If you spend any time on the Wannabebig Forums, you’ll run into that perennial plea for help – ‘Should I bulk or cut?’ Chances are that when someone throws himself at the mercy of other members, they do not have a frame of reference from which to make an objective call. Thus, the replies are rarely encouraging and supportive!
Let’s put that question another way — Should the diet of a 190 lb man at 10% body fat trying to hit 200 lbs at 10% body fat differ from the same man attempting to get down to the same place from 220 lbs at 20% body fat?
This article explains why the answer is ‘No’.
In short, when both men hit their target bodyweight and composition, their diets (their caloric intake, strictly speaking) will be identical in order to maintain that physique, so why not eat that diet from the outset?
Therefore, forum questioner, save yourself the humiliation…pick a target bodyweight and composition and you’ll never have to ask the question again. You want to be 200 lbs. and 10% body fat? Eat like you ARE 200 lbs. and 10% body fat!
To quote Ben Affleck (apologies in advance) in The Boiler Room, ‘Act as if’, or rather ‘Eat as if’.
If you’re an athlete competing in a weight class, a competitive bodybuilder, or an athlete in a position where strength training is secondary to your sport, then the question ‘Do I bulk or cut?’ will have undoubtedly crossed your mind – your goal-oriented sport will have predefined markers for success, yardsticks by which to assess your physique.
For those training with the sole aim of being bigger and stronger, a lack of predetermined goals may lead you to pose this question.
In a previous article, When Science and Marketing Collide, I explained how nutrient timing was secondary to ensuring consistent intake of total prescribed calories. This article is about setting that total and the process behind it.
Should you ‘Bulk or Cut’?
The answer, as I alluded to above, is ‘Neither’.
With a tip of the hat to Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, what you should do is ‘Start with the end in mind!’
Twenty years ago, my then bodybuilding mentor advised me that ‘If you want to be 250 lbs., you need to eat like you’re 250 lbs’. A catchier maxim is ‘Eat big to be big’ but either way, both statements allude to a future bodyweight and eating as if you were already at it. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People had not been published back then, but as a successful amateur, my mentor knew that goal setting was crucial to achieving anything.
Goal-oriented individuals succeed. When a goal is set, you have a clear picture of the target and a direction that will achieve it. This is true in any pursuit, whether it be life, business, sport, or physique development. Without goals, you have no direction and no feedback. All of this might seem a bit obvious, but the number of people asking this question should attest to the fact it isn’t common sense to everyone.
Goal Setting and Calories
Historically, determining calorific intake has been a case of finding your maintenance level, and then sticking to that if you’re happy with your body composition, adding an arbitrary 10% to it if you’re bulking, subtracting from it if you’re cutting, and continually adjusting until you hit your target – if you HAVE a target.
This is where I depart from the norm of either cutting or bulking, the two extremes that novices ultimately swing between, often perpetually, and more often than not, dissatisfied with both.
Each of us knows the big guy strutting about the place who is easily 30 lbs. overweight but afraid to lose an ounce in case he loses muscle, and we’ve all also seen the 130 lb. hero who’ll never creep over that weight because he might lose sight of his abs. And I do get it. I understand the insecurities of our personal body images…I think anyone who lifts weights does.
The Bulk/Cut methodoligy has been around for years – Lee Priest was a big believer in it as you can see!
(Yes, both pictures are Lee Priest)
I was always the tall lean guy, especially when I was swimming, so putting on weight was my mission, and losing it felt catastrophic. Scale weight was everything for a while, and I spent a long time carrying the weight around my waist but not significantly increasing my muscle mass. I knew this; it was a perverse fear that prevented me from letting go. Part of this was because I was aimlessly attempting to put on weight, but I didn’t know how big I wanted to be. I was aimlessly eating and aimlessly training.
Make no mistake, not knowing where you want to end up also has an effect on your training. Set a goal, force yourself to meet it, and your training (and eating) takes on new meaning. With the end in mind, your calorific intake should match the maintenance intake of an individual at your desired bodyweight and composition – your target bodyweight.
