Should you bulk? Cut? Maintain?
When I take on a new client, I ask them many questions, one of them being “What do you want working with me?”
The number one answer: “Lose weight and build muscle”
Sounds simple enough, right?
Unfortunately, in MOST cases, this isn’t possible.
But wait…don’t people do this all the time?
Not really. It just SEEMS that way.
Unfortunately, the nutrition and fitness world has been lying to you by making promises it can’t keep.
In reality, each of these “goals” (cut, bulk, maintain) are reached in entirely different ways. To build muscle, you need to be in a surplus of calories, eating more than what you’re expending. To lose weight, you need to be eating in a deficit by eating fewer calories than you’re expending. Maintaining is a bit of a different story and is done for different reasons, as well, which I’ll get into later. Because each of these goals are reached in different ways, it’s very hard—and pretty much unrealistic—to expect that one way would accomplish very different goals. Instead, you need to prioritize each of these goals at different times throughout the year.
This all comes to a topic called the Triangle of Awareness, a term dubbed by Jason Phillips, founder of NCI and iN3 Coaching. In the triangle of awareness, you have three points of the triangle: aesthetics, health, and performance. Each of these relate to the goals previously mentioned.
Aesthetics would be attained by cutting. When prioritizing aesthetics, you’re sacrificing a bit of strength. You’re eating in a deficit and structuring your training by reducing volume and intensity and focusing on isolated more bodybuilding-type movements. This structure will not only protect your muscles from damage. If you’re not fueling your body for the high intense exercises you typically you, your body will begin to break down muscle and you’ll be more prone to injury, fatigue, burnout, and metabolic adaptation. The goal here is to lose weight by burning fat and preserving muscle. This is done in almost all cases by going into a deficit, meaning you’re eating less than what you’re burning. This inadvertently means that your glycogen stores are not full, which is what we want so that your body will rely on burning excess fat as fuel. This means, however, that performance and health are going to take a hit. You’re likely not going to PR when focusing on aesthetics. Going into a deficit is a stressor. Your sleep, hormones, metabolism, etc. will take a hit, which is why we limit these periods of cutting to 8-12 weeks as to not compromise your health.
Performance would be achieved by going through a bulk, mass, or building muscle phase. When prioritizing performance, you need to be optimally and maximally fueled meaning you are eating at maintenance or above. Your goal here is to meet your caloric expenditure…at least and in most cases surpassing that expenditure. In the cases of building muscle, you’re going to need extra calories to add extra pounds. Eating in a deficit will not give your body the building blocks it needs to promote muscle protein synthesis (process of building muscle). During times of peak performance (like in the case of CrossFit Games athletes) or times of bulking and putting on muscle, athletes are not at their leanest state…and they shouldn’t be. Leanness doesn’t always equate to strength, despite the appearance. Just look at who the heavy weight champion is this year and how much debate there is about it. If you follow CrossFit, a couple years ago an athlete showed up to the gains shredded. Years before, she’d always been a bit thicker and was strong as hell, always finishing in the Top 10. The year she showed up shredded, she had her worst performance because she lost a lot of her strength. Health does take a hit as well when prioritizing performance. During a bulk/mass, you’re eating in a surplus and more prone to insulin resistance, weight gain, reduced cardiovascular performance, etc. During competition season when performance is a must, your health takes a huge hit. You’re ignoring those aches and pains. You’re doing everything you can to perform at top shape. This brings a ton of stress onto the body. This is only temporary and again is why performance-periods are limited in time.
Lastly, health or longevity would be achieved simply by maintaining caloric intake. While maintaining intake, you’re focusing on all the important biofeedback markers: sleep, energy, gut health, hormone health, sex drive, recovery, etc. You’re eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, and proteins 80% of the time, and enjoying life the remaining 20% of the time. These periods usually mark the transition before and after cuts and bulks. They’re your breaks to reset your metabolism, reset your insulin, and boost your mental sanity and adherence. 8-12 weeks of cutting is hard. If you don’t spend time at maintenance prioritizing your health, then it makes the next 8-12 week that much harder.
To be successful with any one of these, you have to prioritize one or the other. In a perfect world, it’d be great to achieve all three at the same time…and it is possible to have all three (keep reading).
