By James Mellor.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we are curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” – Walt Disney
It is important to be grateful for what you have in life. I am thankful to have a beautiful family, a roof over my head, a steady office job. But there is something inside that always insists that I break away from normality and commit to do something out of the ordinary. Not to brag, or prove something to others, but to test my limits as an individual and to give me a personal outlet.
Over the last few years, my passion has been long distance running and I spent most of my spare time training for and competing in marathons and ultra-marathons. This was amazing for my physical and mental health and it allowed me to feel like me. I still have a huge passion for running, but in April 2021, I decided to put it on the back burner and enter the world of Powerlifting. I am not sure what first inspired me to try it, but at 6ft5in weighing 80kg, it was an obvious choice, right? Maybe not, but I decided to go all in and signed up to a novice competition in August 2021 to provide me with some accountability and an end goal for my upcoming training.
I was used to getting up at 5am and training before the family woke for breakfast, so time was not an issue. Coming at this new found hobby with no experience, I obviously hit the internet for my new training plan. For the first 3 months I did the Stronglift 5x5 programme on their free app. You start lifting with an empty bar and add weight every session until failure. It served me well and allowed me to practice proper technique in the main Powerlifting disciplines before starting to lift heavy weights. Also, with it being so simple, it removed any thought process; just go to the gym and lift. When I reached the point where I was constantly failing reps, I changed things up slightly and started to play around with the weight and reducing the number of reps in an attempt to ‘peak’. I was content with my ongoing progress and took advantage of the famous newbie gains through consistent training and eating. Truth be told, I was making it up as I went along and I have no doubt that with the input of an experienced trainer, I could have made more solid progress and this will likely become more beneficial in the future if I start to plateau in my training.
The principals of training for ultra-marathons and powerlifting are not too dissimilar in that you need to build a solid base and good form before slowly increasing the training load, whether that be speed and distance or reps and weight. Rest and recovery is of equal importance in that you need to allow full days of rest or active recovery and also add an occasional week where you lighten the load to prevent burnout. With this in mind, I did not find the training too much of a shock to the system (other than the dreaded leg day DOMS).
With a background in long distance running, I have a history of eating massive amounts of food to keep me going, but I never focused too much on what I was eating as long as I had enough carbohydrates to fuel my long efforts. I quickly learnt that to get through the taxing process of lifting weights 3 – 4 days a week and constantly increasing the load, I would need to focus more on what I was eating. My aim was 4,000 calories a day (20% Protein, 45% Carbohydrates, 35% Fat). You will notice a theme here, in that there was not much science in these numbers other than a few internet searches and a rough idea of what my body normally needs for fuel. This allowed me to continuously add weight to the bar and put on some muscle mass, but also resulted in a lot of fat gain too. Being a tall, lanky runner, I have never had to worry much about gaining weight, so I found it quite challenging to tread the line between eating enough food to put on mass and fuel workouts but not eating too much of the wrong stuff. For anyone interested, a typical day of eating consisted of the following:
Pre Workout: Banana, Peanut Butter and Nutella Sandwich – 400 calories
Breakfast: Mass Gainer Shake (50g Protein Powder, 150g oats, 1 banana, 300ml Full Fat Milk)
Snack: Roasted Salted Peanuts
Lunch: 3 Flatbreads with Chicken (250g), Halloumi, Hummus and Spinach
Snack: Can of Tuna
Dinner: 4 Chicken, Vegetable and Cheese Fajitas
Bedtime: Glass of Full Fat Milk
Total: 4,015 calories consisting of 440g Carbs, 142g Fat, 242g Protein
Firstly, I have a huge amount of respect for Powerlifters and Powerlifting. These people put their bodies through huge amounts of stress over years and sometimes decades, overcoming injuries and setbacks to get to where they want to be, mostly for little financial gain. Do not think for a second that I am saying that you can go from beginner to competitive Powerlifter in 4 months. That being said, I do like to compete and in running, there is a very inclusive atmosphere in that anyone can give it a go; we have all seen people completing the London Marathon in 7 hours whilst the front runners finish in 2 hours.
My preconceptions of Powerlifting made me think that I would be ridiculed by big scary blokes for showing up to a competition and finishing dead last. Once again, I consulted the internet and got a range of answers to my question; “How Strong Do I Need To Be To Compete In Powerlifting?”
Answer 1: You should be able to Squat 2x your body weight, Bench 1.5x your body weight and Deadlift 2x your body weight.
Answer 2: If you can lift the empty bar with correct form, you can compete!
