Christina is a nationally competitive 57kg powerlifter as well as a former gymnast and Division I track athlete. She is a strength and conditioning coach for both gymnastics and powerlifting and is the head coach of a gymnastics program in Birmingham, Alabama where she lives. Christina currently holds a BS in Sports Medicine and Nutrition and will graduate with an MS in Applied Exercise Science (Strength & Conditioning concentration) in summer 2020. In addition to her degrees, she is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA), Performance Enhancement Specialist (NASM), Speed & Explosion Specialist (NASE), USA Powerlifting Certified Coach, and holds the Precision Nutrition PN! Nutrition certification. Christina has coached athletes of all ages, including powerlifting athletes ranging from novice to nationally competitive to IPF World qualifiers. She is passionate about empowering women (and men) of all ages and body types to find their strength through strength training. When she’s not training or running her business, she loves to read, enjoy live music, and hang out with her three black cats.
How should a powerlifter (generally speaking, I know each lifter is different) balance their protein and carbohydrate intake to maximize strength goals and recovery? Does there need to be a balance between protein and carbohydrates? Should powerlifters consume one more than the other?
As you mentioned, this is going to be very individual and is dependent on several factors. Chronological age, training age, genetics, current body composition, and body composition goals, total caloric intake, and many other things can all affect a lifter’s nutrition needs. That said, there are some general guidelines we can follow here. Step one of determining your nutrition needs is to figure out what your total caloric intake should be. Once you have that, determining protein intake is your next step.
Consuming adequate protein is essential for muscle protein synthesis, which is required for recovery, hypertrophy, and other training adaptations. Adequate protein intake paired with good nutrient timing habits can enhance neuromuscular strength, hypertrophy, and improve body composition in the form of greater gains in lean mass, increased fat-free mass, and greater weight loss and retention of muscle while in a dieting phase. Consuming adequate protein also improves recovery from training, and when combined with carbs post-training, it speeds up the glycogen replenishing process! In addition to better training adaptions, protein can enhance cognitive performance and sleep quality, and man protein sources contain important micronutrients that can increase absorption and retention of iron and even speed up wound healing.
For daily protein intake, we want to be within the range of 1.5 to 2.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you are not accustomed to taking in much protein, it is best to gradually increase your protein intake. You can start at the lower end of the range and slowly work your way up over time. Masters athletes and athletes who are in a deficit (cutting) should aim for the higher end of the spectrum. I should mention that intakes even higher than this have been researched and appear to be safe (though much of the research has been done on trained males, so we can only generalize so much). Intakes as high as 4-5g/kg BW have been tested and are safe, but do not seem to have any increased benefits. For more information on protein for strength athletes, you can check out these posts: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
After determining how much protein and fat you need to consume, you can divide the rest of your calories by 4 to get the number of grams of carbohydrates that fit into your calorie goals. That said, here are some carbohydrate guidelines to consider in order to maximize your performance:
Glycogen is the main fuel source for strength athletes during training. Ensuring adequate glycogen availability is key for optimizing training performance, which in turn sets us up for better competition results. So how many carbs do we need to eat to make this happen? Individual daily carbohydrate needs depend on two main factors: training volume and baseline physical activity levels. In other words, how active are you when you are not training? If you work a desk job, for example, you may not need to consume as many calories as someone who works a very active job, and total caloric needs (and therefore carbohydrate intake) will be lower.
Why does it matter if we get enough carbs? Our brain uses primarily glucose for energy, so consuming enough carbs in our diet means we increase our cognitive performance (do you see a trend yet?), including improved focus and decision-making skills. Glycolysis and the phosphagen system are the main energy systems for resistance training athletes, and carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel for these activities. Since glycogen provides the fuel for glycolysis, it makes sense that eating enough carbs to replenish glycogen is important for performance, but adequate glycogen stores also support other energy systems such as the phosphagen system mentioned previously. Likewise, lack of carbohydrates can be a performance-limiting factor as hypoglycemia and muscle glycogen depletion can decrease performance and increase fatigue. For lifters, this means that subsequent bouts of exercise (like doing multiple sets of an exercise) will be negatively affected, decreasing strength and work output. Just like with protein, eating enough carbohydrates to support your training needs can lead to enhanced training adaptations, including neuromuscular strength, hypertrophy, and increased recovery from training.
