When After Comes Before

I am getting bigger. On purpose. I’m on creatine, I’m eating at a surplus, and my body is responding. In the past month, I have PR’d both my squat and my bench, and done rep maxes with both that suggest my 1RM in each lift are actually higher than the weights I tested for each. In the past month, I’ve also had to face the reality of getting bigger–choosing to get bigger–as a woman. I have done this before. In 2011, I set out to lift weights and eat my way up to a bodyweight of 135. I got within two or three pounds of that weight before suffering a sternum injury that served as a portal from the “bulking period” into what I like to call “the dark period.” The dark period involved a lot of self-punishment that came largely in the form of corporeal manipulation. I dropped twenty pounds within six months, didn’t lift for at least half of that timespan, and was probably clinically depressed. There were circumstances that inspired the dark period not related to lifting–the loss of lifting due to the injury simply augmented them. I started pulling myself out of that hole in December of 2012–which meant a return to lifting–and in April 2012 started to train for powerlifting and actually lifting correctly.

Me in 2011 at 132 pounds just before the sternum injury that ended my bulk. This was also the unfortunate haircut I had to get to fix a too-many-dye-jobs situation.
Me in 2011 at 132 pounds just before the sternum injury that ended my bulk. This was also the unfortunate haircut I had to get to fix a too-many-dye-jobs situation.

This post isn’t about the dark period. This post is about the bulk I did before it. For the uninitiated, building muscle isn’t simply about lifting heavy things and then posting on the internet regarding how amazing you are for lifting those heavy things. There is also a nutritional component. The body needs a LOT of input to generate an output of muscle. If you are fairly small and lean, this means eating a LOT. Eating a lot to create muscle, however, comes at a price–you cannot avoid an uptick in the level of body fat your body carries when you do this. I will stress that I am speaking of building muscle as someone who is initially very lean, with low body fat, at a certain level of “muscle age.”

Most bodybuilders spend months out of every year looking a bit doughy, a bit puffy. This is because they are working to build and perfect their physiques and they are working at a caloric surplus to do it. I realize I am making a large generalization about that pursuit, and am not discussing the effects of certain steroids and other PED’s on leanness and muscle-building potential. That is a topic for someone else’s post in someone else’s blog–I am no PED expert. I am, however, slightly experienced with the act of bulking, and I’m looking to do it again.

It’s difficult to watch your body changing from small to not-as-small through the lens of social conditioning that says a small woman is a desirable one. You can be years removed from your eating disorder or body issues or stupid high school conceptions of femininity and STILL feel the sting, the faltering in your confidence when you watch yourself growing in the mirror.

Here's another picture around from the end of the bulking period.
Here’s another picture around from the end of the bulking period.

The experience I am describing here is not a popular topic in trendy fitness discussion regarding the “sculpting”–I hate that term when applied to physical change in response to lifting–of women’s physiques. No one wants to read about how they are going to need to do something that is “the enemy”–gain fat–in order to actually build a decent amount of muscle, if that is there goal. And with the uptick in those interested in lifting thanks largely to Crossfit–and that’s the only thing I’m going to thank Crossfit for, let it be known–more women are trying out barbell work. Many of these individuals do not have any developed muscle in their upper bodies. Not being able to bench press the bar signals underdeveloped musculature in the back, the chest, the arms. In order to build that muscle, the body has to be given material and stimulus to do it. Here’s the catch-22: often, women who come into lifting need to bulk. If they’re going to reach goals regarding significant increases in strength, they are going to need to build from scratch, and this is not a casual undertaking. But it is difficult to see oneself grow bigger–it is difficult to watch fat deposit in the areas one’s body has genetically been programmed to deposit it. You can declare yourself liberated from the codes that assign worth to being small, you can spend a sizable amount of your free time reading feminist-inclined websites (cough), and you can still feel revulsion when encountering your image on a bulk. In 2011, I did. I also resolutely bulked for myself. I refused to bow to the aforementioned codes and I actively carried out a small rebellion by walking around at the largest I have ever been in my life.

This was the most significant act of rebellion I yet carried out, the next most significant occurring back at age four when I attempted to carry out some sort of clumsy gymnastic routine in the back of a moving bus even after being ordered to be still multiple times by the driver. As I move into another bulking period I feel the sense of rebellion again. It is one of the aspects of this period that I have clung to, one in which I take pride. Yes, I do plan to cut. This was the next step I would have taken if the dark period had not followed 2011’s bulk. But first I will exist for months in a puffier state, and I will feel, in part, alone in my rebellion. Because not many women celebrate their bulking, and far more women than that cannot conceive of doing it or why it might be necessary to do so.

My bulking, then, is an exercise in going against in order to improve. I cannot say I look forward to all aspects of it, but I can say for absolute certain that what I do now will benefit me far more than following the rules.

Here's me as of yesterday. I will build a bigger back so I can freaking deadlift more weight. Let's do this shit.
Here’s me as of yesterday. I will build a bigger back so I can freaking deadlift more weight. Let’s do this shit.
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20 thoughts on “When After Comes Before

  1. I love your openness and vulnerability and wisdom and courage!!!! You are treading on a path that is often avoided even if seen. I admire your goal of becoming stronger, safer. ONWARD!!!!

    1. Thank you–your words mean so much to me. I’m really tackling this new challenge I’ve set for myself and embracing risk. I’ve learned how to do so SO much more over the years and not much helps you get to where you want to go better than taking risks.

    1. Lol, thank you! Yes, seriously, my shoulders are extremely wide. This isn’t really entirely a function of my having developed them, it’s actually just as dependent on my loooong collar bones. Like most of my skeleton, my collar bones are just elongated. This makes for a very wide shoulder “frame.” That said, I DID do quite a bit of shoulder work when I started lifting–sometimes unintentionally–and I know that played a part in how developed they’ve become.

    1. Thank you!! I’m really trying to build everything. I’m still honestly pretty small in person–in street clothes, most people wouldn’t guess I’m a lifter. Unless I’m wearing a T-shirt. I get a lot of comments on my arms–I don’t even WORK my biceps in an isolated manner.

    2. yeah, it’s really weird! THey really blew up when I first started lifting in 2010. I lifted HORRIBLY back then–had no idea what I was doing–but apparently my biceps loved it. I can touch five pounds and they just get massive, proportionately. I do a lot of chin-ups and both wide-grip and neutral-grip pull-ups, and I really think that that has been the reason for the growth, at least in part.

      1. Oh for sure, biceps respond very well to compound movements. Perhaps your bad form before made you use your arms way more than you should have. Or maybe your biceps just grow easy. We all of certain parts that respond well and certain part that don’t! Either way just enjoy those guns! 🙂

  2. YES YES YES YES!

    I’m right with you, because I’m just about finished on my bulk, and about to start cutting. I told myself I’d finish up a couple of months ago, but I kept gaining strength, so the bulk has continued.

    Dealing with being bigger is really challenging. I started this whole gym thing (well, I called it a “gym thing”) to *lose* weight and get smaller. I was slave to the whole “women must be small and skinny to be attractive” wheeze that society deals us too. That was what I wanted to be – I had no idea about shape. I just wanted to be smaller and left hefty than I was.

    So working to gain weight has been a real brain scram. I’m accepting it now, finally, but it has been a hard road to get there – boy, has it been a hard road! Ironically, it has been a whole stack of supportive MEN in my life that have kept me sane in this. Yep, men can be awesome 🙂

    Do what you need to do. Ignore the yarn society spins us that skinny is attractive. It might be, for some, but – and I speak from experience on this one, as I’m sure you know too – the woman with muscle on her frame and the kick ass butt from killer squats – will leave the weaklings dead on the floor and pale as ghosts by comparison every time. Every time. Strong women are awesome, deadly sexy, and so much more than we could ever have been in our old, weaker shells.