Confused? Me too. But the main take away for me was that other than a few message board ‘coaches’, no one really cares what you can lift, people are more focused on their own results and are generally quite supportive when it comes to other competitors. So with that I signed up to the Raw Strength Powerlifting Competition on the 8th of August 2021. The competition was advertised as suitable for novices, which suited me, but was subject to IPF Rules so I still felt like it was the real deal.
Competition day was soon upon me and I headed to the Raw Strength Gym and found it to be a friendly, inclusive and an energetic environment. No meat heads who wanted to eat me for their pre competition snack, just nice normal but passionate individuals.
When I started training I was 80kg and on the day I weighed in at around 95kg. For a little while, I was focused on staying below 93kg so that I fit into that weight class, but soon realised that this was pretty irrelevant in my stage of training. Plus I was going to get beat by lifters with more experience, regardless of my weight class.
On the day, I was happy with my lifts. I will give you the numbers, but more importantly my thought process behind picking my weights and how it went on the day:
Squat: 130kg, 135kg and 140kg
I went with a comfortable opening lift at 130kg. The advice I followed was to open with something you can do for a treble in the gym. From there I took it conservatively and went up in 5kg increments and managed to get three good lifts.
Bench: 80kg, X and X
Bench has always been my weakness. Training alone, it is the one lift that I feel I could not push through fear of failing and crushing myself. I went for an 80kg opening lift for the same reason as above; I had done this for a treble in training. It felt good on the day so I went for 87.5kg on the next lift and failed to lock out. On the third lift I went for the same again but I got in my own head a little and bounced the bar off my chest. Two bad lifts, which was disappointing. If I had of stuck to my original game plan and gone up to 85kg, I might have fared better.
Deadlift: 160kg, 170kg and 185kg
The first two attempts went up quite easy so I jumped to 185kg for my final lift and managed to get it up, which I was super happy about. The most I had done in training was 160kg for a single. If the lesson learned during my Bench was to be conservative, the lesson here was to overreach and go for it. In terms of advice, I guess that is unhelpful, but your first meet should be your own learning experience.
Overall I placed 8th out of 10 competitors with a 405kg total and a 52.46 dots score. My plan for the day was to show up, have fun and get some experience, so overall it was a success. The parallels between competing in running and Powerlifting remain here in that they are both solo endeavours rather than a team effort and the only competitor you are really going up against is yourself.
Since the event, I have continued lifting, I am still enjoying the process and I am sure I will compete again. I have also been on a couple of short runs recently and unsurprisingly, I nearly died. Obviously I have lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness over the last few months and I am much heavier, but I am sure I will get back into running one day, when I am ready to shift the incoming power belly.
The key thing I have learnt over the last few months is that being a runner, or being a powerlifter, or whatever your thing is, bares little importance. It is important that we remove these labels that we think define us and just see these things as what they are; an outlet. Running makes me feel free, Powerlifting makes me feel strong, but the critical thing is to just do something that pushes your limits, forces you to learn about yourself and makes you feel alive.
This is James's first guest post on my blog and you can find his instagram @jamessmellor.
By James Kennedy.
Sleep. A health and performance essential that everyone loves. Yet, according to the ONS, nearly half of UK adults report not getting enough sleep, with a quarter surviving on less than 5 hours a night. The same survey found that despite people recognizing they have a problem with inadequate sleep, less than half of poor sleepers are actively trying to improve their sleep.
Within this guide, we will explore why we need to sleep and the special importance of sleep for strength and physique athletes. We will then explore how much sleep you need and whether catching up on sleep works as effectively as getting enough sleep every night. Finally, we will outline how to set up a bedtime routine to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Why do we need to sleep?
Everyone needs to sleep. Getting adequate sleep is linked to better mood, better focus and better performance in every aspect of life. For strength athletes, who spend hours in the gym trying to maximise muscular hypertrophy and strength gains, sleep is even more important.
Sleep is a key factor in boosting recovery from training and maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) i.e. muscle growth. Without adequate sleep, your body does not have the opportunity to recover fully from training, leaving you unable to perform maximally in subsequent training sessions and in competition.
For the bodybuilders, physique focused and powerlifters trying to move down a weight class for those sweet, sweet wilks gains, sleep is just as important for physique results.
Chronically under-sleeping is linked to higher body fat levels (1) due to a combination of altering hormone levels and limiting diet adherence. Studies have found that when people are systematically under sleeping, they eat an average of 350 extra calories per day vs a control group getting adequate sleep (2). This equates to an extra 2450 calories a week. To put that in perspective, the recommended daily caloric intake for a sedentary man is 2500 calories. Eating an additional 2450 calories a week equates to almost a whole extra day of eating per week, making weight loss even more challenging.
