Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

When Do I Encourage Eating More?

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | January 28, 2020

carl raghavan starting strength coach

I realize this topic has been beaten to death. Countless trainers, nutritionists, and coaches have weighed in on the subject, many of them on this website. But a lot of my clients are still confused about nutrition, and inevitably they turn to me for advice. The most common question, by far, is: Should I be eating more? There is no blanket response, of course. My usual reply is: It depends. But there are a lot of assumptions floating around about Starting Strength’s position on nutrition and training, so I think it’s worth going into more detail about how I approach the issue and what I usually advise. It might not be what you think. A disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist; I am a strength coach. That is my area of expertise. So take my advice with a pinch of salt – unless you’re worried about your blood pressure, I guess. 

Before we go any further, I’d like to dispel a myth. If you spend any time on YouTube, you’ll soon start to feel like pretty much everyone in the civilized world pictures Starting Strength coaches as a horde of milk-chugging apostles du lait, sitting on the right hand of the dairy throne of Lord Rippetoe. They think we want all our clients on a gallon of milk a day (the infamous “GOMAD”) or consuming ten thousand calories. Sorry, but that’s not true. Rip didn’t invent GOMAD. It has been used in weightlifting circles for donkeys’ years. I’m not sure why so many people associate GOMAD with Starting Strength. I’ve even heard some people claim that Starting Strength is sponsored by Big Milk (they are not) (I wish they were). 

Of course, we’re not anti-milk either. It’s cheap, and hence useful for young men and hard gainers. Eighteen-year-olds are frequently broke, so if they’re looking for a nutrient-dense food source that won’t break the bank then there are worse candidates than dairy. I know when I was eighteen, most of my cash went to Jack Daniels. Hard gainers, meanwhile, are typically people who eat a lot – or at least say they do – and still struggle to gain any bodyweight. These people may also benefit from drinking milk. 

One final dairy-related pet peeve: Some people object that drinking cow’s milk is unnatural. It’s true that milk is produced by mammals for their infants, but we are not the only organism that drinks other animals milk. See: cats, dogs, other animals with access to milk. Of course, like Joe Rogan says, “We also are the only organisms to fly metal objects and call each other on the phone to say how awesome milk tastes.”

The majority of my clients are at the very beginning of the Starting Strength Linear Progression (SSLP). This means that the weights they lift are very light – most of my clients don’t actually require a lot of food. In the initial phases, as they add weight to the barbell, their progress will be predominantly technical gains, not actual true strength gains. Why is this so important? Well, if you’re a man squatting 40 kilos for 3x5 and deadlifting 60 kg 1x5 (I see this a lot), then you don’t need a ton of extra calories. 

In this scenario, I don’t even have to mention nutrition for quite a while. I don’t want my lifter stressing about what his next meal should be, I just want him focusing on his technique, doing the program as written and not missing a single session. For now, that’s all this lifter has to do. The level of stress is relatively low, so recovery is relatively easy: the lifter just needs to sleep and maintain his eating habits. When this same person starts approaching 200 lbs, however – roughly 90 kilos – that’s usually when I witness the first small tremors in bar speed or quivers in technique, and these can usually be solved with a few extra protein-based snacks (preferably something that once had eyeballs). Once I see this happening, I will usually advise the lifter to grab a few more mini-meals, giving them a small bump in food intake. My advice for women is similar, although typically I’d suggest they ramp up less aggressively and gain less weight. This allows more time for the body to adjust. 

When the lifter then starts to approach the 300-lb barrier – roughly 140kg – we reach the first real milestone. This is where we need to start climbing the calorie-surplus mountain. I will generally have a little conversation with my client during a session, asking three key questions: 1) how much protein are they eating per day; 2) how frequently are they eating per day; and 3) how many calories are they eating per day. In some cases, this is unnecessary. The client’s newfound squat strength has already spiked their appetite, and the lifter will tell me before this conversation ever happens that they are getting hungry and voluntarily eating more food. 

I found this was the case for me. As my squat went up, my appetite increased; I was eating more like a horse. I still wouldn’t say I’m a big eater – people are always surprised at how low my appetite is – but I do like good beer, which helps squeeze in a few cheeky calories (and it’s fun). The effect can work the other way around, too. Sometimes stuffing your face provides the fuel that sets your training ablaze, re-jolting progress on the squat and, in my case, usually my pressing strength too. 

Many people are resistant to gaining weight, especially when they haven’t previously experienced being much heavier. They’re focusing on the easy, low-cost everyday aspects of fitness that seem to be lost at this higher bodyweight, even though those are the things that come back the quickest when you cut back down. My clothes don’t fit, they think, I huff up the stairs, I can’t hike the way I used to, I feel sluggish all the time. I know. I’ve been there too. But if you want to be strong, you’ve got to suck it up. It’s for the greater good, chaps. 

