Matt McLeod | The Akrasia Effect & The Fear of Gaining Fat
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The Akrasia Effect & The Fear of Gaining Fat

If you’ve taken any behavioral psychology class at a college level, you may have heard of The Marshmallow Experiment.

To quickly summarize for those who aren’t familiar, The Marshmallow Experiment was a series of studies conducted by a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children, around the ages of 4 and 5, to better understand self-control and the ability to delay gratification under difficult and frustrating circumstances early on in life and how these responses can better predict long-term developmental outcomes.

The Marshmallow Experiment Setup

The researchers brought each child in a private room by themselves and sat them down in a chair. The researcher then placed a marshmallow on a plate in front of the child and the instructions were very straightforward:

The researcher told the child they were going to leave the room. If the child did not eat the marshmallow by the time the researcher came back into the room, they would reward the child with another marshmallow so they would have two to eat instead one. If the child had eaten the first marshmallow by the time they came back, the child would not receive a second one.

If you couldn’t have guessed, the results were hilarious, interesting, and definitely adorable, to say the least.

Some of the kids plopped the marshmallow into their mouth as soon as the researcher left the room, while others stared, squirmed, and painfully resisted the temptation of the delicious fluffy sugar puff.

For the kids who successfully restrained themselves from eating the first marshmallow, they were joyfully rewarded the second treat once the researcher came back inside (and then devoured both at the same time).

What was most interesting about these studies was not the fact these kids were successful in delaying their gratification with a sugary treat, but the results of the follow-up studies that were produced after observing the same children over a 40 year period, which showed the following:

“The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.” [1]

The kids who were successful in The Marshmallow Experiment performed better in just about every other way compared to the kids who failed the experiment.

The Akrasia Effect of The Marshmallow Experiment

So, what was the issue with the kids who failed the experiment?

If you asked the famous ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates or Aristotle, this same question after watching the video of the experiment, they would likely describe the children’s behavior with their term they coined called akrasia.

I first heard this term from James Clear, who describes akrasia as “the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control. Akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.” [2]

…this sound familiar to any of you?

Yeah, same here. Basically a daily struggle.

As a fitness coach, this struggle is probably the most prevalent when my clients are trying to diet down and lose body fat. On the flip side, it’s also really common for my clients who are trying to gain muscle and actually pack on some muscle because they have a fear of eating more food and putting on undesired body fat as a result.

As I’ve mentioned before in previous blog posts, gaining muscle requires being in a calorie surplus by eating more calories than you are burning. This also means your chances of putting on body fat are higher because those extra calories can’t ALL be shuttled directly into building muscle, unfortunately.

Not only my clients, but many people that talk to me and ask me questions struggle with this form of akrasia, because they know they need to eat more to get more muscle, but there’s a mental block holding them back.

 *Quick disclaimer* - I have only recently started taking on female clients, so my experience and this following scenario is biased towards guys. Sorry ladies, I still love you,  I promise, but I didn't want to talk about situations I am unfamiliar with. However, I hope this story still makes you laugh because I'm sure you know a guy like this. ;)

Think about this:

You’ve reached your goal of becoming relatively lean and you’re at a body fat you are comfortable enough with that you’re ready to start bulking (or you’re just a common “hardgainer” who struggles putting on muscle/weight).

You’re motivated as hell to lift heavy weights and finally pack on that quality muscle mass you see amongst your favorite fitness role models.

You bought tons of “clean” bulking foods at the grocery store, because you know, you’re gonna do it the RIGHT way. Lean bulk, baby.

Hell, you might even get crazy and go on the Seafood diet, if you see food, you’re gonna eat it all. More food = more gainz, right?

So, the first week goes by.

You’ve been strong as an ox in the gym, pumps are feelin’ amazing, and you’re noticing your t-shirts or jeans are fitting a little tighter than they were before.

LET’S GO, ALL ABOARD THE GAIN TRAIN!

Over the weekend, you end up enjoying a couple (maybe 7) drinks with your friends and then you crush some delicious pizza with all the available meat toppings, because brotein is important for muscle growth dude, and in case you didn’t know, cheat meals shock your metabolism for better progress! Bulking is the best!

Week 2 comes.

You’re feeling slightly less hungry all the time like you were the previous week, but you push through it because you’re determined to get jacked. You’re still strong in the gym, but you’re noticing some of your definition and precious veins are starting to be more faded than they were the week before, whilst mirin’ yourself in the gym in your favorite cutoff. By the end of the week, you’re starting to feel “bloated” constantly. When you take your shirt off, you notice that your beloved abs and lines are looking all watery and blurred… panic and increased blood pressure ensues.

HELLLLL NOOOOOOOO, WTFFFFFF?!

All of those calories were supposed to go straight into your muscles?! What happened??

Freaking out, you decide this next week you’re going to punish yourself to undo the damage.

The whole third week includes more lifting, more cardio, more sauna time, and way less food. Maybe even a “cleanse” or “detox” gets thrown in the mix as well.

Your weight ends up going back down, the bloat slightly goes away, and you’re starting to feel less like a fat lard, but now you feel like a weak, skinny-fat, beanpole who doesn’t even lift.

During the fourth week, you don’t really know what to do at all, so you just kinda maintain this current level of skinny-fatness by eating without any plan or structure at all until you get fed-up with being small again after seeing some huge jacked guy you follow on Instagram post some motivational video that get’s you all excited to get big again.

Then repeat.

Do you want to know how I described so much of that with such (maybe slightly exaggerated) detail?

I DID IT.

The main problem with this vicious cycle of “spinning your wheels” is that you make sub-optimal progress at best. The weeks you spent bulking end up getting cancelled out by the weeks where you go back to barely eating anything and dieting again. Causing progress to be a net gain of basically zero.

I empathize with so many of my clients and younger guys who come up to me and say they want to gain muscle, but they’re so afraid of losing their abs. I get it. I totally do.

Luckily, there’s a few different approaches to keep your sacred 6-pack and gain muscle mass.

One of my favorite approaches is called “reverse dieting” and can be accomplished the exact way you would if you wanted to lose body fat and preserve as much muscle as possible:

Slow, controlled, and calculated.

Reverse dieting and how to do it can be a multiple series of posts in and of itself, so read here if you want to find out more.

Main Takeaway

Instead of making this post about reverse dieting and how to “lean bulk” properly, which has been written about plenty of times, I wanted to expand on the “mindshift” people need to make by understanding the behavioral psychology behind the akrasia effect and the fear of gaining fat.

These clients and guys I talk to who are so afraid of losing their 6-pack, yet complain about wanting to be bigger, don’t understand the long-term upside to proper bulking for extended periods of times because they’re only thinking about the short-term instant gratification of seeing their ripped abs and shredded physique.

Just like the kids in The Marshmallow Experiment, you have to be able to delay instant pleasure.

Be the kid who struggles, squirms, and fights inside to resist the marshmallow… yet, still wins because they didn’t give in to temptation.

Aristotle also coined the term enkrateia, which is the antonym of akrasia. It means “in power over oneself”.

Develop this enkrateia, and for the love of God, enjoy your two damn marshmallows. 😉


*BONUS* – QUICK TIPS FROM THE PROS

I reached out to some of the top coaches and athletes in the fitness industry and asked them for their best tips on how to get over the fear of lean bulking and gaining fat. The responses were awesome and I truly appreciate the feedback from each one of them. I HIGHLY recommend you click their link to check them out and follow them.

Here’s what they had to say:

“Short term fear of gaining body fat will short cut long term muscle gain potential. Fat loss is easy and quick, relative to muscle gain. So spend more time focused on gaining weight and then once you’ve built plenty of muscle, then you can always diet.”Danny Lennon, Sigma Nutrition

“It’s ok to be worried about gaining fat, but if you REALLY want to build muscle you need to get over that fear immediately. Keep in mind, if you bulk properly you won’t get fat. At all. You might not have a 6 pack but no one cares if you have a 6 pack or not. Plus, if you start thinking long-term and not short term, if you spend a year or two building SERIOUS muscle and not having a 6 pack, you can get lean and spend the rest of your life jacked and lean.”Jordan Syatt, Syatt Fitness

“I have a lot of females that go through this more so than males, and likely the best advice you’ll see (as far as understanding from the client) will come through on their personal side.  So this is why building a client/coach relationship comes in handy…

.. I am dealing almost exclusively with competitors these days, so my common response lately is on explaining the benefits from restoring healthy hormonal levels in order to put the body in a great place come the end of the offseason. You can add muscle on lower calories, but it will likely be very minimal.  You have to understand the goals of the present and if strength/size is the number 1, then you have to let the reins loosen on some of your others in order to optimize your number 1.

I will also add, you can lean bulk fairly well also, which is tough for that age group to understand haha. So if they are extremely worried, they can simply put that energy into tracking their diet closely and give themselves a small surplus that will be continually giving them more food to grow, continually giving them the signals of overfed to restore hormones, and doing so minimally so you may continue with providing these signals over a longer period of time.”Cliff Wilson, Pro Natural Bodybuilder & Physique Coach

“I would say to not get caught up in the immediate satisfaction of short term results, if you can set your sights long term and demonstrate patience you’ll be able to fully reap the spoils of that patience later. Sometimes in order to take two steps forward you have to take one step back.”Corbin Pierson, IPE Pro Natural Bodybuilder & Coach

“Like most things, different people have different genetic predispositions for gaining fat. This is mostly tied back to individual differences in NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) regulation. In my experience as a coach, I’ve seen lean people massively overfeed by thousands of calories for multiple days per week for multiple weeks on end without much visible fat gain and others seem to spill after just a few big cheat meals. The point is that each individual will need to assess (or have an unbiased eye assess) their own tendencies for fat gain. With that out of the way, I think it is helpful to consider just how much overfeeding needs to occur for a visually significant amount of fat gain to take place regardless of genetic predisposition. 3500 calories can be roughly equated to a lb of fat, and since there are 7 days in a week, a sudden surplus of 500 calories per day would be needed to gain that much fat in a week which assumes there is no up-regulation of NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), EAT (exercise activity thermogenesis), TEF (thermic effect of food), preferential storage of that surplus energy as glycogen or IMTG, or losses in digestion. In short, even though there are genetic differences, it generally takes a good deal of prolonged overfeeding to gain a lot of fat. This should provide solace when contemplating the effects of a single overeating episode (like a binge) or multiple controlled daily increases (like with “reverse dieting” or “lean bulking”).

Generally speaking, and especially for more advanced trainees, a caloric surplus is prudent (although not required) to maximize muscle growth. So when looking at the big picture, it’s important to ensure that you’re not letting a (usually unjustified) fear of fat gain put a limit on your muscle building potential.”Jeff Nippard, WNBF Pro Natural Bodybuilder, IPF Raw Powerlifter, & Coach

“To be patient and not gain too quickly and to focus less on the scale and more on gym performance.”Chris Elkins, WNBF Pro Natural Bodybuilder & Coach

“This can be a fairly complex issue given it involves a person’s psychology, but if I were to reduce it to one tip, I would simply point out that if they bulk responsibly, they will gain a modest amount of fat – not *get* fat – and if things start getting sloppy, it’s usually not difficult to make adjustments to address that.”Ian McCarthy, LiftingForLife

“Focus on something else. It’s why powerlifting is so beneficial. Focus on strength and you won’t be concerned with physique. You also have to ask what you want more. To be sexy or to be an athlete. For me, sport is first, sex appeal is 2nd.”Ryan Doris, Pro Natural Bodybuilder, Powerlifter, & Coach

“Fat loss is much easier  than muscle gain. Unless you get SUPER fat, losing the 5 lbs of fat you gained with the 5 lbs of muscle you gained is a very fixable problem. But if you don’t gain any weight to begin with for fears of getting too fat, you’re definitely never going to have to lose the fat … but you won’t gain the muscle either!”Mike Israetel, PhD in Sport Physiology and Professor at Temple University

“I was and if I am honest I still suffer a bit from Adiposephobia, but now I embrace those 4 requirements, I enjoy my food, I get tonnes out of my training and I see good progress month on month. No spinning my wheels hoping for the scale to respond favourably and shifting my Calories around every other week.

How to rid yourself of Adiposephobia:

  • Accept you will gain weight
  • Accept some of that will be fat
  • Don’t obsess over fluctuations, look over the longer term.
  • Get objective- girth measurements, gym performance, photos etc.

But know that losing fat is MUCH easier than gaining muscle, MUCH MUCH easier.

Don’t waste your time doing nothing much.”Steve Hall, Revive Stronger (to read the article this was adapted from with Steve’s permission, CLICK HERE)


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