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When Bulking and Refeeds Go Wrong

August 31, 2017

 

So there you sit. Exhausted, clammy, mentally unbalanced, and just generally feeling like death. Looking around, you see a dozen other people in similar states of suffering. Diuretics and laxatives have been administered, the IV bags are waiting to be hung, and the group is being diligently watched over by a number of concerned professionals. In the corner, somebody vomits into a bin. On the other side of the room, another man needs to be carefully helped to his feet before he can be assessed. He is then escorted from the room, IV in tow. You hear your name called, and unsteadily walk to the center of the room. Stepping up for your assessment, you wait for the reading to determine your fate...

 

While that may have sounded like the waiting room of a hospital's emergency department, full of the sick and injured, what I actually just described is a hotel conference room full of top-level athletes, preparing to weigh in for a strongman competition. This is something that I have seen regularly as a strongman competitor, and the scene is equally as common in powerlifting and bodybuilding. Massive weight cuts using dangerous methods have become far too prevalent nowadays, but the arguments against them are for another time. The greater detriment to one's health is what happens after: the refeed (or more accurately, the overfeed). This is not only true for those who cut hard for the final week, but also those who dieted for months to achieve their desired competition weight. Although more data is needed to quantify the acute pathological changes from the initial pre- and post-competition overfeeding, the poor nutritional choices seldom end when that weekend is over.

 

Anyone in the strength community who pays attention has seen it: the bodybuilder who goes into “offseason mode” right after his contest; the powerlifter, unsatisfied with his total, who drastically increases his training volume and intensity and “needs to fuel his training sessions” by any means possible; the strongman who wants to “bulk into the next weight class” since he performed poorly in competition after a 20lb cut in 5 days. Despite the sound nutrition that gets many of competitors to their current levels, they often fall off the wagon after competitions and use the aforementioned rationalizations to help them sleep at night. The reasons for this are not entirely clear. Is it due to burn out after a strict diet? Is it emotionally-driven eating due to frustrations with performance? Or conversely, is it a sense of satisfaction and overconfidence after a win that causes an athlete to just say, “Screw it. I'll eat what I want.”?

 

Whatever the psychological driving force behind the (often severe) post-competition overfeeds, they need to end. I can hear it now. “But don't you have to overfeed to put on mass?” “If you don't eat enough, you'll never get big!” Both of these are gross oversimplifications. Yes, to gain weight you generally have to be in a caloric surplus (unless you are simply retaining water). However, depending on the amount of surplus, macronutrient ratios, and other variables, that weight may or may not be muscle. In the case of the majority of weight gain seen in the first few months after a competition, it is more likely to be fat. There is a significant difference between being in a small caloric surplus that is adjusted upwards over time as the body learns to respond to it, and adding in an extra 800 calories per day of garbage right after you step off of the platform or stage.

 

So what's wrong with adding all those extra calories so quickly? Let's start with something easily observable: the guy in the mirror. Unless you have the genetics of Heracles himself and Barry Bonds' personal pharmacy in your back yard, you are going to get fat. The abs, vascularity, and quad separation that you saw before the competition thanks to proper nutrition will quickly disappear. Continue to overfeed in this way and that athlete you used to see in the mirror will soon look like the secret love child of Butterbean and Khloe Kardashian. Please don't even bring up the “I don't care what I look like, I just want to be as strong as possible” excuse, because we all know it's a lie. Anybody who spends significant time in the gym wants to look like they lift, even if they are too proud to admit it. But it's not just about aesthetics when it comes to those extra calories laying down slabs of adipose tissue on top of your previously chiseled abs; the major concern is your long-term health.

 

Increased deposition of abdominal fat, known clinically as central obesity, is associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and certain types of cancer. Among other things, it has also been linked to a greater risk of Alzheimer's disease and stroke. One doesn't need to a medical professional to put the pieces together and discover that a larger degree of central obesity equals a smaller chance of leading a long and healthy life. This should not shock anybody, as the rise in obesity rate over the last few decades correlates directly with an increased incidence of the aforementioned diseases and an increase in healthcare spending across the board. Despite what the political correctness devotees and fat advocates would have you believe, carrying around a large amount of subcutaneous fat is not healthy. It will kill you.

