As a bodybuilder and a coach, I know that many competitive physique athletes sometimes adopt a “food is fuel” mentality and claim that flavor is secondary, although many times I think it’s likely that we’re just trying to convince ourselves.  For the vast majority of the people I meet in the fitness industry, many of whom are just trying to eat healthier, the flavor of food is a concern, and a valid one.

I want to be very transparent about my feelings on this.  Eating in a healthy way in pursuit of your fitness goals and enjoying food DO NOT have to be mutually exclusive of each other.   There are many ways one can enhance or improve the flavor of your fitness-friendly foods that won’t end up derailing your goals.  Knowing the basic nutritional facts about your favorite seasonings and condiments can tell you a lot about what you can use freely, use sparingly, and avoid altogether. 

However, I find that one seasoning is both the most common and the most misunderstood ingredient in your kitchen.  It is also the one basic ingredient that can be used more effectively than any others to enhance the flavor of food – SALT.

Wait a minute, isn’t salt supposedly bad for you?  I mean, if we’re trying to be healthy, aren’t we supposed to be following diets that are low in sodium?  The answer:  NOT NECESSARILY.

I don’t want to create unnecessary confusion here.  Clearly, if your doctor has instructed you to follow a low-sodium diet, listen to your doctor.  There are some legitimate reasons why certain people should limit their sodium intake.  Those individuals who have high blood pressure, have suffered a stroke, and many who have a family history of high blood pressure or strokes, may want to limit their sodium intake.  Additionally, some people are simply sensitive to sodium, and if you experience significant bloating or discomfort (due to water retention) after a meal that is high in sodium, you may want to limit your intake of salt.  Further, there is also a correlation between high-salt diets and stomach cancer, although the research on this is incomplete.

However, diets can actually be TOO LOW in salt, and this can have negative effects on the body, especially for athletes.  Salt is actually a compound composed of two important electrolytes, sodium and chloride.  Sodium plays a role in muscle contractions, and when sodium is lost through perspiration, this can lead to muscle cramping.  Sodium is also involved in proper nerve function and maintaining blood volume and blood pressure.  Chloride, like all other electrolytes, is involved in everything from nerve impulses to fluid balance.  Very low levels of chloride can lead to an excessive build-up of carbon dioxide in the blood, causing the blood to be more acidic. 

Further, several studies have shown that low-salt diets can have negative effects on cholesterol and triglyceride levels.  Insulin resistance can also be a result of low-salt diets.  And, while this may seem counter-intuitive, extremely low-sodium levels can also lead to water retention.

In conclusion, here’s my take on this.  Unless you have a specific medical reason not to, it’s absolutely ok to put moderate amounts of salt on your food.  If you’re generally avoiding processed foods (which I strongly encourage) you’re very likely in complete control over your salt intake.  For competitive bodybuilders and physique athletes, there may be reasons to restrict sodium as you near your competition (and by that I mean within a week – there’s just no good reason to cut out salt for weeks in advance), but this will only be for short periods.  The rest of the time – SALT YOUR FOOD.  Your food will taste better, making it more likely that you will stick to your meal plan, and you may actually feel and perform better in the gym.

Some Thoughts About Freedom and Self-Discipline

Some musings in anticipation of Memorial Day.

I love America.  We are truly blessed to live in a country where liberty and individual freedom are so revered.  Our founders obviously valued freedom and liberty very highly, as they knew first-hand what living under a tyrannical government was like.  In our Declaration of Independence, they named liberty as one of the “inalienable rights” that are granted by our Creator and that governments are supposed to protect.  

Around Memorial Day, we intentionally turn our thoughts toward those in our past that paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our country and other countries from forces that threaten freedom (may we never forget….!). In the present, the fact that so many people from a variety of political persuasions are vigilant about threats (real or perceived) to our freedom is evidence that we still value freedom in this country.  

And in part because of how we value individual freedom (however imperfectly) in this country, America has flourished.  However, in all of our bounty, I think in some ways we have come to adopt a warped view of freedom.  

