Written by Ben Pollack
Last updated: 10/3/22

You’ve probably heard the saying about how bodybuilding is 80% diet. Regardless of whether that’s true, bodybuilders still train hard because they want to make the most progress possible.

In strength sports, the opposite is true. Diet probably accounts for about 20% of the strength equation, yet very few powerlifters pay attention to what they put in their mouths. Strongman is no better.

If your goal is to get stronger and you’d like to clean up your diet to help your progress, this article will help you get started.

PROTEIN

It’s easiest to start with protein because the calculation here is very straightforward: eat an average of 1.25 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. That’s an average – some days can be less; some can be more.

Yes, I know the literature suggests that lower protein intake is adequate for progress. If you want to be OK, by all means, follow the literature. To be good, do what every top competitor in any strength or physique sport does and eat more protein.

FATS

I strongly suggest that strength athletes consume a minimum of 20% of their daily calories from fats. I think 30% is a good ballpark number. A higher dietary fat intake will increase satiety (helpful for those trying to stay in a particular weight class) and help stabilize blood sugar levels (beneficial for consistent gym performance).

Many bodybuilders will consume less than this, and again, there is some evidence that a lower dietary fat intake may be adequate for those who use PEDs. Remember, though:

  • Bodybuilders are mainly unconcerned with progress in the gym. Furthermore, their training sessions tend to be much shorter than those of strength athletes.
  • Outside of show prep, bodybuilders aim to gain as much weight as possible.

For those reasons, dietary fats’ benefits to strength athletes are unlikely to be helpful for bodybuilders.

CARBOHYDRATES

Strength athletes can be pretty flexible with their carbohydrate intake.

SODIUM

Sodium is essential for strength athletes. It really cannot be underrated. I recommend a minimum of around 4000 mg of sodium per day and a maximum of about 8000. The ideal amount will depend mainly on body weight and composition, fluid intake, and activity level.

The caveat here is, of course, blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the most dangerous side effects of using PEDs, and a high sodium intake can exacerbate that. I recommend monitoring blood pressure closely and adjusting sodium intake or medication if necessary.

You do not have to rely on salting your food to increase your sodium intake. You can use salt tabs or electrolyte powders if you prefer.

WATER

Water intake is easy to determine: you should consume a minimum of one gallon of water daily or enough to ensure that your urine is clear throughout the day – whichever is more.

Water timing is a bit trickier.  You may be too bloated and uncomfortable to perform well if you chug a half gallon of water during training.  Along the same lines, if you wait until late in the day to get most of your water down, you might disrupt your sleep by waking up in the middle of the night to urinate.  I suggest frontloading your water intake: try to drink about 80% of your water more than 4 hours before bedtime.  Get at least a full liter down before you begin training.

SUPPLEMENTS

Supplements for strength are pretty negotiable.  I don’t believe any supplements other than creatine monohydrate are strictly necessary, but some can be beneficial.  Here’s my take on a few common supplements:

1. CREATINE

I believe creatine is essential for strength athletes. It will improve your performance in the gym, but you might need to take more than the general recommendation of 5 grams per day. I have taken as much as 15-20 grams of creatine monohydrate daily, split up into two doses to avoid stomach problems.

2. INTRA-WORKOUT CARBOHYDRATES

I do not believe intra-workout carbs are beneficial for directly improving performance. Bodybuilders benefit from intra-workout carbohydrates partly because their training volume is usually very high (partly because of the PEDs they typically use). Strength athletes performing relatively few working repetitions per training session probably don’t need intra-workout carbs.

However, intra-workout carbs are beneficial if you struggle to gain or maintain weight. This is purely a practical benefit: if you’re training for 3 hours a day (not uncommon), that’s probably three hours when you’re not eating. And if you are eating during training or drinking regular sports drinks, you may feel bloated or uncomfortable, which can detract from performance. In these situations, intra-workout carbs can be beneficial.

3. AMINOS

I am a proponent of BCAA supplementation. Again, I am familiar with the literature that suggests EAAs are more effective. However, suppose you’re eating 1.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight. In that case, the difference will likely be negligible in practice, and EAAs tend to be significantly more expensive than BCAAs.

BCAAs, like intra-workout carbs, are helpful for getting in quality nutrition during training. Furthermore, I have noticed a definitive improvement in recovery from consistent supplementation with BCAAs compared to simply eating more protein. I can’t say for sure why – it could be a result of the aminos themselves, the increased water intake, or the lower digestive stress – and frankly, I don’t care. If it works, it works.

4. PRE-WORKOUT SUPPLEMENTS

Because pre-workouts are so prevalent, I’m going to classify them simply as stimulant-based or stimulant-free products. Stimulant products are a double-edged sword: they improve your training quality but impair your recovery. Therefore, I typically prefer those with a relatively low amount of caffeine: 200 mg or less.

Stimulant-free pre-workout supplements like this one from Gorilla Mind are great for training sessions that involve a lot of assistance exercises. However, the pump can detract from heavy squat and deadlift training by increasing the perception of lower back fatigue.

If I were to make a blanket recommendation, I’d avoid pre-workouts as much as possible. However, there’s nothing wrong with occasional use to get through some challenging sessions. Just don’t rely on them regularly.

5. GREENS AND/OR MULTIVITAMINS

These are good options for general health if you don’t eat a nutritious diet. They will not improve your performance.

6. DIGESTIVE AIDS

Similarly, if you do struggle with digestion (either due to genetics or diet quality), digestive aids can be helpful. I do find that the efficacy of different supplements varies wildly.

That covers it for this article. There are a lot of nuances when it comes to dieting, but if you nail your protein, fat, carb, sodium, and water intake and supplement as needed, you’re way ahead of the game.

I have personally designed two lab panels with Marek Health for my clients- a comprehensive as well as a basic check-up panel. I recommend you work closely with their medical team to address your health and optimization needs.
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If you’re a strength athlete and want to nail down your diet or training, you can contact me at PeakHD.net or visit my Instagram page, @phdeadlift.