 

Visible fat is only one part of the equation, however. Let's say you are one of the lucky few that adds in all those extra calories and doesn't put on all that belly fat. Maybe the scale didn't even move much. You're safe, right? Wrong. Although it often correlates with the development of central obesity, most dangerous type of fat is what you can't see in the mirror. This is known as visceral fat, or adipose tissue that lies around and within your internal organs. In fact, this develops even more quickly than visible abdominal fat. One study showed that after only 6-7 days of fructose overfeeding in healthy individuals, fat within the liver increased to over 200% of its original level. Glucose and fat overfeeding had similar, albeit less severe effects. No significant changes were seen in the overall body weight of these individuals. Not only was the concentration of fat within the liver elevated, but hepatic insulin sensitivity was decreased. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes. A longer 4-week study showed that serum lipid profiles (cholesterol) were also adversely affected by overfeeding. There is greater reason for concern about these liver issues in strength athletes, who often increase their carbohydrate intake as their primary method of overfeeding. The conventional wisdom says that you need carbohydrates to fuel your training, so more of them will make you stronger. While this can be true, it is also something that needs to be tightly regulated. In just three weeks of high-carbohydrate overfeeding, it was shown that liver volume can increase up to 27%, the majority of which was intrahepatic fat. A proportionate increase occurred in serum triglyceride levels, which are an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. This means that even if your other lab values are in the normal range, high levels of triglycerides put you at greater risk for a cardiovascular event, such as heart attack or stroke.

 

Now that I've put the fear of God into you when it comes to post-competition binging, you may be wondering where to go from here. It comes down to four simple words: don't be an idiot! Failing on your diet for a day or two isn't going to kill you, so I'm not going to condemn those who go out for a celebratory dinner after competing. I've done it myself. Just don't let this small lapse in nutritional judgment be a catalyst for completely falling off the wagon. If you feel you need to put on mass to be more successful or feel that your training sessions are not adequately fueled, then your caloric intake may need to be increased. However, this must be done gradually and properly to protect not only your physique and performance, but also your life. You wouldn't drastically increase your training volume and intensity and expect to get overnight results, right? You would gradually increase these variables at an intelligent rate to achieve optimal results. This is the reason the vast majority of athletes in any sport use specific programming. Why should your philosophy toward food intake be any different? Stay the course, make gradual and intelligent changes, and consult those with expertise on the subject when you have questions. Do this, and you just might stay alive for a while after your competitive years are behind you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References.

  1. Razay, G.  "Obesity, Abdominal Obesity and Alzheimer's Disease", Dementia & Genetic Cognitive Disorders, July 2006.

  2. Després, J-P. and Lemieux, I. "Review Article Abdominal Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome." Obesity 16, 881-87, 2008.

  3. Cameron, A. J. and Zimmet, P. Z. “Expanding evidence for the multiple dangers of epidemic abdominal obesity.” International Diabetes Institute, 2008.

  4. Lecoultre, V., Egli, L., Carrel, G., Theytaz, F., Kreis, R., Schneiter, P., Boss, A., Zwygart, K., Le, K-A., Bortolotti, M., Boesch, C. and Tappy, L. “Effects of fructose and glucose overfeeding on hepatic insulin sensitivity and intrahepatic lipids in healthy humans.” Obesity 21(4), 782-85, April 2013.

  5. Heilbronn, L., Coster, A., Campbell, L., Greenfield, J., Lange, K., Christopher, M., Meikle, P. and Samocha-Bonet, D. “The effect of short-term overfeeding on serum lipids in healthy humans.” Obesity 21(12), 649-59, December 2013.

  6. Bian, H., Hakkarainen, A., Lundbom, N. and Yki-Jarvinen, H. “Effects of dietary interventions on liver volume in humans.” Obesity 22(4), 989-95, April 2014.

  7. Sevastianova, K., Santos, A., Kotronen, A., Hakkarainen, A., Makkonen, J., Silander, K., Peltonen, M., Rome, S., Lundbom, J., Lundbom, N., Olkkonen, V., Gylling, H., Fielding, B., Rissanen, A. and Yki-Jarvinen, H. “Effect of short-term carbohydrate overfeeding and long-term weight loss on liver fat in overweight humans.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96(4), 727-34, October 2012.

  8. Boullart, A.C., de Graaf, J. and Stalenhoef, A.F. “Serum triglycerides and risk of cardiovascular disease.” Biochim Biophys Acta 1821(5), 867-75, May 2012.

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