Nutrition has always interested me – with “abs built in the kitchen” it always felt like it has the opportunity to be the silver bullet to build a better frame.
Over the years I’ve spend countless hours reading and researching nutrition – coming at it from bodybuilding, strength training, general fitness and cycling angles it is amazing how the topic twists and turns.
Even with this fairly robust base knowledge I always felt there was MORE to learn.
So a few years ago I decided to try out a nutrition coach to see what difference this could make to my gains. I chose to use Barbell Medicine at the time and ran with them for around 7 months, or 30 weeks.
Here are my thoughts on the process.
At a glance…
- I ran Barbell Medicine nutrition coaching for around 7 months
- Overall I was disappointed with my results, principally because I set unrealistic goals at the outset
- BBM could improve their value proposition by being more involved in goal setting or using picture based check ins
- The experience was worthwhile overall, teaching me more about nutrition & improving compliance
- Subsequently I’ve continued to improve my physique building on my experience with BBM
- I would recommend a 3 month cycle for someone used to tracking macros, or a longer 6 month block for a complete beginner
Why did I go for BBM nutrition coaching?
Plain and simple – I had experience with their brand and trusted them as a result. Having come from the Starting Strength program I initially came across BBM through the nutrition board on there. It quickly became the most valuable part of the Starting Strength website for me and I found the free advice and posts really helpful to create an interest and basic understanding of nutrition.
Further their staff all exhibited the kind of traits I was looking to emulate myself – extremely strong lifts with great physiques while NOT being centred around ultra low bodyfat levels. This seemed to be achieved while leading a reasonable lifestyle and wallowing in a hole of self pity and hunger.
In short, their approach looked the best fit for my lifestyle on an ongoing basis, even if it didn’t result in sub-10% bodyfat levels.
Nutrition Coaching: What do you get for your money?
The coaching plan I ran could be summarised as follows:
- One to one coaching with a personalised nutrition program
- Guidance is kept as general as possible – so for me it was focused on daily macro targets rather than ‘eat 120g of sirloin steak at 8am’ specificity
- Weekly check in with a single coach with goals for the following week subsequently set
- Unlimited email support for ad hoc queries or support if needed
- Conditioning programming – so how many LISS / HIIT sessions a week to do
How much did it cost?
I note that Barbell Medicine no longer publish prices on their website so I will respect their wishes (to an extent) and not publish monthly prices here.
That said to give this review useful context I think a ballpark figure is needed.
I paid an amount between £500 and £1000 in total for the coaching service. Note these figures are in GBP and include local taxes as well as any foreign exchange translation costs at the time. Hopefully this is enough to give the desired context without revealing anything too specific against their wishes.
While this is a significant amount of money, if it provided the silver bullet to build physique and strength then it would be money well spent!
What was my experience on a coaching plan like?
After filling in the questionnaire and requesting coaching the process moved at a good speed to get me matched up with a qualified nutrition coach.
I can walk you through my experience below:
Initial contact & recommendation document
Initial contact was an email from my coach with a custom plan laid out with a bunch of super useful information in a Word document.
Throwing this down right now – the initial nutrition recommendation document was one of the highlights of the process for me. The document is packed with snippets of gold on some hot topics including:
- Alcohol and its role in a structured diet, how to count it and how it impacts your results
- How to measure food (hint: measure it using a scale)
- How accurate to be when hitting daily targets
- How to spread meals and macros out across the day
- High and low carb day guidance (not applicable to everyone, or even to the same person all the time)
- How to approach eating around training
- What body measurements to take and when
- Eating “clean” vs hitting macros
- Diet fads or cycles (Mediterranean vs Zone vs Paleo) briefly covered
- Fibre and how it is the key to everything (I added the last bit)
- What are good protein, carbohydrate and fat sources
- Supplements – exactly what to take and when
- Water consumption
- How to track food intake when eating out, and how to plan ahead to make it fit your macros
- Raw vs cooked food weights and counting macros
- A few compliance hacks are covered to help everything fit your macros
- Conditioning recommendations to go alongside your nutrition plan including heart rate ranges and other bits of advice
So overall… Quite a big list for a single document. The document is not that long, but it is densely packed with information that is pertinent to living as healthy lifestyle.
It is worth noting that a reasonable percentage (around half to two thirds) was information I had already picked up from the Barbell Medicine crew and their forums, blog posts, videos and other outputs – but seeing it all consolidated together in one short and sweet document made it implementable.
When consuming media in bite size chunks disaggregated across the web it is hard to see the bigger picture and how it all fits. This document is the electrolyte that delivered that Eureka moment for me.
Cutting to the chase: This is the best deliverable I received during my nutrition coaching with BBM and I do still refer to it from time to time.
Cutting to the chase part 2: Can I share or publish my recommendations? Unfortunately (for you guys as readers) not, as it is the IP of BBM and the coach I was dealing with.
One to one coaching
After submitting the questionnaire to BBM the coach they allocated got in touch with me. There was no ‘matching’ that I was aware of to align interests or styles between coach and pupil. Would I rather have picked a coach? I’m indifferent on this point as I didn’t ‘know’ many of the Barbell Medicine team beyond their social media and forum profiles. Some may prefer some input, however.
