Lean vs. strong – it’s an interesting debate and one that I think a lot of women struggle with, particular women who lift heavy or Crossfit. Now, before I go any further, and everyone shouts “BUT YOU CAN BE LEAN & STRONG” – yes, I know you can. I’m not saying that you can’t be both lean and strong; in fact, I think it’s very possible. It’s also very difficult and at some point, a choice is made – get lean or get strong or try to do both at once. At some point, you have to step back and assess and define what your goals are, where that motivation is coming from, and what you’re going to do about it. Obviously, it is usually the goal to be as strong as you can be, at the lowest weight you can be so that every pound has a purpose. It is rarely a linear progression to get to that point. You have to prioritize one or the other at some point (just like figure competitors often have to focus on either building muscle or losing fat) and I think that point is reached at a different time for everyone. That’s what this post is about. Whew, now that that’s out of the way – let’s talk.
I recently lost 8lbs of muscle during my 30-day Whole30 challenge – no fat, just muscle. I did some things wrong – not eating enough for starters – and this muscle loss had a weird affect on me. Here is a little snippet of what I wrote the day I found out (day 31):
"I liked what I saw in the mirror this morning – I knew I had lost some weight. My abs were tighter – I definitely had more arm definition. I felt good. My gym session wasn’t great but I didn’t expect it to be – I knew the two lifts I was trying to PR were my most difficult and I was okay with trying to hit that PR, missing it, and getting in some good practice instead. I weighed in and saw that I was 8lbs down – STOKED. That was great. After my workout, it was body fat time. The only caliper measurement that went down was my tricep (hey, I’ll take that!). Everything else went up. Weird. My coach crunched the numbers and it turns out, I lost 8lbs of muscle.”
You can imagine the confusion that ensued. Athletically, I had felt pretty good during the challenge because I wasn’t sluggish from sugar and wine. I felt strong during most of my workouts but looking back, I noticed that I also didn’t feel “awesome”. I felt strongest on my O-lifts – no surprise there - but I noticed a lot of notes like, “felt harder than it should”, “really difficult”, etc. next to items like pull ups and bench press at percentages and rep schemes that SHOULD NOT have been that difficult. I also really struggled with eating post-workout – my stomach didn’t seem to like it too much but I did it. The writing was on the wall and I just glossed over it at the time. I think deep down I knew I had lost a bit of strength.
When I got my full results, I was pissed – 8lbs of PURE MUSCLE (okay and probably some water & bloat too), gone. I train hard 5 days a week, having been lifting more/WOD-ing less, eating as much as I can stomach, and then 8 lbs of muscle GONE. My first thought was: “I want those 8lbs back”.”
My reaction caught me off-guard in a BIG way. If this were to happen a year ago, or hell, even 6 months ago, I would have been ecstatic. The fact that I wasn’t that excited came as a surprise to me – I was genuinely shocked at how not happy I was. I felt like I had taken 5 steps back in my progress (UH, I swear I’m not dramatic or anything…) and it was irritating. Would I have felt differently if I hadn’t lost any muscle or at least lost some fat? YES. Undoubtedly, I would have been MUCH more over-the-moon about an 8lb loss. I would have still been curious about why my slow lifts weren’t progressing and why certain things were feeling difficult. But, I think I would have reacted differently.
I forced myself to look on the bright side. I told myself that, without this result from the Whole30, I wouldn’t have thought to take a more detailed look at my caloric intake – much less think about increasing it. I reminded myself of how grateful I was for this experience and how I learned SO much about myself, my habits around food, and how food affects me. I reminded myself that I did something important - I learned what doesn’t work for me. But still, I couldn’t let of the fact that my reaction was so different than what I anticipated. Why did an 8lb loss affect me that way?
The conclusion I came to was this: I guess being “lean” isn’t as much of a priority as I THOUGHT it was – in fact, I’m not even sure where it ranks right now.
There it was – that was the issue that was really bothering me. I begin to ask myself – what are my priorities & where does weight loss/leanness rank? What are my goals? Are they realistic? What do I need to do to achieve them? At what cost? I know my goals, I do think they are realistic, but I don’t know the answer to the other two questions. I suppose I know what I need to do in the gym but am less clear nutrition wise. Also, why are my priorities in the order they are in? Are they good, reasonable, and mentally sound? Or do I need to re-evaluate?
I decided to really think about this and re-evaluate.
FACT: I AM more comfortable at this weight. I’ve been here before and I like it. I’m happier with how my body looks.
FACT: My body FEELS so much better without sugar, grains, etc.
FACT: I really don’t like my strength loss.
I asked myself:
- Does being leaner make me happy? YUP.
- Does being strong make me happy? YES.
- Which makes me happier? Furthermore, do I really have to choose? I don’t know. That’s the problem. The fact that I’m was bothered by my muscle loss makes me think that being strong mattered to me more – but I almost felt “guilty” or “wrong” about that.
Quite honestly – I felt like I was WRONG to want to prioritize strength over leanness. I felt like I had no “real” justification for putting strength over leanness – I’m not a competitive athlete (although I have no objections to competing in the near future), I’m not training for an event/competition that requires strength (you know, except life)…and the more I thought about this the more I realized how much BULLSHIT was running through my head. THIS was the result of society-driven pressures to be lean & feminine and my own insecurities undermining my own goal of being really effing strong.
After over-analyzing, writing, and thinking way too much I’ve come to realize why this is so difficult for me - I FEEL like I SHOULD care about being lean. I, obviously, care about being healthy first and foremost, and being “lean” doesn’t necessarily equate to that for everyone. I could stand to lose weight, my body fat percentage is in the healthy range, and overall, I’m healthier than I have ever been. Still, I feel like I’m SUPPOSED to want to be lean more than anything else – I’m a woman, I should care about having a six pack or jacked arms right? After thinking about it some more, it hit me:
I really, truly, don’t give a shit about having a six pack.
I care more about being healthy more than anything else. Somewhere along the line, that stopped including a number on a scale, body fact percentage, or the visibility of my abs. Maybe I just got sick of caring about what I look like, maybe I just finally grew into my own skin a bit more, or maybe, I just truly stopped caring about those things. Now, let me very clear, I don’t think it’s bad/shallow/whatever other judgmental word you want to put here to have a goal of being lean. I highly respect people who work hard to reach their body composition goals (in a healthy way) – it is HARD work and takes a lot of dedication. That was my goal for a long, long time. I get it. But at this specific point, I don’t desire leanness.
I’m not sure when it happened, but I stopped obsessing about my body composition and then, my body responded. My waist got smaller, my quads got huge, my lats and shoulders outgrew every button down shirt I own, and my stomach got a little more defined - but more importantly, I got STRONG. I went from being able to deadlift 145lbs for 3 reps to having a 230lb deadlift. I went from having to use over 100lbs of pull up assistance to having an unassisted kipping pull up. So heavy squats will make me a stronger, better human being but make my butt and quads get big and make jeans fit awkwardly? Don’t care, that’s why they make yoga pants. Dresses with side zippers are nearly impossible because of my lats and my progress towards an unassisted strict pull up? Eh, I’m not really a dress girl anyways.
But still, I feel weird about thinking this way.
Correction: I FEEL like I SHOULD feel weird about thinking this way. But I don’t.
And now, I’m okay with that.