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Mary: This week, we’re going to talk about you, and us, and nutrition goals, why they’re important, and why you should have them. This is a topic that Kristin and I are very passionate about because it’s something that we both deal with on the daily, on the reg, as you might say. And it’s something that we struggle with. I would say more often than we would like to admit.
Kristin: For sure. I think that it can sometimes be a daily or even a weekly struggle, and we’ll get into some of why that is towards the end. But I feel like I was just talking to my coach, Stacy, about some of this stuff yesterday and how I feel like Mary and I have all of this knowledge to apply to nutrition and our training. And we still struggle with some of this stuff.
So I think like how do all you feel that maybe you don’t have the same amount of knowledge that we have about this? It’s gotta be hard and super confusing. And you’re bombarded with messages that maybe aren’t based on facts and reality.
Mary: Yeah. I think that you know, as an athlete, we all have numbers or PRs or meets that we want to qualify for. And it’s really, those are really easy for me to conceptualize like a number that I want to hit is like, duh, of course. Why am I going to the gym? If I don’t have a goal?
Kristin: Exactly. You have some sort of strength goal. Usually, it’s a number, but maybe it’s something else.
Mary: Maybe it’s a meet. Maybe it’s…I don’t know. We all have something otherwise; maybe it’s just to feel good. Like that’s, that’s completely fine. Whatever your strength goal is, you know, likely most of us have them.
But what is a little disconcerting is that the nutrition goals that we normally have are either cutting or bulking. And if you’ve listened to Empowered by Iron, if you’ve started from the beginning or even just joined recently, you should have a pretty good idea that Kristen and I are not big advocates for cutting or bulking. We strongly believe that if you want to get strong, you should be eating to fuel your body. We’ll get into what that means, why it’s hard to convince people to do that, and a bunch of other topics.
Kristin: Whenever you ask someone what are your nutrition goals, it’s almost always cutting or bulking.
Mary: And I think as a female, I would more likely hear cutting.
Kristin: Absolutely. Well, cause you think “goal” so, in your mind, you’re like, “Well, it must be a number. There must be a number associated with it. And if there’s not that I must be doing something wrong.” Whereas eating to fuel your body is a nutrition goal in and of itself.
Mary: Right. It’s just, it’s not talked about. And I think we’ll get into this a little later, but cutting and bulking are so lucrative in the industry because they can sell things. You can sell coaching, you can sell meal plans, you can sell, you know, whatever it is, it’s just highly marketable. And then you can flash images of people before and after beginning and end. And if there’s a big, drastic change, it’s a really easy ploy to say, “Hey, look at this person, they’ve made this huge drastic change. They love themselves. They feel better. They look better…” all things that are not important for athletic performance.
Kristin: That drives me crazy. You see all these people that it’s supposed to be these nutrition companies or coaches, whatever – they talk about athletic performance, but then they show you physique changes. And it’s like, okay, that’s I mean, cool. But if you say you’re for athletic performance, what were the performance changes?
Mary: Yeah. And I mean, I think because body image is so emotional, especially to us as women, a lot of our self-worth is tied to our body image. Unfortunately.
Think about this when you were a girl, people said you’re pretty, you’re beautiful. Right? So beginning at a young age, your looks are tied to your value, right? And even as athletes, it’s hard to break that apart. Even though most of us feel super when we’re cutting
Kristin: And weak!
Mary: It’s not fun, but at the end of it, even if we are killing ourselves, we feel like we look better.
Kristin: Right. Honestly, as a nutrition coach – and I used to do this on my nutrition page – I used to have some before and after pictures of athletes. I think I’ve taken those all down now because I feel so strongly that I’m all about performance. Like yeah, you can cut a weight class. Fine. But I’m not going to put pictures of your abs on Instagram because I feel like that’s detrimental to people that have strength goals because the goal was not for you to get abs. It was a by-product of you cutting weight, which we can get into some of that. But really I think that it’s detrimental to the sport to constantly be showing pictures of people that are ultra-lean and are strength athletes because there’s this disconnect, right? Like, abs sell. So if I put up all the pictures of my clients with their abs, I’d probably have way more clients than I have, but I don’t do that because I don’t believe in it. If that’s what you believe in, fine. If that’s what you want to do, fine. But I think that we really need to be cautious about our wording and what the goals are.
Mary: Yeah. And if your goal is to look good and to have abs, this is not a knock on you.
Kristin: Totally not! No, that’s your prerogative.
Mary: We are coming at this from the number one goal being strength. And if that’s not your number one goal, then that’s completely fine. But don’t expect to make very big, significant strength gains if your number one goal is to look good.
Kristin: Absolutely. There are two goals that don’t always intersect. Sometimes they do.
Mary: Sometimes, especially if you’re new to lifting. That’s the hardest part. If you are new to lifting, lucky you because you get the new big gains, you get the changes in body composition, you likely end up with some fat loss if you’ve never lifted before. Right. But then, once you get to be a seasoned athlete, that stops. Or slows down.
Kristin: Yeah. It slows down. It doesn’t stop. The rate at which the changes occur slows down immensely.
Mary: Yeah. Well, let’s talk, so a little bit of counterintuitive-ism, I guess if that’s a word, around the point of bulking. So we’re talking about getting strong, and you’re probably thinking, “Well, the whole point of bulking is to put on a significant amount of weight and get strong.” Well, let’s break down what bulking is, and then let’s talk a little about the science behind bulking.
So, bulking is a caloric surplus. That means it’s more calories than you burn. So you’re eating more than what you burn. And the idea is to put on size with the belief that it will come with an increase in strength, a significant increase in strength – not a little bit, but a significant increase in strength.
And according to some research that I found, a typical book cycle often results in a person gaining a significant amount of fat mass with relatively small gains in muscle mass. One study, in particular, found that after four weeks of a bulking cycle, in combination with resistance training, there was no significant increase in strength, but there was a significant change in body composition and an increase in total fat mass.
Kristin: So they gained fat, they didn’t necessarily gain a lot of muscle or strength. I have seen people bulk in a manner in which they don’t put on a lot of fat and put on a little bit of strength, but I don’t know that that outpaces just eating for performance.
Mary: I don’t think so. And I think we only see the people who are comfortable posting what happened. So, if you are one of those people who is a hard gainer and you’re bulking, you just may be in a forever bulk because you just have a very hard time putting on muscle. And that’s, it is what it is. And so you’re probably going to be more comfortable in posting pictures of your body changes because they’re still favorable. There’s still like this idealistic perfectionism, right?
Kristin: These are the people that can eat total garbage all the time and not gain weight. And so when they get into lifting, it’s difficult for them to put on muscle mass. So, those hard gainers might respond to bulking quite well and put on minimal amounts of body fat because that’s just their body type.
Mary: Yeah. But if it were me and I was eating in a big surplus all the time, I would put on significant fat, and my strength probably wouldn’t change all that much.
Kristin: Right. According to the research, which I found really interesting.
Mary: So then if you do a bulk, you’re likely then going to go in the other direction because no one wants to stay 10 to 20 pounds above what they were at. So then you’re probably going to cut.
Kristin: We’ve talked before about how the cutting and bulking cycles have their roots in bodybuilding. We’re going to get into this, but there is a certain body fat percentage range that is most advantageous for building strength and size. That body fat percentage is higher than what someone who is a bodybuilder will step on stage at. They have to go through these cutting and bulking cycles. Strength athletes do not, for the most part, have to do this. But yeah, so a cut…soo you did a bulk and then you need to do a cut. Or a lot of people just do a cut anyway. Maybe they were like on a forever bulk for like 10 years. I mean, that’s life. That tends to be how that goes.
So yeah, cutting is a caloric deficit. Opposite of a bulk, you are consuming less calories than you burn. Your body metabolically adapts to the lower calories. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism. So, there’s a lot of hormone changes that occur when you’re in a caloric deficit. They will occur at some point for every person who’s ever in a caloric deficit. It will happen at different rates depending on the rate of the caloric deficit. Depending on the person, it might happen very soon or later into their deficit. But these are mechanisms that occur.
And so we have a few things working against us in a caloric deficit. One is that we have a decrease in a hormone in our body called leptin. What that means to you is that you are less satiated from food. The food that you eat is the least satiating – you want more food. And the calories that you burn from non-exercise activity thermogenesis – so that’s basically energy expended for everything that we do that’s not sleeping, eating, or training, literally sitting here at a desk podcasting – those calories that your body burns doing those activities drops.
Mary: Cause it needs to save them for when you’re doing more intense exercise and when you’re sleeping, and your body’s trying to repair itself.
Kristin: Exactly. And then we also get an increase in a hormone called ghrelin. And that increases your hunger levels. Okay.
Mary: So you’re a gremlin.
Kristin: So, you’re gremlin because you’re hungry. So you’re less satiated from the food that you’re eating, you’re more hungry. And then we have a decrease in our T3 secretion, which is a thyroid hormone. So, your metabolic rate decreases, and with that, so does your total daily energy expenditure, your basal metabolic rate, and again, that NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis.
Basically, your body is working really hard to not lose weight. All of these adaptations occur. And it’s not necessarily bad. I mean, it’s not bad that they occur. It’s just part of the process. So I know some people say like, “Oh, if you diet down slow enough, these metabolic adaptations won’t occur. If they do, they will. At some point for everybody.”
Mary: Your body’s trying to preserve itself because it thinks it’s being starved. And so right back before, you know, we knew all these things when we were just little ol’ cavemen and women and you were under a state of starvation, you would want all these adaptations, so you could survive. But now that’s not a problem because we have, you know, Walmart.
Kristin: We have an abundance of food.
Mary: There’s so much.
Kristin: So, all these adaptations occur. And on top of that, because your body’s working so hard to keep your everything working in your body…
Mary: Just your normal functions, not even anything above it, just your normal, everyday reactions that involve sleeping, breathing, and eating,
Kristin: …that makes putting on strength harder because your body doesn’t want to do those processes that are going to help you put on strength and muscle size.
Mary: If there’s a hierarchy of some type of reaction in the body, muscle protein synthesis or putting on strength or repairing your muscle is not high up there. If it’s trying to keep your brain supplied with glucose, if it’s also trying to repair DNA, you know, your muscles aren’t going to be the lowest priority. Unfortunately.
Kristin: Yeah, absolutely. And so it’s not to say that you can’t put on strength when you’re in a deficit. You can. We see it happen frequently.
Mary: Your body is still going to try to do it.
Kristin: Right, it’s just never going to be as much strength as what you would have put on if you are in caloric balance. It simply will not be. There’s no way around those scientific things that are happening in your body. That’s physiology.
Mary: And when, when people want to put themselves through a cut, the idea is, “My numbers are X when I am in this weight class. So if I can keep my numbers at X and move down a weight class, then I’ll be super competitive.” And then they go down a weight class and they recognize, “Oh, I’ve lost strength.”
Kristin: I don’t know anyone that that happened to.
Mary: No? Not even my co-host, Kristin Lander?
Kristin: No, not even, not even her! No, it totally did just happen to me. There were a lot of things at play. So what variable actually affected my strength, it was probably a combination of a lot of things, but I definitely did. That definitely happened to me. I did not have as high of a total. I still had a good total for what that weight class was. I still hit my elite total in that weight class. But it was less than when I was 10 pounds heavier.
Mary: Yeah. If you would’ve just stuck where you were and taken like 10 weeks or whatever it was that you prepped for that and just eaten at maintenance, the strength you would have put on would have been more.
Kristin: I would’ve put on more strength. Absolutely.
As a nutrition coach, I would say a vast majority of the people that come to me to help them cut weight for a meet, which is fine. I’m happy to help do that if that’s what people want to do. Oftentimes I will question like, all right, we have this much time, this much weight to lose. Either yes, we can do this, or this is probably going to affect your performance. How important is it to you to go down this weight class?