For workout programming I know some providers do a mailbox style approach where you’d an drop queries in and get a response from anyone on the team. That does not appeal to me for nutrition coaching which feels more personal.
The nutrition coach I was assigned was with me throughout my time with BBM which I liked. Particularly when dealing with something as personal as diet it helps foster openness / transparency to build some kind of relationship with a single other individual.
Weekly check in
There was a formal weekly check in required where I had to complete and return a short questionnaire and a tracker showing daily macros and various measurements (such as bodyweight.)
The questionnaire was fairly generic essentially summarising compliance with previous targets and key body measurements, but it did include an area to put in anything I was ‘feeling’ – so if I was bloated, struggling to hit targets, etc.
I had to submit this on a Sunday – this was not ideal for me as I would have preferred a mid-week check-in but it wasn’t a big enough issue for me to flag formally.
Weekly goal setting
Responses back from my coach following the weekly check in were incredibly fast – like seriously quick! I am based in the UK and they were in the USA, but often I was receiving feedback in an hour or two.
This was a double edged sword however, with a serious pro and serious con:
- Positive: Rapid responses meant I was able to very quickly turn around my check in and then respond to the feedback – so I could plan out meals or tweaks to my meals for the coming week. It worked in to my schedule well once I was used to it.
Meal prep initially took more planning to spread my macros out as per the initial guidance document and work out supplementation, but once I had been running for a few weeks this became second nature.
In truth, like a lot of others, I ended up with a few core meals which I simply tweaked the ratios on to hit my macros (so adding rice or veg as carbohydrates increased or decreased, for example) so after a few weeks this positive wore off a little.
- Negative: It killed off the feeling of value of the service. This might sound overly dramatic – but BBM being able to turn around weekly goals and check ins in a few minutes did not feel like it was analogous to the money being paid out for the service
This may well have been because I am a pretty disciplined guy – I was following the guidance more or less to the letter and getting on with it. I didn’t need a lot of handling to keep on track and – in general – was not slipping up much.
However when I did come off the rails it was made clear that this wasn’t really part of the plan and I needed to try harder. Enough said – I took it on board and tried to improve where I could.
Perhaps because I didn’t probe or ask specifically, but feedback generally didn’t include many specific tips and tricks – so for example if struggling to hit carbohydrates there wasn’t a ‘hey have you tried mashed potato’ type response, rather it was pushed back in to my court to find a solution to become compliant.
This was fine and I always found a way, but after the awesome initial document I had hoped for a few more nuggets of gold along the way.
This is really where the money goes for most – if you struggle to set your own macro or calorie goals and actually meet them having an accountability line will help you comply.
As noted I am a disciplined guy – but even I saw a significant uptick in compliance when working with a coach. For example I always knew that compliance meant hitting macro targets +/- a small number of grams, but when I was doing it without a coach I was always hand wavey – “just about there”…
Coaching changed this mentality – and permanently. I took it MUCH more seriously and that has continued since coaching. This is probably the biggest piece of LASTING value from the coaching service and I am thankful to have done it for this reason.
A mundane example is simply weighing my whey protein – previously I was doing a “scoop” as 25g of powder, but when I started taking it more seriously I was weighing it out – so a scoop was actually 32g of whey protein powder.
How much difference can it make? Well 7g of protein powder had 27 calories principally made up of 5.5G of protein. If I was having 3 – 4 scoops a day (2 shakes) I was under reporting by up to 108 calories / 22g of protein EACH DAY. If you consider the cascading impact on other targets I was essentially eating too much protein in place of carbohydrates & fat to achieve my weight goals.
If this was applied to various other foods and not just whey it’s easy to see why compliance and reporting was one of the main long term take-aways for me from the coaching experience.
Was this something that, in my heart of hearts, I KNEW I should be doing anyway? Yes. Did it take coaching to make me act on it? Yes. Does that have value to me? Yes.
Guidance: General vs specificity
As advertised and in line with all their material that is out there the weekly targets for me in my situation were a “IIFYM” / if it fits your macros type approach.
From what i can tell others who may struggle with compliance, are new to training & tracking food, or have other goals may have different benchmarks set.
If this sounds like you then it may be worth listening to something like Robert Santana Nutrition Linear Progression podcast as it has a nice way of talking about improving diet front the ground up which may be a nice precursor to formal nutrition coaching from BBM or similar.
Macro targets worked well for me but at times I did think some more specificity would have been better. For example my macros were changed off the back of the weekly check in – I did think there could have been a “soft review” every few weeks to look at macro splits across meals, how protein was spread out, carbohydrate sources etc.
Once I got my bearings with the diet and the way macros were tweaked week to week it became fairly easy to predict what goals would be set based on my overall target of weight gain plus the check-in data of bodyweight / compliance / subjective feedback.
Unlimited email support
With a single point of contact it was quite easy to just drop an email in to the coach on the fly. I did this a few times over the course of our time working together and – as per the weekly check ins – turnaround was always fast.
