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Why you are struggling to get stronger as a female CrossFitter, part 2

February 5, 2016

This is a continuation of the first part I wrote. You can read that one here. And if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you do :)

 *Note: This article relates to CrossFit women who train hard (5-6 x per week), and already have their training covered, many of who probably train more than necessary for adequate gains. Although some parts would apply to all women, not all of it would, as activity levels will differ hugely, depending on the individual. So, please be mindful of this when reading and aware of context. 

5) You’re not eating…ENOUGH

Trust me, you’re not. Yeah you had a handful of extra almonds & some seeds this morning, so you think you’re now killing it with the food. And I hate to break it to you, but that’s nothing. If you want to get strong and muscular you are going to have to eat BIGGER AMOUNTS OF FOOD. Eggs, steak, greek yogurt, chicken, oats, potatoes, rice, whey protein, pasta, fish, etc. What I like to call anabolic foods or “muscle building foods”. No these aren’t “bad” foods. There are no bad foods. It’s all about context.

CrossFit is a very intense form of exercise for which you need adequate fuel, or you will just be continuously burning your (hard earned) muscles for fuel. I don’t know why anyone thinks they can get away with training hard CrossFit sessions every day and eat like they are a 70 year old sedentary woman. Then they wonder why they can’t get stronger or put muscle on, even though they train for 2 hours a day.

Outside of poor training (which is often too much or too much of the wrong things), not eating enough is the number one mistake I see most female trainees making who can’t gain muscle.

This is true even of girls who swear up, down and sideways that they eat SOO MUCH but no matter what they can’t gain weight. I hear this a lot. It’s been said that ‘hardgainers’ (those who have a hard time putting on muscle and getting stronger) tend to be overtrainers and undereaters, and there is much truth to that.

Here are a few ideas of what I mean by eating more: You should be eating higher calorie foods, but not only high-fat paleo foods. Focus more on higher calorie carb and protein foods & even drink some of your calories.

You don’t need 3 plates of lettuce leaves and greens. Unless you enjoy feeling stuffed to the brim all day, every day, you do not want to include too many high-volume, low-calorie foods in your diet. They won't help you reach your target calorie intake. Stop stuffing your stomach with mountains of low-cal carrots; instead, focus on eating calorie-denser foods. If you're eating high volumes of veggies every day, you're going to struggle putting on muscle. This isn't to say veggies aren't healthy (of course they are!), but you probably don’t need as many as you think you need.

For the majority of your meals & snacks choose from calorie-dense foods, things like dried fruit, full fat Greek yogurt, beef jerky, eggs, steak, oatmeal with whole milk, etc.

In addition to your pre- and post-workout protein shakes, make an effort to drink AT LEAST one more shake per day. Include as many calorie-dense ingredients in this shake as possible: natural nut butters, ground flaxseed, coconut oil, ground or raw oats, milk powder, frozen fruit, Greek yogurt and/or cottage cheese. Liquid calories won't fill you up nearly as much as solid calories will, making it far easier for you to eat more!

6) You constantly worry that you are going to get fat if you eat more food

You want to get stronger? You need to trade in the fat loss/eat less game with eating more to build muscle! Eating to weigh less will initially make you smaller but not leaner (smaller = less fat & less muscle/ leaner = less fat & more muscle). Unless you are overweight then you would do better to trade the fat loss obsessions & fat-loss game for muscle growth and strength gains.

The following is a portion that Lyle McDonald explained perfectly:

“Since I’m talking about body fat, I might as well address another very common cause of poor muscle gain and that’s trainees who fear putting on even an ounce of body fat. They’ll deliberately keep their calories low all the time and then wonder why they aren’t magically synthesizing muscle mass out of thin air. At this point, I’m not even including the folks who want to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. The simple physiological fact is that, to gain muscle, you have to provide not only the proper training stimulus, but also the building blocks for the new tissue. This means not only sufficient protein but also sufficient calories and energy. While it’s wonderful to hope that the energy to build new muscle will be pulled out of fat cells, the reality is that this rarely happens (there are some odd exceptions such as folks beginning a program, and those returning from a layoff).” (Lyle McDonald)


How do you build more muscle? How do you change your body from being “skinny fat” to getting those popping abs & muscular legs? By eating as though you want more muscle on your body. Eating more “muscle foods” (see point # 1). And then putting that muscle to work!

