Diet is 50% of bodybuilding success. Or is it 60%? 65? 42? I keep forgetting. What I want to know is, where did these figures come from in the first place? Very often someone will come up with a "slogan" statement that sticks. People LOVE slogans. Fortune cookies, bumper stickers, we all read them. Catch phrases are parroted until it becomes obvious that they're being overdone ad nauseum (an overused expression itself). Add a "stat" to the slogan and it sounds even more convincing. Hence the numbers attached to certain claims. I recently saw an ad for a product that claimed to increase growth hormone 1271%! (I think the extra 1% is a bit superfluous.) If that were indeed true, there is going to be an outbreak of gigantism like we've never seen before! It seems saying that something "increases" a specific function isn't enough. We want numbers! The bigger the better.
What makes all of these "specifics" so absurd is the fact that it's virtually impossible to gauge the effects of an ingested substance that accurately. Even controlled animal experimentation has such a wide leeway of results that when it's applied to human applications, it becomes so altered that it's practically useless.
So why has the notion that diet and nutrition are of such importance remained a staple of bodybuilding dogma?
The obvious reason is the fact that nutrition (or lack thereof) has the most direct effect on our health. Muscle growth is impossible without adequate protein. Caloric intake is what determines whether we lose or gain weight. No one can disagree with these basic principles. Where the thinking goes awry is when those principles are magnified to monstrous proportions.
Allow me to present you a hypothetical scenario so you may judge for yourself the effects of diet and its contribution to one's bodybuilding progress. Let's say that there are two previously untrained individuals of equal genetics. One begins an intense weight-training program, yet he continues to eat an "average" diet. The second goes on the strictest of diets. All organic produce. High protein, high fiber. No sugar. He avoids eating carbs before bedtime (to assure maximum growth hormone excretion) and exercises by playing tennis on the weekends.
Now, assuming these subjects stuck to their programs for a year, which one do you think will have grown more muscle? No contest, it will be the one that weight trained, of course. Working out with weights without any attention to diet will still produce good results in most people. Just look at weight trained men in prison. Their diet is around 40% fat, 50% carbs, and 10% protein. And low quality protein at that. They still manage to put on muscle. The person with the textbook diet whose training consists of some moderate sports-related activity may be "healthy" (although this too is difficult to prove), but their appearance will be virtually unchanged. So much for diet being 50% of your growth process.
Sure, the obvious retort is that diet in conjunction with exercise is of paramount importance. Maybe so, but the actual amount of body alteration produced by diet is minimal, at best. Every day, I see middle-aged men starving themselves to lose what is actually excess water around the waistline (due to hormonal changes). They wind up weak and flat looking with the same puffy belly they started out with.
Perhaps the best analogy I can use to aptly describe the effect of diet on one's appearance is this:
"A bulldog doesn't get to look like a greyhound by eating like one."
Now before you start throwing away your chicken breasts and start chowing down on French fries and donuts, let's put this in the proper prospective. Besides adequate water intake (and some fiber), the body knows only two things when it comes to nourishment: macronutrients and micronutrients. Vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) work like the "sparkplugs" of the human machine. In order for everything to perform at its optimum efficiency, micronutrients must be present. Since the discovery of isolating the "micros" some 60 years ago, deficiencies in these nutrients are almost non-existent today. Weight lifters, with the excess demands put on their bodies, require more micro-nutrition than "ordinary" folk. This is where supplementation is a godsend. Supplementation easily assures a sufficient micronutrient intake.
Macro-nutrition is not so easy. That's because the "macro" is the whole foods we eat. Hunger and taste are powerful needs. Here, too, is where supplements are advantageous. A protein drink is nothing more than a nutritionally dense food. A quick, tasty, and convenient way of getting a hefty dose of nutrition in one shot. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates are what make up the macronutrients. Again, the body doesn't know if the carbohydrate is a potato or a gummy bear. Wait a minute...what about complex carbs and simple sugars? Isn't there a difference? Yes. Simple sugars will induce an almost instantaneous secretion of insulin. If the insulin rush isn't "necessary" due to low blood sugar, the body may store the additional sugar as fat. But that can happen with a complex carb as well. Carbs can make you fat, but even this is determined mostly by the individual's ability to process food. THAT's the rub!
