Whole 30 Misadventures, Or Never Follow A Diet That Has A Name

Over the last three months–almost to the day, because today is October 11th, and my bicep tendon decided to blow apart back on July 10th–a lot has happened to my body. Most of it has been stressful. Some of it has been painful. Some of that pain has been by choice and some of it has been by necessity. You hear the phrase “everything can change in an instant” thrown around so casually that it almost never had meaning in the first place, but my entire life for three straight months has looked like someone decided I needed to know the import of those six words put together in that specific way, and goddamn if it wasn’t going to have to take a long time to just really jam it into my psyche so it sticks. 

So, being held captive by what is probably a deserved karmatic circumstance designed to teach me that I should not count on anything in my life, however small, and probably that I should be grateful for a bunch of shit that I’m too stubborn to really be grateful for, I have woken up for about 90 days in a row thinking some variant of “yep, the arm is still busted, and that’s probably going to shake out today roughly like it did yesterday. YES. Let’s DO IT.” This reality has slowly evolved from running around with my arm splinted up to in a brace to free but really screwed up to free but can function roughly how you’d expect the average 90 year-old’s arm to function to free but is still pretty weak and crotchety and atrophied-looking: 70 year-old woman edition. This reality has brought with it a bunch of questions from people I don’t really know about my arm, a bunch of pitying stares, people I know at a medium level of intimacy not really knowing what to say to me, a bunch more questions from people I don’t really know, at all, again, concerning my arm, like “is it ok now that there is no brace on it? Like are you all healed up now?”
Nope. A tendon that fully tears in half and then gets pulled through a hole someone drills through your bone and then stapled permanently there and now the bicep attached to it is too short and the tendon is too short until everything just sort of lengthens out again over time doesn’t “heal up” quickly. Like, just because it doesn’t look like something is seriously fucked up about me or my body–because my head is also really fucked up by the way, you just don’t see that part either–doesn’t mean everything is all good. In fact, despite the fact that I am two and a half months post-surgery, ish, I don’t really feel a lot better than when the event itself occurred. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night I just sort of relive what it felt like to have shit in my arm rip apart. I don’t really want to, but that’s what my sick psyche seems to like to do. I feel like my subconscious is really into torture porn–I maintain that I’m not, but it appears that my base self, the kind that sends me the dreams I wake up from thinking “ok, we are NEVER telling anyone about that one” really is into the whole “bodies getting torn apart deal.” Gross. Stop. 

Salute, motherfuckers, I no longer have to wear this thing.

So maybe you’re thinking the following: okay Janis, stop BITCHING about your injury. Seriously. Do you ever shut up about this? Do you ever stop thinking about it? STOP, oh my god, just stop, you didn’t die. What about the Whole 30 reference in the title of this post? Did you just use a popular, fad diet name in that title to get readers sucked into reading about your interminable ability to feel sorry for yourself? Fuck, man, I have other things to do today and this is seriously bringing me down. I wanted to read about dieting because I, like basically everyone else, don’t really feel like I have the exact right answer as to how I should eat, what I should eat, how much, when, is dairy bad, what does that really cut dude eat, how many anabolics are in her system at one time, is HIIT really better than steady state–I WANT TO READ ABOUT THESE THINGS. 
Alright, alright. Here’s what happened to me when I got the aformentioned injury I’m no longer allowed to directly talk about: I got really depressed and lost a fair amount of weight, particularly for a strength athlete trying to preserve lean mass. I also dealt with A LOT of swelling and inflammation, and thought that hey, let’s do whatever we can to combat that–I have control of my eating, so why don’t I try eating in a way that might at least at some small level help to correct the inflammation situation. I need more produce. I need to not eat stuff that is inflammatory. Maybe I can bring my weight back up while doing it. What is this Whole 30 thing? 
Cast and abs: Former is gone, the latter are going.

