The Importance of Chasing Strength
By Sohee Lee
My most recent contest prep was a unique experience. My trainer Bret Contreras and I adopted an unconventional approach for my return to the bikini stage, which took place at OCB Nationals in Washington, DC on October 24, 2015.
When it comes to my training, I trust him implicitly. I’ve been following his work since 2011 and have been a fan ever since, and we teamed up this past year to prepare me for my first powerlifting meet in May and then my bikini show in October.
After I competed at the OCB West Coast Florida Classic on November 8, 2014, I knew that I had my work cut out for me to improve my package. In order to be a viable competitor at the national level and beyond, I would have to come in with more muscle and less body fat.
I knew this wouldn’t be an easy feat. Despite having lifted heavy weights for several years, as a female, I have always had a difficult time building muscle mass. I wasn’t going to let that discourage me from trying, however. I had eleven months to prepare for the national stage and not a minute to waste.
The best physique improvements happen in the offseason when you’re consuming ample calories and spending considerable time out of a caloric deficit. As well, one of the best ways to look leaner is to build more muscle. This goes for not only men but also women.
I wish that more women, rather than chasing fat loss 365 days of the year and spinning their wheels most of the time, would shift their mindsets to chasing strength and staying properly fueled. This means that you can’t be constantly in diet mode if you’re serious about packing on some quality muscle and looking more athletic and leaner overall. There is so much fear mongering out there by the mass media scaring women into thinking that they can only improve their body composition by shedding body fat. While this is true in many cases (particularly for individuals who have high levels of body fat to begin with), for others, this can lead to an endlessly frustrating cycle of getting nowhere fast.
(See related: When “Just Lose More Fat” is Not the Answer)
The best hypertrophy training program in the world isn’t going to do much for you if you’re not consuming sufficient calories to support quality growth. There’s really no way around it. I will include the caveat that yes, body recomposition (simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain) is possible, but the degree of body recomposition is not nearly as great as people like to make it out to be, and this phenomenon is typically observed in beginner trainees, obese individuals, and those on steroids. For everyone else, the process is technically doable but relatively slow, and once again, this cannot happen in a calorie deficit.
I don’t believe that women need to endure drastic “bulk” and “cut” cycles wherein they gain and lose upwards of 20-30 lbs for the sake of piling on as much muscle mass as possible. If you’re truly comfortable with putting on that much weight (which, by the way, ends up being largely extra body fat), then by all means carry on – but I have found that the vast majority of women strongly prefer to experience only slight weight fluctuations throughout the year. It takes a heavy, heavy dose of self-love and self-compassion to stomach a rapid spike in body fat, and I’d argue that there’s no need to get to that point to make appreciable physique improvements.
Back in 2009, I did go through a bulk, with my bodyweight skyrocketing from 99 lbs to 124 lbs in a matter of two months. I went from being able to wear whatever I wanted to hiding in sweatpants 24/7 from the shock and shame of how rapidly my body transformed. I know there are probably some women out there who sincerely do not mind this kind of weight gain, but it was pretty traumatizing for me, and I’d imagine that most other women would feel the same way. Because of this experience, I know how firsthand how stressful it can be to go through such rapid weight fluctuations, and I’m convinced now that there is a better way.
From January to August of this year, my calorie intake varied anywhere between 1500-1800 Calories a day. That comes out to a bodyweight multiplier of between 14-16x, which is considered to be the maintenance range for most people. My bodyweight also slowly crept up from 106.0 lbs to 110.8 lbs by the time I switched gears to fat loss.
If you do the math, that comes out to 0.60 lbs per month, or approximately 0.15 lbs per week weight gain. Obviously, this is just an average, and the weight gain was not linear by any means. Some weeks I maintained my bodyweight, some weeks I appeared to dip slightly, and other weeks, I went up. The point I’m trying to make here, however, is that I did not go the traditional bulking route of packing on appreciable pounds in a short period of time, and my physique still did improve precisely because I was purposeful about continuing to gain strength in the gym. As well, the weight gain was by no means an agitating experience, and I still felt confident in my physique and enjoyed my life without having to buy a bigger wardrobe.
The first five months of this year consisted of training for my powerlifting meet. You can read more about how that went by checking out the following posts:
After the meet, we switched to higher reps, and I incorporated in exercises like front squats, block pulls, and incline press. In retrospect, Bret thinks that I may have seen better results had I stuck to the lower rep ranges like I did during my powerlifting training. Bret’s Thoughts: If I could do Sohee’s training over again, I wouldn’t have shifted away from heavy loading. She was making steady progress on her squats, deads, bench, and hip thrusts, and when I moved her to high reps for a couple of months she lost tons of low rep strength. We always do plenty of high rep work with goblet squats, band hip thrusts, back extensions, push ups, inverted rows, and lateral band work, so no need to go low on squats/deads/bench/barbell hip thrusts too. It’s ideal to get strong in a variety of rep ranges for hypertrophy in my opinion.
The theme of my training programs never changed: emphasis on hip thrust, squat, deadlift, and bench variations with some accessory work thrown in at the end; continual pursuit of gaining strength week after week.