You are currently finishing up your Master’s Degree in Applied Exercise Science with a Strength and Conditioning concentration. What are some of the most important ideas and concepts you have learned from your classes that you carry over to your own training? What do you believe has allowed you to remain injury-free thus far during your powerlifting career?
I think good periodization and having an objective third party in charge of your training (like a coach) is so important for staying healthy. Of course, having good technique and movement patterns is essential for avoiding injury, but even too much of a good thing can still lead to injury when volume and load are not properly managed over time. For example, implementing a periodized annual plan allows periods of time when overall strain is lower, whether that be lower intensity, less frequency, lower volume, etc. Yes, deloads are one way of accomplishing this, but it is much more “big-picture” than that; the best coaches are going to have a plan for much longer periods of time than just a couple of training cycles. Knowing when to push and when to pull back makes a big difference.
As for the second half of the question, I actually have not been injury-free my whole career. I have scoliosis and a sacralization (a vertebra that tried to be the wrong kind of vertebrae), and a history of a lumbar stress fracture from back in my gymnastics days. Sadly, that means I occasionally have to deal with spine issues, most notably one that kept me from training regularly for almost a full year in 2018. However, I worked together with my awesome coach, a fantastic sports chiro and PT, and put in the effort to rehab and rebuild my movement patterns. The silver lining of that whole ordeal was that I went through some volume desensitization, and I have been able to come back stronger and continue progressing my squat and deadlift with less overall training volume than pre-injury. It’s like I got a little reset!
There is no shortage of powerlifters (all athletes for that matter) who deal with meet day anxiety. You have written quite a bit about this topic in the past and it is certainly a topic of grave importance. What advice would you provide to readers who find themselves constantly struggling with meet day anxiety? What calming strategies have you employed that have benefited you the most on meet day?
The four most important steps for combatting meet day anxiety are:
1) Practicing positive self-talk. Positive, affirmative self-talk has been shown to improve performance over harsher, demanding methods. This can be as simple as exchanging “do not miss this lift” for “I can make this lift.” Self-talk directly affects how you feel and behave, and positive self-talk is made up of thoughts that lead to positive emotional reactions. Negative self-talk leads to unwanted unproductive and harmful emotional reactions. Effective positive affirmations should be in the present tense, specific, and positive.
2) Maintaining YOUR normal on meet day. The importance of routines has been well established in sports, and meet day is not the time to change your technique or try out a new warm-up strategy! Going through your normal routines helps relax your mind. Practicing routines in training leads to unconscious successful habits. Make your competition setting as much like training as possible, and you will feel more at ease and collected!
3) Practicing grounding and focusing on the right things. Grounding is a strategy that you must practice before meet day so that you can use it to reel yourself back in when nerves and anxiety start to take over. It refers to the process of focusing on a specific sensation, to reduce anxiety or stress. The Headspace app has an entire series on this for athletes that is really excellent for learning and practicing grounding! Focusing on the right things is another essential part of avoiding anxiety. Pressure only exists in our minds, so focusing on details that you cannot control results in a negative physical reaction (increased heart rate, tightened muscles, knots in your stomach, etc). When you start to notice those feelings, you will likely end up focusing on them, only making it worse. Focus on the process (putting on your wrist wraps, listening for commands, taking a deep breath to brace) rather than the outcomes. You can control the process, but you cannot control the outcome. In addition to breathing pattern changes, athletes experiencing stress typically become internally self-conscious instead of externally task-conscious, meaning their focus turns inward to thoughts and fears. Deep breathing and focusing on the right things (process-oriented external focus) can help you systematically desensitize yourself.