So I looked over the Whole 30 diet and immediately was like screw some of this, this shit is kind of neurotic. Like we’re restricting some things in a way that’s looking like Pathways To Eating Disorders 101, so I’m not going to do all of this. I’m going to follow some of the parameters here to change what I’m eating towards way more produce, way more good fats, and we’ll see how that goes. Also, I want to be able to eat at chipotle so I’m going to do that and just not eat rice or beans or tortilla thingies. So I did. I didn’t really track my intake because I just figured I was eating more. Also, technically on Whole 30 you’re not supposed to track your intake. So guess what? My weight continued to plummet. I’m not blaming this on following the Whole 30 diet. But at that point, for me, I was getting into “if your weight keeps dropping you are going to lose even more usable lean mass than you have already lost, so STOP DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING YOU IDIOT” territory. So here are my critiques: 
1. I guess this whole thing makes sense for people who are legitimately attempting to isolate food allergy triggers. I also feel like if you are truly trying to do so, like if you truly think you have a food allergy, you should be probably working with a doctor and also running actual tests and shit. I mean maybe, I don’t know, I have an iron constitution and no food allergies, but I have known people who do and this is usually what it looks like when it’s a legitimate thing and not someone looking for a way to justify an eating disorder–and I HAVE had an eating disorder or five so I know what that looks like. So…if you suspect a food allergy call your freaking doctor and then maybe look into elimination diets that help you treat the whole thing like a science experiment with controls and variables. 
2. WTF there is like one complex carb source allowed, come on. I just can’t get behind that. A macro is a macro and whatnot but man, you mighhhhht hate your life if you struggle with one solid carb source. I don’t even like carbs THAT MUCH and this was some bullshit. Like I would also like to have oats please. 

3. Following the above, people really like to freak out about gluten and the overwhelming evidence I’ve seen about this is that there are very few ACTUAL gluten-sensitive people and the majority who claim this are basically justifying avoiding carb intake and hiding eating disordered eating patterns YES I SAID IT. Do you KNOW what actual celiac disease looks like? Like what it’s like to have that? That shit is NOT FUN. So calm the hell down about things like brown rice and oats and stuff that has a LOT OF GOOD STUFF IN IT FOR YOU. Damnnnnnnnnn. 

4. Ok, to be a little more serious and less argumentative, I feel like Whole 30 is restrictive to the point where anyone with any kind of history of eating issues is going to end up in a bad way at some point, somehow, because of it. That could manifest in different ways–a path into anorexia relapse, complete breakdown and binging because of perceived restriction, cycles between the two, etc–and perhaps more mild expressions of these two reactions. Because Whole 30 makes a LOT OF THINGS off limits. Off limits…does not tend to function well for people who psychologically struggle with food. It’s like taking a substance and telling a bunch of teenagers they can’t have it until they are 21. It’s SPECIAL BECAUSE IT’S OFF LIMITS GUYS, LET’S GO GET OUR OLDER SIBLING TO GO TO THE STORE FOR US. We’ve seen how that goes. Humans have the most interesting relationships with things they aren’t allowed to have, things that they might want. I mean relationships that end up making for really good movies and tv shows. So taking a diet where this is a main attribute of the diet…seems to me to be problematic. For many. 

Just like with training, the body would be easy if it was a robot one was exposing to variables and controls and changing with them. But the body is not a robot. Bodies contain minds. Whole 30 very likely works physiologically in very productive ways. I just…deeply caution people thinking about following it. Or anything else that is a fad–because yes, it’s a fad–paleo is a fad. Remember Atkins? That was/is a fad. Diets that are popular that have names end up looking like/being called fads 5 or so years after their mystique has died down. Question your intentions when you see something a lot of other people are doing and are inclined to try it out–just because a lot of people are doing it RIGHT NOW does not mean it is good. Duh, right? Right. I just figured you needed a reminder. 

