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The thought of counting calories can send shivers up the spines of some bodybuilders. All those complex numbers to remember! All that record keeping! And anyway, who wants to stick
to a strict diet year-round? We're only human, remember?
These valid concerns have kept many athletes from even thinking about controlling their caloric intake throughout the year; yet counting calories is not the same as restricting your caloric consumption. It is nothing more than a means to an end.
The actual number of calories you eat each day should depend on your desired end results; that is, on the short-term and long-term goals you have set for yourself. During the offseason your goals will likely be to keep your energy and strength levels high while keeping your bodyfat under control. You will also be trying to increase your lean body mass so you'll have added muscle to power your sport efforts. These goals are achieved by maintaining a calorie count that is relatively high.
In this situation you will want to be sure you take in enough calories to support your high-intensity training. In fact, not eating enough food under these circumstances will actually hinder progress toward your goals. So counting calories during the off- season does not mean restricting them in the traditional sense of dieting. It means watching your food composition along with your calorie intake to make sure you get all of the nutrients and energy you need on an ongoing basis.
During the pre-competition period, when bodybuilders (and other athletes with weight limits to contend with) restrict their food intake, counting calories is the best way to control the dieting process. Many athletes go overboard during this period, figuring that the more they cut back on their calories, the better. This winds up being counterproductive, however, because the body responds to the relative deprivation by reducing the basal metabolic rate-the minimum number of calories needed to sustain the body's basic functions- and by increasing the efficiency at which food is processed. This makes it even harder to lose fat, since fewer calories are needed to keep the body going.
The best way to prepare for a competition is to count your calories every day. That way you'll know exactly how much food you're taking in, and you can make precise adjustments in your caloric intake to account for variations in exercise levels. Counting calories also allows you to devise and follow a long-term diet program-one that can be repeated over and over again if you're satisfied with the results (or that can be modified with precision so you'll get better results the next time).
Bodybuilders who use a carbohydrate depletion/loading program to create the maximum possible glycogen stores in their muscles need to count calories to make sure they adequately deplete these stores and later to provide the muscles with all the carbohydrates they need during the loading phase. (Since a gram of glycogen combines with 2.7 grams of water, maximal glycogen stores are essential for peak muscle mass.) Guessing and estimating on these critical issues can spell the difference between victory and defeat in many competitions.
Some athletes try to diet for a competition by using the mirror approach. These people say they don't need to count calories because they get all the information they need from a close look in the mirror. If they aren't losing fat quickly enough, they just reduce the amount of food they eat. The problem with this approach is that they don't have any guidelines for making the necessary changes in their diets. How much do you reduce the amount you eat? If you decide to cut out a baked potato, that may or may not be enough. It's hard to say.
On the other hand, by reducing your food intake by 200 calories (whether it's giving up the baked potato or something else), you have a constant numerical guidepost that adds precision to your diet plan. After all, potatoes vary in size and caloric value. The mirror is a tool to help you determine what your bodyfat level is, nothing more. There are also several electronic fat measurement instruments on the market today that are helpful and a lot more precise than the mirror. None of these tools is a substitute for counting calories.
Counting calories can also make your competition diet a lot more interesting. Sometimes bodybuilders will eat exactly the same thing every day for weeks on end, since they know from experience (or because someone has told them) that a particular diet works. And it very well may work.
The point is that eating the same thing day in and day out has to get boring. Most likely the person who made up the diet the athlete is following figured out the calorie count at one time and decided that it was appropriate for him or her. Our athlete is, therefore, counting calories in an indirect sort of way. It would be just as effective and a lot more exciting to add variety to the diet by substituting foods of equal caloric value instead of constantly eating the same thing. The only way you can do that is by counting calories every day.
Counting calories is, therefore, the most effective system for controlling your bodyweight. Counting your calories in the off-season will ensure that you make the greatest gains toward your sport goals without pointless fat buildup. Counting them during the competition season will ensure steady and accurate progress toward the fat reduction goals you have set without a needless loss in lean muscle.
So what if it takes five minutes a day to figure out the calories in the food you eat? (That's really all it takes once you get the hang of it.) Think of all the time you spend at your workouts every week. We're only talking about five minutes a day here! When you think about it, that's a small investment to make to ensure that you get all you possibly can from your hardcore training.
You'll need a calorie-counting book, or a proper calorie chart. If you use a calorie counter from the bookstore, be sure to adjust the portion size and total to the actual helpings you eat. You'll no doubt find that counting calories is a lot easier than you thought.
Just add up the number of calories in each meal as you are preparing it, and write the total on a small piece of paper. Many drug and stationery stores have small squares of paper that are sold in a plastic cube for easy storage. You can use these or any old scrap of paper to do your counting. If you are eating in a restaurant, figure your calorie total out on a paper napkin or remember what you ate and do the arithmetic at home. Repeat this procedure after every meal or snack, adjusting the size of your meals so that the daily total adds up to your caloric goal.
It's a snap once you get the hang of it. So gain the most from your work-outs by counting calories all year. You'll get more results from your off-season training, and you'll be even more ripped for your competitions. And that's what this sport is all about!