Mary: Which sneakily you’re saying, “don’t do it.”
Kristin: Well, it’s more of do you have to qualify for something in that weight class and you’re going to easily qualify, even if you lose strength in which case, okay, that’s fine. Or is your goal to lift as much as you possibly can? Then maybe we shouldn’t do this. So we really have to kind of do a little bit of soul searching with these kinds of issues.
Mary: I was listening to the Weightlifting Life podcasts with Ursula Garza and Greg Everett of Catalyst Athletics. And if you guys don’t know who Ursula Garza is and you’re in weightlifting, go check out Texas Barbell Blub on Instagram. She’s phenomenal. She’s one of two female international coaches.
She was talking about they had a question from someone about cutting weight and what should you do? And she said, absolutely don’t do it. And what she said, which I thought was very interesting, when she brings an athlete on it’s about five years of them gaining weight and strength, not like a significant amount of weight, but enough that like they’re putting on strength and they’re putting on size. And that just is what it is.
She says at about year five, that’s when we start looking, are you most competitive at this weight class? Or do we need to move you down, or do we need to move you up? Like where are you setting now that you’ve kind of reached that five years? And then the next five years they kind of spend at the end of the career, they spend really looking into, and I may be saying this wrong, but the general idea is they’re looking into where do you best fit in now that you’ve reached very high levels of strength because you’ve spent five years building.
Kristin: Right. So if before those five years, if you’re cutting and bulking or cutting and bingeing…
Mary: Or mostly cutting
Kristin: Then you’re kind of shooting yourself in the foot and you are not getting as much strength gains as you could. You’re not developing as much as a strength athlete as you could.
Mary: Yeah. Well, and I know you’re going to talk about this, so let’s just get into it, but this chronic cut, bulk, cut, bulk, cut, bulk, that takes a huge toll on your mental state and your body, right?
Mary: So give me the research.
Kristin: Okay. Yeah, this is super cool. I just found this study that says that “repeated cycles of weight loss and regain appear to enhance subsequent weight gain and may predispose the athlete to obesity,” which is crazy.
Let’s think about that. So, they talk about chronic dieting with weight cycling is harmful to your metabolism, to the point that it predisposes you for obesity down the road. So this study looked at Olympic athletes that were representing the country of Finland, and they looked at all sports and then they pulled apart the weight class sports. And they sent them questionnaires. So they looked at these athletes who competed between 1920 and 1965. They tracked them down. They sent them extensive questionnaires in 1985, 1995, and 2001. And they found that those athletes that frequently cut weight were significantly more likely to be obese later in life.
Mary: That’s crazy.
Kristin: Right. And so we know that anyone who’s been around sports for any length of time knows that like wrestlers are one that comes to mind. So, people that grew up wrestling in high school and college and had to constantly be cutting weight, they have a lot more fat tissue later on in life. I mean, we’ve seen examples of this throughout life, but it was just really interesting to see what the research shows on that.
So, for those of you that are feeling like you either would be more competitive in a lower weight class, or you feel like somehow you’re supposed to be leaner than what you are – keep this in mind because we’re talking about long-term damage to your body. That is not going to be fun to deal with when you’re 40, 50, 60. And we’re talking about health implications. I mean, these are very real health implications. There are tons of diseases that are linked to obesity.
Mary: Well, and I don’t know if you guys have ever watched The Biggest Loser, but they’ve done some documentaries on follow-ups from The Biggest Loser. Are you familiar with that, Kristin?
Kristin: No, I’m not. I mean, I’ve watched it when it first started like years and years and years ago I watched like a season. I was like, this is awful.
Mary: Okay, let me explain it. It’s a horrible show. So, just for those of you who don’t really know, they take a set of very morbidly obese people and they help them go through a quote-unquote transformation and make them lose like 300, 200 pounds sometimes in the course of a certain number of weeks. And there’s this whole big thing. Congratulations, you did it.
But then you follow up with them years after, and a lot of them have regained the weight. They’ve regained it and more, where they regained it so rapidly that they’re having all these health implications because of simply just the rapid regain of weight. So it’s prevalent even in our non-athletic people. It’s the losing of the weight and then gaining of the weight back, especially really fast, that has such bad health implications.
Kristin: Absolutely. It’s yo-yo dieting. And I mean, we don’t even need to look at athletes. We see, I mean, anyone that’s ever read any sort of anything on weight loss, we know the dangers of yo-yo dieting.
Mary: Especially in people like that, whose health is already teetering, right?
Kristin: Just because we’re athletes doesn’t mean that we’re not prone to this. I know a lot of people think like, “Oh, well, but I’m healthy and I’m lifting and I eat well and whatever”…you aren’t immune to this. This absolutely matters in the athletic population as well.
Mary: Just because you’re lean, just because you cut doesn’t mean you’re healthier than someone who has a higher body fat percentage. Just because society tells you that being less in terms of weight means you’re going to be healthier, it’s not true. What was it? The guy that lost weight, like eating only Twinkies or something. This was like a social experiment a while back. A guy lost a lot of weight eating only Twinkies. I mean, yeah. He lost weight, but his actual internal health was not good.
Kristin: Yeah, because the only thing that matters in weight loss as a caloric deficit, you can achieve that in a million different ways. There’s no magic to losing weight. There’s no magic food, there’s no magic foods, there’s no magic anything. It’s literally algebra. Put yourself in a caloric deficit, take in less food than what your body is using, and you will lose weight.
That’s why I think that’s why flexible dieting gets a bad rap because people are like, “it doesn’t matter what you eat, you can eat anything!” Well, yeah, but I mean, okay, we still have to eat healthy because all of those micronutrients are important for our body’s processes.
