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. 

Hating the Cusp

“Well, it’s kind of like I’m looking over the edge of a cliff a few seconds before going over that edge–that’s where I am right now.” My therapist’s eyes turned a little sharper than they had been thus far during our session. She shifted in her seat and drew her breath. “Have you been thinking about hurting yourself?” Alarmed that my description of the imagery that had been rising unbidden in my mind for the last few days was causing my therapist to break out the “do we need to bring in reinforcements?” checklist, I reassured her that no thoughts of self-harm had crossed my mind for quite some time.

But looking down the side of a cliff I’m about to jump off of is what things do feel like right now–I am so close to the major changes that are about to happen in my life that it’s like the time you would spend breathing a few breaths before jumping off the ledge. Those breaths will only give you a small window of time in which to get your bearings before everything goes nuts. Its the period before the big event–the night before the test, the seconds before the race starts, the breakfast before you lift in a meet–that I cannot stand. I have historically done some pretty stupid stuff during this period–wandering around target for an hour with a shopping cart I’m not filling, calling people I haven’t talked to in months or years on the phone, driving 45 minutes away from town to sit in the parking lot of a farm equipment company shuttered for the night. I hate the cusp. I hate it.

Right before deadlifting 350 x 2. I have been known to freeze up during this period--see every single meet video from my lifting career.
Right before deadlifting 350 x 2. I have been known to freeze up during the period before I go down to grab the bar–see every single meet video from my lifting career.

I haven’t written in this blog for several months now because I have been at a loss for what I really want to say here. I tend to treat this space on the internet as more of a place for my editorialization than as a diary, but I write more freely when I write in a diary so that is what I’ve finally chosen to do. Indeed, most of the time, I can’t figure out what to say about training, and because this blog is about my lifting, nothing gets written at all. But my lifting isn’t what’s hard, it’s not what REALLY challenges me, it is just the constant in a stream of changes. The thing about my lifting is that it forces me to confront what is going on in my “real” life; what’s going on there impacts what happens in the gym. Most of the time, this impact is limited to how I feel about myself: if I feel self-doubt, if my self-esteem is running low, the gym doesn’t go so well. Sometimes, larger events in my life trickle into my training. In a little under three weeks, I will start a new job. In one week, I will move to another city. Both of these events are landmarks on a path I didn’t think I’d be taking over the last year–a career change, giving up a major facet of my life that has been there since childhood, trying to understand myself and my identity when ways I had defined myself for years fell away.

I am not complaining. I am deeply lucky to have been given the opportunity to start a new career with financial stability in a good-size city in which I have more friends than I have had in a long time in one place. I am deeply lucky to have the support and patience of my fiancé, who has watched me stumble through this past year and held me when I couldn’t even manage to stumble. I make sure to think about what I do have right now, because it’s an excellent way to ward off the “scrambly moving freak-outs,” as I fondly term how I tend to react to moving.

Indeed, the stress of all this change coupled with an aggressive caloric deficit have impacted my training. My energy is not often on point, and sometimes it’s so below par that it’s a miracle I get through my work sets. While my numbers have steadily increased for months even as my weight drops, my gut tells me that I’m going to have to tread very carefully over the next two weeks when I do train. As much as I hate to admit defeat, the move and the career shift is creeping into my training. Continuing to pretend that nothing’s wrong when I have felt the impact of stress both in and out of the gym is stupid. Its a lot more stupid than pushing an empty cart around Target for an hour.

So the only thing I'm doing right these days is bringing my weight down. Former anorexic chick to the rescue!
So the only thing I’m doing right these days is bringing my weight down. Former anorexic chick to the rescue!

I’m not making excuses for why I’m not training, because I am training. No matter how poorly the training has gone some days recently or how stressed I am about things outside of it, I believe in what I’m doing so I find ways to do as much as I can within the limits of my current psyche and situation. It’s better than calling it off for a few weeks. It’s not perfect, but it is better. I tend to blog about my training in periods when it’s not ideal, when barriers prevent my carrying it out as well as I would like to carry it out. I have been very lucky for months now with my training and I have enough rep PRs as well as some new one rep maxes to show for it. I bow now to moderation and survival. Right after I drive for an hour to the nearest John Deere for no reason, anyway.

