If you spend enough time around people who work out, you’ll inevitably hear one of the many aphorisms about the importance of nutrition: “abs are made in the kitchen,” some might say or – in the words of Zack George – “you can’t out-train a bad diet.”
If you want to listen to anyone in this world about how to get fit, it’s probably Zack George. He is, after all, the holder of the title of the UK’s fittest man, our best CrossFit athlete and an absolute beast who smashes workouts like nobody’s business. But perhaps even more impressive than where he’s ended up is to consider where he started from: “I was a very overweight kid, very different to how I am now,” he explained. Sports he’d enjoy, but a walk or a bike ride? “I’d be like ‘nah, I’m out, I just want to eat chocolate’,” he laughed. “Anyone who knew me back then would be amazed that I’m the UK’s fittest man.”
George has made a name for himself as a one-man band: a CrossFit Box owner himself and formerly a personal trainer, he’s made the move into professional CrossFit as his own coach. But when it came to nutrition, he looked outside for a bit more support, and started working with Mike Molloy, founder of M2 Performance Nutrition. “I have complete trust and faith in Mike,” said George, “so pretty much now whatever he says goes.” If he’s good enough for Zack? Then he’s more than good enough for us.
We couldn’t imagine a better duo to ask for advice on how to eat before and after your workouts: both on the day and over longer periods of time to see great results. But neither George nor Molloy are under any illusions that what a professional athlete has to do is necessarily what someone who wants to be healthy and look good on Instagram needs to do. We discussed the techniques that have helped to up Zack George’s A-game, and also how the lessons he’s learned can be applied to anyone’s fitness regimen.
1. The importance of nutrition
ZACK GEORGE: I’ve always been quite relaxed with my nutrition. I always ate healthy, but had cheat meals. But where I think Mike [Molloy]’s going to propel me massively for next season is timings of foods, and when to tweak and change macros around certain events, like the Open.
I’ve made lots of mistakes in the past. In 2019 and 2018 I didn’t change my diet at all really for major competition. So I was competing at 100 kilos. And I still did OK, but a prime example was in 2019: there are five Open workouts, and I think I was placing first, first, second, third. And then in one of the events I was 168th in the UK, so that pretty much cost me getting the games ticket in 2019. That was because an exercise, strict handstand press-ups, came up. 50 strict handstand press-ups, and being as big as I am, being 100 kilograms, that workout just absolutely annihilated me. So that was the first occasion where I realised I can handle my body weight well, but I just need to be lighter because I can’t compete with the little guys on these movements. So that’s when I made the conscious effort to to be a lot more strict around competitions.
2. What to eat before a workout
MIKE MOLLOY: Zack didn’t have a bad diet before we started together. I think it was just a little bit unfocused. If Zack was just trying to be a relatively fit guy – look good on the beach and things like that – he was doing just fine. But he was trying to be one of the fittest human beings on planet Earth, and extreme goals take some level of extreme approaches. Focusing on his pre- and post-workout nutrition was a natural place that we could make some pretty substantial gains.
When Zack’s going into a CrossFit workout, there are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. One is that we want to have that workout be well fuelled, so we want to have a good amount of what we call muscle glycogen, which is essentially just energy stores in the muscle, for his muscles to use that to generate the high-intensity output that the sport of CrossFit demands.
So carbohydrate fuelling pre-workout is a massive thing that we’re really paying attention to. But there’s a balance there, right? We can’t put so much food into Zack, or the wrong types of foods, to the point where he feels heavy during a workout. You don’t want it that, when lactic acid starts to build up from the intensity, his stomach doesn’t feel too good. So we’re looking for a relatively high-carb, moderate-protein, lower-fat meal, somewhere between 90 to 120 minutes prior to the start of the workout.
So far, that’s gone really well: he’s a big fan of oats, and so that’s a go-to staple food for Zack that fuels his performance, but he’s not sitting there going: ‘Oh, my God, these are sitting in my stomach, I feel terrible,’ while he’s trying to do a bunch of muscle-ups or crush it on the bike.
If any workouts go longer than 90 minutes, we will talk about having something like an intra-workout carbohydrate, just to keep his energy levels and his brain happy so that he can continue to perform and put full intensity into that entire training session. Then, as soon as the workout is over, we’re into recovery mode.
