Odds are, your approach to nutrition is what’s holding you back from building the physique you’ve always wanted… the version of you that both looks aesthetic and can outperform everyone in the gym.
You’re already pushing yourself in the gym, “eating clean”, and maybe even tracking your macros. But you still don’t feel any closer to the body you want than you did two years ago.
So what gives?
Truth is, the basics of nutrition are important to master. But they’re far from the only things that you should be focused on to achieve the well-above average results you desire.
So if you’re sick of feeling like you’re guessing with your nutrition… just hoping it’ll yield the specific result you want… it’s time to change.
Today’s blog has the answers you need to finally level up your physique.
Poor carbs. I truly feel bad for ‘em, because no single macronutrient has received such an undeserved bad reputation as carbs over the last decade.
The truth is, if you’re someone with aspirations to improve your physique (I think it’s a pretty safe guess to assume you are if reading this blog), carbs are vital to your success. We’ll discuss the multiple reasons why throughout this blog.
But to start off, let’s talk about how thinking deeper about the way you’re timing your carbs can help improve your physique endeavors.
—> Pre-Workout Carbs
These can have a big impact on whether your training session goes well… or very poorly.
Now, since the aesthetic result you want is very much a combination of both smart nutrition and productive training… we’ve of course want to do everything possible to ensure you’re well-fueled to perform going into your training session.
The main reasons pre-workout carbs are helpful for your physique goals:
1. Blood Sugar Regulation: When training for aesthetics like most of our online clients are, your body is literally using carbs (which also = blood sugar) as the primary fuel source for your training.
As you’re depleting your body’s current carb stores in your training, if more carbohydrates aren’t available, many will experience a lower blood sugar “crash” about halfway through their training.
This of course is counterproductive to the level of performance you need to have in order to get the physique results you want from your training. So just eat some carbs pre-workout.
2. Kickstarting The Recovery Process: Not only are carbs the primary fuel for your training, they’re also a large part of successfully recovering and growing from a training session.
Many of the carbs that you eat pre-workout will be readily available for your body to absorb and use post-workout to cement your future progress.
3. Carb Intake Seems To Have A Rapid Performance Improvement Effect: Some interesting research on “carb-rinsing” (swishing a sugary solution around in your mouth before spitting it out) seems to potentially show that sending your brain the signal that it’s just taken in more carbohydrates/energy leads to increased levels of performance. (1)(2)
Ideally, your pre-workout carbs would be from a mix of starch and fruit, which gives you a combo of faster and slower releasing carbs to fuel you through the workout.
—> Intra-Workout Carbs
For the same reasons as above, intra-workout carbs can be helpful. But really, as far as peri-workout nutrition goes, these don’t matter too much as long as you nail the pre & post-workout carbs.
A few things to consider with intra-workout carbs:
1. Digestion: Because you’ll feel bloated and terrible chowing down on bananas and oatmeal between sets of squats… it’s best to keep carbs to a liquid source like Gatorade, highly-branched cyclic dextrin, or dextrose.
Your body can also only digest so many carbs so quickly. So before you start chugging Gatorade, realize that pacing your intake across the session is probably a good idea. Most will feel best with 20-40g carbs from one of the sources mentioned above, sipped across the course of a workout.
2. Makes A Lot Of Sense If You Train Early: If you train first thing in the morning, you likely don’t have time to eat and digest a meal before you start training. A partially digested pre-workout meal scarfed down shortly before training will have you feeling sluggish and underperforming.
A scenario like this is where we most often recommend clients implement a liquid intra-workout carb source to take the place/provide the benefits of the pre-workout carbs we talked about earlier.
3. A Good Way To Add More Carbs To Your Day: If you’re in a building phase, and have been struggling to reach your carbohydrate totals, this is a good place to add more (again, via quick digesting liquid carbs), and is another common scenario where we recommend intra-workout carbs to online clients.
—> Post-Workout Carbs
Post workout is when your “insulin sensitivity” will be the highest.
Basically, your muscles have depleted their glycogen stores (carbohydrate in its stored form), and thus are looking to “soak up” more carbs to replenish said glycogen stores.
So in essence (even in a calorie surplus/when you’re eating more calories than you’re burning in a day), your body is more likely to shuttle the carbs you take in around your training to your muscles, and less likely to send them to be stored as fat.
For all of the above reasons, we generally recommend that online clients with the goal of improving aesthetics consume ½ - ⅔ of their daily carbohydrate totals peri-workout (pre/intra/post-workout).
Most of our clients focused on aesthetics make carbs a priority.
Look, your body needs protein and fat to stay healthy. So none of this is to downplay the importance of either macro.
