Balance is Crucial: Bulking and Cutting

Posted March 14, 2017 by

Do you ever feel like you’re on a “perma-bulk” or always seem to be in a cutting phase?

Most of us are genetically predisposed to either carrying more body fat than we’d prefer, or less muscle mass than we’d like. Only the lucky few are naturally inclined towards those lean bodies packed with muscle.

While there’s a greater proportion  of the lucky individuals in the world of competition compared to the general population, plenty of competitors still land on either side of the spectrum.

As such, we tend to gravitate towards the eating/training style that matches our natural struggle–those of us who struggle to lose weight are always eating at a calorie deficit and doing a lot of cardio, while the “hardgainers” among us pack away calories day after day and spend a lot of time pumping iron.

The Right Plan Makes All the Difference

As a competitor, it’s assumed that you’ve already achieved a peak body condition, but how you’re approaching the maintenance or further progression of you physique becomes the primary question at hand–and most of us just continue doing what we’re used to, even if we’re seeing worse results over time from it.

Why would we see worse results? We’ve already reviewed the issues with remaining in a calorie deficit for too long of a period of time, but there are issues with bulking for too long as well.

Namely, the more body fat you gain, the more likely it is that future weight gain will be of a higher fat proportion.

Using a Practical Example

To make the above easier to understand, let’s use an example.

Take two athletes with relatively similar metabolisms, fitness abilities and strength levels, both of whom are 150 lbs, and one is currently 8% body fat while the other is 12% body fat.

Both athletes gain 10 lbs over a three month period. The athlete who started in a leaner state will have likely gained more muscle mass within that 10 lbs (e.g. 70% as muscle, 30% as fat) versus the fatter athlete (50% split as muscle/fat).

There’s no real ability to prevent gaining some body fat when eating a calorie surplus (which is required for building muscle), just like there’s no ability to prevent all muscle loss while in a deficit.

Since the more fat you have, the easier it is to gain fat, and the leaner you are, the more your body is primed to lose muscle, you can see that spending all your time on one side of the coin creates diminishing returns that eventually result in a worse condition than you started at.

Cutting and Bulking Provides Balance

However (and this is the key point), we can minimize the unwanted gains/losses as much as possible by simply balancing periods of surplus with periods of deficit.

Traditionally, bodybuilders would honor this balance by alternating extremes: huge bulks where they would eat 5,000+ calories a day, packing on huge amounts of body fat along with their muscle, and extreme cuts where they would drop weight extremely quickly but lose a considerable amount of muscle in the process.

This method has it’s own issues; each time you gain large amounts of body fat, your body adds new fat cells to store the additional fat. Unfortunately, it’s a one-way road. Our bodies can add fat cells but can never remove them (losing body fat doesn’t eliminate the cells, it just empties them).

Our bodies tend towards a return to equilibrium when given the chance, so a better approach to the traditional bulk and cut (or sticking to one side permanently) is to focus on gradually moving that equilibrium point towards a leaner, more muscular physique by alternating more frequently between periods of slighter surpluses and deficits.

Mini Cuts and Bulks are Better than Traditional Cuts and Bulks

We like using the terms “mini cut” and “mini bulk” with our athletes, because it allows them to associate it with the traditional cut and bulk routine, but at a lesser level.

When an athlete first comes to us, we assess whether we need to prioritize leaning out or gaining muscle first. If the athlete is overfat and overeating, then they need to begin with a calorie deficit to strip off the fat and allow a future gaining phase to be more efficient. If they lack muscle mass, we will start with a building phase.

We establish an upper body fat limit (which allows us to know when to end the mini bulk) and a lower strength/performance loss limit (which allows us to know when to end the mini cut). This way, we can keep them in the ideal range of calories that maximizes fat loss on their cuts while maintaining as much lean mass as possible, and minimizing fat gain during their building phases.

Another Practical Example

For instance, we might set the maximum fat level for a female athlete at 18%, and her maximum strength loss on 3 rep maxes for compound movements to 10% of her peak.

If our athlete has just completed a cutting stage (because they lost more than 10% of their strength in their lifts), we would move into a period of calorie surplus and focus on building back the strength and muscle mass. After a few weeks, we likely would have regained the lost strength/muscle, and be able to continue past that point towards a higher strength level and more muscle mass.

Because body fat levels would be slowly rising during the surplus phase, eventually we would hit the 18% limit, and would once again return to a calorie deficit to melt off the fat we gained during the surplus. Because we’re not overfat, the fat loss will be easier and result in minimal muscle loss.

Thus, the athlete would end that second cutting phase at a higher muscle mass level than the first time around. It’s this zig-zag approach that slowly guides us not only towards the genetic potential for this athlete, but bringing the equilibrium state (where the body wants to return to) as close to this peak as possible.

Obviously, for the weeks leading up to an actual competition we may have to allow for more strength loss than this but it serves well during periods of the year outside of the immediate content prep phases.

Gravitating Towards an Optimized Physique Year-Round

The benefits to this approach are numerous. Obviously, more extreme side effects of heavy dieting or overeating can be averted. We don’t see the huge gains of fat post-competition that then requires months to take off.

The athlete has more freedom to compete year-round rather than in seasons, because they’re never more than three months or so from being stage ready–and the longer we stick to this approach, the closer and closer to stage condition their equalibrium becomes, shortening the time it takes to get stage ready.

Imagine being able to prep for a show in 6-8 weeks at any time of the year, without having to go on a painful cut that results in a loss of months to years of progress in mass and strength gains?

That’s essentially the end goal of this approach, and it’s drastically more effective at achieving this than heavy bulking and cutting, or sticking to permanent cuts and bulks would be.

Although you may start your bodybuilding career with a physique that, when maintaining, tends to store more fat and less muscle than you’d prefer, the more times you alternate between periods of subtle deficit and surplus, the more you will move the “set point” towards a physique that is leaner and carries more muscle at your body’s preferred weight.

If you want bodybuilding to be a long term hobby or career, then it’s important to approach your physique improvements in this manner.

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