A lack of sleep also alters the hormone balance of the body. Being in a sleep deficit reduces the level of two anabolic hormones within the body - specifically testosterone and IGF-1 - hormones critical in muscle protein synthesis (3). The same research shows that a lack of sleep leads to a rise in cortisol levels - a catabolic hormone which increases rates of muscle breakdown. These mechanisms - overeating, a reduction in anabolic hormones and increase in catabolic hormones - all combine to hinder recovery, reduce lean body mass and slow weight loss.
Another consideration for strength athletes is injury risk. Multiple studies (10, 11) have investigated the link between under sleeping and injury risk. The findings are predictable: the amount of sleep an athlete gets is the biggest predictor of injury risk (10) and getting less than 6 hours sleep increases injury risk from the very next day (11). This is due to the combination of a decrease in coordination when tired and the reduced ability of the body to recover from previous training.
How much sleep do you need?
The standard recommendation for adults is for 7-9 hours of sleep a night, with some people needing more and some needing less. In all likelihood, as life happens you’ll find yourself needing more or less sleep at different times. Generally however, if you’re waking up tired or need a lot of caffeine to get moving in the morning then you need to sleep more.
A key distinction needs to be made however, between hours asleep and hours in bed. If you get into bed at 10pm then spend 3 hours scrolling through social media before drifting off at 1am and waking up at 7am feeling tired - you're not ’sleeping nine hours and still tired’. If you feel as though you need more sleep, make sure you're actually sleeping for 7-9 hours a night.
Can you catch up on sleep?
A common response to being tired during the week is to have a ‘lie-in’ over the weekend to catch up on sleep. Is this a good idea and does it work?
If the average adult needs at least 49 hours sleep a week (7 hours a night), the number of hours under this number is known as their sleep deficit or sleep debt. For example, if you slept 6 hours a night from Sunday to Thursday night with a sleep debt of 5 hours. The intuitive response to this is to get an additional 3 hours of sleep on Friday and Saturday night to make up the sleep debt. But does this work?
Maybe. It is possible to catch up on sleep - with studies highlighting that sleeping in on the weekend is linked with improved insulin sensitivity, fat metabolism, body weight, stress, fatigue and performance (12-16). Sounds good right?
The downside of this approach is that sleep debt - much like credit cards or student loans- accrues interest at an unholy rate. Getting one extra hour of sleep at the weekend does not compensate for an hour of lost sleep - instead the ratio is closer to 1:4 (17). For every hour you under sleep during the week an additional 4 hours are required at the weekend. Going back to our example at the top, the person with 5 hours of sleep debt heading into the weekend needs 20 hours extra sleep to catch up.
There are more downsides. By sleeping in on the weekend, you disrupt the bodies circadian rhythms, making it harder to sleep during the week and increasing your sleep debt.
Napping may provide an alternative - short, 30 minute naps, improve performance in the short term and longer naps (up to 1 hour) allow for muscle repair (18). However, napping can make it more difficult to sleep in the evening - leaving you unable to get enough sleep at night.
What are we to do with this information? Well, if you haven’t had enough sleep during the week, sleeping in on the weekend will help you feel better and may alleviate and offset some of the problems associated with under sleeping. The best plan however, is to avoid being in a sleep deficit at all.
How can you maximize muscle growth during sleep?
Sleep enables recovery and growth, as it is the period of the day where the body heals and your muscles grow. Studies have shown consumption of a protein shake before bed leads to increases in overnight MPS and subsequent muscle hypertrophy (6). This effect is observed even when the participants are consuming a high protein diet (1.3g/kg of protein/bodyweight) (7) and is independent of an increase in total calories (8). This strong body of scientific literature led the International Society for Sports Nutrition to recommend the consumption of 30-40g of protein before bed, as doing so acutely increases muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate through the night (5). Further, consumption of a small meal before bed has been linked to improvement in sleep quality (9), which will enable further muscle growth by maximising the time your body has to repair and growth - win-win!
It is often claimed by supplement companies that you need special nighttime protein that breaks down slowly whilst you sleep. This is just an excuse to sell you casein protein. Whilst supplement companies advertise that casein - a more expensive product - is the only suitable overnight protein, multiple studies have found that whey protein is superior to both casein and soy protein for maximising muscle protein synthesis (3,4).
Now we have established why we need to sleep and how much we need to sleep, how do we set up a routine for us to get a good nights sleep every night?
1. Allow enough time to get enough sleep.
This might sound obvious, but if you want 7 - 9 hours sleep and have to wake up at 6am then you need to be asleep between 9 - 11 pm.
