Why you can't build muscle on 1500 calories per day
Here's how Blogilates could "gain 6.3 pounds of muscle in a month", plus: junk volume, "sustainable" leggings, "actually"ing Sha'Carri Richardson. Lotta quotes! This is Links 25.
Cassey Ho, aka Blogilates, is now 30 days into her latest 90-day “fitness journey.” Last time she was "getting in the best shape of her life" (i.e., aggressively losing weight when she was already quite small). But this time, she has claimed to be on a journey to "build muscle" and get strong. She's been roundly criticized for saying she would be sticking to a 1500 calorie diet during this process. Her detractors said this would not be nearly enough food to even live on with her 6-days-a-week workout regimen, let alone grow. But early this morning, she appeared to show the haters: she posted her DEXA scan results after 30 days of training and gushed over the 6.3lb increase in her lean tissue. Haters faced?? Detractors found, not only bald, but dead in a ditch???
No. First of all, anything more than a couple pounds of muscle gain in a month, particularly for a small woman, is an instant red flag. 6 pounds of true muscle in a month would put anyone, let alone a small woman, like eight standard deviations from the norm.
But let's look a little closer here. Per the DEXA results, Ho, a former bodybuilder, gained 4.9 pounds of body weight on the whole, going from 122.8 to 127.7 pounds. This is likely not absolute weight gain, and especially not muscle gain, particularly if she is truly consuming 1500 calories per day. It's likely just a fluctuation. Let me explain.
For one: Body weight can fluctuate multiple pounds just from new training stimulus, which causes muscles to hold more glycogen and fluid. This is also how the weight would show up as "lean tissue"; DEXA scans don't distinguish between muscles that are totally depleted of energy and fluid, and muscles that may have just absorbed a few meals' worth of electrolytes, sugar, and carbs.1
More to the point, this type of body-composition manipulation is straight out of the bodybuilding show prep playbook: After several weeks on very aggressive calorie deficits to shed body fat, bodybuilders essentially carbo-load right before going on stage to make their muscles appear bigger (as the linked article notes, depleting and then replenishing can even create a "supercompensation," where the muscles temporarily hold more energy than they normally would). A person with a decent amount of muscle mass who did this might even appear, or scan, to suddenly be a few pounds heavier than they normally appear. Those embiggened muscles would not just scan as accounting for more body weight, but they would also literally look bigger, as they do in Ho’s photos.
But these essential magic tricks aside, why can't someone like Ho build muscle on 1500 calories per day?
Humans need a caloric surplus for muscles to grow.2 A 10% surplus above a "maintenance" amount of calories is usually considered an absolute lower limit for muscle growth (so for someone who can train and maintain their body weight on 2500 calories, they would need to add at least 250 calories to grow). This is not a controversial statement. For 1500 calories to be a caloric surplus, someone of Ho's age who works out as much as she does would have to have a maintenance energy intake of 1,370ish calories per day, and thus be *checks notes* uhhh, four feet seven inches tall, and weigh 55 pounds. Per her stated DEXA scan weight (127lbs) and height (5 feet 5 inches), maintenance calories plus 10% for Ho would be 2,400 calories per day.
So will I be eating my words/having an aneurysm when this journey is over and her before and after pictures reveal that, lo and behold, she appears to be more muscular than before? No, for three reasons:
a) Ho has an incredibly long training history that has involved muscle building, going back at least ten years. She is always going to have an easier time building muscle back up than probably most people who follow her who have never done any strength training even once, let alone can draw on a decade of training. She also likely knows manipulations such as the bodybuilding muscle-embiggening trick above.
b) She's already talked out of both sides of her mouth about what she's doing in terms of her workouts, posting tiny-pulse movements and claiming they build muscle while apparently lifting heavy weights herself. It wouldn't be impossible to do the same for food intake. That she is not dead yet suggests she is actually eating more that she claims. Why do this? It’s mystifying to me, but people do a great many mystifying things on this earth, like taking horse dewormer for a COVID infection.
c) Let's just say for the sake of argument that Ho is truly built different, and can just gain several pounds of muscle every month forever on 1500 calories per day. All of the scientific research that's ever been done in human history indicates that that would be wildly, wildly outside the norm, not even close to reasonable results for an average human to emulate. Fun to watch, maybe, but impossible to recreate via, say, whatever program someone might hypothetically sell off the back of this marketing.3
What paid subscribers will be getting this week: I've heard from a number of you who are starting to up your weights in LIFTOFF in earnest that you are struggling to eat more/enough to support your three-times-a-week training. Well, here I come like so many Kool Aid Men through so many walls with my tips for eating more, because this has long been my struggle and I can help!!
Exciting news for me, a long time fan of Greg Nuckols' and Stronger By Science's work: I'm now an affiliate of their new tracking app, MacroFactor! I haven't tracked my food for years because I've been loosey-goosey about gaining strength, and wanted to give a sort of intuitive approach a shot when it came to trying to bulk and build muscle late last year. Sadly, it actually caused me more stress to not know where I stood throughout the day in terms of eating enough. Now that I'm doing a cut, I'm using MacroFactor to actually make sure I'm eating as much as possible while sticking to a deficit so that I don't unnecessarily lose muscle. I never track indefinitely, but while I have targeted strength-gaining goals, it really takes a load off my brain. Using the code 'beasties' gets you an extended 14-day free trial!
Great video on "junk volume" from Jeff Nippard. Most importantly for this crowd, it addresses the futility of not training close enough to failure, often enough. If you are trying to build muscle and strength with a weight you are telling yourself you can only do for 5 reps, but you could actually do 20 reps? That's wasted time and energy! In LIFTOFF, as well as in general, I suggest throwing in an attempt to go to failure every now and again as a check on yourself that you are not sandbagging. (Just don’t go failure-nuts).
I will be thinking about this Haley Nahman piece on "achieving your lowest potential" forever. Who can relate to wasting away at the alter of their highest-ever potential to the point that they neglect to eat lunch and do their laundry more than once every six weeks? Couldn't be me! Likewise, the piece she linked on additive cognitive bias ("the human inclination to address issues by adding new solutions, ideas, and goals into the mix, versus subtracting them, and simplifying"), I mean... for now I'm gonna leave the billions of ways this applies to taking care of our bodies as an exercise to the reader, but someday I will go 5,000 words on it.
Please check out Jack Black's absolute hip mobility and depth in his kettlebell squats.
While researching Blogilates, I came across this delightfully straightforward article, Does Punching A Bag Build Muscle? (No.)
"Sustainable fashion" claims are especially rampant in athleisure-adjacent products (yoga mats, sneakers, leggings) but with zero accountability and an embarrassment of marketing terms, this is all just smoke and mirrors.
Petty Peloton corner: after weeks of flurrying news about potential high-profile buyers (Nike, Apple, Amazon) the new CEO says he will not sell the company. Mess! I love it!
I've watched people try to "actually" Sha'Carri Richardson for pointing out how she was disqualified from her Olympic event for weed while Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for actual performance-enhancing drugs, was allowed to skate this week. I've reviewed all the rule nuances and decided Sha'Carri is still right and the rules are shit.
Back when the Pam and Tommy sex tape events actually unfolded, I was still of an age when my parents would have been covering my ears and eyes. But I've been watching Pam and Tommy on Hulu, which made me so curious about whether everything in it was real and true I had to read the 2014 Rolling Stone article it was based on. I also got some useful context from the Pot Psychology podcast (I ~think~ it was this ep, but can't go back and check), where the hosts mention that the prevailing assumption at the time was that Pam and Tommy released the video themselves as a PR play!
Let's get several thousand more sleeper cells into the restaurants and retail stores like the lady who got a Starbuck to unionize.
Artist doc heads: I watched the Adrienne Shelly documentary this week, which is sad but also heartwarming; now I have to go watch Waitress.
Speaking of rest: Who all else is up?
That'll do! I love you for reading, thank you, let's go—
DEXA scans also have a margin of error of about 5%, and in some cases as high as 10%; that's not SO much, but when someone is trying to measure a 1-5% difference in body mass, that's... all of it.
Exceptions being: an untrained individual or detrained experienced lifter could increase muscle mass on maintenance calories; a person with ample body fat could build muscle even on a caloric deficit. Jeff Nippard has a great video on this.
I will be having an aneurysm at any fitness influencer who markets a "muscle building program" that puts people on a severe caloric restriction and grueling workout regimen based on their supposed "results" from "doing the same thing." I have a feeling it's about to start happening a lot.