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How to set up a nutrition plan for a strength athlete Part 1 - Calorie balance

This article is not intended to treat or prevent any disease states. It is an overview of how I set up a nutrition plan for myself and clients.


A dietitian is a healthcare professional who specialises in nutrition. They assess, diagnose and treat dietary problems in individual, group and public health settings. The primary aim of a dietitian is to improve the physical and mental function of a patient to improve HEALTH.

Some dietitians also practice sports nutrition – The primary goal of sport nutrition is very simple. To improve sports performance! This may seem obvious, but many people get confused between the two. That’s not to say that sports nutrition completely disregards health improvement – quite the opposite, however, improvements in the clients (athletes) chosen sport takes priority in terms of importance.

Improvements in sporting performance from nutrition intervention usually arise from improvements in metabolism, body composition and ability to recover and adapt from the stressors of training.

In the world of nutrition, fads come and go, this is no different in sports nutrition. Big companies have been spreading misinformation for years in the hope of exploiting the gaps in people’s nutritional knowledge, promising results that are unachievable and/or unsustainable.

I am not sure whether it is because I am constantly immersed in the world of nutrition, but it seems as if the public (particularly those who perform regular resistance training) is swaying towards a more scientific approach to nutrition. Understanding there is no ‘magic diet’ to follow for you to reach your goals. The word is definitely getting out!

Nutritional fads come and go but the foundational principles of setting up a nutrition plan will stay the same (small changes in how we apply these principles will change as research progresses). These 5 principles make up the ‘hierarchy of evidence based nutrition':

1: Calories/energy balance (most important)

2: Macronutrient distribution (carbohydrates/fats/protein)

3: Nutrient timing

4: Food composition

5: Supplementation (least important)

Some dietitians may disagree with the order of 3 and 4 based on their own practice and interpretations of the literature, However I haven’t witnessed any dietitian who would disagree that energy balance is the most important factor.

If you only implemented 1+2 from the list then you would see considerable benefits in your performance. However, when it comes to sport, every little counts. Diligently planning your meal times around training sessions, regularly choosing foods with excellent micronutrient profiles and choosing the right supplement, with the correct dose and timing can give you that extra few % advantage in your performance. Sport (powerlifting included) at the higher levels usually comes down to small margins, Implementing principles 1-2 compared to all 5 may be the difference between winning and losing.

Calorie Balance

Calories are the most important tool an athlete has in his/her toolbox. Unfortunately, this principle can be overlooked by many. It may be because they are not as exciting as the new supplement on the market, or it may be due to confusion on what calorie target to set.

Calorie balance is the is the single biggest factor in changing body composition, enhancing sport performance and aiding recovery.

The primary fuel for sports performance is carbohydrates. Energy from recent food sources provide a ‘fuel source’. Carbohydrates stored in your muscles and liver also provide ‘fuel’ especially in longer duration and higher intensity activities. A couple of older (but great) studies showcase significant glycogen depletion in resistance training sessions. Both studies used subjects who had experience in resistance training. This study by Rogbergs and colleagues observed a 38.9% glycogen reduction immediately after a training session that had participants complete 6 sets of 6 reps @ 70% 1RM of leg press with 2 mins rest between sets. This doesn’t even sound like a particularly gruelling session and it still is depleting glycogen quite significantly. Another study which used bodybuilders as subjects, observed a 28% glycogen reduction in the Vastus lateralis (one of the quadricep muscles) in a session that contained back squats, front squats, leg press and leg extensions.

Glycogen stores are ‘filled’ when you eat enough calories to support your energy demands – if you consume less than your maintenance calories for a period of approximately a week then it can start affecting your sport performance. Obviously the bigger caloric deficit you are in, the bigger impact on performance.

Calorie balance is the relationship between ‘energy in, energy out’. ‘Energy in’ is food and drink being ingested and ‘energy out’ being the calories being used by the body for daily energy requirements. This is the energy required for the body at rest (Basal metabolic rate), physical activity and all other movements that are performed throughout the day that aren’t classed as exercise (Non exercise activity thermogenesis) (NEAT). This could be walking around the house, typing, fidgeting etc.

Calorie balance can be evaluated daily, weekly, monthly etc. A great way to determine your calorie balance is using the scale. (I prefer to get 2-3 weigh ins per week and get an average weekly weight. Daily weights can fluctuate quite a lot, for many reasons (food weight in stomach, salt intake, stress, menstrual cycle etc), so it makes sense to round up a weekly average.

The 3 types of energy balance:

Negative: This is when an athlete’s energy expenditure exceeds energy intake. This will result in loss of bodyweight over time.

Balanced: When an athlete’s intake is near identical to energy expenditure. This will result in maintenance of bodyweight over time

Positive: When an athlete energy intake exceeds energy expenditure. This will result in weight gain over time.

