Written by Nate Winkler
The most overlooked and misunderstood aspect of max effort lifting is nutrition. What you eat and when you eat it can impact your ability to express your strength more than any other variable. Subtle changes in your diet will allow you to pull, press, and push more than ever, and I’m gonna explain them.
Many lifters and athletes are shocked when I tell them that they missed their squat at the dinner table. “The dinner table, what do you mean the dinner table?” is normally the response I get after suggesting this. When people miss lifts, they want some sophisticated answer (widen your stance out 1/16″ of an inch and put more pressure on your second toe). The truth is, squatting is simple, you just have to prepare in order to leverage the strength you already have. Obviously, if your form is terrible, and your programming is half-baked, yea you’re going to hit a plateau and stay there. But the great lifters, the ones that are continually progressing, are doing so because they’re continually improving their recovery and nutrition.
Hitting PR’s in the gym ultimately comes down to 3 variables that are heavily influenced by what you eat: 1) Is your Central Nervous System (CNS) prepared to coordinate forceful muscle contractions, 2) How much creatine do you have, and 3) Have your recent carbohydrate servings positioned your glycogen stores and hormones correctly?
PRIMING YOUR CNS
People are always surprised when I start talking about nutrition’s impact on Central Nervous System (CNS) regeneration. Your CNS has a number of functions in your body, and there are a number of variables that create CNS fatigue. If you are constantly stressed, getting inadequate sleep, or training at near maximum percentages 2+/week, your CNS is going to be shot regardless of what you eat. You must manage the ‘bad’ stress in your life and get in the bed at night if you ever want to be strong. Decreasing your CNS fatigue, and eating in a way that restores it will prove pivotal to your performance under the bar.
When you take a relatively heavy bar out of the rack and squat, that requires a high degree of intra-muscular coordination and contraction. The CNS passes messages, called nerve impulses, throughout your body from brain to muscle to control and coordinate movement. Nerve impulses create action potentials outside the muscle cell, causing it to contract. Your CNS is the determining factor on how forceful and coordinated your muscle contractions are able to be (yes there are genetic influences here, but you can’t change those).
At Juggernaut, we use Charlie Francis’ glass of water metaphor all the time to explain training effect, your CNS is no exception. Your body (glass) has a finite amount of resources (water) and when those resources get used up, you must replace them. Every time you interact with some type of external resistance (weights, gravity, grocery bags, etc.) water gets removed from your glass. Now consider the demand and impact that squatting with near maximal weight places on your CNS to facilitate and coordinate explosive movements. There are a few crucial nutritional variables that will impair or improve your CNS’s ability to perform like you want it to on ‘heavy day’.
IMPAIRING THE CNS
Almost everything has been attributed to aiding in CNS recovery except one: caffeine abuse. People are always quoting some research they’ve read about caffeine being great for you, but they aren’t looking at the whole picture. Caffeine, in the short term, is great, I’ve even written articles suggesting it’s use, when appropriate. Unfortunately, the body is designed to continually need more of something to experience the same effect (as seen with drug abuse, pleasure, pain, etc.)
When you consume caffeine it increases adrenal secretions and nerve activity, this is good, but not necessary when you’re going out to get the morning paper. The result of continual, daily use of caffeine is adrenal fatigue and diminished ability to react in fight/flight situations. To put it shortly, when you use caffeine too often, your body won’t have the necessary resources to maximize muscle coordination and contraction when you need it most.
In short, caffeine immediately prior to max effort lifting, is good, in fact it’s like a steroid. When caffeine isn’t necessary but you need a pick-up, try drinking tea or eating an apple.
REPAIRING THE CNS
Keeping your CNS healthy should be integrated into your training program, again, if you’re continually in high stress environments or trying to PR every time you go to the gym nothing you eat will matter.
The CNS is extremely difficult to investigate because of it’s location in the body and the manner in which it communicates with the body. However, three chemicals in particular have been cited and studied heavily in connection with CNS function and regeneration: Serotonin (5-HT), Tyrosine (amino acid), and Choline (precursor of Acetylcholine,).
Increasing Serotonin begins the night before you want to lift heavy with a large carbohydrate serving. Ingesting carbohydrates causes your body to release Serotonin, which acts as a salve for your CNS. Serotonin will allow you to sleep more soundly and release more IGF (insulin-like growth factor) throughout the night.
Tyrosine has also been implicated in a number studies as a major player in CNS function/regeneration. Tyrosine is thought to increase neurotransmitter number and is a precursor of noradrenaline and dopamine. Foods heavy in tyrosine are eggs (1904mg/egg), salmon (1774mg/serving), buffalo (1645mg/serving), and shrimp (1626mg/serving).
Choline is required to create Acetylcholine (ACh), the most essential neurotransmitter when creating muscular force. Eggs contain 1388mg or choline/egg, so eating eggs should now be on everyone’s to-do list.
WHERE THE CNS AND CARBS MEET
A high calorie, high carb, high protein diet will improve your ability to maintain CNS health, this should come as no surprise. As humans, we naturally and intuitively crave foods that contain these components (pasta, desserts, pancakes, pizza, sandwiches, etc.) that allow us to think, fight, focus, …, and run better. The issue becomes when do we stop, and how do we better incorporate these foods into the diet to maximize performance? Because inundating the blood stream with insulin and sugar will eventually lead to major physique, performance, and health breakdowns. This is where guidance is needed and everything comes together to create BEAST MODE NUTRITION — maximizing CNS recovery and functionality, and leveraging carbohydrates to give you the most productive training ever.
