If you read my last article, you know that the Pioneer Tribute meet didn’t go all that well for me. And you know that I believe it didn’t go well because I tried to diet too hard, got too lean, and ended up—predictably—getting injured.
In hindsight, that whole scenario could have been avoided had I simply understood my own limits for training at very low levels of bodyfat. If you’re a strength athlete who also wants to look good on the beach, you might have similar concerns. How lean is too lean?
As always, it depends, and there’s no one right answer that applies to everyone. However, there definitely is such a thing as too lean, and the longer you push that limit while continuing to train hard, the greater the risk of overtraining, frustration, and injury.
Am I Dieting Too Hard?
The first step to avoid self-destruction: Keep an eye out for the warning signs. Again, these won’t be the same for everyone, but it’s a pretty safe bet that if you notice several of these indicators cropping up, then it’s time to back off.
- Extreme fatigue outside of the gym. During the last six weeks or so of my Tribute prep, I could barely function outside of the gym. I had no energy even for “relaxing” activities, like hanging out at the pool or catching a movie. And I was consistently falling asleep around 9 or 10 PM instead of my usual 11 or 12. I knew these were signs that I was dieting too hard, but because — with the help of a lot of preworkout — I could make it to the gym, I thought I would be okay. I thought wrong.
- Inconsistent performance. “Inconsistent” can mean a lot of things, but I’m specifically referring to a pattern of up-and-down training sessions. You come in one day and nail your scheduled lifts, and the next day, you’re missing warm-up weights. Or you go in to the gym feeling great, and end up struggling through every exercise.
- Joint pain and injury. This one should be pretty obvious. If you notice a significant uptick in either of these, look out!
- Lack of motivation. Feelings of motivation come and go even during a good meet prep, but if you’re constantly questioning why you’re even trying to get through one, it’s time to back off.
Remember, it’s totally normal to experience some of these things, some of the time. But if they’re persistent and severe, it’s time to re-evaluate.
How to Get Back on Track During a Hard Diet
Of course, if you’re dieting too hard, you could just start eating normally, and it’s a safe bet that doing so will resolve most of your struggling pretty quickly. But if you don’t want to go that route, you do have a couple of alternatives.
- More frequent cheat meals. I find that if you’re really dieting hard, and you’re more concerned about performance than appearance, that you can get away with a fair bit of cheating without gaining too much weight. Now, keep in mind, when I say “a fair bit,” I mean a cheat meal or two every week — not a cheat day, and not every day. By timing these cheat meals before your heaviest training, you can keep your progress going a bit longer than you might otherwise be able to.
- Reverse dieting. This strategy refers to adding a small amount of calories to your diet until you begin gaining weight. Typically, the idea is that you’ll be able to minimize the amount of bodyfat you add after your diet — but in my experience, it’s a bit inefficient when your goal is adding a lot of muscle. If your goal is to stay in a weight class without starving to death, it can be really effective, because you’ll gain so slowly that you should still be able to stay close to your cutoff weight — and during a hard diet, even a few extra calories can feel like a godsend.
- Deload. Remember, training and recovery is a balancing act: if you’re not recovering well because you’re not eating enough to support your hard training, then the only answers are to eat more or lighten up. One way or another, that equation needs to balance.
Dropping a weight class isn’t easy, and it’s not always even smart — but I totally understand the appeal. If you’re contemplating it, make sure you have a plan going in, and don’t be afraid to change that plan if necessary. Above all else, stay positive. No matter how difficult it may seem at the time, you will make it through, one way or another.
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from Ben Pollack YouTube channel.