If you are a strength sport athlete, then you likely have strength goals. Whether it’s a personal PR, a state or national record, or qualifying for a specific meet, you likely have something that you are working towards. So what about nutrition goals?
You probably immediately thought about either cutting or bulking. This begs the question: Why do all nutrition goals seem to revolve around bulking and cutting? Seriously, think about it. When was the last time you or someone you knew had a nutrition goal that wasn’t weight loss or bulking? Pretty crazy.
But did you know there’s a third option? What if you ate in a caloric balance and just chose to just get strong?
It’s not our fault, really. Getting strong while eating in a caloric balance doesn’t sell Ebooks, diet plans, nutrition coaching, or supplements, so companies and influencers don’t promote it. This means that the majority of what we see regarding nutrition revolves around cutting weight and bulking. We are conditioned to think that nutrition goals are only weight loss and/or weight gain, and if you don’t fall into either of these categories, then you don’t have real nutrition goals.
Let’s get into what is cutting and bulking, why maintenance IS a nutrition goal, and why having a nutrition coach, even during a time of maintenance, can be vital to your success as an athlete.
Cutting and Bulking
Let’s first begin by defining a bulk and a cut. Bulking is when a person consumes an excessive amount of calories with the idea that putting on size will come with an increase in strength and muscle size. A typical bulk cycle will result in a person gaining a significant amount of fat mass with relatively small gains in muscle mass (1). One study in particular found that after 4 weeks of a bulking-style diet in combination with resistance training, there was no significant increase in strength, but there was a significant change in body composition and an increase in total fat mass (1).
Cutting is the opposite. In order to lose weight, you have to be in a caloric deficit. Being in a deficit means your body either 1) needs to metabolically adapt to the lower calories or 2) find another source of fuel to continue working at the same capacity (i.e. fat and/or muscle). If the cut is a shorter one (< 12 weeks), then it is likely that your body hasn’t had enough time to adapt to the lowered intake, but if you’ve been in a caloric deficit for more than 12 weeks, your body likely has adapted. In both cases, your body still needs to make up the extra calories by either using your body fat or muscle proteins as fuel.
This is where things can get dicey. Yes, you can put on strength while on a cut, but it will never be as much strength as you could have put on while not in a caloric deficit. As an athlete, the primary goal of a cut (besides losing weight) is to maintain strength. What’s the point of moving down a weight class if you lose your strength? There isn’t one really, unless your primary goal isn’t strength, in which case, losing strength on a cut isn’t a big deal.
But what is strength is your primary goal? What do you do then?
Introducing Eating for Performance
Believe it or not, there is a third option. While not as glamorous or as profitable, eating for performance (i.e. maintenance) is a game changer for those of us looking to get strong but stay within our weight class OR responsibly go up a weight class:
What Eating for performance is:
- Eating in a caloric balance to optimize training and recovery
- Provides your body the nutrition necessary to carry out normal, biological functions, and the extra calories to maximize athletic performance
What it is not:
- Eating in a surplus and putting on excessive body fat
- An excuse to eat whatever, whenever and not stick to your macros
- A trick to halt all your progress
First and foremost, eating at maintenance can be scary. Since we are conditioned to believe that we should either be cutting or bulking, eating in a caloric balance seems too easy…it feels like a trap. After all, we are always looking to improve, and maintenance seems to imply that you are not improving, fortunately, that is FAR from the truth.
But it isn’t!
When most people hear maintenance, they take the term literally. They think eating at maintenance means they are going to stay exactly where they are: same PRs, same body weight, same body composition, everything is the same. But that’s simply not the case. Maintenance ONLY refers to the calories and macros consumed. Your PRs and body composition will change. You will get stronger. You will put on muscle. Your body will change.
Why having a nutrition coach is so important:
Eating at maintenance means you are right on the fence of a slight caloric surplus and/or caloric deficit. So if you go multiple days or weeks of eating over maintenance, you will put on fat. Or on the flip side, if you go a significant period of eating in a caloric deficit, you will lose weight (and unless you’re keeping your protein in check, it will likely be muscle weight). Additionally, many people throw their macros out the window and think in terms of calories. This is fine if you are a recreational lifter, but if you are a strength sport athlete, then this will impact your strength potential. Simply put, even if you are eating at maintenance calories, you still might see an unfavorable change in body composition and strength if you aren’t sticking to your macros.
This is where hiring a nutrition coach will change your life. Typically, as discussed previously, people tend to hire coaches when they need to do something drastic (cutting, usually), but rarely think about having a coach on board to get them through the mundane, the ordinary.
Would you ditch your powerlifting or weightlifting coach in the “off-season?” I’m fairly certain you wouldn’t, so why then do we ditch our nutrition coaches when we don’t have cutting or bulking goals?
Why would we leave such an important factor for our training and recovery so uncertain? We don’t have the answer for this, because to us, it just seems silly.
If you know you are a person who cannot stick to your macros without a coach, why wouldn’t you have one on your team? If you want to get strong, why wouldn’t you bring someone on board who knows how to get you there and will be there if things start to go south?
Nutrition coaching isn’t just for weight cuts. If you want to get strong, it takes a team.
Want more? Listen to Episode 102 of Empowered by Iron for a more in-depth discussion.
Want to learn how to eat for performance? Click HERE.