This is part of Athlete Daily’s series highlighting high-level athletes across the world of strength training and functional fitness, and how they approach diet and nutrition. Learn what some of the best athletes in the world eat, how they fuel themselves and lessons learned along the way.
Weightlifter Travis Cooper, placed first at this year’s Olympic Trials in the 77 kg class with a 145kg snatch and 181 kg clean and jerk. A three-time USA weightlifting national champ, Cooper is a three-time world team member and a two-time Pan Am medalist.
Athlete Daily: What are some things you’ve learned since dialing in your nutrition? (Cooper works one-on-one with Renaissance Periodization founder Nick Shaw)
Cooper: “In any sport, whether its bodybuilding, CrossFit, or weightlifting, you’re doing some kind of periodization- that term is pretty general. But a lot of times people don’t periodize their diet.
You want to [continuously] go through those phases of dieting (maintenance, cutting, massing) and you can’t always be at your leanest. We all want to walk around and look great and that’s awesome, but getting lean for me and for some people is very difficult.
It takes a lot of work and a lot of calculation and I can’t always be there. And it’s not always best for your performance to be at your leanest. You have to make sure there’s some times during the year you’re maintaining or massing, and then when you’re getting ready for a competition of course, you’re going to be cutting slowly.”
Athlete Daily: Let’s talk about the fact that you lost about 20 lb. and dropped an entire weight class. Was that always part of the plan? Because you competed for a few years as an 85kg–and were very competitive in that weight class.
Cooper: “It was my decision. And the reason was to give me the best opportunity to score points at Worlds for Team USA as well as make the Olympics myself. It was a tough decision and my coach was supportive but tentative, because I was already the national champion at 85kg.
When you’re already the top lifter in the country and then to do so much to your body and make so many changes, there’s a lot of uncertainty involved.
Honestly when I started working with RP, my initial thought process wasn’t ‘I’m going to work with them to cut a weight class.’ Just through different periods of time in that 85kg weight class I weighed roughly the same, but I could tell my body looked different.
I really wanted to learn about nutrition to optimize my body composition in that weight class. But as I started training lighter, when I got to about 81kg and 80kg, I was maintaining all of my strength. I thought, ‘I’m so close I can water cut from here, why not try out cutting to 77kg and seeing how it goes?’
The before and after photos tell the story. I was kind of mad at Nick, because I took these terrible bathroom selfies with a big cowlick and [thought] nobody was ever going to see them. And then he goes and posts the before and after photos later on.
I’m like ‘Dude, I would have taken a better picture if you had told me these were ever going to be posted.’” [Laughs]
Athlete Daily: So how did you successfully manage to cut from 85kg/187 lb. to 77kg/169 lb?
Cooper: “I started at about 90kg/198 lb. bodyweight. It was over Christmas, I kind of got fat, realized I wasn’t happy with how I looked, wasn’t happy with how I was feeling and I knew that I would learn some stuff. But, more than anything, I just needed someone to report to—that accountability. And that was the key.
I was the first weightlifter to work with them, and it was pretty expensive. And, honestly, I think that was one of the keys in sticking to it. It was a significant portion of my income at the time to work with them.
If you make that decision and you pay for it– and that’s one of the keys, a lot of people don’t like to pay a lot of money for services– but honestly there’s an element of if you pay for it or you pay a lot of money for it, you’re going to put the time in, because you’ve proven to yourself that you value that. And you put a monetary value on that.
Once I put a monetary value on it, and it was pretty high, I realized ‘I’m going to do this’ and it wasn’t an option.
So, I got down to 84kg by March 2014, maintained there and competed at the Arnold. From March until May I cut from 84kg to 78kg. and then I competed at the Pan Am Championships as a 77kg.
I’ve had a few good competitions, and I still don’t feel like I had my breakout competition yet in 77kg. I feel like there’s a lot more than I’ve shown, but for the most part I maintained all of my strength and that’s why I cut. When I realized that, I felt like my ranking would be better.”
Athlete Daily: Earlier you mentioned going through the phases of dieting and not always walking around at your leanest. How important is it to take those breaks from cutting weight and not worrying about your weight going up a few kilos?
