You’d probably like to think that lifting big weight is simply a matter of big muscles—that if you have hulking lats, you can row a barbell loaded with clanking plates until next Thursday. However, if you’re not fueling your body properly, you’ll find out in a hurry just how shortsighted that philosophy is. You’ve probably heard the analogy before: your musculature is like a car—if you fuel it with junk, it’ll perform like junk. That is absolutely true when it comes to training for strength.
If you’re looking to move the most weight possible, then you’re going to have to make sure that your muscles are performing like they’re running on jet fuel, not 87 octane from your discount, corner gas station. Here are five ways to make sure your body is firing on all cylinders each time you step up to the rack, bench or platform for a big lift.
1) Start With Protein
Protein is essential for driving muscle growth and you need to get at least 1 gram per pound of body weight per day if not 1.5 grams per pound. That’s because when lifting extremely heavy, protein is even more critical—for several reasons. The most important reason is to protect your muscle. The heavier you lift, the more mechanical damage your muscle fibers undergo. The more damage your muscle fibers endure, the more recovery they will need. More damage and recovery actually translates to more growth. These three processes require protein. When lifting heavy you can make sure you get ample protein to aid recovery and further enhance muscle growth by getting in about 1.5 grams per pound of body weight per day. That’s 300 grams per day for the 200 pounder. Good sources of quality protein include eggs, beef, poultry, fish, and dairy, not to mention whey, casein, and soy protein powders.
2) Continue With Carbs
To be strong set after set, you need plenty of carbohydrates, which will be stored in muscle as glycogen. That’s because the primary fuel sources you use when training heavy are creatine phosphate (which burns out after about 10—20 seconds) and muscle glycogen (which kicks in heavily after the creatine phosphate has run out to fuel the rest of your reps). You should shoot for about 2—3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day and up to four grams per pound the day before a big lift day. That’s 400—800 grams of carbs for the 200 pound guy. Good sources at most meals include slow-digesting carbs such as oatmeal, whole-wheat bread and pastas, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.
3) Don’t Forget Fat
Fats—both the healthy unsaturated fats and saturated fats—are important for bodybuilders and powerlifters for numerous reasons. Research shows that athletes who maintain higher fat intake, particularly saturated fat, have higher testosterone levels than those who eat lower fat diets. A great source of saturated fat is beef, which kills two birds with one stone—protein and fat. Healthy fats are also important as they not only offer multiple health benefits but they help you stay lean and help your joints recover. When lifting heavy weight, joint recovery is a critical issue. Good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats include olive oil, mixed nuts, avocados, and peanut butter. For essential omega-3 fats go with fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, or white tuna, as well as flaxseed oil and walnuts. Aim to get about 30% of your total daily calories from fat, and 10% of those calories from saturated fat.
4) Count on Calories
You need ample calories each day to fuel heavy workouts. As long as you follow tips 1-3, you should hit about 20 calories per pound of body weight per day. That’s about 4000 calories for the 200-pound guy. You need enough calories to make sure you eat more than you burn. If you burn more than you eat, your body will be in starvation mode, which doesn’t allow for adequate muscle regeneration, growth or strength gains.
5) Get Stacked
Knowing what supplements to take can make a huge difference in your strength levels. Consider stacking these supplements around your workouts:
This central nervous system stimulant can do more than give you the energy you need for a hardcore workout. Caffeine has been proven in clinical studies to immediately boost muscle strength. It enhances the ability of nerves to intensify muscle contractions. University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers found that taking one dose of caffeine taken an hour before working out allowed trained men to immediately increase their bench press by an average of five pounds. Go with 200—400 mg of caffeine about an hour before workouts.
By now you know that arginine increases the amount of nitric oxide (NO) your body produces, which increases blood flow to muscles for a better muscle pump. But arginine is no one-trick pony. One study confirmed that trained men taking arginine for eight weeks increased their bench press strength by almost 20 pounds more than those taking a placebo. Take 3-5 grams of arginine as L-arginine, arginine alpha-ketoglutarate, arginine ketoisocaproate, arginine malate, or arginine ethyl ester, about 30-60 minutes before workouts.
The granddaddy of strength builders is creatine. After years of skepticism, scientists agree that the stuff works well and is safe. Take 3-5 grams of creatine as creatine monohydrate, creatine citrate, creatine ethyl ester, or creatine alpha ketoglutarate, immediately before and after workouts.
In the body, this amino acid is combined with the amino acid histadine to form carnosine. Research has determined that muscles with higher levels of carnosine have more strength and endurance. This also holds true in athletes supplementing with carnosine or beta-alanine. Numerous studies on these supplements show that they are very effective at boosting muscle strength and power. Take about 1-2 grams of beta-alanine or carnosine immediately before and after workouts.