Archive for year: 2015

Eight weeks post-show.

Today marks eight full weeks since I last stepped on the bikini stage.

It’s been nearly two months since OCB Nationals, which took place on October 24th in Laurel, Maryland. I competed in bikini class B and won, which made me eligible to turn pro. Good news – I’m drug-free, and am now officially an IFPA bikini pro. Woohoo!

Side shot courtesy of my friend Karey Northington who helped me with stage presence

Side shot from Laurel, Maryland

As a quick recap, I only spent six weeks in a caloric deficit leading up to this show. (I also ate a Snickers bar everyday for 10 weeks straight, but that’s besides the point of this post.) I was able to do this because I spent much of the year prior staying sufficiently fueled but also staying relatively lean. My bodyweight hovered at max five pounds above last year’s stage weight, so I didn’t have too much bodyfat to lose this time around.

As well, during the short period of time I did diet down, my dietary adherence was high – I would estimate in the 97% and above range. I practiced flexible dieting, meaning I didn’t place any foods off limits, and I adhered to a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers custom set to my unique individual needs. (You can learn more about how to do that by picking up a copy of my e-book, The Beginner’s Guide to Macros.)

It was an interesting experience, all in all. I love the thrill of competing – of getting dolled up and stepping on stage and showcasing my hard work – and obviously, placing well and winning a trophy is just icing on the bikini cake. I should also note that I was able to lose bodyfat at a higher calorie intake while simultaneously doing less exercise (both in the way of less volume in the weight room plus the absence of any formal cardio) than ever before, and I also came in at my all-time leanest. That’s pretty neat, if you ask me, and I suspect that this may have a lot to do with the fact that I spent the majority of the year chasing strength rather than dilly-dallying in the gym.

Winning my height class at 2015 OCB Nationals - and completely in shock!

Winning my height class at 2015 OCB Nationals – and completely in shock!

Huzzah.

I look ecstatic in that picture, don’t I? And don’t get me wrong – I absolutely was. But I was also feeling incredibly depleted, low energy, and cranky as all hell. Being a caloric deficit for any length of time has a way of zapping your mojo and your juices.

Contest prep was fun in a lot of ways, but exhausting in so many more. I necessarily had to make some sacrifices in order to stay compliant with my nutrition program and make sure I never missed a workout. Passing up opportunities to go out for a drink with your friends or try the latest tapas bar eventually starts to wear on you. And despite what social media may tell you, dieting down is far from glamorous.

Here's an Instagram post that I wrote three days before my show documenting just how crummy I was feeling. The contest prep struggle is real.

Here’s an Instagram post that I wrote three days before my show documenting just how crummy I was feeling.

I distinctly remember the week before my show, I was lying on my couch (of which I was spending ample time doing in the days leading up to my competition due to my lethargy) and contemplating the possibility of doing still another show six weeks later. I was already stage-lean, I reasoned, so it wouldn’t be too much more work to continue doing what I was doing for just a little longer until right before the holidays rolled around. Seemed like perfect timing.

But I wasn’t thriving. Very un-Sohee-like.

I was eating, yes, albeit not very much; I was lifting, though my workouts weren’t anything to write home about; and I was absolutely, undeniably not thriving. In fact, I was riding shotgun on the struggle bus. More like #eatliftstruggle.

Womp womp.

Coming to this realization helped me snap out of the haze of contest prep brain fog. No show is worth feeling like absolute shit for – not to me, anyway. Besides, competing to me is just a hobby, not the bane of my existence. And I’ve always been careful not to let the world of fitness selfies and ab checks consume me whole.

Which leads me to the point of this post.

We’re two months into my offseason, and I feel amazing. As far as nutrition, I carefully reverse dieted out of my caloric deficit for the first month following my show and then transitioned over to intuitive eating. I’d estimate my calorie intake to be between 1600-1800 on most days.

Here’s what I look like now:

Eight weeks post-show.

Eight weeks post-show. Sorry, I don’t do ass shots.

My bodyweight is hovering between two to three pounds above stage weight, my waist has gone up half an inch, my ass has grown an inch and a half (hooray!). My strength in the gym continues to go up every week, and I’ve been having the time of my life setting PRs like it’s going out of style.

I’m noticeably less lean (when you’re 5’2″, even two pounds can make a big difference on your frame) and simultaneously slightly more muscular. I’m constantly amused by the changes in my physique, and I embrace the return of my curves.

Over the next few months, my bodyweight may or may not continue to slowly creep up. If it doesn’t, cool; if it does, it’s all gravy. I have absolutely zero problem with the weight gain because it’s been the result of memorable experiences I’ve had that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

I lovingly dub these “Quality of Life pounds”.

Quality of life pounds from quality of life calories.

These extra few pounds on my frame are impromptu chicken wing outings, BBQ pulled pork nachos with girlfriends, and late night gelato expeditions. They’re a-little-too-much (but totally worth it!) ice cream and apple pie at Cat’s Thanksgiving dinner, make-you-moan filet mignon dripping with garlic butter, and evening crispy dumplings scarfed down over the counter.

BBQ pulled pork nachos. Not a single calorie was counted.

BBQ pulled pork nachos. Not a single calorie was counted.

These are moments that I don’t get to have when I’m busy meticulously tracking poverty macros. These are memories that are difficult to make – and even more difficult to enjoy – when I’m distracted by gnawing hunger.

Instead of counting calories, I’m collecting memories.
Rather than worrying about seeing the scale weight go down, I’m focusing on feeling good in the skin I’m already in. 

And I sleep very, very soundly at night.

Don’t misunderstand me: I have no issues with macro tracking itself, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with dieting when done for the right reasons and via the right means. Some people choose to count their macros all year long and they’re perfectly happy doing so – and that’s great! For me personally, I like to take a mental break from it every now and then and prioritize other aspects of my life for a while. There’s always a time and a place.

Here are the pros of being in the offseason:

  • I’m setting PRs seemingly nonstop – can I get a HYFR?
  • I’ve got more junk in the trunk. This means more to grab and my booty becomes an extra cushiony pillow for my three year-old chunky hunky pug, Ollie.
  • I don’t have to fret when I go out to eat at a restaurant, and I don’t stress out over whether a meal has 700 or 750 calories. It really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
  • My energy levels are through the roof, which means I’m feeling better and overall more pleasant to be around.

And the cons of being in the offseason:

  • My grocery bill is slightly higher than before.

Do I think being stage lean is worth it? Maybe. Depends on the individual, to be honest. I don’t think it’s good for those who need to use it as an excuse to get in shape or who compete in show after show out of fear of gaining body fat. And for me, I have no interest in doing more than one show per season.

I also don’t believe that the offseason should be used as a reason to become a glutton. You may have noticed that I’m still staying pretty lean, and that’s because I don’t bounce from one extreme to the other. I don’t bulk; I simply eat more calories and get stronger in the gym. If I crack open a pint of gelato, I don’t feel the need to devour the whole thing just to finish it off. If I order fries, I can leave some on the plate. Moderation is nice like that.

Will I ever go on a diet again? Maybe so, but not in the foreseeable future. I’m done with being in diet mode 365 days of the year, getting nowhere and making myself miserable for no worthwhile reason. I’m lean enough, I’m healthy, and having fun with my life – these are the things that are truly important to me. #priorities

I am not my physique.

Having a slightly higher body fat percentage does not make me less than. While scale weight is important to an extent (in that it can provide information on how you’re doing when taken into proper context), it’s not the be-all-end-all. I’ve never had a loved one see me with a little bit of extra weight, look me up and down, and decide right then and there that I wasn’t worth loving anymore.

I don’t fret. Maybe I don’t fit into those size-24 jeans anymore, but so what?

If you’re struggling to wrap your mind about not being in diet mode, may I challenge you to a shift in perspective?

The grass isn’t always greener – it really, really isn’t.

Dieting will always be there. But your time and your friendships and your relationships? Those are precious.

So enjoy your time off. Smash those weights in the gym and brag about your deadlifting numbers. Savor every bite of those IHOP pancakes and welcome the extra calories.

Go on and embrace the offseason.

HYFR.

A delicious Korean dinner. What are the macros? Who cares!

We all have that one friend – the one who makes regular exercise and proper nutrition a priority in her life. She loves nothing more than to discuss the latest and greatest with what she’s doing in the gym and keep everyone updated on all the morsels of food she consumes on any given day.

At first, we may find it amusing – admirable, even. Look at Judy, so dedicated to her health! Look at Judy go, waking up an hour earlier in the morning so she can squeeze in her workout before the day begins – and then telling us about every single exercise she performed. Look at her spending extra time scouring the menu at our favorite restaurant to find the most macro-friendly meal. We lean in closer as she explains why she’s not eating the top bun of the turkey burger she’s ordered. We oooh and aaah as she goes on about portion sizes and how some days she’ll have four slices of Ezekiel bread instead of two depending on whether or not she worked out.

