In this installment of the PowerliftingToWin Nutrition Series, we’re going to tackle an incredibly popular topic in the health and fitness world: meal frequency and nutrient timing. While these are technically two separate topics, they’re really inseparable when you get down to practical discussion and application. While I’ve gone on record saying that your overall caloric intake and your macronutrient levels are far more important than any other nutritional factor, there are still some smaller, potential benefits to other aspects of nutrition. In this article, we’ll be looking at the advantages that you may be able to glean from optimizing meal frequency and nutrient timing.
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Meal Timing for Powerlifting
Much has been made of meal frequency in the fitness community. Intermittent fasting has become a popular eating schedule. For the unfamiliar, intermittent fasting typically involves abstaining from food for 16 hours and then eating all of your calories within an 8 hour window.
The “bro style” of bodybuilding eating which called for eating every 2-3 hours on the clock fell under attack around the same time. However, many traditional bodybuilders steadfastly swear by this nutritional protocol.
In reality, it most likely doesn’t matter much. While there appear to be distinct benefits to intermittent fasting, particularly with regards to fat loss, I personally recommend a protocol much closer to the bro style of eating.
Maximizing Muscle Protein Synthesis
Why? Well, we’ve already discussed why, actually. One of the prevailing theories amongst credentialed nutrition authorities in the fitness community appears to be that muscle protein synthesis can likely be maximized by consuming ~3-5g of Leucine every 4-6 hours. In other words, to maximize how much muscle you build, you should likely be eating a meal with ~30-50g of protein 4-6 times per day.
If you use intermittent fasting, you simply cannot do this. Again, if intermittent fasting works better for your lifestyle, great. Continue using it. Compliance is perhaps more important than what is theoretically optimal. However, for the purposes of this article, I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend the strategy that is theoretically more optimal: eat more frequently to maximize MPS.
Nutrient Timing for Powerlifting
As I said in the opening of this article, nutrient timing and meal frequency are closely related. For example, technically speaking, timing your protein doses is both an aspect of meal frequency and nutrient timing. Consuming a pre and post workout meal is both an aspect of meal frequency and nutrient timing. With that said, I’d like to offer further insight into the aspects of nutrient timing that may be relevant to powerlifting performance.
Carbohydrate Timing for Powerlifting
Of all the macronutrients, carbohydrates probably offer the most opportunity for manipulation in terms of nutrient timing. In fact, there are sensible ways to manipulate carbohydrate intake both within a given training week and each given day.
Timing your Carbs throughout the Day
Most of the recommendations for carbohydrate manipulation involve timing your intake around workouts. This recommendation is centered upon the fact that peri-workout carbohydrate consumption can often boost performance. Eating carbohydrates pre-workout tops off your glycogen stores and can delay time to fatigue for a weightlifter. Similarly, consuming carbohydrates post workout can help replenish glycogen stores quickly. While it is not necessarily of great importance to replenish glycogen quickly if you train only once per day, this may be a consideration nonetheless.
The second reason carbohydrate timing is often suggested around workouts has to do with the fact that you’re more likely to partition nutrients favorably during this window. If you have an immediate need for glycogen, such as fueling the creation of new ATP or replenishing diminished muscle stores, the glycogen you consume is much less likely to be stored as fat. Additionally, glycogen synthesis is most effective post-workout. In other words, there may be a body composition benefit to consuming a large portion of your carbs in the peri-workout window.
Exactly how much of your carbohydrate intake should come in the peri-workout window? Personally, I recommend consuming ~50-60% of your carbs in this period. I typically aim for ~20-30% in the pre-workout meal and ~25%-35% in the post workout meal.
Keep in mind that for athletes training once per day who are consuming carbs regularly, there may not be any tangible performance benefit to such carbohydrate timing. In practice, I’ve seen better results with this protocol, but I want to be clear what the basis of my recommendation is.
Timing your Carbs throughout the Week
The basis for weekly carbohydrate timing, also known as “carb cycling”, is very similar to that of daily carbohydrate timing. Those who advocate carb timing believe that you will receive favorable nutrient partitioning if carbohydrate consumption is limited to times when it is needed most. Others simply believe that carbohydrates serve no other purpose than to refill glycogen. As such, they tend to recommend higher carbohydrate intakes on workout days versus off days.
