By Alex Parker
If we had a penny for every time someone told us that their main goal is to lean out so that they can see their abs, but gain muscle mass and improve performance at the same time, we would be rich. Well, maybe not rich, but our pockets would definitely be full.
So, the question is; is it possible to achieve both aesthetic and performance goals? And if we have to chase one goal, what is the difference in nutritional approach for eating for performance versus aesthetics?
In our experience, personally and as nutrition coaches, it is impossible to walk around looking like a bodybuilder and maximize performance at the same time. In order to get down to a very low body fat percentage, we almost always have to be creating a caloric deficit, which is not going to help with energy output or recovery and in turn, performance.
If we are training for peak aesthetics, we will eventually have to cut calories to an extreme deficit to get the last few body fat percentage points to come off. It goes against our biology to remain at a low body fat percentage. To achieve this and maintain it for any length of time will be met with great resistance from our brain and our body. Spend enough time in a calorie deficit and/or at a very low body fat percent and our bodies will start to shut down non-essential functions. We will move less in an effort to conserve energy, sleep and motivation will start to suffer, and recovery will slow – all of which directly impact performance. As mentioned above, our bodies are going to fight back hard to return to a healthy body fat percentage making staying really lean really hard to sustain. Because of this, most professional bodybuilders periodize their training and nutrition and are not “stage ready” for most of the year.
The main differences in nutrition when eating for aesthetics versus performance often comes down to the amount of food. In addition to eating more food when chasing performance, you are often eating significantly more carbohydrates at all times to support energy output and recovery. Conversely, most bodybuilders go on a very low carb intake in the final portion of show prep, reintroducing them at the very end in an effort to achieve muscle fullness and vascularity caused by sudden glycogen uptake.
However, we believe that we can strike a balance. As mentioned, we can’t get our leanest and our strongest, but we can get relatively lean, strong and fit at the same time and sustain it.
Look at any high level CrossFitter, they are eating for performance and they are extremely fit and aesthetically pleasing. Are most ready to walk on stage in a bikini with a spray tan? No. They carry a bit more fat, because believe it or not, a certain amount of fat can improve performance. Do they still look good? Yes. Do they walk around starving? No.
But what if we aren’t a high level CrossFitter? Can we achieve performance and aesthetics just like them? Yes. Form Follows Function. If we train hard (resistance training, of course) and eat to fuel that training, we will look the way we are supposed to. Over time, we will slowly change our body composition. There is also a difference between the way a person’s physique looks walking around versus right after they finish a workout. After a workout, there will be an increase in muscle fullness and vascularity, not to mention sweat. So when you see a CrossFitter on Instagram in the middle of lift or during a workout, remember they are going to look different than when they are walking around during the day.
It is also important to note that the people who have the best aesthetics have at some point eaten for performance. There is a certain prerequisite to building and maintaining muscle mass and that is to eat to train and recover (also known as training for performance).
Genetics of course comes into play. If we train hard and eat for performance and never get to the point where we can see eight abs and bicep veins, then maybe we have to accept that if we want to continue to feel good and perform. Even certain high level CrossFitters’ body composition varies between competitors. Despite training in a similar way, the same amount and eating the same things, two people will never look the same.
Eating for health is a little bit of a different discussion, which takes a closer look at food quality, but in our opinion, eating for performance is much closer to health then eating for aesthetics.
Our advice; train hard, eat to support that training and the other parts of your life to strive for optimal performance AND aesthetics for you. If you want to push harder towards one goal or the other, then that’s fine as well, but keep in mind that there may be strategies and approaches that you can utilize to achieve your goals in a healthy way.