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The Transition: To Start Cutting Fat or Bulking?
Low reps or high reps? Free weights or machine? IIFYM or Clean Eating? All of these questions pale in comparison to how often I’m asked whether it’s time to start cutting fat or bulking by athletes I consult.
It’s time such a common question is answered once and for all so you can decide the option best suited for you. The IIFYM calculator can be a great place to start, but tools like this are useless until you decide whether your current destination is Shredzville or Gainzville.
Have Your Cake or Eat It
The first realization that should be considered is the principle of specificity in terms of body composition goals. In general, it’s necessary to either choose fat loss or muscle growth to focus on in a given time period, not both simultaneously. This will help you make significant improvements in either area.
For untrained athletes that are just getting into a proper IIFYM diet plan and training consistently, or an athlete that has taken several months/years off and gotten back into a consistent routine- it can be possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time through the considerably new stimulus the reestablished program can produce, and the myonuclei created during past resistance training (1,2).
One other circumstance where both may occur is during the first weeks of a diet optimization of clients that could benefit from a better macronutrient breakdown or improved nutrient timing around workouts. However for those that have been training for, let’s say 6+ months or so, it becomes less and less likely that muscle growth will occur along with fat loss.
For fat loss to occur to any substantial degree, a significant enough caloric deficit must be created. For muscle growth to occur (aside from the above-mentioned exceptions) a caloric surplus must be consumed to fuel training performance through proper muscle glycogen stores, support muscle recovery and growth through adequate protein intake. While supplying sufficient hormone support through proper fat consumption.
Not to mention the countless variety of micronutrients obtained in a surplus (yet another reason a highly varied diet plan through IIFYM is important for sustainable progress), which is required for optimal performance and growth.
This is said to highlight the fact that although IIFYM may allow you to enjoy cake while cutting fat and in a bulk. You aren’t likely to have and eat your metaphorical cake when choosing your goal. This leads to the ultimate question of when to begin cutting fat and when to bulk throughout your training career. A question we’re happy to finally help answer for you!
Count Your Cutting Fat Phases
The first question that will help people decide if it’s time start cutting fat or not is to consider how long it’s been since your last cut. For many coaches including the coaching staff here and myself, a good rule of thumb is to have at least 6-8 months of a true bulking season before clients consider cutting fat again.
This isn’t 6 months since you last stopped dieting, but a true 6-month bulking season once you’ve properly reversed dieted and gotten back to maintenance or a slight surplus.
The short explanation of this rationale is the time it takes for health factors including metabolic rate and hormone levels to return to baseline levels after an extended dieting period. Prolonged dieting leads to negative adaptations within a person’s metabolism and hormones (3,4,5).
Although the changes are normal, they need to be addressed and returned to a healthy level after dieting in order to ensure notable improvements in strength and size, and that future diets are as healthy as possible.
Consider taking your previous, ideal body weight you really enjoyed being at, and use ½ to ¾th the above stage weight strategy as your approximate growth season range.
Although an IIFYM approach can make dieting much more sustainable. Making sure to spend significant time in a caloric surplus between dieting phases can be vital for optimal health and quality improvements in performance and body composition.
Spending at least 6-8 months in a true bulking season, while using IIFYM to consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods, can help to ensure health factors are back to ideal levels, and improvements are made between phases of cutting fat.
Although I tend to encourage people to spend 1-2 years in a surplus between cutting fat in order to maximize muscle growth (since drug-free muscle growth is a relatively slow process). The 6-8 months is at least long enough to ensure each diet plan is effective and safe for most individuals.
Stage Weight Strategy
For physique competitors, there is a great rule of thumb I tend to follow with my clients to help keep a bulking season in check. Determining whether it’s time for cutting fat, or to continue focusing on a bulking diet plan.
When entering a dieting phase, it’s best to approach it with a mindset of “slow and steady wins the race” to help maintain muscle tissue and health throughout cutting fat. However, we don’t want clients having to diet for excessively long periods of time due to gaining unnecessary body fat from the bulking season.
There tends to be a sweet spot for most people that allow for sufficiently fueled muscle growth and performance. While enjoying their favorite foods through IIFYM, and still keeping body composition at a reasonable level.
For male competitors, this rule of thumb tends to be around 20-25 lbs above stage weight. The athletes that have competed before can use their last stage weight as a reference point, then have 20-25 lbs above that show day weight as their growth season ceiling. Leaving their future contest prep more manageable.
Continue Bulking, Not Cutting Fat
In most female competitors I work with during the offseason, this range tends to float more around the 10-15 lbs mark. The smaller structure of females tends to call for a lower bulking season body weight to make improvements without getting unnecessarily heavy.
