Bodybuilding is one of the most popular sports and pastimes in the world right now with a multitude of industries connected (valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars) and weightlifting enthusiasts spanning every country, region, race, gender and religion across the world.
A Brief History of Bodybuilding
The global bodybuilding phenomenon has, like most stories, a very humble beginning.
While bodybuilding itself has been around for millennia, the "father" of modern-day bodybuilding was a man called Eugen Sandow; Eugen brought bodybuilding to mainstream attention in the late 19th century.
Sandow was the inspiration for many bodybuilders within the "golden era" of bodybuilding; an expanse of time roughly between the 50's and the 80's where bodybuilders from all over the world would make the pilgrimage to the then mecca of bodybuilding; Venice Beach in Santa Monica. To this day, you can still find old school bodybuilders training at Gold's gym in Venice Beach or the outside gyms dotted along the beachfront.
This period of time was dominated by the now globally known Arnold Schwarzenegger who trained religiously at Venice Beach and took home bodybuilding's prized award, the Mr. Olympia, winning the annually awarded trophy seven times. Schwarzenegger was bodybuilding's first superstar and he transcended the sport to move into films and eventually politics.
His popularity helped propel bodybuilding into the mainstream and created multiple generations of new age bodybuilders focused on developing aesthetic physiques like those celebrated within the golden era.
Arnold published a blueprint for all future generations of bodybuilders to work from; his "Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding" which introduced countless modern bodybuilders to training regimes and the old school bodybuilding diet.
What is the old school bodybuilding diet?
The old school bodybuilding diet was one built around highly nutritious whole food; packed with protein, nutrients, minerals and providing the fuel for muscle growth.
Bodybuilders of the golden era didn't have the range of sports supplements we do today; protein powders were hard to stomach, fat burners and pre-workouts were non-existent, creatine was virtually unheard of and supplementation as a whole wasn't much of a viable option.
The diet was instead built around "real foods". Whole eggs, red meat, chicken breast, cottage cheese, fish and more would serve the basis of the bodybuilder’s high protein diets. Some would even consume raw eggs (which we wouldn't advise for multiple reasons. Did you know that the protein in raw eggs is less bioavailable than cooked eggs! One of the more hardcore practices back in the day)!
In their offseason (the time outside of competition where they had to be extremely lean on stage), bodybuilders would be seeking out energy for muscle growth within their diets by including plenty of carbs and or following a higher fat approach. A higher carb diet ensured that their glycogen stores (internal stores of carbohydrate) were packed out to assist in the gym and with muscle building. Staple carbohydrate sources like brown rice, potato, yam, wholewheat pasta etc. were preferred.
In the time leading up to competition many would follow a low carb (or at least lower carb) approach to dieting. As competitions drew closer some bodybuilders would even adapt to a ketogenic diet approach to shed the last few percent of bodyfat.
Keys to building muscle with this diet
Why was this form of dieting so successful and well accepted amongst the bodybuilding community?
Well, aside from clearly getting the results intended, it was steeped in scientific evidence (long before studies and data were of any interest to bodybuilders).
You see, muscle building is more than just what we do in the gym, it's what we provide the body with thereafter that helps repair, remold and develop our muscle.
The gym acts as a stimulus for growth; when we train, we aren't actually driving muscle growth in that moment necessarily, rather instead we're breaking it down and damaging it. This sends signals to the body to adapt but it cannot do so if it isn't provided the building blocks needed to push forward with progress.
Here's where your diet comes in (and why the old school bodybuilding diet is so effective at what it was designed for). Dietary protein provides the building blocks (in the form of amino acids) to repair, rebuild and develop damaged muscle. Researchers advise athletes and exercisers to consume a high protein diet (roughly 1.4 - 2.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight). Promotion of a high protein diet is equally as important for the gainer looking to promote muscle building as it is for those aiming to prevent muscle loss during a dieting phase.
The diet should be rich in complete and high-quality protein sources. These are sources which provide the full spectrum of amino acids and are most effective at promoting muscle protein synthesis (the creation of new muscle tissue). Complete protein sources are mostly found in animal sources (such as whole eggs, chicken breast, cottage cheese, red meats, fish etc.) with plant-based proteins described as incomplete protein sources. Athletes who choose to follow vegan/ vegetarian diets should be aware of this, however a simple solution would be to simply combine multiple plant-based protein sources.
The diet is readily adaptable to the goal of the bodybuilder at that given time. As mentioned, carbohydrate and fat intakes will be manipulated based on whether the bodybuilder is in offseason or if they're moving towards competition (with high carb practices tending to be the norm in offseason and low carb / ketogenic diet approaches tending to be favoured.
It should also be noted that maintaining a well-rounded state of health is also promoted within the diet as they advocate bodybuilders to still focus on consuming plenty of fruit and vegetables, minimizing processed foods as well as alcohol.
Comparative to many modern "fad" diets, such as the carnivore diet, Atkins diet, whole30 etc., there is no great advocation of restriction without purpose. There is no necessity for weight loss without purpose. There is no focus on specific "magical" foods without rationale or reason. The entirety of this diet is based around supporting bodybuilders become the best version of themselves within their sport and it adapts to the cycle of the bodybuilding calendar.
