Should you bulk or cut?
Posted 06-09-2019 | Updated
Before I start this article let me state one key thing, I used to be obese.
Starting at 16 stone and going down to 10.5 stone at 10-12% body fat, I felt that if I continued to lose more fat, to go past 10-12% at 10.5 stone I would look better, that if I just kept on going the cover model body would soon reveal itself.
Men’s Health cover, I’m coming for you!
That’s what everyone tells you, lose fat and look awesome.
Oh, how I was wrong.
If I was to lose even more fat and get below 10-12% I would just look ill and gaunt, it wouldn’t look good. So I didn’t actually need to lose more fat, I’d just assumed that was how I would get to my goal of being ripped and athletic.
At the age of 19 the reality was I had barely any muscle, I was naturally a pretty small dude. So regardless of how much more fat I lost I would just look skinny. And that wasn’t the look I was going for. What I actually needed to do was put on muscle, not lose more fat.
I wanted to look athletic, I needed to build the muscle to even start to look athletic.
When I realised this I went away and tried it, and then ran away scared.
I put fat back on.... SH*T.
This is REALLY common for people that have lost significant amounts of weight, the fear of putting it all back on again. And despite knowing what we should do, we continue to restrict ourselves because the fear of getting fat again is always there.
We try this bulking thing that people talk about online, we put on a bit of fat eating more and then run all scared back to cutting again. This is 100% understandable, I get it. I’ve been there and spun my wheels getting nowhere for a good few years.
Cutting, bulking, cutting, bulking, and on and on.
This is where you have to understand and appreciate the science of nutrition.
And at the time I didn’t, for a start I didn’t even count calories. I just ate good food and hit the gym, it was as simple as that for me.
The old school bulking approach was always glorified by magazine fitness celebs who were often on steroids and HUGE, they had the mantra of “you must eat a 500 calorie surplus to gain weight”.
I kind of did that and just ate around 500 calories more than I was, after all I was currently eating and maintaining my weight, so I must have been at maintenance, ish. Some days it would just be a pint of milk with dinner, or extra potatoes and butter, it wasn’t complicated, I was just trying to add around 500 calories extra, per day.
This is pretty poor advice, everyone is a different weight and thus the nutritional and calorie recommendations for any given individual needs to be based on THEIR weight, or specifically THEIR lean mass, not a random number. One size does not fit all. And at my body weight of 10.5 stone 500 calories is a lot.
Another issue is that the bulking mentality often comes with a very relaxed approach to food, frequent blow outs with the attitude of “ah what does it matter, I’m bulking anyway, the calories will be put to good use”.
That’s one way to quickly gain the fat you didn’t want to. I didn’t do this, but I did continue to eat 500 calories extra even on rest days, so I was basically doing the same thing, just in a different way.
When gaining lean muscle you still have to pay attention to the variables and be consistent, just like you did when you lost fat. If not, give it a few weeks and you’ll catch yourself in the mirror and think “damn, back to the diet, got too fat, again”.
It soon creeps up on you if your approach is too fluid and relaxed, or you are simply overshooting on your calorie needs.
To build muscle tissue you only need to eat around an extra 1-200 calories per day, it’s not a lot. It takes around 3700 calories to build 1lb of muscle, spread those calories out over a month and yeah, it’s not a lot of extra needed calories.
You then need to be patient, be consistent, and enjoy the process. It’s not a short road the road to gainzville, that’s why patience, consistency and a vision for your goal is key.
And this is the problem, we see it in fat loss, we also see it with gaining muscle, without consistency and diligence to the plan it’s hard to get to the end goal. Going overboard most weekends is going to make it hard to stick to a diet, just like it’s going to likely push you over on a lean muscle building phase also.
Consistency is everything
Keep turning up to the gym, keep pushing yourself, be consistent, rest in equal measures and eat well to fuel the sessions. And literally repeat this for years, muscle building is a SLOW process.
Over the ensuing years I did this, I slowly built around 3 stone of muscle over my time at university. Building muscle at Uni was actually a good thing for me, it was a place where everyone naturally carried a bit more weight, because we liked to have fun and not many rugby players (my sport and environment) are overly concerned about a six pack, so carrying some padding about is the norm. Plus when you’ve got some muscle on you you don’t look fat, you look stocky, and most guys are cool with that.
This combination of appreciating nutritional science (I studied Sports Performance and Coaching at Uni) and being in an environment where everyone was kicking around at 13-19% body fat was a god send. Where I had come from in my early days of training I was used to being surrounded by people wanting to look like a cover model, training hard and always being aware of every morsel of food one ate.
This positive weight acceptance environment and the application of sports nutrition principals enabled me to slowly build some really good muscle at Uni, and a better relationship with food too. Then when I went on a diet and trimmed off the fat around my edges, I finally started to look more muscular, athletic and strong. The lean-ish bulk had worked, I was now looking fairly jacked. This is me post uni…
If you have the fear of putting on weight like I did, start to educate yourself better on nutrition and go SLOW. This isn’t a race, building muscle takes a long time. Plus, no one gets fat overnight, fat gain doesn't work like that. So make small changes, monitor the effects and you’ll notice if things start to go south and be able to manage it accordingly (and the answer? You’re eating too much to gain lean muscle and minimal fat, you’re overshooting and gaining too much fat with your muscle).
When I ‘bulked’ yes I tried to minimise the fat gain while I trained to build muscle, but it is good to be a bit more relaxed about it, there is a happy place between the old school bulking approach of 500 calories a day and being too loose and staying at just an extra 1-200 calories per day. It’s good to accept you are going to soften around the edges while in a muscle building phase. This isn’t a fine science and knowing where your calories are at exactly is impossible, so you often have to air on the higher side to maximise muscle growth. So this isn’t me saying pile on the lbs, this is me saying eat enough to feel you are fuelling your training and muscle gains, and accept that in that process you’ll gain a few lbs along the way, lbs that will easily come off in 6-12 month’s time when you decide to cut that gained fat again.
So where is your body at right now?
Are you simply overweight and need to lose fat?
Are you skinny but a bit fat, aka skinny fat?
Or just skinny?
Personally, if you are skinny fat and in that middle ground place, I would lose a bit more fat, get to a place where you are genuinely happy with your body fat %, where you’re at a level where you are happy and confident, then stay there at that body fat level and switch to building lean muscle and eat an extra 200 calories per day.
NOTE: do push this number up, when you start eating more your body usually starts burning more by increasing your overall desire to move, so ensure you keep trying to eat as much as humanly possible without gaining body fat to continue to fuel training and your increased NEAT.
Then it’s a case of hit the gym hard by pushing your body through a hypertrophy focused training program, and be patient.
Not skinny... just fat?
If you have more fat, you’re not really that skinny fat person, then lose the fat first, see where you’re at, then assess your goals from there.
This is where understanding nutrition is key, its EMPOWERING. And it’s a science.
If you do want help with either of those goals sign up below to one of my free 5 day challenges and let’s get you started today…
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