female prep coach

Posted 2 months ago

Fear of gaining weight

Do you ever scroll through Instagram and wonder how on earth competitors cope with weight gain post-show? Do you sit there unable to relate to women embracing curvier bodies, whether it be after spending 20-24 weeks dieting for a show, or just as part of the “building” process?

I get you. Losing weight and then re-gaining it is incredibly challenging, and unfortunately not a subject that is spoken about enough in the fitness industry. It is true that there are many female competitors out there who can fully embrace the transition between prep and an offseason, but most female competitors do find it difficult (but don’t always know how to say this!). At the end of the day, most women have probably been conditioned their whole lives to think that a thinner/leaner physique is better, and thus, moving into a phase in which deliberate fat gain is the goal, seems crazy.

However, if you are reading this article, it’s likely that you’ve been around the fitness industry for some time. You might be a competitor who is currently in this awkward transition phase; you may have never competed yet understand that you need to eat to build muscle; or you might be nearing the end of a dieting phase and are starting to get stressed about weight gain. Trust me, I’ve been there too!

I am going to assume that you have landed on this article because you are also feeling torn, as you’ll know that you need to gain body fat to gain muscle mass and progress your physique. After all, it is bodyBUILDING not bodySHREDDING, and 90% of this sport is spent in a calorie surplus, not in a dieting phase. And yet, you might find that your own fears of weight gain are holding you back, and ultimately limiting your progress.

Thus, in this article I’d like to discuss some psychologically informed strategies that might support you in this process, and help you move through that fear of weight gain, to have a productive offseason. This article is mainly directed at females, as we are typically more prone to experiencing apprehension with regards to weight gain, but of course, these tips can be implemented by anyone in any phase of their physique transformation journey.

Normalise your experience

It seems obvious but acknowledging that weight gain is hard for women is a very helpful starting point for slowly overcoming the fear of weight gain. This is true even if you were mentally ready to be done with dieting! Reminding yourself that it’s not your fault that this feels so uncomfortable can help. Like I said above, we’ve been conditioned to always be on a diet, and most of us have aspired to live in smaller bodies our whole lives. Therefore, leaning into weight gain isn’t just about learning to do something new, it’s also about unlearning a lifetime of social conditioning! Normalise the fact that it is a struggle, and don’t be embarrassed by the fact that you find it hard. You’re not less of a bodybuilder for finding the offseason challenging nor for feeling some resistance towards embracing a curvier body.

Expand your identity

One of the biggest things that can stop us from wanting to gain weight is that we fear that we’ll lose our “bodybuilder identity” or “fitness persona” when we do so. After all, we’ve spent 20-24 weeks getting absolutely shredded, or have spent a lifetime being that “lean person”, so we’re used to people complementing our striations and physique. Who the hell are we, then, when those lines are replaced with body fat?

This is where identity becomes so important: if you can expand the definition of what it means to you to be a bodybuilder (or an aspiring competitor) and have that “idea” include images of you in an offseason, eating big, lifting heavy, etc, it can make it a lot easier to get into this new phase of gaining weight. Not only that: you’ll start to see that you can still apply the skills that made you successful in your prep, to your offseason. That is: discipline, perseverance, consistency, health-orientations, to name a few. Moreover, if you can find a way to define yourself as a bodybuilder alongside your other identities/roles in life, you’ll find that your appearance becomes increasingly less relevant as a defining factor of who you are. Consider the little impact your weight has on your role as a daughter, sister, friend, cousin, work-colleague… if anything, gaining weight might even make you better able to show up in these roles! So yes, while it is important to embrace who you are as a bodybuilder, don’t let that definition or identity be so narrow that it only encompasses you and your shredded physique.

Learn to get untangled from your thoughts

Often, our distress or fear of weight gain doesn’t come from the fear of weight gain itself, but more so from the implications or consequences we assume will emerge because of the weight gain. In plain English, this means that we are often more worried about the things we think might happen after we’ve gained weight, rather than worrying about carrying more body fat.

The easiest example we can all probably relate to is the shame and criticism that we’ve seen other women receive because of gaining weight: who else remembers the front covers of those magazines who would comment on JLo (or whoever) gaining weight? They would make it out to seem as if it was a true horror, so it’s unsurprising that we’ve learnt to associate weight gain with social shame. As I was discussing with identity too, you may feel afraid of losing the respect of people when “they realise” you are no longer super lean or might even feel that people will no longer take you seriously after you’ve gained some body fat post-show. This is precisely why ensuring your definition of “bodybuilder” or “fitness enthusiast” is about more than just your body is so important!

But I digress – what I’m saying here is that you will probably experience some distressing or uncomfortable thoughts in your mind, that try to convince you that you’re now fat, and thus, can no longer be taken seriously, not impressive, a failure… (we all have different narrators in our heads that tell us a different story!). And it’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to get rid of these thoughts. Instead, we can try and untangle from them, so that they have less of a sting, and don’t hold us back.

How can you do this? The first step to untangling from your thoughts is becoming aware of them. What is your mind telling you about your body? Is it being very aggressive, quite critical, like a bit of a bully? Is it saying things like “you are FAT and DISGUSTING!”, when you rationally know that this isn’t true? Whatever version of that you’re hearing, follow these steps:

  1. Acknowledge that it’s a thought by paraphrasing it: you can go from “I am fat” to “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am fat” – you’re not getting rid of it, you’re just creating some distance between you and the thought
  2. Name the story you’re telling yourself: accept that perhaps there is a voice in your mind that sounds a bit like a bully, and that it’s the source of those thoughts – in doing so, when you notice the thoughts arise, you can simply name it by going “ah, there goes the bully inside my head, properly having a go at me right now!”.
    -As you can see, you’re not trying to kick the bully out – you’re just letting it have it’s moment, acknowledging that it’s just a bully, not who you are
  1. Note your intentions: how would you like to respond to those thoughts? I know that they are messy and distressing to have, but do you really want to buy into them and follow through? Or is it more important to you to let them be, and still be able to focus on doing the things that matter to you? Having clarity on your values here can be a helpful first step to knowing how you’d like to respond.
  2. Do what matters: if your goal is to progress your physique and to gain more muscle mass, it’s important to remember that you can have some fear around weight gain AND still commit to gaining weight, because it’s what matters to you. Remember what I said earlier about the qualities of a bodybuilder on prep? Commit to this hard phase in the same way that you commit to overriding hunger and hours of cardio on prep.

Summary

It’s not an extensive list, and the specific way I would work with a client on their fear of gaining weight would be more nuanced and tailored to them. However, I hope that in reading this article, you feel like you have been able to take something valuable away to help you in this process of weight gain. If this knowledge-base is the missing piece for you in your coaching and physique development journey, then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS

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