You could almost view this dietary approach as more of an out and out lifestyle approach, as opposed to many of these "short term fixes" we see coming from the fad diet market.
Building an old school bodybuilding diet meal plan
An old school bodybuilding diet plan is fairly simple to create for yourself.
What matters most is your goal at that time; are you "bulking" or dieting? And after that consideration you'd mostly want to look at changes with your carbohydrate and dietary fat intake to suit that given goal.
Example meal plan of an old school bodybuilding diet
Here is an example of a given daily intake (adjusting carbohydrate and fat intake for bulking/ gainer phases or a dieting phase);
100g / 50g wholegrain rolled oats cooked with water or a plant-based milk alternative
4 - 6 egg whites (fried in cooking spray) or 30g whey protein
A kiwi, satsuma or half a grapefruit
A fillet of grilled salmon (served with a wedge of lemon if desired)
125g of cooked wholegrain rice
Or (if dieting)
A Mediterranean styled salad (a base of mixed leaves with a mix of mixed peppers, chopped red onion, a serving of crumbled feta, a dash of olive oil and balsamic vinegar)
Grilled chicken breast fillet
125g cooked wholegrain rice
A large serving of steamed or roasted broccoli or spinach / kale
A serving of cottage cheese
A serving of nuts (of choice, with preference to almonds, walnuts, cashews, skinned peanuts and or brazil nuts)
One to two slices of crisp rye bread (for the cottage cheese - to be excluded if dieting)
Meal 5 (pre-workout)
A black coffee
And, if not dieting,
A banana (or two) or handful of dried fruit (or two)
Snacks (if and when required);
Pieces of fruit
Higher protein Greek yoghurt options
Meal 6 (post-workout meal)
A 30 - 40g serving of whey protein powder with milk (or water if dieting)
A serving of lean meat (such as steak)
125g cooked white rice
This example meal plan allows for plenty of flexibility too. The sources of protein, carbohydrate and dietary fat can be “chopped and changed” with any of the following;
High quality protein sources
Lean poultry (chicken and or turkey breast)
Egg whites and whole eggs
Lean red meats (grilled steak, low fat mince etc.)
Fish (a mix of white and dark, oily fish)
Slower digesting carbohydrates (perfect for any meal outside of pre- and post-workout)
Most fruits (preferably those with a fibre content)
Beans, legumes and other pulses
Faster digesting carbohydrates (perfect for the pre- and post-workout meal)
White bread and other baked goods
Healthier sources of fat
A variety of nuts
A variety of seeds
Plant-based oils (preferably extra virgin olive oil)
Should you include supplementation within this diet?
The supplementation industry has advanced lightyears beyond what was then known to the golden era bodybuilders. No more disgusting protein powders, rock hard, inedible protein bars, advancements in performance enhancers and more intelligent formulation all lend themselves towards the argument that an old school bodybuilding diet would only be improved further with some key supplementation additions.
Modern bodybuilders should consider supplementing with a few of these options:
How can you talk about bodybuilding without mentioning protein powder?
Odd marketing strategies aside, protein powders are pretty amazing and a fantastic addition to virtually anyone’s diet (even those outside of the bodybuilding community).
Not only will it make much easier for you to hit your protein targets, but protein powders are also highly cost-effective, calorie efficient (high percentage of protein per serving) and complete (vegans may want to opt for a blend plant protein powder). A vital addition to the old school bodybuilding diet.
Creatine became more popular post the golden era of bodybuilding but may be a potentially useful addition to the old school bodybuilding diet.
Creatine helps to recycle our body’s energy molecule; ATP.
This recycling service can help increase max intensity / power outputs which can translate to short- and long-term increases in strength.
Creatine may also have some impact on signalling muscle hypertrophy as well as a host of other health benefits!
Caffeine is awesome; who doesn’t love coffee!?
Do you want to know who else love coffee? The golden era bodybuilders. They used pre-workout coffees to help propel their performance and increase fat oxidation.
A black coffee or one of our recommended pre-workouts would be a great option to try!
The last supplement we’d like to highlight is beta-alanine.
Beta-alanine is somewhat of a complimentary piece to creatine; while creatine can lead to improvements in maximal output / strength, beta-alanine can improve reps to exhaustion / failure.
How so? Beta-alanine helps to buffer the by-products of lactic acid metabolism which can accumulate over a training session / set and cause that “burning” feeling in the muscle. Physiologically, the accumulation of these by-products can impact muscular function and, psychologically, can make training more difficult if you’re experiencing the pain of that burning feeling.
The health and fitness industry are continually chasing revolutionary diets, supplements and training protocols. Isn’t it rather ironic that something which was created whenever the arguable heart and soul of bodybuilding was formed remains arguably the best approach mostly any bodybuilder can take for their diet?
The old school bodybuilding diet is, in of itself, a really great approach for this sport. It follows many scientific protocols without overly promising and never underdelivering on its claims; helping you become the best bodybuilder you can be.
It adapts to the bodybuilding calendar, advocates whole foods and preaches the important of an overall healthy lifestyle. A “lifestyle” approach that many could follow and find benefit.