Nutrition Part 3: Bulking and cutting diets are not for you
If you have taken even a passing interest in bodybuilding, weight training or strength sports such as rugby two words you will come across sooner rather than later are ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’.
These words have entered the training vernacular in the form of someone telling you ‘they’re going on a bulk’, or in their ‘cutting phase’.
First popularised by bodybuilders these days the concepts are common enough that even the beginner weight lifter will claim that they are on a bulk to gain mass, or they are cutting for the summer to get lean.
Does it really work like that? Can you ‘pack on weight’ and then diet off the fat to leave you with the big and lean physique that is the ideal for aesthetics but also for sports like rugby?
Let’s start by looking at the definitions.
What is ‘bulking’?
Bulking is when the trainee decides they need to put on some muscle. In order to grow you need to train hard and then feed the body enough to make the muscle build back bigger and stronger.
But how do you know how much food is enough? You could calculate your nutrition needs based on how many calories you use per day and make sure your intake is higher to provide excess calories to grow. But you also need to make sure that your protein intake is enough to synthesis new muscle after training (i.e. you have enough protein to repair your muscle tissue after workouts).
However there are a lot of contradictory statements out there on how much protein you need. Some studies claim t hat you need 2 grams per pound of bodyweight per day, some say 1.8 grams per pound, some say 1 is enough etc etc.
The problem is if you exceed you calorific needs too much, you body will store the excess energy as fat.
The second problem is most people cannot be bothered to weigh and calculate their food to get the exact number.
The solution is the bulking diet.
Essentially, the theory is that fat gain is inevitable and acceptable if you are trying to keep a calorie excess and build muscle.
Like their favourite bodybuilders the trainee will thus embark on a period where eating ‘clean’ (i.e. very healthy but boring and trying to minimise fat intake) is not a priority; they are just going to train hard and then eat to make sure they get over their 4000 calorie a day threshold.
This period is usually in the winter months, with the view to building some ‘mass’. Once summer comes around and it’s time to hit the beach or the holidays you can just diet off the fat using…
The Cutting diet
Cutting is the opposite of bulking. You start to clean up your diet, and do more cardio to shed the fat that is covering the new muscle you put on during your bulk.
As advertised in the magazines this is a period of maybe 6-10 weeks where you are not going to be able to eat the foods you like, but hey, it’s worth it for when you turn heads at the beach, and there is always the solace that you can jump back on the bulking diet again once the sun goes away and the jumpers come out.
Then you can be even bigger and next year!
What’s more is that this really works, all the bodybuilders swear by it, and even actors go on bulks to pack on the mass for a movie then slim down again once it is over!
Let’s break down why this does not work for naturals
1. Building muscle takes time, and progress takes longer the more advanced you are. Eating a lot is not going to make you put on muscle faster because your hormone level can only support a limited amount of muscle: if you have been training hard for a couple of years you are probably already 70% of the way to this limit and the last 30% is going to come ever more slowly, if at all.
Adding 5 lbs of real muscle a year for a natural advanced trainer (4-5 years +) is pretty good going. If that person’s weight goes up by 30 lbs after a bulk, most of that weight is fat, not muscle.
Bodybuilders and actors who do the whole ‘transformation’ thing where they bulk their weight up and then cut to get lean while preserving their muscle gains in a short time use drugs to achieve this.
2. Fat gain should be avoided. Aside from the health issues with putting on fat (like raising cholesterol and increasing heart disease risk) from a natural training perspective fat gain should definitely be avoided.
This is particularly true for those who are teenagers or young adults. Put simply, there are studies that conclude that the fat cells you create as an adolescent stay with you for life. Once you enter adulthood with these cells you can’t get rid of them, all you can do is change their size.
This is why people who were overweight in their youth have a more difficult time in keeping the weight off; they have more fat cells they can’t get rid of.
There is conflicting opinion on whether you can gain fat cells as an adult but the bottom line is that you really want to minimise the number of fat cells you create and their size; as point 1 describes the weight you put on during a bulk will mostly be fat because muscle is not synthesised that fast, meaning you are either adding new fat cells you can’t get rid of or you are increasing the size of the ones you have.
This is bad for naturals because…
3. It is hard to lose fat and get lean without losing muscle. While it is possible to get lean and have some muscle mass through long-term adaptation of your lifestyle, training and diet if you try to ‘diet off’ your fat you will definitely lose muscle mass, if you are natural.
This is because your body is not bothered about your training goals. What is recognises when you suddenly cut your energy intake is that it is not getting enough fuel.
Your fat is used to provide energy but as muscle is a high calorie demand tissue it will also be sacrificed; the loss can be reduced by continuing to work out (and thus keep the body responding to the need for adaptive stress) but you will lose a noticeable amount.
As I have said before in my muscle mass limits post, someone who is natural and a true 8-9% bodyfat (lean enough to clearly see the six-pack) will look relatively skinny, especially with a t-shirt on.
The bodybuilders and fitness models get around this problem by using specific steroids that can not only increase the quality and amount of muscle they hold, but actually lose fat whilst not having to eat especially clean.
So what is best for a natural?
Natural training is all about the long game.
Remember that being in a muscular and lean state is not the optimum for your body in terms of pure survival; in a food scarce situation it is much better to be strong and light while holding the minimal amount of muscle, with perhaps even a bit of fat as an energy store and insulation from the cold.
Your body couldn’t care less that you have a beach holiday in 8 weeks to be ready for.
The best, and only, real way of producing results for a natural is to get your training right and eat healthily with a protein emphasis; what you should strive for is a gradual steady gain in weight and mass, minimising the amount of fat and trying to ensure the weight you gain is actual muscle.
Sure, as you get more advanced this weight gain might be only a few pounds a year, but at least you will keep this muscle as long as you continue to train. That’s the reality of things for those who want to get somewhere but don’t want to use drugs.
Shortcuts and misinformation
It might sound like I look down on those who take steroids but I actually don’t have anything against it, provided they are used purposefully and with knowledge (so not like the idiots who have been training for a year and decide to shoot up from impatience and the sole goal of 18 inch biceps. These are the guys who will get hurt).
Steroids are a training choice for someone who has pushed it as far as they can go naturally and want to go the extra mile, with knowledge and purpose.
However what annoys me is the dishonesty in the whole industry regarding the prevalence of steroids and drug use in advertising, selling false promises, profiting from public ignorance and playing on the ‘want-results-yesterday’ mindset of society that they encourage.
There are even many fitness professionals who are clearly on drugs but claim to be natural who will show how they have even put on muscle while losing fat at the same time. This is usually followed by a sales pitch for their revolutionary new powder that helped them do it.
Make no mistake, getting bigger and leaner at the same time is impossible. It is contradictory, and biologically it doesn’t make sense.
The only way to achieve this is by taking drugs, all of which have side effects.
When you don’t get the same results from their ‘formula’, they will remind you that well, they have ‘elite’ genetics and a training intensity you could never imagine. It’s their get-out-of-jail-free card. And complete bullshit, because if you took their drug stack away they would struggle the same as you.
Don’t fall for the hype
The only diet you really need is one of healthy living and a desire to learn to train hard and properly. Results don’t come quickly, and fluctuating your weight up and down on a yearly basis is no good for you.
Be consistent, and your effort over time will bring the results.