Withering into nothingness as the weeks wane on traditional cuts isn’t uncommon.
Luckily, there are some things you can do to combat the carnage of cutting.
Getting lean and staying muscular is possible, and it's not as difficult as you think.
OLD ADVICE THAT HOLDS TRUE
Get lean first.
That was my advice in 3 Reminders for the Skinny-Fat Ectomorph, as well as many other articles and e-mails, because muscle is difficult to maintain when dieting down. Yet I still get e-mail after e-mail saying: “Every time I try to lean down I lose my muscle.”
Yeah, I kind of told you that would happen. But I guess I never explained why it would happen. So here’s the deal: If you plan on losing weight in a short amount of time (ie: a “cut”), you’re going to take some muscle with you unless (and this is a big unless) your nutrition and training are 100% spot on.
Usually, the faster you try losing fat, the more muscle will go with it.
The changes you have to make to lose fifteen pounds in eight weeks will be more drastic than the changes you have to make to lose fifteen pounds in twelve weeks.
These are the same changes that sabotage muscle mass.
(Hypothesis: This, I think, is why distance running is seen as a pacman of muscle tissue. When “cutting,” most people do some running while dropping their calories. Muscle goes bye bye and “cardio” gets the blame. But is it the aerobic training? Or is it that you’re going into short-term starvation?)
WHY YOU LOSE MUSCLE
Your muscles grow in response to training and nutrient intake: eat enough of the right food (see my Diet to End All Diets), train intensively and consistently with the right lifts (see a sample program in Skinny-Fat to Superhuman), and get enough rest.
To ensure weight gain, most people overshoot their nutrient intake on “bulks.” They gain both muscle and fat, knowing that they will “cut” the fat after. Most “cuts,” however, alter both the training and nutrient intake.
Let’s think about this.
Two things that went into building muscle (nutrient intake and training) are changed. So what was responsible for all of your progress is suddenly non-existent or altered. How couldn’t your muscles also be affected?
WHAT NUTRIENT DEPRIVATION DOES
People usually say it takes 500 calories above your maintenance level to build muscle. (I’m not sure this is true, nor do I care to find out as I’m not a fan of exact numbers when it comes to nutrition.) To lose fat, however, the opposite is recommended: 500 calories below maintenance.
So if you come off of a 500+ calorie bulk and go on a -500 calorie cut, you’re swinging your intake 1000 calories and expecting muscle tissue to maintain the same level of homeostasis.
Even without adjusting your training routine (even though most people do), this change in calories in enough to effect levels of muscularity.
LOSING FAT AND GAINING MUSCLE
Most times, short-term fat loss programs also affect muscle tissue. To test this myself, I dropped 1000 calories from my diet for five consecutive days. The amount of food I ate wasn’t that far under what I would normally eat on an “off” day. The main difference was that I ate like it was an “off” day even on training days.
Over the course of the week, I noticed my muscles wither into apparent nothingness. This only took five days. Imagine what would happen over the span of eight weeks.
This consistent nutrient deficient mindset of most cuts is what propels my recommendation: get lean now. Be done with it. For the natural trainee, being lean and muscular simultaneously is much easier if you build slowly from a solid base.
WHAT IS THIS “SOLID” BASE?
Right, I keep talking about a “solid” base and not really quantifying it. First and foremost, don’t confuse “solid base” with “disgustingly lean six-pack.”
If I attempt to maintain a sickening level of leanness, a few things happen:
- Strength (even slow cooking it the way I do) stagnates.
- I lose motivation to train.
- I get injured (likely trying to train at my previous level and pushing through days I have no motivation or mental clarity).
Note that I said day.
My nutrition philosophy is based off of something I like to call nutrient autoregulation. While I touched on this in a previous skinny-fat article, it’s basically cycling calories (carbohydrates and fats for the most part) on a daily basis depending on both mood and feel.
Some days I just know that I need more calories or carbohydrates. (This comes from experience.) Or if I’m feeling especially lean, I’ll eat more. (I’m privy to eat a lot if I feel like I need to.)
So some days my body lives in a state of nutrient overload. Other days it lives in a state of nutrient deprivation. But I never go outside of my comfort zone and I always appear relatively “lean.”
In any given week, I rotate through having a no-pack to a two-pack to a six-pack. This fluctuation helps me maintain focus and have daily-to-weekly mini bulk-and-cut cycles. And I can only do this because I started out lean enough to afford the caloric fluctuations.
I live by the philosophy of never being one-to-two week away. So I allow fluctuations in body composition. Just nothing that can’t be undone within one week. This allows me to litter this website in half naked pictures of myself with a sick-pack and gain muscle at the same time.
When it comes to physique and “bulking,” part of me thinks that we should never be more than two weeks away from what we feel are “perfect” bodyfat levels. Perfect will of course be subjective.
But once we move beyond the two week feel, things get scary. You’re digging deeper. And it’s a lot harder to crawl from deeper holes.
So you can dig one hole, 50 feet deep, or you can dig 10 holes 5 feet deep.
But finding a way out of the 50 foot hole is much more difficult.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR BULKING AND CUTTING
The one week philosophy is just what I prefer and can be summed up with:
- Get to your ideal body fat level
- Use nutrient autoregulation: overshooting nutrient intake some days, undershooting nutrient intake some days
- Never wander out of your body fat comfort zone to the point of being able to undo the damage within one-two weeks (this takes some practice)
If the one week philosophy doesn’t sit well, you can still do traditional bulks and cuts. They essentially transform the one week rule into the eight week rule, meaning most people that bulk set themselves up to hit their ideal body composition after eight weeks of cutting.