For too many of us, freedom means doing “whatever I want, whenever I want” and any attempts to persuade people away from doing what they want or to speak negatively of them for doing so are perceived as a violation of rights or “hate.”  Neither side of the political spectrum is immune to this way of thinking, but here I am not going to wade into the waters of parsing who I think is right on which issues.  (Obviously, some actions are clearly not OK, which is why we have laws and courts.)

While the Constitution, and more specifically the Bill of Rights, protects individual freedom largely by placing limitations on the Federal government, I believe that civil society functions best when we use our freedom to do that which is positive, uplifting, and in the pursuit of the good of others.

Not that there’s anything wrong with pursuing our own happiness, but when was the last time that you said or did something that benefited yourself at the expense of someone else, something that deliberately hurt someone else, or was only motivated by your own selfishness?  Did that really make you happy?  Yes, in some cases you may have a right to be an a**hole, but in every situation where you might, do you need to be?  

A little bit of self-control, or self-discipline, can go a long way toward making your part of the world a better place.

What the heck does any of this have to do with a blog on fitness and nutrition?  

I think we can all agree that successfully pursuing health and fitness goals requires an element of self-discipline, but this is where many people cringe.  For many people, discipline means the opposite of freedom.  The thought of certain forms of exercise (HIIT cardio), eating certain foods that we know are good for us (ew….vegetables? fish?), or worse – abstaining from things that bring us short-term pleasure (pizza, donuts, alcohol, etc.), seems like the very opposite of freedom.

I have a working definition of self-discipline for which I cannot not take full credit, as I’m sure I have derived it from a variety of sources.  For me, self-discipline means choosing what you want MOST over what you want RIGHT NOW.  

In the context of health and fitness, choosing temporary pleasures (“what you want right now”) simply undermines your goals.  To be successful, we must master the ability to do what we know to be the right thing, as opposed to succumbing too frequently to doing what we “feel” like doing. 

While there’s certainly a time and a place for pure enjoyment, I would submit that the ability to quiet the impulse to fulfill temporary desires and pursue long-term goals is a big key to living a truly happy and fulfilled life.  

On some level, most of us know this to be true.  We know that we can’t ever experience financial freedom if we don’t exhibit some amount of self-discipline in how we spend money.  We know that our relationships with loved ones suffer when we voice every unkind thought that pops into our heads.  We know that disease is frequently (although certainly not always) a result of unhealthy choices.  In our exercise of personal freedom we also have personal accountability; we are free to make nearly any choice we want, but we are not free from the consequences of those choices.

As a teacher, coach, and competitive athlete, I enjoy helping others to learn these truths. I embrace the fact that I have a unique platform to serve as a model and a source of inspiration for others, even if their goals may be different than mine.  By adopting an attitude of positivity about exercise and healthy eating, it is my hope that others will see that this is not a lifestyle of restriction and self-denial, but a means of achieving and maintaining the freedom that comes with health.  I would encourage my colleagues in the fitness industry to do the same.

Recovery, part 1: An Introduction

Very often, articles written by professionals in the fitness industry are centered around training or nutrition.  Likewise, as a coach, the vast majority of the discussions I have with my clients stem from questions about one of these two areas.  Unfortunately, one area that I think we may all be guilty of not trying to adequately understand is the topic of recovery.

There are a number of reasons why this may be true.  One, in the hyper-competitive environment of the fitness industry, I think there is a wide-spread proclivity to take pride and find identity in how hard we work, how hard we train, how much we are willing to suffer, etc.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be self-disciplined and proud of our work efforts, but this can be taken to an unhealthy level.  When you’re consistently taking on more work, (training harder, etc.) just for the sake of doing more work (or for impressing your friends and social media followers), maybe you should re-evaluate your priorities.  Certainly, sacrifice and suffering are part of any hard-sought goal, but let’s try to keep the goal in mind, ok?

Two (and this is not unrelated to reason One), I think there is a reluctance to admit that we ALL have limitations.  Whether those limitations are physical, mental, or emotional, there is a propensity to equate the need for recovery with some kind of weakness.  I know that I am guilty of both of these tendencies, and I know more than a few people who would probably have to admit the same.

Now, let me be clear. I am not excusing a lack of dedication or a lack of effort.  I am writing this series of articles from the position that I assume that you are dedicated to your goals and that you are pursuing them with your best efforts.  I realize that this is a big assumption, but if it IS actually true for you, the purpose of this series is to challenge you to be more mindful about the need for adequate recovery.  