How to calculate your calorie requirements?

First off, we need to find your maintenance calories (the calorie amount that keeps your bodyweight stable over time). We do this using 3 steps:

Step 1 : Estimate your basal metabolic rate (BMR)

Step 2: Add on a physical activity factor

Step 3: Adjust the step 2 number based on your body composition goals

Remember, This number is just an estimation, formulas don’t take into account individual differences. So don’t worry if this figure is not exactly right, it is just a ballpark figure to work off.

Step 1: BMR

I have used a few different equations to estimate BMR. Here is a calculator for the Harris Benedict formula - Just input your weight, height, age and sex and it will generate a number to work off.

Step 2: Add a physical activity factor

Sedentary = BMR x 1.2 (very little to no exercise, desk job)

Lightly active = BMR x 1.375 (light exercise 1-3 days/week)

Moderately active = BMR x 1.55 (moderate exercise 3-5 days/week)

Very active = BMR x 1.75 (very intense exercise 5-7 days.week) (Most strength trainees wouldn’t fit into this category unless they incorporated intense cardio sessions 2-3x per week also or the trainee had a hard physical labour type job.

Extremely active = BMR x 1.9 (7+ exercise sessions per week). It is extremely rare that a strength athlete would fit in this category. An example would be a crossfit athlete who has 2x daily training sessions

Step 3: Adjust based on your body composition goals:

If you aim to lose weight you will have to reduce the number of calories from the number generated at step 2. If you are wanting to gain weight, then you will be increasing step 2s number.

I will do a future blog post on choosing whether you should increase, maintain and lose weight, it is outside of the scope of this post.

Weight Loss

If you are wanting to lose weight as a strength athlete then usually the best time to do this is in the offseason. Prepping for a competition is taxing enough on the body without the added stress of a calorie deficit. Also if you are an intermediate/advanced level lifter it is going to be very tough to add anything meaningful to your total during a long ‘cutting phase'.

If cutting weight is your current goal then generally I would aim to lose 0.5-0.7% of your bodyweight per week if you are relatively lean (below ≈25% bodyfat for men and ≈32% for women).

If you are higher than 30% (37% for women) body fat, the range could be adjusted to 0.5-1% weekly weight loss, however I prefer to err on the side of caution, start at the lower end (0.5%) and monitor how it is affecting your performance over the first few weeks before you cut more aggressively.

I think it is a great idea for most people to start at 0.5% bodyweight loss per week and adjust based on performance, mood, hunger etc.

How many calories to take away from maintenance calories?

Below is a formula that estimates a weekly drop of 0.5% bodyweight. Subtract the answer from Step 2s number and voila! You have got yourself a starting point! Don’t worry I will give examples of this.

Bodyweight (KGs) x 0.005 x 1100

Example of a 100kg male

100 x 0.005 x 1100 = 550

subtract 550 from step 2 number = daily calorie target

Weight Gain

If you are wanting to maximise your potential as a strength athlete, you will be spending lots of your time in a ‘bulking’ phase. Weight gain phases are especially important for beginner and intermediate lifters. More often than not, beginner, intermediate lifters are very far away from their muscular potential, unsurprisingly, there is a correlation between muscle size and powerlifting performance. Check out these studies...

Therefore it makes sense for beginner/intermediate lifters to spend a large amount of time in a caloric surplus. It also makes sense to incorporate dedicated ‘hypertrophy’ phases over your training career (generally characterised by lighter intensities, increased rep ranges, less specific exercise selection and an increased number of accessory movements).

Many lifters shy away from these phases in their training. The reason I think a lot of lifters shy away from this is because you get temporarily ‘weaker’ in the competition lifts. This is just because they are out of practice on the heavy competition lifts, not that you have all of a sudden lost 'ALL of your gains'.

When you have added more muscle to your frame your POTENTIAL for strength has increased. You have increased your strength ceiling so to speak. After completing a successful hypertrophy phase, it would not be surprising after a couple of strength blocks you are hitting big Pbs! Remember a larger muscle has greater strength potential!

Rate of Weight Gain

The goal here is to maximise your muscle to fat gain ratio. If weight gain is too quick then there is too much fat accumulation, If weight gain is too slow then it is hard to track progress and can also be demotivating, so we need to find the correct balance.

Beginner lifters are much more responsive to resistance training stimuli. There is potential to add muscle to your frame at a much quicker rate than someone at an advanced level. For this reason I recommend that less experienced lifters gain mass at a quicker rate then well trained lifters.

