It’s a question that comes up again and again at the Nutritional Coaching Institute Level 1 Seminar. Do you want to have abs or do you want to be good at CrossFit?
Your first instinct, of course, is can’t I have both? After all, it seems like there are a lot of high-level Games athletes who are shredded. Look at Brooke Ence, for one. But, chances are, you weren’t blessed with the genetics of Ence —who has a dance and bodybuilding background— and neither are most of the athletes you see out there, the ones who get super lean and then watch their performance subsequently tank.
If you’re serious about putting your performance first—whether that’s doing well in the CrossFit Open, making Regionals or even the CrossFit Games— the LAST thing you want to be doing is trying to work toward a body composition goal.
Yet every year right around the Open, thousands of athletes of all levels do exactly that, “tightening up” their nutrition, putting themselves in an intentional or unintentional caloric deficit and stressing their bodies at the worst possible time.
First, it’s counterproductive. Second, it just doesn’t work, no matter what you see on social media. There’s a reason bodybuilders are at their leanest—and absolute weakest—when they’re on stage. You have to pick one or the other.
“Do you want to do well in the Open or lose weight? You can’t do both,” said Jason Phillips, founder of IN3 Nutrition and one of the co-speakers at the extensive weekend-long certification. “Aesthetics or performance. You can’t have both at the same time.”
Every sport has an offseason. CrossFitters “season” should be around the Open, whether you enter for fun or you’re looking to make a push to Regionals. If your goal is performance-based, when you’re “in season” you have to prioritize recovery. And that means making sure you are getting ENOUGH food. Most of the time that requires you to be in a caloric surplus so that your body can handle the stress of five max-effort Open workouts (or more if you repeat them) appropriately.
Now is the time to eat to your full macro numbers and, at the bare minimum, be in a maintenance phase. It’s not the time to start “cleaning up” your diet by filling your plate with fruits and veggies and slashing your starches (like rice). Yes, quality of food is important. Yes, micronutrients don’t get the attention they deserve.
But often times people don’t realize that quantity is just as important when you’re talking about recovering. Proper nutrition helps take your body out of the high-stress zone and into the recovery phase. Broccoli is great but it’s not going to lower your cortisol levels after an Open workout. If you want to perform your best over the next five weeks of the Open you need carbs, you need to be fueling appropriately and you need to focus on performance OVER the scale. (Weight class sports are different and we’ll get into that at a later time.)
Do you think anyone at the Olympics is more concerned with their weight than their performance? No. There’s a time and place for that. And that time is called the offseason. (Yes, every athlete at every level should have an offseason.)
If you’re not a competitive CrossFit athlete, don’t care about the Open or your primary goal right now is looking good, that’s fine! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But understand your goal is nutrition for aesthetics and adjust your training around it.
In that scenario, now is not the time to do Open workouts twice in four days because your recovery will be severely compromised. Whenever you’re trying to lose weight and you’re in a caloric deficit, not only does that stress your body, it’s going to impede your ability to recover. Add high-intensity (read: high stress) exercise to an already stressed out system with slower recovery rate and what happens? Your injury risk is going to go up, your hormones are going to be out of whack, you’re going to have no energy and —very often— will struggle to lose weight.
“You should not be doing five CrossFit workouts a week in a caloric deficit,” Phillips said. “You should not be doing five high-intensity workouts of ANY kind in a deficit.”
If you want to get shredded, you have to stop with the excessive intensity. When your body is constantly in a state of stress, it’s going to panic and go into survival mode and basically want to hold on to all of your calories and all of your body fat. You want to minimize the stress on your body because you’re already stressing it out by not eating enough! This is where steady state cardio, and static bodybuilding movements are your best friends—less stressful on your body.
Former Games champ Camille Leblanc-Bazinet has talked at length about her belly being her “power pouch”. She doesn’t want to get leaner. Why? Her goal is to get stronger and perform better.
You have to decide what you want first and then adjust your training around your goals. There are no weight classes in CrossFit. No one cares if your body fat percentage is in the single digits or not. You don’t get any extra bonus points in a workout for having a six-pack.
Those who recover better, perform better and have more longevity. That’s not a secret.
If you have body composition goals (lose fat, build muscle), attack them in your offseason. Once your “season” ends (after the Open, Regionals or whenever), give yourself a week of keeping your macros or diet the same to let your body recover and restore your glycogen levels. Then you can start a cutting phase, when you can do it in a way that you can control your intensity, keep the stress on your body to a minimum and really see results.
Yes, you can ultimately have abs and be good at CrossFit. You just can’t work towards both of those things at the same time.