3. If you work out twice in a day
MIKE: For your average person who’s just going to the gym for an hour, they can just go eat a meal. But Zack typically has multiple sessions every single day, and so that post-workout period for him is really, really critical. We have two goals: one, we want to get some easy protein into his body – 20 to 25 grams, let that digestion occur so that he can really maximise the benefits from that workout, as well as continue his daily goal of hitting his protein level. Then two: we want to recover those carbohydrates that he burned throughout that workout so that when he comes back that afternoon, he’s not starting the entire session depleted. He’s starting from a place of having plenty of energy in his muscles, so he can go out and hit it hard again. That post-workout window is almost like thinking about pre-workout nutrition for session two already.
When Zack works out at the intensity that he does, especially the volume that he does, that does deplete his energy stores a decent bit. His workouts are great for building his capacity, but they’re draining on his body: they take a toll on his muscle glycogen stores. So that post-workout window, between session one and two, needs to recover them. He has a meal, or even just a protein shake with a good amount of carbohydrates in it, and that starts the process of rebuilding those stores. It gets him headed back in the right direction, so that the muscles are fully topped off. It’s like filling a gas tank in the car. And so by the time you get to session two, he’s in a place where his muscle has all the fuel that it needs to run on for the high-intensity training.
CrossFit is a sport that is predominantly based upon the body’s ability to burn carbohydrates; Zack’s really good at that. But if the carbohydrates aren’t there for that second session or in a competition, or for that second or third workout of the day, it doesn’t matter how fit he is, his performance is going to suffer. From a training point of view, we want every single one of Zack’s sessions to be as good as it can possibly be. So by taking care of our post-workout nutrition after session one, we guarantee that session two is going to be a higher-quality workout.
4. The importance of prep
ZACK: My journey as an athlete means I’m now dedicating all my time towards achieving my goal, which has had a big impact. A year ago, I would train in the morning, and I might have a PT session straight after, so I wasn’t really getting much food until like two hours after. Then I’d have a couple of hours at home and then I’d go train in the afternoon. I’d fit in whatever food I could during the day, and train again from five to seven. And then sometimes I’d coach from seven to nine. So I’d finish training and not really get any food until half nine, which is obviously not ideal.
I now don’t coach at all. I just focus on training, so I can be more specific on when I have my post-workout nutrition. So I think when it comes to being able to look after your nutrition, it comes down to your lifestyle. I’m trying to make small percentage gains in any area possible, my whole life is geared towards being the best athlete that I can be. Some people are not as fortunate. They might have to go to work or train very early in the morning, and then do a whole eight-hour shift at work, train again in the evening: they’re trying to fit food in when they can, when they have lunch breaks.
That’s why it’s very important to be proficient with your meal prep. A lot of people say they don’t have time to eat meals, or they have to train and go straight to work. But if you have that food prepped already, and you just need to put it in the microwave, that can really help your progress and your nutrition.
I think nutrition is something that people don’t dedicate themselves to enough, and it’s such an important role in any sort of fitness journey. You can’t out-train a bad diet.
5. What to eat on the day
MIKE: Within a day we have two goals. Zack has a total calorie goal and a total macronutrient goal: x grams of protein, y grams of fat, and z grams of carbs across a total day. So we break that down within his day, based upon when and how he’s training.
Zack has a morning session and an afternoon session: he might wake up and have a normal breakfast, but there’s a good amount of time before that first training session. About an hour and a half before that, we’re going to give him a high- or moderate-protein, high-carb, low-fat snack. The protein is therefore building muscle, the carbs are there to fuel his energy. And the fat is kept low, because it slows the digestion process down, and is going to make him feel heavy during workouts.
As that 90- to 120-minute session comes to a close, Zack’s going to have some kind of post-workout protein and carbohydrate to get him ready for that second session. He’s probably going to pop a lunch in there as well though, right? So we’re continuing to fuel throughout the day. He hits that second session, he’s done for the day, he can have a second protein shake to tide him over, or he can just go have a regular meal. We’re trying to move the macros around such that he’s fuelling his workout and recovering, fuelling his workout and recovering.