We’re intrigued. All that discipline! Much knowledge. If only we could all be a little more like her.

But after a while, it starts to wear on us. We can’t even put a glass of Riesling to our lips before she shrieks out But what are the macros in that wine and how do we log it? If she can’t find a restaurant menu online before heading out, she decides that she’d rather stay in and cook up her own meal at home – you know, for security reasons. She goes out of her way to audibly guess the macronutrient content of everything everyone’s eating whether we ask for it or not.

It’s exasperating, damnit. Judy, do you mind? We’re trying to enjoy ourselves here, not argue whether last night’s potstickers were cooked in three tablespoons of oil or four.

What are the macros of this amazing Korean meal? Not sure, but let's not talk about that tonight.

What are the macros of this amazing Korean meal? Not sure, but let’s not talk about that tonight.

Obviously, the title of this post is mostly tongue-in-cheek. Macronutrient consumption does absolutely matter – as does total calorie intake – particularly if you are actively working toward shedding bodyfat. I’m not denying that by any means. And yes, as a fat loss coach, it is technically my job to “give a shit” about your macros. Please hear me out.

I’m also not denying that there is a time and a place to be meticulously tracking macros and adhering to prescribed protein, carb, and fat numbers. (I even wrote an e-book all about it, for cryin’ out loud!) But it’s entirely possible to be dedicated to your nutrition program (or not!), attend social functions and mentally guestimate the macro content of what you eat (or not!), and not have to give the whole world an unsolicited play-by-play.

(See related: To Macro or Not: Should You Track Your Macronutrient Intake?)

This much we’ve already established in the #eatliftthrive community:

  • Calories in vs. calories out determines whether bodyweight is gained or lost.
  • When it comes to nutrition, total calorie intake matters above all, followed next by macronutrient breakdown of said calories.
  • Consistent dietary adherence is paramount in achieving your physique goals. In other words, the best nutrition program in the world will do nothing for you if you are unable to stick to it over the long haul.

Here’s a great video by Eric Helms going over the nutrition pyramid:

Unless you’re deep in the throes of preparing for a bodybuilding contest and you’re within weeks of stepping on stage, or unless you’re a professional athlete whose livelihood is contingent upon making weight, it’s not worth fretting over one social function, or even one meal.

I know individuals who “brag” about routinely ditching their friends and missing out on amazing restaurant food because the idea of having to eyeball portion sizes sends them into a frenzy. And yes, it can get addicting, and maybe for now you’ll be able to sleep better at night knowing that you were able to control your macronutrient intake down to the very gram. Considering the long-term costs to this kind of behavior, however – particularly when repeated over and over – it’s worth asking yourself if this is truly making you happier or if you’re letting your obsession with macro tracking take over your life for the worse.

Huh.

I’m not trying to be a prick by any means, though I can understand that I’m probably coming off as an insensitive jerk. I simply feel strongly about this matter because I used to be one of those individuals who thought and talked about food and calories and macronutrients nonstop, to the point where my social life all but dissipated and I was no fun to hang around anymore. And for what?

As it so happens, my friends and family didn’t love me for my bodyfat percentage. And they certainly didn’t love me any less if I didn’t nail my macros on any given day. In fact, they didn’t give a shit – and that’s putting it lightly. But I couldn’t see it back then because I was so hung up on this false idea that being more compliant with my diet, and thereby eventually getting leaner over time, would equate to happiness, more fame, and more friends. It’s highly ironic – and sad, really – how that pursuit completely backfired on me.

It was. not. worth it.

I wish I could go back and have a do over, but obviously that’s not possible. The next best thing I can do, then, is to help others learn from my mistakes and heartache and live better, happier, more fulfilling lives.

Eating gelato, [temporarily not lifting], and thriving in Lake Como, Italy this past August with my family. Life's too short to miss out on authentic gelato!

Eating gelato, [temporarily not lifting], and thriving in Lake Como, Italy this past August with my family. Life’s too short to miss out on authentic gelato!

Don’t misunderstand me: This post is not a cop-out for getting sloppy with your nutrition. If you’re committed to a goal, you obviously need to be consistently adherent to see results. But it doesn’t have to become an obsession, and one isolated, mindful, non-tracked meal is not going to derail you.

I’d say that one of the hardest parts about macro tracking is knowing when it’s worth the effort and sacrifice. Are you just going about your everyday life and trucking along the fat loss train? Then perhaps it’s worth it. Are you headed to your aunt’s annual holiday bash where she busts out her famous homemade apple pie and Uncle Jon whips together his world-renowned stuffing? Then probably not.

The point of a hobby is to add to your life, not take away from it. So if you’re not enjoying the journey – and worse, if you’re making those around you miserable – then what’s the point?

I can’t eat this; I don’t know the macros.
What are the macros for this dish, do you think?
Can you tell me the macros on that? 

These above statements should be kept to a minimum.

So how, then, do you learn to feel less anxious not weighing everything you eat? How do you go to a restaurant, enjoy a handful of fries, and not worry about how many grams of carbohydrates and fats it contains and not let it consume you?

It’s a practice. You have to get your reps in. And if at first you don’t succeed, dust yourself off and try again.

(Sorry, I had to!)

On a more serious note, dealing with uncertainty with your food is actually more about your mindset than the food itself.

It’s not one extreme or the other, either. Your choices are not only to either be neurotic with your macronutrient intake or become a shameless glutton. How about we learn to navigate the middle ground most of the time?

Let’s say, on a scale of 1 to 10, that 1 is essentially eating yourself into a food coma each night and a 10 is being a basket case and spending an absurd amount of time trying to figure out your macros.

We don’t want to be at a 1, of course, and I think that a 7 or 8 ranking should be reserved for high level bodybuilders whose success is contingent upon strict nutrition adherence. But even then, it doesn’t have to take over your life.

Where does that leave the rest of us, then? How about those of us who maybe just want to drop a few pounds and live a happy life while doing so?

I’d say we should fall at a 5 or 6. I think it’s important to always have a pulse on at least approximately where your calories might be, and if you are actively trying to adhere to macronutrient numbers, then do so without that becoming the bane of your existence. You don’t have to talk about it all the time, and not everyone needs to know every single detail of what you choose to (or not to!) ingest.

I promise you won’t spontaneously combust if you allow yourself to enjoy a meal every now and then sans macro tracking.

Is your meal delicious? Are you eating just enough? Are you staying mindful? Then you're good!

Is your meal delicious? Are you eating just enough? Are you staying mindful? Then you’re good!

Quality of life, quality of life, quality of life.

Dropping it like it's hot!

Today’s blog is a guest post from my client Jenny Leonard. Jenny joined the #eatliftthrive community back in May fresh off of competing in an NANBF show. She wanted to reverse diet, so she joined my group coaching program for a few months before deciding that she wanted to train for a powerlifting meet. We’ve been working together closely 1-on-1 since the summer to help her prepare for the big day. I’ve asked her to whip together a write-up sharing her experience with you all. Hope you like it! – Sohee 

Hi Jenny, congratulations on your first powerlifting meet! To begin, can you tell us more about how you got involved in the world of lifting weights and fitness? 

I used to be a runner. Big time. I’m talking half marathons and at least three runs a week. I’d do push-ups and “lift” weights and use machines to tone. Then I had babies. I stayed active, but when they are young and you are nursing, it’s hard to go for a run. They got older I did some more running, but it was hard to balance.

A friend convinced me to “lift heavy” in May 2013. I followed his food quantity and bodybuilding advice for a month for a trip, and I was hooked. I mean, I could eating ample food and and work out in my basement while my babies slept? WIN! One thing led to another, and a year later, I found myself on the natural bodybuilding competition stage in the bikini division, and in June 2014, I won a pro card. What? Me, a bikini pro?! This after I was just going “to try” lifting heavy.

Competing as an NGA bikini pro in the spring of 2015 (front shot)

Competing in a NANBF show in May 2015 – front shot

Competing as an NGA bikini pro (back shot)

Back shot

A year after that, and I’m competing again, get Precision Nutrition certified, and I’m coaching nutrition. How cool!

Why did you decide to train for a powerlifting meet? 

One day, my coaching peer and great friend said to me, “I think you should try powerlifting.” So, after reverse dieting out of my show for a few months, I signed up for a November meet and consulted with Coach Sohee. We decided that the best thing to do was to train 1-on-1 with her for this meet because anything worth doing, is worth doing well, and I didn’t want to just “kind of” train for my first powerlifting meet. I wanted to give it my all.

When I workout, it’s a very personal thing for me – it’s spiritual. I find pieces of myself I didn’t know existed. So the thought of moving heavy weights on a stage platform with lots of people around me scared the heck out of me! But if my goals don’t scare me, what’s the point? The magic happens outside the comfort zone. I’d been on the stage before for bodybuilding competitions (also scary for me), but this was different. This was personal.