Because when you’re desperate over something–when something in your life smacks you so hard in the face that nothing feels the same or in control anymore and you just want things to be DIFFERENT THAN THEY ARE, you look outside, around, everywhere but internally, for some way to feel differently–because it’s easier to do something different than feel different. Feelings can change by different actions, but generally they change if your beliefs change, and there’s only so much looking to the external is going to work for that without going back to searching for the real truth in the internal. That’s what trying to do the Whole 30 managed to illuminate, I guess. I mean my arm’s busted and I’m generally hanging on by a thread always so I would be careful about trusting anything my crazy self says, but I believe I might be right on this one. And I just like being able to eat oats again. 

The Tear

There were two shots. They were close together, and they rang through my arm into my throat, dissonant piano chords announcing change. When you lift, and you have been doing it for a little while, your mind does many things at once. You probably don’t know how much your mind does at once as the bar travels through space–I don’t, really, most of the time–until you are deadlifting 460 pounds and on your second rep your bicep tears. I felt two shots through my arm and, in the space of a single second, as the bar returned to the ground, recognition, cause and effect, timeframes, and consequences exploded through my mind. I know these things all registered within one second because when the plates and bar impacted the floor I stood up from the lift and was frozen by the magnitude of change.
It’s not uncommon to see saccharine pictures of flowers or a sunset emblazoned with sentiment along the lines of “be grateful for what you have because everything can change in an instant” as you scroll through your social media feed of choice. You probably don’t even really read it or see it anymore, it becomes background noise, just like most of the things running through your mind as you perform a squat set. We don’t see what we’re not looking for, and we don’t look for things we don’t know are coming. 

Day Four Ish
Day Seven –yellow is actual skin coloring not shitty photo quality.
The bruise started blooming towards the inside of my arm three or four days out from Day One. At first I took the bean-sized spot as encouraging–it had already been a few days, doesn’t the bleeding and pooling start sooner than that? Is this all the blood there would be? Can’t be that bad. Then it grew as Days Five, Six, and Seven moved on. It was ugly. It wasn’t huge, it wasn’t as black or as dense as some photos of pec and hamstring tears I had seen, but it was without doubt bleeding from some sort of tear or tears. The funny thing was, it was on the inside of my arm. If I lifted my arm to show someone the bruising, I was greeted with winces and usually expressions of “oh, shit” or similar. If I didn’t, aside from the fact that I couldn’t really hold my arm normally at my side when standing or walking, aside from the fact that if you looked at one bicep and then the other, it was clear there was something wrong with the shape of my right one, aside from the fact that if I shook my arm vigorously the mass of previously connected muscle shuddered and jostled its way along my humerus like the deadweight it was, aside from the fact that I had to juggle all grocery bags onto one arm and barely open doors with the other, aside from the fact that I winced when people expected me to hold those same doors open for them–aside from all those things, the arm wasn’t very obvious. I went for days in my own gym without people knowing what had happened, and in a gym where discussion of someone’s squat miss a few days ago or who is sleeping with how many other who’s is regular fodder for a training session whether you like it or not, I consider this a feat. People don’t see what they’re not looking for, and they don’t expect change until it happens. I didn’t. 

But now it has. At least for a while. I thought about waiting to write this until I had a clearer idea of what was going to happen. But it was a fairly slow fight to get myself inside of an orthopedic office given the severity of the injury. What will be far slower or perhaps not happen at all is approval from insurance for coverage–not full coverage, of course, but maybe half? I don’t know–of an MRI. I do not know what my lifting future looks like without an MRI. I don’t know if only muscle is torn–maybe–or if tendon is ruptured enough to warrant surgery–very definitely maybe. 

I don’t know of a single other woman in powerlifting who has experienced a bicep tear. I know of a lot of the more high-profile bicep tears in powerlifting and strongman–all men. I’m sure it has happened at some point, but for now, I take a strange pride in the fact that I get to stand alone as a total weirdo–not a status that is totally foreign to me. 