Gaining weight and getting stronger are way harder than losing weight when the time comes. You’re focusing on the negatives instead of all the positives – and these are very mild negatives compared to the positive impact that strength has on the human body. Nobody complains that their squat has gone up 50 lbs, or that they’re seeing muscle development in their glutes, back, chest and shoulders – or maybe even in the all-important biceps. Nobody complains when weights they used to find tough become their second warm-up. Sadly, it’s human nature to focus on the crack in the wall rather than the beautiful painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. Let me tell you a story about my own weight-gain journey and how it affected the way I view training, even today. I first met Rip in 2012. I’m 5 foot 5, and at the time I weighed 70 kg (that’s 154 lbs) – with abs. Attending the seminar for the first time, chatting to Rip about programming, I said, “I’m an intermediate.” In true Rip fashion, he replied, “No, you’re a novice.”

Now, I wasn’t offended to hear that as much as I was confused. I thought I was following the program correctly. But Rip was right: I didn’t realize that eating hard was part of the program, that it helps lifters keep progressing. Not eating enough is – eventually – how many people fail. I had made myself an artificial intermediate when I was really a novice who wasn’t trying hard enough. Since this epiphany, I’ve come to realize what Rip meant. I have been as heavy as 253 lbs (115 kg) in 2016 before dropping 55 lbs in six months, because I had got to the point – and everyone knows this point during bulking – that I was tired of eating and was actually getting pretty fat. 

No big deal. I got the weight down pretty fast, but I wasn’t happy with the resulting drop in strength, even though I looked a ton better physically. In particular, I lost a big bulk of my strength on the squat. It was basically a 1:1 ratio: for every kilo I dropped, I lost a kilo off my squat. So I have slowly climbed back up, and these days sit around 242 lbs. Weight gain and loss is like a rollercoaster, cycling up and down for the duration of your life. This is normal. You will be constantly trying to find your balance and always trying to improve in some way, shape, or form. Now, seven years since Rip told me I was a novice, I’m much wiser and more open-minded about the process. I realize that it’s not as clear cut as I’d once thought, and that a lot of the bullshit we put into our heads about “lean gains” and “not getting fat” is just that – bullshit.

In fact, it’s probably not as easy as you think to put on weight. To put on a lot of weight, anyway. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. This is the pattern I see with my clients. The first ten kilos of bodyweight go on quickly, but the next forty are a slog – if they ever get there. Why? Well, because a lot of people who attempt Starting Strength are massively underweight. Your body wants to bounce back and recover from training, so the first five to ten kilos leap onto your frame, but that’s when your body levels out. Your DNA is smarter than the NSCA, as Rip likes to comment. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this initial leap, but never do I hear anybody go, “Man, I woke up after my sixth week of the SSLP and now I’m 50 kilos heavier! This is insane, Carl, I can’t bulk anymore! This is getting out of hand!” 

Just as in training, your bodyweight will eventually find a plateau. If you decide to put on more weight, you will have to deliberately amp up your fork reps. Of course, if you have other priorities – aesthetic goals, other sports that make different demands on the body, and so on – then you don’t have to keep pushing. There are many factors involved when it comes to deciding how much you should weigh. Most of my clients are underweight early-stage lifters, so my advice is tailored to them. But if I’ve discussed these issues with my client and he or she definitely wants to get stronger, then this is the point where I encourage them to eat. 

My point is that being overly worried about putting on weight places artificial barriers on progress, the way I was putting artificial barriers on mine back in 2012. If you’re not open to exploring these variables, you can fall behind in performance. Strong muscles are a very expensive material. They need food and sleep, the way a good financial investment needs time and money. The weight room just breaks down the muscles – it’s during the next 24 to 48 hours of recovery that you actually get stronger. You repair the damage you have inflicted on your muscles, and this takes fuel.

If you’re just starting out, then no, I’m probably not going to tell you to eat more. You definitely don’t need to consume 6,000 calories a day and or chug gallons of milk. That’s stupid. Don’t blame Starting Strength if you get fat, because I’ve never heard any coach advise that sort of diet. Don’t drink a gallon of milk a day. Don’t do GOMAD. Don’t drink cow juice. In fact, don’t drink milk, period. Don’t touch the stuff. You haven’t earned the caloric surplus – you just need to show up and train. But if you’re struggling, or maybe even stalling in some of the lifts, and all of Rip’s First Three Questions are being met, then maybe a fork is the best thing you could be lifting.

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