Top 10 Foods for Weight Lifting

Olympic hopeful Jacque Payne
If you're going to invest the time in becoming a weightlifter, like U.S. Olympic hopeful Jacque Payne, make sure to pick the right foods when it's time for a snack.
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Hoisting iron is hard work. So if you're going to hit the gym to weight train with the notion of developing a hard body, make sure your body is ready for the effort.

"Body builders are just people, and they have similar needs [to] most athletes," says Boston-based Nancy Clark, a certified specialist in sports dietetics and author of "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. "They need adequate protein to build their muscles. And they need adequate carbohydrates to fuel their muscles, fuel their workouts. And it's good to have some essential fats, healthy fats, because they make the body work better."


The formula is pretty simple: Increased muscle mass results from the accumulation of small amounts of protein in response to each bout of exercise combined with nutrient intake [source: Tipton]. What "nutrients" you choose, however, can make a big difference.

Clark is a proponent of eating whole, and wholesome, foods -- as opposed to supplements -- since our bodies benefit from the synergistic effects. For example, the vitamin C we consume through fruits (or natural fruit juices) helps us absorb the iron found in whole grains.

"My thing with body builders is that they tend to be obsessive compulsive, for whatever reason, and they're looking for the perfect diet," says Clark. "I tend to think of a diet that has 85 to 90 percent quality, and 10 to 15 percent whatever else, works. If they wanted to have a piece of birthday cake, that would be OK, too."

Conversely, body builders should keep in mind that just because they're more active, they can't eat whatever they want. "I don't believe in the good food/bad food model," says Clark. "I believe in moderation. Certainly high-fat, high-processed food isn't good for anybody."

"Even athletes die of heart attacks," she says. "There are a lot of marathoners who've gone out for a run and dropped dead in their tracks. No one is immune."

In other words, a diet that consists of sugary cereals for breakfast, greasy burgers and fries for lunch, processed chips for a snack, and frozen meals for dinner isn't going to provide the optimal fuel for your workouts.

10: Lean Meats

Vegetarians might want to avert their eyes, but lean meats are a tremendous source of protein, a critical element in muscle development and repair.

"Red meat is actually an excellent source of B vitamins and iron. Many [weight lifters] see meat as having more fat in it, so they tend not to eat as much meat as chicken and fish," says Clark. "I'm not opposed to lean red meat. It's an excellent source of protein. It's one of the most nutrient dense of the protein foods.


"The darker the meat, the more nutrients it has, just like the darker the vegetable, the more nutrients it has," she says. "Red meat is excellent for iron and zinc -- those are both really important nutrients for body builders."

Lean chicken is another exceptional source of protein for weightlifters, and a favorite of bodybuilders, because it's generally (but not always) less fatty. Same for turkey breast.

"[Weight lifters are typically] striving for a gram of protein for every pound of body weight," says Clark. "The recommendation for most athletes is 0.5 to 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight. Do bodybuilders need more protein than that? Probably not."

9: The Bounty of the Seas

Seafood such as salmon and tuna fish is a favorite among weight lifters because it's rich in protein, the critical building block for muscle development. But seafood also provides important omega-3 fatty acids that are powerful antioxidants.

"When you train really hard, you get these tiny injuries that get inflamed, and antioxidants can knock down that inflammation," says Clark. "Salmon, fish oil, tuna fish all provide those omega-3 fats, so they would be good."


Even when we're sedentary, our bodies produce molecules -- called free radicals -- that can damage cells. Antioxidants such as those found in quality fish (and a host of vegetables and fruits) help neutralize these potentially dangerous free radicals.

Fatty fish also provide ample supplies of vitamin D, which tends to be lacking in many diets.

8: Water

This might seem like a no-brainer, but even a muscle-friendly food like spinach is mostly water. So are you. That's why water is an essential part of any diet, but particularly if you're pumping iron.

Consider these benefits. Water aids in metabolism, keeps us from overheating, helps flush toxins and actually reduces appetite. In fact, drinking adequate amounts of water will actually reduce "water weight." That's because the body, when it's dehydrated, tends to store excess water.