As I reflect on my journey from August to November, checking in with Sohee weekly, sharing all my form videos for big lifts with her and letting her guide me on this journey, along with sharing this journey with my very good friend and coaching peer, Bridget, I have learned that even though I’m a very independent and hard working woman and single parent, I do not need to do everything alone, and I shouldn’t. Life is about real fellowship. We’re made for it, and that means letting yourself be yourself and being vulnerable with others you can trust. Powerlifting lets you do that.

Jenny (right) with her training partner and friend, Bridget (left)

You’re currently an NGA bikini pro with a powerlifting meet now under your belt. How did you find the two experiences differed? 

Preparing for a bodybuilding competition is a long journey of pushing your body, fighting your mental urges, and dialing in your body fat. You peak and hopefully fill those hungry muscles out properly and in time for your stage moment. Depending on the competition, you’re on stage one or two times for a few minutes – and then it’s over. You get stronger and work those tempo lift workouts to build those glutes and shoulders for that coveted hourglass physique of female bikini competitors.

Don’t get me wrong: Preparing for a bodybuilding competition is its own journey. It’s so mental; your prep plan pushing you to perform more with fewer and fewer calories while your body screams and begs for more food. And the final product is your physique on a stage judged by others. Anyone should be darn proud of that. Darn proud. But at the end of the day, it’s your physique against someone else’s. It’s genetics, it’s opinion, and it’s pushing your body below its preferred body fat levels. You may place, you may not, you may win, you may not.

Powerlifting, though, is a different journey and a different final product. While it’s mental, it’s way more of a physical challenge. It’s about feeding your body so you can get stronger. It’s about perfecting your technique so you can push more weight. And while the final product is you on a stage, it’s you and the bar. Just you and the bar. You either push or pull that weight or you don’t, and you either pump your fist in victory, or know you pushed yourself as hard as you could that day but the weight didn’t move. So you perfect the technique, you push yourself more, and next time you strive to do more. Every lift and PR is a win. And there is no limit to those victories. You choose how many more times you push or pull that bar and win.

Preparing for a powerlifting meet is just part of an indefinite journey, in my opinion. You make sure you’re eating enough to maintain mass and support strength gains. You live in an “everyday” body and don’t typically fight hunger; you feed it to support those strength gains. You train heavy, you focus on increasing 1RMs, and you incorporate planned deload weeks to give your body some extra rest so you can hit it hard and heavy again for another cycle. You celebrate the whole journey with every gain in numbers and every tweak in technique.

You hone in on macros the week of the meet to make your weight class, and you take it easy that week, resting, so you are ready to hit a new 1RM PR on the platform. And the day before and the day of, you eat and eat and eat. For me, that was 75%-90% more calories than any given day to make sure I was fueled to perform and throw heavy weight around. And then you take a full day to do each big lift three times! You’re warming up, you’re hitting 1RM PRs (hopefully or at least hitting good numbers for yourself like I did on bench), and you are cheering other lifters in between.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you did for your nutrition in the months leading up to the big day, plus how you made weigh-ins? 

Before deciding to prepare for my first powerlifting meet, I had been reverse dieting with Sohee for the three months prior, immediately following my latest bikini bodybuilding competition. She did an amazing job increasing my calories from about 1,425 to about 2,080 (17x my body weight!), increasing my weight to 121-124lbs on any given day from my stage weight of approximately 115lbs. The amazing thing was that my body composition wasn’t much different —  just a nice supple, lean look! And my strength gains in the gym and muscle mass gains were coming along nicely.

With powerlifting, you do need to commit to a weight class, though.  There was a 114lb class and a 123lb class. I had no desire to cut to 114 lbs because I was in bikini offseason and wanted to keep chasing muscle gains (gotta eat surplus for that!) and I was in love with my strength gains in reverse dieting.  The 123lb class seemed reasonable as I typically weighed in under that every morning.

Note from Sohee: The 123lb weight class was perfect for Jenny because her offseason weight hovered right around there. I didn’t want her to have to stress out about having to drop water weight; I simply wanted her to train hard and enjoy the overall experience. 

That being said, the goal was to maintain bodyweight (more or less) while increasing strength, so once we reversed my macros up to a healthy intake, we kept them constant for several months.

Here’s what’s intriguing, though: I was pushing strength gains every time in the gym and cycling programs about every 3-5 weeks with a deload week, and I was hungry!  This was crazy because I wasn’t dieting down like in bikini prep to push limits in leanness. I was eating a lot!  But my as my PRs continued in training, my body wanted more to eat.

So what happened?  I had to mentally push through it some days and really respect deload weeks to recharge. And as an unplanned side benefit, I got major lean muscle mass benefit and physique improvement — more than I have ever been able to achieve by focusing on bodybuilding alone. By the end of prep, without trying and without mental fog like what occurs when pushing body fat of 10%-11% like in bikini bodybuilding prep, I got some major upper body gains to better balance out my genetically blessed glutes.

Upper body progress, from December 2014 to November 2015

Upper body progress, from December 2014 to November 2015

This is a major feat for a lanky, narrow hard gainer like myself.  And the beauty of it all was I really coasted into weigh-in pretty effortlessly and did not stress at all about it.

To make weigh-ins,  I did two days of slightly reduced calories and mostly liquid shakes, and without really trying, I dropped about 5lbs and came in well under the 123lb weight limit. Those liquid days were tough, but really nothing in comparison to “dialing” in you do for weeks with bodybuilding prep.

Chowing down on donuts after successfully making weigh-ins!

Chowing down on donuts after successfully making weigh-ins!

Then after eating almost twice as much as I usually do both Saturday and Sunday to fuel my performance, I still was only around 121 lbs the morning of the meet.

How did you do at your first meet? What were the results? What are your overall thoughts on the sport? 

I clocked in at 119.5lbs at weigh-ins for the 123lb weight class at the UPA powerlifting meet on November 14, 2015.

Even though I was quite sick in the two weeks leading up to the meet (ear and sinus infections, it turns out), I hit all my squat attempts and reached a new PR of 198.2 pounds, was 1/3 on bench just hitting my warm up of 93.5 pounds and missing my 1RM match of 115 pounds (probably the result of being ill), and hit all my deadlifts with a new PR of 232.2 pounds!

Note from Sohee: I’m really pleased with how Jenny performed, especially considering that she really wasn’t feeling well starting from about two weeks before the meet. We didn’t learn until the week after she’d competed that she’d had a double ear and sinus infection. Had she been in optimal health, I have no doubt that she would have gone 9/9 for her lifts. Still, 7/9 for her very first meet is not shabby at all! 

Dropping it like it's hot!

Dropping it like it’s hot! 198.2lb squat PR

At the end of the day, I’m thankful I decided to try powerlifting. It has blessed me. It’s changed me for the better. It is a sport that celebrates everyone’s victories…every lift, every session, every PR. But more importantly, it celebrates strength while letting you be vulnerable. Not every lift is what you want it to be, your vulnerabilities on any given day are exposed, but that’s not the end. It’s a journey. You take stock, consult with a coach and/or good friend, you tweak, and it’s you and that bar again, and you can beat it. You are provided the opportunity over and over again to use your vulnerabilities to grow, not hold you back, but make you better, and that carries over into every aspect of your life.

Failure doesn’t stop you; failure grows you.

Jenny feeling the love at the conclusion of her powerlifting meet!

Jenny feeling the love at the conclusion of her powerlifting meet!

Powerlifting gives you meaningful fellowship with others because if you aren’t exposing your vulnerabilities, you’re not growing in this sport. You open yourself up to all you are for yourself, which in turns open you up for those you are sharing the journey with: training partners, coaches, best friends, and in my case, my children.

And in the end, anything worth doing is worth doing well, and if it’s worth doing well, it is well worth sharing with those you care about — or what’s the point?

I can’t say I’ve found anything like powerlifting that has opened me up and consistently grown me so I can really be better than who I was yesterday for my personal biggest why: my children.  When you find something like that — something that lights you up over and over and lets you let go and let live — it’s really indescribable. I can’t do it justice.

But I can tell you one thing: The bar and I have an indefinite number of dates, and I’m sure my life journey will be the better for it.

powerlifting meet deadlift

Connect with Jenny by following her on Instagram.

Winning my IFPA pro card at OCB Nationals on October 24, 2015 with a Snickers a day!

Introduction

A little over two months ago, I came up with the idea of eating a full-size Snickers bar everyday.

It started out as a joke at first. I was brainstorming a list of topics to write and/or produce a video log about, and I was thinking of ways that I could send a powerful message through my next bikini prep. What could I do through the next 10 weeks leading up to my national-level bodybuilding show to hammer home a point that I’ve been trying to communicate to the world? Naturally, I thought of flexible dieting. Despite its growing popularity in recent years, the concept is still wildly misunderstood and met with skepticism.

As a role model and educator in the health and fitness industry, I believe that it’s important to not only walk the walk but also constantly experiment and test different training and nutrition methods on myself. This, I’ve found, is the best way for me to learn, and in turn, become better equipped to then turn around and effect positive change in others.