I didn’t have a great deal of ad hoc queries to bring to the table, but if you were new to trying to get your head around nutrition it would be a pretty handy resource to fire off an email and get an informed response.
Where I asked specific queries that required a bit more depth to answer I was referred to useful articles or links to do further reading. I appreciated this as it is always helpful to have recommended source material from someone who appreciates the full context of the question rather than drowning in a sea of conflicting and potentially irrelevant or down right misleading information for our personal situations.
Was Barbell Medicine nutrition coaching worth it?
A period of nutrition coaching from Barbell Medicine would be worth it for many people, but in my opinion and based on hindsight I stayed with them for longer than I could have.
If I had done their entry level 3 month block only would I have missed anything? No. Truth be told by that point it was simply punching the clock for check ins and the adjustments were predictable with good compliance from my side. Even when my goals changed I had the education I needed to keep on track myself.
There was no pressure from their side (if anything the opposite!) to keep working with them month-to-month and it was a personal decision I made to keep the coaching going. At the time it was a crutch to keep me on track while I transitioned a couple things in my personal life as well as from a bulking to cutting focus.
When we parted ways it was on great terms with a few final words of encouragement from the coach to help me keep on going forwards with confidence.
What were the negatives?
When I reflect upon my time with BBM I would say I enjoyed the service, learned some new things, implemented some things I knew, but the overriding feeling is one of money on the table… A bit of a missed opportunity for me, and perhaps a gap in the offering from BBM.
What do I mean?
Well my coach let me set my own goal and we followed them resolutely. This might sound great – but in reality I was chasing a dream that couldn’t occur. What I NEEDED was a reality check and coaching in expectation management.
Should I bulk, or cut? What about maintain?!
I was around 175lbs having bulked myself up to this point when I reached out to BBM. I was fixated on the idea that ‘real men weight 200lbs’ as was the soundbite at that point in time, and was determined to get there. This was further fuelled by seeing the BBM coaches weighing in at similar 195-210lbs and looking great.
When is enough, enough?
So I set my goal to bulk to 200lbs. And my coach helped me get there (we ultimately stopped around 196lbs). On paper, mission complete. Goal achieved.
HOWEVER I ended up with a 38.75” waist measurement, weighing in at 196lbs standing at around 5’7” tall. Athletic I was not. Frankly, I also looked terrible. To add insult to injury I had taken periodic blood pressure readings as we had a monitor in the house for a while (unrelated to my bulk, thankfully!) and I was recording pre-hypertensive readings regularly.
Difficulty setting realistic goals
I had chased a dream that was not achievable in the timeframe I was operating in.
I would have loved if my coach had stepped in and held that awkward conversation with me about this up front and we could have set different milestones or targets that were more conducive to healthy, productive growth. Would this put some people off? Probably. But it would have added a TON of value to the rest of us who needed knocked down to earth.
Building on this theme I was surprised that throughout the process the check ins were purely Excel, Word and email based. I would have thought a picture said a thousand words in my case and, had we been doing regular pictorial check ins, may have highlighted the (literally) growing issue I was having with becoming fat!
Accountability: Nobody else put food in my mouth
While I stand by the above, it worth remembering that nobody was forcing me to eat this food, or to set the aspirational goal that I did at the time. Only I did those things and I take responsibility for the actions and choices.
What hiring a coach did is add an element of agency to the situation – it was easy for me to hide behind “coach says” when I was beginning to get uncomfortable.
Where am I now?
While I initially bulked up, my Barbell Medicine coach also helped me transition in to a cut. Once I was set up for that I took the reigns myself and continued to apply their approach to my tracking and diet.
I’ve dropped just over 50lbs since my peak weight down to a very light, but much more aesthetic 145lbs. I’m using many of the learnings from the BBM coaching experience and continuing to chase my goals down.Needless to say I am putting more thought in to what I am aiming for now having been through a pretty serious fat phase!
So did I learn anything from my nutrition coaching experience? Yes I absolutely did – several things that have stayed with me are valuable. Having that accountable line was helpful to push me to be more accurate with my tracking.
I think their packages of 3 or 6 months are likely both great options depending how much experience you have tracking if you are not price sensitive. Looking back, I would have got about 80% of the benefit for a 3 month subscription (vs the 7 months I followed). If you were not as comfortable tracking your macros and calories then 6 months may help you get that habit embedded more.
The only constructive criticism I will offer is around perusing unrealistic goals – something I set myself. It would have been a HUGE plus for me to have had an honest conversation at the start where my coach, with a lot more experience than me, could have managed my expectations and we could have collaborated on a more realistic and ultimately more rewarding path for me to follow.
I think there is a gap here that Barbell Medicine could move in to to involve themselves in goal setting. I also think picture check ins would have been beneficial.
Nutrition advice and research moves at a fast rate, just today I read a post on the BBM forum around weight gain with the responder advocating a slow and controlled rate of gain – much slower than that I was coached to follow a few years ago. I assume this is their new stance on weight gain. I can only hope this advice has filtered through all the BBM affiliated coaches and is being pushed out to their customers.