I am already in the gym lifting. I squat three times a week. I do every single lower body exercise I can think of that does not require suspending weights from my hands. I also am now doing some upper body movements–some very strange, like rows with straps attached to my upper arms, or “reverse push-ups” off my elbows that are actual a lat/upper back movement. I do band work. I do anything my body can handle right now. To anyone who takes some sort of triumph in my obstacle, it is a sad person indeed who feels victory only when the opponent is handicapped. To anyone who feels pity: I don’t want it, it is useless to me, you can keep it. Save your pity for people who cannot rise when they are knocked down. Save your pity for people who quit when they are faced with walls instead of scaling them. When I say that I will stop my pursuit of this when a gun is leveled at my head and fired, I mean it. I’m not going to stop. Watch. 

For the not faint-of-heart, here’s video: https://youtu.be/Thc4yprkQAc

When to Stop Bulking and Other Moral Quandaries

I have gotten the question “so when do you decide you’re going to stop putting on weight during a bulking period?” multiple times. The really key word here is “decide.” You may be thinking to yourself “well duh, obviously, that was the question, that’s the verb in the question, that’s really key lol” but in a fitness industry in which “bulking” can mean multiple things and can play multiple roles in multiple strength sports–and today I’m going to include bodybuilding and its various iterations in the category of strength sports even though my powerlifter heart is all “no no stop please it’s not RIGHT” (no hate, physique people, I just think that because you’re not tested on strength in competition, you aren’t really doing a strength sport BUT you do strength movements and your body responds to them in various ways just like strength athletes experience so you get to be part of the party today too). Now, let’s say you could treat all human beings touching barbells and dumbbells and cable machines and kettlebells and so many other implements as robots. The question of how to run bulking and cutting cycles would become much easier. Get baseline numbers, set up moderate surpluses or deficits, and off you go tracking and measuring away. 

I definitely don’t strict press like a robot. Sigh.

The reason the question regarding how long to run a bulking phase is a more difficult one–particularly, I have noticed, for many women–is primarily because of extremely complicated psychological relationships to food and body image. So let’s use myself as an example. Let’s say that I decide, based on my height and my body’s inclination to put on weight (aka I am not a “hard gainer” although I sort of believe that is a mythical phrase or at least that very few human bodies are hard gainers, rather circumstances make for hard gaining), that competing at 148 is a better weight class for me in the long-term than 132. Keep in mind I compete in federations that allow 24 hour weigh-ins and water cuts are standard practice. If I know for a fact my body can very comfortably drop 6-7 pounds of water (anything above that starting to get more complicated/requiring more sustained “sweat out” methods of water loss) then that means that in theory I can walk around at a lean 155 and easily make 148. Notice that is a “lean” 155. In theory, were I to reach a more optimum body composition for the 148 weight class, I would likely spend some of my offseason time between meets allowing my weight to come up to a softer 160-163 or so. I am more than 20 pounds lighter than 163 pounds right now. Looking at that spread of numbers, I could react in a few different ways: 

1: as a robot. If I am dedicated to the sole goal of being the best 148-class lifter I can be, I can subscribe to trying to lift at an elevated bodyweight–substantially above what I weigh now–for a significant period of time to maximize strength gains and give myself the best shot at remaining healthier as a strength athlete. This would mean carrying a body fat percentage that, for at least a few years, would likely be higher than I have been living with during even my heaviest bodyweights of the last four years.  No cutting phases, bodyweight always elevated, even potentially competing several times as a light 165-er as I work to fill out for the 148 class. The “robot” part of this would come from ignoring what would most likely be psychological discomfort at size and body fat increases. And given my reaction to my body when I competed recently as a light 148, “discomfort” is probably putting it mildly.

