ASK A SWOLE WOMAN
This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.
This post is rife with food/calorie numbers and potentially triggering ED/body dysmorphia stuff; if that’s not your bag, please skip!
I’ve been following you for a long time and love (LOVE!) your content. It’s helped me structure my own thinking around my body and has been a valuable resource when trying to comfort or explain to my friends that their complicated feelings about their own bodies and all the ups and downs that come with it are NORMAL (and usually, your writing lets me do that with some kind of science, which I’m more than happy to co opt to boost my credibility).
I bought LIFTOFF (I haven’t used it yet, this is more about me than you), and I’ve read and re-read the avocado principle every time you’ve referenced it here and on social, and then some.
With that in mind, this is my question: I’m 9 months into working with a personal trainer for free-weight lifting 2x a week. It’s expensive, but I like the person, and I can now lug my groceries up the stairs, travel across the country with 3 bags, and trip in the street and bounce back up without soreness or breaks or creaking or back pain. I’m VERY happy with this!
I have, however, gained 25 lbs. My body looks better to me, I like it more, and I'm proud of what it can do. I basically just bought new clothes that fit right. I’m not really having any MEANINGFUL problems, everything is gravy.
But I’m having a hard time squaring the avocado principle with my own situation. I’ve never dieted or restricted my eating (I feel lucky!!!), and I’ve never even tried to lose weight before. I love that my weights are going up, and I’m happier, but I certainly haven’t gained 25 lbs of pure muscle. So as a person who just eats what I want whenever and works out twice a week with a trainer, am I perpetually bulking? Gaining maybe both muscle and fat at the same time?
And for what probably feels like the trillionth time to you… how do I get away from feeling like 25 lbs of weight gain and a whole new wardrobe somehow negates ALL of the success above?
With admiration and appreciation—
Let’s start with the brass tacks stuff. The purpose of the avocado principle is to show how yo-yo dieting/weight cycling/indiscriminate “weight loss” are destructive to muscle mass, which we need for basically everything. Secondarily, it shows how muscle can be rebuilt by lifting and eating.
It sounds like what you’ve done is a very tiny piece of the overall avocado-principle picture; basically, you’ve done one bulk. When people bulk without any firm goals on how much weight they gain, it’s often called a “dirty bulk” or a “dreamer bulk” (contrast “lean bulk,” where the goal is to gain as little body fat as possible; I think this is usually nonsense). If you never cut, you are “forever bulking.” Usually, the reason people do a dirty or dreamer bulk is that they have a hard time gaining weight or eating a lot, so they put the error on the side of the equation of eating too much, because if they don’t, they risk eating too little and ending up wasting a few months trying to bulk but just spinning their wheels. A thing that may very well happen is that you stop gaining weight, and your habits sort of concentrate you around a body weight that is harmonious for you. Maybe you will gain weight forever (most people actually do gain a little weight, every year, for their whole life).
I do not at all want to make you feel like you did anything wrong, so know that I don’t place a value judgment on anything in the next couple of paragraphs. But this is a misconception I feel like I see often enough that it’s worth being clear: Lifting weights is not a weight-gain preventative, regardless of what you eat.
LIFTOFF explains at length how “recomposition” works, but briefly: recomposition is a phase where new lifters are able to gain strength and muscle and lose body fat at the same time, if—if—if!—if!—their calorie intake is held steady at “maintenance” (basically, whatever number of calories you can eat that leads to neither gaining nor losing body weight). If you eat more than that, you gain body fat (and probably more muscle/strength than you would have otherwise). If you eat less than that, you’ll probably struggle to get stronger, gain muscle, or lose body fat.
I know it’s become popular to say calories “aren’t real.” Calories can be a little imprecise, and people’s “maintenance” calories can be different even if we control for age, height, weight, activity level, and body composition. But the difference is not going to be 7 calories vs. 50,000 calories, as I wrote previously. It’s going to be more like 2,200 vs. 2,400 calories.
Let’s say your maintenance calories were actually 2,200 but, by intent or mistake, you ended up averaging 2,500 calories every day for three months. That’s a 300-calorie surplus, times 90 days: you’d gain about 8 pounds.[^1] In nine months, you’d gain 24 pounds, with probably a good amount of muscle in there, but some body fat also. It’d be tough to know for sure how much unless you got, like, a DEXA scan before all this happened. I also believe that it doesn’t super matter what precise body fat percentage you are at any given time.
But this is why, if—if—if—if—your specific intent is to recomp and not bulk, or just gain weight in general, a key part of dialing in maintenance calories is tracking food, weighing yourself every few days, and tracking it over at least a month to see if your weight goes up, down, or stays the same. And then you adjust accordingly. It is difficult to dial it in without this stuff.
Some people don’t like doing either of those things! And that is completely fine. But we can’t have everything; you can’t know how far you traveled if you just go around walking and don’t measure anything. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your journey, find meaning in your travels, experience personal growth, see a great many sights. It just means you don’t know how far you’ve gone, how far you are from home, how long it will take to get back.
But here is why you didn’t do anything wrong: No one is obligated to recomp just because the opportunity is there, at all. Maybe you even needed (!) to gain weight for your overall health; it’s a concept you don’t hear about often, but it’s possible. People who recomp do so often because they fear gaining weight and body fat. You honestly probably got stronger faster and more predictably than if you had been trying to nail a recomp. If we were all pure of mind and soul, we’d just eat according to our hunger and just lift according to our energy, the steadiness or precision of our body weight be damned.
When I started lifting, I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to recomp. I had lived all my life being mortally terrified of gaining weight. But before I learned about strength training, I also didn’t know that it was even possible to lose muscle by dieting too much, too hard, for too long; I thought muscle was just sort of there, and it was the task of being alive to diet and diet and diet until eventually enough body fat disappeared that the muscles emerged like so many mermaids beaching themselves on craggy outcroppings. So at the same time I realized I’d lost muscle, I was realizing I could get it back, at no cost of body weight. This was very compelling to me.