Whether that goal requires losing weight or gaining weight makes no difference as long as reasonable expectations are in place. If you currently weigh 150 lbs. at 15% body fat (BF), then aiming for 300 lbs. at 6% BF within a year is not a reasonable goal. A year or six-month target of gaining 10 lbs. of muscle is a reasonable goal, but doubling your lean mass in one year or six months is not.
What are ‘reasonable’ expectations for fat loss and muscle gain?
In picking a goal, it’s fair to say that you have to keep it within the realms of the possible. Fat loss of 0.5-5 lbs. a week is possible. Obviously, the leaner you are to begin with, the lower on that range you will be, and vice versa. If you have lots of fat to lose, you’ll lose it at a faster rate.
Muscle gain (lean body mass, not dry weight) is a more contentious issue and much has been made in the press about upper limits, with many forum posters refuting the collective data in favor of more subjective anecdotes. Personally, I’ve seen some quite amazing gains, so rather than court controversy, I’ll put the range between 0.5-2.5 lbs. per month, the lower end for the more advanced trainee and the higher end for the novice. These are average figures, and I’m aware that muscle gain isn’t linear, but given that we’re going to be using six- and twelve-month periods, it doesn’t matter too much.
Based on the figures above, in six months, one could potentially gain as much as 15 lbs. of lean body mass and lose as much as 30 lbs. of fat. To put that in context, a man currently at 250 lbs. at 20% BF has 200 lbs. of Lean Body Mass (20% BF is 50 lbs.).
Applying the maximum LBM gains and fat losses above to our 250 lb. man, we end up with an individual weighing 235 lbs. at 8.5% BF after six months.
If hitting 235 lbs. at 8.5% BF is your goal, rather than bulk beyond that weight and cut, I would recommend that you determine the maintenance requirements for a 235 lb. man at 8.5% BF and consume this maintenance level of calories, day in and day out, until you hit 235 lbs. at 8.5% BF, thus avoiding ‘do I bulk or cut’ scenario.
So, picking your target bodyweight and composition is as easy as choosing a reasonable bodyweight and body fat percentage. Finding your maintenance calorie intake for that goal is as easy as plugging them into the equations that follow.
As mentioned in the previous article, equations and subsequent calculations are educated guesses, so as you approach your goal, the margins will get smaller. What was calculated six months ago might not be strictly accurate. If progress stalls, then adjust; if your goal is to increase bodyweight and you’re not, up the calories by 250 kcal and re-evaluate after two weeks. Similarly, if you’re attempting to lose weight and you’re not, decrease calories by 250 kcal.
Now, for the following, remember that the values to input are your target values – the purpose here is not to evaluate current maintenance but what you SHOULD be eating to hit your target bodyweight.
I’m guessing you were expecting some convoluted process using the Harris-Benedict or Cunningham formula, taking into account Non-Exercise Related Activity and the Thermic Effect of Food. I almost did include them, but ultimately when you run the numbers and evaluate retrospectively, they boil down to one step – multiplying your target bodyweight by a factor of 14, 16, or 19, depending on your level of activity.
- 14 – Low activity, 1-3 hrs a week
- 16 – Medium activity, 4-7 hrs a week
- 19 – High activity, 8-11 hrs a week
That’s it! For our 250 lb. guy looking to hit 235 lbs and training 4 hrs per week, 3760 kcal (235 x 16) should be his target intake every day.
Determining Macro-Nutrient Split
My preference is to set protein intake as constant (between 1-2 g/lb of lean target bodyweight), fat intake should cover your requirements for Essential Fatty Acids (approximately 20 g – Fish Oil is a great way to achieve this), and beyond that, it’s your choice as to how many carbohydrate calories you displace with fat, based on your individual tolerance for carbohydrates.
As we go through this process, keep in mind the calorific value of each macronutrient: 1 g of protein is the equivalent of 4 kcal, 1 g of carbohydrate is also 4 kcal, and 1 g of fat yields 9 kcal.
