When Less is More

There are times in life when you just have to work harder.  Whether thats at your job, with your family,  in the gym, we ultimately want to see that hard work rewarded with a great result.  When the effort doesn't pay off, that can be incredibly frustrating.  Recently in the world of Crossfit, there seems to be this sense that when it comes to trying to build a lean, healthy body, that training MORE is the answer.  This post is here to show you that this isn't always the case.

When eating more doesn't solve the problem

I've said before that somewhere between 75-85% of the people that come through M2 are NOT eating enough food to support either their performance based goals or their body composition goals, or both in some cases.

"We've got to stop starving our athletes" Part 1 and Part 2 show that adding MORE food to your diet can absolutely make enormous changes for people.  Part 3 showed us that sometimes we just need to be patient and that changes will come to those who stick with the plan. But what do you do when you add in the appropriate macros, get people sleeping enough and STILL don't get the results that you want in your body composition? 

The answer is often not what people want to hear.  Training needs to change, and not in the way that people want, as we typically have to have a rough conversation around doing LESS in the gym.  I recently went through this with about a dozen clients and I want to highlight the changes that we made to get the desired results with just one of them.

Ashleigh first contacted me in the summer of 2017 with a goal of improving her body composition, and to be honest she also was a little attached to the scale with a goal weight of 135.  She came to me with a pretty solid nutrition plan after having worked with some of the better coaches in the industry, so she was not massively under-eating.  Ash was in good shape, training HARD in the gym but things had been going sideways on her for a while, with a slow steady increase in the scale from the low 130's to almost 140.  This was definitely concerning to her as she came from a background of having lost a significant amount of weight from about 168 lbs earlier in life.  

Getting back to the point, she wasn't happy with the results that she was getting both in the gym or in the body composition that she was after either.  With her 3-4 hours of training from MISFIT programming, we bumped up her macros pretty quickly and steadily, settling her in at about 400C per day. She felt better and better, and performance was honestly headed in the right direction as well.  She had great strength gains in back squats and olympic lifts, with huge performances in the aerobic capacity department as well.  While this approach of "train more, eat more" has absolutely helped people to lose weight in the past, it wasn't happening with Ashleigh here.  In fact, at one point she was up to 142 lbs. Honestly, her body composition was still GREAT but there were all kinds of warning signs.  Anxiety was through the roof, and some ice cream binges were becoming more frequent as well. 

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What I haven't mentioned yet is that the other factors in Ashleigh's life were starting to dominate her time as well. School was keeping her busy and her burgeoning small business was starting to generate traction as well.  All of this on top of training like someone that wanted to go to Regionals someday. Ashleigh and I had a number of chats about how to "fix" this.  I told her straight up that she had three choices: 

1) Focus on performance and not on the scale. If she chose this, she needed to be prepared to sacrifice some of the other things in her life.

2) If she wanted to lose body weight, eating less was not the answer, training with lower intensity and volume was.

3) Continue down the path and be totally burned out, fatigued beyond belief and continue to gain weight.

Unfortunately for both of us, Ashleigh really needed to prove to herself that eating less wasn't going to be the answer.  I didn't love this but we slowly dropped her macros down, losing about 400 calories a day over a month. All that and she lost.... 1 lb.  We had more conversations about training less being necessary because ALL the other stresses in her life were mounting up on her.  It took another month and me basically asking "Do you want to be an athlete, or run a successful company? Because you are not going to have both" for it to finally sink in.

To her absolute credit, once Ashleigh decided to commit, she was all on board.  Training was reduced first to less than 2 hours a day, then closer to 90 minutes.  We let that settle in and then adjusted her macros down to match.  She got back into the 130's with these changes and was feeling MUCH better, much happier and much healthier honestly as well.

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However, she was still dealing with some anxiety around the whole situation.  Fun fact: Ashleigh had tracked her macros everyday for something like 4 years. While admirable, it was also another source of stress in her life.  She felt like she had to be "perfect" with her nutrition otherwise she wouldn't be successful. 

Of course we don't need to be PERFECT, and I just had to convince her that 80-85% accuracy with tracking and LESS stress was better than 99% accuracy with lots of stress.  Finally, Ash agreed to stop tracking for a while and just to eat intuitively. Instead of tracking food, we tracked other aspects of life such as food quality, GI health, getting off her laptop at a reasonable time and keeping exercise to less than 90 minutes and 5 days a week.

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First day... definitely some anxiety, but by day 4-5 she was feeling more at ease, more relaxed.  Her sleep went through the roof, her business did even better than ever thanks to more energy dedicated to it and sure enough she dropped another 7-8 lbs of healthy weight loss ending up in the 131 range.  Sure, some of it was due to muscle loss from a decrease in training, but at the end of the day she just was a much healthier person and it was reflected in her body composition and her happiness.

This is just one story out of about 12 that I've deal with recently where training LESS produced the desired results.  Why? Crossfit is a damn stressful exercise program and hammering it for 2-4 hours a day 5-6 days a week can have consequences. 

  • Elevated cortisol will cause insulin resistance and preferential body fat accumulation. 
  • Higher stress will result in aldosterone increases, which causes water retention and elevated blood pressure.  People will talk about feeling puffy.
  • Cortisol also breaks down muscle tissue since protein is metabolically expensive, while fat is very much inexpensive. When survival mode hits, the body will sacrifice muscle mass first.

All this leads to a lower metabolic rate.  Lowering calories typically just makes it worse, induces thyroid issues or adrenal insufficiency.  Not GOOD.

So what do we learn from this???

  • If someone's biofeedback sucks (poor sleep, always or never hungry, preferential midsection weight retention, lack of menstrual cycle) start by increasing the macros and getting them to sleep 8 hours a night, and focusing on good food quality to address
    • If you're the client, do NOT simply work out more when a coach bumps your macros.  That is annoying AF when we're trying to fix your broken ass :) 
  • Some supplementation can be helpful, but there are no broad recommendations, everyone is different. Gut health and adrenal support can be helpful to look into.
  • If that does NOT solve the problem, you have to remove other stressors, such as high intensity, high volume exercise. 

This is complicated S#!*, you might want some help with this process and figuring out the right balance of exercise and nutrition for you.  Hit us up here and we'll get you headed in the right direction.