For males and females that don’t compete and subsequently don’t reach such low body fat levels when dieting. Consider taking your previous, ideal body weight you really enjoyed being at, and use ½ to ¾th the above stage weight strategy as your approximate growth season range.
So if you’re a female who performed a diet plan two summers ago to prepare for photo shoots or vacation, and reached a body weight of say 115 lbs. Using a maximum range of 123-127 lbs could be a great estimate of your ideal growth season weight.
Thinking of your bulking season body weight as being a flexible range, rather than a strict figure. This can keep stress low and progress consistent through growth season.
- Males – 20-25 lbs above stage weight
- Females – 10-15 lbs above stage weight
- Males – 10-15lbs above previous ideal body weight
- Females – 8-12 lbs above previous ideal body weight
Using this strategy, if you’re within the above-mentioned ranges, you don’t likely need to start cutting fat. Instead, continue focusing on getting bigger and stronger in the gym, and enjoying more of your favorite foods by following IIFYM.
Reverse Well, Progress Well
Another crucial question to ask yourself before reaching a decision is how well you reverse dieted after your last diet cutting fat. In my Reverse Diet Survival Guide here on IIFYM.com, I covered the importance and strategies helpful in performing a proper reverse diet after you finished cutting fat.
And, how IIFYM can make the reverse much easier to execute. Due to the metabolic and hormonal adaptations I mentioned earlier, it’s important to spend time transitioning into a bulking season by gradually adding calories back in and reducing cardio for successful growth. This will set you up to be efficiently cutting fat in the future.
If you spent time gradually reverse dieting into your current bulking season. Enjoyed your favorite foods while keeping within your daily macro goals through IIFYM rather than bingeing or using cheat meals.
While also having your food intake at a reasonable level, and have your weekly cardio down to the minimum necessary for general heart health; you may be in a great place to begin cutting fat again.
On the opposite side, if you haven’t reversed dieted properly, are still consuming rather low calories from day to day, and still performing considerable amounts of cardio (more than 1-2 short sessions per week). Then it is almost certainly not a time for you to be cutting fat again.
First, it will be important to take the time to gradually adjust your diet and cardio to better performance supporting, health-promoting levels. Which will then help to ensure your subsequent diet isn’t putting you in danger of creating significant metabolic and hormonal disruptions.
Lean Gains > Mass Bulk
How you approach your muscle building season will greatly influence how often you may ask yourself whether it’s time to be cutting fat or bulking.
It’s common for newcomers to follow old-school “bulks” that usually entail loads of calories with the intent of providing as much “fuel” as possible to promote muscle growth. Even at the expense of a reasonable body composition.
It helps to periodically perform a commonly termed “mini cut”, which can be a great “middle of the road” strategy to keep body fat in check while still allowing focus on making improvements.
The thought of tracking food intake with IIFYM or using our coaches for optimal growth seasons is thrown out the window. Instead, it’s replaced with eating as much, and whatever the young athlete can get their hands on.
Although this may sound enticing at first (who doesn’t like pizza buffets?) it nearly always leads to athletes becoming discouraged with the amount of body fat they have accumulated. Not to mention, excessive caloric surpluses have been shown by research to be unnecessary to gain optimal muscle strength and size between cutting fat phases.
There’s No Need For Excess
Applying IIFYM to your lean bulk diet plan can help to keep food intake, and subsequent body fat levels, in check and reduce the need for constant cutting fat phases.
The reality is, a large caloric surplus isn’t necessary to fuel gym performance and muscle growth. In fact, it’s been supported that as little as 100-200 calories per day above maintenance intake may suffice for consistent muscle growth in an intermediate, average sized male athlete (~180lbs) (6).
This, of course, isn’t to say additional intake is useless but does help to highlight the often unnecessary, excessive surplus.
We’ve created a plethora of bulking diet plans for clients while keeping their fat gain to a minimum in the process. It all starts with having one of our coaches build your Macro Blueprint.
Being honest with yourself on how much of a surplus is actually required, being consistent tracking intake with IIFYM. While using previous stage/ideal body weights can help competitors and non-competitors alike to maintain a more reasonable, longer-term lean bulk without the need to be constantly cutting fat to reduce unnecessary body fat.
Large Slash vs. Mini Cut
As with most topics in training and nutrition, there’s rarely a black and white answer to most questions. Although most people tend to approach their nutrition as extremes such as constantly cutting fat or perma-bulks, restrictive clean eating or sloppy version of IIFYM.
There are strategies that can help athletes meet somewhere in the middle for a more sustainable, enjoyable approach.
For people that decide to spend a lengthy amount of time bulking to focus on adding size and strength (1-2+ years). It helps to periodically perform a commonly termed “mini cut”, which can be a great “middle of the road” strategy to keep body fat in check while still allowing focus on making improvements.