But trying to lose fat in eight weeks requires the drastic and constant caloric swing. Therefore, most people simply aren’t big enough at the conclusion of their bulk to hit their ideal physique at the end of their cut.
This is why the cycle of bulking and cutting repeats yearly for most people. One winter of bulking and one summer of cutting simply doesn’t add the amount of quality of lean mass people want, so they repeat it over and over, year after year.
Say a twelve week bulk leads to twelve total pounds gained. Traditional bulks (read: natural, non-steroid) usually end in a 50-50 body fat to muscle split, so six of the twelve pounds is muscle, the other six is fat.
By nature of the caloric swing, a cut will take one to three pounds of muscle with it. (There’s a good chance that this isn’t lean tissue anyway, just increased glycogen and fluid storage that usually accompanies bulking. So even though it appears as solid muscle, it isn’t.) This results in three to five pounds of muscle gained over the entire body. Seems like a lot, but it isn’t readily noticeable spread across the entire frame.
So in order to be happy after a bulk and a cut, you will likely have to bulk beyond your ideal weight and escape the illusion of glycogen and fluid retention being “solid” lean tissue. This means gaining more fat—something most people aren’t comfortable with. (And let’s not forget the theory that fat sacks, once created, are there forever. They shrink, but don’t disappear.) Most people aren’t comfortable getting overly fat, which is why the cycle of bulking and cutting reoccurs yearly.
So it’s safe to generalize and say that your bulk—all bulks—aren’t as successful as initially thought, especially when considering the issue of glycogen and fluid storage.
GAINING MUSCLE AND LOSING FAT WITH FASTING
Fitness fads come and go, hence the word fad. But this intermittent fasting bit is different. The infamous clean bulk was infamous because it used to be damn near impossible.
Until intermittent fasting.
Now a day, a lot of people are able to get lean and gain muscle simultaneously. Or, at least, get lean and maintain muscle.
While scientific theories can be used to explain just why this is, I have a different “theory”. One that doesn’t involve hormones or any special scientific principles.
Just pluses and minuses.
Traditional cuts involve repeated days of eating below maintenance calories. These days are designated with a (-) symbol, representing coming in under your calorie goal. (-)’s doesn’t bode well for muscle. Muscle is metabolically expensive. The body won’t hold onto all of it if basic energy needs aren’t being met.
Traditional cuts log a (-) every day, so muscle isn’t prone to stick around.
But with something like intermittent fasting or nutrient autoregulation, there are (+) and even (o) days thrown into the mix.
- (+) represents coming in above your calorie goal
- (o) represents coming in at your calorie goal
- (-) represents coming in below your calorie goal
Take Brad Pilon’s 24 hour, twice per week, Eat Stop Eat fasting for example. Two to four days per week log a (-) because of the fasts. But the other three to four days can log either a (o) or (+). These (+)’s and (o)’s, representing adequate or beyond adequate nutrient intake, go a long way in maintaining muscle. Starting from a solid base is advantageous because it allows for more (+) days as opposed to (o) days, making muscle gain more likely.
HOW TO DECIDE WHETHER TO CUT
With something like fasting or nutrient autoregulation, managing (+)’s, (o)’s, and (-)’s can be done to the point of losing fat, maintaining muscle, and even gaining muscle. But starting out with too much fat makes managing much more difficult. The solid base, however, affords more freedom. So it's better to have a solid base, but it's not absolutely necessary.
Although logging consecutive (-)’s can sacrifice muscle, it gets the fat loss job done faster. So ask yourself just how much muscle you really have and whether or not it’s going to be worth tip toeing around.
Using myself as an example, I wasn't carrying around much muscle at the beginning of my journey. Although I didn't know how to at the time, I technically could have used the (+), (-), and (o) system to try to lose fat and gain muscle. But going on a straight cut is beneficial for some because it gets you to a comfortable body fat level faster, reducing psychological baggage. It also allows you to monitor changes in body composition better. When you're puffy, you're always puffy. But when you're lean, you can compare everything to your lean level — “bloat” is much easier to detect.
If you're not immediately worried about body fat or don't want to sacrifice muscle, however, spend some more time on the process and opt for nutrient autoregulation or some kind of intermittent fasting scheme that fluctuates between (+)'s, (-)'s, and (o)'s.
Here are some things to take home:
- In order for muscle to grow, it needs “enough” nutrients at times. This “enough” will never happen on a constant caloric deprivation (ie: traditional cuts).
- If you’re doing traditional bulks and cuts, recognize the swing you’re putting your body through.
- Most bulks aren't as successful as initially perceived because of fluid retention and loss from the subsequent cutting.
- To get lean and maintain your muscle, it’s best to rotate between days of more nutrients and day of less nutrients.
- Intermittent fasting allows adequate nutrient intake on most days, meaning muscle is prone to stick around.
- Logging too many consecutive (-)’s increases potential for muscle loss.
- Operating from a solid base makes muscle gain more likely, and makes it easier to run nutrient autoregulation from.
How do YOU normally gain and cut weight? Do you follow the traditional bulk and cut? Or do you do something different? See you in the comments.