But, as this is a “beyond the basics” blog, I’m going to assume you’re already hitting your protein needs (1-1.5g/lb) and fat needs (.3g/lb+).
So past this point, eating more carbs will actually provide you an exponential amount of benefits for improving your physique - likely much larger benefits than you’d experience from increasing protein or fat intake instead of carbohydrate intake.
To understand why, you first need to gain a quick understanding of your energy systems...
If you look closely at the energy system that creates energy for the majority of intense activity from ~15-60 seconds (the anaerobic-lactic system), you'll see that it's fueled by carbs.
If your goal is to improve aesthetics, a good amount of your training will be fueled by this energy system. A lower carb approach means that this energy system will essentially be "short on fuel" - your ability to train intensely will suffer. As a result, you'll struggle achieving the levels of performance & adding the lean muscle needed for the physique you want.
This is a common mistake made by both women and men, and is exactly why most of our online clients undergoing the physique transformation process are typically following a higher carb approach.
Not only are carbs your body's preferred fuel source for training, but they also aid your recovery and ability to build more muscle.
Carbs stimulate the release of the hormone insulin in your body. Insulin has an inverse relationship with cortisol (the stress hormone), meaning that as insulin increases, cortisol decreases.
Cortisol is a catabolic hormone - it's primary role is breaking things down for energy. Now, while cortisol isn't "bad" (like all things, it's very context dependent), spending too much time in a catabolic state will of course hinder your ability to build lean muscle.
Due to the insulin and cortisol relationship, adding more carbs to your diet can help get your body out of a catabolic state, and recovering better/quicker.
We know that to build muscle, your protein needs are going to be somewhere between .8-1g/lb body weight daily.
You’ll hear a lot of people saying…
“Total protein intake across the day is all that matters, NOT how often you’re getting protein feedings.”
... but let’s use the example of a 150 lb woman pushing to eat 150g protein/day.
Is she really going to eat all 150g of that in one sitting? Nope.
Two? Very unlikely.
So we know that in all of these studies that seem to show the optimal dose of protein, the participants who got great results from these intakes were very likely having to split their protein intake into at least 3+ meals.
To understand why protein frequency is so important for building muscle, you also need to understand muscle protein balance:
—> Your body turns the protein you eat into muscle through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
—> Your body breaks down protein through muscle protein breakdown (MPB).
The rate of muscle protein synthesis to muscle protein breakdown determines your protein balance.
—> If more MPS than MPB is occurring (MPS > MPB), you have positive protein balance. You’re building muscle.
—> If more MPB than MPS is occurring (MPB > MPS), you have negative protein balance. You’re losing muscle protein.
To build muscle, you need more time in a positive protein balance than negative, or MPS > MPB.
Pretty easy to understand why this is important for building muscle, right?
So this really ties into something called “The Muscle Full Effect”.
Basically, eating protein triggers an anabolic response (it stimulates muscle protein synthesis, which will potentially lead to muscle growth).
Upon consuming protein, once enough protein is taken in to saturate the muscle, the “muscle full” effect happens:
1. ~30 mins after consuming an adequate bolus of protein, rate of MPS ~triples.
2. At ~90 mins, rate of MPS peaks, before returning to baseline levels at ~2 hours.
This return to MPS baseline occurs regardless of how much protein is still available in your bloodstream.
So even if you ate all of your protein in one big meal, you would only nutritionally be spiking muscle protein synthesis once in the day... even though you still hit your protein target.
This is because the amino acid leucine is essentially the "trigger" for MPS.
Even though you can have plenty of amino acids circulating in your bloodstream, you need a bolus of leucine (a.k.a. a 25g+ dose of quality protein) as the “trigger” to stimulate MPS again.
To prove this point, a study from 2011 had 8 men consume 25g of whey protein:
—> One group consumed their 25g shake immediately.
—> The other group consumed their shake in ten 2.5g doses over 3 hours.
The group that consumed all their shake at once saw a 95% increase in MPS, whereas the constant dose group only saw a 42% increase, despite total protein intake being the same.
This seems to show there is a benefit to hitting your leucine threshold (spikes), rather than just eating one (or a few) big meal(s) when it comes to building muscle.
Not all protein is created equally.
See, building muscle actually takes more than just eating plenty of protein.
It’s not just quantity… quality is important as well.
Because it’s not actually just “protein” that your body needs to build muscle. It’s the nitrogen and amino acids within said protein that are actually used for muscle recovery and growth.
The problem here?
Protein sources can have quite a large variance in the amount of said amino acids that are available.
If you compared 25 grams of protein from Greek Yogurt to 25 grams of protein from broccoli...
