It’s Time To Take Your Medicine – More Calories!
As observed the world over and for decades, when a woman (and many men) decide to go on a health kick and get themselves in shape, they will combine going on a calorie restricted diet and some form of exercise regime. They go together like peanut butter and jelly (jam!).
If your goals are simply to lose fat at any cost, then this strategy works. You eat little food, feel deprived and do tons of aerobic-based exercise. You will lose water, then a bunch of fat, and you will feel good about the progress.
What you may not realise is that you are also losing muscle. Calorie restriction plus cardio forces the body to find opportunities for efficiency. So you can continue to meet the demands of your environment (exercise plus lifestyle) with the amount of energy that is available to you (food), you shed expensive unnecessary muscle tissue and increase your aerobic fitness levels. Less muscle is also matched with less available energy for all the other things your body needs to do without conscious input to sustain human life – otherwise described as your metabolism (BMR).
Can you see how this is not great for continued fat loss and optimal health? Efficiency is bad for fat loss. You may think efficiency and endurance is a marker of health, but instead its more of a survival mode based on what the body perceives as regular life demands.
It serves the performance goals of endurance athletes, but that is not the same as optimal health, nor a naturally beautiful female physique. If you’ve got stubborn fat, it will be difficult to shift when you are in this mode. If you want curves in all the right places, this efficient state is going to make that increasingly challenging.
Let’s also consider this. People are attracted to ‘healthy’ people, subconsciously. It’s deep rooted in evolution – survival of the the fittest. And the reality is, natural feminine beauty is really an expression of a woman who is healthy and able to successfully procreate and help the family thrive. I won’t go into the detail here, but just think about this – imagine someone who is an expression of true beauty. According to you. It’s very likely that they are a picture of health…
It’s no accident. Health can be seen – so let’s keep that in mind when considering your physique. It’s more than the shape – it’s the glow, the skin, the energy and mood, and the sense that this person is thriving.
So, if you want to continue to lose fat when you’ve hit this low calorie plateau in addition to sculpting your best physique ever, you need to become less efficient. You need to increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR). You need to stoke your internal combustion engine by having your body fire on all cylinders, and have every activity ‘cost’ you more energy. This is achieved by sufficient nutrition that helps your endocrine system return to a healthy balance of hormone production, and, by adding lean muscle mass.
Here’s a critical fact of physiology than many women either don’t understand or choose to ignore, assuming it’s not true or that important. To build lean muscle mass, you MUST create an anabolic environment – the building up of organs and tissues. Being in a calorie deficit creates the opposite, which is further exacerbated if you do lots of cardio and no heavy strength training.
The opposite is called catabolic – the breakdown of molecules, tissues, and organs. It makes sense when you think about it. If you don’t consume enough food to meet your whole body demands, it breaks down and uses fat for fuel, and there is no spare energy to go about creating and developing bigger muscles.
To be in an anabolic state, you need to have a surplus of calories, and for muscle growth there needs to be damage caused by progressive physiological stress and mechanical tension (aka strength training) that calls for protein synthesis that supports repair and growth. There are other factors, including sufficient rest and recovery prior to subsequent training and nutrition specifics, but without surplus calories and strength training, it’s all for nothing.
That’s why you may know someone who has been exercising constantly, even doing strength training of sorts, for years, yet their physique looks the same. You can’t extend your house, without the supply of extra bricks.
Or Just Keep Eating Less & Doing More…
If you’re unshakable in your commitment to being in a calorie deficit and lots of endurance-style cardio training, you need to accept you will continue to improve your endurance and efficiency. You will burn less calories for the same work. You will then need to eat even less calories, or do even more work, to move the needle.
I don’t know about you, but that equation does not look attractive as you play it out:
- Continue to do more, and more, and more as you get more and more efficient
- At the same time lose more and more muscle in an attempt to maintain or lose body fat
- And additionally having to eat less and less, to put yourself in a calorie deficit.
- This can lead to being malnourished at a micro and macro nutrient level which in turn could initiate immune and autoimmune issues.
- This fuels an unhealthy relationship with food, as you train your mind that less is ALWAYS better.