2. Establish a wind down routine
It’s important to take some time before you got to sleep to relax and get you ready for sleep. This can take anywhere from 20 - 45 minutes, depending on how stressful your day has been. Reading a book, doing yoga or stretching, meditating, journaling or planning out tomorrow are all good activities to do during your wind down routine.
During this time, the key point is to avoid activities that stimulate you or your brain, making it harder to drift off and sleep well. Try to avoid phone, tablet or laptop screens - blue light exposure reduces melatonin release which makes it harder to fall asleep. If you are going to use a phone, download an app that uses a blue light filter.
3. Stick to a schedule
Once you have established a bedtime routine and a wake-up time that enables you to get enough sleep, stick to it. Even over weekends. Allowing your body to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day allows for the establishment of a strong circadian rhythm. After a while, you’ll begin to feel tired when it’s time to start the bedtime routine and alert when you wake up. Use your body’s natural rhythms to your advantage and you’ll sleep better!
Daily exercise helps you sleep more deeply. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym every day - even going for a walk during the day can help improve your sleep quality.
5. Be careful with caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant - this is why we like it. It’s primary role is to increase awareness. Avoiding caffeine around bedtime will massively help improve sleep quality. Caffeine has a half life in the body of 6 hours - avoiding caffeine in the 6 hours before bed will allow you to drift off quicker and sleep deeper.
6. Improve your sleep environment
The sleep environment (i.e. a bedroom - hopefully), is a key component of getting a good nights sleep. It should be cool dark and quiet. Ideally, utilise black out blinds or sleep masks to reduce the amount unnatural light pollution from outdoors (street lights, car lights etc) . If your bedroom is noisy, utilise ear plugs or a sleep soundscape to block out external noises which can stop you drifting off to sleep.
1. Sleep is an important part of the recovery process; getting adequate sleep will help improve body composition, strength gains, mood, mental performance, recovery and reduces injury risk.
2. Adults need 7 - 9 hours of sleep a night. Setting a consistent bedtime and a wind down routine will allow your body to settle into a rhythm.
3. Catching up on sleep is not a viable long term strategy. Catch up sleep is lower quality and can prevent you establishing a healthy sleep routine. Napping (in the short term) and establishing a bedtime routine is essential to maximise the benefits of sleep and reap the rewards from training!
By Chris Rigby.
It is no secret that modern life is hectic. Even the chillest of us has something to worry about, work, family. Then there is the array of labels that BS society dictates we should be thicc, thin, married, successful (whatever that means). Ultimately all our lives come with anxiety, self-inflicted or otherwise.
The gym is where we go to escape these troubles, to vent our frustrations, and take out our aggression on a barbell. Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it also helps regulate dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, chemicals key in fighting depression.
Unfortunately, there are times when the anxiety we desperately try to escape by going to the gym comes creeping into the weight room. Until recently, this was something I have struggled with. But over the last couple of months, I have begun to address these issues and have developed a few tips that I felt are worth sharing.
Before we get into all of the detail, here is a little more about me, just for some context. Typically I hate talking about myself, but this is important, so indulge me. Powerlifting is something I have been doing for fun for the past eight years. I know countless people who consider exercising a chore, so I consider myself lucky to have found a sport that I love enough to do four times a week. I was born without a competitive bone in my body, so I rarely compete. Regardless of what Instagram may tell you, your numbers only matter to you. To anyone outside of your sport, they mean less than nothing. Tell your Gran you can bench 50kg or 250kg, and her reaction will probably be the same.
With this hands-off approach to powerlifting, you would think that I was a Buddhist monk. The truth is I am not. I am my own worst enemy. I find it very easy to get into my own head and second guess myself, a mentality that has cost me many a lift. I have had deadlifts stay glued to the floor when 10kg ago it flew like nothing, and have given up halfway through a set of squats because another three reps felt impossible. I was trapped behind a barrier, not based on genetic potential or fatigue, but a mental barrier of my own making.
Such ‘mistakes’ not only made me feel anxious, they followed me around the rest of the day. I would beat myself up for not finishing a lift I knew I was capable of doing. It became a vicious cycle. Whenever I saw a heavy weight on the bar, I knew I would fail, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself. My progression stalled, made all the more frustrating by it being a limitation I had built.
Coming back after lockdown, having spent the better part of 18 months lifting little over 40kg, I was eager to hit the gym, see my friends and get back to shifting some heavy weight. Knowing that I could not go back to being afraid of the weight on the bar, I spoke to my coach, and together we came up with some techniques to deal with my anxiety.
That is me in a nutshell. Now onto the good stuff, the tips and techniques that have helped me personally overcome my anxiety when faced with a particularly heavy lift.