The John Deere's natural habitat. Those lines on the ground are related to complex mating rituals. Also, yay Iowa, I like all your open space.
The John Deere’s natural habitat. Those lines on the ground are related to its complex mating rituals. Also, yay Iowa, I like all your open space.

The Scale as Torture Device

This title is misleading. In the Keough-Finkelman residence, two scales, not one, hold court in the bathroom. The younger scale is a blue Weight Watchers product found on sale at Target; the older is a clear, unassuming purchase from some other big box store years ago. It has never been a particular aspiration of mine to own two scales, but I do now. And as an athlete in a weight class-defined sport, I am an unfortunate slave to both.

 

thetwoscales
The perpetrators.

Why do I own two scales? To put it simply, the older, clear scale started to behave abnormally around April of this year. It would weigh heavy one minute, and then a few minutes later show a very different reading for the mass of the same body that had recently stood on it in consternation. Then it started weighing its user in consistently heavy, and I got kind of irritated. You see, if you need to make weight for competition, you track your weight for months around that competition. You do this in order to understand both your weight but perhaps more importantly how your body retains water as might be influenced by diet, or how much of your (water) weight “floats off” overnight while sleeping. Knowing such details makes the process of making weight more easily refined and controlled–in other words, less stressful both physically and psychologically. So when the device that you count on to help you track your body’s mass starts to act like it got ahold of the scale equivalent of a psychotropic drug, you get concerned. You weigh yourself on the Clear Monster, and then you go to your gym to step on the $1,000+ scale in the locker room that tells you that, indeed, the Clear Monster is screwing with you. You decide to go to Target and buy another scale in order to escape the devious machinations of your formerly trusty one, and you bring it home. Upon putting it next to Clear Monster and weighing yourself, you discover New Blue Scale weighs you heavier than Clear Monster. You kind of freak out, because seriously, how much DO you weigh right now? What’s right? What’s wrong? Are you a skinny twig or a behemoth?

So for several weeks you run experiments on your two scales in comparison to the all-knowing, accurate Gym Scale of Peace. The two conspirators in your bathroom, you discover, constantly weigh you at differently weights in relation to the GSP. This means that you can’t just get on them and expect to be able to subtract a pound and be able to trust that that number is your weight. In other words, the scales have figured out how to exact psychological warfare, and they’re waging it now.

Fast forward to months after initially realizing the Clear Monster was messed up–I still get on both scales even though I KNOW they are not reliable. I don’t know why I do this. Both consistently weigh me in heavier than I am, and both are probably chortling away while they do it. Sometimes, I can step on and off both of them and have them read differently within a matter of minutes. I KNOW I am completely complicit in my own torture–I’m enabling the devices themselves–and still I do it.

At this point, you may responding to this with one of two impressions: one, that I’m way, way too obsessed with this, that it’s unhealthy to be focused on the scale, that you can’t imagine living with the kind of awareness and frustration I describe here. If this is you, I am willing to bet you do not compete in a weight class-based sport. If that is true, I cordially invite you to stuff it. Seriously. Go play chess or whatever it is you do. Impression two: you get this. You either compete in a weight class or you have spent many years agonizing over the number on the scale. Having experienced both defining myself via the number on the scale and having to pay attention to my weight because I compete in the 114 lb weight class, I will tell you that I vastly prefer the latter relationship to my weight. I will further tell you that there is a difference between the two.

The weird thing in the situation with our conniving and/or faulty scales is that it’s kind of been a blessing for me, psychologically. I have asked myself to let go of the exacting way I try to determine and influence my weight, and I have made sure I don’t engage emotionally with the weights I see. Because I understand that what I see on our scale duo is kind of messed up, but I’m pretty sure the way I’ve been eating and taking care of myself has me at a stable and productive weight for my sport and, indeed, my weight class. I’m relatively confident I’m in a good position to make weight in November, but I’ll be standing on two dysfunctional scales tomorrow anyway. They’ve got a hold on me.