Generally this means eating lots of high protein/high carb/higher calorie foods post workout. Foods that give you the most bang for your buck (see above).

Hint: not carrots with a low-fat yogurt dip.

This doesn't mean eating crap all the time, or mindlessly eating. This means fueling up for workouts in order to work harder, pump nutrients into muscle cells, and feel muscles working. And also being consistent with your diet year round. Which brings me to the next point…

7) You keep going on diet after diet and letting your weight fluctuate so often

So you have been doing CrossFit for over a year now, and you see that you still have a little bit of cellulite/fat on your thigh. So what do you do? You think you need to cut your calories down again and go on another diet. This is also the 3rd one you have been on this year.


Too much dieting burns your hard earned muscle & lowers your metabolism (having a lower metabolism means you will have an even harder time building muscle). Especially if you are doing high intensity CrossFit while you are dieting. If you are fueling your body properly you will maintain a healthy body fat and look good & you will build more muscle. Extreme cuts and yoyo dieting do the opposite.

Building muscle is a slow and steady process & it’s hard to stay patient, but it’s the only way to get the results you want. Losing fat is faster, easier, and super tempting, because it makes you smaller, so at first you feel better about yourself, but rather than changing the shape of your body or adding muscle, you just become a smaller & weaker version of yourself.

You shouldn’t always be “going on a diet”. If you constantly find yourself trying to climb back on the wagon, then whatever you’re doing is not working. Before you berate yourself for a lack of self-discipline, first ask yourself if the dream diet you keep hoping you’ll stick to is actually sustainable and compatible with your goals.


8) You have too many hang-ups about food which are holding you back

This one is HUGE for many women! My friend and fellow trainer, Joy Victoria, explains it so well:

“For those of you who are relatively fit, but not as “lean looking,” or as strong/muscular as you want to be, food is huge for progress. You can’t increase your work capacity or output without supporting it with food, even if you are trying to look “leaner”.  Your body may be at the point where dieting is totally working against you from a getting leaner and performance standpoint. This is a common theme you hear often. What you can put out, depends on what you are putting in. And that includes your beliefs about food. Beliefs are the food of your brain. They can starve you, shut you down, and make life harder and more confusing. And they are an idea! But that idea directly & many times subconsciously controls what goes in your mouth."


Do you have strong opinions about what you think are bad foods or good foods? Do you have serious food beliefs? You have to be willing to change your diet if it's not working. If you've become so steeped in the culture of your particular diet, because your mum once told you that full cream milk was “bad” or that you need to only ever eat small portions, or you’ve heard that eating Paleo, low-carb, gluten free is the best way to eat, so you continue to use it even when it stops working (or never really worked for you) then you will just continue spinning your wheels.

If your diet is your religion you're going to get stuck when it stops working. Know what works for you now, but be open to other options. Be open to eating more, and open to even eating some of the foods you would never have touched before.

Hypertrophy is about growth, not restriction, and that change in thinking frees women from the constant cycle of trying to eat like a bird, or copy some popular instagram guru's diet, and then constantly falling off the wagon (because we all know the Instagram guru doesn't REALLY eat like that, lolololol).

Stop feeling so goddamn guilty about food. The guilt we feel around food adds huge amounts of stress to the body. Let go of the guilt and watch your body flourish. Food holds no power. You are in control. You have the power. You can use the food to build your body!

9) You aren’t eating enough carbs

Last one, and this is another biggie for CrossFit women. Carbs are super important for building muscle! Choose the right Carbs (starchy carbs after you train). Load up on them after you workout. After training, your body is in prime muscle-building and repair mode, so give your body the nutrients it needs to replenish glycogen and spur recovery.

Post-workout, you should choose simple carbs like dextrose, maltodextrin, vitargo, or even a cupcake (Yep one in while this will probably help your muscles more than hurt you)! Keep your post workout shakes/meals centred on carbs and protein with a 2:1 radio. If you normally skip carbs post-workout, this should be something you change right away.

The results you experience will be almost immediate - fuller muscles, faster recovery, and increased strength.



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