2. Do the above but include periodic cutting phases. Some would argue this would result in better body composition in the long run. Based on my knowledge of this topic and my personal experience, I’m not totally convinced. I will tell you with absolute certainty that I have felt my strongest in training when my bodyweight has been in a surplus/upswing mode and my bodyfat levels higher. If I’m a strength athlete, particularly a female one, I am not convinced that ultimately being as lean as possible (which is not going to be stage lean but can actually come fairly close depending on individual circumstances) is the best way to go. While I do not compete in strongman, I do try to keep an eye on the sport and have some sense of what it means to train and live as an athlete within it. Strongman, like powerlifting–and I suspect perhaps even MORE than powerlifting–is a sport that actually rewards women for not being extremely lean in performance returns as well as lower levels of injury occurrence . So training at a steady elevated weight as opposed to going through aforementioned periods of cutting would potentially be more rewarding overall for the female strength athlete. But periodically cutting could aleviate body image discomfort which, if acute enough, could actually have mental impact on performance in training. See how complicated this shit gets? Because we’re not robots. 

So those are two approaches to dealing with trying to move up a weight class, to managing weight in reation to a weight class, and/or deciding if ending a bulk is the right decision. If you work with a coach, I strongly, strongly suggest discussing the issue with him or her. If your coach is worth the money you’re paying for his or her services, and if your coach wants you to succeed, it is in your coach’s best interests to give you the time and careful consideration in discussing both mental and physical factors in this process. 

The face you make when you are judging your belt hole number.

I’d like to turn now to a concept I alluded to in titling this post: body composition and morality. No, I’m not kidding. I watch enough lifting in social media and read enough content in which people talk about weight, size, body composition, and eating habits both in and out of this industry to feel very confident in saying that bodyfat levels/being in a caloric surplus/gaining size is a strange stage upon which people sometimes act out their deeply entrenched ideas of what is “good” and what is “bad.” It is not particularly hard to find rhetoric coming from a female athlete that expresses justification for her weight gain. The connection between excess weight and “laziness” that permeates larger western culture fuels posts showing female bodies that are softer than in prior months around contest time being accompanied by text such as “offseason: time to GROW” or pictures of both bodies and the high-calorie foods they have ingested carrying popular taglines like “GAINZ, BITCH.” “Lol Janis, you’re reading too much into this stuff,” you say? Duh. That’s what we do in cultural commentary–we look for what’s driving popular modes of expression. 

And while yes, it would be so great if we could all just mind our own business and do our own thing with our bodies and not worry what other people are doing, I am in the business of figuring out how to become the best version of myself as an athlete I can become. Want to know how to shortcut that process if you’re trying to do the same thing? You look at people who are excelling or at least doing well at what you’re trying to do or you feel like you relate to them because you see something similar in them to something in yourself or you want to be them in some way or a combination of any of the above. You wade through social media to find these people because this is one of the ways social media can be a tool for good–a tool useful to you–and not a tool for evil. And I’m not saying you are trying to copy someone else if you’re doing this productively, but rather you are trying to take bits and pieces and put them together into the composite that you are made up of, because this is what social creatures do even if they want to be delusional and insist they don’t give a damn about what anyone else is doing. 

Unfortunately, it is in that process of wading through the instagrams and the snapchats and the Facebook posts to pull what is useful to you as you try to figure out what the hell to do with your body and what you actually want and what’s important to you that you see a lot of junk, you see a lot of falseness, and you see a LOT of shit that is not the full story. Whenever you see rhetoric that suggests some action is “good,” or “bad,” that is your signal to go on alert. Because if you don’t, you’re going to absorb things that are going to make it a lot harder to make the best decisions for yourself. And the first step I want to take towards not being part of the junk  is to stop using rhetoric in future posts that suggests excess body fat is a damning state of being. I am not celebrating it, but I sure as hell am not disparaging it, because doing the latter corrupts how many women approach what can be a very essential part of progressing as a strength athlete. I also will continue to make an effort to be as authentic about what I am doing as a strength athlete as possible, and this includes continuing to tell you when it is difficult for me to mentally be in my own body. 
Here’s to being aware.