Our target is 3760 kcal. Protein is a constant and set at 1.5 g/lb which totals to 322 g (1.5 x 215) per day.
Fat is set at a minimum of 20 g, but I prefer to hit 0.5 g/lb of bodyweight, which is 118 g (0.5 x 235) per day.
After these two values are set, it’s simply a case of adding enough carbohydrate and additional fat and/or protein to hit the total.
Carbohydrate is matched to activity and tolerance, and in this example, we currently have 322 g of protein and 118 g of fat for a sum of 2350 kcal (322×4 kcal + 118×9 kcal), which is 1410 kcal short of the total.
To hit 1410 kcal, you’d need approximately 350 g (1410/4) of carbohydrate. However, there are no set rules for carbohydrate intake, and you could just as easily split the remaining 1400 kcal between fat and carbohydrate, which we will do for this example.
Our guy will be taking in 238 g carbohydrate and an extra 50 g of fat.
His daily total will be 322 g of protein, 238 g of carbohydrate, and 168 g of fat for a total of 3760 kcal per day.
Clean or Dirty Bulk
Eating for your target bodyweight negates the traditional bulk or cut, but a lot has been written, especially in the forums, about the long clean bulk versus the short and dirty.
I don’t subscribe to either. Clearly, I prefer to pick a goal and work towards it, not overshoot and work back.
From a body composition standpoint only (not a health standpoint), as long as you’re hitting your protein, EFA, and total calorie intake targets, then it really doesn’t matter if you eat clean or scarf down McDonald’s morning, noon, and night.
Obviously, if your target bodyweight has you in a deficit (and especially for leaner individuals), you have less wiggle room to displace more nutrient-rich foods with junk. The fact is, your total calorie target just isn’t high enough to accommodate the crap.
If your target has you at a calorie surplus, then it’s your choice, but I would recommend taking a long-term view and eating junk food in moderation.
If your target bodyweight has you in a deficit, you’re better of sticking with clean, nutrient-rich foods
Eating for your target bodyweight clearly isn’t the only approach, and this article doesn’t compare the relative merits of any approach (although I will touch on this briefly). The purpose here is to show those who have lost their way a method to get back on track. Ok, the maths might be a little tricky, but once you’ve established the numbers, you shouldn’t need to adjust much until you hit your goal – a maintenance target will provide a surplus or deficit until your target bodyweight/composition is achieved.
Is either method faster or better? The traditional approach certainly works well for those aware of where each phase begins and ends. For those that aren’t (those for whom this article is written), this approach will minimise trial and error and as a result, will also minimise time and fuss.
In my experience, this approach can also confer some beneficial psychological attributes that correlate positively with compliance and adherence.
Here, the goal is the defining characteristic of the diet – it is neither bulk nor cut. Traditionally, you will be bulking, cutting, or maintaining. Certainly, the term ‘cutting’ has negative connotations, depending on your viewpoint. Cutting is synonymous with restriction, the denial of certain foods, hunger, and muscle loss. For others ‘bulking’ equates to discomfort, overeating, and fat gain. Clearly, there is an element of fear associated with both bulking and cutting. The approach outlined in this article dispenses with the mind games by focusing on the goal,
Ultimately, the approach that you adhere to is the one that’ll get you to your desired physique, but rest assured that both approaches have more in common than they do differences.
If you fancy going down the more traditional route and establishing your current maintenance and either cutting or bulking, then the formulae above will allow you to work this out – simply plug in your current numbers and not your target.
Either approach will work, provided you know which way you’re headed; the purpose of this article is to simplify the process. And it really IS a simple process — pick a target bodyweight and work out the calories needed each day. Don’t worry about the timing, just get the calories in (see previous article) and train accordingly.
So it boils down to hard work, consistent progression in the gym, and eating right?
It certainly does – how predictably boring, but true!
Written by Daniel Roberts
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – To Bulk or to Cut, that is the question – or is it? discussion thread.