It’s true that you don’t need to eat a huge surplus in order to get stronger, and it’s also true that you can eat at a deficit and continue getting stronger. But if you’re eating at a deficit, at some point progress will halt. Why? With chronic underfeeding, your fatigue exceeds your ability to recover. The dangers of carrying fatigue that is higher than your body can tolerate is the increased risk of injury, low training motivation, hormone imbalances, indigestion, poor concentration, the list goes on. Does continuing a caloric deficit seem worth it?
Chronic dieting → Menstrual disruption → Bone health
This is what’s known as female athlete triad. It is pervasive in sports where weight classes exist or where leanness may be considered an advantage. This can lead to severe and long-standing effects. Some of these effects can take a week to start reversing, while others can take years to repair. The loss of bone mineral density, for example, is one that will take several months to repair and if a woman is in her mid-30s some of that damage may be irreversible.
It is recommended NOT to eat below your BMR if your goal is to get stronger (~30cals/kg of LBM). In as little as 5 days, this low energy supply can disrupt your cycle due to the irregulation of your hormones.
In my personal experience and with clients, eating around maintenance will do you good for a long time. Whether you’re an athlete with one competition a year or multiple, I will outline what I think is the practical way of structuring your nutrition so that you are not sacrificing your strength and hard earned muscle tissue.
Anecdotally, most female strength athletes I talk to are actively dieting or eating at maintenance while increasing strength. When dieting, females tend to be deficient in calcium, iron, zinc. It is a good idea to supplement with a high quality multi-vitamin and include a variety of food in the diet.
|Training Phase||Recommended||Can get away with|
|Hypertrophy/Volume||Surplus calories of 10-15%||Surplus calories of 5-10%|
|Strength/Power||Surplus calories of 5-10%||Maintenance calories|
|Peak/Recovery/GPP||Maintenance calories||Deficit calories up to 5%|
Both long- and short-term nutritional strategies must be devised. Let’s take three females with different body fat percentages and slightly different goals/needs. For the purposes of these examples I am going to use powerlifting as the sport, and let’s assume all women are intermediate lifters (strength progressing on a month-to-month basis):
Case A: Jane’s body fat is 31% and her next competition is 8 months away.
It is likely that Jane is in a building phase, cycling her training volume and intensity so as to increase her strength leading up to her meet. Jane will benefit from focusing on a long-term strategy prioritizing fat loss. Because Jane will be more competitive at a much lower body fat, and since she has plenty of time before her meet, she can afford a slower recovery in order to achieve her long-term goal of fat loss. To avoid disrupting her recovery too much, Jane will eat around maintenance during her hypertrophy/volume block and slightly below maintenance (5-10%) during higher intensity phases where total weekly load is not as high.
Case B: Wendy’s body fat is 19% and she walks around 3-5lbs over her intended weight class. Her meet is in 2 months.
Scenario A: If Wendy has a record on the line/competitive in the lighter weight class/if it is an international meet, it is best for her to eat at maintenance or slightly above during her volume and strength phases and perform a water cut. (Keep in mind that 3-5lbs on a smaller athlete competing in the 47kg-52kg weight classes represents a relatively large water cut which may disrupt performance.)
Scenario B: If Wendy is not attempting to break a record, is not very competitive in her weight class, and/or it is a local meet, it is in her best interest to compete at whatever weight she is at naturally. Wendy likely has a lot of strength and muscle to gain so it would be a smart for her to prioritize a long-term strategy.
Case C: Samantha’s body fat is 24% and she has a meet in 3 months. She sits in between two weight classes.
This is where a lot of women are tempted to diet. It’s relatively easy for Samantha to diet because she’s done it before. However, because Samantha has a meet coming up, an aggressive diet is not ideal. At 3 months out she is still training with a fair amount of volume and needs to recovery as quickly as possible for her next session(s).
Option A: cycle calories based on TDEE (higher on training days, lower on non training days) and eat no more than a 5% deficit. With this option, Samantha risks hitting numbers that are not as high as they could have been.
Option B: Eat at maintenance or slightly above (5%) in order to improve training quality, improve recovery, and improve strength. With this option, Samantha’s is in the best possible position to hit amazing PRs (given smart attempt selection, proper nutrition, adequate sleep, etc.)
In the short term:
- Less on the line = less risky and vice versa
- Maximize your chances of success on the platform; your performance on meet day matters more
In the long term:
- The goal is to become the leanest, strongest version of you
- If you are in between weight classes and you can stand to lose extra body fat (above 23%), focus on slow manageable fat loss. Per week: 1-1.5% for beginners, 0.5-1% for intermediates, and up to 0.5% for advanced
- If you are in between weight classes and you are already fairly lean (below 23%) focus on gaining quality muscle so that you can be more competitive at the top of your weight class
To become the strongest, leanest version of you, you gotta take a long-term nutritional strategy. The more short-cuts / risky / aggressive cuts you have to do, the more it impacts your performance. The best ones maximize long-term gain while minimizing short-term risk.