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.
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.
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.