The broccoli would have a much different (and in the context of building muscle, worse) amino acid profile (a.k.a. bioavailability) than the Greek Yogurt.
So although they’re “the same amount of protein”… the actual results you’ll get from consuming X amount of protein can vary quite a bit, depending on the source.
So in general, using animal-based protein sources to get the majority of your protein in is a good rule of thumb.
That said, if animal-based sources aren’t your thing, you can absolutely still achieve the physique you want (we’ve helped many plant-based clients do just that), you just need to be smart about ensuring you’re getting adequate amounts of the amino acids your body needs.
If the above sounds like you, it’d likely be smart to supplement with:
—> A protein powder: When selecting a plant-based protein powder, realize that many plant-based powders will lower in leucine (again, an essential amino acid for building). That said, many protein powders will have leucine. It’s also a good idea to go with a protein powder from a blend of plant-based sources (e.g. rice + pea protein), because this will provide a more diverse amino acid profile than a single source.
—> Essential amino acids: Basically, supplementing with the amino acids you’re missing from animal-based sources. 1-3 servings per day combined with hitting your protein intake targets should tick the boxes for most. (Something like this is a good option for supplementation here.)
If you’re in a Building Phase and eating a lot of carbs, chances are you’ll also be getting a decent amount of protein from grains, plants, and the like.
This is why even though science shows us we probably don’t need more than .8g/lb of protein to add muscle in a building phase (where you’re in a calorie surplus/eating more calories than you’re burning), we’ll still usually recommend clients keep protein in the 1-1.5g/lb range, and will typically bump protein up by another 10g for every 50-100g carbs added.
Because as we ramp up carbs in a building phase, lower quality protein will start pushing out higher quality protein if we don’t proactively adjust for this.
Periodization basically means…
“Planning your training & nutrition to work in a synergistic fashion, with achieving your best possible results in the LONG-TERM in mind.”
For example, when an online client hops onboard with us, we’ll literally plan out their next six months of training and nutrition, and talk them through the strategy week-by-week.
Periodization requires thinking much deeper than “what do I need to do to get the best results in the next months” (which will often actually be counterproductive to your long-term goals), and asking: “What do I need to do to build my best physique LONG-TERM?”
Needless to say, this involves both more planning and willingness to set aside what’s immediately gratifying for what will get you closer to the ultimate goals you want.
But with some thought and planning, it’s enlightening when you see the big picture of what you need to do to make massive progress from the macro perspective…
... you’ll often realize that your approach should be different than if you just asked “what do I need to do to get the best progress in a week?”
Now, we have an entire blog on How To Periodize An Entire Year Of Training & Nutrition For Physique Development, so I won’t go too in-depth here.
But a few of the keys you need to understand to successfully periodize your nutrition:
—> Periodization: Splitting a period of time up into blocks. Each block is focused on creating a different adaptation, but all of the blocks synchronize to push you towards one specific goal (e.g. have visible abs by next summer).
In Online Coaching, we implement nutrition periodization to help you as clients achieve better aesthetics, health, hormones, a faster metabolism, & results you can sustain for a lifetime.
Over the course of months (or as long as you're coaching with us), we'll cycle you in & out of these different “phases” of nutrition periodization:
- Primer Phases
- Fat Loss Phases
- Diet Breaks
- Maintenance Phases
- Reverse Diets
- Building Phases
A lot different than the ol’ “diet endlessly until I’m lean” approach, right? It’s also much more effective.
All of the phases support each other, & synergistically push you closer to your goal body composition. That's periodization. ⠀
—> Over the course of a year, spend more time in the Building &/or Maintenance Phases than in Fat Loss Phases.
Fat loss happens quickly, & doesn't require nearly as much time to achieve the results you want relative to a Building Phase.
Fat Loss Phases are by far the most taxing on you physically, hormonally, & mentally. Stay in a fat loss phase for too long, & adherence slips, your body & mindset feel terrible, you'll struggle & you're stuck spinning your wheels… hence the above recommendation.
Now, of course there are exceptions to this (clients that have a large amount of weight to lose, or have time-sensitive goals), but it's still important to implement Diet Breaks + Reverse Dieting + Maintenance Phases after.
—> To create a functionally strong + aesthetic body, spending time in both Fat Loss AND Building Phases is important. ⠀
Most people ONLY focus on the Fat Loss Phases, and wonder why they always feel awful + struggle to achieve the body composition they want.
Your body composition improves in the Building Phases. You uncover the changes you've made in the Fat Loss Phases.
But really, I can’t recommend enough that you read the periodization blog here.
And those are the keys that you need to understand to truly achieve your fullest physical potential.
If you need expert guidance through the process of applying these principles to build an individualized, science-based nutrition protocol, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.
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