The next thing I knew, I was driving to the grocery store and picking up my first six-pack of Snickers bars.

Shortly after purchasing my first six-pack of Snickers bars

Shortly after purchasing my first batch of Snickers bars

Methods

At the beginning of my prep, my stats were as follows: 25 years old, 5’2″ in height, 110lbs bodyweight, 25.0-inch waist. My job was sedentary, and I lived a lightly active lifestyle. I had over 7.5 years of resistance training experience and was familiar with proper form with the main compound movements.

My junk food of choice had to meet three criteria for this experiment:

  1. It had to be widely recognized by all as a treat with the general consensus that said treat had little nutritional value. I couldn’t choose an obscure brand of chocolate only available in select stores in specific countries, and I couldn’t opt for something like a protein bar that some might qualify as partially healthy.
  2. It had to taste good to me. I knew that if it was something that I didn’t genuinely enjoy consuming, I would quickly get sick of it and jump ship on the experiment prematurely.
  3. It had to be convenient and portable. With numerous work-related travels coming up, ice cream wouldn’t work. I needed to be able to chuck the treat into my purse and go on my merry way.

It didn’t take long for me to settle on Snickers.

It was important that I think and act like a scientist throughout the duration of this experiment, and this meant controlling for as many variables as possible. To that end, I was meticulous about tracking and adhering to a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers, exercising regularly, managing my sleep and stress levels, and consuming roughly equal quantities of water and sodium everyday.

Exercise

As far as my exercise regimen, my trainer Bret Contreras wrote me a four-days-a-week strength training program with an emphasis on compound movements. I performed squats, deadlifts, bench presses, hip thrusts, and pull-ups through a multitude of rep ranges, and also added in assistance work such as chest-supported rows, lunges, and lateral raises. With each workout, I was to employ progressive overload, which is another way of saying doing more over time. That meant I always made it a point to either get in an extra rep within the prescribed rep range, increase weight, and/or use better form. (See related: What is Progressive Overload?)

Utilizing this approach rather than simply going through the motions in the gym ensured that I maintained as much muscle mass as possible throughout the fat loss process. In other words, I lifted heavy weights because what builds the muscle keeps it (Hunter et al., 2008).

At the end of every workout, I also sprinkled in 10 minutes of glute work, usually using a combination of bodyweight, minibands, and long bands. The purpose of this was to help shape the glutes and provide some conditioning work without running myself into the ground.

Here is an example of the kinds of glute circuits I would do:

No formal cardio was performed throughout the duration of this prep. I did not do traditional steady-state cardio, nor did I engage in high intensity intervals of any kind. Low-intensity leisure walking was performed two to three evenings per week.

In total, I exercised four days a week for approximately one hour each session and took three full rest days per week.

Nutrition

I used a flexible dieting macros-based approach for my nutrition. In other words, I adhered to a prescribed set of macronutrient numbers (specific grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats tailored to my unique needs) and, though I relied primarily on whole, nutrient-dense foods, I also made room to fit in a small portion of junk food here and there. (See related: This is What Flexible Dieting Actually Looks Like)

The daily Snickers bar, of course, was a constant. I made it a point to eat one every single day no matter what, usually paired with a protein source.

On days that I resistance trained, I consumed higher carbohydrates and lower fats; on rest days, I consumed lower carbohydrates and higher fats. There was no difference in total calories between my training days and rest days.

The only variable that changed throughout the 10 weeks was my total calorie intake, which was gradually reduced over time.

At week 0, my daily target calorie intake was 1560, with a 2,300-calorie refeed day strategically implemented every 10 days. I continued in this manner through week 4, after which point I dropped my calories to 1460 for week 5, 1350 for week 6, and 1280 for weeks 7 through 10 with a refeed day still tossed in once every 10 days.

calories over time

The MyMacros+ iPhone app was used to track my daily macronutrient intake. A food scale was used to increase the accuracy of my nutrition logging.

Besides meeting my macros within +/-5g of each prescribed number everyday, I also did the following:

I planned out the next day’s meals the night before. The Snickers bar was always plugged into my meal plan first, and everything else was planned around it. I tweaked food choices and quantities until my total intake for the day lined up with my target numbers.

One of my staple meals during this prep: Greek yogurt, mixed berries, and a chopped up Snickers bar.

One of my staple meals during this prep: Greek yogurt, mixed berries, and a chopped up Snickers bar.

I aimed for a minimum of 30g protein for most meals to maximize muscle protein synthesis.

I honored my food cravings and shifted my nutrient timing and meal sizes to suit my lifestyle needs and maximize satiety. As prep wore on, I found myself unintentionally moving into an intermittent fasting style of eating, whereby I consumed my first meal at approximately 11am and my last meal at 7pm, totaling an eight-hour feeding window. I also found myself feeling more satisfied with three larger meals per day rather than four or more smaller meals.

Here is an example of how I was eating nine weeks out from my bikini show:

And how I was eating two weeks out:

Results

Throughout the duration of this 10-week experiment, I lost a total of 5.2lbs off the scale and 2 inches off my waist, dropping from 110.8lbs to 105.6lbs and 25.0 inches to 23.0 inches, respectively.

Change in bodyweight over time

10-week progress

10-week progress

On October 24, 2015, I stepped on stage in the bikini at OCB Nationals, a national-level drug-tested bodybuilding competition. I won my height class and thereby earned my IFPA pro card.

Winning my IFPA pro card with a Snickers a day!

Winning my IFPA pro card with a Snickers a day!

I also got bloodwork done as soon as I was done with the show to see where my health markers were standing. The results are shown below.

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.50.17 PM

Screen Shot 2015-10-30 at 12.50.26 PM

Discussion

As you can see from my starting progress picture shown above, I didn’t have much body fat to lose to begin with to be stage-ready. The point, however, was not to lose as much fat as possible, but rather, to show that it’s entirely possible to improve body composition while eating some junk food so long as overall nutrition is managed.

Throughout the contest prep, I was able to retain much of my strength in the gym. While my squat strength diminished the most, my deadlift, bench, and hip thrust strength dropped marginally, and my chin-up strength increased.

What’s interesting to note that, though I did lose an inch of size around my hips, I was able to attenuate further losses via the high volume glute training I performed multiple days per week. Had I not been proactive about maintaining as much glute size as possible, it’s likely that I would have lost far more size, as has been the case with previous contest preps.

I also came in at my all-time leanest body fat level. I was not able to get a DEXA scan done before or after the contest prep, but I would estimate that my body fat dropped from approximately 17% to 14%. (See related: Body Fat Pictures and Percentages by Leigh Peele)

I did not get bloodwork done at week 0, which would have been helpful in providing baseline numbers for comparison after eating 70 consecutive daily Snickers bars. However, as you can see from the images above, my lipid panel, insulin, and glucose are all currently within healthy ranges.

Dietary adherence throughout this experiment was above 95%, meaning that I consistently met my prescribed macronutrient numbers within 5g. Had I not controlled for my overall calorie intake, I could have easily not made any progress or even gained some bodyfat while eating my daily Snickers bar.

One note I’d like to make about this is that the last few weeks of my contest prep were excruciatingly difficult because each Snickers bar took up a good chunk of my calories per day. Clocking in at 4g protein, 33g carbohydrates, and 12g per bar, that totaled 250 calories that effectively ate up 20% of my allotted daily calories. I found myself feeling especially low-energy and drained in the final weeks leading up to my show, and I know that the diet would have been far easier had I been able to opt for another food that was less calorically-dense. Nevertheless, for the sake of this experiment, I pushed through. To view the full details of what and how much I ate every day, you can follow me on MyMacros+ under the username SoheeFit.

Conclusions

The objective of the Snickers Diet was not to encourage people to consume junk food on a regular basis, and by no means does anyone need to consume a Snickers bar (or any other specific junk food for that matter) everyday to lose fat. Rather, the purpose of this experiment was to drive home four points:

1. Junk food is not inherently fattening, and there is no such thing as a good or bad food. It is absolutely possible to lose fat while regularly incorporating treats such as candy bars, ice cream, and cookies into your diet. Sugar gets a bad rap because it scores extremely low on the satiety index and it’s also highly palatable, which means it’s easy to overconsume.

Conversely, if consumed in excess, it is theoretically possible to gain body fat on nutrient-dense foods such as chicken breast and rice. Think about the last time you ate too much broccoli, though. Probably never happened, right?

Then, when people do enjoy treats such as chocolate cake, they tend to overindulge. However, what many fail to realize that it’s the excess calories and not the sugar itself that contributes to fat gain. Correlation does not equal causation.

Note Dr. Mark Haub’s Twinkie Diet from a number of years back in which, in similar fashion, the professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University shed 27lbs while eating convenience store foods.

2. Junk food consumed in moderation is not necessarily unhealthy. I know there are many individuals out there who proclaim that junk food in any amount is artery-clogging – yet as my bloodwork shows, that is not the case. This is supported in the literature as well, whereby multiple studies suggest that consuming simple carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates affects neither body composition or blood lipids (Saris et al., 2000; Surweit et al., 1997).