4) Confidence, implemented through both your training strategies and attempt selection. This is something I could go on about for days, but the overlying concept is that you need to be training in a way that increases your confidence, and your attempt selection strategy should not be haphazard. Too often lifters (and some coaches) get way too focused on the numbers that will get them PRs and records rather than focusing on maximizing their total through successful attempts. Often this focus on outcomes (sound familiar?) leads to missing lifts and decreased confidence, rather than feeling successful.
Let’s continue on the topic of meet day. What does your typical meal prep and water in-take look like on meet day? Where do most powerlifters go wrong when it comes to meal prep and water in-take on meet day?
On meet day, it is important to keep everything as normal as possible. Many lifters load up on junk food and caffeinated beverages, and all good nutrition sense goes to the wayside. This can result in crashing, digestive issues, cramps, anxiety, poor performance, and just generally feeling less than wonderful. While there is absolutely room for some treats on meet day, and caffeine is important, meet day nutrition should not look incredibly different from meet prep nutrition. The only large difference is that protein is not incredibly relevant on meet day, so there’s no reason to force down protein between lifts or feel the need to perfectly hit your protein macros for the day. If you typically eat a lot of fats, you may want to try out some lower fat strategies on regular training days. Since fat and protein take a while to digest, they “sit” in your stomach longer, meaning the rest of your meal takes longer to digest and start fueling your performance. This can also be uncomfortable for some people.
Instead, focus on drinking enough water, having an intelligent caffeine strategy (see this post), and fueling yourself with familiar, easy to digest foods (foods that are lower in fat & slower digesting proteins). You’ll want carb sources that are lower in fiber as well. Make sure to get in a decent amount of sodium. While it is totally ok to have candy on meet day, do not let that be your only source of calories!
Now, your daily meals may not be easy to transport and eat without a microwave. Some of my go-to meet day foods that are easy to eat on the go: bagels, clif bars, bananas, PB&J, fruit or apple sauce squeeze pouches, & Sour Strips or fruit snacks. I compete in USAPL, which means I have less than 2 hours from when I get off the scale to when I start warmups. I have something extra salty + a good carb source immediately after weigh-ins, snack through squats, and then eat pretty normally the rest of the day. Make sure you have enough food for a long meet, and a game plan for a short, quick meet.
Let’s talk about creatine. How important is creatine when it comes to a powerlifter’s diet? Do you believe all powerlifters should be taking some form of creatine supplement, or do you believe they should be getting their entire creatine intake from real foods? Or is there no right or wrong answer? Again, I know each athlete is different but just generally speaking.
As always, the answer is very individual, but it is pretty much impossible to saturate your creatine stores purely from food sources, so most people will need to supplement it! There have been over 1000 studies done on creatine, making it one of the most researched and evidence-supported supplements available. It is also relatively inexpensive, despite being quite effective. It is “worth the hype” for sure! Creatine can improve max effort muscle contractions and maximum strength performances by 5-15%.
The PCR or phosphate energy system is the main energy system used during powerlifting competition and is a large contributor to powerlifting training (along with glycolysis). Topping off creatine stores provides a more available substrate for this system to use to power training and competition. In addition to providing fuel for the phosphate system, creatine also serves an H+ ion buffer. In other words, it allows the muscles to continue to produce large/rapid amounts of force for a longer period of time (while glycolysis is fueling your training). Having topped off creatine stores also allows for quicker recovery of the anaerobic energy systems that I just mentioned, so potentially you recover better between sets.
You can read more about whether or not you should be taking creatine here.
You have spent quite a few years under the barbell. Looking back, what were some of the biggest training mistakes you made early on in your career? For readers who may just be beginning their strength training career, what mistakes did you make early on that you would tell them to avoid?
Thankfully, I hired a wonderful coach from day 1 of beginning powerlifting, and I am still with him 5 years later! That means I do not have a ton of things I did wrong at the beginning of my powerlifting career, BUT I did waste some time before starting powerlifting by not following a structured program. Even though each individual training session was good, I did not have a long-term plan for progression. I also did not have any real goals at the time, so I was just training to train. The original lifting goal that got me started down the powerlifting path was wanting to squat 200lbs for the first time. Once I did that, I was hooked, so I learned to deadlift and hired a coach!
