When I was growing up, I always wanted a body like my Mom. She is 5’11” and usually weighed around 125 – 135 lbs – tall and thin. On the other hand, I was shorter and wider so I had to be content with the fact that I took after the other side of the family. It wasn’t until the last few years that I realized something. I have the exact same body that my mother does but in a 5’8″ version. Yep, you read that right.
How did I not know this? Simple. My frame was covered with a layer of fat all those years. Underneath my fluff, I was very thin with little muscle. To give you an idea, the weight range for a female my height with a small bone structure is 126 – 139. My last show I came in at 116 lbs and an athletic (not drastically low) body fat percentage. I’m a stick, and this is not a good thing when you want to have a nice shape.
One of the meanest things someone ever said to me was also the most honest and true things. Something that I needed to not only hear, but to accept and do something about it if I chose to.
If you are a healthy weight for your height and you are not happy with the way that you look, most times you do not have enough muscle to give you the look you want.*
* Assuming you do not have a body dysmorphic disorder or something similar to skew your judgment.
When I was told this, my first reaction was that they had no idea what they were talking about. I was offended. I had muscle. I’d been lifting hard for a few years. It needed to bounce around inside my head for a bit before settling, and I realized they were right. Yes, I lifted hard for a few years but the entire time I had been dieting in one form or another.
When you diet, you basically remove some of the fat on your body and uncover the existing muscle. You cannot build a significant amount of muscle when dieting. It is impossible unless you are a medical wonder. Your body is designed to use every calorie it can during a dieting phase, and it uses them in order of priority for things like keeping you alive, pumping blood and digesting, and giving you energy. It’s a long list and building muscle is at the very end of it.
If you are a beginner to weight lifting, you may luck out and have a few calories left to build muscle but it will be a small amount. Again, you cannot build significant muscle while dieting. Sorry, I don’t make the rules and I would definitely vote to change them if that was an option. When you see before and after shots of people who dieted and ended up looking muscled and ripped, they had that muscle already and just removed the fat around it.
So dieting doesn’t drastically change your body shape, it merely makes you a smaller version of the starting you. For many, that is more than fine and the way to go. For others like me, not so much. I’ve since decided that I don’t want to look like Mom (sorry!). If you are looking to change your shape and not just hit the minimize button, you will need to build muscle and that takes the right training program along with calories to support this. You will need to eat more to give your body the calories it needs to make this muscle.
It doesn’t have to be huge amounts more, but more than what you’re eating when on a diet. Ideally it will be slightly more than what you need to maintain your weight. Building muscle in this way is what bodybuilders call a “bulk.” You can build a bit of muscle while eating around maintenance but it takes an excruciating amount of time. Beginners to weight lifting have more luck in this area. More experienced lifters will most likely become frustrated at the time it takes.
Here are some things to consider when deciding to diet, bulk, or maintain your weight:
- If you are towards the lower end of the weight range for your height (or even under the low end like I was), you should consider not dieting. Sorry to break it to you, but you are either at a good weight for your height or you are underweight. Dieting won’t help you unless you are doing it for a specific purpose like a show or competition. Bulk or maintain, but I’d suggest the bulk route since you could use a little extra meat on your bones.
- If you are around 10 – 12% body fat for men or 19 – 20% body fat for women and not happy with your overall shape, you should consider not dieting. See the first point. You should look at the black and white numbers of muscle vs body fat and decide if you really have a good muscle base. If not, bulk or maintenance are better choices.
- If you are in the 10-12% for men and 19-20% for women body fat range and you are having trouble sticking to your eating plan, you should consider raising your calories. This is a low body fat percentage and your body will work against you to maintain or lower it from this point. Like anything, there is a trade off. To stay here long term, you will need to really track your eating, give up slips and indulgences, and focus. If don’t want this level of compliance and not everyone does, you should raise your calories to maintenance and see if moderation helps your mindset.
- If you are newer to lifting and want to build muscle, you may be able to build muscle eating at maintenance calories and do what’s called recomposition. This is sometimes easier to mentally handle than bulking calories since it means less body fat added during the process. Those new to lifting have the ability to put on muscle while eating around maintenance and can simultaneously lower body fat, add muscle, and maintain current weight. Bulking may still provide more significant muscle gain so that’s an option, but you can get very good results at maintenance as a newbie lifter.
- If you have been lifting for a while (a year or more) and want to build muscle, you should consider bulking. You’ve passed the time frame where your body can put on muscle without excess calories. You can try maintenance calories, but most of us don’t have the patience to wait the time it takes to see any difference in body shape. It can take years of lifting heavy at maintenance calories for an experienced lifter and feel like endless wheel spinning. Even the most patient of person will give up long before. It doesn’t take a lot of extra calories to make a difference and you can minimize fat gains when done properly. Consider bulking if you really want to maximize your efforts.
- If you are above 15% body fat for men or 25% for women and you want to change your body, you may want to drop some body fat first by dieting so you can get a better idea of what you’re dealing with. Note: It’s absolutely fine to be in this body fat range and not want to diet. You may lower your body fat and find you are happy with the muscle and look you have at this point. No need to change a thing. You may still want to improve your look and you will have a better idea of whether you should maintain or bulk.
Keep in mind that everyone is different and there is no hard and fast answer. These are things to consider as you make your decision, not rules to follow or telling you what you should do. The ideal end result regardless of your decision should be to be happy in your own skin and love your look. Many of us have been conditioned to believe that dieting is the way to go to reach our ideal body, and in a lot of cases that isn’t the answer.
I have clients that struggle with these decisions frequently, especially females. They aim for a number on the scale or a look in the mirror, and take a serial dieting approach to try to reach it. They have trouble sticking to such an extreme approach, and then beat themselves up for not losing weight or making physical progress. In reality, they are a healthy weight and should really be looking to maintain their weight with moderation or building muscle with bulking.
If you need help to change your body shape, lower your body fat, or map out a path to the ideal you, let me know at email@example.com. Assessments are free and I can help you decide which approach of dieting, maintaining or bulking will give you the best results. I’d love to see what we can achieve together with the right online nutrition and training program for you.