Unless you have a specific intolerance or allergy, judicious quantities of junk food are harmless in the grand scheme of things.

3. Total calorie intake matters for body composition far more than specific food choices. It’s the law of thermodynamics in action. When there is an energy surplus, weight is gained because the energy must be stored; when there is an energy deficit, weight is lost as the body oxidizes bodily tissue (Wardlaw & Kessel, 2002).

Granted, the topic is a little more complex than that, and the specific details are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that there are various factors, including fiber and the thermic effect of food (with protein having the highest thermic effect at 25-30%) that influence the calories-in-calories-out equation (Halton & Hu, 2004). The case still stands, however, that total calories, at the end of the day, will determine whether weight is gained, lost, or maintained.

4. Incorporating a small quantity of junk food into your diet can help increase dietary adherence, which will in turn yield better fat loss results. This last point is the beauty of flexible dieting.

The best way to ensure that you stick to a nutrition program is to actually enjoy it. It’s important, then, to be honoring your unique food preferences and factoring that into your day. For some people, that’s going to mean Poptarts and cookies; for others, it may be grilled cheese and french fries. If these foods can increase dietary adherence by nipping cravings in the bud before they get out of control, then total calories will be kept in check consistently over time, which we’ve established as the most important factor in weight gain vs. weight loss.

Obviously, the daily Snickers bar was an extreme case of flexible dieting used to illustrate a bigger picture. And while junk food is not mandatory per se to achieve results, it just so happens that we humans happen to have a strong affinity for high sugar, high fat goodies. It would be prudent to make that way work for us rather than against us.

Please don’t misunderstand me: This is not to say that you can achieve optimal health by fitting in only junk food into your diet and fitting your macros. Here’s an excellent video by Eric Helms discussing the nutrition hierarchy:

Since everyone’s been asking: For now, I’m very much enjoying fitting other treats into my diet, like my good ‘ole mini chocolate chips, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Lucky Charms cereal. Consuming any treat for 70 straight days is bound to get tiring after a while, and this scenario was no exception.

Greek yogurt, berries, and chocolate chips

To learn more about fitting treats into your diet while still working your way toward your fitness goals, check out my product, The Beginner’s Guide to MacrosThis e-book teaches you the practical tools you need to lose fat while still enjoying your life.

Let me teach you how to have your cake and eat it, too – literally!

Beginner's Guide to Macros

References

Halton, T.L., & Hu, F.B. (2004) The effects of high protein diets on thermogenesis, satiety and weight loss: a critical review. J Am Coll Nutr., 23(5):373-85.

Hunter, G.R., Byrne, N.M., Sirikul, B., Fernandez, J.R., Zuckerman, P.A., Darnell, B.E., & Gower, B.A. (2008) Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. Obesity (Silver Spring), 16(5):1045-51.

Saris, W.H., Astrup, A., Prentice, A.M., Zunft, H.J., Formigueera, X., Verboekte-van de Venne, W.P., Raben, A., Poppitt, S.D., Seppelt, B., Johnston, S., Vasilaras, T.H., & Keogh, G.F. (2000). Randomized controlled trial of changes in dietary carbohydrate/fat ratio and simple vs complex carbohydrates on bodyweight and blood lipids: the CARMEN study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 24(1):1310-8.

Surwit, R.S., Feinglos, M.N., McCaskill, C.C., Clay, S.L., Babyak, M.A., Brownlow, B.S., Plaisted, C.S., & Lin, P.H. (1997.) Metabolic and behavior effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. Am J Clin Nutr, 65(4):908-15.

Wardlaw, G.M., & Kessel, M. (2002). Energy Production and Energy Balance. In: Perspective in Nutrition 2nd Ed., New York, NY. p. 535-7.

never big enough

There was a time in my life – up until 15 years ago, I’d say – when I was completely uninhibited. For the most part, I said what I wanted, I wore what I pleased, and I engaged in activities that brought me joy. I didn’t worry about what others thought of me.

When it came to my body, I didn’t think twice. It was merely a physical vehicle that allowed me to carry my schoolbooks, sprint on the field, and embrace my loved ones. My body was my body. I surely did not waste precious energy fretting over the size of my thighs. It was a physical manifestation of me, yes, but it did not define me.

Until it did.

Me and my brother back in the day when I didn't care about my body size, like how big my head was in comparison to the rest of my body :-)

Me and my brother back in the day when I didn’t care about my body size, like how big my head was in comparison to the rest of my body :-)

Many of you are familiar with my dark struggles with anorexia and bulimia – and if you’re not, you can read more about that here. That all started when I was 14 years old. As a young teen, I was not only dealing with the changes in my body, but I was also navigating my way through the painfully awkward time of many children’s lives that is better known as high school. That’s an incredibly impressionable age, you know; girls and boys alike start to care more and more about what the media deems to be hip and what fellow classmates are wearing, doing, and talking about.

Naturally, then, when some of my girlfriends first started discussing this formerly foreign concept of “dieting” and “needing to lose weight” and being “OMG so fat,” it piqued my curiosity. They all seem to care so much about how much they weigh… I guess I should, too. Seems logical, right?

I embarked on my first diet as a high school freshman. Whereas before, I was known for my voracious appetite, I was now surreptitiously skipping meals and pretending I was never hungry. And while the scale weight used to merely be a fun, harmless data point for me, I began to obsess over the blinking number every morning, and slowly but surely, it took control of my life. I became pals with hunger and best friends with the treadmill.

What’s heartbreaking is that to any other person, I looked like a regular, healthy teenager. But through my own eyes, all I saw were blemishes.

I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror the same way anymore, either. I became consumed with picking apart my physical flaws and finding spots that needed fixing.

I stared back at my reflection and couldn’t see me for me.

What is body dysmorphia?

As the term implies, body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), consists of a preoccupation with one’s perceived or real physical flaws. This obsession is typically associated with an individual’s physique – flatness of the belly, size of chest, and so on – though one can also find fault with other body parts such as their hair, nose, or skin. Typically, even the slightest imperfection can cause severe emotional distress to an individual with BDD.

While it’s not uncommon for an average individual to dislike a few aspects of his or her body, BDD is characterized by intensely negative thoughts to the point where his or her life is crippled by this hang-up.

This reminds me an awful lot of TLC’s hit song, “Unpretty,” from back in the day. I’m sure some of you can relate to these sentiments.

The exact causes of BDD are unclear, though we can speculate to some of the major contributing factors.

Here in the United States, 94% of female characters on television are thinner than the average American woman (Gonzalez-Lavin & Smolak, 1995). This can be an issue because these women are frequently portrayed as happy, attractive, and successful. Unfortunately, viewing thinness as the be-all-end-all actually can contribute to high body image dissatisfaction (Stice et al., 1994).

We like to joke that once you start lifting weights, you’re never going to be big enough in your own eyes. We chuckle because, for many of us, there is an inkling of truth to that.

never big enough

But what if it gets taken to the extreme?

In a study conducted on 49 college-aged female women, 97.5% of participants reported that, following a 12-week supervised strength training program, they felt healthier and more fit; 51.2% indicated that their body image perceptions had improved (Ahmed et al., 2002). Meanwhile, 24.3% of participants – approximately one in four – reported either neutral or negative responses to their body image after training.

And within the weightlifting community, particularly amongst men, muscle dysmorphia (MD), a subcategory of BDD, is a syndrome in which individuals believe that they are of very small musculature (Choi et al., 2002). This syndrome is highly correlated with body image, and those with MD are preoccupied not only with gaining muscle but also with keeping bodyfat levels low.

Negative emotions associated with BDD include social anxiety, impaired self-esteem, and the avoidance of social events (Rumsey & Harcourt, 2004). This is no bueno.

Interestingly, distorted body image oftentimes has little to no relation to how an individual actually looks; his or her perception of the physical self is heavily influenced by cultural ideals. Social comparison theory suggests that women judge their own appearance by comparing themselves with societal definitions of beauty as depicted by mass media (Festinger, 1954). As well, this is strongly correlated with eating disorders in women (Brown et al., 1989).

What’s “fitspo” got to do with it?

Ostensibly, the purpose of “fitspiration,” or “fitspo” – fitness inspiration – is to motivate others to pursue a healthier lifestyle. This has become a wildly popular movement in recent years; a search of the hashtag #fitspo on Instagram yields over 21.5 million (and counting!) different posts. And while the intentions may seem innocuous, most of the pictures associated with “fitspo” consist of younger women who are lean and muscular. This can be troublesome because this can lead many individuals to believe that the only way to be considered fit and healthy is to look strong and have low body fat levels.

Ah, yes, so motivational. Rah rah.

Ah, yes, so motivational. Rah rah.