CARB’S ROLE IN SMASHING WEIGHTS
If you want a fat loss plan, this isn’t it, I’ve written other articles and programs on that topic. Being strong isn’t about being nasty either, there are plenty of very strong people out there that have both sides of the coin nailed down (Daniel Green especially). Chad Smith, my personal friend, has become very dedicated to timing his carbohydrates better over the last six months and I admire him greatly for it. Because understanding when to have your carb timing is a conversation that ends in maximizing strength outputs rather than physique.
Truth is, unless you’re stepping on stage as a body builder, when you have your carbs (CHO) is much more important than how much you consume. Lifting heavy weights consistently implies that you body is in an anabolic state, your muscle cells are more likely to absorb nutrients compared to fat cells (GLUT4 transporter among an entire host of other responses), and your basal demand for CHO’s specifically is higher.
If you need to be really strong on Wednesday, eat a lot of carbs on Tuesday night for dinner. The CNS pros should be clear by now, but if there is preexisting glycogen (the metabolic byproduct of consuming carbs) in the muscle cell, the muscle will contract quicker and harder, and utilize the glycolytic (explosive movement metabolism) pathway more readily throughout your training session.
A number of people will try to argue that you should stay low carb before you sleep and ‘catch-up’ once you wake-up with carbs. This approach is fine, but you don’t get near the serotonin release the night before, and if you take this route it needs to be because you are willing to sacrifice maximal strength in lieu of fat loss. You must decide what’s most important.
DONT’s and DO’s
Even small carb servings can not be eaten within 90min of training. CHO’s induce insulin release, which puts the body in a rest and digest mode, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (sending blood to digestive tract rather than extremities) and ruining your chances of a great training session.
If you have not eaten carbs in the last few hours before training, as you warm-up and intensity increases, so will sympathetic nerve activity (fight/flight). Your brain will work faster, your reactions will be quicker, and your CNS will be firing on all cylinders. I can not emphasize enough the importance of consuming carbs while training — lots of them.
Once your body is in a sympathetic nervous state (15 minutes into workout/warmed-up) and there are preexisting carbohydrates, your body does not release effective amounts of insulin in response to CHO consumption, but utilizes them more readily to fuel explosive movements. Consuming CHO’s while training is proven to increase training endurance and aggression while preventing fatigue.
PICK YOUR CARB AND YOUR SCHEDULE
There is no rule, or correct serving of carbs for everyone. I have experimented with this, and there hasn’t been an amount or type of carb I can’t eat while training. I have had Chad Wesley Smith, American Record Holder in the squat, eat a half gallon of chocolate milk and two packets of oatmeal while training. The choice is yours. Let’s see how this approach would work in a real world example.
Case Study: 6:00pm training
If training in the evening, the most effective method, if maximal strength is the goal, is to eat a large carb serving the night before, have a low carb, high calorie breakfast (eggs) and mid morning snack (protein shake), with a large carb serving for lunch around 1:00. Mid afternoon snacks should keep caloric intake high, but carb intake low. Pretraining meal may be a caffeine source if desired. After warm-up is complete, bring on the the carbs, and keep them coming till your workout is finished. Training nutrition may also include protein source and creatine if desired. Then depending on body composition choose how many carbs you would like to eat after training (no carbs if you want to loose weight, high carbs if you like where your physique is at). Simple, right? If you are training at other times, simply use the logic discussed above and apply your carb servings accordingly. Creatine was mentioned in passing, but is a crucial aspect to hitting PR’s and will be briefly discussed below.
My football coach pulled me aside in high school when he found out I was ‘on’ creatine and had a real serious talk with me about the dangers of the ‘stuff” I was taking. No other supplement has come under more scrutiny and misunderstanding than creatine. Creatine works, end of story. 1000’s of studies have shown that creatine does not present any real danger to athletes or humans — but it has been shown to make them more awesome.
When your muscles contract, ATP is required. During ballistic (explosive) activities creatine provides your muscles with 3x the ATP. Also, creatine provides the body with the quickest ATP resource and when you’re squatting heavy, quick is good. The more your muscles contract, the less creatine you have, therefore, consuming creatine during your workout is a must.
Managing creatine stores has also been misunderstood. Research has shown that creatine naturally exists at different levels from person to person, and supplementation of creatine benefits those that have lower levels of creatine (phosphocreatine) more than those that have naturally high levels. Personally, I can’t consume more than 5g of creatine in a day without cramping up, so experiment with YOUR BODY rather than gorging yourself with 20g/day during the prescribed loading phase that the crooks (company experts) recommend.
Creatine has been ‘pimped’ out more than any other supplement as well. While training, mix creatine monohydrate into a drink with sugar in it, your body will take care of the rest (GLUT4 transporter activity and muscle cell sensitivity are increased). There’s no need to go spend $80 on ‘Super Pump Juice 3,000’, just keep it simple. Remember, the goal here is positioning the body to express the strength you’ve already acquired, consuming/replenishing creatine while training is part of achieving that goal.
Incorporating these items into your routine should be simple, give your CNS every chance to regenerate and perform well, be smart about when you eat your carbs, and add some creatine to your drink while training.