“Strength sports aren’t about health.” I have heard this a lot, and it’s true in a certain context: EXTREME SPORT is about being competitive and pushing your body beyond certain normal ranges of activity. That will demand other extreme behaviors: prioritizing training over everything, maybe PED use, etc.
But there is some bullshit hidden within this sentiment. Sure, some people at the top can get away with short term combinations of PEDS, junk food, for funsies drugs, alcohol, etc. But just because an elite athlete can get away with it doesn’t mean anyone should be holding that up as the standard of “what we do in strength sports.” Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t be doing everything possible to give our bodies the ammunition they need to execute said extreme sports. That whole attitude is a giant cop out.
“I lift heavy, so I can drink a lot, inhale caffeine like it’s meth, and stuff my face with food fried in industrial sludge. Because gains lol.”
No, you’re covering up several layers of dysfunction with chemical bandaids that help you ignore your pain and keep you in a semi-functional purgatory that is relieved only by your few and far between PRs.
I’m not interested in that anymore. I’m tired of feeling like shit. I got into lifting because I wanted to genuinely improve and make every aspect of myself BETTER. Happier, more powerful, more capable.
Running yourself into the ground constantly because you’re caught in a vicious cycle of stimulant abuse, alcohol, and food-medicating is not strong, it’s not powerful. It’s killing us.
If that’s what you want, fine, but own it and be honest. I’m not here to say people shouldn’t do exactly what the hell they want, but when you’re in a niche subculture, one successful lifter’s idiosyncratic and potentially destructive behavior can easily be held up as a standard or trend.
YOU’RE NOT THE BEST, BUT THAT’S IRRELEVANT
People come up with all sorts of copes for their shitty, self-destructive behavior. One of the most infuriating to me is this idea that if you want to be elite, you have to suffer and do things that are “unhealthy.”
Sure, as above, pushing your body to an extreme in a specialized sport isn’t about health, but that actually means that if you are, or are trying to be, upper echelon, you should be prioritizing your nutrition MORE than everybody else, not less. If what you’re doing is so intense and so extreme that you are moving mountains in your life around it, then all the more reason to fuel your body with elite fuel.
But most of us are not upper echelon — accomplished, gung ho, and as about that life as we may be. And thus the point stands – we aren’t committing our whole lives to pure gains, so we should eat to support the active, healthy lifestyle of an individual who wants to enjoy their life. What the hell else is training for? If you think you can’t train as hard if you’re not downing Poptarts and Bang, let me be the one to break it to you, right now: that’s not helping you, it’s hurting you, and you are sacrificing actual gains and performance and quality of life.
There. This isn’t rocket science, this isn’t new. Stop justifying consuming garbage under the guise of performance. It’s insulting.
Lord knows I’ve fallen into massive blind spots where I treated my nutrition as an afterthought, and unfortunately, a lot of modern American consumer culture only amplifies the message that food doesn’t matter, all that matters is satisfying cravings. I write this as someone who had big mental blocks around actually prioritizing myself in a meaningful way – spending money and effort on giving myself the most high quality food I could get. Now that I’m past that, I feel very strongly about it.
For those of us who want to enjoy strength competition and training for years to come, focusing on building ironclad health seems like a better overall approach than simply “staying as big as possible,” or justifying constantly eating garbage because you “can get away with it.” Is that actually what you want for yourself? I know what I want: to be strong, ripped, perform well enough to stay competitive Nationally, look awesome, and feel like a billion dollars. Nothing less. So I aggressively hold (most) of what I consume to that standard.
The big changes I kicked off around late February were NOT motivated by strength sport performance, they were motivated by improving my health, as well as losing body fat for aesthetic desires. I am definitely weaker than I was at Strongman Corporation Nationals 2020. But I feel confident that long term this WILL benefit my performance, because I have given myself a few months of lower intensity training, and a physical and mental reset and prioritized my actual health foundation. I don’t know what my competition future looks like, all I know is I will keep doing it as long as I love it. Maybe I’ll move down a weight class, or whatever makes the most sense.
I abided by some “conventional wisdom” for a long time – be as big as you can for your weight class – mass moves mass. That was fine for a while, and I did get very strong. But I didn’t feel great. There were other lifestyle factors at play (work, stress, etc), but simply thinking in terms of macros and basic nutrient needs wasn’t enough. I wanted to feel spectacular, and I didn’t. So I started making changes.
Yes, high level strength athletes know that feeling good doesn’t always gel with the goal of extreme strength. But high level athletes also do take their fuel seriously. To be VERY good at anything, let alone something physical, you should give your body every advantage you can.