6. Cheat meals
ZACK: I am a very big athlete for a CrossFit athlete: I currently weigh about 98 kilos. But before meeting Mike I was probably about 100 kilos. And this year was the first Open where I consciously made a cut towards the Open, so I got lighter. I made a cut down to 96 kilograms, and that was just purely by cutting out cheat meals. So I’d eat roughly about 3,500 calories to 4,000 calories a day. Then at weekends, I have a big cheat meal. Leading up to the Open, I was very conscious about wanting to trim down a little bit. So I just stopped having cheat meals, and I got down to a nice natural weight of 96 kilograms. And I think that massively helped me win the Open, just being four kilos lighter, and it made such a huge difference to all the gymnastic movements: everyone was saying I was just moving a lot better, I was moving a lot more fluidly, and obviously I wasn’t getting as tired because I didn’t have to shift as much weight around during the workouts.
MIKE: Right now, Zack’s still taking what we call a cheat meal: a low-stress, go out, enjoy it, don’t-worry-about-the-calories meal. As we get closer and closer to the Open, we’ll remove those and say, ‘Look, they’re totally fine. But we need to get them out of your diet now so that we can control as many variables as we can possibly control.’ So now we’re going from days to weeks, and we’re thinking, ‘Alright, we’re getting closer, closer to that competition. Let’s control every variable as much as we possibly can.’ And we’ll start that roughly three months out, knowing that a three-month ramp-up prep phase will get him to optimal capacity.
7. The importance of sustainability
ZACK: The next goal is February for the Open. In November or early December time, it’s going to be extremely strict. I’ll be totally zoned in and focused and getting everything down to exact macros, which Mike wants me to hit at exactly the times that I need to be hitting them. But then, obviously, like every athlete in every sport, you’ve always got an off season and an on season. You can’t maintain 24/7 focus every day, every month of the year, because you’re going to burn out eventually.
MIKE: Sustainability is a big part of our back and forth. There’s going to be a time period where we’re going to literally control his diet as much as humanly possible. But at this point, he needs a sustainable approach, such that he’s not so stressed by the process that he’s burned out by the time the Open comes. Zack was just on some incredible vacation with these gorgeous views, making me jealous, and I said: ‘Hey, man, I don’t want you to track a thing during this whole week. I want you to enjoy that time. Use it as a mental break, even though you’re still training while you’re out there.’ That sustainability is so important. I think it’s a component that many, many athletes miss and that Zack, being as intelligent as he is, knows to incorporate.
ZACK: It definitely makes a massive difference. I’ll be looking forward to when we dial it up in end of November, whereas if we started now, we’d probably get to December, early January – the time where I need to be focused – and that’s probably where I’d start dropping off a little bit, because I’ve already been on it for so many months. I think some athletes feel that they need to be on it 24/7, every day of the year. They just don’t understand you need to relax and enjoy life a little bit more. Because when it gets to game time, your whole focus and desire is towards one goal: that’s when if a friend invites you out to a restaurant, you say no, because I can’t be bothered to try and fit this into my macros. You need to kind of be a bit unsociable around those sort of times, because I literally just want to focus towards the goal.
MIKE: The sad reality is that 80% of the people who lose weight will gain it back. So much of that comes down to extreme approaches that ultimately are not sustainable over the long term. So just like we were talking about with Zack, using the extreme approach to get him ready for the Open, if we did that all year round, he’d be totally burnt out. It’s the same thing with a nutritional client who’s trying to lose weight. If we slash their calories by 50%, they might make some great progress for a couple of weeks. And it looks good on Instagram. But ultimately that weight is gonna come back on because the approach is unsustainable.
ZACK: I think you find a lot of those on Instagram, especially, lose X amount of weight in three or four weeks, and they show a transformation picture, and they basically just cut their calories in half, which made them lose weight, but then they don’t show the following three to four weeks where they’re probably going to creep that weight back on. If you drop your calories in half, you’re going to slow your metabolism down, because it’s not used to dealing with hardly any food. So then when you start to eat normal again, because you’re not always going to live off 50% calories, you’re going to have to at some point increase those calories. And then your body just can’t deal with the calories and that’s stored as fat.
8. The importance of knowing your goals
MIKE: So we’ve got two different categories: we’ve got weight loss, and we’ve got bulking.
From a weight-loss point of view, the goal is about creating a calorie deficit that’s enough to generate results, but not so painful that it’s not sustainable. So a little bit of macronutrient tracking, like Zack does, can be really helpful, because what we’re aiming for is somewhere between maybe like a 300- to 500-calorie deficit on a day-to-day basis, maximum.
