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. 

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In Honor of Chyna And Selfies

I don’t know film. I don’t know how to describe why the image quality of a TV show looks different than that of a big budget movie looks different than that of a Hallmark channel miniseries–but I know they all have a different visual quality. I mean, I know HD exists, so there’s that. So when I see a clip of WWE’s former female fighter icon Chyna striding across the screen towards the ring, I recognize that clip as depicting a woman with actual muscle on what looks like an actual major television production. The color, the saturation of it, the sharpness, the frame rate. Something makes seeing Chyna’s broad frame captured forever on film a really big deal for me. And it was, years ago, when I saw clips of her in commercials as a child. That was all the exposure I ever remember getting to the WWE–in my household, we didn’t really “do” that. But I saw her, this not-frail, mean-looking, growling warrior of a woman. And something resonated very deep within me and settled in for a long ride up til yesterday, the day I learned Joanie Laurer had died. 

Because the thing is, very rarely are women with appreciable amounts of muscle like Chyna sported in her WWE career on TV or movies–period. In televised sports, maybe, although that is still a rarity because the number of sports where it make sense for a woman to either have an appreciable amount of lean mass or be exposed appreciably while having a lot of lean mass that are actually televised widely are few to none. Having crossed into territory where almost no strength sports classify me as a “lightweight” in the light, middle, or heavyweight scale, the amount I feel my body type or size is represented in media is basically zero. I have realized this before and silenced the realization before I really allowed it to take hold because how dare I suggest that I, a white woman, am underrepresented? Then I remembered–and it would be good for the reader to remember this too–there is a difference between representation and marginalization and discrimination. And I feel like I can make a pretty strong case that women REGARDLESS of ethnicity who have significant amounts of muscle–PARTICULARLY in their upper bodies–are very, very seldom represented much less idealized in media. I mean any media. Indie films? Lol no. Reality TV? No. Soap operas? No. Movies? Also no. 

And spare me the “well this one time Jessica Biel got a lot of press for having some muscle” because I remember this because I’m old and I went off on a Google search for this and searching through the “Jessica Biel arms” image bank I pulled really didn’t impress me. Like, if this is what I’m supposed to consider significant amounts of upper body muscle–and I chose this image because it appears to be a more candid/I’m a fan taking a candid picture of this chick while she’s autographing stuff and it’s not photoshopped–then I say we all pack it in with this argument now. 

  
Now, I feel like I shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer–I’M NOT DISPARAGING HOW BIEL LOOKS. Dude, she looks great, yay! Ok! Let’s move on. I’m saying that if this is the best we can do in terms of representing a female body that has SERIOUSLY developed muscle, then it is no wonder women are turning to the phenomenon of the selfie to create their own damned ideals. 

That’s right, I said it. I think selfies aren’t always just a sign that the people taking them are vain bored shitheads. My theory on The Selfie, and I think there are actual scholarly theories that champion roughly this same argument, is that a lot of us are just trying to depict ourselves in a way that creates the ideal we don’t see, well, anywhere. Sure, I see it in other selfies. I see women that sort of look like me in supplement advertisements, but not really, because haha I don’t have implants and I am not that lean right now and my shoulders are REALLY wide and my hips are REALLY narrow and I just don’t really ever see anyone who’s posed as an “ideal” who is proportioned like that. Well, I mean, I guess guys are. So I, a female human who definitely identifies as a woman on the gender as well as biological sex side of things, get a lot of feedback that the way my body is shaped aligns me closest to, uh, a guy. And I’m not a guy. I’m a woman and I have enormous shoulders and huge stupid biceps and it’s like I have to make a case for fitting into a female ideal that I don’t fit into by, I guess, shrinking? Or changing my bone lengths? Because I can put a dress on this shit and those things aren’t going to change and it’s just going to look like a woman who has more things going that fit into a male ideal than a popularized female ideal. So…I guess I’m going to take selfies so I can have a tiny little collection of images on my Instagram that show a world where someone other than Gal Gadot gets cast as Wonder Woman.  

I have always, always felt like a freak. When I was younger, I had a condition that basically resulted in my bones growing much slower than the rest of my body developed, which meant that for a few years during elementary and middle school I was extremely short. Short to the point where my parents took me to the doctor to see what was wrong with me. People would toss me around for fun on the playground–I remember being unceremoniously dropped on the pavement during more than one of these “Janis is a rag doll, let’s play with her” episodes. In high school, I developed severe anorexia and walked around looking like Golem AKA the freak from Lord of the Rings. I started lifting later in college and transitioned into this brand of freak. I have never not been a freak, I have never seen myself echoed in some ideal in a movie or a show or an album cover or an advertisement–ANYWHERE. Well, actually, there was the time with the one boyfriend where he told deeply anorexic Janis that I had this “eating disorder physique” a lot of girls would kill [themselves] for.” That was a pretty concrete message that I refer back to periodically today. 

So sometimes I take selfies and marvel at how I’m the only person who can take a photograph of me that I don’t hate. I used to think this was some sort of sorcery, like I was picking the parts of reality I liked best and pastiching them together into a fragile delusional world where just one ugly image in some party candid would have me facing the actual reality of my looks–and I was at least somewhat right about that. But I now think that selfies might be one of few ways I have of taking how I look and forcing my own ideal into being with it. I own the content. I place the content where I choose. I understand that once an image is online it is there for people to repost, reuse, pick apart, link to, save, jack off to, whatever. But I put it there first. And I PUT IT THERE. That image of broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, breastless, monster-backed Janis is adding yet another dimension to the overwhelming fray of visual culture. And if I knew that doing so would have the same kind of impact as seeing Chyna, way back at something like eight years old on a television screen and then seeing her again yesterday would have on someone else who feels lack of representation as it had on me, being accused of vanity and narcissism and whatever else would be worth it. RIP Chyna, and here is my fucking huge bicep. 

