Hi Swole Woman,
I've been training consistently for ~ 14 months now. I've been at maintenance calories for the majority of this time. My deadlift hasn’t budged in a long time, and is stuck at 170 pounds. My overhead press is also stuck at 66 pounds. I'm getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep every night, eating 0.8-1 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, and staying slightly to moderately active on rest days. I'm a grad student and I've been on anxiety meds for ~ 3 years now, so I can't say my stress level may not be a factor.
I'm becoming discouraged by my lack of progress this early in my training career and wanted to ask if eating at a surplus is the only answer for strength gains?
Thanks for your insight,
You’re doing everything right so far, and you know that: when people first start lifting, or are returning to lifting from a long break, they can get pretty strong pretty quickly while eating only enough to “maintain,” otherwise known as “maintenance calories,” or just the right amount of food for your body to stay the same weight. Usually, during this time, your body is losing fat and gaining a bit of muscle (muscle weighs more than fat, so if you’re staying the same weight, this usually means you become a little smaller). This is sometimes called “recomping,” and I found it to be a very beautiful time in my life, because my “maintenance calories” were about 2300 a day, about 50 percent more than I had ever allowed myself to eat, because everyone and their mother said that to “lose fat” and “look toned,” you had to eat 1200 calories a day. They were wrong.
But this period comes to an end for everyone, and then you’re left with what to do next, which depends mostly on, uh, what you want to do next. If you want to just continue lifting as a workout and eating that same amount of food, you can, but you won’t predictably get stronger quickly the way you did for the first several months.
If you do want to get stronger, most experts would agree that the most straightforward way to do that is by “bulking.” Bulking means eating more (modestly to wildly, depending on your goals) with the aim of giving your body more fuel to build more muscle and push your numbers in the gym.
As beautiful a time as recomping was for me, bulking was somehow even more. I lived my entire adult life and some of my teens terrified of gaining weight, convinced putting even a toe over the 1500 calorie line would doom me. This was even when I became a fairly aggressive runner, and I’m not entirely sure how I lived. When recomping stopped working and I still wanted to get stronger, I had a choice to make: live in fear, or bravely eat more calories. Reader, I ate more calories.
It was not even that many more calories (2700 or so each day over three months; most sources will guide you toward a 10-20 percent surplus), but it meant lots of extra carbs and fats, cookies and ice cream every night. Best of all, it meant I crushed it in the gym every single session. Weights flew, I was rarely sore, and each time I got stronger. I did gain weight, but that was the goal; there are formulas for this, but I wasn’t aiming to gain more that ten or so pounds, knowing that only about half of that or less would be muscle, because people and especially women can’t gain muscle that quickly at all (the actual number is somewhat dependent on your current lean muscle mass or body weight, but my point is that you don’t gain weight aimlessly or with abandon, unless you’re “dirty bulking” and just eating as much as humanly possible, but that’s not necessary for most people). And though for a long time I deeply hated my body, found things wrong with it, and felt like I could never fully wrangle it into submission, I never loved it more than when I’d thickened up with some glutes and delts. When I gave it food, it gave me strength, and I felt capable and solid, which was a better feeling than “thin and starved” ever was.
What follows bulking is the less-fun part, called “cutting,” or slowly losing body fat while still eating as much as possible, with the aim of hanging onto as much muscle as your body can (or maybe not! Some people can have more body fat, and that’s fine too; some argue the muscle-gain process is less optimal with more body fat, but there are plenty of very strong people who don’t concern themselves with this). People who want to gain strength as quickly and straightforwardly as possible are encouraged by trainers and coaches to cycle between these two modes, usually with some “maintenance” time in between to let their body adjust. But don’t worry about that for now; losing five pounds when you lift weights is cake. I’m willing to bet you will love the feeling of the feedback loop of eating and getting stronger more than you will dislike gaining five measly extra pounds.
There will always be someone who will say that you’re doing bulking wrong; there are still “clean eaters” who lift weights and would never touch an Oreo, and there are proponents of something fake-ish-sounding called “lean bulking,” where you eat only a scant amount more and try to severely limit the amount of body fat gained along with the muscle. This isn’t a perfect science, but I can say it would not be healthy for me to subscribe to a personal development framework that still has me terrified of gaining a few pounds of fat.
There are also people who argue you will continue to get stronger without bulking. On a personal note: I’ve made no effort to bulk or cut in the last 18 or so months, but have added a very modest amount of weight to my lifts. (It seems to be more from form improvements than new muscle, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) This is mostly because I haven’t been going to the gym as consistently, and have had other priorities (work, hello). Getting stronger while maintaining may be technically possible, but if you’re already feeling dissatisfied, bulking and cutting has the non-negligible psychological benefit of simplifying your goals. A lot of people who maintain forever sort of want to get stronger, and are sort of tired of doing the same things in the gym, but are also sort of afraid of gaining weight, but also sort of wish they had more muscle. To boil that down: they might want to be stronger and a little more cut-looking, but are unsure what will happen if they take the plunge. Bulking and cutting forces you to embrace or at least tolerate the downsides: you want to get stronger, so you’re going to gain a little fat to gain muscle. Eventually, you will want to lose the fat so you can start the getting-stronger bit over again.
It sounds like bulking might be the move for you. When gains have stagnated, it’s time to cultivate mass. There are entire books that will explain how and why and what to do in much more depth and with more expertise than I have, but the general ideas are: eat more than your maintenance calories (figure those out here), be consistent and push yourself when you notice things are getting easier, and reassess after a few weeks and again after a few months. If it appears to not be working, you might not be eating enough (or recovering enough generally; water and sleep remain important), or might not be pushing yourself enough, or your lifting form might be off. It’s much harder to get better at the handful of lifting movements if you’re not making an honest effort at getting them right. Even if you bulk, but you’re not giving yourself a solid foundation from which to build your lifts, you might not push your numbers and then probably won’t gain much more muscle. This is not to discourage trying bulking, but you’ll know after a few weeks whether you have the foundation from which you can build; either you’ll start getting stronger fairly quickly again, or you’ll still be stagnant. If you’re stagnating, it’s time to adjust something.
Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.