Admitting you have a problem
Think of it as writing a character in a story. Naming a character transforms them from an abstract concept into a real, tangible person. Anxiety is no different, by acknowledging that you feel anxious it becomes something you can begin to control.
This is a really underestimated tool. Often, when a weight wouldn’t move, I was asked, “what went wrong?” My response was a shrug of the shoulders, an idle “I don’t know”. Maybe I was too afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Still, once I acknowledged what I was feeling was anxiety, it became a lot easier to manage.
Eliminate ‘Background Anxiety’
As great as the gym is for blowing off steam, it can also be a huge source of what I call ‘background anxiety’. Gyms can be crowded, noisy, toxic places where you feel the constant pressure to hurry up, so some chicken-legged gym bro can do cheat curls in the squat rack.
Gyms are meant to be a safe space, and if yours is the one that perpetuates obnoxious lad culture, then honestly, they are not worth your time. However, commercial gyms are cheap and convenient. Not everyone has the time or the money to pay for a monthly membership at a private gym.
If you are one of these people trying going to the gym when it is at its quietest. Either early morning or late at night. Or, if you can, hit that 9-10 am sweet spot when all the students are in bed, and the fitness freak businesspeople are on their commute. If your gym tends to blast loud club music or heavy metal, bring headphones. They are a lifter’s best friend and can help you centre yourself. If you’re really anti-social, they are a great excuse to ignore that one gym creeper that is always trying to talk to you.
The Power of Music
As has been talked about on this blog before, music is a great tool to get into your zone, a way to block out any distinctions, and remain focused on the task of moving big weight. There is no correct answer when it comes to music. The stereotypical powerlifter technique of blasting 90s metal never worked for me, and the last thing I want before attempting a heavy squat or bench is someone screaming in my face. Typically I choose something peaceful, but my music taste varies depending on the day and my mood. One session, it’s Tyler the Creator, the next it’s rain noise and The Whisper of the Heart soundtrack (yes, my taste in music is that weird). Regardless of what genre it may be, the point of music is to eliminate distraction and keep your mind from wandering into a negative space.
Have a Totem
I’m stealing this idea from Christopher Nolan’s Inception here, so bear with me. In Inception, characters jump between reality and dreams. Each character has a totem, an item of significance that helps them distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Applying to this when you start to feel anxious, have something that can pull you from that bad mental space. It can be anything. For me, it is my wireless earphones. Even without music, they drown out background noise and also give my ears a comforting hug.
Again the point is to find something that suits you. Your totem can be small, a fidget spinner, stone or crystal you can hold in your hand to distract you. Or it can be a gym buddy that can recognise when you feel anxious and help pull you out of it.
Accessories and variations are your friend.
If a specific lift triggers your anxiety, try and identify what about it causes you stress. Is it the weight of the bar on your back, the eternal void of time between pulling the slack from the bar and it coming off the floor? Once you have identified the issue, find some accessories that can help combat the problem. I’ve had great success with heavy walkouts for my squat. While a combo of block pulls and hook grip, have helped me deal with being slow off the floor and grip failure. Such exercises are a great confidence booster and can help you overcome any mental barriers.
When all else fails?
No matter how hard you try, there will be days when anxiety and stress inevitably occur. So what do you do when all the above tips don’t quite work? Take deep, calming breaths and acknowledge that what you are feeling will eventually pass. Allow the anxiety to subside, and then continue with your lift.
If all else has failed, do not be afraid to move on. If the weight is not moving, then it is not going to move. You should feel no shame in dropping the weight a little and carrying on, or if it is causing you that much stress, leaving it entirely and carrying on with the rest of your workout. There is always the next session. Training is meant to be fun, so don’t lose sleep if the stress of your workday causes you to miss a rep. It is not the end of the world.
Hopefully, my tips will help bring your anxiety under control. While stress can never be entirely eliminated, these techniques can mitigate their effects to a negligible degree, keep you in a safe mental state and give you the confidence you need to smash PB’s and make your fitness journey more enjoyable.
By James Kennedy.
The global supplement industry was valued at over $160 billion in 2019. The supplement industry largely works by preying on people's insecurities, promising a magic pill solution that will allow them to achieve the photoshopped physiques on the side of the packet. The vast majority of these supplements do not provide any results and can be actively harmful to health and fitness. Some of them, however, have their place.
In this article, we will review which supplements work, what they do, how to take them and when. This post will be most useful to the committed strength or physique athlete (Powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, Strongman competitors, Crossfit etc), however the casual gym goer will also benefit by learning when to keep their cash in their pockets.
Supplement research is a growing and changing field; as such the way I think about supplements is in a tiered system. Tier 1 supplements have multiple scientific studies proving their efficacy. Tier 2 supplements have some or weak evidence of a performance enhancing effect and no known health risks associated with taking them (for healthy people). Tier 3 supplements are supplements with no evidence of a performance bonus and/or a potential health risk.
