Getting "Stage Lean": Is It Worth It?

I'm on FaceTime with my friend around 11 in the morning. It's peak week.

After having a coffee, I've cracked an energy drink. I'm wearing two pairs of pants and two sweaters because I can't get warm. My eyes look heavy in the small box that stares back at me.

"Being this lean is the furthest from glamorous I've ever felt."

She seems surprised. I go further "I live in sweatpants, I can't think clearly, I feel dumb, I can't sleep, and my workouts are no longer enjoyable. I am weak. Meanwhile everyone is telling me I look great and strong, this is messed up!"

My friend tells me she's relieved. That there's all this pressure to look good in a crop top and have abs. "It's not worth it," I sigh.

The last few weeks of my contest prep were hard. My calories hovered around the 1200 calorie range on low carb days, scarily enough - the magic number often prescribed to women of any weight or size to lose weight - and I felt like I was dragging myself through life.


Things I did on low carb days:

  • Turned the hose on pointed at my face while trying to wash the car
  • Nearly bit my tongue off twice in the same day eating salad
  • Left my headlights on all night
  • Forgot to pack underwear to gym to change for work, so wore my workout leggings under my jeans
  • Lost some bladder control
  • Spelled my own name wrong (Gillian with a J instead of G)

Luckily, unlike a lot of these diets prescribed to women, it was short term suffering after months of eating very high calories and macros (I was eating 2300+ calories while bulking...around 2500 some days!) while building strength and muscle that I slowly tapered down to get "stage lean".

While bulking


Stage lean


And it worked. Like a sculpture, the fat was chipped away and my muscles were revealed. While I hated being hungry, I loved seeing the result of my hard work. And since I was working with science, I got to add in high carb days to keep my body out of starvation mode and my sanity intact (read more about the science of refeeds here.)

I was able to push through because I knew the suffering was short term and that I would soon gain my health back after show day by going back into maintenance calories (along with some fat).

Unlike some competitors, I made a point of avoiding fat burners, stimulants other than caffeine, water and sodium depletion.


Like a science experiment, my coach and I played around with low and high carb days, and discovered I looked best after high carbs. I actually had two consecutive nights of big pasta dinners and wine leading up to my show, and loaded up on salt, fat and carbs on show day. While I was by no means the leanest on stage, I brought my personal best.

The whole process taught me that getting lean - especially lean with muscle showing - takes A LOT of work. To achieve the look that most of us are going for takes a lot of practice, research and sacrifice. For the average person, it is by no means worth it. If you're passionate about competing or need to be on the cover of a fitness magazine, then yeah, it's worth suffering for.


As someone who has really embraced a stronger, fuller body over the years (I was underweight and struggled with an eating disorder through part of my late teens and twenties) it was weird. I actually didn't feel as sexy as I did when I was bulking. I lost desire to put effort into my personal appearance and instead needed to focus on staying warm and awake.

While it's easy to say "man, I want a six pack", it's not easy to get. I believe you can achieve anything you set your mind to, so if you want it, by all means, go for it, but be prepared to suffer and sacrifice a lot. For most women it also means losing your period and throwing your hormones out of whack.

After a long improvement season, I can definitely see myself competing again, which would include another dieting stage. I loved presenting my hard work with pride. And leading up to competing again I will get to eat and lift plenty to gain more muscle. Hello brain AND body gains!


So...getting stage it worth it? For the stage - yes. For real life - probably not.

Now excuse me while I go make myself a snack and enjoy my functioning body and brain.