Mary: Well, we talked about this when I was writing that intuitive eating ebook and you were like, “Well, what’s the difference between if it fits your macros and flexible dieting?” And I said, well, to my understanding, if it fits your macros is literally whatever the hell you want to eat, as long as it fits your macros. And my understanding of flexible dieting is you can still fit in treats, but you need to make sure that overall and your general health is in check. You are eating your veggies and your fruits and your grains and whatever. But if it fits your macros, my understanding was always, you could lose weight or get healthy or whatever you need on donuts.
Kristin: I feel like that’s just all in the marketing, right? I’m not even sure if there’s really, if that distinction really truly exists or if that’s just how it’s marketed.
Mary: Well, it’s marketed very well then, because that is how I perceived it.
Mary: So, let’s get off of the cutting and bulking because there’s the third option. And as we talked about at the beginning of this, it’s not as lucrative. This third option doesn’t sell templates. It doesn’t sell coaching. It doesn’t sell programs. And even what we’ve noticed, you guys know that we have Female Strength Academy and we have the Eat for Strength course and the Eat for Strength cut course. We have sold more cut courses than we have Eat for Strength courses. And even though we highly, highly recommend that you do Eat for Strength first before even thinking about a cut, most people who have bought the cut program have never done the Eat for Strength program. It’s just hard to market. It’s hard to sell someone on this idea of maintenance.
Kristin: It is because what do people hear? I’m going to stay the same. They hear “maintenance.” The same.
Mary: “I’m going to say the same, PRs are going to say the same. I’m going to still hate my body. I’m still not going to love myself”. They think maintenance means nothing’s going to change.
Kristin: When that’s totally not true at all. And that’s what I said I think maybe like a year ago or more on a podcast, I was like, “I’m not calling it maintenance anymore.” It’s hard to change the name of something that people know what it is, but that’s what we call it, eating for strength or eating for performance. And then they get confused about that too, thinking that means bulking. So basically, the industry has completely fucked us all up and we don’t know what words mean anymore.
Mary: Because how can they sell us things if we’re not confused?
Mary: We must be confused for them to make money. So what eating for performance is then is just like maintenance. You’re eating in a caloric balance to optimize training and recovery. So, you’re eating enough for your body to do all of its normal functions, all of its normal reactions, chemical reactions, whatever. And in addition, you’re eating enough so that it can, in fact, prioritize muscle protein synthesis. It can effectively carry it out. What it’s not is, it’s not eating in a surplus and it’s not putting on excessive body fat. People hear “maintenance: and they think I’m going to put on weight.
Kristin: If we say eating for strength versus maintenance, a lot of people automatically assume it’s a bulk and that they’re going to put on body fat. Now, if you don’t manage yourself appropriately. Yeah. You will put on body fat because it is when you are eating at caloric balance, it can be easy to spill over into a surplus. And if you do that too many times, of course, you’re going to gain weight and it may be body fat. So that goes back to the beginning of what your goal is and having nutrition goals.
Mary: And meeting a goal of getting strong and eating at maintenance the same as you would a goal for cutting. Cause we all know that for cutting, if you don’t stick to your numbers consistently, you’re going to mess up the cut. Well, same thing with maintenance. If you’re not sticking to your numbers consistently, it’s not going to go exactly the way that we’re saying. If you eat consistently over, you are going to put on weight. But if you eat consistently at maintenance, you’re going to stay about the same.
Kristin: You’re going to, your body composition is going to change
Mary: You’re going to get stronger but the weight, the number on the scale is likely going to stay the same.
Kristin: Right. So, you will put on muscle, you will probably lose some body fat, and you will have this recomposition as we call it. Yeah. It’s a slow process and a lot of people don’t want to wait that out. They want to see things happening faster. But I will argue that if your goal is strength, the slower that your body changes in that aspect, the better off you’re going to be.
Mary: Yes. So if you aren’t going that fast, just like we said with the rapid loss and regain of weight…those were both quick changes, but they were not quick favorable changes. And the other thing that people think maintenance is a trick to hold their progress. They think, “No, no, no, no, that’s too easy. I’m going to say the same. I’m really not going to make any progress.” And then it was so far from the truth.
Kristin: Well, and let’s be real. Like no one, not many people are talking about their maintenance periods on Instagram. It’s not eye-catching and it’s boring, right? It’s very boring. It’s boring because you’re eating this food and you’re training hard and while you’re getting a lot stronger and I wish that people highlighted that part, the problem is that a lot of people do maintenance wrong.
I have clients tell me, they say, you know, they’ll hire me to cut for meet and then they want to go off on their own on maintenance. They’ll do that a little bit and then they’ll come back and be like, “I suck at maintenance. Like, I’m really bad at it.” I’m like, well, it’s because you weren’t in maintenance. If you gained weight, you weren’t in maintenance. You were in a surplus. I mean, literally that’s the definition. You were in a surplus if you gained weight “in maintenance.”
So let’s relook at that. And then when we break it down, we find that they weren’t tracking their macros. They were doing whatever. They just were eating whatever.
Mary: They didn’t take it as seriously as they did their cut.
Kristin: Exactly. And then I’m always like, “WHY?” This is where you put on your strength. This is where you recover well. You need to dial in these factors if you want to be a successful lifter and if you want to get stronger. If you have goals, you have to have this stuff dialed in. Eating at maintenance is about dialing that in so that you can put on muscle, so that you can get stronger, so that you can hit PRs, and your body will change whether you want it to or not. It’s going to change.
Mary: Yeah. Because as we know, a muscle burns fat… Cause muscle requires more energy from your body to work. To have fat work for you requires almost no energy.
Kristin: Yes. Muscle tissue is very metabolically active.
Mary: Yep. So you need more food, right? So, if you are eating and maintenance means you aren’t actively trying to lose or gain weight, your body will change. You will put on muscle, you will get stronger. You will hit new PRs.You will not be stuck in this idea that you have in your mind, “I don’t like my body right now. I don’t want to be at maintenance because it won’t change.”
