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Starting Strength in the Real World


A Simple Guide to Eating for New Trainees

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | November 19, 2019

As a new Starting Strength trainee, one of the biggest opportunities for error outside of the gym is failing to eat in a way that optimally supports the growth of lean muscular bodymass. The most important aspect of diet for a new trainee is protein intake. Yes, overall caloric intake is critical, but learning how to eat enough protein requires the biggest change in habits for most people. Once a protein goal is met, adding calories with carbs, or removing fat calories, becomes a fairly simple day-to-day adjustment. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you diet. I'm not asking you to punish yourself inside or outside of the gym. As much as the rest of the fitness industry wishes it to be true, the amount of mental anguish and novelty associated with your fitness routine and/or nutrition program has no bearing on its efficacy. Restrictive diets are for physique competitors, athletes, those that need medical intervention (the morbidly obese, type II diabetics), and your friend that just went vegan because of a documentary she saw on Netflix. Being a strength trainee is about improving the quality of your physical existence. If you demonize entire food groups or adhere to pop culture’s latest pseudo-scientific food ideology, you’re on the path to neuroticism, not an improved quality of life. 

If you legitimately need to diet due to a health issue, hire a Registered Dietitian that’s also a Starting Strength Coach. Otherwise, take this time to enjoy yourself. It is possible to love every meal you eat while achieving your training goals, along with being more capable, looking better, and improving your overall health – it’s one of the best things about doing the program. 

As a reminder: Our goal is to get stronger. Stronger means more muscle mass. Building lean muscular bodymass requires eating lots of protein, with enough calories to be in an anabolic (growth) state. How much protein do you need? I don’t know. But for the majority of trainees who are not obese, a great place to start is to eat 1g of protein per pound of target bodyweight, or current bodyweight, whichever is greater. So if you’re 6’2” and 168 lbs (like I was pre-Starting Strength), eat at least 250 g of protein per day. If you’re 5’8” and 210 lbs (untrained), eat at least 210 g of protein per day. In a unique situation? Hire a professional and don’t follow general guidelines. 

skinny untrained ray gillenwater

How can you possibly eat that much protein? By treating animal protein like the priority it is and centering your meals around it. For example, if you're not a fat guy, here’s what your day might consist of: 

  • Breakfast: Four eggs, three slices of cheese, three strips of bacon, glass of milk: 69 g protein
  • Lunch: Carnitas bowl with rice and beans: 67 g protein
  • Snack: One scoop of Starting Strength whey protein with water or OJ: 24 g protein
  • Dinner: 12oz ribeye steak (the rest of the meal is irrelevant when steak is involved): 91 g protein 

Result: 250 g of protein, no hunger pangs (since protein is the most satiating of the macros), full recovery from training stress, and (hopefully) no guilt. 

gillenwater after training and some weight gain

Yes, you’ll get protein from other food sources, like the non-steak food items you eat with dinner. That’s okay. Eating “too much” protein is less of a problem than not eating enough. If you overshoot and need to adjust down (I have had zero trainees report this as an issue), that’s an easy problem to solve. 

Don’t do anything else, at least not yet. Just hit your protein goal and make sure your coach agrees that you’re adequately recovered from your last training session next time you come into the gym. As an underweight guy, you’ll need to eat lots of carbs (white rice is easy) and plenty of fats (dressings, oils, dairy) to ensure that your total caloric needs are being met. Don’t overcomplicate this – you certainly don’t want to develop a guilt-based relationship with food. Resist the temptation to create problems where there are none. There is no need to pay attention to the latest nutrition craze on Instagram, or to your co-workers that are doing a team juice cleanse. Try this instead: Lift big, eat big, sleep great, and whenever possible, enjoy the hell out of life.


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