2014: Doing running, cardio, bootcamp and spin classes; eating as little as possible to stay as skinny as possible.
2020: Doing strength and conditioning training/CrossFit; eating a lot of food to get as strong as possible.
How did I get here? Life moves so quickly, and it’s not often that I stop and reflect. In this quiet period of quarantine, however, I found myself doing a casual scroll through my iPhone camera roll — and I couldn’t believe the transformation from 2014 until now.
My story isn’t one of losing significant weight or going from “couch potato” to fitness fanatic. I’ve always lived an active lifestyle, and I’ve been blessed with an athletic body (mostly in the quads because I grew up playing soccer).
But check out those noodle arms in the 2014 photo. I had zero (I mean ZERO) upper body strength. I’d touched a weight maybe once in my life before I started CrossFit in 2015.
My journey is about building muscle, getting stronger, and letting go of my desire to adhere to societal beauty standards.
Quick soapbox moment: There’s a misconception among females that lifting weights or doing CrossFit will make you “big” or “bulky.” This is not true. I’ve been actively and intentionally trying to build muscle for years — and while at this point I’m more muscular than the average woman — I still wouldn’t consider myself bulky. Plus, I’ve dialed in my training and nutrition a lot more than an average CrossFitter. It takes a LOT of intentional focus and effort to build muscle for most people, especially women.
Here are the five factors and inputs that have contributed to my muscle-building process over time. It’s an honest look everything I’ve done (and continue to do) to get stronger.
I’m putting nutrition first because I truly believe that it was the game-changer.
Like most women, I used to have this idea that being “fit” meant being skinny and having six-pack abs. I was crushing myself in the gym and engaging in restrictive eating behavior (low carb, low fat) using a templated nutrition plan that will go unnamed. I had low energy, I was taking naps during the day, and I struggled with food in social situations. I knew that something wasn’t right… but I couldn’t get myself out of that vicious cycle.
In 2018, I finally decided that I needed help. I started to work with a nutrition coach at Black Iron Nutrition, who helped me look within and understand that my TRUE goal was to improve my performance in the gym and increase my lifting numbers.
She also educated me that this was going to require “eating the part.” While we never did an official “bulk” (intentionally eating in a caloric surplus for a certain number of weeks to gain weight), we increased my calories over time using a macro-based approach. This meant that I was eating toward a set of protein, carb, and fat targets every day.
Today I weigh 10-15 pounds more than I used to, but the coolest part is that my body composition hasn’t changed other than looking more muscular. I was so afraid that eating more would make me gain fat, but that simply wasn’t the case. Instead, I’m just as lean as before, I’m a way more powerful lifter, I’m more proficient at bodyweight gymnastics, and I can still run a 7-minute mile.
This is the obvious one because you can’t gain muscle without putting in the work in the gym.
Like I mentioned above, I started CrossFit in 2015. I started by taking classes 2 days/week. I wasn’t sure if I liked it — and I was royally confused by all of the movements — but something kept me coming back. I eventually increased my membership to 3 classes/week while still doing bootcamp classes at a globo gym.
About a year and a half later, a switch flipped and I was hooked. I went all-in on CrossFit and cancelled my other gym membership. Until the end of 2018, I participated in our daily class programming with some extra weightlifting and gymnastics work on the side.
I have no doubt that I would have continued to make progress in group classes. But I was looking for something more. After trying my hand at a few local CrossFit competitions, it was clear that I had work to do and strength to build if I actually wanted to place well against other athletes.
In Jan 2019, I started working with an online 1:1 coach through Brute Strength who writes my programming. This was 100% the right decision for me, even though it took a lot of adjustment going from group classes to training alone. The gains have been insane. We’ve increased all of my major lifts (back squat, front squat, clean, snatch, deadlift, press) by 10-30+ pounds, which you can see in the charts below. We’ve increased my gymnastics capacity (like muscle-ups, handstand push-ups, toes-to-bar, pull-ups) tremendously, too.
What my training has looked like over the last year and a half:
- Training 5 days a week (Mon/Tues/Wed/Fri/Sat) for 1-2 hours per session
- Fewer met-cons at 90-100% intensity << this was a huge change that took time to get used to.
- Lifting in every session (with frequent use of tempo lifting)
- Lots of supersets; more accessory and bodybuilding-type work with dumbbells
- More focused practice and training on high-skill movements like muscle-ups, handstand push-ups, handstands, butterfly pull-ups. For example, for 3-4 months, two training days/week were focused on muscle-ups only (no metcons, just strict gymnastics work).
I’ve tracked most of my lifting numbers over time since 2015. Here are a few lifts that I have complete data on:
3. Mindset and Maturity
I used to pout if I didn’t do well in a workout or (in the case of handstand push-ups, my biggest weakness) cry if something in training wasn’t going my way. And it would stop me in my tracks.
Mindset is everything. During a training piece, if my mind gives in, so does my body. And if my body gives in before it physically needs to, then my body does not adapt to the training stimulus.
That’s why I’ve worked a lot on emotion regulation during training. Whether it’s not hitting the numbers I thought I’d hit, or not being able to complete a training piece as prescribed, I butt heads with “failure” quite often in the gym. A huge part of my growth and adaptation to training has depended on learning to accept imperfection.
The real secret sauce is consistency over time. Building muscle is not a quick process for most people (especially women), and it has NOT been quick for me. It’s taken a consistent schedule of 5 days/week in the gym for several years (not to mention, consistency with nutrition), with some breaks in there for vacations and minor injuries.
I WILL say that consistency isn’t hard for me because I love fitness so much. (Even if my coach programmed an entire session with all my least favorite movements, I would probably still enjoy it.)
On the bad days, one saying that’s helped me stay consistent is: “I’m the type of person that….. [fill in the blank].”
5. Sleep and Recovery
Sleep is not something I struggle with since I’m such a regimented person, but I do believe that it’s been important to my muscle-building journey. Research shows that sleep is critical for muscle growth. I aim for 8-9 hours of sleep per night, which means going to bed between 8-9pm since my wake-up time is between 5:30-6am.
I also spend 20-30 minutes a night (part of my bedtime routine) on mobility: self myofascial release with a lacrosse ball, foam rolling, and stretching. This is something that I did NOT do at all in my early years of CrossFit, but it’s been a game-changer for recovery and keeping away the injuries as my training volume increased.
Alright, so those are the five things: nutrition, training, mindset, consistency, and sleep/recovery. I realize that this may not relatable or realistic to a lot of people, but this is what my journey has looked like — and I wanted to be honest about it all.
I also hope that this’ll encourage more women to lift weights and try strength training. It’s fun, it’s empowering, and it won’t make you “bulky” 🙂