladies, you need to pay attention to this, as I know there are some out there reading this thinking to themselves, “Well, I don’t want to get big and bulky.” However, I will say that by doing the compound lifts, you will be using multiple muscle groups as opposed to ONE when doing isolation movements (think Cybex Circuit). Which do you think is going to burn more calories and provide a greater caloric deficit to promote fat loss – a movement using your entire body (as do squats and deadlifts) or those worthless hip abductor machines? If you guessed the latter, please go back to reading “Good Housekeeping.”

2. Thou Shalt Lift Heavy

This goes without saying, but the compound movements are challenging. It takes time to learn the proper technique and to acquire the proper motor learning patterns to become efficient in these lifts. So, when I say “lift heavy,” I don’t necessarily mean one should do it right away if they’re just learning to perform these movements. I know many people jump into the gauntlet and try to lift heavy right off the bat and end up hurting themselves not too long afterward. One should definitely take a few weeks (especially if he is a newbie) and use higher rep ranges (6-12) to learn proper form and to gain confidence in his ability to perform the compound movements. Most of the strength gains early on will be due to neuromuscular recruitment improvements rather than hypertrophy, but one will still put on a fair amount of muscle mass right off the bat even with the high(er) rep ranges. Once that newbie period is out of the way, though, if you want to get the most out of your training buck, you HAVE to incorporate heavy lifting.

As I stated in the introduction, I wasted many years doing 3×10 of just about everything. While it does have its place and is rather effective for people just starting out, it is only going to take you so far. When people talk about hypertrophy, there are a few major factors that come into play, some of which are time under tension, load (mass), and acceleration. The latter two interact in terms of their ability to produce intramuscular tension (ability of a muscle to produce force: force = mass x acceleration). For the sake of this article, I am just going to discuss “load,” but for further insight, check out Christian Thibaudeau’s superb book, “The Black Book of Training Secrets.”

Low rep/high intensity strength training is effective mainly due to the fact that it leads to degradation of the contractile proteins actin and myosin, which results in sarcomere hypertrophy. In layman’s terms, this means increased thickness and density of the ACTUAL muscle fibers. On the flip side, higher rep/lower intensity training leads to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the size of non-contractile elements such as collagen and improves one’s ability to store substrates such as glycogen. Including training protocols that target BOTH types of hypertrophy is definitely going to elicit the greatest amount of muscle growth than if you were to just concentrate on one or the other. However, if you want to be big and strong, implementing heavy, low-rep strength training is a must and is a concept that many tend to overlook. Some of the biggest guys out there are the ones who do absolutely no heavy training, and tend to be “all show and no go.” Simply put, they’re big, but weak. By implementing heavy strength training into your arsenal, you can rest assured that you will not only put on a fair amount of mass, but you will also be strong to boot. And besides, it is just so darn fun to lift heavy things.

Let’s say that someone has been doing 3×10 for most of their training sessions and for a particular bench press session, they used 200 lbs. for each set. We can calculate that 200 lbs x 10 repetitions comes to 2000 total load for one set. Obviously, at this weight and rep scheme, three sets yield a total tonnage of 6000 lbs. for that particular bench press session. Now, when we talk about heavy strength training, typical set/rep schemes usually flip that 3×10 around. So, instead of doing three sets of ten repetitions, you would do ten sets of three repetitions.

Essentially, you are doing the same volume (very important), but with heavier loads, which you’ll recall activate high threshold motor units and fast-twitch muscle fibers (given a fast concentric) that have the greatest propensity for growth. So, that same individual will now use 225 for his “working sets” because he is using a low-rep set-up. Now, we have 225 x 3 repetitions comes to 675 lbs. for one set. With ten sets, we get a total tonnage of 6750 lbs.: 750 lbs. more than the typical 3×10 set/rep scheme that was originally used! Which do you think is going to elicit more muscle growth? 6000 lbs. or 6750 lbs.? So, when you hear your local gym warrior (who looks the same now that he did five years ago) proclaim that you can’t get bigger lifting heavy weights and that high reps are the way to go for maximum hypertrophy, tell him to go back to the 3rd grade and relearn how to add.

*** I will say that one needs to take into consideration the entire training session’s volume as well as any individual time constraints. Performing 10×3 is going to take quite a bit longer than 3×10, so you obviously will have to plan accordingly. Both protocols have their place as far as maximum hypertrophy is concerned and one is not inherently better than the other; they’re just different. However, I do feel that many tend to neglect the advantages of heavy, low-rep training and would be wise to start incorporating it into their programs. I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised if you do so.