The greatest factor in all of this is how well the individual can process the fats and carbs into energy and the protein into muscle. We all know someone (especially children) who can eat Ring-Dings and Root Beer and still have tight little abs showing. We also know of the person who eats the textbook diet and still can't manage to get rid of that "roll around the middle." Genetics, my friends. Genetics and youth. These are the two undeniable factors that will determine your ultimate physical potential. Is it any wonder so many people turn to drugs to tip the scale in their favor?
The weight loss plight of millions of people is big business. Allow me to let you in on a little secret. You know how it has been determined that weight loss must be slow in order to prevent the body from going into a "starvation mode" and hoarding fat? Doesn't work. Why? Rule number one: The body is an adaptive mechanism. It won't take long before it will be able to perform (enough to survive, at least) with fewer calories without having to use fat for fuel. When calories are cut slowly, the body adapts by slowing down the metabolism. You become sluggish in order to conserve the limited calories. Damned if you eat, damned if you don't. Remember that the body wants to survive as efficiently as possible. Give it less, it will give back less. The simple truth to losing weight (fat) is twofold. Exercise is the most significant factor (and I ain't talkin' aerobics). Attaining more muscle keeps fat in check. In fact, when trying to get "cut," it is better to increase the workload than to decrease calories.
The second component, as displeasurable as it may be, is this: In order to lose excessive weight (more than 30 pounds), you must condition yourself to tolerate hunger! Back in the days when sports coaches weren't particularly knowledgeable about the effects of nutrient repartitioning, the main advice they gave the athletes to lose weight was, "Lay off the starches!" If that didn't work, the backup strategy was often, "Get the fork out of your face!" Worked every time. I'm sorry if that sounds overly trite and unscientific, but that's the way it is. I'm not saying to cut calories to a dangerously low level, but you must go hungry often and for weeks on end in order to lose a substantial amount of weight. This also shrinks the stomach, which will eventually make eating less food less distressing. Yes, you will lose muscle as well as fat, which is why it is so important to use the proper supplements, such as a quality protein product, antioxidants, and other anti-catabolic nutrients.
The same principles of caloric intake apply to gaining weight. I am so sick of hearing that ubiquitous woe, "I can't gain weight no matter what I do!" When a client comes to me with this familiar lament, I usually offer a "detailed explanation concerning caloric intake along with a proper meal plan strategy while providing encouragement through positive reinforcement," but I fantasize about smacking him repeatedly over the top of his head while yelling, "EAT!" "EAT!" "JUST EAT MORE, YOU MORON!!!" Simply put, if you are a terminal hardgainer, it will be necessary to "force feed" yourself throughout the day. As soon as you CAN eat without making yourself ill, eat some more.
Once again, the trusty meal replacement comes in handy. It's easier to drink an extra 1000 calories a day than it is to eat them. A "once in a while" approach will not do. As with most supplements, a "little" will not yield a "little" result. Intake must be high and consistent in order to achieve any gains. Take in an additional 200 grams of protein EVERY day and you WILL gain weight, I don't care how hard of a gainer you are. Just as the person losing weight will lose muscle, the person on a weight gaining regime will gain some fat. It is inevitable. Just make sure you train heavy and get adequate rest. After the increase in size has "settled in," you can slowly start trimming the unwanted fat.
I must admit, there was a time when I was a big believer in supplementation. I still take a considerable amount of supplements, but mostly those that have a specific recuperation/performance-enhancing effect. In the wake of my investigation of hundreds of "muscle growing" products I've seen come and go (mostly go), I must say that there are very few that have much validity. Without belaboring the subject too much, let me say that almost every product that has attempted to achieve increased anabolism has failed miserably. This is something that drugs do so well because a drug can "override" the system and make it go beyond what it is normally capable of. A nutrient cannot make the body do what it is unable to do according to its own limitations. In other words, if you are sleep deprived, it doesn't matter how healthy you are; you're going to be tired. But if you wanted to "force" the body to go beyond what its instincts are telling it to do (slow down), then it's caffeine time!
