This needs to be written, because I get asked this question a lot and it ends up absolutely blowing my mind. I’ve made my position on nutrition clear for some time now: food is an agent of recovery, and, in turn, eating supports training, not the other way around. This means that, when one “bulks”, they train hard enough to cause the body to need to add muscles as a response to the demand of training, and then they eat to be able to recover from that training and add muscle. Employing this guideline, I’ve never needed to count a calorie or macro in my life to be able to add muscle to my body. But, having shared this, I inevitably get asked the question “well how do I KNOW if I ate enough that I recovered?” How do you know!? Dude: have you ever NOT been recovered before?
Being asked this question demonstrates one of two possibilities by the question asker: they’ve either always overeaten and, thus, never been in a state of undercovery OR they’ve always undertrained and, in turn, STILL never been in a state of underrecovery. And a quick look at the trainee can reveal their sins: if they’re fat, they’re most likely an overeater, and if they’re skinny, they’re an undertrainer. Whichever sin they indulge in, the solution is the same: it’s time to go get uncomfortable so you can LEARN what it feels like to NOT be recovered, and then, that way, you can know when you ARE recovered. That’s the thing: if you’ve ALWAYS been recovered from your training, you have no idea what it feels like when you fail to accomplish that goal, so you’ll have no guiding mechanism in place to help you understand how your nutritional approach is working. This is why people love to rely on counting calories and macros: they just punch numbers into an app and it tells them if they ate good (terrible grammar by design). But what is the MIRROR telling us here folks?
These folks need to go out and actually TRY to overtrain. There is SO much value in that experience. For one, when you try to overtrain, you become aware of just how difficult of a feat that is to accomplish. And yeah yeah: someone is going to tell me about that time they got rhabdomyolysis at their very first cardio kickboxing class: you’re in too poor of shape to even be concerned with adding muscle at this point. Go do some exercise and get in shape so you can start getting into shape. I’m talking about a trainee that actually has SOME degree of base built: trying to overtrain is tough. The body is incredibly adaptable and will rise to meet several challenges when you really push it, so you need to start working it HARD to find its limits. And once you DO find it, be cognoscente of HOW you feel at that point: that’s what underrecovery feels like. When you’re feeling that feeling, that means your nutrition is inadequate and needs to come up in order to start recovering from training and start growing.
“Well what if it’s my sleep that’s the issue?” Talking to the wrong dude here: I haven’t gotten 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep since 2010, and have recently overcome a brief insomnia spell where my dogs were getting in a LOT of walks at 0300 while I wore a weighted vest…and was STILL making progress in the gym. No: let’s just focus on food here shall we? The big shocker I think a lot of you are going to find out is you’ve honestly been eating WAY more than you needed to your whole life and, in turn, have been enjoying a very plushy life of being constantly OVERrecovered from training. And here’s the thing: that’s an AWESOME thing to be if your concern is to always be growing, BUT, if you ARE one of those people that’s super concerned about not accumulating too much fat in your pursuit of muscle, you gotta have more awareness of where your limits are.
Going even further into this, this knowledge of eating enough to know when you’re recovered becomes crucial once you start running those programs that WILL break you if you don’t eat enough. And, in turn, this is WHY I suggest those very programs when it comes time to focus on weight gain. Super Squats, 5/3/1 Building the Monolith and Deep Water all place incredible recovery demands on the trainee, and they need to eat to recover from those programs. It is honestly pretty rare I find a trainee that runs the risk of OVERrecovering from these programs, and far more likely that they put the breaks on in their nutrition in fear of “getting fat” and, in turn, not realize the potential of this training. When I ran Super Squats, I was drinking a gallon of milk a day and eating as much food as I could fit on my plates at the dinning hall in my college, ending most meals with gigantic peanut butter sandwiches with plans for late night runs at the on campus restaurant later. When I ran Deep Water, I legit just plain ran out of time to eat. I’d start my lunch break and eat until it was over and know that, the next opportunity I had to eat, I’d need to do the same thing. And on these programs, I’d often BARELY be able to meet the demands of the training day, and even have a few occasional failures. THAT is how I knew that I had eaten enough to recover: I’d see the results of my nutritional efforts reflected in my training ability (along with the changes in my physique and scale weight of course).
If you don’t find yourself absolutely terrified of your next workout, you’re most likely overrecovered. If you find yourself staring down at a bowl of ground beef and veggies, fork in hand, praying that this will somehow be enough food to make sure you get all of your reps tomorrow, you are most likely in that sweet spot of eating enough to be recovered from your training. If in doubt, go find out how it feels when you don’t do it.