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Eating for Performance vs. Aesthetics: Can You Do Both?

A goal that many incoming Clar-e-ty clients have is to lean out & have visible abs but to also increase their performance in the gym, lift more weight, run faster, etc.

These are both totally viable goals & can be attained. However, in our professional experience, pursuing performance-based & aesthetics-based goals have their own respective time & place.

This brings us to answer the question of if it’s possible to eat for performance & eat for aesthetics simultaneously. The short answer to this question is almost always no.

And before we dive into the nuances behind why it’s not optimal to try to eat for performance & aesthetics at the same time, it’s important to dive into the mindset around why having a six-pack & being an absolute beast in the gym is such a common goal.

Because we don’t know of too many gym-goers that wouldn’t want to find that “perfect” balance of looking the way they want while also performing the way they want. When in all reality, many of us will always want to look leaner or lift heavier or run faster no matter how lean, strong, or fast we already are.

And part of this mindset comes from the unrealistic standard we compare ourselves to via Instagram fitspo models, professional bodybuilders, high-level CrossFit athletes, & other professional athletes in general. It’s really easy for us to look at these athletes who dedicate their entire lives to their sport & confusion correlation & causation. Meaning, “Oh, well Rich Froning trains for CrossFit & looks this way, so I have to eat & train in a way that forces me to look like that so I can perform like him.” However, what Rich Froning is able to eat, put into his recovery, & how he’s able to train is going to be wayyyyy different than what the general population is able to eat like, recover like, & train like.

Plus, even if we all ate like, recovered like, & trained liked Rich Froning, chances are we would NEVER look like him because his body is different than mine, yours, your friends, your brothers, etc. How your body responds to his lifestyle will generate a different physiological response because your body has different cells, a different hormone profile, a different genetic makeup, etc. You’re literally a different human!

Trust us, we get it. We all have aesthetic goals & we all want to look & perform a certain way & would love to have the best of both worlds. However, being able to differentiate what eating for performance & aesthetics looks & feels like might help you truly figure out what your goal is & get to the bottom of your why behind that goal.

And today’s blog is going to help you do just that! We’re going to walk you through what the difference between eating for performance & eating for aesthetics looks like so you can understand why these two ideas are considered conflicting.

Nutrition For Aesthetics

The main difference between performance-based & aesthetics-based nutrition will ultimately come down to food quantity. If you are trying to get shredded & be as lean as possible, you would have to be in a calorie deficit or eating less fuel than your body expends on a daily basis to achieve a lower body fat percentage.

When entering into a calorie deficit, it’s totally normal for you to feel lethargic at times, for hunger & cravings to be high, for you to not be hitting PRs in the gym because your body is going to be using the energy it does have coming in to keep you breathing, keep your heart beating, etc. It doesn’t care that you want to hit a new 1RM Deadlift & won’t use the energy you’re putting in it towards that PR if you’re eating in a caloric deficit.

Now, it’s important to understand achieving an extreme level of leanness goes against our bodies' natural biological make-up. Being extremely ripped for any length of time will almost always be met with some kind of resistance from our minds & bodies. This is in part due to the length of time our bodies have to undergo an extreme caloric deficit to achieve this level of leanness as well as our bodies' natural response to shut down all non-essential functions in doing so.

These non-essential functions include our NEAT (non-exercise activity) dropping or our bodies moving less (unbeknown to us) to conserve what little energy is coming in. Sleep disturbances will also be more likely, sex hormone production will start to down-regulate, recovery from exercise will slow, stress will be high, hunger hormones will be high & so on. These are all your body’s natural responses to fight to stay at its equilibrium.

Unfortunately all of this, in turn, isn’t going to do much for your performance in the gym.

This is why even professional bodybuilders who get below 15-16% body fat for women & 6% for men, are only that lean for their competitions. They periodize their training & nutrition for their bodies to be “stage lean” for only a few days out of the year. They then enter into a recovery diet to bump back up to a healthy body fat percentage within a couple of days & usually go through a period of eating for performance shortly after.

Food quality will also be more important when eating for aesthetics. If you’re consuming more-nutrient dense, high-volume foods, you’ll be more likely to adhere to your deficit calories. Including fibrous fruits & veggies, complex carbs, & an ample amount of protein will be essential for regulating hunger levels, your adrenals (stress center), & keeping your body feeling most optimal while being in a deficit. It’s not to say that you can’t enjoy sweets & treats in moderation, but ensuring the majority of your day is filled with whole foods is key.

