First of all – THANK YOU for coming back to read the first official blog post (how exciting). If you are interested, I have posted some stats about the type of people reading the blog so far on Some stats about YOU. This post is about what happens to the body when trying to reach low levels of body fat. Particularly, what happens to the female body after a natural bodybuilding competition (but the second article is about fat loss in general). If you don’t want to read the details…scroll to the bottom where I give the big TAKE HOMES & TIPS.
Based on the people who filled out the survey, most of you do not compete, so I promise not all of the posts will be related to bodybuilding. However, as many of you know, I competed in a bikini bodybuilding competition just over 7 weeks ago. And currently, one of MY biggest “but-whys,” comes from the following statements…
“My hormones are out of whack!”
“I’m hungry all the time!”
“I’m never full!”
“My metabolism is shot!”
“I’m exhausted and unmotivated!”
Sound familiar? Is this even true or just what people say? If it is true, how long does it last? Does it ever go away?
To answer this question, first I am going to summarize a study published in the Frontiers of Physiology called The effects of intensive weight reduction on body composition and serum hormones in female fitness competitors and then I’m going to talk more broadly about another literature review on the Metabolic Adaptation to Weight Loss.
First up: What in the world happens to the female body after a natural bodybuilding competition? (find it here)
What was the purpose of this study?
The purpose of the study was to look at physical and hormonal effects of bodybuilding competition prep (4-month fat loss) on women who were of normal/healthy weight and body fat before competition. They looked at physical and hormonal differences between a group of women who prepped and competed in a natural bodybuilding competition and a group who didn’t but still lived a healthy & fit lifestyle.
What type of women were included in this study?
- Between 20 and 28 years old (average age 27)
- Baseline Body Mass Index (BMI) between 20 and 27 (healthy female body weight/fat)
- Had a minimum of 2 years of resistance training experience (average years of experience was 3 years)
…pretty much women like me… if I was Finnish. I started at about 19% body fat (photos were my first check-in).
Who competed and what did “prep” look like?
27 women were preparing for a natural (drug tested) amateur bodybuilding competition.
- 17 were in bikini (this is what I did), 9 in body fitness, & 1 in fitness (these ladies have way more muscle).
- 15 women were competing for the first time and the rest had done between 1 and 4 competitions.
The diet/training was 4 months in length (similar to what I did). All women followed their own plans but in general, prep consisted of:
- Resistance training. Most women did split workouts [aka working out single muscle groups at a time] on average 5 days per week.
- Aerobic training. Most ladies did high-intensity interval training (HIIT) post-workout. This is essentially where you go all out for a couple seconds then chill for a bit and repeat until you’re soaked with sweat. Most also did steady state cardio in the morning. In my life steady state is me on the treadmill walking while watching Netflix. The amount of cardio the women did increased over the 4 months of training.
- Dieting. Most women reduced their carbohydrate intake while maintaining high protein and moderate fat intake.
What did the comparison group do?
23 women maintained a healthy, active lifestyle, also doing HIIT (but less steady state than “prep” group), resistance training 4x per week (most also did split training), but kept their diet and exercise unchanged through the 4 months. Women in this group were “matched” to the competition prep group on age, height, weight, and training experience to make the ladies in both groups comparable/similar.
What did they measure & what did they find?
They collected data on the women BEFORE prep, JUST AFTER the competition, and 3-4 MONTH AFTER the competition (after reverse dieting/eating normally). The prep group had significantly lower body fat after the competition but went back up to 15-20% body fat at 3-4 months after the show. The prep group also had a bit less lean muscle mass.
Estradiol. This is a measure of blood estrogen levels. Estrogen helps make females look & function like females – aka helps make our boobs look nice & makes it possible for us to make tiny humans. It also helps with bone & joint health, helps control how body fat is distributed throughout the body, regulates food intake, and regulates how carbs & fats are broken down and stored. This study found estradiol decreased in the prep group but went back to normal after 3-4 months of reverse dieting/eating normally.
- Low estradiol means you might feel hungrier & less full, might be more prone to putting on body-fat/weight (particular in our bellies), have a greater risk of bone/joint injuries, and experience irregular menstrual cycles.
They also found more menstrual irregularities in the prep group compared to the control group, especially if the women were not using oral contraception (birth control).
Leptin: Leptin is the hormone in our body that makes us feel full. They found relatively large leptin decreases in the prep group that went back to normal after 3-4 months of reverse dieting/eating normally.
- Low leptin = never ending all you can eat sushi.
Testosterone. This study found testosterone decreased right after competition and remained lower 3-4 months post-competition. This might contribute to low libido (not interested in sex), difficulty maintaining and putting on muscle, difficulty losing weight (especially belly fat), reduced energy, and altered mood.
Thyroid Hormones. Our thyroid is responsible for metabolism or the process of converting food to energy. These include T3, T4, and TSH. This study found T3 decreased right after competition and remained lower 3-4 months post-competition. T4 and TSH were not significantly different.