While I am skeptical that this practice provides any meaningful return in terms of body composition, I do recommend an element of weekly carbohydrate cycling for those in a caloric deficit. I make this recommendation primarily for psychological reasons. Having one or two days per week where your carbohydrate and overall caloric intake are higher can massively boost compliance to a tough dietary protocol. This practice is called “refeeding” or having a “refeed day”. Refeeds help because you know that you’re never more than a few days away from a more “normal” day of eating. Compliance is more than half the battle in terms of achieving your nutritional goals.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there is also a physiological basis for my recommendations. Outside of the possible nutrient partitioning benefits, which I remain skeptical of, having periodic refeeds, where overall caloric intake and carbohydrate intake are temporarily spiked, can help transiently increase hormonal markers such as leptin and thyroid. While support in the literature probably isn’t there, countless bodybuilders and iron athletes can attest to the fact that having periodic refeeds keeps them from stalling out on their diets for much, much longer than when they’ve tried dieting without refeeds. I’ve personally found them invaluable while dieting down.
Setting Up “High Carb” Days
Let’s talk about the practice of actually setting up a high carb day. Remember, we want a day that is both higher calories than normal and more carbs than normal. In order to achieve this in practice, we’re going to lower protein, low fat, and increase carbs beyond where they normally are.
Let’s say you are a male who weighs 200lbs and are currently aiming for a caloric deficit.
Let’s set-up the baseline diet:
- You’d look back to the article on calorie needs and see that 12x body weight in lbs is a decent starting point for a cut: 200*12 = 2400 calories.
- You’d then set your protein needs. For overall protein needs, we can see that we need approximately ~1.1-1.4g/lb: 200*1.1 = 220g of protein. Because we don’t want to go insane, or be unrealistic, we’re going to convert this to a range of 215-225g or 220g +/- 5g. Keep in mind that there are 4 calories per gram of protein. In other words, 880 of our calories are coming from protein.
- Next, we’re going to calculate fat. Because this is a deficit, and we want to keep carbs high, we might use the lower end of the fat recommendations and go with 22.5%. 2400*.225 = 540 calories. There are 9 calories in each gram of fat: 540/9 = ~60g of fat. As above, we’re going to convert fat into a range of 55-65g or 60g +/- 5g.
- Finally, you’re going to calculate your carbohydrate needs by allocating everything that is left. In order to do this, we have to subtract our calories from protein and fat from our total overall caloric intake: 2400-540-880= 980 calories. There are 4 calories per gram of carb: 980/4 = 245 carbs. Our final carb range is thus 240-250g or 245g +/- 5g.
- Okay, at this point, we’ve got our baseline diet: 2400kcal, 220g protein, 60g fat, and 245g of carbs all plus or minus 5g.
Now let’s set-up the high carb day:
- For our high carb days, we’re going to increase carbs by ~50% from normal: 245*1.5=~368g of carbs +/- 5g.
- We’re going to lower our protein down to the needs of someone closer to maintenance because our calories will be higher on this day anyways: 200lbs*1.0g/lbs= 200g of protein +/- 5g.
- We’re also going to lower the fat that we use for this day down ~2.5%: (2400*.2)/9=~53g of fat +/- 5g.
- Here’s our freshly calculated high carb day: 200g protein, 368g carbs, 53g fat, ~2780 calories all +/- 5g. You’re going to have to keep in mind that, because these days are higher calorie, they also impact your weekly caloric total. You’ll have to adjust for this in calculating your average weekly calories.
- As far as placement and frequency, again, I recommend two of these per week placed on your most difficult training days. Let’s say you train Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat. I’d recommend placing the two high carb days on Monday and Friday. If you train on Mon/Tue/Thu/Fri, I’d recommend placing the two high carb days on Mon/Thu. This way, you get the direct performance benefit on Monday and Thursday, but your glycogen stores are also still transiently higher for the workout the following days on Tuesday and Friday. In fact, this is EXACTLY how I set people’s programs up when they’re running PIP2 or higher from ProgrammingToWin.