  

The Wrong Ideal

I was going to make a bunch of red X's everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.
I was going to make a bunch of red X’s everywhere on this image Nip/Tuck style but my graphics program has possibly bitten the dust so you can just imagine all of them for yourself.

Let me tell you exactly what is wrong with me.

That sentence is sitting there, and staring it is like standing at one of those weird five-way intersections in a city that isn’t laid out in a grid, dense buildings convulsing around streets that run towards each other at odd angles. There are a few options, a few paths you can take, and those paths might cross and get you to the same place even if you choose this one or that one or that one. It’s all the same, but the ways to get there are not.

I’m 28 now, and I can truncate my life into little sections and big ones. The theme that stands out among at least two thirds of these sections is the inability to fully appreciate myself, and I am endlessly apologizing and explaining and fucking up and comforting and writing and reading and watching and discussing and bottling up and breaking down and rising up because of it. There has been an evolution from the self-erasure of anorexia to the self-betrayal of bulimia mixed into the erasure that preceded it to the hollow sorting out of the damages left behind.

In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.
In case you need a reminder, here is how I looked when I was eating disordered up to my eyeballs.

So it’s hard to choose what to tell you is wrong with me, but there has been and continues to be a lot. And I’ll admit it here because this is one of few venues I have in which I’m not either enjoying the respite of being a blank, anonymous face to people I don’t know or dredging through the overexposure of myself to the few people I trust and love–it’s another purgatory. My audience is faceless and mostly nameless and, in my mind, hypothetical as much as it is real. This isn’t as brave, although it is possibly as questionable, as standing out in the middle of the street and screaming my shortcomings and my fears and my struggles, but writing in a publicly-accessible format is my best current attempt at extending myself enough to be voluntarily vulnerable. So let’s get to the catharsis, because that’s the juice you should be rewarded with if you’ve actually managed to read the block of text preceding the next paragraph.

Here is what is wrong with me–with my body. My legs are not elegant and long enough and they’re not thick and muscular enough. My ass is either not perky enough or it’s not large enough, or maybe both, or maybe it’s not small enough. My chest is probably too small although it’s too wide (because of the colar bones, you see, although for a while those were en vogue), I have too much body fat but I also may have too little and my pectoral muscles are making the whole thing a lot more awkward so I should make sure I either build those up or I get rid of them entirely. My back is far too muscular, although I could have a better lat taper and actually, I could stand to build a better trap/rear delt setup and my shoulders are certainly, absolutely too big but they’re also not really capped in appearance so, I don’t know, I should probably fix both of those things. My torso is ridiculously short and my waist-to-hip ratio horrendously poor; science says it is a miracle that I’ve ever managed to be found attractive by a member of my species in my life. My arms are definitely too large in proportion to the rest of me and they’re throwing the rest of my proportions into an uglier tailspin, two great jointed pillars drifting along in time with the rest of my body as I move from one point to another.

Once again, you're going to have to throw in some x's on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.
Once again, you’re going to have to throw in some x’s on my body here because GIMP and my computer are no longer friends.

I cannot tell you how ridiculous it is to type that paragraph–how much indignation rises as I summarize the contradictions I now spend a fair amount of time trying to sort out for myself–contradictions that arose from what was originally a sincere attempt to subvert one set of ideals. Here’s the lesson for today–you cannot subvert one set of ideals by implanting another next to it. It doesn’t work. It’s why saying “strong is the new skinny” is bullshit and so is “real women have curves” and so is “all bass no treble” and whatever the fuck else we’re coming up with today to box everyone into meeting one ideal and saying “fuck you mate, you’re screwed” to those who don’t. Nothing human is ever ideal. To those of us predisposed to thinking things are black and white polarized boxes of good and bad, ideals are fantastic and we try to fit into them so people will call us “good” and we will be loved and fucked and respected and obeyed and saved. Because that is what makes sense. Failing an ideal means loss, dismissal, contempt, repulsion. I self-enslave over ideals because, in part, our very culture loves ideals. Because I grew up in a house steeped in judgment and dated men who built their identities out of the judgment of others–I loved and sought love from a those who took comfort in the predictability of the ideal.

I’m not blaming anybody here. My history is really not the point. What’s most striking to me is how much the act of reflecting on the convolution of two particular ideals–the female physical ideal championed by white Western culture and the female physical ideal coveted by the lifting and strength world–leaves me shaking my head in absolute disbelief. You don’t fix generations of body image issues by introducing new ideals. Sure, the new ideals are going to exist and the trends are going to come and go–I swear the flapper flat-chested elongated body of the 1920’s which is itself a nod to the far older Mannerist trend is going to rear its head out of a decades-old grave one of these days–but if we’re going to address the reparation of how we’ve talked about women’s bodies, trying to take the body that strength training might build and elevate it as the answer to all our eating disordered, body dysmorphic, image-obsessed issues amounts to shooting ourselves in our feet. It looks like a good answer, but when we embrace it we end up preventing ourselves from moving forward. You’ve read this before, but I’ll write it again: we’re not going to fix skinny worship by supplanting it with a singular worship of another type. Singular is not inclusive; whatever ideal you choose as the next skinny, you are right back to a focus that is as misdirected as it is narrow-minded. 

So out of all of this, here is my suggestion: if you struggle with a sense of how much you don’t measure up at a physical level, make a list of everything that’s wrong with you. The absurdity of the contradictions that will stare back at you should you cross-check your list with several sets of ideals beloved by this culture or that subculture is kind of great. Doing this exercise might not solve all of your problems, but it will have you peeking out of your box a little bit more.