If you are anything like me, once upon a time, you dreamt of getting as jacked as your favorite movie star. (Being an 80s child, naturally, mine was Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
You gave up on that dream when you realized the level of steroid abuse that would require. So you set your sights on becoming as muscular and lean as your genetics would allow instead.
You trained. You ate better. Your physique gradually improved. But then you got stuck for a looooong time.
You bulked but got too fat.
You cut but got too skinny.
You did every training routine in every magazine. Bought all the supplements Bodybuilding.com told you to, then stacked all the supplements in Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body, with nothing to show for it but a hole in your wallet and your doctor warning you of early signs of liver failure. (True story.)
Physique change is hard. It is hard because we don’t know what to expect. And we don’t know what to expect because the most influential people in the fitness industry claim natty but use drugs.
You know that, and you’re past it. But now you’re at a point in your fitness journey where instead of giving in to frustration and quitting, you want to know exactly what to do.
As you may know from my guide on whether to bulk, cut, or recomp, with the exception of those newer to training who are in a position to give a recomp a shot, or those already lean enough to bulk, the rest of us should lean out first and repeat bulk and cut phases over the years as we work toward our genetic potential.
How Body Weight, Muscle, and Fat Mass Will Change When Cutting And Bulking
The lines show how body weight, muscle mass, and fat mass will change over time during the first cut and then the two following bulk-cut phases.
Note how two years of hard work later, though you may weigh the same as you did when you began, you’ll look completely different because you’re leaner and more muscled. This can be hard to imagine at the outset when you don’t have an idea of how you’ll look.
Most men seem to have been brainwashed into believing they need to be 220 lbs and shredded to look good, and they have a mental barrier to seeing their weight go below a certain number.
Women, on the other hand, have been brainwashed into believing that lighter is better and any gain in weight is bad.
Both of these mentalities stop us from reaching our potential, which can only be achieved if we let our weight purposefully rise and fall over time.
You can see in the sketch that fat mass (the orange line) rises and falls with each bulk and cut phase, respectively. This is particularly hard because it can give a sense that we are “losing our hard-earned leanness” when we bulk, which is true to an extent, but it’s the cost of gaining muscle mass (the green line). The goal is to slowly gain muscle mass in phases over time while managing our total fat mass.
Allow me to take you through each stage of this cut, bulk-cut, bulk-cut cycle in more detail.
Phase 1: The First Cut
Your first cut’s goal is to get lean enough before you bulk that you don’t quit it too early because you feel too fat.
It will be hard in many ways. You carry less muscle mass than you think (this is true of everyone) which is a humbling experience. You will probably need to get leaner than you would ideally like and may feel skinny. Make sure you push through this discomfort.
You may gain a little muscle, but it will taper off toward the end of the cut. You probably won’t notice the muscle gain given the greater magnitude of fat loss.
Phase 2: The First Bulk
During your first bulk, you are the furthest from your genetic potential, and the muscle gain will be the fastest if you do things right. Set your rate of body weight gain at either the beginner or novice level.
The rate of weight regain may be similar to the rate at which you lost weight during the first cut, but this time half of it will be muscle.
The fat regain on the stomach, and a loss of abdominal definition may give you the feeling you are merely putting back on the fat you just lost rather than gaining muscle. This is a common concern, push through it and focus on the things in your control:
👉 Sleep well,
👉 Keep stress low,
👉 Train appropriately hard,
👉 Eat so that you gain weight at an appropriate rate for your level of experience.
The results are then out of your hands and down to the genetic gods. Try to relax and trust in the process.
Phase 3: The Second Cut
The goal of the second cut is to take off the fat you gained during your first bulk. Don’t expect to gain any muscle during this phase.
The second cut can be nerve-racking because you can never really be sure how much muscle you’ve gained until you’ve cut back down to the same level of body fat you had before you started.
Phase 4: The Second Bulk
For the second bulk, you are closer to your genetic potential, so your maximal rate of muscle gain will be slower. For this reason, I recommend you target a slightly slower rate of weight gain (perhaps 0.5 pounds per month less). This is represented by shallower gradients in the sketch.
The second bulk is easier because you know what to expect, but the changes are slower, so more patience is needed.
The Reality of The Body Weight Line
I’ve omitted something important up until now for the sake of simplification — your body weight will change far more than I have pictured because body weight captures more than just muscle and fat mass changes.
As you start each cutting phase, you will experience a more considerable drop in weight due to a loss of gut content, water, and glycogen storage. Do not confuse this with fat loss.
(Glycogen is how we store an energy source called glucose, which comes from the carbs we eat. Every gram of carbs we consume is combined with ~3g of water when stored in the muscles and liver, waiting to be used as energy. Our muscles are ~70-80% water. A change in carbohydrate intake causes a
shift in water balance in the body. Some of the water comes under the skin, but most of it goes into the muscle.)
As you start each bulking phase, you will experience a more considerable gain in weight due to the regain of these things. Do not confuse this with fat regain.
(I’ll cover this in more detail in the Why Fluctuations in Weight and Appearance Happen chapter.)
For this reason, the second cut can be a frustrating process because you’re likely to find out that you have gained far less muscle mass than you expected. When you gain weight during the bulk, part of that weight is gut content, water, and muscle glycogen. People mistake this for muscle and think their bulk is going much better than they thought.
The reality is that you might gain 20 pounds (~9 kg) in five months of bulking, but find that just 6-7 pounds (~3 kg) are muscle. This might be 1% of your body weight per month as muscle gain, which would be quite good when compared to your initial expectations. But by this point, your “realistic expectations” have long been forgotten.
So, why am I bothering to explain all of this?
Well, we need to adjust our macros to keep us progressing through each phase. And to know how to adjust, we need to know what to expect.
But why do we have to adjust in the first place? Can’t we just rely on a single calorie and macro calculation at the start of each phase?
Unfortunately not. Biology is a messy business, and there are adaptive mechanisms at play. But while this makes dieting and bulking a little more complicated, it’s what keeps us alive. This is what I will explain next.
If you cycle your calorie and macro intake, adjust your training and rest days by the same calorie amount but feel free to choose different macro adjustments to achieve it.
Thank you for reading. This was a sample chapter from my book, The Diet Adjustments Manual 📙.
Questions are welcomed in the comments and I answer daily.
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