Building muscle takes energy.
Here’s my super-sciency understanding of how that works:
Stimulus (lifting) + Substrate (materials to build with = mostly protein) + Energy to do the work = Hypertrophy (building muscles and related tissues for increased strength)
However, many lifters, especially but not exclusively women, are uncomfortable eating enough to work this equation through at its most efficient rate. I have heard the folks at 3DMJ talk about competitors who struggle to eat enough to bulk in the off season. And in this Stronger By Science interview with world record-holding powerlifter Natalie Hanson, she explains that as a powerlifting coach, she often has to convince women to go up in weight class, even though they would perform more competitively at a larger size.
And there’s no free lunch, or uh, muscle, I guess. (Which sounds kinda creepy and vaguely cannibalistic, but hopefully you know what I mean.) If we aren’t willing to put on some fat, we aren’t going to build much muscle.
The ratios of fat to muscle gain seems to vary quite a bit from mostly muscle/little fat to mostly fat/little muscle, depending on variables like how close we are to our muscular genetic ceiling, training history and status, how much of a calorie/energy surplus we consume, sex, training stimulus, and probably more that I can’t think of off the top of my head.
In any case, this means if we are uncomfortable seeing changes in our physique, adding on more “fluff” than we’re used to seeing, then we’re unlikely to eat enough to see as much muscle growth as we might.
The traditional advice to manage this issue, “bulking” and “cutting” cycles, can introduce and reinforce unhealthy dieting mindsets. Maybe if we were robots we could just mathematically eat more for 6-8 months and then mathematically eat less for the next 4 months to manipulate our body fat percentages and see the results of our hard work. But, we’re not robots. It isn’t just a matter of math. We’re people, and people are prone to mindsets that can make dietary changes harder to stick to like all-or-nothing thinking–bulking can come with excessive eating of less-than-healthy foods and cutting can become just another semi-starvation calorie and macro-tracking diet.
What’s a physique athlete (or recreational bro) who wants to maintain a healthy relationship with food to do? Well, like nearly always when it comes to behavior change, there’s lots of mindset work to be done here. If our goal is to add more muscle, we need to unlearn our preferences for being lean all the time. We need to learn to see that added bulk as progress, as a sign of our dedication to the work.
We also need to find strategies for adding and reducing energy intake that don’t contribute to all-or-nothing thinking. It can be tough to get enough additional calories in if you’ve worked hard to eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Last time I intentionally went on a bulk, I learned that I had to add up to 600 calories/day to start seeing weight gain. I simply couldn’t do that with my usual veggie-and-chicken-laden meals! It helped me realize that I still had work to do to avoid labeling foods as good/bad, as I was clearly worried about intentionally introducing more “bad” (ie. calorie dense and very helpful in that situation) foods back into my diet. Labeling foods as good or bad is dieting mindset and can actually make it harder for us to reach our goals.
The way I see it, the goal is to get to a place in our thinking that it is easier and less stressful to manipulate the variables necessary to see results. At the root of these food-related mindsets may be fat-phobia, anxiety and judgement associated with carrying larger amounts of body fat. It’s important that we address this fat phobia. These pervasive mindsets have allowed for anti-fat bias to permeate our cultures and harm others, including contributing to the oppression of people who have experienced poverty, women and people of color. Even if we believe these feelings are only directed at ourselves, at a minimum we are getting in the way of our own goals by limiting the tools available to us.
Changing our mindsets takes time. Shaming ourselves when we realize we have work to do gets in the way of doing the work. When you notice roadblocks to your progress–such as dichotomous thinking, labeling foods as good/bad, and fat-phobia–recognize that the mindset shifts will take time and discomfort. We must challenge our own thinking. Mindsets are habits, just like brushing our teeth first thing in the morning, and it will take time and practice to create new patterns of thought. But, we can change how we interpret the world, and the benefit we draw from that work is a better world and more ease at reaching our goals.
Are you working to improve your mindset around body fat and food so you can better reach your strength and hypertrophy goals? I’d love to hear about it!
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