Here is a starting recommendation:

Novice/Early Intermediate: 1.5-2% of bodyweight per MONTH

Intermediate/Advanced intermediate: 1-1.5% of bodyweight per MONTH

Advanced: 0.5-1% of bodyweight per MONTH

here is an example of a 80kg beginner athlete who wants to start on 0.5% gain per week (2% per month)

80 x 0.005 x 1110 = 440

ADD 440 calories onto step 2 number

If you are an advanced athlete who wants to start on a 0.25% gain per week (1% per month) (example of a 65kg athlete)

65 x 0.0025 x 1110= 180

ADD 180 kcals to step 2s number.

My definition of classifying training level is loosely based off of Mark Rippetoes definition in ‘practical programming’

Novice/Early Intermediate: can make consistent progress within the week

Intermediate: can make consistent progress week to week

Advanced intermediate: makes consistent progress in over week but under a month

Advanced: Progress may take months to be observed

Remember this is just a guide to use as a starting point, you may require a faster or slower rate of weight gain depending on how the rate is affecting performance, body composition, and your personal preferences and goals.

Regardless of whether you are cutting or gaining weight it is generally best to stick to the same calories for 2-3 weeks before you modify the program. During this period it is advantageous to get daily weigh ins and record an average over each week (weigh in first thing in the morning, before you have had any food or fluids and after you have used the bathroom).

It is not uncommon for large fluctuations in weight within the first week due to food volume, body water and glycogen. So try not to get bogged down on single weigh ins.

How to adjust calories after the initial 2-3 weeks?

At this point you have a clear plan of rate of weight loss/gain. Because the calorie estimations are based off of a formula it is not uncommon to make adjustments at this stage. Formulas are based off of averages, sometimes people can fall way under or over these averages. Also the Harris benedict equation (Step 1 formula) does not take into account body composition.

Imagine we have 2 males – everything is equal , activity level, age, height etc. They both weigh 100kg but one is 40% body fat and the other is 15%. The calculation will spit out the exact same figure for each.

There is also individual differences in terms of NEAT – one individual may feel much more fatigued than another when cutting weight – for example, the fatigued individual may start fidgeting much less than usual and may decrease the amount of daily total steps. Just this difference alone could be the difference between losing a pound a week and not losing at all.

Here is the formula you can use to adjust your calorie target:

If you are cutting weight then multiply the amount of weight that you are from your desired rate of weight loss. Add or take away the figure from your calories depending on whether rate of weight loss is too quick or too slow.

If you were losing 0.3kg per week faster than your goal – 0.3x1100 = 330

ADD 330 to your current DAILY calories DAILY

If you were losing 0.2kg per week slower than your goal – 0.2x1110 = 220 (rounded down from 222)

SUBTRACT 220 from your current DAILY calories

If you are gaining weight the formula is exactly the same

If you were gaining 0.3kg per week faster than your goal – 0.3x1100= 330

SUBTRACT 330 from your current DAILY calories

If you were gaining 0.2kg per week SLOWER than your goal – 0.2x1100 = 220

ADD 220 to your DAILY calorie intake

REMEMBER! Track for 2-3 weeks before making any adjustments.

Track weight every day for the first 2-3 weeks and get an average for each week, after this initial stage you can reduce weigh in 2-3 times per week depending on your preference.

For all this to work you have to be very accurate with your food tracking. This can be very tough, especially if you haven’t tracked your food before. A study by Urban and colleagues showed that the calorie content of restaurants foods averaged 18% more than stated on the menu. Furthermore, a selection of frozen supermarket meals averaged 8% more than stated on the food label. Lastly and unbelievably, some restaurant items contained up to 200% more than was reported on the menu!

It is also very common for people to unintentionally miss:

Liquid calories (fruit juices, coca cola etc)

Milk/sugar in tea and coffee: the milk can bump up calories significantly over the day if you are a regular drinker – particularly in full fat milk lattes and cappuccinos

Condiments/salad dressings


But don’t worry if you struggle with tracking your intake, it is very tough to start with. An interesting study recruited 20 females. 10 registered dietitians and 10 non dietitians recorded their intake for 7 days. Results showed that non dietitians under reported food intake by an average of 429 calories per day dietitians were more accurate with their intake than non dietitians (phew!) however they still under reported by an average of 223 calories per day.

So if dietitians can under report approximately 10% off their actual intake it makes sense that many regular people struggle to track their intake and progress towards their goals.

However if you are doing your best and tracking very diligently it is not going to make too much difference if your calories are a few % under or over your daily calorie target. I usually aim for a 5-10% leigh way (calories can be 5-10% under or over the daily target). If you are not gaining/losing at the rate you desire then use the rate of weight loss formula we talked about above and you are good as gold.

This 5-10% calorie threshold is also very useful as it allows for more ‘flexibilty’. Many people think that you need to have laser like accuracy to achieve good results. This is not the case and often very strict targets can be difficult to sustain. It is much easier to hit between 1900-2100 calories per day then it is to be exactly 2000 day in day out.