The happiest I was with my body was when I was fully tracking my macros, fully being on maintenance before I got injured and my body was doing some crazy things that I’d never seen it do before. It was getting strong and it was looking like an athlete, whatever that means. But you know, I could see muscles. I was so happy with my body. And then I got injured and everything fell apart. But you know, that was when I was happiest with my body because I was loving what it was doing more than what I was loving what it looked like. But I also liked what it looked like.
So let’s then jump into, cause like you said, your clients, they disappear and then they’ll come back and be like, “Oh no! I did maintenance wrong!” This is why having a nutrition coach can be so important. Not just for cutting, not just for bulking.
Kristin: And we’re not saying this because I do coaching. Like, hire whoever you want. I don’t care. It doesn’t have to be me. That’s fine. But I think that there is big-time validity to having a nutrition coach for the exact same reason that you have a lifting coach.
Mary: Yes. You wouldn’t go into training. If you have number PRs, if you have these PRS you want to hit, you’re not going to just go in and do Willy nilly, whatever you want every day. You’re going to hire someone to get you through the mundane, the ordinary, the off-season. Someone to continually make sure that you are doing what you need to do or doing something to get you towards your goals. Having a nutrition coach is the exact same thing. But most of us don’t see it that way because we think, “I only need a nutrition coach when I’m cutting or bulking because those are the only acceptable goals.”
Kristin: Yeah. Whereas just eating for performance is a very acceptable goal.
Mary: Even more acceptable.
Kristin: And I will say that having someone that’s there to monitor your nutrition, keep you accountable, your strength is going to improve much quicker in the long run. And they can help you manage…So here’s the thing. When I give someone like quote-unquote maintenance macros, it’s not set in stone. It changes. So, it’s a really good estimate of where I think you should be. And then we still have to monitor. You still have to hit your macros. You still have to do everything right. And then we say, Oh nope, you’re gaining a little bit of weight. Or maybe you’re gaining a little body fat, let’s pull things back.
Or sometimes people will lose weight. Then that’s not maintenance. Now you’re in a deficit. And now we’re going to start to have some of those hormonal adaptations, metabolic adaptations. So we need to bump the food up a little bit. Also, a nutrition coach can help catch symptoms of overtraining or under-recovery because we’ll see changes occurring and recognize them as undesirable changes before you do.
Mary: This is something I would like to say and throw in here as someone who is currently not yet any type of registered nutrition coach, which is coming. But this is why it’s so important that you need to find someone who knows what they’re doing. You’re going to some random person on the internet, who by all means has the best intentions just wants to help you, wants to help people lose weight – the only thing that they really know is the numbers. They just know that your weight is going down. That’s fine. But if they don’t know what to look for, if they don’t understand these symptoms of under-recovery, or overreaching symptoms, or all these different adaptations that you can spot through just changes in mood or changes in the body or changes in weight… if they are not trained to do that, you’re wasting your money.
This is why it is so important to not go with the hype. So what, this person who has a great body, who probably has a genetically great body, they are now offering coaching, like, okay, cool. It’s one thing to try to share your journey and to show people that you’ve done this to yourself, but to then apply it to someone else is completely different because they’re a completely different body. They’re a completely different person and they have a completely different journey.
Kristin: Yeah. I will say that most of my, none of my athletes respond to the same stimulus. They don’t respond to things the same as I respond to things. And so having someone on your team that starts to understand how your body works better than you understand how your body works because they’ve got the education, they’ve got the training, and they’ve got the experience to be able to be like, “Oh, wait a minute. Well, let’s maybe try this or let’s try that.” Having someone for the long haul is awesome.
I have a few clients, well, I have many clients that I’ve worked with for a very extended period of time, years. And I’m able to now finally, after working with them for a long period of time, figure out what we need to do going into a meet to get their body working properly. What do we need to do after a meet? What do we need to do so that they don’t have to stress making weight? What do we have to do differently on days where they have a late way in versus the early way?
All of these things matter and anyone that tells you “just do X, Y, and Z” for every single person is full of shit. I’m sorry.
Mary: They don’t know what they’re talking about.
Kristin: Because everybody responds differently and you can’t put people into formulas. It’s just, everyone’s different. And so obviously, I’m biased because I work with people and I help people through this. But after doing it for so long, I see that there’s no, there’s not even like five categories I can put an athlete into. Every athlete is very, very different. And I don’t know how they’re going to respond to something until it happens.
Mary: But then you have the knowledge and the know-how to be like, “okay, this is how you responded. This is what we’re going to do.”
Mary: Usually, because you have the experience you learned, even you can apply something else from a different athlete. You could say this worked for this person, so let’s kind of do this.
If you are looking for a nutrition coach, we would recommend you look for someone who has a CISSN certification. Well, let me just say it so that if someone has a CISSN, that means they have to read the research and they have to read an entire textbook before they take an exam.
Kristin: And they have to have an advanced degree to even take the test.
Mary: Right. Those are your peoples.
Kristin: So look out for that kind of stuff. If someone’s only credential is that they have abs…
Mary: Or that they lost weight, or that they’re on this fitness journey and they just want to help you. Great intentions…
Kristin: Absolutely. People go into coaching because they want to help people. But my question is, how much experience do you have helping a wide range of people, and how much do you truly know about how the body responds and about physiology and stuff like that?
Mary: And they can have their niches just focused on helping people lose weight. It’s completely different than having an athlete.
Kristin: Yeah. And that’s why I only work with athletes because I figured out that when I first started doing nutrition coaching, I did it in my chiropractic office. And I did it with wide ranges of people. And it was really focusing on just eating healthy and how food can really improve our health and what types of food we eat improves our health. That’s where I started. And because I worked with a lot of athletes, I found that then I was working with more and more athletes on their nutrition and really found that that’s where I shine. That’s where I know that information because I am an athlete.
And so now I don’t work with like, quote-unquote, lifestyle clients. I work with some people that do a little bit of working out. If they were referred to me by a spouse who’s an athlete is usually how that goes. Like, “Hey, this worked really well. Will you work with my husband? He just kind of works out a little bit here and there. And I will, I’ll help them do it. But for the most part, find someone who is specialized in what you are trying to do and I think that you will learn so much more and get somewhere so much faster.