Of Course, Being In A Calorie Surplus Is NOT In And Of Itself A Good Thing
Of course not. After all, it’s being in a chronic surplus over months and years that leads to being overweight and obese. As instinct suggests, eating more food than you burn per day, done consistently gives your body no choice but to park the extra energy as body fat once your muscle and liver glycogen stores are full.
I’m not advocating binging and over consuming. And I’m not suggesting being in a calorie surplus forever, nor am I saying being in a surplus does anything productive by itself. You will not develop muscle mass if you eat more than you burn, and you don’t strength train. That would be too easy right?
There Absolutely IS A Time & Place For A Calorie Surplus For Ladies
Outside of the obvious of elite athletes and those who have a sport that demands ever increasing strength, there is absolutely a benefit for every woman to find themselves periodically in a calorie surplus, where they burn fewer calories than they eat. And I’m not talking about being pregnant…
- Get yourself in an anabolic state. Needed in the development of increased muscle mass
- As a result of increased muscle mass, your BMR will increase
- When in an anabolic state, you gradually reduce the background level of stress hormone cortisol, which is great for fat loss and mental health
- By increasing muscle mass, you are more functionally strong and able, that is directly correlated with healthier bones and body.
- Not only does your BMR increase, but it becomes more calorically expensive just to be. Every activity, movement will burn more calories.
- Furthermore, with increased muscle mass you can train harder and heavier, that supports even greater calorie demands
Most importantly for body composition – All of this means that you can eat more to maintain your current body weight, and you can lose body fat with a much higher and healthier calorie restriction.
Sorry Ladies, This Is Going To Burst Your Bubble
Outside of the phenomenon of the first few of months progressive strength training for the ‘Newbie’ inexperienced lifter, you cannot build muscle mass whilst being in a calorie deficit.
So, whilst you may benefit from some ‘Newbie’ muscle gains at the very beginning of strength training even if in a calorie deficit, this adaptation is in response to the shear novelty of the extra imposed demand on the body. Something needs to change, as life has got so much harder all of a sudden.
However, the Newbie gains will be limited, and this honeymoon period will only last a few months. And that’s assuming you are strength training with proper form and programming.
This may shock you to hear this, as SO many women (and men) train incredibly hard in the gym with all the hip thrusts, squats and tricep extensions. And because it’s so hard and you’re getting stronger (or more likely just better at the movements), then the assumption is muscle is being built. Wrong.
It gets worse. Women often say they don’t want to get bigger muscles, they just want to ‘tone up’. Sorry ladies, but you cannot contour and change the shape of your muscles. You can grown them or shrink them. In doing so they change size and shape. Fact.
So if you want to feel firmer, tighter and with some slight definition of shoulders, triceps, core, and legs, then you MUST develop muscle mass AND trim off body fat so the muscle can be seen.
The same goes for developing a rounder, uplifted and athletic butt. To lift and round, you need to develop your glutes. That means progressively strength training your glutes AND being in a surplus. Cycle in some cutting (short bouts of calorie restriction) to remove the excess butt fat and correct your posture, and boom… you’ll have a peachy butt.
Let’s talk About Fat!
First another bombshell. Women by evolutionary design hold more body fat than guys, as this is necessary for child bearing and caring, plus supports a healthy hormone balance. May seem unfair, but all is not as it seems. It doesn’t mean looking lean is unhealthy for women. Instead, women can achieve the same perceived leanness as a guy by carrying approximately 8-10% extra body fat.
So, please don’t attempt to compare your body fat percentage to men. When you hear men 10, 8 or even 6% body fat, these numbers are honestly irrelevant to women.
Here are some examples of female physiques carrying varying degrees of body fat. This will help you gauge where you are, and importantly get a sense of what would be a desirable look for yourself.
20-23% is considered optimally healthy and typically matches what the majority of people find most attractive.
You will typically find elite CrossFit ladies at the 15-19% range. At the lower end of this range, it is not uncommon for ladies to lose their period for potentially months and years. It’s not considered ideal for a health and longevity standpoint.
Sub 15% and you are now in the Physique and Body Building category, where it is their sole focus and/or job to be as shredded as possible. Needless to say, this does pose many health risks as described in RED-S (see Part 1) if this look is maintained.