…mini cuts help athletes continue progressing while retaining a growth season physique they can feel comfortable in.
Rather than undergoing extensively cutting fat every time you want to reduce weight. Consider performing essentially a miniature diet where the goal is to simply lose anywhere from 4-8lbs to get back within your ideal offseason weight range before once again reverse dieting gradually.
Following a mini cut using IIFYM principles can help make the brief period of energy restriction much more enjoyable while keeping fat loss efficient.
The Middle Ground of Extensively Cutting Fat and Bulking
Making gradual changes when entering a cutting fat phase is always a prudent move to avoid muscle loss and excessive metabolic adaption. Yet, performing brief, gradual mini cuts from time to time during a prolonged lean bulk season can further extend the time in an ideal environment for good health and great performance.
By entering a mini cut, the athlete can add just enough weekly cardio, and create just enough of a dietary reduction to lose a few pounds over the following weeks, get their bodyweight back into their ideal offseason range.
To obtain this ideal weight range, find out your ideal cutting macros with a Macro Blueprint.
Yet, still remain at or near a surplus that can allow for continued strength gains in the gym. Doing this keeps the athlete in an environment conducive to muscle growth and performance enhancement, and body composition within an ideal, manageable range.
Rather than looking at your fitness goals as extremes, keep in mind there is usually some middle ground that can help you continue progressing without making drastic changes. Just as IIFYM allows athletes to enjoy their food while still reaching their goals, so can mini cuts help athletes continue progressing while retaining a growth season physique they can feel comfortable in.
Personal, not just Physical Progress
Anytime someone considers if they should start cutting fat or bulking, one of my first thoughts is to ask why they are considering one or the other. If you find yourself constantly jumping between a cutting fat and bulking, it could be important to ask yourself what is encouraging you to on an internal level.
When it comes to training performance and physique goals, there are a lot of strategies and considerations we coaches can help to highlight for clients. However, if the desire comes from a pursuit of happiness (cue Kid Cudi music), then there may be deeper issues to approach first.
Something I try to always help those I consult with to understand is that no amount of muscle gained, or body fat lost will lead to the feeling of happiness and fulfillment many mistakenly assume it will provide. Having a healthy body can no doubt improve your quality of life, but very, very rarely does reaching a certain body weight or gaining a certain amount of muscle truly make people content.
The Mental Balance
I’m no Tony Robbins so I’ll save the deep talks for other people to cover. Yet, I will say in my experiences with athletes and my personal experiences, considering the reason behind our decisions goes a long way in making the journey much more enjoyable.
If you’re constantly bulking and cutting fat without finding your own version of balance in life. It could be best to take some time and really evaluate what helps you to feel fulfilled in life before diving in even further with your fitness goals.
When athletes come to the realization that fitness can improve their lives, but isn’t the universal answer to their problems, the efforts put into gaining muscle and cutting fat become less stressful and more of what it should be – a part of life, not life itself.
Deciphering the Dieting Dilemma
As with most things in nutrition and exercise, the answer of whether you should cut or bulk is generally, “it depends.” Regardless of the decision, one of the most important factors in the success of each person will be to continue learning and applying strategies backed by science. Also, making sure to thoroughly vet coaches and trainers you put your trust in when starting the next step of your journey.
Although each person’s circumstances and needs will differ. Using these considerations can go a long way in helping you decide what your next move should be, to start building an even better version of yourself.
- Bruusgaard, J. C., Johansen, I. B., Egner, I. M., Rana, Z. A., & Gundersen, K. (2010). Myonuclei acquired by overload exercise precede hypertrophy and are not lost on detraining. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(34), 15111-15116. doi:10.1073/pnas.0913935107
- Taaffe, D. R., Henwood, T. R., Nalls, M. A., Walker, D. G., Lang, T. F., & Harris, T. B. (2008). Alterations in Muscle Attenuation following Detraining and Retraining in Resistance-Trained Older Adults. Gerontology, 55(2), 217-223. doi:10.1159/000182084
- Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-11-7
- Rossow, L. M., Fukuda, D. H., Fahs, C. A., Loenneke, J. P., & Stout, J. R. (2013). Natural Bodybuilding Competition Preparation and Recovery: A 12-Month Case Study. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 8(5), 582-592. doi:10.1123/ijspp.8.5.582
- Kistler, B. M., Fitschen, P. J., Ranadive, S. M., Fernhall, B., & Wilund, K. R. (2014). Case Study: Natural Bodybuilding Contest Preparation. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 24(6), 694-700. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2014-0016
- Helms, E., Valdez, A., & Morgan, A. (2015). The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition.