I used to think that dieting is what would make me look lean or “toned,” but that isn’t really the case. While calorie deficits do help shed fat, if you don’t have some muscle on your body you will likely end your fat loss phase looking skinny or maybe even “skinny fat” and NOT like that fitness model you saw on Instagram.
I experienced this firsthand when I dieted down for a photo shoot in August 2018. I was definitely lean, but I was surprised at how skinny I looked (in my mind, straight up small) vs. looking lean and jacked.
After that photo shoot, I reverse dieted back to maintenance and spent some time reevaluating my goals and thinking about what I wanted my life/training/body to look like in a year’s time (yes, one year because real change takes time). Then, I broke down those ideas and goals into actions and hired coach(es) to help get me there.
Now, I (Coach Caroline)have officially completed six months in a gaining phase with Coach Cody and have been putting in the work since January 2019 so that next time I diet, the end result will have me looking more like the athlete that I am.
Just like I tell my clients, to get to your goals you have to know your motivation behind those goals AKA your “why.” It helps to know where you ARE and where you WANT to be and then create a roadmap to get from here to there.
I did quite a bit of self reflection before diving into my action plan with my coach. My main reasoning to go for a serious gaining phase was my previous cut in 2018.
I ended that cut pretty lean but also skinny. I wanted my next cut to be different, with me looking more muscular, but I knew it would take time and definitely not be easy. Preparing my mindset beforehand gave me strength & clarity to fall back on during the days I wanted to ditch my plan.
I know from past experience that I do better with goals and stay more motivated when I have an end date or event to work with. For my last cut, that was a photo shoot. When I started on my massing journey in January I didn’t really have an end date or well defined end-of-strength-phase goal, but in time my end goal found me.
I had a few clients ask me questions about bikini and other bodybuilding stage competitions, so I started researching that realm of fitness a bit more. I soon decided that if I were to ever give solid advice to someone else about getting on stage, I should probably do it myself!
A few weeks and lots more research later, I decided to commit to doing my first show by the end of 2019.
It’s important to note that I’m using the term “lean gains” instead of the term “bulking.” In my mind, the term bulking implies the old school, bro, dirty bulk where you gain weight by stuffing donuts and poptarts in your face all day.
By using the term “lean gains,” I’m suggesting a massing phase that includes sticking to 90% whole foods while increasing calories. I filled my 300+ grams of carbohydrates almost entirely with fruits, vegetables, potatoes, rice, and oats.
This process meant slower gains on the scale, but also way less fat gain. I did not have to do any mini-cuts during my six months of gaining because I primarily gained lean mass with this slow and steady approach.
Also notice how I’m talking about my goals and strategizing over a year (AKA periodization). My periodization over the past year looked like:
→ June – August 2018: Diet/Cut
→ September – December 2018: Reverse diet & restore health, maintenance phase
→ January – June 2019: Gaining Phase
→ July – September 2019: Contest Prep Cut
I spent 9 months of the past year in maintenance and only 3 months in a calorie deficit. This periodization strategy has allowed me to keep my overall health, metabolism, and hormones functioning well while still attacking my goals.
The longer timeframe has also set me up to truly reach my best ever physique. You may think you need more time spent dieting (“in season”) when more time at maintenance (“off season”) might actually be the missing key to your success.
More on periodization HERE.
The first step of gaining muscle was reverse dieting after my last cut and pushing my maintenance phase. I stayed around my maintenance level calories for several months after my previous cut, giving my metabolism plenty of time to rev back up, get my energy levels high, take a break from diligent tracking, and get back to crushing workouts in the gym.
I did have several days/weeks throughout my reverse diet where I didn’t track, took a mental break, and enjoyed some flexibility. Therefore, step one in January was dialing back in my macros, especially carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates play a major role in the muscle building process. You not only need carbohydrates for energy to push your strength workouts, but gaining size also requires keeping your muscles full of glycogen (stored carbohydrates).
To build muscle, you want to be at your maintenance level calories or a slight surplus. Specific calorie intake will depend on you as an individual and your training program.
For example, Cody and I started with small carb increases of about 25g bi-weekly. We were tracking measurements as well as body weight and photos to ensure we were minimizing fat gain.
I ended up pushing my daily food intake to upwards of 3,000 calories per day at the end of my gaining phase because we found out I am a hard gainer.
As for supplements, I have been taking full advantage of drinkable carbs like HBCD. As my workout volume increased and recovery was more difficult, I started drinking HBCD + EAAs intra-workout to maximize the muscle gaining effects and improve recovery. More on intra-workout nutrition HERE.
In January and February, before my competition goal was realized, Cody programmed 5 days of strength-focused lifting to start out, with the goal being to increase weights each week. We also took out all cardio except for my daily dog walking.
As I got more specific with my goals and decided to get on stage in October, we switched gears and I started running the Goddess program in The Boom Boom Elite. This is a seriously tough lower body-focused program that crushed my legs, which is where I need the most growth to enter a bikini competition.
