Peak Performance ≠ Peak Aesthetics
Many people these days have goals of being the best athlete in their CrossFit Affiliate AND having a shredded six pack. Is there anything wrong with that goal? Of course not - it's just unrealistic.
Before I dig into why this is unrealistic, let's first go over the different types of goals:
It's important to figure out which one of these is what you're striving for. You cannot focus on one, yet expect the same results in another one.
In the photos above, you'll see the athletes that are at the peak of their sport. CrossFit athletes on the left and bodybuilders (specifically bikini and physique).
Do you think the bodybuilders are concerned about what their 3RM back squat is, or how many pull-ups they can do in a row? Heck no. They're worried about how dry, lean, and shredded they can get for their show. The judges are judging them solely on their physique, not their strength numbers or how fast they can run a mile.
Of course your bodyweight relative to size in CrossFit matters to an extent, but the people that want to be the BEST in the sport are not worried about how many ab veins they have when they go compete at the CF Games. They get scored on the leaderboard based off their performance in each event, not how cute they look in their games apparel or how many striations they have in their quads (lol).
Now for the ones with health and longevity goals really couldn't care about either of those two comparisons. These people just want to feel good, be active, not get winded from walking up and down stairs, have good blood markers, etc.
You truly must sacrifice the other 2/3 goals aforementioned if you want to focus on one.
- If you want to focus on performance, you can't be worried so much about body composition or the number on the scale.
- If you want to focus on aesthetics, you have to realize that your performance will likely take a hit (and should decrease in volume) if you're in a caloric deficit trying to achieve a certain aesthetic.
- If you want to focus on lifestyle/health, you probably shouldn't redline and go bizzerk on every metcon everyday leaving your CNS fried and not being able to recover, or be focusing on how high you can get your 1RM. You also shouldn't be focused too much on how lean you can get, because regardless of popular belief, being too low of body fat for long periods of time actually isn't healthy whatsoever.
Being extremely lean won't really give you any performance benefits, either. You don't get extra points at the CF Games for having the best abs, unfortunately. They're cool to have, but some of these people are just genetic freaks with different body fat set points. Some people just perform better with a little extra body fat on them. Mat Fraser won the CF Games the last two years and he's definitely not the most shredded male athlete, and he arguably pays way less attention to his nutrition than most other athletes.
I adopted this graphic from Mike Kesthely, the CEO and founder of NOVA3 Labs. You can read more on his blog post here about performance and aesthetics.
Side note: as a nutrition coach, I have SO many clients that come to me wanting to "lean out before the Open", which is the WORST possible time ever to try and go into a caloric deficit. You know why? Because your performance will suffer in a caloric deficit.. and isn't that what you're striving for anyway? To perform better in the Open? That's what I thought.
These people that come to me wanting to lose weight before the Open are typically already under-eating anyway, putting their bodies in a hyper-stressed/under-recovered state. This is an extreme no-no especially to a beginner because the under-recovered state won't allow for the training adaptations to occur. The chances of this athlete leaning out pushing even further into a deficit are a little unlikely, which is why a reverse diet protocol would be good for this individual i.e. increasing calories over a period of time.
What happens if you're currently under-eating but you want to lean out, or increase performance?
My answer to this question would almost always be to reverse diet. This involves slowly increasing caloric intake over a period of time to allow more recovery, metabolic adaptation to a higher caloric set point, healthier hormone profile, etc.
Some people hyper-respond and lean out during a reverse diet.. some people gain a couple pounds and that can be from a plethora of different things. You might actually look worse after your reverse diet and that's NORMAL. However at this point, your choices would be to A) either keep lowering calories while making no progress in body comp or the scale and messing up your metabolism OR B) increase calories (and get to eat more yummy food - of course you should pick this one) and potentially make the body comp/weight loss goals you're striving for over time, and then because you're eating more, you're actually RECOVERING, sleeping better, and feeling better in the gym and in life. Mind-boggling.
This post isn't to say that a performance athlete can't lean out, or shouldn't have the goal of leaning out. It just shouldn't happen during the athlete's "season" whether that be the Open, Regionals, or the Games.. or whatever sport the athlete competes in. It also shouldn’t interfere with the ultimate goal, which is performance. There's a time and a place for leaning out and it should be in off season, but I'll go over more on nutritional periodization for athletes in another blog. :)
- Eating a ton of calories to fuel and recover from high intensity/high volume training everyday sometimes doesn't yield optimal aesthetics, but it sure as heck helps you perform.
- Eating a lower amount of calories during a time of aesthetic and body composition focus may not yield optimal performance (or health).
- High volume, high intensity exercise negatively contributes to gut health, which would not be optimal for lifestyle/health.
YOU CANNOT MAXIMIZE ALL THREE OF THESE AT THE SAME TIME. Whatever your goals are, make sure your actions (caloric intake and lifestyle) align with them!