My training sessions consisted of anywhere between 12 to 15 total working sets. For accessory work, I was oftentimes prescribed just two working sets of, say, chest-supported rows or high rep barbell hip thrusts. While I may have felt slightly apprehensive at first given the past ultra high volume training programs I was used to seeing, my fears were quickly laid to rest when I realized how much stronger I was getting. I didn’t spontaneously combust and my muscles didn’t atrophy overnight. In fact, being prescribed less volume overall meant that I had more energy to push myself during my working sets and, in turn, continue to set PRs. This proved to be critical in seeing positive changes in my physique.
I also didn’t sweat much during my workouts, and rarely did I ever feel like I was being run into the ground. I know it’s a common (yet false) line of thinking out there to believe that no workout is effective unless you’re left crawling across the floor with exhaustion by the end. But my goal was not to be fatigued; my goal was to gain strength.
As Bret would say: trust. And trust I did.
Now technically, you could claim that I was in contest prep mode for eleven months straight. But as far as being in a calorie deficit, that was only for six weeks. This is because I had stayed lean enough during my offseason that I didn’t have much body fat to lose to be stage-ready. This was very intentional on my part. After last year’s show, I wanted to prove that it was entirely possible to experience zero rebound following a contest prep, so I carefully reverse dieted out of my show.
I’m not saying that everyone who wants to compete in a bodybuilding competition should only have to diet down for six weeks. Obviously, there are a multitude of variables that influence the length of time spent in a caloric deficit, including starting body fat percentage and lean body mass, current calorie intake, and dieting and health history. For me specifically, I made it a point to hover at just a few pounds above last year’s stage weight while also spending ample time out of a caloric deficit. That way, once I did cut back on my intake, my body would respond readily and drop body fat without putting up too much of a fight.
I also voluntarily put myself through an Everyday Snickers experiment and consumed a full-size Snickers bar for 70 consecutive days leading into my show. You can read more about that experience at my recent post, A Snickers a Day Keeps the Cravings Away: A Case for Flexible Dieting.
The gist of my training program also didn’t change much during this time. I was still lifting heavy and, though I did lose a little bit of strength towards the end of my prep, I continued to approach each workout with intensity to maintain as much strength as possible. More specifically, my squat strength dropped the most (likely attributed to a 10-day vacation to Italy that I took in August), while my hip thrust, bench, and deadlift numbers dipped only slightly.
I was doing full body sessions four days a week, and at the end of each session, I would toss in 10 minutes of banded glute work. I didn’t do anything extra in the way of conditioning or cardio. Instead, I kept my dietary adherence high, making sure that my macronutrient intake fell within 5 grams of my prescribed numbers per day.
After six weeks of dieting, I lost 5.2 lbs off the scale, dropping from 110.8 lbs to 105.6 lbs, and my waist measurement dropped from 25.0 to 23.0 inches. I competed on October 24th and won the bikini B class, winning my IFPA pro card in the process.
Here’s what my individual presentation looked like during the finals round of the show:
The most intriguing observation about this prep is that I came in in the best shape of my life – with more muscle and less body fat than ever before – all the while eating more food and doing less exercise than during previous preps. During my 12-week contest prep in 2011, my daily calorie intake started at 1440 and ended at 1080; in 2014, my intake started at 1550 and ended at 1220; and this time, my calorie intake started at 1560 and ended at 1280. I’d like to include a huge caveat here that everyone’s dieting calories are vastly different, and these intakes, while low, are not dangerously low for someone of my height, weight, lean body mass, activity level, dieting and health history, and genetics. Some people can get away with eating more calories everyday and still drop body fat, but when you weigh a buck-ten, work a sedentary job, and don’t have freakish genetics, you don’t get very much wiggle room with your calorie intake.
Physique aside, you may notice in the pictures above that my overall presentation is also much improved. I came in looking more and more polished every year, and I believe that my most recent show had me with my best hair, makeup, jewelry, spray tan, and posing to date, which all play heavily into placing well at a bodybuilding competition.
You could say that this was, relatively speaking, an alarmingly moderate approach. After all, the norm when it comes to contest prep is to cut out most food groups, make exercise a part-time job, and feel like dirt the whole way through.
As I write this, I have been lifting weights for just shy of eight years. I’ve spent a substantial amount of time laying a solid foundation to step on stage as a viable competitor. It’s important to not only have sufficient muscle mass in the right places to compete, but also consume enough calories for long enough. Constantly living in fat loss mode means that you’re running on fumes and not allowing any room for growth. Obviously, this applies to non-competitors as well.
Had I not had the patience to stay the course and keep up my calorie intake, I likely would have ended up looking the exact same up on stage this year as I did last year. If I’d snuck behind Bret’s back and added in extra workouts on my own against his orders, I likely would not have seen the positive results that I did. That would have been a tad bit disappointing.
There’s no rush and no reason to hurry the process. Quality growth takes time, so you might as well kick back and learn to enjoy the ride.
Sustainability is the name of the game. No, it’s not sexy, and nobody likes to proclaim that they practiced moderation for a long enough period of time to see stellar results, but that’s the true (albeit slightly dull) secret.
More is not better; science is better.