Cooper: “Right now I’m going to the next few meets as an 85kg just because, after the Olympics were over, I went on a massing and maintenance cycle. We had so many competitions in a row I was constantly cutting weight and you have to psychologically and physiologically give your body a break.
You don’t always want to be cutting and losing some of your muscle mass, and after that it was nice to have a little break. So the next meet that I’ll be a 77kg [for] is Nationals next year most likely. Possibly the American Open this year, but most likely Nationals next year or the Arnold.
Generally I’ve found with my body particularly, it’s more susceptible to injury when I get below 80kg. for a long period of time. When I’m training and my goal is to lift as a 77kg at the next meet my goal is to stay at 80.5kg. That’s an easy water cut for me, I can manipulate my water stores and make weight and still not affect my performance.”
Athlete Daily: Is there one takeaway from your experiences so far that you wish you had known sooner?
Cooper: “I think if you had a school-age weightlifter and you were teaching them everything—how to train, how to eat, how to do this, etc.—all at the same time, it’s overwhelming. You have to build habits.
So I don’t really regret not understanding nutrition fully, because I built good habits in every other area so it [wasn’t] strenuous to add one. I already train all the time, I have a schedule, I already do those things.
So, I’m not building those habits anymore, and then I could concentrate on building the nutritional habits.
Everybody is different, so knowing your maintenance calories is important. Everybody has different resting metabolic rates (RMR) and that’s important. I know there’s some people who
weigh less than me that can eat a lot more than me and can’t gain weight and then the opposite. You have to learn yourself individually and fad dieting isn’t really the way to get there.
Nutrition is going to make up a certain part of this, it’s definitely going to keep your body composition better, but it’s not magic, it’s a piece of the puzzle.
Most of nutrition with weightlifting is ‘are you eating enough calories to recover?’ And then if you’re in a certain range [of those calories] your performance isn’t going to be drastically different, but making weight and competitions, you’re just going to understand those things better. Nutrition just increases your opportunities to perform better.”
Athlete Daily: You were a wrestler before you got into weightlifting. Were you always paying attention to your weight and what foods you ate back then?
Cooper: “Realistically, I was always either on a fairly high calorie surplus or a fairly low calorie deficit and I never was in the middle.
It was ‘eat as little as you can handle and still perform’ or ‘go ahead and eat what you want’ type thing. And you constantly seesaw in between those things without realizing the numbers. It sounds stupid because I’m a very mathematical person, so it sounds dumb when you say it now, but you know when your 16, 20 years old you just don’t know.”
What I Eat in a Day: Travis Cooper
Wake up 7:00-8:00am
Breakfast – 8 eggwhites + spinach + salsa with oatmeal + almond butter
Training Session #1 10:00am – 12:30. During training I’ll drink Gatorade (60g carbs) + GRIND whey protein
Post training/Lunch (1:00pm) – 4 ounces protein (chicken or some kind of meat) + rice or sweet potato or some whole grain bread (30g carbs)
Training Session #2 3:00pm. I’ll have more Gatorade (60g carbs) + GRIND whey protein during this training session too.
Dinner – 4 ounces protein (chicken or some kind of meat) + rice or sweet potato or some whole grain bread (30g carbs). If I’m cutting a lot of times I won’t have carbs later on in the day.
Bedtime – Casein protein + peanut butter or almond butter or some almonds
Athlete Daily Nutrition Series
Week 1 — CrossFit Games athlete Emily Bridgers
Week 2 — CrossFit athlete Christian Lucero
Week 3 — CrossFit Games Masters athlete Cheryl Brost
Week 4 — U.S. Olympic Team Weightlifter Morgan King
Week 5 — Human Improvement Project’s Gabe Subry
Week 6 — Weightlifter, GRID CrossFit athlete Marco Coppola
Week 7 — CrossFit Games athlete Lindy Barber
Week 8 — GRID and CrossFit athlete Jamie Hagiya
Week 9 — GRID athlete Andrew Rape
Week 10 — Olympic lifter Anthony Pomponio
Week 11 —CrossFit athlete Andrea Ager
Week 12 —Powerlifter Ewa Januszkiewicz
Week 13 — Weightlifter and Powerlifter Kris Pope
Week 14 — Weightlifter Travis Cooper
Week 15 — Weightlifter Cortney Batchelor