Mary: Yep. And if you find someone and they’re trying to convince you to cut, unless it’s a health issue, rethink really hard, long and hard, if you want them to be your coach because if your main goal is strength and they’re trying to convince you that you need to move down a weight class to be strong, get a second opinion.
Kristin: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that. That’s a good segue into the thing that I am most excited to talk to you about.
Mary: She was texting me all day yesterday about this. And I was like, “Cool, Kristin, I’m trying to read a chapter in this book.”
Kristin: I was really nerding out on the research on this. So I have discovered with myself that there is a certain level of body fat where I feel the strongest and I gain the most strength and I recover the best. And unfortunately, it’s a higher body fat percent than I want.
Mary: Join the club!
Kristin: Yeah. So, I started researching this because I know through everything that I have learned through all of the research that I have read over the years, I know that it is, we know that it’s difficult to build strength in a caloric deficit. I know for myself that putting on strength when I’m really, really lean is not as easy.
Mary: It’s an uphill battle.
Kristin: Yup. And the biggest is I don’t recover as well. And that is measurable data that I have to prove that all myself by measuring my heart rate variability. And so anyway, I started researching this like, is there an ideal body fat percentage for building strength? And it turns out there is, there is. So let’s talk about this for a minute.
So, estrogen, which you might remember back to any of the episodes we’ve talked about hormones on, estrogen helps with muscle-building in women and we want to have this basically as high as possible in training, like all the time, and still be balanced. We don’t want it to be above the normal range.
Research indicates that between 23 and 27% body fat is the sweet spot for women to build strength because it’s where their hormones are the healthiest. They’re producing the most estrogen and testosterone during that body fat percentage.
Mary: What if they fall outside of that range?
Kristin: If they fall outside of that range, whether they are below 23% or above 27% , those hormones drop off. So they’re at their peak at 25%. When we look at the research, so we always tell you guys when you read a research article and they use terms like lean or moderate, find out a numerical value for those terms.
Mary: You sent me some stuff yesterday and you were like, “Lean is considered 22% body fat.” And I was like, in my mind, that is not lean. Lean is like 16%, you know, the tight skin that’s like not really attached to their body. That’s lean to me. But if lean is considered 22%, then you know, I’m there. But that doesn’t make sense to me because I don’t feel like that’s right.
Kristin: And why do you think that is?
Kristin: Right! Because we’re constantly bombarded with these images of ultra-lean athletes. And so I gotta say that an athlete cannot adhere to those levels of “Instagram leanness” and expect to have optimal strength gains unless they’re using exogenous hormones, or they just have completely messed up hormones as a result of being so lean.
So they’re walking around either taking exogenous hormones and their hormones are messed up or they’re not taking exogenous hormones so their strength isn’t as high and their hormones are messed up. It’s unrealistic.
And it’s okay to say that you want to trade some strength for leanness. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’re not telling you if you want to have abs and be really lean, go for it. Good on you, sista! But it’s also okay to say my primary focus is strength. And if that means that at 23% body fat, I don’t have abs then so be it because I want to win a world championship.
Mary: Yeah. Well, I think something that really helps me because I do struggle with this, I have more fat than what I would like to have, but you know, I feel good and I recover good. It’s not a forever thing. Like I said, I have numbers in mind that I want to hit before I end my weightlifting. And once I’ve kind of reached the end of weightlifting or the end of wanting to compete in weightlifting, that’s the time of my life that I’m going to probably get really lean and probably lose a lot of strength and a lot of muscle. But at that time, I’m going to be okay with it because my goal then will be to feel good and look good. Tight now, my goal is to feel good and perform well.
Mary: So if you have the goal, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt you. If you have the goal of getting strong and you don’t particularly love everything that your body has to offer at the moment, like my little muffin top and my little belly, you don’t love it right now, but I know it’s not a forever thing. And that gives me comfort.
Kristin: Well, but let’s just talk about like how realistic that is to have that
Mary: Very realistic.
Kristin: Yeah! I mean, it’s because we spend time on social media and whether you are consciously aware of it or not, these images seep into your subconscious and you start to compare yourself to these images.
So I just went through this. I cut a weight class for my last meet because I wanted to position myself to potentially lift in that weight class at World Championships. So I had to qualify in that weight class. You can go up a weight class or you can’t go down a weight class for Worlds. I fell right in the middle of the two weight classes. We’re like, “Well, let’s see, number one, how a cut’s gonna affect my strength. Let’s see what kind of numbers I can put up in that weight class.”
And so I cut down to the 148 lbs. weight class. And I think it was like halfway through the meet that you, Stacy, and I all decided this is not a good idea. I will not be lifting in this weight class again. So I loved how lean I was. I was walking around 153, I water cut to 148 with a 24-hour weigh-in. It was no big deal. I loved how lean I was. I loved how I looked. That’s it. That’s all I loved about it. I was not strong. I did not feel recovered. I did not feel good. I was not performing well. It was a serious battle. And so after the meet, we said, okay, this we’re going to go back up to 165.
Mary: But that doesn’t mean you jumped to 165.
Kristin: I didn’t jump to 165. Now mind you, I maintained 153 for two months going into the meet one month, six weeks, something like that, going into the meet. I was probably 153, 154 the day I lifted after the meet. I don’t think I really counted my macros for a couple of days. I just kind of ate a little bit more intuitively knowing that after a powerlifting meet, I need a lot more food.
So anyhow, my weight jumped to 158, 159. It was really terrifying. I didn’t like it. Obviously, that means I was in a caloric surplus. That’s what that means. I wasn’t totally counting my macros. I would count my macros till about dinner time and then just eat basically as much as I wanted without eating like a complete asshole until my body felt good.
