After nearly starving to death on Gwyneth Paltrow’s low-carb diet, I decided to try something different for my next experiment. I thought about other celebrities’ diets to try, but they all looked so boring. Ever since I started lifting weights, I began following some female bodybuilders on social media to get workout ideas, and I remember being floored by how they train and how much they eat. Like, these girls look amazing and they’re definitely not ordering a juice cleanse before the holidays. So I thought, is the bodybuilder diet (and lifestyle) realistic for the average person? I obviously had to find out for myself.
I did some research into the typical bodybuilder’s diet, and as you’d expect, there’s a lot of protein involved. Lesson one is macros, which is bodybuilding slang for macronutrients. These macronutrients consist of protein, fats, and carbs, and the typical bodybuilder works with a coach to figure out the exact macros they should be eating each day. But apparently the bodybuilder diet changes throughout the year, depending on if you’re “cutting,” “maintaining,” or “bulking.” From what I’ve gathered by eavesdropping on dudebros at the gym, cutting is getting leaner and losing fat, bulking is gaining a bunch of muscle, and maintaining is staying the same (duh). Basically, you eat according to your fitness goals. Once you have a certain number of each macronutrient, you try to hit that number every day. Plus, in addition to hitting macronutrient goals, most bodybuilders drink a gallon of water each day. That’s a lot of water. I’m all for staying hydrated, but like, all this eating and drinking sounded exhausting.
After a quick Google search, I found an online macro generator, filled out a few things about me, and found out my maintenance numbers for each macronutrient. One thing that bothered me is that I noticed a lot of the products these people love are packed with artificial sugars and additives. There are plant-based, clean-eating bodybuilders out there, but the majority are stocking up on protein bars and Halo Top. I decided to do a slightly cleaner version of the typical bodybuilding diet while still hitting my macronutrient goals.
Anyone who knows me is pretty aware that I like working out. But this week would be different, because bodybuilders follow “workout splits,” where they work certain body parts on each day of the week. They also take one or two days off, or “active rest days,” which basically means light jogging and foam rolling. I did some research on a typical workout split, and decided to break up my workouts into two leg days, a day for back and biceps, a day for chest and triceps, and a day for shoulders and abs. That gave me room for two rest days in which I would stretch my crying muscles and judge all the girls on the elliptical. I even met with a trainer in my gym who showed me the most effective exercises for each body part and told me how many sets and reps I should be doing for each day. I was ready to go.
As I expected, the first day was the biggest adjustment, mainly because bodybuilders usually eat 5-6 meals per day. I had to figure out how to squeeze in my meals, my workouts, and my gallon of water while still being a functioning member of society. Lesson one is that breakfast has to be a substantial meal. These girls aren’t running out the door with half a Kind Bar and a cold brew. I read that it’s important to incorporate proteins, fats, and carbs into the first meal of the day, so I went with a coffee, three sunny-side up eggs, a sizable bowl of oatmeal, and an apple. The eggs provided the fats and protein, and the oatmeal and apple are both carb sources. Bodybuilders don’t eat that much fruit and prefer to get a lot of their carbs from rice and oats, but like, it was 8am and I wanted a piece of fruit. I also managed to get down a liter of water with my breakfast, so I was off to a decent start.
Apparently the next golden rule of bodybuilding is that the most important meals of the day, contrary to what you heard in kindergarten, are your pre- and post-workout meals. It sounds fair, but I struggled with the pre-workout part. I was still pretty full from my breakfast, and I don’t usually like working out while feeling full. I also wasn’t down to start taking the pre-workout supplements that a lot of pros take, but I still wanted to feel that sort of energy boost that a pre-workout drink provides. For dramatic effect. I went with a rice cake, a plain Greek yogurt, and another cup of coffee. IDK what pre-workout feels like, but after two large cups of coffee in three hours, I was sufficiently buzzed.
Then came the workout. It was leg day. Looking back, this day was probably my best workout of the week because I wasn’t sore yet and I had a ton of momentum going. I did a leg and glute workout that resembled this one, but I used heavier weights and did fewer reps to focus on slowing down the movements (instead of getting my heart rate up). I basically did simple barbell squats and deadlifts on the Smith machine instead of using dumbbells, and I took out the kettlebell swings and jump squats to substitute them with the leg press machine and the hamstring curl machine. My legs were shaking by the end, but I felt good about it.
The rest of the day wasn’t that important, so let’s fast-forward to 7 pm. I struggled with dinner because I’m not much of a meat-eater, but I figured I couldn’t go through this week without meat because like, #gainz or something. Plus, meat is an easy source of protein, so I can see why these bodybuilders are pounding steak filets after their workouts. You get like, all your macros in one sitting and don’t have to think about scarfing down Quest bars later on. So, I bought a raw chicken breast from the grocery store and cooked it on a grill pan with some olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. I had brown rice on the side for carbs, and chugged water until I thought I was gonna puke. At the end of day one, I looked in the mirror and still wasn’t jacked. Just full.