3. Thou Shalt Limit Cardio

Not too long ago, a gentleman approached me because he was all flustered that he couldn’t put on any significant amount of muscle and was perplexed that his bench press wasn’t going up. Outside of asking him what he was currently doing in terms of his exercise selection and whether or not he was using set/rep schemes that allowed him to lift heavy, I asked him how much cardio he was doing each week. He responded, “Oh, I run about 20-25 miles per week.” YOWSA! Listen, I am not going to be the guy who says that cardio is a waste of time and that only housewives use the elliptical machines. However, if putting on muscle is your goal, participating in that much cardiovascular exercise is going to be counterproductive. In short, it can be very catabolic and can sacrifice a lot of hard earned muscle.

An analogy that I like to use with clients is to compare a marathon runner to a sprinter. Marathon runners, while they do have very low levels of body fat, have little to no muscle mass. On the flip side, sprinters are ripped and have a ton of lean muscle mass. That alone should get my point across. For this reason, I tend to advocate that people who are trying to add on size should just stick to doing 1-2 High Intensity Interval Training(HIIT) sessions per week, brisk walking, or GPP (General Physical Preparedness) to keep their conditioning up while trying to add on some quality muscle mass. Cardiovascular exercise does serve a purpose and does have many important benefits (more efficient oxygen transport, increased nutrient partitioning, as well as general “heart health”), but if one is trying to put on size, they have to be cognizant of the amount they are doing and be careful not to overdo it and sacrifice too much lean body mass. A general way to approach things would be to perform 1-2 HIGH intensity sessions (HIIT) per week and possibly 1-2 LOW intensity sessions (walking) per week. Try to avoid the drawn-out, steady-state cardio as much as possible.

4. Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Post-Workout Nutrition

If you have been training for any significant amount of time and have not been utilizing proper post-workout nutrition, then you need to hightail it to Barnes and Noble and purchase “Post-Workout Nutrition: Where the Heck Have You Been the Past Five Years?” (side note: this book doesn’t really exist). It should come as no surprise to you that the 4-6 hours after a training session should be a time where you try to push the envelope and take full advantage of the anabolic window. I once had a guy tell me that he usually waited two hours before eating anything after training because he thought that he would burn more body fat if he did so.

Needless to say, I put a stop to that rather quickly. As I stated previously, this is a time when you WANT to feed the body. A quality post-workout drink containing at least a 2:1 ratio of carbs: protein would be a great start. (Opticen is a great choice) Liquid formulas are ideal at this juncture because they are absorbed by the body at a much faster rate than whole food sources and they serve three vital functions: replenishing depleted glycogen stores, promoting protein synthesis, and staving off further muscle protein catabolism (by restoring positive nitrogen balance). Ideally, you should drink half of these calories during your workout and the other half immediately afterward. Then, you should wait about an hour or so and have a whole food protein and carbohydrate (P&C) meal that will probably end up being your largest meal of the day. During my last bulking cycle, this meal would easily total 1200-1500 calories! Again, a good rule of thumb is to use a 2:1 ratio of carbs: protein. Options include pasta with chicken, oatmeal with whey protein, cold cereal with added whey protein and a piece of fruit, or a combination of everything! About two hours later, I would ingest yet another P&C meal, but with a ratio of around 1:1 (carbs: protein). As you can see, you will be eating the bulk of your daily calories during this time; this might scare some people, but you have to realize that your body will be using these calories for a specific purpose: getting BIG.

Disclaimer: If you are prone to storing fat easily, I would alter things slightly in that I would stick with the PWO drink, but use a 1:1 ratio with your first whole meal and then revert back to P+F meals from then on.

5. Thou Shalt Get Ample Rest

As impossible as it may seem for many of you, you need to make sure that you are getting ample rest at night in the form of a solid 7-9 hours per night. I’m sure many of you know how your performance plummets in the gym when you are dead-tired, so I don’t really need to elaborate any further about how imperative it is that you get enough rest. Also, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to get a short 20-30 minute “power-nap” at some point during the day (preferably right after a training session). Personally, I have found that this works wonders and helps with recovery. Additionally, many individuals get into the mindset that more is better and want to be in the gym every day. I’ll be honest and say that sometimes I have to force myself NOT to step foot in the gym. Incorporating planned back-off or active rest periods every 4-6 weeks is a great way to keep your body fresh and to stave off lingering injuries. I have found that most do well with just cutting their overall training volume in half (as most tend to overtrain due to volume) and keeping the intensity high during these weeks. This is highly individual, though, so you will just have to play around to see what works best for you. Either way, taking a planned back-off week every 4-6 weeks is a superb way to allow the body to heal and to come back even stronger than before.