Still, few of us -- including those who don't exercise regularly -- drink enough water, even without daily exercise. If you do work out, don't limit yourself to the 8 to 10 glasses of water daily recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Instead, gulp another 12 to 16 ounces (3.4 to 4.5 deciliters) before hitting the gym, and 8 to 10 ounces (227 to 283 milliliters) for every 15 minutes of exercise to prevent dehydration [source: Robertson].

7: Dark Vegetables

Popeye had it right. The cartoon sailor's secret source of strength -- spinach -- boasts minerals that build muscle and antioxidants that help repair them after a workout. But spinach is just one of many vitamin- and mineral-rich vegetables that can help you boost your metabolism. Dark leafy greens -- plus asparagus, kale, broccoli, cucumbers, green peppers, and zucchini squash (the greener the better) -- are all great choices for antioxidants and phytonutrients.

Colorful tubers like sweet potatoes (Clark is a big fan), yams and red potatoes are also a value-packed source of carbohydrates and other minerals. Joy Bauer, MS, RD, author of "Joy Bauer's Food Cures," recommends getting these antioxidants such as vitamin C and beta-carotene from red bell peppers (just one has 300 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C), carrots, pumpkin or sweet potatoes [source: Zelman].


Don't discount beans, which are another superb source of antioxidants (in some cases rated higher than fruits), minerals and omega-3 fats, without any cholesterol. This heart-healthy, complex-carbohydrate group also provides protein, soluble fiber, iron, potassium and calcium. They're cheap, too.

6: A Rainbow of Fruits

Much like vegetables, fruits come in an array of colors, and the more colorful, the better. The berry family are particularly popular, as these purple, blue and red bite-size treats are packed with the health-protecting flavonoid, anthocyanin.

"Berries contain over 4,000 different compounds that have antioxidant properties beyond vitamin C, so make sure you include these delicious and low-calorie fruits to help meet your 5-plus servings of fruits each day," says Cristine Gerbstadt, a Florida-based doctor and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association [source: Zelman].


Other can't-miss fruit choices include apples, pears, kiwi fruit, pomegranates cantaloupes, honeydew melons and both red and white grapes. Some weigh lifters shy away from bananas because of their sugar content, but Clark says that's another example of body builders being too particular. Bananas are an excellent source of potassium (terrific for preventing cramping) and vitamin B-6, which aids protein metabolism.

5: Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut

When you realize that muscle growth comes after your weight-lifting workout, during recovery, you understand the importance that nuts have in your diet. Nuts -- from the proletarian peanut to cashews and more exotic varieties -- are loaded with protein and antioxidants, both of which are key for muscle repair and growth.

In general, nuts also provide fiber, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins. Large Brazil nuts are packed with powerful antioxidants like magnesium and selenium. Unsalted almonds are a super source of calcium, while walnuts lay claim to having more omega-3 fats than any other nut.


Since not all weight lifters are carnivores, nuts provide a valuable source of protein for those who eschew red meats, poultry and even fish. That's why a post-workout peanut butter sandwich not only satisfies your hanger pangs, but also helps rebuild a stronger body.

4: Over Easy

Who can forget the famous scene in Rocky, with Sylvester Stallone guzzling a glass full of raw eggs to jumpstart his training regimen before his title bout with Apollo Creed? These days, no one is recommending the same approach, but that shouldn't discount the value of the egg.

Often maligned, eggs offer one of the best sources of protein available to weight lifters. Eggs whites, which contain no cholesterol, no fat and few calories, are the darling of the body-building set. However, while they pack a solid protein punch, egg whites don't have carbohydrates.


Whole eggs, consumed in moderation, can also be beneficial (and, frankly, taste better). Egg yolks do contain cholesterol and some fat, but also more protein. If you're looking to gain weight, the occasional whole egg omelet is perfectly fine. Clark, however, recommends that you make sure that there's no history of heart disease in your family.

3: Low-fat Dairy

Low-fat milk, powdered milk and low-fat cheeses (cottage cheese being at the top of the list) are huge protein producers. An added bonus? They're all natural.