We’re looking for slow, steady, sustainable weight loss. You know, in the US, we talk in pounds: no more than one pound a week. And it sounds so crazy to tell somebody: ‘No, I want you to slow your weight loss down.’ But that’s absolutely what we do say, that this is happening too fast, you’re gonna lose muscle, you’re gonna slow your metabolism down, let’s take a less extreme approach. So we’re trying to distribute that food. If their normal calorie intake is 2,500 calories, we cut them down to 2,000. At 2,000 calories, for that to be sustainable for that person, they’re probably going to feel a little bit of hunger, so distributing that protein throughout the day will allow them to minimise that hunger a little bit.
We might talk about macronutrient timing, from the point of view of somebody trying to lose weight, by saying, ‘I want you to have three meals and two snacks and try to distribute your protein kind of evenly throughout the day.’ That’ll minimise energy swings and things that ultimately lead you to binge eat, which is typically the problem that people have when they’re on a calorie deficit.
With bulking, it’s funny: the people that really want to gain weight oftentimes struggle to do so because they’re just so energetically active. You almost have to force them to consciously think about eating. It’s about saying: by noon, you have to have had at least 1,000 calories. Let’s make sure by four o’clock you’ve had another 800. Let’s make sure by dinner you’re close to 3,000. That way, the person doesn’t shoot me a text message at six o’clock at night and go, ‘Mike, I’ve only had 600 calories today. I’ve got 3,000 calories left to eat, what am I supposed to do?’
Plan your day out and then think about your goals. Distribute that protein so that either you’re not getting too hungry, or you have so much food at the end of the day that there’s almost no chance of you finishing it.
These approaches that Zack’s using for his elite performance can be applied to your average client: think about your day, plan in advance, distribute your food relatively evenly so you’re not either too hungry or too full at any point. The goal is different in the sense that you’re not chasing performance, you’re just trying to chase a calorie deficit or a calorie excess.
Also make sure you’re taking care of the other aspects of your life, like sleep and stress management – it’s easy to keep a calorie deficit if you’ve had eight hours of sleep. If you’ve had five hours’ sleep, next thing you know, you don’t really give a crap about your diet any more.
ZACK: I think depending on what client you get, every client needs different nutritional advice or approaches. I come from a very performance-based approach, so that’s where timing is extremely important. Whereas if you have a client who basically maybe wants to lose weight, those timings aren’t as much of an issue. It’s more about right, let’s just tackle your calorie intake first and try and get you into a calorie deficit in order for you to lose weight, before starting to bombard them with X amount of nutritional facts.
If you give someone who wants to lose weight a lot of things to focus on, they’re going to just get confused, and they’re not going to stick to a diet. I’ve seen a lot of people give really complicated nutritional diet plans, and the client just didn’t stick to it, because they’re like: ‘What is going on? This is too strict for me.’ Whereas if you just pull their calories down, and allow them to see a bit of progress, and not blow their whole world up too much with that diet plan, I always find that’s the best, most sustainable approach for a client.
9. Moving from lockdown back to the gym
ZACK: For me, it was very important to stick to the same routine as much as I was pre-lockdown. That was exactly the same for nutrition. I was eating roughly the same breakfast at the same time, I was having my lunch or my snacks at the same time, I was having dinner at the same time. Keeping that same routine really, really helped me get through the weeks and the months.
You’re trying to limit the number of changes that you can have in your life, because so many aspects are already changing. You’ve got to try and control what you can. But if you did let your routine go and you’re now going back into the gym, I think you just have to forget about what level you were at before or what shape you were in before lockdown. Just start afresh, don’t put any pressure on yourself. If you could do X number of pull-ups before lockdown, don’t expect to go to the gym and do the same pull-up straight away. Just take it easy, just spend the first month enjoying being back in the gym; enjoying feeling good from training, and training with friends that you might not have seen for a while.
The same applies for the diet: don’t go into the gym and then just go completely strict and try and get as lean as possible in the first week of the gym because, again, it’s not going to be sustainable. For that first month, for your training and your nutrition, just tweak it slightly, don’t try and go to where you were before. Just enjoy the process, enjoy getting back into the gym. And once you find that love for going back to the gym again, I think you’ll naturally start to make your diet and your routine how it was pre-lockdown.
Zack George, CrossFit Athlete and UK’s Fittest Man new online programming will launch 1st November 2020, register here.