Against Clean Eating, and How to Get Your Pull-up

Image: Sora

I have been lifting for years, but I just don’t seem to be able to make serious improvements in the amount of weight I can move. For example, I have been trying for like six years to do more than a single pull-up.

I think maybe I am not eating enough carbs? But as it is, I feel like I am force-feeding myself to get enough protein in some days (by which I mean, I am so full from the protein, I feel like I don’t have room for the carbs). I am one of those slow-metabolism people who gains weight if I just glance in the direction of a French fry, and I think getting full quickly is probably a consequence of my system being so sluggish? But really I have no idea what I’m talking about.

I love lifting, but it’s frustrating to feel like I never make progress. Any thoughts or advice would be so appreciated. — Mira

Okay, a lot going on here, but there is almost certainly a lot of room for easy and immediate improvement. To begin with, on pull-ups: I have the least natural pull-up build you can have. I am a woman, I’m tall, with little natural muscle and long arms. It took a year, but I got my pull-up. I have some practical advice for this, but first, a few things.

You can work exclusively on pull-ups, but they’re not just a matter of practice — a lot of muscles go into a pull-up, and a well-rounded, intense lifting program will really speed along your development. Deadlifts, rows, and benching will all help you get better at pull-ups.

You need a real lifting program, which is not, say, doing the same 5lb curls for three sets of 20 every week for years. For someone who has not lifted heavy before, this means doing mostly the big lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press) and adding a couple pounds to them every workout, for several weeks, until you can’t anymore. It takes a few months to run through these gains. That means it is possible, or even reasonable, for a woman to expect to be deadlifting or even squatting her own bodyweight within a few months of starting a program. You’d be surprised how strong you can get pretty quickly! Look at Daisy Ridley, who can deadlift more than her bodyweight.

But here’s the thing — you won’t be able to add that weight to your lifts every workout if you don’t eat enough. You can spin your wheels for literally forever working out as much as you can bear, and it’ll never get you anywhere if you aren’t eating. You can’t be a girl who is scared to look at a French fry. Be a woman who scares French fries by looking at them.

How much food you can stomach at a time is not really to do with your metabolism, and how much you weigh, beyond a certain point, is not directly correlated with how much body fat you have. Muscle weighs more than fat. These are hard things to internalize for women, because we have “weight” drilled into us as a metric of intense value. But if you’re trying to lose fat or keep fat off to the point that you’ve dieted all your muscle away just so you can see a certain number on a scale, you’re trying to dig a trench with a thimble. Why would you do that when you can build yourself a shovel? Or better yet, a backhoe? If you invest food in your muscles when lifting heavy, muscles will do a great many things for you, and among them will be a higher resting metabolism. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about comparative “burned calories” during a particular workout, forget the scale for a while, and give your muscles a chance to grow. Figure out how much to eat and stick to it.

On a practical note, I totally hear you on the digestibility point. Eating healthy is important, but most “healthy” foods also take a long damn time to eat and fill you up with only a couple hundred calories. This is great for people on extreme diets (which don’t actually work btw, in part because your muscles waste away) — when you eat slower, you feel fuller before you can finish everything, etc etc. The real problem with “clean eating,” in my opinion, is that it’s exhausting. It is the athleisure of food taken to the extreme, in that you can only participate by eating nothing but fibrous vegetables and grain bowls and plain dry chicken breasts, so you spend your entire day chewing. You literally lose the will to continue eating, that’s why it “works” for some people. Have you ever chewed a bite of wheat berries, or kale? You better be independently wealthy, because you sure won’t have time for a job (pre-chewed “clean” meals are still an emerging category). Real food is important but I don’t have that much time or patience for every component of every meal. My jaw gets tired. And if you’re eating more than 1200 calories a day (which you almost certainly should be if you’re lifting heavy, unless you’re five foot nothing and 95 pounds), you could be over-pacing yourself. Not everything we eat has to be a pile of hard-to-digest fiber.

If you are eating the *right* amount of food, you’re not going to get fat, as you worry. Your muscles need that food, and they will handle it. Eat vegetables and grains, make sure you get enough fiber and your other micronutrients, but also eat your fats and carbs! Have some fries! Have a burger! Have some ice cream! Candy! This is one of the most exciting parts of lifting. If you’re not hitting the calorie intake you need, you can, nay, you must allow yourself some of these more caloric, easy-to-digest foods (This is a school of food thought known as “if it fits your macros,” or IIFYM).

Our modern world has given us virtually infinite varieties of food so digestible that they basically disappear before they even hit your stomach, yet you keep the calories. I highly recommend trying a McDonald’s hamburger if you haven’t had one in a while — it will taste maybe kinda bad but the way that it melts away on your tongue with virtually no chewing is very freaky.

If you do need carbs: cereal, Pop Tarts, cookies, pasta, potatoes, simple breads, pastries, juice. Carbs, especially simple ones, are so deeply vilified right now that I struggle to eat enough of them just out of an already deep-seated cultural mental tic, even though we’ve only been doing this, what, ten years? But I am supposed to eat at least a couple hundred grams a day, which means not only oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich (with bread) for lunch, but also probably pasta or potatoes with dinner. I know.

This digestibility thing is also part of the argument for protein shakes. Eating a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a lot of food, and it can be done with real foods, but if you are getting protein exhaustion, have a little protein shake. Whey in particular is designed to absorb fast and not fill you up.

Now for the practical pull-up advice — there is not a lot of programming for pull-ups, sadly, because most lifting advice is targeted at men, and most men can just do a pull-up. But the thing that works best for getting your pull-up is not assisted pull-ups, like with a machine or even bands, but negatives. One of my favorite lifters/YouTubers, megsquats, came up with a (free) full negatives program targeted at helping people get their pull-up. Jump up so your chin is at the top of the bar, slowly let yourself down. Repeat for sets and reps, and slowly increase the amount of time you take to lower yourself down all the way. Watch the video, download the spreadsheet, eat your food, and get your dang pull-up finally.

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