There is a positive correlation between time spent on the Internet and body dissatisfaction in adult and adolescent women (Bair et al., 2012). In fact, a study on 130 female undergraduate students earlier this year found that exposure to fitspo led to more negative body image, lower state appearance self-esteem, and negative mood (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015).

Surprise - this is supposed to make you feel BETTER about yourself! Or is it?

Surprise – this is supposed to make you feel BETTER about yourself! Or is it?

To an extent, attempting to manipulate our body shape and size is normal. We exercise to stay in shape, we eat well to maintain our trim figures. But BDD takes it to the extreme, and fitspo isn’t helping.

What can we do about it?

Just because we’re alive in 2015 doesn’t mean that we’ll all become victims of BDD. I argue that it’s entirely possible to be present in this world and still maintain a healthy body image. Here are some actionable steps to take.

Focus on what you do like about your physical self rather than what you don’t. Comparison is the thief of joy. We all know this. Yet it’s entirely too common to envy other people’s impossibly tiny waist, bootylicious badonkadonks, and shredded abs while completely overlooking our own assets. I can guarantee you, though, that others are looking at you and admiring your body parts (maybe your incredibly strong and muscular legs or your broad shoulders) at the exact same time.

We allow ourselves to become so narrow-minded and we see nothing but our flaws.

Can I challenge you to do something? Stand in the mirror and just find one part of yourself that you like. Start there. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, and yes, it may take you a few minutes at first, but try to focus on the positives.

Me? I like my nose. Haha. Seems petty, right? I’ve got a tiny little button nose with an even tinier nose piercing that most people don’t even notice. But it’s proportional to my face and it’s very, ah, “me”. I like that. And it’s a solid starting point.

Consider limiting your social media exposure. Based on study findings, it seems to make sense to recommend that individuals limit their exposure to social media where they may be able to view “fitspiration” images and posts. Maybe if that fitness celebrity on Instagram who regularly posts soft pornography under the guise of “fitness” stops showing up on your newsfeed, you can start to feel a little better. Unfollow, unfollow, unfollow. Bye, Felicia.

Change the way you speak to yourself. I feel painfully granola just typing this out, but how true is it that we tend to use some pretty horrible language with ourselves? The fact of the matter is, we don’t put ourselves in a position for positive growth if we’re too busy shaming ourselves and calling ourselves awful names. And how can we be expected to feel good about ourselves if we’re not being compassionate and loving?

“You’re fat, unworthy, and useless” – these thoughts have to go. Replace them with words like “strong” and “capable”. You may not believe it about yourself now, but sometimes, you have to fake it ’till you make it.

Stop expecting to be perfect. It’ll backfire. Perfection is not real and it’s elusive. This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a lot of forward progress that can happen when you lean into your mistakes and embrace them as part of life.

 

Rather than looking a specific way, then, strive to feel a certain way. Exercising with the goal for health rather than weight loss can contribute to positive body image (Cash et al., 1994).

Whereas before, I exercised primarily to lose weight, stay small, and run away (quite literally) from body fat – which, by the way, eventually backfired in a bad way – I now workout to feel confident, relieve stress, and clear my head. Oh yeah, and to get strong as hell, of course. Because obviously.

It feels good to feel good, doesn’t it? And ultimately, that’s what we all want.

Take the emotion out of the equation. As I write this, I am currently 10 days out from stepping on stage in my next bikini competition. I’ve been dieting for a few weeks now, and this is the lightest and leanest I’ve been in years. Objectively, I know this. The numbers say so, and my friends and family echo the same sentiments. Yet when I look in the mirror, I just don’t see it.

The difference this time around, though, is that I can recognize that, precisely because I’m in the throes of contest prep, I almost necessarily have a distorted view of myself. I don’t “feel” lean per se, but I know that I am.

I couldn’t find anything to support the following statement of mine in the scientific literature, so take it with a grain of salt if you please, but here’s what I believe: it’s entirely possible to look in the mirror, recognize that you’re not seeing yourself objectively, and not internalize any thoughts you may have. The key is to be able to identify when this is happening.

A certain degree of body dysmorphia is normal and expected when losing bodyfat – particularly when you’re trying to get contest lean. So despite what others are saying, you may feel as though you still have a long ways to go. This is when it’s critical to rely on other, more tangible measures of progress, such as body circumference measurements and scale weight rather than pictures alone.

When you can take your emotions out of the equation, it becomes a whole lot easier to keep plugging along on your merry way.

My favorite quote to support this comes from my friend Coach Stevo:

View scale weight [or body measurements or your physique] with as much emotion with which you’d count the number of white cars in a parking lot.

You are not defined by your body.

 

References

Ahmed, C., Hilton, W., & Pituch, K. (2002). Relations of strength training to body image among a sample of female university students. J Strength & Cond Res, 16(4):645-8.

Bair, C.E., Kelly, N.R., Serdar, K.L., & Mazzeo, S.E. (2012). Does the Internet function like magazines? An exploration of image-focused media, eating pathology, and body dissatisfaction. Eating Behaviors, 13:398-401.

Brown, T.A., Cash, T.F., & R.J., Lewis. (1989). Body image disturbances in adolescent female binge-purgers: A brief report of the results of a national survey in the U.S.A. J Psychol Psychiatry, 30:605-13.

Cash, T.F., Novy, P.L. & Grant, J.R. (1994). Why do women exercise? Factor analysis and further validation of the reasons for exercise inventory. Percept Mot Skills, 78:155-9.

Choi, P.Y., Pope, H.G. Jr., & Olivardia, R. (2002). Muscle dysmorphia: a new syndrome in weightliftersBr J Sports Med, 36(5):375-6.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7:117-40.

Gonzalez-Lavin, A., & Smolak, L. (1995). Relationships between television and eating prbolems in middle school girls. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. 

Mabe, A.G., Forney, K.J., & Keel, P.K. (2014). Do you like my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. Int J Eating Disorders, 47:516-23.

Rumsey, N., & Harcourt, D. (2004). Body image and disfigurement: issues and interventionsBody Image, 1(1):83-97.

Schwartz, M.B., & Brownell, K.D. (2004). Obesity and body image. Body Image, 1:43-56.

Stice, E.,M., Schupak-Neuberg, E., Shaw, H.E., & Stein, R.I. (1994). Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: An examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103:836-40.

Tiggemann, M. & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body Image, 15:61-7.

Yamamiya, Y., Cash, T.F., Melnyk, S.E., Posavac, H.D., & Posavac, S.S. (2005). Women’s exposure to thin-and-beautiful media images: body image effects of media-ideal internalization and impact-reduction interventionsBody Image, 2(1):74-80.

 

 

Pondering the meaning of life in between sets of squats. (Photo by Natalie Minh)

You’ve all seen them before: that one gym regular – Average Joe, we’ll call him – with a big ego who stomps his way under an Olympic barbell loaded with plates on plates on plates. He’ll huff, he’ll puff, and then he’ll squeak out a little curtsy before making his way make up and dramatically racking the bar on the pins. “Yeah, 400lbs,” he’ll grunt as he beats his chest. “Man, can you believe that last year I was only squatting 135?”

You know just as well as any other onlooker, however, that he traveled all of six inches. And that over time, his range of motion has gotten increasingly shorter, rest between sets longer, and ego exponentially larger. So does that even count? Do you give it to Average Joe?

Let’s wipe the slate clean and start over. Average Joe could learn a lesson or two here.

Could this beefy looking guy actually be skimping on his leg workouts? Mayhaps! (Sidenote: That's my husband and I'm totally poking fun at him.)

Could this beefy looking guy actually be skimping on his leg workouts? Mayhaps! (Sidenote: That’s my husband and I’m totally poking fun at him.)

Traditionally, we think of progressive overload as simply adding more weight onto the bar. That’s very straightforward and, if that’s the only way you make improvements in the gym, you’ll probably end up doing pretty well with your fitness endeavors.

But there are many ways to get better in the gym beyond striving to increase absolute poundages.

Progressive overload, simply defined, refers to the ability to do more over time. And while this may seem straightforward, gauging true progressive overload is a lot like the scientific method: keeping all other training variables constant, you change only one thing. If you are able to make an improvement in the gym while controlling all other variables, then you can say that you have truly progressed. After all, if you change two or more factors in a given environment, how can you tell if you’ve really made progress? There would be one too many confounding factors to be able to come to a decisive conclusion.

Below I’ll go over the different angles with which progressive overload can be approached.

Load

If you’re a complete beginner to strength training and have been sedentary for a long time, I’d recommend starting out with just bodyweight or a very light load for the basic movement patterns. If you’re simply trying out a movement for the first time but you’re otherwise experienced in the weight room, it’s still a good idea to experiment with a couple of light sets.

Whatever your starting point, there’s going to come a time – sooner rather than later – when you’re going to want to slide some more plates onto the bar, grab a heavier kettlebell, or bump up the dumbbells by 5lbs. In order for the body to adapt, you must continue to push the boundaries and place the muscles under additional stress. This is known as increasing mechanical tension, and it’s critical for long-term gains in strength and muscularity.