I knew I had to be smarter about eating day two, because I didn’t want to get to the end of the day and want to die. I had the same breakfast as day 1, but I skipped my pre-workout meal to feel a bit lighter and more energized in the gym. This day was the back & bicep workout, which basically consisted of a few rowing variations, lat pulldowns, and bicep curls. I was pretty hungry by the end of the workout, but it was still too early for lunch so I went with a post-workout shake. The post-workout meal is supposed to be a protein and carb together, and most bodybuilders avoid all fat sources during this meal because something about fat slowing down muscle-protein synthesis. Bodybuilders swear by their whey protein shakes, but TBH whey doesn’t agree with my stomach. I bought a vanilla vegan protein powder instead, which seems fine. I mixed it with almond milk and had a banana on the side. Protein and carb. Check. And obviously more water.
By lunchtime, I wasn’t even super hungry, as opposed to my regular “about to pass out in the Sweetgreen line” starvation level. I picked up a huge piece of grilled salmon with roasted sweet potatoes from Whole Foods. Even though I wasn’t that hungry, I basically forced myself to eat the whole salmon because I realized I was way behind in my protein count. Salmon is a protein and fat source in one, and sweet potatoes are carbs. I was killing these macros.
I had leftover chicken and rice from the night before, which came in handy because I was NOT down to start cooking again. IDK how these bodybuilders do it. Down went the chicken and rice, but I kinda wished I was eating sushi instead. I finished the whole portion to hit my macros for the day, but honestly it was kind of nauseating. I def could’ve done without the last few bites, but I wasn’t backing down at that point. I’m a pusher.
If I went through every moment of this week, we’d be here forever. So I’m just gonna sum up the next few days because they were pretty consistent. The first thing I realized was that I was getting super sore from my workouts, so I made sure to stick around the gym for a few minutes after the workout to stretch and foam roll and
take selfies. I also realized that hitting my carb goal was pretty easy, but the fats and proteins were harder to incorporate. What saved me were these vegan protein bars called No Cow Bars, which have like 22 grams of protein per bar and don’t taste like complete shit, so those were helpful.
I also realized that I never wanted a huge dinner, but I always wanted a little dessert, so I had to figure out how to factor that into my macros. I usually have a sweet tooth at the end of the night, but most bodybuilders don’t believe in the whole “one square of dark chocolate before bed” motto that all the healthy celebrities swear by. Instead, most of the bodybuilder girls I found online like to create a sweet concoction with protein powder that helps them hit their protein goals for the day. Most nights I nailed my carbs and fat, but needed more protein to hit my macro goal. I learned that you can mixed a scoop of vanilla protein powder with almond milk and some baking powder and pop in in the microwave for a little makeshift mug-cake. I made my concoction and it definitely came out kinda grainy and weird, but it wasn’t terrible. On day four I caved and bought a Cookie Dough Halo Top. I ate the entire pint in one sitting. That’s the point, right?
I was really fucking happy to reach the last day of this experiment. Every muscle in my body hurt and the thought of that post-workout shake was making me gag. I also have to admit that I was barely drinking any water by the end, so I definitely failed on that front. If it were summer I may be compelled to drink more, but at this point I couldn’t stomach the gallon. It was a lot. I did manage to finish my No Cow bars despite buying a 12-pack, so call me a hero.
The last day was also my rest day, which was convenient considering I could barely sit. I’m also pretty sure I tore something in my left shoulder. The basic betch inside me couldn’t wait to get back to SoulCycle and hot yoga. But first I need like, a three week nap.
After a week of eating a ton of protein and pushing in the gym, I can confidently say that the bodybuilder lifestyle is respectable. It’s also not for me. One positive thing I’ll say is that I really enjoyed the weight-lifting, despite my tragic soreness. The more I learn about weight training, the less I feel compelled to do cardio to burn a million calories. Getting stronger is so much more rewarding than cycling off the cheesecake you ate last night. I intend on keeping up with this sort of training, with maybe a couple extra rest days in between.
I’ll also mention that I weighed myself before and after the week, and I only gained about two pounds. For me, that’s nothing. My weight fluctuates all the time, so two pounds is like, having an extra cup of water before bed. I was pretty pleased with this, not only because I wasn’t looking to gain weight, but because it’s cool to know that by eating a little more and doing less cardio, you’re probably not gonna get fat. I think that’s something a lot of people are scared of (including myself), so that’s important to note.
In the end, I’m retiring as a bodybuilder. Aside from the fact that I’m actually *not* one, I don’t want to live in a world where I crave a salad after eating chicken and rice all week. People obviously get amazing results from eating and training this way. It’s also a huge commitment to be so particular about all the macro numbers you have to hit. I’m not sure I need that stress in my life. And what’s with the bullshit protein desserts? Can’t we just eat cake and not tell our coaches about it? Am I too invested in the role?
Anyway, LMK what I should try next. I’m gonna go eat a carrot stick.
Images: Scott Webb / Unsplash; Giphy (6)