I was measuring my heart rate variability at that time and I was recovering really well. I said, “Okay, I’m kind of tip the scales here. Let’s just, let’s really monitor my food intake.” So I was eating at maintenance macros that I had going into the meet and my heart rate variability dropped. I was not recovering well, like really not recovering well. I didn’t feel good. I didn’t perform well in the gym. I was struggling through training. And so I was like, all right, let’s get more food. And immediately, my heart rate variability went up in a day. One day.
And so then what I found as I really started monitoring this stuff is if I underate on a day, it dropped. If I ate where I was supposed to be eating or where I felt good, it was good. So for me, food is the best piece of recovery that I have.
Mary: And we forget that.
Kristin: We forget that. And so what that means then is, now I’m five pounds heavier. I’ve settled about 157, 158 and I have lost a little bit of that initial fluff over the last two months that popped up. But what that means is I don’t feel as happy about my body at 158 that I did at 153. It’s 5 pounds.
But when I think about it, literally the only thing I liked about my body at 153 pounds was how it looked. That is ridiculous for me as a strength athlete to only care about how my body looks.
Mary: But it’s also not completely ridiculous just based on what we experience in our day-to-day lives. Like you’re just bombarded with this shit and you’re told that in order to be an athlete, you need to look good, feel good, and perform good. And if you’re not necessarily feeling good about how you look then, are you an athlete? We don’t know.
Kristin: Yeah. It’s all, there’s very confusing messages out there.
Mary: Yeah, I will say, and I know we touched on this, and we’ll jump into our last little bit here in just a second. But we did talk about people who may be taking performance-enhancing supplements or drugs. Kristen and I want to make it very clear that we have nothing against people who take these. If that’s what you’re willing to sacrifice to put on strength or do what you need to do. That’s fine. Everyone has their own goals and their own limits. But what we, as natural athletes have to really pay attention to is yes, we can look up to them. We can love their work ethic. We can love what they do, but we have to recognize that their ability to be lean and put on strength, or just put on crazy amounts of strength, is just something that we cannot attain. We will never be as strong as them. And that’s why we have tested and untested powerlifting federations. And that’s why in USA Weightlifting, drugs are not allowed because it’s an unfair advantage.
Kristin: It’s an unfair advantage. And maybe this is a subject for another episode, but I think the fact that there’s relatively short bans for people that are on drugs is a little bit crazy. Cause your body’s permanently changed. Your body is permanently altered. And so I know in USA Weightlifting It’s like either a two or four-year suspension depending. And like… should it be a lifetime ban? That’s a topic for another episode.
Mary: Okay. But like you said, if you are in a federation that doesn’t allow exogenous supplements and you’re taking them, shame on you, if you’re in a federation that does allow it and you’re pushing the limits of your body and your strength potential, and this is helping you do it, do it.
Kristin: Yeah. Like if that’s what you want to do with your body.
Mary: If that’s what you want to do, we are here to support you where you could just say, good job. As long as your federation allows it ready. We don’t want cheaters.
Kristin: Yeah. But the thing that bothers me is the people that pretend that they’re not on drugs and they’re super lean and they’re super strong and they pretend that they’re not on drugs and they’re selling stuff to you. They are selling things to you. They are selling an idea to you. That is false. It is not based on reality.
Mary: If you follow their training or their supplements, you too can look like them. And that’s just not going to be possible unless you also get their performance-enhancing drug regimen. That’s maybe definitely a topic for another episode cause we’re getting a little off-topic, but let’s finish this up with kind of going off your story about when is it time to move up a weight class? Oh, my God. I said, move up a weight class!
So if you’re like me and you’re sitting kind of in the low end of your weight class, that doesn’t mean I’m all of a sudden going to put on eight kilos or six kilos and move up to the very teeter top. It just means I have room to grow.
In weightlifting, there’s a great example if you guys follow Kate Nye. She started as a weightlifter very recently and she’s been making some big moves. I think she’s experiencing a lot of newbie gains, but she came from a very strong background. She moved up from the 63s to the 71s, and she made a comment the other day that she’s going to be a 76 soon. And it’s no surprise that between those weight classes, she is crushing every single record because she’s allowing herself to put on strength, to put on size, to put on muscle.
Kristin: She’s allowing her body to do what it does when you train and just eat responsibly.
I talk to my athletes a lot about weight classes. All my athletes know this. I do a lot of video chats with people, and I’ll say, you know, we’ll be talking about, can they make weight for such and such for a meet? And I’ll be like, “Ooh, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea. What about lifting up for this meet?” And their eyes are like, “NO, I can’t do that!” Or if I suggest, “What if we try to build into the next weight class? You’re already right at the very top of this way class, you’re struggling to stay here. Let’s build into the next weight class.” And I see the sheer panic in their faces when I say that.
Mary: I don’t blame them.
Kristin: Right. So I’ve come up with a really good tool or algorithm fo,r deciding if someone needs to move up a weight class. And it’s based on research, and it’s based on my experiences as a lifter, and it’s based on my experiences with my athletes.
But basically what I see is, so the literature tells us that 22% body fat or lower is not ideal for gaining strength. So if you are not at the top of your game as a lifter, if you still have goals to really increase your strength and you’re having a hard time gaining strength and you’re under 22% body fat, maybe you need to move up. So that’s one. So if you’re 22% body fat or lower and you’re having a hard time gaining strength, your PRs are far and few between and you are not a ranked lifter, you’re not a national level lifter or a world level lifter and you have aspirations to do so, it’s not just a recreational thing for you…then you might want to consider moving up.
Also, if you’re unable to maintain your weight relatively easily. So what I mean by that is, I’ve got you on macros, right? Where you’re counting your macros. Everything’s good. You go out to eat one night with your spouse and your weight increases. You didn’t eat like an asshole, but your weight increases five pounds and has a hard time coming down. Or if you’re having a cut for every single meat and you’re not making World teams. If you’re cutting for a local meet, or maybe it is the local meet but you’re not setting national records or world records
Mary: Or even personal PRS.
Kristin: Then it’s probably time to get your nutrition completely squared away and optimize for performance and recovery and slowly start building into that next weight class.
