Ladies: MASS is not really a 4-letter word!
Dr. Jennifer Case, Dr. Melissa Davis and Dr. Mike Israetel, the authors of Renaissance Woman, Fat Loss, Muscle Growth & Performance Through Scientific Eating, devoted an entire chapter of their wildly popular book to Dieting Procedures for Muscle Gain. They talk about how, why and when to gain muscle. All of it makes perfect sense, and none of it seems scary, at least not to me.
Yet, I can tell you, somewhat anecdotally, that my best guess of the percentage of mass (muscle gain) template orders as compared to cut (weight loss) template orders from our thousands of female clients all over the world is probably 2% to 98%. I also can’t tell you how many emails from female RP clients I have received that read something like this:
“I know I’m pretty lean, and I’d like to get stronger, but I’m afraid I’ll BLOW UP if I mass.”
“I want to get stronger, but I don’t want to gain any fat along the way.”
“I’m on Day 3 (or 4, or 5 – you get the picture = too early in the diet!) of my Mass template – I feel like I’m eating too much fat. I just can’t do this. I’m panicking!”
Now, I’m not a PhD like the doctors who wrote Renaissance Woman. But, I am a (former and hopefully, future) female figure competitor, mother of 2, I work at RP, and I’ve massed several times over the years. In fact, as I write this article, I’m finishing up a mass. I want to try and make a case here for why women should, for once, let go of their fear of putting on pounds – not just any pounds, but pounds for a purpose, let’s call them – pounds that will provide you with more muscle. Most women will need to increase calories, hopefully under a targeted diet approach, in order to be rewarded with that extra muscle.
Let’s back up and start with a question: Would you like to be stronger? If you wouldn’t, well, you can probably stop reading now – but…..before you answer, let’s talk about some key advantages, other than just being able to lift heavier things, of having more muscle:
- You’ll burn more calories while you’re…. DOING NOTHING. Yes, I’m referring to your metabolism, which unfortunately, slows down at a rate of about 2%-3% every decade past the age of 20. The more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn at rest – even when you’re sleeping! A pound of muscle burns about 6 calories a day compared to a pound of fat which burns only around 2 calories per day.
- You’ll have more muscle definition when you’re lean. It is surprising (at least to me), that there is still a prevailing thought/concern/question in many women’s minds when they think about lifting heavy – I don’t want to be “big” or get “bulky”. First, that’s scientifically highly improbable for women, and second, let me tell you, if you’ve seen a woman, or man for that matter, who looks to be bulky, I’m going to let you in on a little secret – they’ve got a layer of fat covering their muscle. Muscle does not have to make you look bulky, and unless you gain so much of it as to rival the upper body strength of male powerlifters (good luck), it won’t be enough to make you look huge. If you’re reading this article, you probably have an interest in looking good, having that lean physique that many people aspire to have. Well, ladies, the more muscle you have, the more defined you’ll be – I’m talking about chiseled arms, defined abs, powerful legs, etc. If you don’t have muscle, you can diet and lose weight, but at your end point, you’ll be skinny, not strong and sculpted.
- You’ll improve your overall health. As you’re building muscle, you’re building bone mass, strengthening the joints and connective tissues and reducing bone deterioration. As women, we know that bone loss occurs as we age. You may have a mother, aunt, grandmother or other relative or friend with an osteoporosis diagnosis. Did you know that women hit their peak bone mass at age 30? After that, we lose 3% – 5% every decade. After age 40, we’re at risk to start replacing muscle mass with fat – that darn slowing metabolism – again! Additionally, by adding muscle and the strength that comes with it, you might just improve your balance, agility and stamina.
(10 second dance party because you're still reading!!!)
Ok, so since you’re still reading, maybe you’ve decided that you’d like to add muscle. Let’s talk about how it would work if you go about it in a smart, scientific and controlled manner. It’s worth emphasizing here some points that should be obvious, but probably are not. If you want to add muscle,
- You have to eat more (usually of the right things – I’m not talking about having your way with an entire box of cookies whenever you feel like it), and
- You’re going to add some fat to your body as you move along the way on your mass journey (It’s ok…….Breathe…), BUT
- This fat gain, if you follow a targeted approach, is only temporary, remember, pounds for a purpose – and it’s pretty darn easy to shed later!
