(and how to keep a shredded physique throughout the whole year)
Hopefully you are a guy who trains and likes to be in shape. For you, hitting the gym and lifting weights is not even a sport anymore: it is a habit so crucial to your survival as it is to eat or to sleep.
And throughout this never-ending journey, there will be moments in which you will hit a plateau or not see the results you desire. However, due to our natural body limitations, there is not really much you can do about it, unless you start looking for “extra help” (aka steroids) to make you bigger – and totally fuck you up in the long run.
Still, concerning “natural” methods, regardless of which stage you are currently at, surely there will be a moment in which you will hear and come across the concept of “bulk and cut”. Many claim, sometimes vehemently, that if you want to gain weight and muscle mass constantly and progressively, then the only, effective way to achieve it is to alternate between bulking and cutting.
What is bulk and cut anyway?
It is a cycle between “bulking up”, where you add a lot of calories to your diet so that you can gain plenty of weight (a mix of muscle and fat), and “cutting”, where you get rid of that fat, keeping nevertheless some of the muscle you have built before.
In the former, which usually lasts between four and six months, you will be aiming to be in a calorie surplus state, while in the latter, which is normally shorter, lasting between two and four months, you will basically be in a calorie deficit.
And while everything looks great in theory, in real life this method is actually not so great as many guys think it is.
These are the four big reasons why you are better without it:
When bulking, you will most likely gain more fat than muscle
And you know why? Since a calorie surplus is the main goal, most people immediately have this mindset of eating a lot, without really caring about what they are ingesting. So they end up “stuffing” themselves with processed and junk food. Because what matters is quantity over quality, right?
Moreover, since they need to be eating constantly, they will spend more money to feed themselves. And because shitty food is usually much cheaper than healthy, unprocessed food, most guys tend to opt for the former option, as it will have a much lighter impact in their wallets.
Finally, since most guys get so obsessed with keeping that calorie surplus, they will avoid cardio like the plague, ending up with more fat in their body, something which surely they did not wish in the first place.
When you get fat, your fat cells will not only grow in size but also in number:
In this phase, a person typically ends up eating more than he should. Since his priority is to eat like a pig – and because our body also has a limit for nutrient absorption – these extra calories will ultimately be stored in our body as fat. And if you think adding fat does not seem a big deal – “ah I can lose that extra fat easily in my cutting phase” – then you should learn a bit of science.
According to a study of Yale university, once you have created those fat cells, then get ready to…never get rid of them anymore!
You can surely make them shrink and smaller while you are in the process of losing fat. However, it’s virtually impossible to remove those fat cells without surgery. That is the number one reason why people, who once were fat, gain weight back so easily.
And so, the more fat cells you have, the easier and quicker will be for your body to store fat. So the more new fat cells you add to your body, the more difficult it will be to lose fat in the future.
When cutting, you will feel the urge to eat “just like before”
So let’s say you have completed your bulking phase, where you got used to eat a lot for about four months. Then, suddenly and like a machine, you will be ready to live in a constant calorie deficit, right? Right, but only you are a very disciplined one! Otherwise, if you are a common mortal, you will not be able to suddenly switch your chip and say “ok, so now I need to eat 1,000 calories less than before”.
At best, you will be able to adapt within a couple of weeks. However, and more realistic scenario, you will never be able to really reduce that calorie intake, having sudden food cravings which will make you run to the kitchen looking for that tasty chocolate bar.
That is why many guys stay in the bulk phase…forever! Simply because they have got used to ingesting a lot of calories and now they literally suffer to live in scarcity – just like a person who used to live like a king and now finds himself totally broke.
When cutting, it will be difficult not to enter into a “catabolic state”
In fact, and most likely scenario, you will actually end up losing muscle when cutting! Because guys will tend to cut most of the calories, which automatically translates into a reduction of their protein intake, which will lead to muscle breakdown.
First understand the following: a calorie surplus is not (that) necessary to grow muscle. Of course that you will never have “Arnold-gains”, but it is actually possible to grow your muscle fibers if you keep you protein intake high, even when the total number of calories are below your caloric balance or “neutral” muscle-growth state. Because the basis of muscle growth is protein synthesis, protein can be a powerful ally in keeping your muscle, even when on a (slight) calorie deficit.
The problem is that guys tend to only see the “whole picture” when cutting, so they end up reducing (a lot) all kinds of calories. And even if they keep their protein intake high, they might be cutting too much the other two macro nutrients – fat and carbs – which also help in performing at the gym and keeping some muscle. Moreover, what matters is the total calorie intake and if guys are eating too little, even if keeping protein intake high, they will end up losing muscle anyway.