Whilst this tiered approach to supplementation has helped me understand what is worth my money and what isn’t, they are not fixed. Ongoing research and new studies in these areas can cause supplements to move tiers; however if you’re currently spending a lot of money on tier 2 or 3 supplements it may be worth putting the powder down and spending the money elsewhere.
Finally, I will finish this first article by making the key point. Whatever your health, fitness and physique goals the most important factors determining your success, in order, are:
Tier 1 Supplements
How does it work
Creatine is stored in the muscles, where it combines with phosphates to form phosphocreatine. When muscles perform work they use ATP - adenosine triphosphate - as an energy source. During intense exercise bouts - a set of heavy squats or sprints for example - ATP demand within the muscle can increase over 500 times. The phosphocreatine in the muscle then allows for rapid replenishment of ATP during exercise, allowing the muscle to continue to work at the required intensity which increases the performance of the athlete. Creatine supplementation helps build up a store for replenishing ATP in the muscle, allowing you to push harder.
How to take it
When I first began reading about creatine and supplements in the early 2010’s, a lot of old-school bodybuilding types advocated for a loading phase, where for the first week you would take up to 20g a day. This is completely unnecessary. Take 3-5g daily, at any time. I use it in my pre-workout shake, however it can be taken intra or post-workout, or any other time of the day.
Creatine can be combined with protein to make a very effective pre or intra-workout meal. It can also be combined with caffeine, however if you take high doses of caffeine and load creatine (again, don’t do this), studies have shown the caffeine blunts the effectiveness of the creatine loading.
Potential side effects:
Creatine is safe to use, however it causes the muscles to retain more fluid. Whilst this makes your muscles look ‘fuller’, it can cause bloating in the first week to ten days even without a loading phase. If the powder is incompletely dissolved, it can also cause gastro-intestinal distress.
A quick side note for physique models or bodybuilders prior to a photo shoot or show, do not add in creatine to your diet during the final 2-3 weeks of prep due to this bloating. If you already use creatine, don’t stop in this phase either as it will add to the deflated look some people get when incredibly (sub 5% body fat) lean.
Supplement Scam to check:
Overpriced creatine variations.
Creatine Monohydrate is all that is needed, creatine citrate or creatine nitrate or creatine ethyl ester and so on are overpriced products with no known advantages over creatine monohydrate. Whilst they have never been shown to outperform creatine, they do outprice it, with creatine monohydrate typically being £5-10 cheaper per unit than the alternatives. Bottom line is, don’t look for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, creatine monohydrate is safe, effective and cheap, ignore the fancy alternatives.
Buy creatine monohydrate and take 3-5g daily, either pre, post or intra workout.
How does it work
Protein provides the building blocks for muscle (amino acids) and the stimulus for muscle growth through muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Protein should make up between 15-35% of a healthy diet depending on the amount and type of activity the individual does. For example, a marathon runner and weightlifter eating the same number of calories need vastly different amounts of protein and carbohydrates due to their different activities (long distance cardio requires higher carbohydrates than weightlifting, but causes much less muscle damage).
As proteins are a source of amino acids for MPS, the type of protein does matter to an extent. Plant based proteins are typically ‘lower quality’ - they contain less amino acids than animal proteins. Whilst this doesn’t mean the gym bros were right to say vegans or vegetarians can’t get jacked, it does mean those following a plant based diet should eat higher levels of protein and supplement with BCAA’s (to be discussed) to make sure they are maximising MPS. In terms of protein powders, vegan athletes should look for protein powders with around a 70:30 blend of pea:rice protein as this gives them a very complete amino acid profile for maximising MPS.
A common debate is between two types of milk derived protein: Whey vs Casein. For the amount of coverage this gets, you could be forgiven for thinking it matters. It doesn’t, unless you're trying to sell supplements.
Whey protein is a fast digesting protein, advertised as a pre or post workout protein, ideally suited to take advantage of the post-workout ‘anabolic’ window. Casein protein is slow digesting and is advertised as bedtime protein. It digests slowly throughout the night, allowing you to recover more effectively and improve your sleep quality. However, recent studies have shown protein timing doesn’t really matter, as long as you eat enough protein in total throughout the day. The supposed differences between Whey and Casein have not been shown in studies suggesting it doesn’t matter which you use. I have used both, Whey tends to make nicer protein shakes and smoothies than Casein powders. Casein is also slightly more expensive but it is down to personal preference which you use.