- Your mass cycle does not have to be a long one in order to give you some really solid muscle growth results. This means you shouldn’t need your fat pants very often – not more than a few weeks a year.
- You’re going to need to follow any mass phase with a maintenance phase (you’ll have to hold at that weight for 1-3 months, depending on the length of your mass phase) and a cut phase so that you trim off the unwanted fat (without losing that hard earned muscle) to restore your body back to the lean look I’m guessing you’re going to want as your “home base”. But, I’ll repeat – this fat is super easy to get rid of when it’s time to do so!
As the authors state in Renaissance Woman, the average athlete or fitness enthusiast can expect to gain a ratio of 1/3 muscle to 2/3 fat if you mass correctly. For women who have been training and dieting for a long time, and have gained lots of muscle along the way, ¼, 1/6 or even 1/8 muscle to fat ratios are actually not uncommon.
Yes, that may seem a bit depressing when you hear it for the first time, but let’s look at a specific example from the book – let’s go with the woman who, because of her particular profile (training age, genetics, etc) is a person that can expect to gain muscle to fat at a rate of 25% to 75%. That means this woman who gains 10lb of tissue on a 10 or 12-week mass can expect to be rewarded with 2.5 pounds of new muscle growth. If she continues to train hard and masses twice a year (followed by the prescribed maintenance and cut phases, of course), that’s 5lb of new muscle in a year. If that same woman follows this routine each year for 5 years and we account for a rate of diminishing returns, she’s looking at maybe 20lb of new muscle!
I’m sure you can imagine what a game changer that would be for her physique. This is a good time to go back to the start and re-read all of the benefits of added muscle – remember the one about burning calories while you DO NOTHING? Well, if you have 20 lb more muscle, you’re talking 120 additional calories per day burned while you’re, yes, doing nothing. So, the ‘5 years later’ woman in our example is FIERCE at the gym, feels great and can, in theory, burn off an additional 120 calorie serving of Double Stuff Golden Oreos while she’s watching TV. So you’d kind of hate her, but you’d also want to be her.
To sum all of this up, if you’re lean – without much excess fat to lose.. come on and mass...come on you can to it....but......you have to do the following
Time it right. If you want to be at your most svelte and slim at a wedding in 2 months, do not start a mass now! If beach season is right around the corner, and you want to live in your string bikini all summer, it’s probably not a great time to mass! On the flip side, winter is a solid time to be at peak mass – you’re covered up in pants and sweaters and bulky coats all the time anyway – you might as well be making some magic under all those layers. If you figure, just as a rough example, a 10-week mass (to gain 10lbs), followed by a 6-week maintenance to hold your weigh steady, followed by an 8-week cut (to lose the 7.5 lbs of excess fat you had to gain during your mass), you’ll want to mass maybe 6 months before you want to look your best for some season or event.
Is massing all unicorns and rainbows? Definitely not. Like I mentioned at the start, I’m finishing a mass now, and when I look in the mirror, I miss seeing the chiseled arms my genetics and years of training have given me – and I miss seeing as much of my abs as I normally can. But am I stressed about it? No. I’m entering my maintenance phase now, which I’ll probably do for a month, and I’ll be back to cutting by this time next month. That means I’ll be well on my way to being reunited with my chiseled arms – just in time to attend a friend’s beach wedding in April.
Give it a shot, and embrace the phases. Think about it logically – on mass, you get to enjoy food a bit more, so enjoy it – in a controlled way! Then, on maintenance, you’ve cut back from your mass eating ways, but there is still room for some cheat meals from time to time. By the time you get to cut, you’re ready. You may even be craving grilled chicken and broccoli! You are in control of your body and you’re taking it to new levels. You’re putting on pounds for a purpose. You know how it feels to hit a PR in the gym – if you’re like me, you crave that feeling; never lose sight of the fact that you can acquire the tools to make your body look – and perform – however you want it to! That is real power.
Enjoy the phases, and enjoy your new chiseled physique at the end of it all. You’ve worked hard and you’ve earned it. Last quote from Renaissance Woman, “You’re a warrior!”
Lori Shaw (pictured above) is the COO of Renaissance Periodization. She is also the mother of two small kids (ages 2 and 4). She is a competitive Figure athlete.