So before I get into detail on what you should do, let me just ask you this:
Are you a power-lifter who wants to set a new world record, a professional bodybuilder preparing himself for a fitness competition or a model who needs to get totally lean for a photo shoot?
If the answers are negative, then immediately ditch this idea that you need to constantly be alternating between cutting and bulking to really shredded.
So this is what you must do to actually look good all year-long:
The “cutting” phase
First of all, you need to understand one thing: if you are fat or not so lean (anything above 15% of body fat for men and 25% for women), then yes, you surely need to cut. Don’t try to build muscle when you still have too much fat, otherwise you will never be able to get rid of that extra body fat.
So your goal must be to reach, at least, those 15% of body fat (because the lower you will want to go in terms of body fat percentage, the more difficult it will be and the more sacrifices you will have to do). If you don’t know how to spot that, you have three options:
To use the good, old mirror and check whether you can see some defined muscles (maybe the abs are the best “proof” to look for);
To buy a scale which also measures body fat. Even if it is far from being accurate, it can already you give you a good indicator of where you are at;
To do a DEXA scan – expensive as hell, but if you have the money, you won’t find a more accurate method than this one.
So in case you have confirmed you are above 15%, now it’s time to live on a calorie deficit – meaning that you should be burning more calories than the ones you consume. However, you shouldn’t go below 20% of your calorie balance (where the number of calories burned and consumed are theoretically the same), as you will risk losing too much muscle.
In my opinion, you should start with cutting 10% and then adapt from that number.
So for instance, if 2,750 calories is the number of your “calorie balance”, then you should start cutting 275 calories. If after one week you don’t see significant results, increase that number to 15% and eventually to 20%, but watch out:
As a rule of thumb, losing more than 1kg per week will most likely result in a significant amount of muscle loss, so the best is to aim for 500g (a about 1lb) per week. Because if that’s the case, where you find yourself losing weight too quickly, you need to increase those calories again by 5-10%.
Of course that the more you lower your weight, the fewer calories you will need, so remember to make the necessary adjustments every two weeks. Also take into account that you must weigh yourself each day, at the same time and under the same conditions, so that your terms of comparison are indeed…comparable.
But whatever you do, remember to keep your protein intake high, so that you can still gain muscle while losing fat – or, at least, that you keep your muscle. As a rule of thumb, take about 2g of per kg of body weight daily. And this don’t apply only to a “cutting phase”, but also to when you will be at a “normal bulking phase”, as we will see later in this article.
In this phase, since you are on a calorie deficit, you will find that your recovery times, and the recover itself, will be harder and longer, simple because you are not giving your body the optimal amount of nutrients to fully recover itself.
That’s why I recommend you to stick to a 3-training-per-week plan, so that your body can rest at least 48 hours between sessions . Be also careful not to train every set to “failure”: since you will most likely be cutting on carbs and fat, your performance will naturally decrease, so don’t speed up the car when there is not so much fuel left.
The “bulking” phase
So let’s say you have finally reached that optimal point where you have between 10 and 15% of body fat. So that’s where you want to start “bulking”, but not like your bros at the gym tell you.
Instead, you must build muscle slowly and progressively, without resorting to crazy diets or cycles. Yes, you must “lean bulk”, not “dirty bulk”.
Of course that, since our body is a balance of calories burned and consumed, if you want to bulk aka build muscle you need to be on a calorie surplus – and consequently, to also gain some fat.
Meaning that, unless you resort to steroids, it is impossible not to add up a little bit of fat while growing muscle. But as long as you are careful with your diet and that percentage won’t go beyond the 15%, everything will be fine.
So again, the same I said regarding cutting applies here, but the other way around. So you should start consuming 10% calories more than the ones you would need to be at an “optimal calorie balance”.
So taking into account the previous example, considering that 2,750 calories would neither build nor break down muscle, you should aim to raise that number to about 3,000 calories. But contrary to the cutting phase, here the progress will be much slower.
Yes, in the end you will only gain around 0,5kg per month! Worse: if you are an experienced lifter, maybe the best you will get will be 0,25 or even 0,20 kg per month! It sounds too little? Well, if after your first year you have 5 or 6kg extra of lean muscle mass, or 3kg more as an experienced lifter, then that will already be a lot!
Surely it is nothing impressive to brag among your bros in the gym, but these are actually the (consistent) numbers you should aim at. So assess your gains every month – and not every week, as if you were cutting – and adjust the necessary calorie consumption accordingly.
Still, I believe you should never go beyond a surplus of 500 calories, as above this value you will most likely start storing a lot of fat (contrary to what some dudes think, many more calories won’t give you extra gains, just extra fat).
“What and how much should I eat?”
