When it comes to the health and fitness industry, I think one ideal everyone admires is leanness. We all want to look good naked, and whether you are actively striving to achieve that aesthetic or scrolling through your Instagram feed wistfully wishing you had those abs, you've seen enough photos of athletes to make a connection in your brain that leanness is synonymous with "fit" or "in shape" or "strong".
Take a moment and think about those words:
If I asked 10 of you to give me a definition or physical examples of those words, I'm sure I'll end up with 10 different descriptions. Maybe you're thinking of the CF Games athletes we watched compete a few weekends ago. Maybe an Olympic athlete for track and field or a gymnast. Now stop to think about what influences have shaped that definition for you. How much of that is based upon the opinions of society, friends, family, loved ones. Of photos posted all over social media or television. Your own desire to achieve the look of someone else. Are you comparing yourself and your accomplishments to another person, someone who is a completely different person than you - different body type, different life demands, different everything? Katrin is fit, Katrin has abs...so you MUST need abs to be fit. Having been there and done that, I can tell you - that kind of thinking is exhausting.
Which leads me to the purpose of this post - when is there ever a situation that gaining weight or becoming less lean is desirable? Your ideal aesthetic may not be conducive to your goals for training. Would you be willing to set aside thoughts of what your ideal body is in order to achieve your athletic goals? You've been counting macros and leaning out for a long time, and you're starting to feel drained by the process. What if an extra 5 pounds or becoming a bit "soft" in your legs or midsection means you are actually healthier, physically or mentally?
If overall strength is a high priority, periods of caloric excess that coincide with hypertrophy phases in your training will be a great strategy to build muscle. It is really difficult to get bigger - and therefore stronger - in a calorie deficit. For the average person who trains because they love it and want to be better for themselves, this phase can happen at anytime. Sure, it's easier to hide that extra fluff under layers of clothes in the winter, but spring, summer, fall are as good a time as any to experiment with training and proper fueling. If you are a CrossFitter, the conclusion of the Open - for most of us - signals the beginning of the off-season, and usually strength is a high priority for the following months. Give yourself the best opportunities for improvement in that area by fueling your body properly to promote muscle growth. Another situation where a caloric excess could be beneficial is if you are already lean or you've spent anywhere from 3 to 6 months leaning out. It may seem counterintuitive - why would you want to undo all of the hard work and sacrifice of the previous months to put back on 5-7 pounds - but the benefits here are twofold: if you are lean to start with the weight you gain will most likely be muscle plus taking a break from rigid dieting (the word "dieting" used here to mean calorie deficit) will save your sanity in the long run.
Trust me, I know what it feels like to go through a lean phase and the self esteem boost that comes along with it. I also know that it becomes really hard to sustain the process after a certain point, the point at which your body just stubbornly holds on to some fat in the worst places. That point is different for everyone, but for me it came about 6 months after I began counting macros. My goal was to lose the baby weight I had gained after having my youngest son; I didn’t have a specific weight in mind, and although I weighed myself often to gauge progress, I was also staying aware of things like hunger and performance in relation to what I ate. Six months of religiously weighing and measuring everything I ate resulted in a body I was really proud of but attempting to lean out past that point was physically and mentally draining, so I decided to maintain where I was. Once I switched up my training to a strictly hypertrophy template a few months after maintaining that weight, I decided to go all in with my food too - eating and training for muscle mass.
From a following macros standpoint, the gaining weight and losing weight process is very similar - the numbers won’t be perfect to start with, which is why it’s important to keep track of things like weight, energy levels, hunger, performance, sleep quality and any other metric that is important to you. Gaining too much each week isn’t desirable, just as is losing too much. Better adherence means faster results. You can achieve your goals with a lot of junk food, but you’ll feel better and perform if you stick to things like meat, veggies, and starchy carbs. To come up with my new calorie total, I took my current macros and bumped up the daily carbs by a lot and the fat and protein by a little in order to create a caloric excess. I continued to track what I ate in case changes needed to be made. I also started circumference measurements (leg, hips, waist, and bicep). That way I’d have concrete evidence of my impressive gains! I think it’s also important to have an ending weight range you’re comfortable with.
I'm not going to sugar coat it. Seeing that number on the scale going up each week messes with my mind more often than I'd like. I thought that I would be able to handle the number on the scale creeping up each week and not allow insecure thoughts about it to creep into my head, but I want to be upfront about this process, good and bad. Far too often all we see on social media or hear from friends is only the good side of things. Not to take anything away from the impressive progress pictures and motivational words but that is a small representation of a long journey - one with many ups and downs. Most people are afraid to talk about those bad times out of fear, feeling ashamed, pride or not wanting to feel out of control, just to name a few. I realize now that it's crucial to be in a good place with your body in any shape or size, and you can tell yourself that all you want when you're lean and feeling great, but the real test comes when you notice your abs disappearing. To be completely upfront and honest, I’m not sure I was in that place at the start of this process, and that is making things challenging from an emotional standpoint. The important lessons I’m learning along the way are things I wish I didn’t have to contend with but I realize are necessary for my health. Lessons like looking at food as a variable to manipulate, as something that evolves and needs to change as we go through life - as we get older, change our training style, have kids, deal with extra stress or lack of sleep. You can change your body to make it what you want to be - leaner, softer, stronger - but must be able to recognize what you’re mentally capable of at a given point in time, too. Going through this process is a real test, but your way of thinking about it will determine your success.
The things we're afraid of are the things we need to do to grow. If you can be systematic in your approach and keep the measurable and quantifiable progress in the front of your mind, a mass gain will give you insight into what your body is capable of. I am continually lifting more weight each week and feeling more powerful. My energy levels are high and I’m excited to train each day. The insecurities we experience when we step on that scale are completely in our control, and what better way to face them head on than with a purposeful weight gain. It will give you the best opportunity to build muscle and maximize your strength gains, as well as teach you to appreciate your body for what it can do.