I’m writing this article from 30,000 feet in the air, on my way back from the beautiful Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas. Sun, sand, beaches, water parks, and yes – gorgeous bodies in very little clothing all make for a great trip. If you know me, you know my past as a fitness model, and the vanity that comes with it. I would like to think at 31 years of age that I have moved slightly beyond that, but let’s be real – I wanted to have a ripped six pack just like the frat boys that spent an hour doing crunches in the hotel gym each morning.
Yes, I dieted for a few weeks before I left.
Yes, I altered my training for a few weeks before I left.
And, yes, performance took a back seat for a few weeks before I left.
I am not a competitor in fitness sports by any means, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to have the fastest time on the white board at the end of the day. But given the fact that I consult with some of the world’s top fitness and strength athletes, travel to speak almost every weekend, and subsequently sleep very little, I know my limits.
But here’s the question. Do you? I don’t ask that in reference to work your schedule. I ask that in reference to your goals.
In the 150+ consults I do weekly, I often hear “goals” of people wanting to be ripped and perform at their maximal level. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but both cannot be prioritized at the same time. Please note my word choice. I did not say that it can’t happen (it can in the right situations), but from a physiological perspective you simply can’t create a plan that emphasizes performance AND cosmetics at the same time.
Let’s look at the basics:
A cosmetic prioritization usually requires fat loss (for most people). In a fat loss scenario, a calorie deficit is necessary. A calorie deficit implies lack of recovery (mild at times for sure, but regardless recovery will never be maximal). Over the course of several weeks, months, or years, without maximal recovery, you will lose.
Conversely, a performance emphasis requires maintenance calories or a caloric surplus. In a surplus, you will ultimately gain weight. Ideally this happens slowly, and mostly from lean tissue but some body fat gain is inevitable. So I ask you again, WHAT DO YOU WANT?
My advice? Periodize your nutrition.
I have spoken about this recently on podcasts, and I am MASSIVE on this topic right now, so let’s lay out the plan. The way I see it, you have 4 general phases of the year:
Phase 1 – Competition
This is the CrossFit Open for those athletes (or Regionals/Games if you are on that level).
In this phase, you are competing for time or load, and nothing else matters. You are not judged on your six pack, the veins in your biceps, or any other cosmetic measure you can think of. And as stated earlier, performance requires a caloric surplus – you must EAT during this phase.
Carbs become more essential the deeper you go into a season (Open —> Regionals —> Games) as the central nervous system will become more taxed, but in general carbs should be above the previous year’s phase 4 to some degree.
Phase 2 – Recovery
This will vary in duration depending on how long your competition phase was, but will be from 2-3 months usually. If you are training properly, you will go through a brief deload. Important: Do not decrease your calories in your deload. A caloric reduction will not help foster a recovery environment.
Will you gain a few pounds? Usually not. Remember that by not training as much, you will not be storing nearly as much muscle glycogen or water, so overall the scale will not go up like you think it will.
You also need the calories to help restore hormone/adrenal function. The 5-6 months you spend in competition prep/competition mode are very taxing on the CNS, adrenals, and sex hormone profile. If you don’t take this time to recover, you are beginning the following training year from a deficit. Over the course of a few years that deficit becomes dysfunction – and you will likely not be competing much longer.
Phase 3 – Strength and Skill Acquisition
If you have body composition goals, this is the place to put them; they can go hand in hand with any strength/skill deficits you may have. In my 10+ years of experience, I rarely find athletes that need to get stronger are also looking to get leaner. Naturally, they will eat a little more in this phase. Conversely, I usually find those athletes that need more gymnastics skills or endurance are looking to lose a few pounds; of course, they will be in a calorie deficit.
And yes, we all want to look damn good on the beach, so we better be on point with our nutrition. Important to note: This is the time!
Your training volume shouldn’t be overly high, and intensity should be controlled. If you plan to live in a deficit in hopes of a cosmetic change, I would communicate that to your coach so that volume can be attenuated appropriately. As always, the calorie deficit should not be extreme, and the change should be gradual. Hormone health and CNS function still need to be considered here.
Phase 4 – Competition Prep
This is where you begin ramping up the intensity, and putting your new found strength/skills/body comp to work for you prior to your competitive season. This is the phase when you begin to pull out of your calorie deficit and into more of a maintenance/surplus mode.
Your food increases will be made with training volume/intensity increases, but by the end of this phase, you should no longer be living in a deficit if you are seeking maximal performance.
There will be times where you can have the cosmetics and perform pretty damn well. In fact, I fully believe that if you use this approach year after year, that within a few years you will have maximized both ends of the spectrum — and potentially look dead sexy on top of the podium!
I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on your current goals and plans for this year.
Create your plan, not only from a training perspective, but also from a nutritional perspective. It’s time to start looking at the bigger picture, and truly understanding how to properly achieve our goals.
Periodize appropriately, and I look forward to watching you succeed!
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.