Here’s a video of me hip thrusting 265lbs for 2 reps at 108lbs bodyweight back in May 2015. The first time I ever did hip thrusts was in March of 2012 and I could only do 65lbs at the time.

How do you know when you’re ready for more? When you can complete the set within the prescribed rep range with ease. In other words, if you feel like you could have rocked out five more reps with solid form, that’s a good sign you can handle a little extra weight.

Alternatively, you’re also progressing if you’re lifting the same amount of absolute weight but with less bodyweight. Your relative strength, in this case, is said to have improved. If you lose weight while maintaining strength, then this, too, is considered a form of progressive overload.

Regardless of what your fitness goal is – be it fat loss, strength, maintenance, or muscular endurance – you should be always striving to get stronger in this aspect. Remember, though, that the quality of the movement (meaning your form) should never be compromised for the sake of quantity. Get your form right before allowing yourself to move up in weight.

Volume

Manipulating volume in the gym can mean many things. The most simple interpretation is to change the numbers of sets and reps of an exercise performed. If a weight is feeling light, for example, you may want to get in one or two extra reps depending on the rep range you’ve been prescribed. In this regard, you can progress by increasing the volume of a set or training session by getting in more reps while keeping the weight, rest, and tempo fixed.

Another way to switch up the volume is by the frequency with which you train. If you’re a beginner who’s been lifting two days a week for a couple of months, perhaps you’re ready to bump that up to three or four days a week now. If your focus is on hypertrophy of a specific body part, it’ll definitely be a good idea to start training said area more than just once a week.

Related to volume is a concept called time under tension (TUT), which is great because it creates mechanical stress, one of the mechanisms for hypertrophy as defined by Brad Schoenfeld. TUT typically refers to the duration of a given set. In order to increase TUT, then, you can simply execute more repetitions in a set or even perform more sets overall.

And let’s say you do 4 sets of 5 squats at 185lbs with 2 minutes rest between sets. If you manage to add 10lbs to that squat the next week but you’re resting 4 minutes between sets, can you really say that you’ve progressed? That’s hard to say because you’ve changed two different variables: load and rest. How do you know that you couldn’t have done 195lbs the week prior if you’d given yourself more rest then also? The confounding variable will make it difficult to come to any real conclusion.

To manipulate rest in order to progress, rest a little less than you usually do and attempt to perform the same set again – with the same weight and the same numbers of reps. This is know as increasing the density of the training session. If you do this successfully, then congratulations! Progressive overload has taken place.

Range of motion

If you’re doing a set of squats and you start to get tired, what are you tempted to do? Shorten the range of motion. You’ll eek out a half squat – or worse, a quarter squat – and try to pretend that that was a legitimate rep. In order words, you’ll cheat yourself of quality for the sake of quantity. Many lifters see this as a form of progressive overload in that they’re extending the set with partials. However, this grey area makes it very difficult to gauge progress.

To make a set more difficult by extending the set beyond failure, you may alternatively strip off half the weight and continue to execute full range of motion. This is referred to as a mechanical dropset, which allows you to continue banging out full range repetitions while increasing TUT and metabolic stress. This approach is that much more appealing as progress can be easily measured. As each repetition is performed for a full range of motion, when you can increase the total reps in the set, you can be sure that progressive overload has been achieved.

Coming from another angle, progressive overload for someone may mean progressing from rack pulls to conventional deadlifts after developing the mobility to reach down that low. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of building the body awareness to now be able to safely achieve proper depth without injury. Anecdotally, the lifters who pay more attention to form and honor full range of motion seem to last longer in terms of training careers than the lifters who don’t, as they tend to keep more stress on the muscles and less on the joints and ligaments.

Granted, there’s necessarily going to be some degree of individual variation. Depending on injury history, body structure, and mobility, “full” range of motion for someone might mean only going down to a parallel squat, whereas for someone else with incredible ankle and hip mobility, an ass-to-grass approach might be more appropriate. However, rest assured knowing that if you can now full squat the same weight as you could parallel squat 6 months prior, then you’re using greater ROM, and thus, progressive overload has been achieved.

Pondering the meaning of life in between sets of squats. (Photo by Natalie Minh)

It’s fun to make progress in the gym – that much is undeniable. But there are still important notes to keep in mind.

As emphasized earlier, proper form trumps everything. There’s no sense trying to advance an exercise if you’re looking sloppy. Spend some time hammering out quality form before moving forward. I understand this may come off as a painfully obvious point, but I’d argue that the vast majority of cases of poor form you witness in commercial gyms around the country begin by violating this basic rule. Simply put, lifters compromise their form and ROM in order to fool themselves into thinking they’ve gotten stronger – and oftentimes end up hurting themselves in the process. Safety first.

Progress is by no means linear, so to expect to make the same degree of gains week after week is unrealistic. The more experienced you are, the harder it’s going to be – meaning you’ll have to input more and more work to achieve increasingly smaller gains. On top of that, there are other factors such as diet, sleep, stress, underlying injuries, and genetics that will affect the rate at which you improve.

For beginners especially, progressive overload is an entirely different animal. Oftentimes this means that the individual should first master the basic movement patterns with strictly bodyweight before even thinking about adding weight. This person may likely have to begin with the most rudimentary version of a movement, and then slowly move onto the more advanced variations as he or she gains body awareness. Once this body awareness has been achieved, however, the beginner is ripe for growing, as the term “newbie gains” has been coined to refer to the typical results a lifter sees in his or her first three to six months of engaging in proper resistance training. It’s a time for rapid progress, so make sure a proper foundation of sound technical form is laid before piling on the plates. This will pay dividends in the long run.

Forge ahead, my friends.

References

Schoenfeld, Brad. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(3):179-94.

Cellucor whey is my favorite!

Getting in more protein is a recurring issue I run into with my clients, particularly ones who are newer to the fitness game. And understandably so – carbohydrate- and fat-heavy foods tend to be far more palatable, and I really don’t know of many, if any, individuals who have woken up in the middle of the night craving a thick slab of grilled chicken breast.

Still, dietary protein is a critical component of not only your physique but also your overall physical health, so it’s important that you’re taking steps to ensure that you’re consuming enough.

Let me walk you through how you can get more protein in your diet.

What is dietary protein?

What’s all the hype about protein, anyway? Isn’t it really only for hardcore bodybuilders who are looking to get jacked out of their minds?

Actually, we all need it.

Going back to the basics, protein is one of the three macronutrients, next to carbohydrates and fats. Proteins are made up of amino acids and constitute the building blocks of skeletal muscle.  For athletes and other active individuals, this macronutrient is crucial to help rebuild and repair skeletal muscle before and after an intense bout of exercise.

Here’s a rudimentary list to give you an idea of what protein sources look like in whole foods:

  • Egg whites
  • Whole eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Chicken breast
  • Turkey breast
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Canned tuna
  • Cottage cheese
  • Milk
  • Extra lean ground beef
  • Top round steak
  • Top sirloin steak
  • Flank steak
  • White fish (cod, halibut, haddock, mahi mahi, tilapia, etc.)
  • Salmon
  • Protein powder
  • Quest bars

Are all proteins created equal?

Not at all, actually. Proteins differ not only in their quality but also in their source and digestion rate.

There are 20 total amino acids, nine of which are considered essential amino acids (EAAs), meaning that they cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained via diet. While there are a number of different methods to determine protein quality, typically the higher the EAA content of a protein, the better the quality (Lemon, 2000).

Of the nine EAAs, the three branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three are unique, as they play special roles in neural function (Blomstrand, 2006), protein metabolism (Norton & Layman, 2006), and blood glucose and insulin regulation (Brosnan & Brosnan, 2006). Leucine is particularly special in that 2-3g of leucine alone has been found to stimulate protein synthesis independently (Layman, 2002).

Meat- and dairy-based proteins, such as steak, milk, and whey all contain high concentrations of leucine and are therefore considered higher quality proteins (Norton & Wilson, 2009). Plant-based proteins, on the other hand, often lack sufficient EAAs to be considered a complete protein source (Campbell et al., 1999). As a staunch omnivore, I’m admittedly not well-versed with vegetarian or vegan diets, so here’s a solid post from Greatist taking you through some complete plant-based protein sources you may not know about.

How much do I need?

Protein needs vary based on the individual.

Before we move forward, one thing is abundantly clear: the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein set by the US government is not nearly enough for healthy, active folks like you and me. Keep in mind that the current RDA of 0.8g/1kg total bodyweight is actually set for sedentary persons. When you add resistance training to the mix, everything changes.

For most active individuals, somewhere within the range of 0.6-1.0g protein per 1lb total bodyweight per day is solid, with approximately 30g consumed per meal for satiety and optimal muscle protein synthesis (Layman, 2009). It doesn’t hurt to go above that, either, particularly if you’re in a steep caloric deficit and your bodyfat is already low. As well, more protein can help preserve, and sometimes even add, muscle mass when dieting.