6. Thou Shalt Eat at a Surplus

How many of you have heard the following a few hundred times: “Dude, I am eating all the time, but I just can’t put on any weight. What’s the deal?” Newsflash: you’re not eating enough; it’s as simple as that. Well, it isn’t entirely THAT simple, but assuming they aren’t being complete sissies in the gym, then yes, it is that simple. I know it sounds a bit hypocritical of me to be busting the chops of these people, but I like to consider it a healthy dose of “tough love.” If you want to get big, you have to eat big. Now, I am not saying you have to go out and eat fast food every day and down a half-gallon of ice cream every night, but you do need to eat at a caloric surplus to grow any significant amount of muscle. It takes calories to build and maintain muscle and if you’re not taking in enough calories to do so, then you’re just not going to get the results you want. Think of calories as a foundation. You can’t build a house without a solid foundation, right? Well, the same can be said of building a big and muscular body. Again, I am not a huge advocate of eating whatever you want, but rather I prefer “clean bulks,” where one attempts to limit fat gain. By using the foods listed in that article, I find that most do quite well in this regard.

How much should you eat? Everyone is different, but I feel a good starting point is adding 500 calories to your maintenance intake. To figure out your maintenance intake, a good starting point would be body weight x 15-18 (the leaner you are, the higher you can start). So, a “lean” 200-pound man would start his maintenance at 3600 calories (200×18) and eventually work up to a 500-calorie surplus of 4100 calories per day. I say eventually because one shouldn’t just go ahead and eat at a +500 surplus right away, especially if fat gain is a concern. Rather, gradually increase calories by 100-250 per day for a few weeks and gauge progress as you go. If you find that you’re putting on fat a little too fast, reduce calories. If you find things are progressing nicely, then I see no reason why you can’t gradually increase calories as you go.

7. Thou Shalt Train Often

The more times you stimulate a muscle to grow (given proper recovery, ample nutrition, and varying training stimuli), the more likely it is to grow. It’s an outdated, senseless concept to train a muscle group and then wait 7-10 days before you train it again. This is why many of the training programs you will find here on Wannabebig advocate that you train as often as possible without overtraining or persistently over-reaching. The key, however, is that you feel motivated to train and you use shorter, yet more frequent training sessions that emphasize compound lifts. Many of the routines you see in the popular muscle magazines are geared towards individuals who are using “help” and just have way too much volume for your average gym rat. More often than not, someone will attempt to follow one of those programs and be burnt out faster than you can say BALCO. Ideally, the best split is where you can train using short, frequent training sessions or programs designed by strength and conditioning coach Chad Waterbury. All of these programs use compound lifts, and most are designed in a way where you are training as often as you would like and provide a different training stimulus in each session to help stave off over training.

8. Thou Shalt Train With Like Individuals

Ask any power lifter whether or not it helps his strength or performance to train in an environment with other strong people, and he will more than likely retort with, “does a bear shit in the woods?” I know firsthand how much of a drag it can be to train in your typical commercial gym, where butt-blaster machines and 45 year-old women wearing pink spandex surround you (of course, with REO Speed wagon playing on the radio). There are times when I can literally feel the strength being sucked out of me as soon as I walk through the doors. I do a fairly good job at sucking it up and mustering enough motivation to train on my own on a daily basis. However, when I have the opportunity to train with a friend or with like-minded individuals, or in a facility that caters to the “non-wussified,” it is like night and day in terms of intensity and performance. This became quite apparent when I had the opportunity to train at Highland Strength and Fitness last summer just outside of Boston with several friends of mine. The gym itself was amazing and I was like a kid in a candy store with first-time access to a dead lift platform, glute-ham raise, reverse hyper, and all the goodies that come with a power lifting/strongman-designed gym. More importantly, guys who like to train hard and heavy surrounded me; you don’t find many housewives in your commercial gym that enjoy that! Even though I was training around injuries, I was able to set a personal best, with a rack pull for 575×2. Prior to this, I had never even attempted a rack pull over 500 lbs!