An Interesting Case Study
Let’s put this all together – increased calories, better nutrition, strength training and the reduction of long bouts of endurance cardio, in this example.
I don’t know this lady, but her journey helps tell the story well. Of course, this is not a story of significant fat loss – you can find a million of those online. Instead, it’s the testimony of her transformed diet and training, combined with a physique that is improving as she gets heavier.
And yes, the knickers and lighting make a difference! That said, this shouldn’t take away from the key points:
- Calories from 800 to 2300 per day
- Previously 6-7 bouts of cardio a week, and now NO cardio
- Fell in love with the process and results of heavy strength training
- Weight increased from 52 KG to 56KG (9lbs)
- YET – she’s in the best shape of her life!
- Greater overall tone, definition, better posture, great butt and strong looking back
- Is happier and healthier – and looks it!
- Looks to have reduced a little body fat too, whilst maintaining a healthy 20-22%
Take a look at the pics, and most importantly read her posts! She is just but one of tens of thousands of women who have enjoyed the benefits of strength training whilst increasing the calorie intake.
Typical Maximum Rates of Muscle Growth, for Ladies
Right, hopefully you are warming up to the idea to putting on a little extra muscle. Good work. 👍 Lets cover off what you can expect or hope for in terms of building muscle.
It’s widely reported that for men, their maximum natural (without steroids) monthly muscle building potential is 1.5lbs/month as a beginner, 1lbs/month as intermediate and 0.25-0.5lbs/month as an advanced lifter. That requires them being in a surplus and doing everything right – especially as you become an intermediate or advanced lifter.
These figures may seem a little meagre, especially for the advanced guys who are likely in the gym for 5-6 times a week for two hours a go, What can I say, that’s life. Hence the reason many men get impatient and look to steroids to massively accelerate their growth potential.
The reality is it becomes incredibly tougher to maintain and grow muscle mass as you get bigger and bigger, as it’s so expensive to keep this muscle. The body if left untrained for a sustained period of time would get rid of the muscle in favour of being more efficient. Remember, having energy demanding muscle is a good thing for weight management.
So, for women it is considered that they have up to half the muscle building potential as males, largely due to their typically weaker and less muscular starting point and most importantly – the relative lack of the primary anabolic hormone Testosterone. Women have approximately 1/10th the Testosterone levels of men, and as Testosterone is the primary hormone to assist muscle growth, you can see why it will take women much longer to increase muscle mass, and with less maximal potential.
As a guide, female lifters can hope for the following maximums:
- NEWBIE Lifter (0-12months) can expect to gain ¾ lbs per month
- INTERMEDIATE Lifter (1-3 years) can expect to gain ½ lbs per month
- ADVANCED Lifter (3+ years) can expect to gain ¼ lbs per month
It important to reiterate that these gains assume that the woman is in a calorie surplus of sorts, AND they are strength training with the intent to progressively overload every week.
Phew, so I won’t be the size of a house if I eat in a mild surplus!
Probably the most common objection to traditional strength training from women is that they don’t want to get bulky, and they are worried about have extra muscle under fat that will may them look stocky. You’ll hear “I don’t want to look like a guy and have bulging muscles. I just want to lose weight and tone up”. The image starts to flash in ladies minds of big arms, big chest, bigger thighs, a larger neck and all that extra fat. Think of a typical shot putter physique or a bulky female body builder.
Trust me when I say this. Unless you are doing this for many many years, are maniacal about getting bigger at all costs, are on a perma-bulk and are likely taking extra testosterone (steroids), you will NOT achieve this look. The case study above proves the minimal changes in the female physique when doing everything right. Hopefully, this is a relief. Throw away that old misconception, and instead picture a healthy beach body with curves in the right places…
Ready to get in to the Break-The-Mould Body Plan Now? Continue reading…
Continue Reading 👉 BREAK-THE-MOULD PART 3 of 5 – Building Your Best Body
Follow this and other topic areas in our longer-form Articles series as they unfold, as well as the AdapNation Food Diary for healthy meal inspiration and AdapNation’s #HyperWorkouts for free training plans. Comment if you have questions or ideas.