Basically, aim for your calorie target but don’t worry if you are slightly under or over

This is just the method I like to use for myself and my clients. I train people with serious body composition goals. This method may not be for you.

Most people do not need to track their food but if you have serious body composition goals then it makes sense to utilise these self-monitoring methods.

Thanks for reading!! – the next instalment we will be discussing macronutrient distribution. Look below for two step by step examples of how to set up the calorie.


Sarah, A 30-year-old woman who weighs 55kg and is 160cm tall


Use the Harris-Benedict equation here…

Input weight – 55kg

Input height – 160 cms

Input Age – 30

BMR = 1422 kcals per day


Sarah has a desk job so is mostly sedentary at work, however she is a competitive strongwoman who trains 4x per week (sessions lasting 1.5-2hours) with lots of volume. Sarah also performs 30 minutes of steady cardio (walking, biking) 3x per week.

Sarah uses a physical activity factor of 1.55 (moderately active)

BMR + physical activity factor

1422 x 1.55 = 2204 kcals

Step 3: Adjust based on your body composition goals:

Sarah is an advanced intermediate strongwoman she is seeing progress in her lifts every 2-3 weeks.

The recommendation for athletes of her calibre is a gain of 1-1.5% bodyweight per month.

It is a good idea to start off with caution as she wants to minimise the risk of excess fat accumulation. The calories can always be added on if she decides to gain at a quicker rate.

Sarah decides to start at the lower end of the range (1% per month) (0.25% per week) and progress to a faster rate if necessary.

To calculate how many calories to add to your step 2 number (2204 kcals) then use this formula

Current bodyweight x the % of your bodyweight you want to increase each week x 1100

55 x 0.0025 x 1100 =152

2204 + 152 = 2456 kcals per day

Sarah goal is to hit 2456 kcals per day – The aim is to get as close to this figure as possible but not to worry if it is slightly under or over. It is totally fine to go above/below 5% each day.

Sarah weighs herself every morning, after using the toilet and with an empty stomach.

She is also doing her best to track her food very accurately using a food scale.

She records all her bodyweights over 14 days and has a week 1 and week 2 average – she realises that she is gaining weight too quickly – she is gaining 0.2kg per week too quick.

Sarah uses this formula to adjust her calorie intake

(Difference of weight gain compared to desired weight gain x 1100)

0.2 x1100 = 220

2456 – 220 = 2236

Sarah took away 220 from her current calorie target. Now she should be much closer to her desired rate of weight gain.

At this point Sarah decides to weigh herself 3x per week and rounds it up to average each week.

Sarah makes any changes (if needed) every week. At this stage it is likely to be very small tweaks.

Example 2 : Weight Loss

Andy a 25 year old male who weighs 100kg and is 185cm tall

STEP ONE: Calculate BMR:

Input weight – 100kg

Input height – 185cms

Input Age – 25

BMR = 2174. (remember to just take the BMR number. We add our own physical activity factor in step 2)

Andy is a powerlifter works on a construction site. His job is quite physically demanding – he trains 5x per week with moderate training volumes – Andy also does one x 30 minute steady state cardio session per week on the treadmill and a 1x 15 minute weekly high intensity session on the bike.

Andy decides he fits into the very active category (BMR x 1.75)

2174x1.75= 3804

Step 3: Adjust based on your body composition goals:

It is a good idea to aim for 0.5% bodyweight loss per week as a starting point – (it is better to start off a little too slow and gradually decrease calories than it is starting much too low and having to increase calories)

Andy decides to start at the lower end of the range (0.5% per week) and progress to a faster rate if necessary.

To calculate how many calories to SUBTRACT from your step 2 number (3804kcals) use this formula

Current bodyweight x the % of your bodyweight you want to increase each week x 1100

100 x 0.005 x 1100 =550

3804 – 550 = 3254 kcals per day

Andy’s goal is to hit 3254 kcals per day – The aim is to get as close to this figure as possible but not to worry if it is slightly under or over. It is totally fine to go above/below 5% each day.

Andy weighs himself first thing every morning, after using the toilet and with an empty stomach.

He is also doing his best to track his food very accurately using a food scale.

He records all his bodyweights over 21 days and has an average for week 1-3. Andy is losing weight at the correct rate after 3 weeks. However, he would like to increase his rate of progress by approximately 0.3kgs per week. To do this he uses this formula to adjust his calorie intake

(Difference of weight gain compared to desired weight gain x 1100)

0.3 x 1100 = 330

Current calorie intake (3254 kcals) MINUS 330 = 2924 calories per day

At this point Andy decides to weigh himself 3x per week and rounds it up to average each week.

Andy makes any changes (if needed) every week. At this stage it is likely to be very small tweaks.


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