It can be easy to compare yourself and your progress to other lifters (especially with social media) or focus on the outcomes (state records) rather than the process. As an intermediate lifter, I went through a period where I let the wrong things become important and had some crappy performances as a result. Once I started focusing on just lifting for myself again and remembering that I loved the process, I started having more fun and performing better as a result!
Let’s talk about training specifically for maximum strength. Now, this is a fairly broad question so please fill free to take this question in whichever direction you see fit. Everybody wants to lift as much weight on the platform as they can, but they may not be going about accomplishing that goal in the most efficient manner during training. What is the biggest mistake you see powerlifters and athletes alike make when it comes to training for and improving their maximum strength levels?
Hands down the biggest training mistake I see people make is not hiring a *QUALIFIED* coach. I watch people who just make it up as they go, usually maxing out every session and doing very little volume. Or they take the opposite approach where they destroy themselves with volume, just because their lifting idol does high-volume training. Often times, the methods that these lifters choose are not sustainable and usually end in injury, frustration, or burnout.
Another thing I see is coaches/lifters who simply subscribe to a certain method/system, regardless of whether or not it is appropriate for their training age and/or individual needs. As an example, let’s look at conjugate. While Louie Simmons at Westside Barbell made conjugate incredibly popular in the powerlifting and strength training community, it is not necessarily superior to having an individualized (non-conjugate) program from an intelligent, qualified coach. Additionally, research shows us that conjugate is best suited for certain lifters who are at specific stages in their lifting careers and is much less effective (or not effective at all) when not implemented correctly. This is further complicated by the fact that many people do not understand the underlying principles of the method and just throw chains on the bar with no rhyme or reason because they saw someone else do it (or think it looks cool). Ultimately, there is more than one correct way to skin a cat, and you need to find out which way is the best for you at a given point in time.
You coach athletes on how to improve their strength and figure, but you also coach young children on how to improve in the sports of gymnastics. What is the most rewarding part about being a coach? How has being a coach to others, impacted your own life?
Coaching, in general, is incredibly rewarding, and working with young girls is truly a gift. So many times, the experiences I have while coaching my girls remind me of life lessons I had previously forgotten about myself. It is so awesome to watch them grow as individuals and as athletes, discovering confidence in themselves along the way. I get to help instill good sportsmanship, honest values, work ethic, confidence, and so many other things in my girls, and they have a way of turning around and inspiring me right back. I would not trade it for anything.
“Teach them to be strong. Teach them to be tough. Teach them patience. Teach them to walk with pride and confidence. Then stand back and watch them shine. Strong girls turn into strong women.”–Mattie Rogers
Your social media pages are routinely filled with inspirational and thoughtful quotes. What is your favorite quote and why? How does this quote speak to you and inspire you?
I do not think I have just one favorite! I love “cheesy” motivational quotes and I started my #MondayMotivationalQuotes posts on Instagram as a way to share my favorite quotes with people. I have always loved cheesy quotes and have been writing them down in training journals/notebooks for as long as I can remember. I even put a quote on my gymnastics athletes’ strength and conditioning programs! I wear elastic bracelets from a company called “La Cle” that have a short phrase written on the inside to help motivate me or remind me of a mindset throughout the day.
On meet day, I always write the word “execute” on the inside of my wrist so I can look at it during competition. It reminds me of this quote by Mattie Rogers “Get out of your own way. Let your training take over.” (That’s the second time I’ve quoted Mattie, you could say I’m a fan, ha!)
When your time on this earth comes to an end. How do you want others to remember you?
I hope people remember me as a strong person but not just physically; as a kind leader and a great friend, someone who took the time to make people feel important. Smart, but also goofy and free-spirited, and always up for an adventure.
You can follow Christina on Instagram
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