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What with all the podcasts, websites, and Instagram accounts where athletes and coaches share their experience, today it’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to professional bodybuilders and powerlifters. When I first looked up lifting, I had that exact problem: I found a lot of advice and information for athletes, but I either didn’t realise I wasn’t the intended audience, or I thought it was still appropriate for my recreational training.
For example, I thought I had to cut and bulk on a regular basis, when that isn’t always the case. Since those early days I’ve learnt when and why athletes take either nutritional approach, when these strategies are sustainable for recreational lifters like me, and when and how to implement them over the course of my training.
If you’ve been asking yourself whether you should cut or bulk, take a look at this article!
What Is a Cut?
The aim of competitive bodybuilding is to display muscle mass, definition, and symmetry in an artistic fashion. An important element to emphasise the appearance of one’s lean mass is to carry as little body fat as possible. In competitive powerlifting, powerlifters straddling two weight classes may deem it appropriate to shed body fat to be the heaviest – and therefore potentially the strongest – in the lower of the two.
For either reason, athletes enter a fat loss phase called a “cut” months before their competition. Powerlifters may only cut for a few weeks and then maintain. On the other hand, bodybuilders utilise a longer, more structured and aggressive approach to get as close as possible to what’s called essential fat, the bare minimum amount we need to survive.
After the competitive season, a bodybuilder’s goal is to return to a healthy body fat level and then start to increase muscle mass, usually with a bulk. When they plan to compete again, they begin another cut and repeat the cycle.
When I began lifting, I went on a four-month cut, then switched to a different strategy to build muscle mass. At the time, I was convinced I would need to often alternate muscle-building phases to fat loss phases.
After shedding my excess fat, I realised I’m not on a schedule. I don’t have to get shredded in time for any competition. My real goal is to look good, to improve my lifting performance, and to ensure both my training career and my life are as long and healthful as possible. To achieve this, a consistent quality approach to training and nutrition is much more reasonable to maximise adherence and motivation, to see consistent results in my training, and to prevent excessive fat regain.
However, I still believe an occasional cut has its place. In particular, for someone like me, a fat loss phase would be truly beneficial in two scenarios:
Case 1: Beginner Lifters
Beginners with a high body fat level may be able to recomp, shedding fat and building muscle at the same time. For example, when I decided to cut, my estimated body fat percentage was 24%, on the upper end of the “fitness” range, according to the American Council of Exercise. Moreover, my waist circumference put me at increased risk for heart disease, as my body tends to deposit fat in that area. Being a small guy with little to no real muscle mass, I was skinny fat. I was also a beginner, so I experienced an increase in strength as well as muscle growth and definition.
Case 2: More Experienced Lifters with Excessive Body Fat
If your body fat level is high and you want to achieve a leaner look, a few months on a diet can benefit your overall health. In this case, a reasonable goal is a body fat percentage within the “fitness” range, which is 21%–24% for female bodies and 14%–17% for male bodies*. If you have been training for more than six to twelve months, you may not build muscle during a cut, especially at more advanced levels. In fact, you have to be careful not to lose your existing lean mass by dropping weight too fast.
*Transgender guys and girls should use their anatomical sex for reference until their bodies undergo body fat redistribution on hormone therapy. Moreover, transgender guys should also wait until their period stops, as the menstrual cycle influences weight fluctuations. Each individual is different, but, as a rule of thumb, six months on HRT is a good place to switch to your real gender for reference.
When I say my body fat percentage used to be at around 24%, I’m referring to the range for female bodies. The correct frame of reference will help you make beneficial choices that don’t harm you or disappoint you with a lack of results.
How to Cut
You should aim to lose 1 to 2 lbs per week (450 to 900 gr) to retain muscle mass and promote long-term sustainability.
Your cut should involve a gradual progression, tailored to your own individual results over time, not a sudden plunge into a large deficit. Your body is going to adapt to reduced intakes over time, meaning the weight loss will slow down. If you start with a moderate deficit, getting out of a plateau will be easier than if you’re already only eating 1,200 kcal and you need to go even lower. Moreover, an aggressive deficit may also increase your risk to develop disordered eating patterns, feelings of starvation and weakness, an inability to focus, and obsessive thoughts about food.
Here is a quick guide to setting up your deficit:
Use a calculator to estimate your current energy expenditure, which is the amount of calories you burn on a daily basis. Reduce this number by 500 kcal, preferably from fat (9 kcal per gram) or carbs (4 kcal per gram), not protein (4 kcal per gram). In fact, it’s best to keep your protein intake high as it helps make you feel more sated and hold onto muscle mass during a fat loss diet. A daily 500 kcal deficit amounts to a 3,500 kcal weekly deficit, which means you would be losing 1 lbs per week. This method is a good starting point, but you may need to make personalised adjustments along the way.
For instance, very big individuals and those with a smaller build may benefit from a larger or smaller deficit respectively. If one is eating way above their caloric expenditure, reducing the intake to match that estimation may yield initial weight loss. On the other hand, for smaller people who wish to lose excess fat, a smaller deficit could be enough to trigger an initial loss. To maintain lean mass, make consistent progress, and promote sustainability, I would not recommend deficits yielding more than 2 lbs weight loss per week or deficits smaller than 250-300 kcal per day.
What Is a Bulk?
If you don’t need to cut, you may think you must bulk in order to add muscle mass. However, eating at around maintenance and focusing on improving training performance, it’s possible to increase muscle mass with minimal fat gain, albeit at a slower rate than if you were bulking.
Indeed, a slight caloric surplus on a high-protein diet has been shown to be beneficial to increase muscle mass (click), so you may still wish to bulk.
How to Bulk
We build muscle more slowly than we lose fat, so an appropriate rate of weight gain will be slower than the rate of weight loss. 1 lbs a month (450 gr) for female bodies and 1-2 lbs (450 gr-1 kg) for male bodies are good averages to shoot for in order to avoid excessive fat gain.
Muscle mass burns more calories, so a bulk will also include a progression: the more muscle you add, the more calories you will burn and therefore need to keep gaining. In addition, the longer you lift, the more intense your workouts will become, further increasing the total calories you burn. Lastly, if you’re coming out of a cut, your maintenance calories will be higher than the caloric intake at which you ended the fat loss phase.
A good starting point is a moderate caloric surplus, such as a 10% to 15% increase of your current estimated caloric expenditure. A female body would be less likely to store excessive fat on the lower end of the spectrum, whereas a male body may benefit from the upper end without negative results.
Whether you want to gain muscle or lose fat, bear in mind that either process takes time. I find I have much better results if I assess progress monthly rather than week by week. For example, when I began my bulk I gained 1 lbs in the first week, but over the course of four weeks my net gain ended up being only 1 lbs in total.
Previously, I had tried to bulk, but reduced my caloric intake when I saw I’d gained 2 lbs in a single week… only to find out that at the end of the month I’d in fact lost weight. To avoid frustration, collect at least four weeks of data (weight and body measurements taken on a daily basis or at least three days per week) to inform your assessment.
In Future Episodes:
Find out how I apply the principles outlined in this article, my current training programme, diet, positive and negative results, and more in my new bulk update next week!
Are you a recreational lifter? What are your thoughts on cuts and bulks?
A personal trainer who likes superheroes, bread, lifting weights, and studying “fitness stuff”.
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