Also, the metrics used to track your progress towards your goals when eating for aesthetics will be different than the metrics used for performance-based nutrition. For instance, body measurements, the scale, & progress photos are all really important for tracking how you’re progressing towards your aesthetic goals so you know when it’s time to make any necessary adjustments to keep you moving forward.

The main takeaway for eating for aesthetics is how you periodize your nutrition to give your body a break from being in an energy deficit. We can’t diet all year-round which is why dieting phases are key to ensuring you’re not beating up your body & you allow your hormones & metabolism the opportunity to recoup & recover.

We say all of this not because we’re not trying to deter any of you away from pursuing aesthetic-based goals, but more so to show you that prioritizing eating to achieve a leaner body composition isn’t necessarily going to give you better performance in the gym due to the impact a calorie deficit has on your biofeedback.

Nutrition For Performance

We periodize our performance-based client’s nutrition very differently than a client coming to us solely seeking health & fat loss. Again, the main difference is the amount of food our performance-based clients consume.

For example, performance-based clients will be eating at or above their maintenance calories to ensure their bodies have enough fuel coming in to increase their gym performance. When eating at maintenance or in a slight calorie surplus (eating more than your body’s projected maintenance), you’re creating the most optimal environment for your body to build muscle, use the extra energy you’re putting in it to get after it in the gym, & recover most optimally.

Moreover, most of us are going to perform better with a little bit of extra body fat vs. being insanely shredded. You’re going to have the essential fat on your body needed to regulate your hormones, leading to better recovery, leading to better performance in your next training session.

When pursuing performance-based goals, periodizing your calories throughout your on & off-seasons as well as focusing on nutrient timing will be more essential than focusing on food quality. Now that’s not to say food quality isn’t important if performance is your goal, but you can definitely get away with having more easily digestible carbs & less-nutrient dense foods around your training window because they will actually benefit your performance.

Most of the time, we periodize performance-based clients as follows:

The offseason is going to be all about recovery. Although carbs are essential for the recovery process & should still be included, a higher fat intake will be especially important during the off-season for performance-based clients. Fats are going to help their nervous system & endocrine (hormonal) system repair from the previous season. Again, carb intake will still be moderate, but the emphasis would be on a higher fat & protein intake to recoup & rebuild.

Pre-season is when a higher carb intake would be re-introduced into the performance-based athlete’s plan. As they start to ramp training up, they’re going to need more fuel coming in to enhance their performance. Fat intake would lower slightly, while protein stays relatively high.

During peak season, a performance-based athlete is going to require ALL the fuel. As the stress of training, games, competitions, etc. comes into full swing, the body will be in higher demand of readily available energy aka glycogen aka carbs. Fat & protein intake would drop slightly to make room for carbs to increase.

The metrics used to track progress when shooting for aesthetics-based goals such as the scale, body measurements, etc. don’t have to be used & can almost be thrown out the window when pursuing performance-based goals. For example, performance-based clients might utilize how they feel in the gym & their strength numbers to determine their progress vs. the other aesthetic-based measurements. Using the scale & measurements aren’t indicative of progress when shooting for performance-based goals because gaining muscle/increased performance might lead your body to change in ways you might not have expected. This can sometimes be a hard mental barrier to breakthrough. With that said, it’s sometimes more productive to throw the scale out when shooting for performance-based goals knowing that the number you see might go up & lead to you feeling like a positive change (increased strength & performance) is actually a negative change in the short-term.

At the end of the day…

The bottom line is, we recommend chasing performance-based or aesthetics-based goals separately. There’s no shame in wanting to get shredded, but just know you might not be the strongest or fastest you’ve ever been while pursuing that goal.

And if you’re focusing on building muscle or want to work on how you’re performing in the gym, know that you might not be the leanest you’ve ever been.

Whatever goal you decide to get after, we recommend getting to the root “why” behind it. Once your why is established, you’ll be more likely to stick to your goals long-term & you’ll have something to fall back on when the going gets tough.

At the end of the day, our two sense is to pick one goal, either eating to perform or eating to achieve a certain body composition, to focus on & run with it!

You can always interchange your goals throughout your different seasons of your life, but you’ll be better off & more successful at achieving your specific result by having a singular focus on one or the other.


Resources and Coaching:

Online Coaching here.

[Free] Nutrition Guide here.

Recipe & Macro Guide here.


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