Check out our Physique Science Podcast hosted by myself and Dr. Layne Norton as we interview Dr. Stu Phillips on dietary protein:

As well as our interview with Dr. Don Layman on leucine:

How do I get more protein in my diet?

Ah, finally. Now that we know how much protein you should be shooting for, how the heck do you get there?

Aim for around 30 grams of protein per meal.

For practical purposes, breaking down your protein goal meal-by-meal is a lot less daunting than trying to shoot for a daily total without a plan for how to get there. Striving for 30g per meal is very reasonable and can be accomplished with the following:

45g most protein powders
100g chicken breast
100g pork tenderloin
150g 93/7 ground beef
9 egg whites
5 eggs

That’s just a starting point to give you an idea of how much protein is in different food sources.

If you don’t have a food scale (and I highly recommend you get your hands on one), you can eyeball your portion sizes. In general, go for protein around the size of your palm and you should be fine.

Oh, and yes, trace protein counts, too. An ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, has 6g protein, 1g carb, and 9g fats — so those 6g would absolutely get added to your total.

Make protein the center of (almost) every meal.

This means that having mac and cheese for dinner is probably okay on occasion, but make sure you add in some protein as well. May I suggest some ham, or perhaps some diced chicken breast?

Oh, what’s that? You want to have a quesadilla? Sweet – just make sure you throw some meat in there.

Whenever I eat something, I pretty much always try to pair it with a protein source as well. If I’m going to have an apple, for example, maybe I’ll have a protein bar or a protein shake with it. I just took that from an all-carbohydrate snack to a protein-and-carb meal. Easy.

When I go out to eat, rather than thinking, “What looks tasty?” I’m wondering, “What has ample protein and mostly whole foods and looks delicious?” Oftentimes for me, that ends up being a giant chicken or steak salad with fun toppings (dressing on the side!), seared tuna, or salmon. That subtle shift in mindset can be a true nutrition game changer.

Work on making this the norm. The default, over time, should be to put protein first.

Lean burger patties!

If you’ve already hit your target protein intake for the day, then of course a non protein-centric meal is perfectly fine at that point to help round out the rest of your macronutrient numbers. But this is only if you’ve met your intake.

Keep more protein around the house.

You’re going to eat what you have access to – and conversely, you’re not going to eat what’s not available. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Yet you’d be surprised at how many people claim to be trying to consume more protein yet don’t take measures to keep more protein around at home.

At the very least, I recommend having some high quality deli meat in your fridge as well as some tuna cans in your pantry. Oh, and some protein powder. It can’t hurt.

Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, you probably won’t need that emergency tuna. But one day when you find yourself in a bind, you’ll be glad you kept it around.

Increase your protein intake slowly. 

This is an important point for those of you whose current protein intake is far below your goal intake. Trying to consume 80g more protein overnight and then sustain that over the long haul is a lofty endeavor and likely won’t shake out too well. It’s really not enjoyable and you may find yourself constipated – and we don’t want that, now, do we?

Instead, shoot for a 20-30g bump per week. This is far more attainable. You can do this by simply adding in 5g protein per meal or tossing in an extra meal or protein shake into your day. Continue increasing your intake on a weekly basis until you’ve reached your target number. This may take a few weeks or maybe even a few months – that’s completely okay.

Supplement with a protein shake.

I keep a few tubs of whey protein around for those times when I want a quick pulse of protein and don’t want to take the time to whip up a meal.

While there’s nothing inherently magical about whey protein, it’s a great option for when you’re short on time or on the run. Just add water. Convenience at its best!

I’ll usually blend some protein powder with milk and a banana after a training session for quick digestion, though when it’s hot out, I’ve been known to blend some chocolate whey with iced coffee to create a faux frappuccino. Mmm mmm tasty.

My favorite brand is Cellucor in the molten chocolate and peanut butter marshmallow flavors. With 25g protein per scoop, it tastes great and mixes well with other ingredients.

Protein recipes

Here are some recipes I’ve collected for you to help you get started. These ones are simple to make and you don’t need to be a fancy chef to whip these up by any means.

I strongly recommend that you make multiple batches when cooking. This will not only save you time, but will make meal prepping easier by a thousandfold without adding much work. I’ve been known to double or even triple recipes, and doing so will last me the whole week.

When it comes to diving up recipes, don’t stress over exactly even measurements. I promise you it’s not worth the stress and won’t even matter in the long haul. Measure out all the ingredients for the entire recipe, put it all together, and then split it into roughly equal servings – and let that be good enough.

Betsy’s Peanut Butter Pretzel Pancake

Betsy Welch is a long-term client of mine who is not only strong as hell in the gym but also a genius in the kitchen. Her Instagram is chock-full of protein pancake recipes, and if you like this one below, you should pick up a copy of her protein pancake e-book here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 2.28.17 PM

What You’ll Need

Batter:

30g Quest Nutrition peanut butter protein powder
15g coconut flour
46g egg white
120g unsweetened vanilla almond milk
3/4 tsp baking powder

Filling:

3g sugar-free vanilla jello pudding mix
33g fat-free cream cheese
20mL unsweetened vanilla almond milk
6g PB2 powder

Topping:

18g fat-free Cool Whip
12g PB2 powder mixed with water
15g pretzels

Directions

  1. Mix all batter ingredients in a bowl and allow to sit for 5-7 minutes while coconut flour absorbs moisture.
  2. Heat skillet on medium. Once heated, reduced to medium-low heat and spray pan with oil.
  3. While pancakes are cooking, mix together cream cheese (melted), pudding mix, almond milk, and PB2 for filling in a small bowl.
  4. Once pancakes have cooled, spread filling on top of each pancake before stacking.
  5. Top pancake stack with Cool Whip, then drizzle on PB2 powder mixed with water, and finish off with pretzels.

Makes 1 serving

Nutrition Information Per Serving

435 Calories
44g protein
45g carbs
8g fats

Sohee’s Chicken Apple Salad 

I actually came up with this dish just last week. I was on the hunt for a protein-heavy dish that was simple to make, and I remembered when my best friend Marci sent me a recipe for this chicken apple salad recipe back in the spring.

I’ve tweaked that recipe a good bit – substituted some ingredients for others and added some tidbits – to make the macros a little more to my liking. I was surprised at how easy this was to make and have since re-created it four different times. Friends and family alike have given this one a thumbs up.

Sohee's Chicken Apple Salad

What You’ll Need

400g cooked chicken breast (I recommend cooking these in the slow cooker for easier shredding)
1 medium diced apple (I use honey crisp)
2 cups broccoli
40g raisins
40g walnut pieces
1/4 cup diced red onion
5.3oz Greek yogurt (I use Chobani plain)
2tbsp dijon mustard
Stevia to taste

Directions

1. Shred chicken breast in large bowl.
2. Mix together broccoli, raisins, walnut pieces, and red onions with chicken.
3. Stir in Greek yogurt, dijon mustard, and Stevia, and mix well.
4. Portion into roughly four equal containers.
5. Refrigerator for a few hours or overnight.

Makes 4 servings

Nutrition Information Per Serving

272 Calories
36.3g protein
20.1g carbs
5.4g fats

 

So here you have a number of concrete tools to help you on your quest to consuming more protein.

To learn more about how to count macronutrient numbers and adhere to them to reach your fitness goals all while incorporating your favorite foods into your diet, pick up a copy of my e-book, The Beginner’s Guide to Macrosand be sure to join the accompanying Facebook support group that comes with your purchase.

Beginner's Guide to Macros

 

References

Blomstrand, E. (2006). A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr., 136(2):544S-47.

Brosnan, J.T., & Brosnan, M.E. (2006). Branched-chain amino acids: enzyme and substrate regulation. J Nutr., 136(1 Suppl):207S-11.

Campbell, W.W., Barton, M.L., Jr., Cyr-Campbell. D., et al. (1999). Effects of an omnivorous diet compared with a lactoovovegetarian diet on resistance-training-induced changes in body composition and skeletal muscle in older men. Amer J Clin Nutr., 70(6):1032-9.

Layman, D.K., (2002). Role of leucine in protein metabolism during exercise and recovery. Can J Appl Phys., 27(6):646-63.

Layman, D.K. (2009). Dietary Guidelines should reflect new understandings about adult protein needsNutr & Metab, 6:12.

Layman, D.K., & Walker, D.A. (2006). Potential importance of leucine in treatment of obesity and the metabolic syndrome. J Nutr., 135(1 Suppl):319S-23.

Lemon, P.W. (2000). Beyond the zone: protein needs of active individuals. J Am Coll Nutr., 19(5 Suppl):513S-21.

Norton, L.E., & Layman D.K. (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. J Nutr., 136(2):533S-37.

Norton, L.E., & Wilson, G.J. (2009). Optimal protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis. AgroFood Industry Hi-Tech, 20:54-7.

Phillips, S.M., & Van Loon, L.J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. J Sports Sci., 29(1):S29-38.

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