Needless to say, a training environment, where I was able to train with other people with similar goals made a HUGE difference for me. With that being said, try your best to get a training partner with similar goals or to train around people you know will push you and not allow you to back down from lifting heavy weights. Trust me, you will be surprised as how much it helps.

9. Thou Shalt Stick To the Gameplan

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar. You read about the latest “it” training program, get all fired up cause it fits your goals to a “T,” and then rush to the gym on Monday to try that puppy out. Then by the following week, you read about yet another program that is PERFECT, and decide to ditch the one you were doing and start the new one ASAP. The cycle repeats itself every two weeks or so and more often than not, you are left perplexed as to why you are not getting the results you want, even though you have been in the gym almost everyday busting your butt for the past six months.

I’ll admit that I have been a culprit of this in the past and I constantly come across individuals who do the same on a weekly basis. I understand that there are hundreds of quality programs out there designed to get you big and strong, but constantly switching from one to the other is just not a smart way to train and is more counterproductive than helpful. How do you expect to gain a true sense of progress if you are constantly switching programs faster than you can save money by switching to GEICO? The take-home message is to find a program that fits your goals and needs and STICK TO IT for the duration (most only last for 8 weeks, 12 at most). That new program you read about isn’t going anywhere and will be there when you complete your current one.

10. Thou Shalt Not Fear the Macronutrients

Because I am such a nice guy, I am going to take this time and tell you how much of each macronutrient you should try to shoot for when trying to add on size. I am not a big fan of trying to aim for a specific percentage of each because depending on one’s total caloric intake, doing so can equate to either too little of a particular macro, or too much. And besides, it is just a pain in the ass to do so. Rather, I prefer that one shoots for a specific gram total of each.

Protein: I see no reason to go above 1.25-1.5 grams per pound of body weight. Many bodybuilders tend to get in the mindset that the more protein you eat, the more muscle you grow, which is just not the case. Yes, you need to make sure that you are getting enough protein to ensure a positive nitrogen balance, but if you’re eating at a surplus it won’t necessarily matter where those extra calories are coming from in order to build more muscle mass. In other words, eat your carbs and fat.

I think a good number to shoot for would be 2.0-3.0 grams per pound of body weight. The approach I like to take is to ingest the higher number on training days and the lower number on non-training days (this usually just means subtracting your post-workout drink on days that you don’t train), but this can be highly individual. Of course, this number can be deflated a bit for less-lean individuals or for those who have a slower metabolism; for these individuals, about 1.5-2.0 grams per pound of bodyweight is more appropriate, but I think the above criteria would serve most well.

Fat: Simple. Fat will serve as a caloric ballast and make up the rest of your calories. All I will say here is that it would be in your best interest to make certain that you are ingesting “healthy” fats such as fish oil, flax oil, olive oil, natural peanut butter, mixed nuts, etc. These are in addition to the fats you will be ingesting naturally from your protein and carb sources.

So, for a 200-lb. person with a caloric goal of 4000 calories per day, a typical day would look something like this:

  • Protein: 200 x 1.5g/lb/BW= 300 grams. 300 x 4kcal per gram= 1200 calories from protein.
  • Carbohydrates: 200 x 2.0 g/lb/BW= 400 grams. 400 x 4 calories/g= 1600 calories from carbohydrates.

Note: this would represent a training day.

  • Fat: 1200 calories (protein) + 1600 calories (carbs)= 2800 calories. 4000-2800= 1200 calories from fat. 1200/9 calories/g= ~135 fat per day.

As the weeks progress, if one notices that they are putting a little too much fat on for their liking, I would say that decreasing carb intake would be a smart thing to do. Conversely, if one finds that their weight is holding steady, then I would add some more carbs and work their up way to the higher end of the spectrum listed above.

And That’s About It

So there you have it: the Ten Commandments for Becoming a Magnificent Mass Monster. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a monster per se, but I know that by following the above suggestions, I was able to put on close to 30 lbs. of lean body mass in only one year. To clarify, putting on mass is not an easy task and definitely takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and CONSISTENCY.

In all honesty, though, I just think that many tend to over analyze things and worry about the minutia to the point that their progress stagnates. Get your butt in the gym, lift heavy, use movements that will make you grow, eat a lot, get ample rest, and repeat.

Written by Tony Gentilcore

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