Appearance and Performance

I barely ever talk about training because honestly it’s not that hard. Turn up to the gym 2-4 times per week and work hard for an hour at a time and you’ll get stronger and grow some muscle. However, diet isn’t like that. Diet needs to be thought of 24/7 if you want to really get results with it and you need to continue thinking about it 24/7 until you’ve gotten to your desired body composition.

Let’s break down some of the most common myths when it comes to diet and performance so we can start from the right place though.

Appearance Does Not Lead to Performance

One of the biggest myths in the training world is that it’s the type of training you do that determines how you look. You know, that tired old “If you want to look like a sprinter, train like a sprinter” garbage.

If you believe that adage, then taking a look at a picture of Jessica Zelinka and Brianne Theisen-Eaton, you’d have to ask how come two athletes who do the exact same sport look so different? And how come the one who won, Theisen-Eaton, actually looks in worse shape according to what mainstream fitness media would have us believe? Surely Zelinka with her rippling six-pack and better muscle definition should have performed better?

The idea that appearance leads to performance has sidetracked Western strength and conditioning for most of the last four decades. Back when we all started to think you needed to look like Tarzan, the only thing the Russians and Chinese cared about was beating Tarzan on the field. You know, where it counts.

As a result of our focus on appearance, an entire subculture of fitness sprang up around bodybuilding and the hoard of training programs that accompany it. But all of these programs suffer from the exact same thing – a lack of honesty. Honesty would tell you that if you want to look a certain way, then you better hope you have the right parents. Honesty would tell you the amount of fat you have, to show off what your parents gave you, is largely determined not by training, but by diet.

Muscle Is Difficult to Grow

If you’re really after muscle growth, then what you need is a diet focused on getting a calorie surplus. Muscle is incredibly difficult to grow and without a hardcore eating plan you are likely to never gain much irrespective of how scientific your program is. I always have to wear my protective face-palm helmet when I start working with new clients who tell me how easily they pack on muscle. You need to be in a tremendous surplus to gain genuine muscle – 4,000 calories per kilo – as opposed to fat or water. To put that in perspective most people I work with come in the dor eating about 2000 calories a day. In other words, they need to at least double their intake to see significant muscle gain.

Old-school bodybuilders understood that to gain muscle you had to accept the addition of fat and water, though. They would deliberately go through periods of bulking up, assured that when they cut up for a show they’d have new muscle they could show off to their advantage.

How Much Food Do You Need?

Consider that at his peak Jay Cutler was eating a breakfast of nearly 1,000 calories. That should put it into perspective for you. His first meal of the day was:

15 egg whites

2 whole eggs

4 slices of Ezekiel bread

1 cup dry Ezekiel

Total calories: 923

Fat: 18g

Carbs: 103g

Protein: 86g

When you think that most people’s base need is around the 2,000 calories per day mark, it goes to show why your lack of muscle gain has little to do with your training. Hardcore training must be buffered by hardcore eating. Cutler’s second meal of the day was 1,121 calories (10oz steak, 2 cups rice). In his first two meals of the day, he already ate more than most do in an entire day.

I’m sure some people will eat this much after a heavy day of training. But this kind of eating is required seven days a week. I’ve even seen recommendations on bodybuilding forums that people go and eat two to three Big Macs, large fries, and a shake two days a week to help them crack 10,000 calories on those days to help with mass gain.

Still think it’s the training and not the eating? Then explain how top CrossFit competitors manage to stack so much lean muscle on relatively small frames with a training regimen that has far more conditioning work than any bodybuilder would ever dream of. Rich Froning is well known for his non-paleo diet consisting of large amounts of peanut butter, whole apple pies, and thousand-calorie shakes.

You Need Quality Carbs

And if you think you need to ditch carbs to get shredded, then you need to think again. The top bodybuilders will eat carbs close to their competition, only cutting them out in the final stretch to get as lean as possible. But at no point do they consider getting rid of them completely. And they’ll add them back into their diet right before the show to help the muscles look fuller, as well as use them regularly once they return to regular training post competition.

CrossFitters need carbs, too. You simply won’t be able to fuel those intense workouts without them. The difference is that both successful bodybuilders and CrossFitters choose from clean sources like sweet potato or brown rice, rather than sugary treats like desserts (except in Froning’s case).

The saying “you can’t outrun a doughnut” has been around forever, and is completely true. At a certain point it might be possible, such as with Froning or with the amount of training Michael Phelps was doing when he won his record medal haul in Beijing. But most of us don’t have the ability to train for six hours a day in order to justify our doughnut eating.

That means we need to pay more attention to our diet. And sorry to say it, but the mature athletes (those over 35) need to pay even more attention than everyone else. As the body slows down and hormone levels change, you can’t get away with what you could in your twenties.

Tracking and Planning

I am yet to meet anyone who was eating enough on our first meeting for their hypertrophy goals. But because they’re not tracking how much they eat they have no real idea. At our gym we tell people that if it isn’t recorded it never happened. If I see a food diary that isn’t filled in I will assume you ate nothing for the day. It’s only once people start to record and track how much they are eating that progress becomes possible.

As a side note – if you can’t be bothered taking the few minutes daily needed to track your food consumption then how do you think you’ve got the discipline required to eat well and train consistently for long enough to get to your goals?

Like with every well-fought battle it starts with a plan. A good rule of thumb is to take your current bodyweight in pounds and multiply by 12-14 to get a baseline figure. This is your minimums if trying to gain weight.

To begin with, if you haven’t done this before, split your diet evenly into 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrate. If you don’t know how much of what macronutrient is in which food then go to as it’ll do it all for you.

Eat like that for a month and see what happens. If you’re not gaining add another 250 calories/ day. Eat like that for a month. Keep adding 250 calories/ day until you start to see the scales budge. (If you have an active job you will need more than an office worker. The same goes for younger trainees versus older trainees.)

Once you’ve gotten to your target weight you can begin adjusting your macronutrient intake for optimal appearance while keeping performance. This doesn’t mean dropping your carbohydrate or fat intake completely but moderating them for the best combination of both appearance and performance. You’ll likely find that your best performance isn’t at your leanest.