Think of it like school. You don’t just show up to school and have one class from 8-3 where you learn a slew of random information. It’s organized and structured into subjects and classes. Each class progresses to the next. Each class has a timeline. You don’t show up to second grade with a teacher trying to teach calculus and integrations before teaching basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
So now the million dollar question…How do you decide where to start and which to prioritize?
In many cases, it can come down to looking at your body fat percentage. Generally, people with higher body fat percentages (more overweight) should look at cutting first before bulking. Lean individuals or people with little muscle mass would do best to put on muscle first by bulking because they don’t have much to cut from.
This isn’t always the case. Not everyone with high body fat should necessarily cut and not everyone with low BF should necessarily bulk. One of the biggest factors is training experience.
You should consider cutting if you…
Are >20% body fat for males or >30% for females
Are overweight or have a significant amount of weight to lose
Are unhappy with your appearance and would like clothes to fit better (it’s okay to feel this)
Are generally strong and physically capable but your body doesn’t show it (yet)
Have gone through a gaining phase or maintenance period for at least 3 months
Will be stressed and overwhelmed going into a gaining phase and gain >5 lbs (a combo of muscle and fat)
You should not consider cutting if you…
Are already lean (<10% BF for males and <15% BF for females)
Have not spent any time at maintenance
Are “skinny fat” (not a term I enjoy but it does get the point across)
Are eating less than 1500-1600 calories
Are near a competition
Are enjoying heavy lifting and don’t want to spend time adjusting your training intensity and volume
Have a busy schedule coming up (travel, vacations, potential stressors)
You should consider going into a gaining phase if you…
Are below 15% body fat for males and 20-25% body fat for females (contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be at your leanest point before going into a gaining phase)
Want to prioritize strength and make PRs
Are looking to build muscle composition
Are “skinny fat” – meaning thin enough but with little muscle definition
You should not consider gaining weight if you…
Are above 25% BF for males and 30% BF for females
Are not mentally prepared or willing to allow for weight gain
Are not mentally prepared to see a loss of abs (you will gain some fat…only temporarily!)
Are not willing to adjust training to promote muscle growth
Are not lifting weights
Are not willing to eat the food required to eat in a surplus
You should maintain if you…
Have recently (in the past 1-3 months) been in a deficit
Have poor biofeedback (poor sleep, no sex drive, no hunger, no energy, high cravings)
Are not mentally ready for a cut or gaining phase
Have a busy schedule coming up with a lot of external stressors
Are looking for a sustainable, healthy lifestyle
Are happy with where you’re at aesthetically
Have not been in a maintenance for more than 3 months
You should not maintain if you…
Have been at maintenance for 3 months or more
Are ready (physically and mentally) for a cut or gaining phase
The one exception to all of this is the in the case of novice athletes. If you are new to weight training, meaning you’ve been lifting weights for less than 9 months, then you don’t even need to consider any of these points. The beauty of resistance training is that it works, and it works well and creates massive adaptations. The biggest “gains” that you will get will be in the first year of lifting because your body is still adapting neurologically to the process of lifting weights, going through the movements, and using specific muscle groups. There is no need to cut or gain or adjust your calories…because you’re going to get the results. Why go through the stress of doing more when you don’t need to? For novice lifters (meaning <1 year experience), all you need to do is bring your caloric intake to maintenance (or close to it) and restructure macros to include an appropriate amount of protein, fats, and carbs to support your body and the changes it will be undergoing.
Now the question you’ve been asking…How do you get all three?
You periodize your training.
Plan 1-2 periods out of the year where you plan to cut. Cuts typically last 8-12 weeks. You’ll then factor in a month to reverse and a subsequent 2-3 months to maintain and recover. From there you can reassess about going into another cut, or you can continue into an 8-12 week gaining phase. Typically, I suggest spending a 4:1 ratio of time gaining/maintenance compared to cutting.
Now I know this seems daunting. This is 100% why I recommend working with an experienced coach whose job it is to know and do just this. Diet with a plan. Gain muscle with a plan. Doing so will guarantee MORE success than if you just put yourself into a deficit and go at it blind.
To apply for coaching with me, follow this link to get started.