Our week has 168 hours. Of those 168, we spend on average 3h in the gym - which is less than 2% of the total time we have available to us. By looking at it from this angle, it quickly becomes clear that our strength progress is dependent on not just the 2% we spend lifting, but it heavily relies on what we do with the 98% outside of it.
There is a saying that strength progress happens during recovery, not during training. This is partly true: we DO increase our performance while we are in the gym - but to turn those improvements into actual physiological and biological changes, recovery is the time when this process is optimized. For example, muscle growth takes place between our workouts after muscle tissue has been "damaged" through repeated contrations under load. Our nervous system makes new connections once it has been fed the right nutrients, and our bones get stronger after they have remodelled from a high-impact workout produced by lifting weights.
We can picture our time outside the gym as bridging the gap between two consecutive sessions where we make progress from one to the other. No bridge - no crossing over from point A to B.
There are three key elements briding this gap which I would like to talk about a bit more in detail. Three elements which require increasing levels of attention as we get stronger AND older.
Both in the right quantity and quality, sleep is so paramount to our progress that I often consider it the missing link between good and great results in the gym, or between no progress and any progress at all. Muscular changes as well as changes to our nervous system and skeleton necessitate a state of ANABOLISM - meaning "tissue building". The most important hormones warranting this process are testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1. Getting sufficient sleep - especially before midnight - allows our body to optimise the release of those hormones and create a highly potent anabolic state to repair tissue and get stronger. This is the most important element for recovery and subsequent improvements in performance. You will see people doing shift work as well as those working late into nights having overall worse performance and physical outcomes compared to those who sleep better, longer, and more hours before midnight.
Sleep management is also crucial for improving body composition. Lack in quantity and quality thereof raises insulin and cortisol - two hormones which are responsible for impaired muscle building as well as increases in body fat storage. Less muscle mass means less strength and usually also greater levels of body fat.
Among the body, it is also our brain that requires high-quality rest. Lack of sleep leads to poor cognitive performance, tiredness, brain fogginess, and fluctuations in mood. Have you ever noticed being grumpy the day after a night out with no or little sleep? To make matters worse, being low in energy and "moody" leads to poor food choices in which we opt for sugary drinks and meals as our brain figured out thousands of years ago that anything containing glucose raises insulin and serotonin which makes us feel happier and more relaxed.
"Sleep is the best, cheapest, and most convenient recovery tool we have available."
The easiest way to look at nutrition is that "We become what we eat". If we eat a diet full of artificial food, GMO-burgers, and ultra-processed trash, our body becomes a unit of unhealthy, biologically inactive material. If we eat a diet packed with nutrients, REAL and minimally processed foods, or body becomes a healthy organism which is able to perform better and live better on all levels.
Below are my three top tips to make our diet as simple and effective as possible. In other words: packing decades of research, experimentation, and wisdom into a simple concept.
A. EAT PROTEIN, FRUITS AND VEGETABLES AT EVERY MEAL
This is the simplest and in my opinion by far the most bang-for-your-buck tool for anyone interesting in getting stronger, healthier, and leaner. Protein is crucial for repairing and building muscle tissue, improving brain performance, increasing satiety, and better sleep. Fruits are packed with phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals which light the fire of our metabolism to burn like hell. Vegetables are packed with just the same nutrients as fruits, and they also add a bunch of fibre and water to our diet - meaning that unlimited amounts are allowed as it is virtually impossible to overeat on them. With both fruits and vegetables, we also get a nice amount of carbohydrates on our plate to fuel our workouts and accelerate our recovery from heavy lifts. This simplified view of nutrition not just includes the most important nutrients for better strength and performance, but also cuts out all processed foods at the same time.
B. LISTEN TO YOUR HUNGER SIGNALS
If your goal is to lose body fat, eat until you're JUST full. If your goal is to put on muscle, eat until you're a bit "FULLER". Believe it or not: our body has a built-in mechanism called HUNGER with which it regulates how much food we ought to eat. When we eat and our hunger is "satisfied", we can (or should) stop eating. This is our natural equivalent of counting calories. When we stop eating once our inner signal tells us "enough", we will reliably ALWAYS be in a caloric deficit. When eat a little more than that, chances are we'll either be in a caloric surplus or be operating at maintenance calories.
C. EAT ACCORDING TO YOUR FOOD PREFERENCES
This is by no means a free pass for indulging on carrot cake and chocolate chip cookies. Moreover, it is about making you aware that no matter what your preferred style of eating (omnivore, vegetarian, paleo, vegan,...) - as long as CALORIES and PROTEIN are accounted for, it doesn't matter which style you choose as long as it fits your preferences. The bias and judgement towards others who have their own style of eating we don't agree with is not just completely irrational, but also totally unnecessary. I have seen peole doing very well on a plant-based diet in improving their lifts, losing significant amounts of weight, and keeping the weight off long-term. I have trained people who don't resonate with this kind of approach, and who have achieved just as good results as people on diet xyz. We ought to remember that eating should never ever cause confusion or stress.
Our diet should be as simple, effortless, and delicious as possible for us to stick with it and make long-term improvements on our lifts.
To explore our broad variety of delicious meals, please visit www.eatforlifeuk.com.
We could put this topic in the category "stress management", but I prefer the term "energy management" as it allows us to make a choice between two options. Whenever we face a challenge or situation where we are not sure how to handle it, or whether we should proceed with it, asking the following question can give us a useful clue:
"Does this give me energy, or does it take energy out of me?"
This is a simple, yet powerful question we can ask ourselves in order to improve our energy management.
Do things - on balance - usually take energy out of us? Are we easily irritated, annoyed, and frequently low in mood? Time to re-evaluate our situation and the possible causes that make us feel this way. And time to start acting upon them.
The issue with being in a constant "energy-robbing mode" is that we're starting to bathe in the stress-hormone cortisol. Cortisol - when released chronically and long-term - leads to poor brain performance, impaired muscle building, reduced recovery, and increased fat storage. It is a trigger for chronic inflammation in the body - a state in which our body is finding it very hard to get stronger and improve. People who constantly have their energy taken out of and away from them also make poorer food choices and tend to have impaired sleep patterns - further impairing their ability to recover effectively between workouts.
Putting all of the factors together, we see that we have plenty of time and opportunity to make better choices in the 165 hours we spend outside the gym.
Neglect them, and our performance suffers.
Value them, and our package of getting stronger gets completed.