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.
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.
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.