Was Popeye telling us the whole truth?
Trawling though numerous online body building forums will often reveal a wide range of perspectives on what makes for a strength boosting diet. Some would argue that a diet high in carbohydrates is the key, whilst others would argue that protein is the magic component.
Contrary to Popeye’s best marketing efforts, there really is no one single food that an individual can consume in order to become strong. The truth is that a number of foods are required in order to contribute to the building of muscle tissue and metabolic processes which lead to strength. Although to be fair to the brawling sailor, the iron found in dark greens like spinach if very important in maintaining the body’s production of hemoglobin, a substance found in red blood cells that enables them to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues such as muscle.
What is strength?
Strength can be defined as an individuals ability to resist or excerpt force. The two main factors that determine an individuals levels of strength are the area of muscle fibres used to generate force and also the level of intensity that can be drawn from the muscle. People with a high proportion of type II fast twitch fibres are the strongest. These factors are influenced by a number of variables including genetics, sex, age, amount of exercise undertaken, levels of health/fitness and of course diet, but no single variable can be responsible for strength alone.
Having established that diet is just one of a number of things that can play a part in improving overall strength as part of a wider health and fitness regime, the main dietary functions to consider are foods that enable the body to fuel, develop, recover and maintain:
The body is fuelled by carbohydrates, which muscles store and burn in the form of glycogen. Without glycogen muscles would not have enough power to function. Consumption of easy to absorb, low-GI, whole grain carbohydrates such as oatmeal porridge before exercising will help to provide glycogen fuel for muscles.
Through continued exercise muscle hypertrophy occurs as muscles increase in size and strength to a point at which micro tears are caused to the muscle fibre. The body responds by replacing the muscle tissue and adding more to help deal with the increased stress of exercise. Protein is then required as a building block for the new muscle tissue. Sources of dietary protein include fish like tuna and salmon, red and white meat like beef or chicken, eggs and also plant sources such as soya, nuts and quinoa. Protein supplementation is also commonly used as the fast absorption of protein products allow for an individual to get the most benefit post work out, as explained here by all-natural body builder Darin Steen in his video which has now been watched 2.3 million times. Sources of protein include whey, a by-product of the cheese making process originally, as well as plant sources such as soya, pea and hemp.
Recovery generally refers to the time it takes for the body to have made sufficient repairs and replenishments for an individual to return to peak performance. This can vary depending on a number of factors including the amount and intensity of any exercise undertaken. As covered in the previous point, proteins play an important part in recovery. Re-hydration plays a very important role as it replaces not only water lost through sweat, but also some minerals. Immediately after exercise a rapid energy boost can be beneficial and many people turn to energy/sports drinks to replenish the electrolytes lost to to provide new fuel in the form of carbohydrate (sugars). Whilst this can be effective, more natural alternatives would include high GI foods such as juice or sweet tasting fruits and vegetables. Some studies have also shown water with a little added sodium (salt) can prove more effective in the re-hydration process.
To maintain muscle mass an important principle to bare in mind is that by affording us with improved strength, muscles demand fuel. The greater the area of muscle, the more calories they will consume. Therefore in order to maintain ones muscles mass and the strength this affords, it is important to provide muscles with the right balance of protein to regenerate muscle tissue, and carbohydrates for fuel. Without the time pressures of post workout nutrition more complex, slow burning, low gi carbs such as beans, carrots and wholegrain, as well as natural proteins from food (not supplementation), in the correct quantities would provide the required nutrients.