Nutrition Basics: Calorie Intake and Food Selection

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Major league baseball players, and really players at any high level (professional, college, etc.), are getting bigger and stronger than ever. As Ben Brewster writes about in his book Building the 95 mph Body (with data originally from this paper), the average MLB player has about 190 lbs. of lean muscle mass. In other words, the average MLB player weighs 190 lbs. without counting their body fat! Given that these are some of the hardest throwing (and hardest hitting) athletes in the world, it’s safe to say that body mass, and lean mass specifically, are extremely important for performance (not to mention injury prevention). With this in mind, how does an athlete go about adding lean mass?

The answer is not very complicated at all, and it really just comes down to following a few simple principles, which I will go into below. Basically, in order to gain lean mass, athletes must eat enough calories, expose their bodies to a training stimulus, and adequately recover from that stimulus. Assuming that an athlete is already exposing their body to new training stimuli on a regular basis (i.e., adding weight to the bar each week if they are a beginner or changing sets/reps/lift variations on a somewhat regular basis if they are more intermediate or advanced), and adequately recovering from training (i.e., sleeping 8 hours/night, avoiding overtraining, taking advantage of other recovery modalities, etc.), which could honestly be the topic of another post, then this really boils down to nutrition. The most important aspect of nutrition, by far, is eating enough calories, but beyond this food selection is also important.

 

Calorie intake

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Calorie intake is really the basis for any successful nutrition program. If an athlete doesn’t eat enough calories, then he is simply not going to gain weight (and could even lose weight!). It’s really just a simple physics problem: calories are a measure of how much energy that your body can extract from the food that you eat. If you eat more calories than you burn on a daily basis (i.e., a calorie surplus), then the excess energy must go somewhere, and in fact it ends up being stored in your body as either fat or muscle (more on this later). Similarly, if you eat fewer calories than you burn, the extra energy you are expending must come from somewhere, and your body either loses fat or muscle (more on this as well) in order to account for the energy difference.

This all sounds great in theory, but how do you determine how many calories you need to eat on a daily basis in order to gain, lose, or maintain weight? Admittedly, there is going to be some trial-and-error here, but a good place to start is using some kind of a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator, which estimates how many calories you would burn if you never got out of bed on a given day. From here, this blog post on Driveline’s website recommends multiplying your BMR by 1.5 in order to get a good starting point for your maintenance calories, assuming you are training regularly. To gain or lose weight, you need to eat above or below this number, respectively. There is likely going to be some trial and error involved in figuring out your own maintenance calorie number, since everyone’s body and metabolism are different, and so you may need to adjust the calories up and down as necessary.

Now that you have your maintenance calorie count, how many calories above (or below) this number should you eat in order to gain (or lose) weight? This is a more difficult question to answer and varies a lot from person to person, and is also heavily dependent on your training status (i.e., whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced trainee). You can play around with going above or below your own maintenance calories by a given amount and see what rate that you gain/lose weight, respectively, but this will likely require a lot of trial and error. In Building the 95 mph Body, Ben Brewster goes into a ton of detail on this topic, and I think that the book is an excellent (and affordable) resource for guys looking to gain muscle mass or cut fat. It’s sufficient to say, however, that the higher you go above the maintenance calorie number, the less “efficient” your weight gain will be (i.e., a larger percentage of your gains will be fat, as opposed to muscle). Similarly, if you are cutting weight, the farther below the maintenance calorie number you go, the more muscle mass you will lose (in addition to fat loss). For this reason, I recommend doing some research (or buying Ben’s book) and finding out how quickly you can gain or lose weight without adding too much fat or sacrificing muscle mass.

 

Food selection

Vertical diet

Ok, so let’s assume you’ve calculated your maintenance calories, determined how much of a calorie surplus or deficit you want to eat, and bought a scale to track your progress. How do you choose the foods you eat within these calorie constraints? There are a lot of different approaches on how to answer this, but any good diet or nutrition program should consider how to optimally scale both micro- and macronutrient intake. I’m a big fan of Stan Efferding’s nutritional approach, known as the vertical diet. This diet essentially involves eating a “horizontal” foundation of micronutrient-dense foods and then building up “vertically” with macronutrient-dense foods (primarily red meat and white rice) as needed in order to meet a certain calorie count. The main goal of the diet is to improve digestive health and allow athletes to get the most out of their food, which should translate to performance benefits.

There are a lot of other diets/nutrition plans out there as well (e.g., ketogenic diets, paleo diets, vegan diets, etc.), and it is important to keep in mind that certain diets may work better for certain athletes than others. For example, one of my teammates and closest friends at Caltech has issues digesting red meat, but I’m able to eat red meat 7 days a week and be completely fine! Plus, there can be certain outside restrictions on what foods may be available to begin with for some guys. Cost can be a major restriction, and if you are a collegiate athlete reading this then you might also be restricted by your school’s meal plan. All this means is that you have to be adjustable with your diet in order to fit the constraints you are dealing with, keeping in mind that calorie surpluses or deficits ultimately matter a lot more than following your diet to a “T.”

 

My week(s) of training:

I posted my review paper last week, but it’s been awhile since I last gave you guys an update about how my training is going. I’ve basically just been back home (in Lake Forest, IL) for about a week or so now, and have been training and throwing bullpens at Prime Athletics. I’m still looking to hopefully find a summer team at some point, but my velo has been down slightly in the past couple of weeks, due to what looks to be a hip/shoulder separation timing issue (i.e., rotating my torso early or “flying open”). You might be able to see what I mean on this video from last Monday at ~80% effort (look at how my shoulders turn a little bit early and I “push” the ball to home as a result):

I’ve been working on this for a week or so now, and my velos are coming back up a bit, but I want to wait until they are at least around where they were during the season before I try to find a summer team to play on. One big change I made is going back to the pre-pitch setup I used during the season, in which I rotate my back foot counterclockwise on the rubber in order to “force” myself into a more separated position (see this video for a more detailed explanation). Experimenting with a more conventional setup during the first few weeks of the offseason didn’t really produce great results, but going back to this unconventional setup actually helped a lot and is definitely something I am going to continue to play around with. On the strength side, things have been going pretty well, and I have been back in a calorie surplus/weight gain phase for the past few weeks. I pulled a new hex bar deadlift PR of 485×3 on Monday, and all of my lifts are up compared to the beginning of the offseason. This makes sense, though, because last offseason when I went on a calorie surplus all of my lifts also went up by a significant amount. Hopefully this trend continues!

Image credits:

https://www.cbc.ca/life/thegoods/cowboy-steaks-1.5032383

https://stanefferding.com/products/vertical-diet-peak-performance-detailed-program-notes

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