How to take it
The data suggests - from both experimental studies and a recent meta-analysis - that MPS stops increasing when protein consumption is around 1.8g/kg of bodyweight per day. For simplicity, rounding up to 2g/kg of bodyweight when setting up your macros is fine, although going over this is probably excessive. If you have a high body fat percentage, it may be worth calculating protein by using 2g/kg of lean body mass (LBM).
For those in a large calorie deficit, such as bodybuilders in the final stages of competition prep, there may be a value of increasing protein above these levels. Keeping protein intake high when losing weight is important; it helps you to retain as much muscle as possible and makes you feel satiated (fuller) for longer. This improves your mood, making it more likely that you will achieve your weight loss goals and mean you're more pleasant to be around during a weight loss phase. For the vast majority of people however, 1.8-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight will be enough protein whether they are aiming to build muscle or lose weight.
Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day to maximise MPS. The post-workout window is not more important than any other time of the day as long as the total amount of protein consumed within the day is high. Studies have shown that eating a mixed meal of protein and carbohydrates during training (a mixed protein and carbohydrate drink) does improve performance, however this is a minor boost vs consuming just protein or carbohydrates around the workout. If you can, a combined protein carbohydrate shake consumed either just before or during your workout is a good idea, however it’s not a deal breaker if you can’t.
If you are consuming a protein shake as part of your workout routine - whether pre,intra or post-workout - combining it with a carbohydrate powder and creatine is a great idea. A basic recipe is 1 scoop protein powder (~25-30g protein), 1 scoop carbohydrate powder (dextrose or maltodextrin) and 3-5g of creatine. As discussed below, it is always best to buy these ingredients separately and combine them yourself.
If you are using protein powders as part of a meal or snack, it makes a great addition to overnight oats, smoothies or just mixed into a bowl of greek yoghurt.
Supplement Scam to check
Sometimes protein powders are filled with cheap ingredients to claim a higher protein content - a practice known as protein spiking. Protein powders quality (i.e. protein content per gram of powder) is commonly tested by measuring the nitrogen content of protein as a proxy for protein content. Some companies take advantage of this by dumping cheap, nitrogen rich compounds into their proteins which do not help build muscle. This leads to a high nitrogen count and a high apparent protein content despite the product being low quality overall. Thankfully there is a relatively simple check: Leucine and Branched Chain Amino-Acid (BCAA) content.
In Whey Protein, 11% should be leucine and 25% should be BCAA. For 25g of whey protein ~6.25g should be BCAA’s and ~2.75g should be Leucine. If the leucine or BCAA content is much higher or lower than this, or are not listed on the list of ingredients, this product may have been spiked and should be avoided. Another red flag is if the protein is cheap - if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Protein powder is a useful tool to increase your overall dietary protein content, especially if you’re in a calorie deficit. Try and space your protein throughout the day, with some eaten around the workout and always check for protein powder spiking scams.
Tier 2 Supplements
Tier 2 supplements are supplements where there is some evidence showing their effectiveness in various situations however there may be a small body of literature, small effect size or a high proportion of non-responders within the studies. None of these supplements are critical to success; if you never take any of them it is highly unlikely you will look back in ten years and regret that decision.
Within the broader health research, habitual caffeine consumption of below 400-600mg of caffeine a day has a positive impact on a range of health outcomes, although consumption in the afternoon to evening can severely impact sleep. For athletes, and all those who wish to perform at their best, this is a large drawback. Caffeine use should be curtailed in the afternoon to early evening to minimise the impacts on sleep and recovery.
If you are a habitual caffeine user, supplementing with caffeine powders or pre-workouts is not worth it. There are benefits to using caffeine around the workout for both physical and mental reasons - it will benefit your work capacity and your mentality in the gym. If you do decide to use a caffeine powder as a supplement, avoid pre-workouts with a large number of other ingredients as the additional stimulants can accentuate the negative effects of caffeine on sleep and anxiety. The best form of caffeine for a pre-workout is a simple cup of coffee.
Similar to creatine, beta-alanine builds up in the body's cells over time so there is no time-dependent or loading phase required with beta-alanine supplementation. 2-5g, taken pre- exercise, is the recommended dosage. A common side effect to be aware of is paresthesia - tingling in the body - which is unsettling but harmless.
For most gym-goers it is an expensive luxury, however for crossfit athletes, strongmen and bodybuilders doing work in the aerobic-alactic zone it may provide some benefit.
Citrulline supplementation is beneficial, and there is a growing body of research into its use, short and long-term efficacy, however the long-term effects on health and performance are currently understudied.
Tier 3 Supplements
Tier 3 supplements are supplements which are either unproven, unsafe or ineffective. Primarily, the use of these supplements is unlikely to benefit your performance and may have severe short and long-term consequences on your health.