For the most part, products that attempt to retain nitrogen are doomed to fail for the same reasons. A couple of years ago it was beta testosterone, before that it was paffia paracalluta (or whatever it was called). OKG was a bust. Now it's HMB. I must give the marketers of HMB credit. They ain't giving up! This stuff doesn't do a damn thing, but they keep convincing people to buy more of it. Never underestimate people's faith in wishful thinking and ineffectual desperation. Instead of trying to retain more nitrogen through HMB, why not try and DIGEST more protein? Digestive enzymes are a great "forgotten" supplement that is available in any health food store, and they're cheap!
What else works? Well, protein is still the only thing that will build muscle. Even steroids will be ineffective without substantial protein intake. Steroids cannot build muscle out of nothing. Protein is the catalyst. Always. Creatine has proven its validity, but it will not grow muscle tissue. I've always felt that Tribulis Terrestis did something, ever since I first heard of it from Dan Duchaine's "Underground Steroid Bible" back in '89 when it was a near impossible find. Thermogenic agents work, but remember, they are drugs, so they can't really be classified as "nutritional supplements."
I believe many herbs have a powerful effect on everything from mental acuity to removing toxins (even though they are considered "inert substances" by some). Heck, even the original "Hot Stuff" wasn't a bad idea, an "all-in-one" concoction made with freeze-dried glandular protein (yum) and a hefty dose of yohimbe as a kicker. Although substances like boron and chromium picolinate were given exaggerated claims, they are still viable nutrients. Too bad Hot Stuff didn't stick to their guns when Bill and Scott came after them.
Look at every muscle mag on the market, and it's no surprise that everybody's excited over glutamine. Yet, glutamine is a nonessential amino acid (except in some instances) that is converted in the body from branch chain amino acids (mostly leucine). So why are manufacturers hawking glutamine so hard and not BCAAs? BCAAs are last year's news. No pizzazz in that. The marketers need a new sacred cow. Since glutamine looks so good on paper, being that it's the most abundant amino in muscle, it was an obvious choice. One expert extols its virtues, another agrees. Before you know it, sales are through the roof. Each ensuing company window dresses their products with glutamine so they can stay competitive. But let's stop kidding ourselves. Oral ingestion of glutamine isn't putting an ounce of muscle on anyone and everyone knows it. Since glutamine doesn't exist naturally in the food, it causes stress to the liver and kidneys, which may result in excessive urea. If you want the benefits of glutamine, stick with BCAAs. They aren't glamorous or cutting-edge, but that's what you need to increase glutamine levels. It is my contention that glutamine falls into the category, along with ornithine and arginine, of something that, in theory, "should" do wonderful things, but simply does not pan out in the real world. It's just that no one, yet, is willing to say the emperor has no clothes.
There are many other individual supplements that have merit, but the bottom line is all the supplementation in the world will only do so much. With the exception of tribulis, which has a direct effect on luteinizing hormone (making it a legitimate testosterone booster), supplements are best applied as "health insurance" instead of an anabolic advantage. That includes the various "andros" as well, but that's a topic for another time.
The latest pedagogic supposition that I take issue with deals with the "timing" of nutrients for optimum absorption, insulin release, etc. If I were to address this subject as sincerely as possible, I'd have to say it's all a bunch of academic wordplay. Interesting reading and not much else. I may be shooting myself in the foot by saying this because I can write fifteen articles on the subject of nutrient timing, but honestly, it makes so little difference "when" you eat. I doubt if you would be able to tell the difference between following a perfectly timed diet and eating whenever the hell you want.
Part of the bodybuilding lifestyle requires planning and commitment when it comes to diet, but only to a certain degree. I get the feeling sometimes that bodybuilders act eccentric and fanatical as a way of feeling imperious and getting attention. Denying oneself to the state of martyrdom will not provide extra points. I don't care if something is highly nutritious or low in fat if it tastes like shit! There isn't anything magical about any of this stuff, regardless of what some "genius doctor" says to the contrary.
Follow these simple guidelines and you won't go wrong:
As you can see, the nutritional aspect of bodybuilding is a lot simpler than many will have you think. Follow these common sense rules and you'll be on target. As long as you train intensely and consistently and follow an intelligent supplementation strategy, you will continue to get stronger, healthier, and more muscular. It's as simple, and as difficult, as that.