Posted 4 months ago

Lessons from a gaining phase

Let’s be honest, in an Instagram world that promotes being lean year-round as the epitome of fitness, going into a gaining phase / offseason / push phase as a female can be a real mental challenge

Not only are you going against everything you’ve ever been taught, but you’re also going to be working “against” that mainstream media messaging of “lean/thin = worthwhile”.

If you have been following my journey for a while, you’ll know that I stepped off stage in October 2019 and have pretty much been in a gaining phase since. There have been two recomps in there (third one pending), totalling just over 16weeks of a calorie deficit within that 17month bracket. Yes, 1.5yrs of gaining, with a few more months to go before prep officially starts in June.

In this time, I’ve gained 15kg / 33lbs / 2st 5lbs. Read that again. (Figure 1)


Figure 1

It’s not been the easiest ride, that I’ll admit, and the aim of this article isn’t to shame anyone who finds an offseason or weight gain in general hard. The aim of this article is simply to reflect on some of the key things I’ve learnt from being in a caloric surplus for the best part of the last 18months.

Health is wealth
And I don’t just mean this superficially. Regaining necessary body fat has meant that so many other physiological processes in my body have gone back to normal, or back to feeling normal.

The one which has been most obvious for me has been my hunger – in the offseason between my 2018 and 2019 prep, I had about 7 months to make improvements. However, in that time, my body didn’t quite get to the point where it simply wasn’t hungry or wasn’t as interested in food. That takes time. It has only been this time around that I’ve really gotten to a point where I’m not constantly feeling like a bottomless pit, and that has been quite nice.

So, even if the thought of “losing your competitive physique” scares you, and you can’t find any motivational quote to draw on to keep pushing through and regain the weight, remind yourself that “you live, and then you compete”. Health will always come first!

You have your body, and then you have your prep body
Something I’ve learnt recently is to realise that the way my body looks in the “offseason” isn’t just “my offseason shape” – it is my shape, period. This shift in mindset has helped me realise that I am more than just a bodybuilder, and it has helped me deal with some of the shame/guilt which is hard to escape from in social media.

With this, I’m specifically referring to messaging from fellow competitors (particularly bikini competitors), claiming to be in a “gaining phase” yet maintaining 3kg above stage weight. It can be hard to see that when you’re sitting 5x heavier than that, head buried in cocopops, wondering if you’re doing it wrong. You’re not.

Another way to phrase this is think about what else your body enables you to do: it allows you to be functional, bring yourself to the world, be there for others physically (or virtually right now!), it allows you to train, to enjoy everything there is to enjoy in life.

Being “you” in the offseason is a gentle reminder that you’re more than just a bikini girl / competitor, and that’s important too.

Training your mind is as important as training your body
Again, another cliché that unfortunately gets dismissed too often. When you are not in a calorie deficit, when you’re not solely focused on food and losing weight to compete, you have the ability to focus on what’s going on in between your two ears. Being able to practice paying attention to your inner self-talk, and spending time addressing it too when you have the energy to cope with it, is a winner’s skill.

The athletes who are able to spend time in their offseason cultivating this self-talk skill will be the same ones who don’t get discouraged by other people’s progress pictures, or who don’t let their confidence be shattered by what other people are doing are saying.

If you’re going to invest so long into improving your physique, it would be a huge lament not to do the same with your psychology, as both skills are imperative to improve your package on stage next year.

In short, a gaining phase isn’t just time spent in a calorie surplus: it is time spent improving your health, improving your physique, improving your relationship with yourself, and ensuring your headspace is ready to be as supportive as it needs to be when push comes to shove in the dark days of prep. Missing out or disregarding these lessons could cost you the enjoyment of your next prep!

Clara Swedlund MSc MBPsS