- Low T3 might mean low energy levels (making you less likely to want to go to the gym and lift heavy things) and lowered basal metabolic rate (aka more likely to gain weight).
What about other studies?
The goal of attaining low body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass isn’t unique to bodybuilding – gymnastics, figure skating, running, judo/wrestling are some examples of other sports where athletes pursue low body fat/high lean muscle.
Another literature review (see here Metabolic Adaptation to Weight Loss) on body changes with weight reduction found similar results as the single study on female bodybuilders. They found:
- Decreases in leptin, testosterone, insulin (the carb/sugar breakdown and storage hormone), and thyroid hormones
- Increases in ghrelin (the hunger hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone that breaks down muscle)
- Reductions in metabolic rate (through a variety of mechanisms)
They also found these changes appear to persist when trying to maintain low body fat, even if you’re not actively trying to lose weight anymore.
When we have low body fat, our body goes..
“OH MY GOODNESS WE ARE STARVING – STORE ALL THE FOOD, CONSERVE ALL THE ENERGY, AND GO EAT ALL THE THINGS!”
TAKE HOME MESSAGES
- Spending months to be lean-bean stage ready might actually make it harder for you to stay lean and toned after the competition.
- When you have low body fat, you may: feel hungrier & less full, gain weight/fat faster, gain muscle slower (and potentially lose muscle), feel more tired, be more prone to injuries, and have menstrual and mood irregularities.
- Most hormonal changes go back to baseline after 3-4 months if you start eating more and working out less BUT 3-4 months may not be enough for some people. Females should continue the “recovery” period longer before dieting or prepping again to avoid long-term changes in their hormonal balance and metabolism. Back-to-back competitions or no real off-season may put you at risk for long-term hormonal changes that actually make it harder for you to be lean & fit.
Some Tips to reduce the magnitude of the “STORE EVERYTHING & GO EAT” signals:
- When losing weight, try to lose weight SLOWLY. Faster progress may be more fun and motivating, but faster weight/fat loss may make it more difficult to maintain once you get there.
- Resistance training programs (aka lifting moderately heavy things and put them back down several times a week) may minimize muscle loss and weight gain.
- Adequate protein intake also may help to minimize muscle loss and weight gain.
…and anecdotal evidence also recommends 4) refeeds or cheat meals which MIGHT help increase leptin and metabolism when in a constant caloric deficit, and 5) reverse dieting, or slowly increasing nutrient intake while reducing cardio, which might reduce the weight/fat gain after periods of caloric deficits (like bodybuilding competitions).
How good is the evidence?
To keep in mind, both articles are peer-reviewed (aka multiple experts in the field said “yeah, I’m cool to publish this”) but…
The first article is a single study. Although it is a well done single study because they used objective measures and matched controls to the intervention group, it was based on a relatively small group of women (50) from Finland who were normal body weight/fat to begin with. Also, although they were “matched,” the groups may still be different from one another on unmatched things that might not make the groups comparable.
The second article is a LITERATURE REVIEW not a systematic review. So they might not have found ALL the available evidence on the metabolic adaptations of weight loss. They also indicated the lack of evidence on refeeding and reverse dieting. Lastly, they didn’t comment or rate the quality of the evidence they were summarizing, although did acknowledge a lot of studies that had been done were on animals or in overweight populations and may not be the same for athletes.
SO THERE IT IS…
The answer to the first “BUT WHY.” Yes, I might actually physically feel hungrier. Yes, I might actually be putting on body fat and weight quicker and easier than I have in the past. Yes, I might physically feel more tired & less motivated. So yes, this means I need to continue (aka start again) eating cleaner, doing more cardio, and keeping up my workouts for probably another 2 months before most of my hormones will be back to normal. For the fellow female bodybuilding competitors, YES post-show is tough physically due to actual changes in hormones!
It is also important to keep in mind that priorities change, and that is okay. I went from being almost 100% dedicated to training for the body-building competition to almost 100% dedicated to school – I went from one extreme to another. In addition to the hormonal changes that make post-show harder, my priorities also changed, resulting in EVEN LESS time and energy to workout and prep healthy food. So, have I fallen off the health & fitness bandwagon? YUP. Is that okay? YUP. In that time I successfully completed my Master’s, which is pretty darn awesome!
However, it is now time to find that happy balance between school/work, fitness/health, and enjoying life while also keeping in mind that I do want (I initially typed “need” here… but it is a want not a need) to prioritize health & fitness, especially due to these hormonal changes.
Know your priorities & understand they can change. Set your goals for the short & the long-term. Acknowledge your challenges to reach those goals & figure out steps to overcome those challenges. And create a life, body, & mind that you love, appreciate, and are proud of at all stages.
Sending positive vibes and virtual hugs,
The Fitnerd – Jillian
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P.S. I know I talked briefly about lots of things in this post. Don’t worry, I’ll have future more in-depth posts on: how much protein you actually need, the science behind cheat meals, how quickly you should lose weight and how, is fasted cardio actually better, and the science behind HIIT.