One very important aspect of training through a gaining phase is having a program with progressive overload. I was tracking every aspect of training and making sure I could add at least 2% to my weight lifted each week.
It was incredibly challenging programming and deload weeks were very much needed. My workouts had me pushing to the point of making some pretty weird noises on my last set.
Key takeaway – if you aren’t lifting heavy, you will have a very hard time gaining muscle.
This was my first time going all in with functional bodybuilding programming. After years of group fitness and CrossFit, I was definitely hesitant to “bro-out” at first, but there is a REASON bodybuilders get on stage for their physique. My programming was purely focused on sculpting my body, not on PRs, a score for the whiteboard, or how many calories I burned in a session. A change in my goals meant subsequent changes to my training.
After my first strength phase, followed by running Goddess for two phases, and over six months of increasing calories, I gained:
→ 11 lbs
→ 1 inch in my biceps
→ 1 inch in my thighs
→ 2 inches in my hips/glutes
→ And LOST 2 inches in my waist
I’d say we can call that successful lean gainzzz!!
On the left is in January around 134 lbs – on the right is from last week at 145 lbs
The Reality & Challenges
The reality of the past six months in a gaining phase is that there are a lot of ups and downs, challenges, and seemingly slow progress at times, just like any nutrition journey. Thankfully, I had clear motivation and also a coach to keep me accountable. Those two things were an invaluable help.
If I wouldn’t have had a coach during this process, I think I either would have given up completely and gone into a calorie deficit (which would have put me back at square one), or packed on the calories too quickly and without a food quality focus, leaving me with unnecessary body fat gain.
Even when no big, “sexy” changes had to be made week to week, the accountability kept me on course through the awesome weeks as well as the challenging weeks.
One of the first major challenges was seeing the scale climb. Yes, obviously I know in my mind that the scale should climb during a gaining phase, yet for a woman who’s struggled with disordered eating and emotional attachment to the scale in the past, it’s not that easy.
My weight first jumped up about 6 lbs when I started religiously tracking my macros again in January. Then it leveled off for about two more months. When my coach and I made the next increase of carbohydrates, I gained another 3 lbs on average. So in total, 9 lbs in four months.
There were days I felt “fluffy” and my clothes didn’t fit well. Those days I really struggled with still hitting my macros and not taking calories away from myself.
And how messed up is that?!? Just because I had a few days of not feeling as lean my immediate instinct is to restrict food? I don’t want myself – or anyone else – to feel like that.
This was something I worked to overcome every day along this journey and I really believe the whole gaining process helped me confront a lot of personal challenges and come out the other side.
Patience helped, too. Any time I didn’t see changes, or saw changes I didn’t like, my coach helped me stick it out. Your body takes TIME to adjust to different ways of eating and different programming. If I wouldn’t have stuck it out through those tough days/weeks, I would still be back at square one.
It was definitely a mind f*ck to see the scale climb, but thankfully we were also tracking weekly photos, measurements, and strength training progress. Since all of these other metrics were moving the way we wanted, I was able to let go of whatever my body weight was. The scale is just one metric.
For example, my waist measurements were staying about the same and then started decreasing while my hips, biceps, and thighs all grew. That was a great indication that I was gaining muscle while staying lean!
The second major challenge was eating enough. It was really hard to eat 300g carbs at first (I’m sure all of you on a cut reading this hate me… sorry). But just like anything else, you adjust! As I’m writing this, my daily carb goal today is 330g and I will be heartbroken it’s lower.
Every single goal you set for yourself will have challenges. It’s up to you if you throw in the towel when things get uncomfortable or if you have some patience and work through the tough days. Personally, I think growth is literally impossible without some discomfort.
Don’t give up when you hit an uncomfortable point, stay patient, remember why you started, and push through. It’s worth it in the long run!
I officially have a show date on the calendar and shit’s getting real. After six months gaining, I’m looking ahead to my first official show prep, which I’ve heard will be the toughest diet I ever take on.
But honestly, I think (and have been told by my prep coach) that I’m already a step ahead of most people thanks to the time I put in gaining. Yes, it was hard and yes, I gained over 10 lbs in six months, but thanks to smart coaching strategies I was able to stay pretty lean and most of that gain truly is muscle mass.
The time I committed to a lean gains phase has allowed me to not only push my metabolism so I might be able to diet with higher calories, but also set me up to have well defined musculature at the end of my cut.
Only time will tell, but as of now I can say with 100% certainty that I have never felt more prepared and confident heading into a fat loss phase.
I haven’t dieted or restricted food in over a year and thanks to my time spent OUT of a calorie deficit, I am confident I will present my best ever physique at my first bikini competition this fall. Stay tuned!
This is a blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is Certified With Precision Nutrition, NCI, CrossFit, and is also a Boom-Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Caroline is our go-to source for CrossFit Nutrition AND bridging the gap between Aesthetics and Performance, which is where she has recently pushes a lot of her focus in order to help people understand how they can achieve both performance and the lean physique we all strive for.