Nutrient absorption matters as much as content. Mineral density matters; zinc and other mineral deficiencies can contribute to anxiety and depression among other ailments (read The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith and pay attention to the section on zinc deficiency and anorexia). Food. Quality. Matters.
Prioritizing high meat and fat seems to have had a serious benefit on my overall state of well being, and it is a bit frustrating to me in retrospect that so many coaches stress “don’t sweat food sources, just get macros and calories!” If we are talking about actual performance – if you’re competitive in strongman, which demands far more than just being strong – we should not stop at simply “what puts me in my weight class and what are the minimum basics I need to function?”
I mean, you can stop there! But why not aim higher? How many people in strength sports are unhealthy as shit, addicted to massive amounts of caffeine, have poor sleep, and high anxiety? You know the answer, because it’s the same answer if you replaced “people in strength sports” with “Americans.” Too many.
If you’re already putting all this work into getting good at extreme feats of strength, wouldn’t you want your body to have every imaginable resource? Wouldn’t you want your whole system to be running as well as it could? Whether you want to be huge or lean is beside the point; does your body function as well as it could?
It’s lame as hell that strength sport subcultures often fetishize bullshit energy drinks and borderline substance abuse when we actually all could be getting amazingly healthy AND STRONG (I don’t give a heck if you use PEDS. I do mean excessive use of PEDS, but also alcohol, coke/party drugs, and junkfood – which includes a lot of “health” food-like products. PEDs: I’m personally not interested in messing with my body chemistry beyond food, weed, and entheogens – the risk/reward is not there for me, and too many people downplay potential sides. When it comes to my fertility, I am not rolling that dice).
We’re already in a niche subculture! Why not embrace the decidedly NOT mainstream norm of being in incredible health, on top of being insanely strong?
Amazing strength and health are not mutually exclusive.
THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING
I’m not as strong as I was last year, in part because I simply am not trying to be – top end strength work is like maybe 10-15% of what I’m doing in training right now. But I still can walk into a competition cold, rep 365 lbs on a descending dead lift for 7 reps, and pull a semi-truck 50 ft. I used to feel like I would never want to jeopardize my precious gains by losing weight, but I was actually stalling long term progress by never taking time off, eating crap, and living in a default high stress dysfunction where I was constantly fried. It’s not about your weight, but my weight was reflective of eating too many things that I really did not need, and not enough of what I actually did need.
When I reduced grains, and dramatically increased protein and quality animal fat, weight dropped off like I was being paid. Turns out my “set point” wasn’t 165. Your body adapts to what you give it, and yeah, duh, calorie deficit, but I also didn’t deal with hunger, extreme cravings, or a lot of the typical “diet” issues.” I’m not saying I never eat pizza or enjoy take out, but prioritizing food type and quality 70-80% of the time, makes a HUGE difference. I wouldn’t be so gung ho if I didn’t feel the difference every day (I’ll get into the specifics of how I eat and why I’ve taken certain approaches in a follow up post, but the short version, is way more animal meat, animal fat, seafood, eggs, and very minimal grains & processed carbs, lotsa of fruit, fermented veggies).
Only you can figure out the best strategy for you. Only you can know what your body feels like on a certain nutritional approach. You could work with coaches with positive client track records of overall well-being and health. Or you can go it solo, pay attention to what the most successful, high performing, happy people around you are doing, and experiment. You have to actually try to do things differently to understand where your blindspots may be.
Losing weight doesn’t mean healthy. Getting big doesn’t either. Your energy levels, your mood and state of mind are where the real proof is. Maybe your weight will fluctuate lot, maybe not. How you feel and how how function is dramatically affected by what you put in your body.
When it comes to nutrition, trusting my instincts and learning how to listen to my body’s cues has been an incredible discovery, and I am really grateful that I am where I am at now. I hope that everyone who is pushing love and mastery and understanding of their body finds an approach to nutrition that helps them as much as mine has helped me.
Don’t just accept common knowledge, be wary of what “conventional wisdom” you absorb that is either flat out wrong, not good for you, or otherwise suspect. You are always the final authority and we owe it to ourselves to be rigorous about what we decide flies when it comes to our bodies.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this essay, you can support my film, art and writing on Patreon.
For film, you can check out my 6 episode spiritual thriller webseries about a street exorcist, and May 2020 lockdown-produced supernatural short film about how friendship and helping each other is the antidote to confusion and despair.