Mary: Keyword slowly.
Kristin: Yeah, slowly. So taking my example from before, I jumped from 153 to 158 and then I settled in. Now, I went out for sushi last night, I’ve had ice cream four nights in a row – and I’m probably done without ice cream for a little while – but my weight hasn’t changed. It’s staying at 158.
Now I’m sure if I went and ate a pizza and ice cream, obviously there’s going to be a tipping point where I’m going to gain weight. But I’m able to very easily maintain my weight here. I’m in the body fat percent range where I’m building strength. I feel really good. I’m recovering really good. And so, what I’m talking about here is not necessarily a bulk. I’m talking about letting your body weight fall where it naturally falls instead of keeping calories so low that you can’t even have one morsel of food that doesn’t fit your macros without gaining weight.
Mary: That’s no fun.
Kristin: Right. And just staying where you’re at and putting on strength.
Mary: Yeah. Cause like we said before, even if you do that, even if you jump accidentally five pounds up and that’s where your body wants to sit. And that’s now your quote-unquote maintenance because obviously, you’re not gaining your body’s still going to change while you’re there. It is. You’re not just going to be stuck five pounds up. You’re going to be stuck five pounds up and getting stronger. And your body’s changing.
Kristin: That’s the thing because people hear this and they’re like, “Well, I can never be competitive at that next weight class!” Well, not at the numbers you’re hitting now, but you’re hitting those numbers now because you’re limiting yourself.
Mary: If that’s you and you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go up five pounds and I’m going to stay exactly the same.” That’s not what’s going to happen.
Kristin: Right. You’re going to be getting so much stronger that you probably could be really competitive in that next weight class.
You and I, the first time we ever really truly started focusing on fueling our training and really dialed that in, like we knew all this stuff to do, but once we really started applying it to ourselves, we both put on insane amounts of strength very quickly. And that’s why we developed our Eat for Strength. That’s how that came about because we were like, holy shit, this is awesome. Like we knew all the research. We knew all the science, but seeing it happen to yourself is incredible. And so, it’s okay to move up and put on strength.
Mary: And it’s okay to sit in the middle of a weight class. It’s okay to be, even at the bottom of weight loss. If you sit at the bottom of your weight class, don’t look at the next weight class down and think, “that’s where I need to be.” You are where you are. The best thing about being in the middle of a weight class is you can eat the night before weigh-in and the morning of and have no worries. As long as you don’t eat, you know, 30 pounds worth of food.
Kristin: Do you remember that story I told you about one of my very first weightlifting meets and I was way in the middle of a weight class.
Mary: Yeah, how you almost didn’t have a friend?
Kristin: Yeah, because I was in line for weigh-ins. I was so I knew nothing about weightlifting. Like literally barely knew the rules. I didn’t know anybody that weightlifted. I was not on Instagram at the time. I literally knew nothing. And I had just eaten a cheeseburger and then went and got in line for weigh-ins.
Mary: Like a true champ.
Kristin: I had no idea that…
Mary: She’s standing there in line with people who haven’t eaten since the night before. And she’s like, “I just had a cheeseburger. Do you want some?: And they’re like, “fuck you.” That’s probably what went through their heads, but then you created a friendship and everything was fine. But like, can you imagine if that’s your life? It’s so great not having to worry about that. You just eat.
Kristin: It is. It’s pretty awesome. And then let your body do what it does.
Mary: Yeah. So that’s, I mean, that was quite the honker, but I think it’s so important because we always think of nutrition goals as we need to be smaller or we need to be bigger. And I can tell you that for me personally, I’m my happiest when I’m eating to fuel my performance. And yes, I don’t see changes overnight. Yes, it feels mundane and ordinary, but you know what? I can have a pie in my fridge and have a slice every single day.
Kristin: Have you ever heard about the five pound rule? That those five pounds that you’re constantly thinking that you need to lose is actually where your life happens. Have you heard about this? Like those are the dinners out with friends or the happy hours with friends or traveling and not freaking out over every morsel of food that you eat. That is where your life is.
And so I would argue that means you’re probably going to be at a slightly higher body fat percentage, but if that’s advantageous for strength and you have strength goals, go for it. And I also would like to say: Anyone that you follow on Instagram that makes you feel bad about your body, whether it’s consciously or subconsciously, unfollow them.
Kristin: If that’s us, unfollow us. But seriously, because that’s detrimental to your goals. If your goals are strength-based.
Mary: So on that note, go through the unfollowing. Go through and unfollow everyone. Just follow dogs. Just follow cat pages.
Kristin: I follow so many dog pages. It’s awesome. Dog pages and people that put up like really inspirational stuff. That’s about all I follow.
Mary: Some of my favorite people that I’ve been following recently are people who look like me, you know, average body weight, but they’re just doing such amazing things in terms of strength. And they’re really finding themselves. And I fucking love watching people find themselves and discover these things that they’re like, “Oh, if I stopped worrying about how I look like I can achieve so much more.”
But anyway, and that’s it. If you guys were compelled by this and you’ve decided that eating performance is a goal that you are interested in, we do have the Eat for Strength course. It’s not something that we make you rely on us for. We teach you how to be your own nutrition coach in terms of eating for performance and eating at maintenance and teaching you how to get very strong – all while throwing in some feels in there about loving your body and all that good stuff.
Kristin: Lots of feels, all the feels. I love it.
Mary: I’m good at feels. And if you find that you need a little more accountability, find yourself a nutrition coach, make sure they have good certifications and fall in love with the process. I know that sounds dumb, but you have to figure out where your happy place is and if you’re happy places getting strong and being just a little higher body fat percentage is better, do it.
Kristin: And if you decide you want to sacrifice strength for physique, that’s okay too. We’re here.
Mary: Listen, it’s your life. You do whatever the hell you want to do. I’m here to cheer you on whatever it is you want to do. And with that, we look forward to talking to you guys on our Facebook group page at Female Strength Academy!