This is a departure from my normal pseudo philosophy, but it’s something I wished I knew when I first started training, and it’s something I want to pass on to others.
I have said it many times before; the notions of bulking and cutting are far more destructive than they are beneficial. Way too many beginner trainees get fixated on these terms, and they learn to understand training and nutrition as a very binary approach, when in reality there is infinitely more grey than there is black and white.
You were already making the joke in your head
Ultimately, these terms are misused, and it results in a fundamental misunderstanding of the goal and the approach. “Cutting” is a term meant to be used in the context of bodybuilding. Not “bodybuilding”, but actual bodybuilding; as in, the physique based competition wherein one goes on stage and has their body compared to others. When a bodybuilder cuts, they are peeling off the very last little bits of fat to really get their physique to pop. It’s the transition from high single digit bodyfat to low single digit bodyfat. This means that the bodybuilder was already VERY lean to start with, and they’re now getting into contest ready condition. THAT is cutting. If one were at a higher bodyfat percentage, they were not cutting, but were instead “dieting”, or simply losing fat.
However, outsiders observed bodybuilders using the term “cutting” and imagined it to mean any manner of weight loss, and in turn decided that they too wished to use the industry lingo in order to seem more “legit”, thus cutting began to refer to any manner of weight loss. This made matters confusing, as overly chubby individuals began to think that they needed to apply the same mentality and approach that bodybuilders did for cutting toward simple fat loss. This resulted in the matrydom you see today, where people with 20% bodyfat are eating 500 calorie diets of lettuce and chicken trying desperately to “cut for summer”. They typically destroy their hormone profile, get weak, smaller AND fatter in the process, and conclude that drugs are the only possible explanation. They never realized that
1: Most bodybuidlers simply don’t let themselves get that fat unless they are trying to create a “before” photo for a supplement add.
2: The initial fat loss process for a bodybuilder is not nearly as drastic as the “cut” is when it comes time to get the last little bit of definition.
Let's save the drama for reality TV
This is why I refuse to say that I am cutting when I am losing weight. I don’t pretend that what I am doing is anywhere close to what a bodybuilder goes through to get stage ready. It doesn’t’ take much to go from 20% bodyfat to 15%, but the lower you get, the more challenging it becomes. Adjust your approach as necessary.Additionally, one of the other destructive aspects of casual trainees adopting the hardcore lingo is that they tricked themselves into believing that they would experience the same side effects. Bodybuilders lose strength when they cut. This is inevitable when you are dieting down to low single digit bodyfat levels. The body simply doesn't like to be at that level for long, and it negatively impacts one's ability to perform. Were that NOT true, weightclass based athletes would ALWAYS walk around at that weight, as less fat means less weight on the scale.
However, the casual trainee that is just transitioning from "fat" to "not fat" should NOT expect strength loss, and should instead anticipate strength GAIN. When one starts eating a better quality diet in the pursuit of improved body composition, they should note an increase in performance. Additionally, a surplus of calories is NOT a requirement to move more weight on a lift. Yes, muscle won't necessarily be developed in this state (though there are of course studies saying otherwise), but one can always get better at recruiting available strength during this time. The trainee that walks into fat loss anticipating automatic strength loss creates a self fulfilling prophecy, while the one that walks in anticipating strength increases will create the same. There is no "cutting" happening here.
Nope, sorry, you're just eating like a human
On the topic of bulking, we have to once again understand the origin of the term to grasp its application. In “The Keys to Progress”, one of the stories involves 2 ironheads talking about the most important thing to create a striking physique. One replies “muscles”, and is chastised by the other for that answer being “too obvious”. The first one then considers for a second before offering the answer “bulk…sheer, powerful bulk”.
Stop there; they just classified “bulk” as a quality DIFFERENT than muscles. This is what modern trainees NEED to understand. In the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, a masculine physique was one that was beefy, muscular, and large…but no one really knew or cared about abs or low bodyfat. Occasionally, some guy would show up with a set at a bodybuilding/physical culture show, but they were more an oddity than anything else, and it was primarily the case of someone with the genetic disposition to carry abs no matter what they ate. Instead of being ripped, men wanted to be BULKY. Doug Hepburn, Pat Casey, Reg Park, J.C. Hise etc etc, were the men that were held up as a prized male physique due to their (“obvious”) muscles combined with their bulk.
Make no mistake; those are some goddamn big men
We understand at this point that bulk is essentially well positioned fat. It’s no secret that if you take someone who is 3% bodyfat and then get them up to 10%, they will be bigger, even if none of the weight gained is muscle. Proportionally they will appear smaller (a less dramatic v-taper), but in terms of taking up space and sheer physical size, they will be larger. When you combine this information with the knowledge that, in the early to mid 20th century Americans WEREN’T obese, and that the average physique was slim to athletic, the prospect of simply getting larger in any way, shape or form was appealing to those chasing a more masculine physique. Look at the old Charles Atlas adds about the bully on the beach; the bully wasn’t ripped, he was just big, and so is the kid who eventually kicks the bully’s ass…and Charles Atlas for that matter.
