So I'm doing a strength training program (Starting Strength) wherein each time I exercise, I increase the weight lifted by a small increment.
The other day, I was working out and I 'hit a wall', wherein I was halfway through a set and suddenly felt like I couldn't lift the bar anymore. I feel that this was probably related to the fact that I hadn't eaten yet that day, but that made me wonder something else:

Given that you need to eat a certain amount in order to support muscle development, what are the signs that you can watch for that you are eating enough/too little/too much?

I've heard stories of professional strength trainers having to 'struggle' to eat enough, which seems to imply that the quantities required can be quite large....

2 Answers 2


It's best to understand the the concept of stress and recovery. Stress includes activities such as training (Starting Strength in your case) as well as emotional and pressure related sources. Recovery is the process of adapting to deal with that stress. It includes both rest and nutrition.

  • You can't maintain linear growth forever. The Starting Strength book acknowledges that, and gives you instructions for what to do.
  • Lack of food can cause insufficient recovery
  • So can lack of sleep
  • As well as insufficient rest between sets

It's important to understand who Starting Strength is addressed to: beginners. A beginner is at the one time stage in their training career where they can make improvements just about every time they step in the gym. It's a wonderful time. Eventually, as the weights get heavier, the stress from training becomes so much that it takes you a week to recover and adapt. That's when you've hit intermediate stages, and you need to look for a program that supports weekly growth.

The most common lift to struggle with first is the overhead press (AKA standing military press, or simply the press). It's using the weakest muscles most of us have, but it's an absolutely great exercise to help build a strong shoulder girdle and prevent rotator cuff injuries on bench press. According to the SS book, you simply repeat the weight next time. If you stall three times, then you deload 10%.

Things to look at when you hit the wall:

  • Did I sleep well? Most muscle growth occurs while you are sleeping.
  • How much rest between sets did I have? You may have to increase the time to compensate for the volume.
  • How much did I eat? The basic principle is simple, but there is a bit more to it than just that.

Some people can lift in a fasted state, and their body is used to it. They compensate later on in the day to get their required nutrition. Rip's dietary advice to beginners is simple: eat big, eat lots of protein, and don't worry about your stinkin' abs. If you are predisposed to gain weight, that may not work for you. If you've always been a skinny guy, that's definitely the advice you need.

Very common recommendations for the food you need is:

  • 1g protein per pound lean body weight minimum, most commonly suggested is 1g per pound total body weight. (Lean is without fat, total is what the scale says)
  • Remainder of calories from both carbs and fat
  • Maintenance calories are roughly 15 Calories per pound total body weight. (Note: this is a ballpark figure that will always need adjustment).

In short, to stay the same weight eat the maintenance calories. To gain weight, eat 20% more than maintenance. To lose weight, eat 20% less than maintenance. Even if you keep the maintenance calories, and you currently have a lot of fat, the act of training will help build muscle and the body will compensate by keeping less fat around. It's not 1-to-1, but you get the general idea.

  • @Berin-when you say to eat 20% more than maintainance, does this include rest days as well? Should there be a difference in calories consumed for training vs. non training days? Thanks!
    – Bee
    Jul 25, 2012 at 10:19
  • @Bee, that would be on average for the week. Varying calories is a tool to make sure the energy is there when you need it. If you wanted to, you could do a split where rest days are only up 5% and training days are up 30%. Another variation would be to have more carbs on training days and less carbs (more fat) on rest days. These are tools you can use or not. The key is that there is a surplus over the week. Jul 25, 2012 at 12:19

Indeed the quantities to promote continuous muscle growth can be quite large. I was consistently eating around 4,000 calories a day for about a year when I was weight training and trying to gain mass. But then, I'm 6'5" and have an extremely fast metabolism so my body demanded those calories. It worked though, as I was able to gain 20 pounds of muscle that year.

The best way to figure it out for yourself is to measure and track your progress and make adjustments accordingly. You can do this with a simple set of body fat calipers and a bathroom scale. If you can get in the habit of measuring your weight and body fat weekly, then you can extract from that gains or losses in LBM (lean body mass).

Say for example you manage to lose 1 pound each week, for 3 weeks in a row and half of that is fat / half is LBM. Well, if your goal is to gain muscle you should absolutely eat more calories in this case. Ideally you should be making small gains in LBM every week while minimizing fat gain. And it's just a matter of finding the diet that'll do that for you.

By the way, the reason it's better to measure weekly is that you can drive yourself crazy measuring daily due to small fluctuations and inaccuracies. In fact, as a rule of thumb it's usually wise to gather 3 weeks of measurements before making any major changes to your diet.

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