Jacked and Tanned: Strongman Dieting For Success
One thing I have learned both from competing in strongman and from observing those who are most successful at the top of the sport is that with very few exceptions; the best strongmen are also the most athletic. By athletic I mean they show the best cardiovascular endurance and agility and often have a relatively low body fat percentage. This isn't strictly a law in strongman however, as quite a few of the 'heavier' guys also display excellent athletic prowess and endurance. Big Z comes to mind here. Unless it's a more pure strength oriented show, like the Arnold still tends to be, these days the fact is becoming more and more apparent that you also have to look the part to be a great strongman.
In my opinion, excess body fat will more often than not prove to be a hindrance to your strongman performance. From my own experience, the only lift that sees a significant improvement due to the leverage difference with the excess body fat of a protruding belly is the squat. And when was the last time you saw a full squat in a strongman competition? The only place I have seen it is at WSM. Probably not often enough to warrant you breaking out the ice cream spoon on a nightly basis and downing Oreos by the fistful. For every other lift, strength and technique heavily outweigh your gut (pun not intended, but still appreciated). In fact, my deadlift technique and therefore strength actually improves at a lower body fat, since I am able to get into better position for the pull. I'm not necessarily advocating single digit body fat. I do believe that for most strongman competitors to perform at their very best they will still need weigh a great deal more than the average person at their height. They just need to be more heavily muscled and less heavily fattened up.
So now with out further ado, I will explain a simple dieting strategy that works extraordinarily well to slow fat gain while still gaining strength.
As a nutritionist and a foodie, I am fairly well in tune with how my body responds to foods. I know I can gain weight very easily, and I am very carb sensitive, which contributes to that weight gain. I can also eat a ton of food quite easily, whether that's good for my digestive system is a different story though. That is all part of the reason why my new eating strategy works so well for me.
Before I go any further I would like to emphasize the point that everybody and every body is different (not a typo). Feel free to try out my suggestions for a reasonable time frame, say 2- 3 months, but if it doesn't work for you, don't sweat it and move on to something else. Finding the perfect pieces of the puzzle that fit together for you with training and nutrition is a lifelong journey.
So what is it that I've started doing differently? To put it in absolute simplest terms, I only eat for 8-10 hours out of the day. Many of you will be familiar with this sort of strategy if you've read anything on intermittent fasting. I finally decided to give it a shot after reading the excellent fitness book and New York Times bestseller Engineering the Alpha. My strategy is sort of like one of the daily fasting strategies implemented by many people, also known as the 16/8 fast. Now I say 8-10 hours for my eating window, because I was losing too much weight with that strategy and it was getting to the point of affecting my strength, so I've started to more regularly include days where I will 'fast' for 14 hours instead of 16, particularly on training days. Many fasting purists will probably turn up their noses at my bastardization of fasting or also make not of the fact that I don't include any full day fasts during the week and my argument is that what I'm doing is working quite well for me. Also, I don't believe someone doing strongman event training each week should also be incorporating full day fasting. It's too much stress on the body and not enough fuel for recovery from those gruelling training sessions.
How I Break It All Down
My daily eating and training window will vary based on my schedule, but most often it looks like this:
1000 - Training
1200-1300 - Postworkout Shake (Depending on how intense the training session for that day is, I'll either have a shake immediately (whey isolate and waxy maize) or wait about 40 minutes until I get home (As per Strongman Shake in my last article)).
1400 - Meal 2
1700 - Meal 3
1900 - Meal 4
2130 - Meal 5
2200 - Stop eating for the day
1300-1400 - First Meal of the day
1500 - Meal 2
1630 - Training
1830- Strongman Shake
2000- Meal 4
2200-2300 - Meal 5 - Stop eating for the day
As you can see, in the first variation of my schedule I train while fasted. The only thing I consume before going to the gym on those days is black coffee.
I was skeptical about incorporating any style of fasting with strongman training, but my experience thus far has made most of my training sessions feel great!
A brief primer on why my strategy will still work for the same benefits most people who fast seek (maybe not to the same extent, but it still works, at least for me).
Fasting is used to capitalize on optimizing quite a few of the hormones in your body to help you burn fat and utilize carbs more efficiently, while preserving muscle, as the literature shows. By 12-14 hours into a fast your blood insulin will reach its minimum physiological level. Up to this point, your body has relied upon glycogen stores and a little bit of lipolysis to fuel your activity (or sleep). Once you reach that 12-14 hour mark, which is right where my training falls in on most days, your body can more freely breakdown fatty acids for fuel, but you'll still have a good amount of muscle glycogen available for high performance needs. So now during that training session you'll be burning away fat, but you'll also still be able to perform at full strength for the majority of your training session. Your body will become more efficient at breaking down fat for fuel as you continue this eating strategy. It is highly beneficial to your health to train it to become efficient at switching between fat and glycogen stores for fuel. Also, by keeping your insulin levels lower for a greater percentage of the day, you'll improve your insulin sensitivity, which will allow your body to utilize carbs more for energy glycogen storage in the muscles rather than storage in the fat cells.
Training for Strongman While Fasted
I was very doubtful about trying to incorporate fasting with my training. I believed that I needed to get food into my system within a few hours before training or else I would be starving myself. And sometimes it literally feels like that. Until you learn the that your body is still assimilating the nutrients you consumed in your last meal for 24-48 hours afterwards. Therefore you can rest assured that your body has plenty of fuel to maintain your energy through your training. This got me past my hesitation to try it out. To a point. I've noticed that my energy begins to taper off right around the 75-90 minute mark at most. Past that I can't keep my strength up without consuming something, although I feel like most of you performing strongman training are already familiar with that fact. If I am doing a heavy events training day that is going to last several hours, I will revert back to my old ways of having an intraworkout drink with carbs and BCAAs to fuel that session. Events training days require everything of you and 100% focus and you can't be thinking about food and hunger. Fasting works great for every other day, especially deadlift and squat days for me. The reason is, without a meal still digesting in my stomach I can better activate my core, especially when using a belt, without feeling like I have to throw up. The other reason that fasting works great on core lift days is because you shouldn't be spending more than 90 minutes in the gym on those days anyways if you've programmed it properly. Even if you do reach the 90 minute mark or a little longer, the last dregs of your training should only be the accessory work or cool down stretching and foam rolling that's left, which doesn't require you pushing yourself to the limit to complete. So it doesn't demand a lot of energy.
One of the greatest benefits I have found from tightening my eating window, is that I have greater freedom to eat the foods I want to eat, most notably carbs. Usually I will limit carbs during the first few meals of the day, other than the postworkout shake where I typically have carbs in the beneficial 2:1 ratio with protein. I get the most of my carbs from rice, pasta, or potatoes in the last 2-3 meals of the day. This has several benefits, including making it easier to eat the typical big meal at dinner time, carbs at night help you to sleep better, and I'm refueling my glycogen stores for my next day's training. This is something that experienced lifters will often tell you is preferably to eating lots of carbs after a hard training session, instead you want to fuel up before so that you can perform better during the actual training.
So go ahead and give it a shot if you've got a little (or a lot) extra weight hanging out around your midsection. Your athleticism will improve and you'll start to win more events through better cardio and speed, instead of just the pure strength events.