If you want to get big and strong, you better be gaining AND applying good information. However, it is not enough to seek out good information. If you want to be successful as a drug-free lifter, you have to look for appropriate information. The world of exercise nutrition is full of great information, but some of it is for chemically-enhanced lifters. If you want to reach your full, drug-free potential, here is what you need to know as a natural lifter.
Don't overdo the protein
As a scrawny teen, I used to devour muscle magazines looking at the secrets to get HUGE. One of the things I noticed was that pro bodybuilders were eating massive amounts of protein. At first glance, you might think that they are just saying this because they have an endorsement deal with a supplement company. However, as I learned more about exercise nutrition, I learned that steroids seem to increase your body’s ability to absorb and utilize protein. I realized that these massive protein intakes can actually be beneficial for guys on drugs.
For us Natties, it is a different story. Without this chemical assistance, your body can only digest and use so much protein. I have personally experimented with over 400g of protein per day. However, I found I wasn’t gaining additional benefits by going over about 200g per day. The higher protein levels just added unnecessary stress on my digestive system and my bank account. If you are drug-free, feel free to experiment with slightly higher or lower protein levels, but avoid the protein intake of the pros. If you want an estimate, the old standard of 1 gram per pound works well for most lifters.
Eat a moderate number of meals per day
As with protein, many top bodybuilders use a high meal frequency (especially in the days before the intermittent fasting became so popular). I remember trying to copy this approach in my early days. I would eat every 2 hours and consume around 8 meals per day.
Looking back this was a miserable time of life. I was a slave to my cooler and the clock. I thought that the only way to build muscle was to eat all the time. So, every 2 hours, I would stop work and stuff another meal of chicken, brown rice and broccoli down my throat. This a total productivity killer. It also made my gut feel like it was constantly over-trained. My stomach would still have food from the previous meal while I trying to cramming down the next meal.
Thankfully, newer research has helped us to understand meal frequency. We know now that we totally over-reacted to meal frequency. What you eat and how much you eat are far more important than how often you eat. This gives you the flexibility to find a meal frequency that works for you. Now, if you are struggling to get enough calories to gain muscle or support heavy training, it may not be practical to have to cram it all into 3 meals per day. However, you don’t have to go to the other extreme and try to eat 8 meals per day. 4-5 meals per day will get the job done for most folks. Remember, unless you train for a living, don’t try to eat like it’s your full-time job.
Pay attention to your micros
In today’s world of fitness and bodybuilding nutrition, people are always talking about macros. If you look at the types of diets promoted by many physique stars and trainers, you will notice that these diets focus intensely on precise calorie, protein, fat and carb amounts. If you take a closer look, you will notice that many of these are also lacking important vitamins and minerals. While total calories and macros are important, natural lifters need to pay extra attention to micros.
A natural lifter needs to do everything possible to keep natural hormone levels as high as naturally possible. Deficiencies in micronutrients (e.g. zinc, magnesium, vitamin D) can lower testosterone levels. This is not a big deal if you are regularly injecting testosterone. Deficiencies can also impair proper physiological functioning and recovery – both of which are vital for anyone trying to train without chemical assistance.
As a natural lifter, your best approach is to get bloodwork done to check for deficiencies. If not an option for you, consider logging 3-7 days on food analysis site that allows you to see how many vitamins and minerals you are getting. Cronometer is a site I often use with my Sports Nutrition class.
If you are deficient, look first to see if you can correct the problem with real food. Whole foods not only contain many important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals, but they also have auxiliary nutrients that enhance the absorption of these micronutrients. If complete correcting of deficiencies is not feasible due to food access, intolerances or aversions, consider supplementation.
While going beyond healthy levels of micronutrients will not enhance your gains, correcting deficiencies will go a long way to ensuring your natural hormone levels and physiological function are optimal.
Eat your veggies
Traditional bodybuilding meals of tilapia and white rice are often devoid of veggies. Along with providing you with important micronutrients, veggies also help prevent chronic low-grade acidosis. I learned about this a long time ago from the writings of Dr. John Berardi. Food such as grains, meats, and dairy are more acidic. Many fruits and veggies are more alkaline.
If you eat a diet high in acidic foods and low in alkaline foods, your body works harder to maintain optimal pH levels. As a result, it pulls calcium from the bones and glutamine from the muscles (both of which are alkaline) to maintain optimal pH levels (something important for enzyme reactions). This results in bone weakness, muscle breakdown, resistance to muscle-building & fat-burning hormones, slower thyroid and increased cortisol levels.
For those with the assistance of drugs, these natural hormonal changes are not a big deal (at least in the short-term). However, without them, you are asking for trouble. Make your mom happy and eat your veggies!
If you need a lot of calories, you may be concerned about veggies causing gas and bloating. I recommend folks who need huge calories to avoid over-consuming gassy veggies like broccoli. In addition, choose easier-digesting forms of veggies. For example, most of the veggies I eat are steamed, stir-fried or liquefied in our Vitamix blender. This makes getting all that veggie goodness a lot easier to stomach.
Don’t fear fat and cholesterol
Many physique stars eat low-fat diets. While you could get away with this if you were “supplementing” testosterone, low-fat diets suppress testosterone. Don’t fear natural sources of fat and cholesterol such as grass-fed beef and other naturally-raised meats, wild salmon, eggs, extra virgin, non-processed oils (e.g. olive, macadamia, avocado, etc.), avocados, nuts and butter from grass-fed cows.
Shoot for about 20-35% of your calories coming from quality, natural fats. As with vitamins and minerals, more is not better, but optimal amounts will optimize your natural hormone levels.
Eat some carbs!
As bodybuilding progressed in the 90’s, competitors used not only steroids but also growth hormone and insulin. In high doses, insulin is very anabolic. For you as a natural lifter, you won’t get this anabolic response from insulin, because you won’t be able to naturally secrete that much insulin (nor should you try). However, insulin from eating carbs plays an important anti-catabolic role for the natural lifter.
Now, I know that everyone has a different body type. If you are a naturally skinny guy like me, you will need more carbs than someone who naturally carries more body fat. The point here is that carbs are important. Don’t follow some popular diet fat and try to cut all carbs out of your diet. Eat as many quality carbs as you can without hurting your digestion, health or waste line. If you can’t eat huge amounts of carbs, that’s fine, but try to have some around your training time.
Cut the junk
Processed food is full of chemicals, pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, and other junk. This slop will lower your anabolic hormone levels, increase inflammation, decrease energy and delay recovery. Without chemical assistance, it is even more important to avoid junk food. Yes, you can have treats here and there, but these should be treats, not daily staples.
Bonus tip: sleep more
I know this is a nutrition post, but we can’t talk about drug-free training without talking about sleep. Sleep is one of the most anabolic things you can do. If you are serious about maximizing your drug-free results, increase your sleep quantity and quality. It will go a long way toward optimizing natural hormone levels and killing it in the gym.
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As I always, I welcome your comments/questions below (just no spam please).