Simply put, adequate recovery is necessary in order to achieve our fitness goals, regardless of the goal, whether those goals are gaining muscle or losing fat.  Muscles don’t grow while training.  True, muscles will grow as an adaptive response to training, but only if the muscles have an opportunity to repair from the damage done while training.  

If fat loss is the goal, the body also needs to be given a chance at recovery.  Cortisol, a hormone that is part of the body’s response to stress, is the enemy of fat loss.  If our fat loss strategy is to just do more and more work (or eating less and less food), without being mindful of recovery, the body natural response will be to resist those additional efforts.

That being said, the next several articles will be focused on one or more of the following aspects of the topic of recovery:


Training intensity and volume

Macronutrient intake and timing

Pre-/Intra-/Post-workout nutrition

Stretching and other recovery techniques

Managing stress levels

Knowing your own individual needs for recovery

Signs of poor or inadequate recovery

I hope that you will find this topic to be interesting and the articles in the coming weeks to be useful (and perhaps challenging) as you continue to pursue your goals.

Consistency is the Key

Whatever your fitness goals are, following a consistent plan for exercise and nutrition is an extremely important component of your success. There are many reasons why this is true, and this short article discusses some of those reasons, as well as some tips for establishing better consistency in your program.

This is one of my very first blog posts, and depending on how you found my blog, you may not know that I come from the world of classical music. In addition to my experience as a competitive bodybuilder, I regularly perform with several professional orchestras, including the Omaha Symphony and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic. Playing an instrument on a professional level, as you might imagine, requires a similar kind of discipline to what is required of a competitive athlete.

Not that all of us aspire to be professional musicians or competitive bodybuilders, but if you are reading this blog, I assume that you have some kind of fitness or physique goals that you are pursuing. Through this brief article, I hope to share with you some of my insight into the process of pursuing goals.

The number one factor that I find has a lasting impact on a successful pursuit of a goal is the consistent application of intelligent effort. As a musician, it’s important that I practice my instrument on a consistent basis (daily) in order to be ready for performances. As a bodybuilder, a consistently executed training and nutrition plan is critical when preparing for competition.

However, I’ll go one step further. In order to really improve over time, the consistency that is applied to preparing for performances or competitions must be applied throughout the year, not just in the weeks leading up to an event. For many in the fitness world, competition is not the goal, so I would assert that your success in pursuit of your long-term goals is directly linked to your long-term consistency in exercise and nutrition.

I think one challenge that many people face in the pursuit of their goals is in the realm of scheduling. Not all of us have the luxury of a schedule that allows for spending multiple hours in the gym every day. I think it’s important to determine a level of consistency that is sustainable in the context of the totality of your life’s responsibilities.

When I was a music student in college, I would frequently practice my instrument 3-4 hours a day. However, as a working musician, with more life responsibilities (not to mention my training time as a bodybuilder), I have had to scale back my practice time to less than 2 hours a day. In fact, there have been periods of my career when just one hour a day, consistently, was more effective than practicing for longer sessions, but then taking days off, even if the total number of hours practiced per week was greater. I frequently tell my training clients that it may be more beneficial for them to follow a 3-4 day per week training plan than to try to follow something that requires 5-6 days, if that means they will be skipping workouts every other week so. Likewise with nutrition, which for most of us requires cooking and cleaning as well, the total time and money spent on a particular nutrition plan needs to be considered

Because the body will eventually adapt to the challenges placed upon it, every plan requires modifications to ensure lasting success. Even when implementing changes to your plan, consistency plays a role. Consistency allows you (or your coach) to make informed decisions on how to modify your plan for better or sustained progress. Too often, people adopt a buffet mentality to their training and nutrition, following this or that training philosophy or fad diet. It’s true that different people have different needs when it comes to training and nutrition, but it takes time to truly be able to determine if something is working or not. Without consistently following a plan, you really never know if it is really working for you. By diligently sticking with something for several weeks, you give yourself the best opportunity to make an intelligent decision about moving forward.

Jeff McCray

NOTE — An earlier draft of this article originally appeared on the Rexius Nutrition website: