When you get into bodybuilding and wanting to build muscle, you sooner than later come across the term “bulking and cutting.” Here is why you can entirely forget about the concept.
Cutting Is Voluntary Self-Torture
Let’s go back to me a little more than five years ago. I was 196 lbs, unhappy and wanted to change that. After a complete diet failure I researched the subject of losing weight and came to the realization that it simply is calories in vs. out that mattered. It then took me four months of self-control and strict calorie counting to lose about 35 lbs.
During those four months there was more than one night where I was intensely hungry, got up and grabbed one of my low cal “emergency foods” to let me survive until the next real meal. When it was all over, I was proud of what I had achieved, but it certainly is no experience I want to repeat.
Yet out there there is an entire class of bodybuilders who do nothing but. For four months they “bulk,” meaning they gorge themselves on heaps of whatever food is available to them. For another four they then go on a diet, do insane amounts of cardio, throw in some useless “fat burners” and call it “cutting.” Effectively, these people look good for just one-third of the year.
When you ask why they do it, you are told that your body needs heaps of extra calories to build muscle and that you can’t build muscle while on a diet. In their world, you have to gain fat to gain muscle, and you can’t gain muscle when you try to lose the fat.
Are Extra Calories Needed For Muscle?
First of all, the bulking and cutting crew does build muscle mass when they go through with their bulking program. But it has nothing to do with all those extra calories they believe they have to eat. For your muscles to optimally grow, you need to put a checkmark on three things:
- Training with enough resistance
- Having carbs in your system to fuel your workouts
- Getting protein, because it gives the body the material to build muscle mass
Doing these without going overboard with your daily calories requires some careful planning and the bulk and cut people just take the easy way out. They eat tons of food, that way fulfilling their protein and carb needs, and together with the workouts they do that lets them build muscle. But the extra calories they are consuming simply end up on their bodies as fat, that they then laboriously try to get rid of.
It also makes no difference if they do this as what some people call “clean bulking,” meaning they eat foods high in protein and all the other good stuff. Extra calories are extra calories – once your body has all the carbs and protein it needs, it will convert the rest to fat.
No Increase In Muscle Mass During Cutting?
That directly leads us over to the related idea of not being able to build muscle mass while losing weight (the “cutting”). This is a complete misunderstanding about how the body works among some so-called “workout pros.”
They believe the body is a single system, that can only be in either the “building stuff” (anabolic) or “breaking down stuff” (catabolic) mode. In reality, both happen simultaneously in our bodies all the time. It is perfectly possible for your body to build muscle mass during a diet, because the breakdown of fat cells and the construction of muscle tissue are independent.
The only people where this doesn’t work are those whose body fat percentage is around at 5-7%. In them, the body’s energy reserves in form of fat are already quite low, so when they try to diet further, the body likely has to use all nutrients you provide it with as fuel.
How You Should You Eat
Now if you shouldn’t do bulking and cutting, what should you do? Easy:
- If you have an average body fat percentage and are happy with it, follow the nutritional guidelines I posted here, keeping your daily calories at maintenance level (eating about the number of calories the calculator in that article gives you).
- If you want to lower your body fat while building muscle, you need to once more use that calculator, but eat 500 – 1,000 kcal below the number you get, while still having enough protein and carbs.
- If you already have a low body fat percentage (hint: a visible six-pack is a good indication), you can get away with eating slightly above maintenance, but from time to time will have to limit calories. It simply is impossible to always adequately judge how many nutrients and calories you need, so you will more or less hover around it. Erring a bit on the safe side goes ok here.
Bulk Or Cut? Neither!
In a way, the last method could be defined as “bulking and cutting,” but it is a far cry from what many bodybuilders see as that concept and only concerns a limited group of people.
Those of you who simply want to build some muscle don’t have to worry about it. If at all, it only comes in much later.
Picture courtesy of “Noodles and Beef“.