    Enjoy your bulking. Celebrate it, and think of how much you’re going to wipe the floor with amazing lifts to come 🙂 XXX

    1. whoa, I somehow missed responding to this. SO glad to read about your experience! I feel like truly bulking is such a niche activity that it feels like you’re truly alone when doing it unless your entire social circle is a bunch of bodybuilders–mine is absolutely not (not that there would be anything wrong with that).

      My lifts have really responded to this work. REALLY responded to it. I’m so glad I’m doing this for myself. Some days it’s kind of tough–like yesterday, god did I have a “fat” day–but a lot of the time it’s very empowering.

  3. Can I ask how you intend to bulk? High fat/protein? Paleo? HIgh carb? What is your current diet like? What time period will you bulk for and what gains are you aiming for? I ask because we are on a scarily similar journey and I’m curious to see what your approach is. xxx

    1. Hmm, the answer to this is kind of complicated–I might write a blog post in response. I don’t have set gains I’m aiming for, I’m very much letting my body show me how it’s headed and what it responds to. I take a moderate approach to increasing intake and all of the macros have been bumped up, although not to the same degree from macro to macro. I SHOULD write a post on this, thanks for the question!

  4. You look fantastic at 135. You also look great right now. You are a great lifter and I expect the bulk to put your numbers a lot higher!

    1. I really appreciate your thoughts, Gwyn. I struggled pretty horribly with the psychological side of this today. I will tear myself apart harder than I can imagine anyone would be able to manage. It makes me want to just crawl into a corner and hide–my own mind does this. I’m not proud of it or happy about it, and I have to keep trying to make peace with it. The lifting, however, has been great! Hell yeah! I am happy with THAT!

  5. Absolute respect to you. No matter how many feminists articles there are to read and however much logic says bulk, the stereotypical ideals are so subconsciously ingrained that you show incredible strength of character to go against them. Personally, I still fight with it all the time, even though I’d like to say that I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. I find it easy to put on muscles as a female, but piling on the fat is a whole new ball game. You have my total respect and I can honestly say that you show more commitment to lifting than any other woman I’ve met (and I thought I was the most committed!!) 🙂

    1. I fight with it every day, particularly when I enter the testosterone-soaked university bro gym in which I train. It sucks.

      I’m not really aiming towards putting on a bunch of fat. Putting on SOME is inevitable if one is really looking to grow significant amounts of new lean muscle, and I’m just going to have to accept that for now. I wholeheartedly believe it will be the absolute best option for me in the distant-to-semi-distant future of my lifting career. Psychologically, right now it’s kind of a sacrifice.

      1. It’s something I’m going to have to look at this year, as I’m struggling to stay in the class I’m in now. I also train in a Uni gym, but mine is an estrogen-soaked tan fest! It’s interesting that while I stand out like a sore thumb and overhear the sniggering, I couldn’t ever see myself aspiring to their ideals. I wish you the best in your bulking endeavours – where do you compete next?

    2. Estro-tan-land–sounds about as bad as what I’ve got, really, just different circumstances. Just keep fighting through it. As far as competition goes–the beginning of November of this year, I’ll head to Dubuque for a UPA meet. That’s the plan right now. I have NO idea what weight class I’ll end up in, which bothers me a bit. Some of my lifts and my total would be in the rankings in 114, which I think is a valid reason for maybe doing a cut around that time (water cut) to get down to it. We’ll see. The cut took a serious toll on me for 105, but I was also eating at a deficit even then and the UPA gives 24 hour weigh-ins (omg, I don’t even know what that will be like!).

      1. 24 hour weigh in? I’ve never done one of those, only 2 hours. Sounds beneficial if you have to cut, much longer to recover? I made 51kg/114 for my last comp, but 105 is still beyond me – you must be much leaner than I am. It’s nerve racking not knowing, I can certainly sympathise with that. Good luck!

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