Summary of High Carb Days
In sum, here’s the recommendations I’m making for the EatingToWin System:
- Two high carb days per week
- Carbs should be ~50% higher than on normal days
- Decrease protein down to ~1g/lbs or ~2.2g/kg
- Decrease fat ~2.5% from normal days
- Time the high carb days with your hardest workouts of the week
Keep in mind that there are many other reasonable ways to include high carb days. You can only do one per week if you want. This will keep your normal days both higher carb and higher calorie. However, if you choose to do it the way I’ve presented here, just keep in mind that you’ll be able to use this exact strategy with the PTW programs. In fact, this strategy was explicitly developed for use in conjunction with PTW programs.
Timing your Fat Intake for Powerlifting>
Fat timing isn’t nearly as exciting as carbohydrate timing. In fact, I honestly don’t even have much to say here. The one nutrient partitioning recommendation that I can make, in terms of fat, is to limit fat in the peri-workout window.
The reason I’m recommending limiting fat in the peri-workout window has to do with the fact that fat tends to greatly slow down digestion and absorption rates. If you’re following the EatingToWin system, you’re likely consuming a massive amount of carbohydrates both pre and post workout. What we don’t want is for the absorption of those carbs and proteins to be slowed down. That somewhat defeats the purpose of centering them around the workout in the first place.
Additionally, there may be a potential nutrient partitioning benefit to limiting fat in the peri-workout window. Working out itself improves both insulin sensitivity and increases muscle protein synthesis. If you’re consuming a large amount of fat, at a time when insulin is being peaked by your huge carbohydrate meals, you may end up having that dietary fat very efficiently shuttled off to fat storage. After all, that is essentially insulin’s job: it is an anabolic transport hormone. In any case, this may or may not matter, but it bears mentioning as a potential nutrient partitioning benefit.
As a practical recommendation, limit fat intake in the peri-workout window to less than 10g per meal.
Timing your Protein Intake for Powerlifting
At this point, we’ve already gone over protein timing. Remember, to maximize MPS, you have two main concerns: 1) ensure you’re getting protein in your pre and post workout meal and 2) eat ~30-50g of protein every ~4-6 hours.
Overall Summary of Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing for Powerlifting
Protein Intake Frequency and Timing
- Eat 30-50g of Protein every ~4-6 hours
- Eat 30-50g of Protein pre and post workout
Fat Intake Frequency and Timing
- Limit Fat Intake to 10g or less in your pre and post workout meals
Carbohydrate Intake Frequency and Timing
- Consume ~20-30% of your total Daily Carbohydrates pre-workout
- Consume ~25-35% of your total Daily Carbohydrates post-workout
- Consider adding 1-2 “high carb days” per week when dieting
The Relative Importance of Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing
A tendency that most of seem to have is to give undue importance to details when it comes to nutrition. Make no mistake about it… If you violated every single recommendation that I just made above, but you still hit your caloric intake goals and got your macros right, you’d make excellent progress. If you mastered every recommendation that I just mentioned above, but you didn’t get your caloric intake or macronutrient distribution correct, you might make “reverse progress” towards your goals.
My main point here is that you should never put a nutrient timing or meal frequency concern ahead of your macros and your overall caloric intake. Those are still the predominant factors here. I’d rather you skip a meal and hit your macros than hit your meals and skip your macros. Don’t miss the big picture.
No one is going to be perfect every day. 90%+ of your results still come down to just eating the right amount of food and the right amount of protein, carbs, and fats.
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Table of Contents
Powerlifting Nutrition: How To Pick Your Weight Class
Powerlifting Diet: Cutting and Bulking
The Best Way To Measure Body Fat For Powerlifting
When To Move Up A Weight Class
How To Cut Weight For Powerlifting: 24 Hour and 2 Hour Weigh Ins
How To Diet For Powerlifting: Calories, Reverse Dieting, and More
Setting Up Your Powerlifting Macros
Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing in Powerlifting
Eating Healthy for Powerlifting
Best Powerlifting Supplements