In my book “The Complete Plan to Get in Shape and Never Get Sick!”, I suggest 35% of carbs, 30% of protein and 35% of fats. Of course that this can be adapted to your needs and preferences. Just to make sure you consume at least 2g of protein per kg of body weight and that the percentage of fats and carbs is more or less similar.
Last but surely not least, you want to make sure you eat the right calories (hint: this is where most guys screw it). Yes, because a can of Nutella can have the same calories of a can of natural peanut butter, but guess what? They will have a complete different impact in your body!
With that being said, the most important is to eat the right kind of food, not to cut a certain of type of macro-nutrient (read that again). So while we all agree that your protein intake must be high, regardless of whether you are “cutting” or “bulking”, very few agree that carbs ingestion must all be kept at high levels, even when you are cutting.
Why? Well, first you want to rely on glucose, our body’s preferred fuel source, to perform well on the gym. The better you perform, the more you lift. The more you lift, the more muscle you grow. And the more muscle you grow, the more fat you burn. Rocket science, isn’t it?
In addition, studies (here and here) have never shown that a low-carb diet is more effective than a high-carb one in terms of losing fat. True, you may lose more weight when you inhibit your carbs intake, but that’s because you will lose more water – as carbs also convert into glycogen, which usually has a proportion of 1:4 in terms of its storage/water retention.
So if you decrease the carbs, you decrease the glycogen and consequently you lose weight, because of the water which is no longer there. However, that has nothing to do with fat loss.
The bottom line is, as long as you eat whole, nutrient-dense starches such as oats, quinoa, barley, potatoes, rice, beans, peas – but also almost every kind of vegetables and fruit – and avoid high-processed foods and refined sugar, you will be able to become lean.
Lastly, the same with fat: while fat was the root of all evil twenty years ago, it seems that nowadays is the secret…to lose weight. Well, like everything, balance is the key, so it all comes down to the type of fat you eat.
But a rule of thumb, just avoid trans fat at all costs and make sure the majority of your fat intake is based on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat (still, saturated fat is important, and should make up a total of 30% of your daily fat intake).
Choose real over processed foods.
Choose whole grains over refined sugars.
Choose butter instead of margarine.
Choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate.
Choose nuts instead of cookies and cakes.
Choose olive oil instead of sunflower oil.
Choose whole fruit instead of juices.
In order to stay muscular and lean, you must always have a percentage of body fat between 10% and 15%. Less than that and you will be too much on the skinny side (and with a tendency to lose muscle), more than that and your abs will start “disappearing”.
If you first need to cut to reach this percentage of body fat, go ahead. But understand that your baseline and optimal state should be to (lean) “bulk” slowly and progressively.
There is absolutely no reason why you can’t build muscle while adding a little fat. This has been my method in many years, and I have always been able to build muscle, while always keeping a lean appearance (see picture above).
Just make sure you KNOW the number of calories you need and you adjust those amounts according to where you want to go. And remember: you must eat healthy, but that does not mean you need to be starving and doing sacrifices the whole time.
As long as you eat high dense foods and you control your calories, there is no reason for you to do any diet or sacrifices.
Your main goal should be to have what I like to call a “progressive maintenance/slowly bulking”, instead of bulking like crazy – where you will gain a lot of fat in the whole process.
But not everything is a about calories and food, you also need to exercise:
Use progressive and heavy load, not “light lifting for fat burn”. The former is what actually builds muscle and also burns fat, while the latter is just bullshit bro science.
If you train hard and lift heavy, of course that there will be a point in which you will reach a plateau or your progress will be quite steady. But that does not mean you need to come up with 30 variations of training.
Just alternate between two or three training methods (check my ebook for more details), changing it anytime you feel you won’t be able to add any more weight to the barbel.
Finally, regardless of whether you are “cutting or bulking”, always add HIIT/Tabata to your weekly plan and ditch ineffective aerobic exercises such as jogging.
The former basically burns more fat and also takes you much less time – not only because the exercise works your whole body and muscles, but especially because it takes a maximum of 20 minutes – compared to the “traditional” cardio methods.
In this life, when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, and in regard to your body this motto is surely no exception. Our existence is hard, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid difficulties and choose the easy path instead, filled with instant gratification.
That’s why you need to see your body and muscle growth as a marathon, not as a sprint.
Because trust me, if someone sells you the promise of “easy, quick gains”, they will be basing it either on something unnatural (aka steroids) or on some methods which will hurt you in the long run – resulting in excess of fat and in a tendency to eat a lot and to gain weight, over and over again.
So what do you prefer? To be patient and to achieve slow, but real results? Or to cut corners and to choose the quick, tricky way?
As everything in life, we are the product of our own decisions, so it will be up to you which path you will want to walk.