"I'm a fan of real foods. Most bodybuilders can get the protein that they need through their diet. But if they want a protein shake, they can certainly spend their money on it," says Clark. "They can also take skim milk and powdered milk and a banana and blend it all together, and make a protein shake that way."


While Clark isn't opposed to supplements such as casein and whey, she says much of their purported benefit is more marketing hype than reality. Current research, she says, indicates that "milk, which has both casein and whey, has a synergistic effect, in that it enhances muscle building more than an isolated nutrient."

"A lot of (body builders) like whey protein, and they tend to gravitate toward that. And it's a source of protein," she says. "But I think, in the long run, whole foods have a synergistic effect that really enhances not only health, but also muscle development."

2: Oatmeal and Other Grains

Whole grain cereals, like oatmeal, are a major source of complex carbohydrates for energy, and are a good source of many vital minerals, including iron, magnesium, and zinc.

"Body builders train hard, so they need lean protein to build and repair their muscles, and then they need the carbs to fuel. So oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, bananas -- these are all things that fuel [those workouts]," says Clark.


The complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain foods digest more slowly and help regulate blood sugar. These low-glycemic carbohydrates help repair the muscles that were broken down during our workouts, with their nutrients absorbed into the blood stream instead of being flushed away.

Clark is also a fan of brown rice and pasta. Serious weight lifters sometimes look askance at pasta, but again, the whole-grain variety is rich in carbohydrates, nutrients and fiber. Plus, it's a perfect compliment to other highly recommended foods, like lean meat, chicken and fish, and there's no rule against eating foods that taste good.

When buying grain products, look at the label and make sure they have at least 3 to 5 grams of fiber per serving [source: Zelman].

1: Essential Fats

Remember, fat is not a four-letter word. In reality, fat is a key component in metabolism, or our body's ability to process fuel. And there are a number of foods with healthy fats.

"Bodybuilders want this paper-thin skin," says sports nutrition author Nancy Clark. "They think that if they eat fat, they'll get fat. Well, if they eat excess calories, they'll get fat. But eating a little bit of fat at each meal can actually help them feel full a little bit longer, because it takes longer to digest, so it can actually aid in weight loss."

Furthermore, fat plays a vital role in collecting vitamins and minerals from other foods. Again, it's that synergistic effect.

"I would look at nuts, olive oil, salmon, tuna fish, because they help absorb certain vitamins," says Clark. "If you have this fat-free diet, then you don't absorb the vitamin A in the spinach, or the vitamin A in your colorful fruits and vegetables. Vitamins A, D, E and K need fat in order to get absorbed, so it's good to have a little bit of fat in each meal."

A good rule of thumb is to make sure that no more than 30 percent of your daily caloric intake comes from fats [source: Robertson].

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Building-Muscle 101. "Find Out How To Build A Diet And Nutrition Program That Helps Promote Strength And Muscle Size." (April 2, 2012)
  • Clark, Nancy. MS, RD, Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. Author, "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook." Personal interview. April 6, 2012.
  • Clarkson, PM, and Rawson, ES. "Nutritional supplements to increase muscle mass." NIH, and Department of Exercise Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. July, 1999. (March 31, 2012)
  • Gluhareff, David. "Why Weight Training?" Jan. 24, 2004 (April 2, 2012)
  • Mackenzie, Brian. "Amino acids – The building blocks of protein." July 2005. (April 5, 2012)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Weight training: Improve your muscular fitness." Feb. 11, 2011. (April 3, 2012)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier." June 30, 2010. (April 3, 2012)
  • Tipton, KD, and Ferrando, AA. "Improving muscle mass: response of muscle metabolism to exercise, nutrition and anabolic agents." NIH, and School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK. 2008. (April 2, 2012)
  • Robertson, Annabelle. "7 Muscle-Building Strategies for Guys." WebMD. March 27, 2008. (April 7, 2012)
  • Weil, Richard. "Building Muscle." WedMD. 2010. (March 31, 2012)
  • Zelman, Kathleen. "Food for Men: 10 Foods to Boost Male Health." WebMD. July 18, 2011. (March 30, 2011)