THEN, let us consider this; the recipe for bulking back in the era was to eat copious amounts of food and drink lots of milk. I hate to sound like a hippie here, but consider the QUALITY of food back then versus now; we exchanged quality for convenience. I love the modern world and all of its advances, but from a nutritional perspective, our forefathers had it WAY better. The default setting for beef was “grassfed”, milk was delivered to you in bottles from a diary with cows who saw no hormones, veggies were grown locally, real butter was used, etc etc. These days, you have to shop VERY specifically if you want to eat like your parents and grandparents did, and it will cost you significantly more even WITHOUT adjusting for inflation.
In retrospect, it was pretty ballsy of this guy to be knocking up your mom while delivering milk to your dad that got him jacked
So, take all of the above and put it together. If you follow the nutritional guidelines of a generation that was less concerned about staying lean and more concerned about just being big (and had no real notion of obesity) and try to apply it using food that isn’t the same, what will be your outcome? It’s the same reason why the Paleo diet misses the mark; you can’t try to apply rules from one era of history with food from another and expect the same results. To try to want even BETTER results (ie: getting more muscular without getting very fat) is just sheer insanity.
This is why bulking is a terrible idea for most trainees that aren’t looking to simply add weight of any variety to their frames. New trainees get on the bulk train, eat everything in sight (just like it says to do in Super Squats and Starting Strength and etc etc), get incredibly fat with minimal muscle, then wonder what they did wrong. They took advice that didn’t apply to them, applied it with food that it didn’t apply to, and typically trained with intensity far below what was needed and got exactly what they deserved for their efforts.
Not all mix-ups end so well
And that is of course one of the other significant issues with the beginner trying to bulk; they simply cannot train HARD enough to utilize the surplus of calories they have ingested. There are many factors at play here. To start with, beginners enter training untrained in the lifts, and the majority of their early training career is spent getting BETTER at the lifts rather than stronger. Each week, numbers may increase, but their muscles are barely getting increasingly taxed; they are simply learning how to better recruit their muscles FOR the task. Combine this with the fact that the poundages are too low to generally be taxing along with the fact that most new beginners are lacking an athletic base, so their rest times are long and their bodies are barely getting taxed (and they walk in with a healthy amount of bodyfat) and it’s just a disaster. Trying to force anabolism through a surplus of calories without performing with the necessary degree of intensity needed to create the stimulus required is how obesity occurs.
We want to believe that the secret to getting more muscles is by eating more. I fell into that very trap; when I was 21, I went from 190lbs to 217lbs in the span of 9 months. I did this by eating everything in sight (a lot of terrible junk food and fast food because I was big into elitefts at that time, which was 2008). I trained reasonably hard at the time at least, following a Westside Barbell-esque approach, but I was so fixated on adding scale weight that I didn’t stop to consider the fact that just because weight was going up didn’t necessarily mean ANY of it was muscle. I got very fat. After years of being fat, I finally dieted down to see how much muscle I had put on and first I got down to 200lbs…then 195…then back to my original 190…then 185. Yup; though I was a slightly more solid 185 compared to my previous starting 190, bulking up to 217lbs did exactly crap when compared to if I had just slowly and gradually tried to add muscle with some quality nutrition.
Surely listening to this man would guide me toward a great physique...wait...crap, should've waited until 2010
I have just recently regained 10lbs lost after my surgery, going from 185 up to 195. I have done this WITHOUT being able to perform heavy squats or deadlifts WHILE still maintaining my abs, which I think speaks volumes to the effectiveness of my approach. I very slowly and gradually increased my calories and kept my food choices reasonable (yeah yeah, everyone hates the term clean eating, but we all know what it means). I limited myself to 1 cheat meal a week (no, not 1 cheat DAY, and no, not cheating all weekend), and only eat carbs around my workouts (and even then, it’s a bowl of oatmeal before lifting and a poptart afterwards). Everything else is just meat, veggies, greek yogurt or nuts. Additionally, I increased my training volume like MAD in order to actually create a training stimulus that would result in muscle growth. In my most recent phase, on top of training 5 days a week, I included an extra 80 NG chin ups, 1 max set of dips (usually 70-75) and 100 band pull aparts every day to increase my weekly volume. That was an extra 560 chin ups a week ON TOP of a ton of volume during my actual workouts. 3x5 just plain isn’t going to cut it.
The people that need to forcefeed are incredibly rare. The truth is that people need to eat more quality food, rather than simply more food in general. Dave Tate talked about how he got up to 270lbs eating chicken and rice, and he needed to start eating Twinkies and Oreos to finally get to 300lbs. A beginner isn’t in that situation. They simply need to eat well and train hard to add muscle, and train well and eat less to lose fat.