However, as discussed with protein powders, there is no time dependency to MPS if dietary protein levels are high. As amino acids occur naturally within protein, individuals eating a high protein diet, above 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, do not need to supplement with BCAA or EAA. If you are eating a high protein diet there is no need to spend money on BCAA or EAA supplements.
For the vegan and vegetarian athlete there may be a benefit to amino acid supplementation, as plant based proteins can be lower in amino acid quantity and do not have a complete amino acid profile. If you are using large amounts of vegan protein powder, for example if you are in a large calorie deficit, vegan athletes would benefit by supplementing with BCAA or EAA as it would be challenging to get all amino acids through diet alone. To do this, take 5-10g of BCAA or EAA with each meal dissolved in water (note - you should buy flavoured BCAA or EAA powder as unflavoured powders taste awful).
These products also have a list of short and long term side effects, ranging from the hilarious to the scary. On the hilarious end, some male athletes who use fat burning products report getting erections which last for hours. The slightly more serious side effects include damage to the cardiovascular system, significant sleep disruption, reduced insulin sensitivity (the ability of the body to regulate blood sugar levels), significant gastrointestinal distress by blocking nutrient absorption. They can also cause intense feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
Using fat burners should be avoided. If you are going to use them, proceed with extreme caution; the benefits are non-existent, whereas the side effects are real, unpleasant and serious.
The side effects and long term impact of taking SARM’s on health have not been well studied, but people have reported side effects such as significant reduction in testicle size and impotence due to the body stopping natural testosterone production. Further anecdotal reports of side effects include high blood pressure, tinted vision and skin rashes. Some of these side effects could be due to people being sold steroids instead of SARM’s, highlighting the final risk associated with buying SARMs. Quality control on SARM products is generally low, so often what you order is not what you receive.
If you want to use SARMs as they are a legal steroid alternative, that is your choice but treat it like a steroid cycle and take the necessary steps to ensure your health. Get blood work done before and after the SARM’s cycle and the subsequent PCT cycle to keep an eye on your general health and hormone levels. Make sure your diet, training and recovery is dialled in before you start taking SARMs. If you are an inexperienced gym-goer or an athlete who does not compete do not take SARMs and be aware of any products which may contain SARMs as they could cause you severe side effects.
What You Can Do Next -
We have a number of options here at Daniel Lee Fitness to do with nutrition and training.
I would highly recommend checking out the nutrition coaching or the online coaching options here.
This year I will have been coaching for 8 years. In that time, I've butted heads with many clients, some more than once, about how they do not need to always be lifting at their heaviest or at their hardest. You will continue to grow with sub-maximal work, you'll continue to grow with rest and recovery and you will definitely continue to grow by changing things up a little bit.
I find that right now, May 2021, people are falling into two camps when it comes to their training.
They are either -
- Really surprised by how well their strength has maintained on their return to lockdown, or
- Trying really hard to make up for lost time with the gym.
The majority of people are experiencing the first one. Their body has thanked them for the forced rest and it has held on to the majority of their strength and muscle mass. If anything, they might feel a little fatigued when doing higher rep sets, but their strength is still comparable to when they left.
It's hard to gain strength, but luckily, it is also hard to lose it.
For me, I was competing quite actively between the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2016. In March of 2016, I got a pretty annoying injury, I kept trying to throw myself straight back into powerlifting but it never really worked again. I competed again in June and got somewhat close to my best, but not quite. I then got injured again, recovered, tried to come back, got injured again.
This cycle continued for a bit.
In 2018, I decided to take a step back and do more bodybuilding style of work. After a year, and a 22kg drop in weight, I then decided to pursue powerlifting again.
Between August of 2019 and January of 2020 I shifted my focus back towards powerlifting, but with a lot of bodybuilding elements. In this time my strength returned far quicker than I could have hoped for.
Despite competing 7kg lighter than my previous competition weight, I came very close to matching my old strength. A lot closer than when I focused purely on powerlifting with intense workouts and very little time to recover.
In no way am I saying that powerlifting = bad. What I am saying is that sometimes banging your head against a wall to eke out small improvements only leads to frustrations, sometimes it can be good to step back to rest, or step back to focus on the foundations.
What You Can Take From This.
If you're at a point where you're constantly trying to go a bit heavier or a bit harder with training but feel like you're not quite getting anywhere, maybe you need to step back and try something different for a bit.
You only have to look on social media to see a number of top powerlifters who step away from powerlifting to go into things like bodybuilding, or simply just don't compete for a while. This removal of physical and mental pressure can be crucial to bring you back to a sport you love, refreshed.