The Quick and Dirty Guide to Clean Cutting and Bulking
The biggest mistake made in bulking is trying to put on weight, period. It’s easy to work hard, overeat (or eat the wrong kind of food), and get bigger. The problem is, you’ve built as much fat as you’ve built muscle, and now the cut you’re facing is going to be long and brutal.
Or, conversely, you’re in a great place at the peak of your bulk and you’re looking forward to getting through your cut and seeing what’s under there. This time, though, you cut too fast or you don’t feed your muscles, and you lose muscle mass with the fat. Suddenly your maxes have dropped and you’ve lost muscle along with your insulation.
There’s a lot that goes into getting it right, and honestly, it’s different for everyone. Without going into mind-numbing detail, here’s the rub. This is your quick and dirty guide to lean and clean cutting and bulking.
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Clean cutting and clean bulking require more time and discipline than other methods. While cutting is always a carefully planned maneuver, bulking is a little more ambiguous. If you want to put on muscle without gaining a disproportionate amount of fat (some is inevitable), you’ll need to carefully plan meals and stick to stricter guidelines than if you were to dirty bulk. Your progress will be slower, but ultimately, you’re looking at a more sustainable diet choice that has a lower probability of permanently damaging your metabolism — and that goes for both cutting and bulking.
There are a couple nutrition truths no matter what your goals are. One, IIFYM works fine for simple goals, but chances are if you’re here, you’re beyond what IIFYM can do for you. Thus, you know that not all calories are created equal. Don’t put crap in your body. You’ll feel worse, you won’t train as well, and you’ll use up your allowances faster.
Nutrition isn’t the only component to training, either. Mental state is incredibly important, as is your performance in the gym. If you’re not mentally ready to cut or bulk, you’re going to have a bad time. Additionally, stress levels can sabotage even the most dedicated training regiment, as can not getting enough sleep. Dr Jacob Wilson, also known as The Muscle PhD, has been helping professional athletes, bodybuilders and others to achieve their nutrition and strength goals via a powerful training and education app – Generation Iron Plus. Use your resources to hold yourself accountable. Take care of yourself, don’t work through injuries, and don’t just power through your exhaustion.
If you’re already above 15 percent body fat, don’t plan on bulking. You won’t see the lean bulk results you’re looking for, and it’s going to be a lot harder to shed the pounds later. Cut until you’re at 14 percent body fat or lower, and then plan your bulk. While you’re bulking, only increase your calorie count by 250-300 per day. This is enough to gain a couple of pounds each month without giving your body so much fuel that it stores the extra as fat.
The number one rule of a clean bulk is that food quality (and quantity) still counts. You’re not just putting on weight willy-nilly and hoping enough of it’s muscle. Cheat meals aside, you still want to avoid refined sugars, simple carbs, and over-processed foods. Simple, whole foods almost always pack a bigger nutrient-punch and keep you full longer.
First and foremost, get your protein. You cannot starve muscle of its building blocks and still expect it to build. Make sure you’re getting at least a gram of protein per pound of body weight. Next comes fat. Depending on what works well for your digestion system, look for 15-20 percent of your intake to come from fats (this should work out to about .3 grams per pound). The rest is carbs. Choose wisely — sweet potatoes, brown rice, beans, and quinoa are all satiating sources of carbs that don’t come with extra ingredients.
To have the most successful bulk, stop thinking of it as bulking. Seriously. You’re not bulking. You’re just fueling your body. Ignore that you have a calorie surplus. Aim to meet your macros daily, and view everything that goes into your mouth as fuel. That donut? Fuel. That prime rib? Fuel. A truckload of broccoli? Fuel. All of it.You decide the quality of that fuel. Now, this doesn’t mean cheat meals are out. You still need them to be psychologically happy, and they’re easier to manage on a bulk than a cut. BUT, a bulk is not several months of cheat meals. Get rid of that nonsense.
When you’re getting ready to cut, you’ll obviously need to figure out your calorie deficit. Generally speaking, a pound of fat is equal to 3500 calories, and you shouldn’t aim to lose more than one and a half pounds per week. So, depending on your goals, you want to be in a caloric deficit of 500-750 calories per day. Make sure this is subtracted from your maintenance requirement and not your bulking requirement.
Make sure you give yourself enough time for your cut. If you’re trying to lose too quickly, you increase your risk of losing muscle mass and you enter into dangerously low calorie levels, which could permanently affect your metabolism. Also take into account any upcoming holidays, travel, work events, or family affairs that may interrupt your cut. You’ll want to add one or two weeks to your projected cut time to allow for hiccups and setbacks.
With the calories you get to consume, you want to ensure that you’re still getting enough fuel to power your workouts. This means that you can’t get rid of carbs altogether — your brain and your muscles still need those glucose stores. When you’re adjusting your macros, keep your protein where it is while you’re bulking. You don’t want to deprive your muscles and you’ll feel full longer. Put your fat at 20-25 percent, as long as you’re using natural, healthy sources. Finally, fill in the gap with carbs.
Regarding everything else, understand that cheat meals happen and they aren’t the end of the world. Sometimes your body (or your mental health) needs it. Keep fiber intake high to maintain good digestive health, and adding some fermented foods (if they’re not already part of your diet) with health with gastrointestinal health. Finally, stop drinking your calories, aside from your supplements. The only liquids that should be going in your body are water, coffee, and tea.
This is the disclaimer section, and the disclaimer goes like this: Each body is different. Not everything works for everyone. There is no perfect answer. Consistency is your best friend.
That being said, how do you deal with it? That, at least, is a simple (if not painstaking) answer. You deal with it by treating your body like a science experiment. Think back to the lab reports you wrote in school — you’re going to do that with your nutrition.
No, no one’s going to make you write a paper, but you do need to perform experiments, record data, and draw conclusions. In order for your experiments to be accurate, you need to be diligent, exact, and patient.
It’s frustrating to be following a plan and being uncertain if it’s working or not, but that’s what needs to happen. You are a science experiment, and you need to control the variables. Fitness trackers are a great way to keep track of estimated expenditure, as well as providing reminders for healthy habit check ins.
For the initial try, pick a plan and follow it to the letter. Be obnoxiously consistent. Take your measurements at the same time every day. Eat within 5 percent of your macros. Pay attention to your energy in the gym. Learn how your body likes to schedule things, and work with your body, not against it. Above all else, write it all down.
After 3 to 4 weeks, sit down with your notebook, and evaluate the data. Are you seeing the weight fluctuate the way you want it to, at the right pace? Do you still have enough energy to crush your workouts?
If you’re not on track to meet your goal, make a logical adjustment. You may need more carbs before your workout, or more protein after. You might need to change the timing of your pre-workout. Whatever you decide to do, implement the change for a few weeks and continue your observations. Tune into what works best for you.
Alyssa is a lover of words and movement who happily resides in the Pacific Northwest. If she’s not at the gym or out playing pick-up games, she’s probably feeding her favorite humans something stealthily healthy or devouring her latest bookstore find. She’s passionate about making health and fitness accessible to anyone, regardless of their situation. Tweet her @arobinsonwrites.