We’re going to dive right into part two this week of “Learning How Much, Food.” If you haven’t yet, please go back and read the blog from last Friday here. Today, in part two, we will be unpacking the phases of eating and providing advice on how to navigate them based on your goals. Here are those phases:
- Cutting - I am trying to lose weight or more specifically body fat.
- Massing - I am trying to gain weight or more specifically muscle mass.
- Maintenance - I am happy with my current body weight.
Let’s review two things from last week:
[Performance and weight loss] are rarely simultaneous - if we are chasing performance gains, we simply have to eat more which will affect your aesthetic (weight loss). If you are chasing aesthetic gains, your performance will likely not be excellent. More than likely you’re trying to do both... train for performance and look great naked. And that is awesome. However, you could be sabotaging your efforts on BOTH fronts by under-eating.
These are very important concepts for the rest of this blog - take a second a read them again, slowly. The underlying idea is that cutting (what we need to do to lose weight) and massing (what is required to get the muscles/look lean) cannot coexist. They are opposites. So if you are telling someone that you want to look really built or strong, PR-ing all your lifts and you want to look lean, you are likely frustrated because everything you’re trying is not working.
I have good news for you: You can do it. It is possible. It’s just going to take more time than you want it to, as it is with anything that is worth doing.
First, let’s talk about the unmentioned phase I listed above: maintenance. Ew! No one likes that word because it connotes stagnation/lack of progress. But this phase is the most critical phase in your journey with nutrition. It is, in fact, the phase that we should all be hoping to exist in for the majority of our lives! Constantly cutting and massing is mentally and physically exhausting, and you are imposing a stress (see Coach Anthony’s current blog series) on your body.
Now, stress is a good thing - it is the catalyst for adaptation. We have to apply it in order to become better. However, if you are constantly under stress, in our case, food stress... your body goes into survival mode and whatever you’re trying to do becomes secondary to surviving day-to-day. Your body honestly doesn’t give two hoots if you look or perform a certain way. It will always prioritize its most basic functions, at your expense of feeling good and enjoying life (seems macabre, but it’s true).
So! Maintenance allows our body a break from the stress of under-or-overeating to achieve our goals. It provides a reset and gets your systems geared up for another push. Think of it like a deload for your nutritional regimen. Ideally, we eventually like where we’re at and we want to stay there, but even that takes some effort (a blog for later). For now, let’s just be content bringing maintenance back to the table as a valuable tool in our quest for performance and/or weight loss.
Here's a typical scenario:
You want to lose ten pounds but you also want to keep seeing improvements in the gym. You know that weight loss will help with your gymnastics movements but that strength improvements require that you gain muscle. You are willing to spend some time on this and do it right. We are going to assume that your weight is not fluctuating - in fact, it has stalled out.
There are two possible reasons for this:
- You’ve been consistently, perhaps over years, eating just a little too much, indulging a little extra here and there, so you’ve gained weight.
- You’ve been consistently under-eating, therefore, your body is in survival mode and is holding onto anything and everything that you put into it because it cannot override it’s basic biology (it thinks a period of scarcity is coming and it’s packing on as much stored energy - hello, fat! - as possible).
What we need to do first is establish a baseline (maintenance). There are lots of calculators out there that can tell you your macros if you want them. What I prefer to use is some biofeedback: Do you sleep well? Do you have consistent energy throughout the day? Are you excited to do things throughout the day? Are you happy with your performance in the gym? Do you have regular bowel movements? Is your appearance in the mirror relatively constant?
If you can answer yes to all of these, you’re likely eating enough and eating well. If you answer no to any of these and there is no other explanation for your response i.e. you had a work project that you had to stay up super late for, etc. then your food is likely off. Typically, you have an idea of which direction you need to go - up or down - with your quantity. So we’ll take the time to make some changes, eating a little more or a little less until we can answer “yes” to those questions. We can certainly get more specific, using macros or ratios or other tools to help us dial it in, but the questions remain the same.
Once you’ve established a baseline, you can pursue your primary goal. If you’re looking to lose weight, you'll need to be in a caloric deficit aka cutting. If you’re looking to get stronger, you want to be in a caloric surplus aka mass. There is certainly a “best practice” to approaching these two outcomes and I recommend seeking guidance if you are unsure how to go about it.
Now, how long should I do this? At no point should you exceed three months in either a cut or mass phase. At this point, or before, you should return to maintenance and give your body a break. I promise you will NOT undo all the work you’ve done. Weight changes are not linear, there are going to be natural fluctuations if you do it right, so we expect your weight to increase or decrease when going back to maintenance (just like your strength might do if you hit a deload week). But when you return to pursue your goal, you can get after it with some energy and enthusiasm, rather than loathing the fact that you’re still eating only salads and you feel less strong than you think you should in the gym.
Moral of the story: in pursuit of our performance and aesthetic goals, we should constantly be adjusting. Take some time, prioritize the direction you want to go, establish a baseline and then get cracking from there.
The final note I’ll leave you with is that tracking what you’re doing is a huge help in this process, as it is with training. The more specific you are, the more likely (and more quickly) you are going to meet your goals.
To wrap this all up next week, we’ll talk about how the quantity of sleep, stress and hydration can affect our health goals.
Until next time,
- Coach Caitlin
P.S. Please remember that everyone is unique. What I share here is NOT the end all be all of how any one person should eat. It is instead a generalization based on research I have done and experience that I and others have had working with clients. If you are looking for more specific guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.