“I still have this lower back fat!”
The above was something a bodybuilding client said to me multiple times. Sometimes more than once a week, and during a mass gain phase. We were still aiming to add extra muscle so I tried to explain many times that during our current period of training, our goals were not to get leaner or to do anything other than add muscle to strategic areas at this time. I also urged him to
“Learn to love and accept your body NOW, because you’ll probably have lower back fat for 51/52 weeks of a year.”
That’s the thing, you can spend months preparing to do a show and then within a week or so, your abs can be gone. That lower back fat you hate so much – it’s back. That’s how quickly it can go once you inevitably, and NECESSARILY loosen the reins of a hard calorie deficit combined with a lot of targeted, strategic physical activity.
It’s like trying to live in a fancy hotel.
It costs far too much for you to stay there, and after a while it loses it’s appeal, it feels too restrictive, too small and too scripted, you have far less capacity to individualise your mental and physical space – and the cons stack up to outweigh the pros the longer you try to stay there.
In order to be fulfilled, happy and flourishing – maybe accept that you will NEVER be stage lean 365 days a year. Hell, don’t just accept it – fucking CELEBRATE it. Because body image, self-image, crash and yo yo dieting, body dysmorphia, low self esteem and depression – all of these belong together and as much as we think that being shredded as fuck is the source of happiness – it’s actually the opposite.
The more you diet, the longer you diet, the longer you train yourself into the ground – the MORE likely you are to feel the mental health effects of that, and the worse your body image and your quality of life becomes.
What I said to my client wasn’t delivered without a lot of care, empathy and compassion. As someone who has coached dozens of bodybuilding clients, competed myself, and worked with hundreds of clients with varying levels of distaste for their bodies – I understand. I understand what it’s like to feel ashamed of how I look, to think that I’d be a “better” coach somehow if I was super lean all the time. I also understand what it is like to binge eat in secret, to use alcohol or food as an escape, and to cultivate a toxic view of myself in which my worth, my entire being, my value as a human was based on what I saw in the mirror. My mother found a bottle of laxatives in my bedroom when I was only 12. What I saw in the mirror has ALWAYS had something wrong with it since I was at least 9 years old, which at the very least tips a hat toward modern society’s influence on impressionable young minds and at worst, implies that the idea that we’ll be happier if we looked different knows no age, gender, race or socioeconomic status.
Society says you’ll be happier if you look “perfect.”
Well, fuck society.
It’s exactly because I understand this, that I write this blog post and try my best to educate and inspire people toward thinking beyond the mirror. To try to remind you that your health isn’t just physical, but mental too, and that your body is literally a vessel for your personality, your soul, your essence or whatever it is that you best identify with.
The pursuit of anything which endangers your emotional wellbeing is also a danger to your health. Depression, poor self esteem, learned helplessness or other emotional factors which affect your body image also affect your energy levels, which in turn, change what you SEE in the mirror but also change your behaviour. They determine how you do (and DON’T) look after yourself.
Case in point, shame spirals after eating too much. All or nothing thinking when we feel “bad” for eating “bad” food and then we have to cleanse ourselves of it by eating “good” food again. But then, you cannot have darkness without the light etc so you violently swing back to eating shit food again.
And the cycle continues.
I’d love for everyone to take a moment to reframe what having a body ACTUALLY means to them.
Is it a trophy? Something to be worshipped solely for its physical beauty? Or is it less important that it is beautiful and more important that the personality inhabiting it, is?
Is it something which needs to be looked after, cared for and cherished? And is it any better for it to be abused, overworked, criticised and underfed than it is abused, underworked, criticised and overfed?
Having done a show recently, I am strongly reminded of what I have known for some time now, and that’s that the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Your body NEITHER deserves to be abused by laxatives, starvation or deprivation than it does to be fed whatever junk you crave, in whatever quantity you crave, everytime you crave it.
Your body NEITHER deserves to be pushed to its limits and broken in the pursuit of perfection than it does to remain languishing and expanding on a couch.
And your brain, your mind, your heart and soul, the very YOU of you, does not deserve to put up with a violent swing back and forth between these two extremes. It’s fucking tumultuous and exhausting.
Life is too fucking short to spend it concerned with the WRONG THINGS.
You deserve to treat your body with the respect it gives to you.
And that means that instead of perpetuating your body image issues, instead of keeping the cycle going, you instead decide to choose a better way.
What if, right now, this very moment you just DECIDE to change your perspective?
You can do that. It may take some time, and definitely more than what I can give in a singular blog post, but it can happen. You can do that.
So can we first please acknowledge that being shredded, being super lean, looking “perfect” (whatever that means for you) and being super restrictive with your eating and training 365 days a year is NOT healthy, any more than the opposite is true.
Let’s also acknowledge that there’s a beautiful, literally happy medium somewhere between the two wherein your body serves as a vessel for your soul, and if its upkeep is done with compassion, respect and also a little bit of balance – it will look after you in return. There may need to be periods wherein you move more toward the left or the right, but the pendulum should always settle somewhere which is calm, balanced, achieveable and yet challenged enough that it is able to adapt.
We know that STRESS is essential for growth, but also that REST is an essential part of that process. Growth simply won’t occur without adequate rest. Anyone who’s built a lot of muscle can attest to that, but for some reason we forget that rest is also necessary for our emotional and mental recovery, too.
If you think that losing a lot of weight, doing a show, or changing your already fit and able body into a leaner or more muscular version of itself will be the cause and sole driver of happiness – please, reconsider that notion. It doesn’t. And I can say from honest, multiple time experiences – the stage lean or super lean body you admire is but a drop in the ocean. It’s something which lasts for a very, very short time and the pursuit of staying there does much more harm than good. It would require hiding away, seldom going out to see anyone, sacrificing a huge aspect of your social life (ALSO a measure of happiness) and having to cultivate a level of self obsession which by necessity, drives disordered eating habits further. After my show, when I gained body fat back, I was tempted to go straight back to dieting so I could stay leaner.
So I could stay a little bit more comfortable within myself.
But then I realised;
“Comfortable” only related to how I LOOKED, not to how I LIVED.
It is not comfortable for me, mentally, to avoid social outings.
It is not comfortable not to partake in the activities I enjoy.
It is not comfortable to be concerned with, and restrictive towards what I eat, 365 days a year.
It is not particularly enjoyable to go to the gym only out of obligation and not out of joy.
It is not comfortable physically to remain in a calorie deficit for the better part of a year.
It is not comfortable physically to ask my body to continue to lift heavier, lift more, move better, move more etc without actually FEEDING it so it can do so.
If you have a body that allows you to live your life without limitations – congratulations. Your body is technically already perfect.
If you can go to the gym and get reliably stronger, fitter, more energetic when you focus upon it and commit to it – congratulations! The gym is a happy, productive place for you that will extend your life, give you a sense of satisfaction and achievement and help you manage your stress.
If you have the ability to eat something shitty without feeling like you have to “burn” it off or atone from it somehow – congratulations. You’ve got a positive outlook which will help you avoid going between being “on” or being “off.” You can enjoy some balance and variety without losing any ground.
If you can look at yourself in the mirror without tearing yourself apart, then congratulations! Not many people can say the same.
Your MIND just needs to change.