Well over 20 years ago, I started my fitness journey in the bodybuilding world – “…gasp….eye roll.” I was then an EX-college athlete, that had grown to be a little chubby. So, of course, I starved myself I got ridiculously lean, and did my first bodybuilding show, I was then a self-proclaimed expert!! After that first show I completely fell off the wagon – developed horribly unhealthy eating habits, and gained a ridiculous amount of weight in a very short amount of time, I was “bulking”….that is what bodybuilders do?? For me this cycle lasted A LOT of years. So, I write this with those feeling, emotions, and experiences in mind. To say that I have learned a lot over the years, is an understatement. I am no longer an expert, but I do value my own personal experience as well as those who I have had the pleasure of working with over the years to help me have a better understanding of what these phases me and how to approach them.
With that being said, when it comes to body composition goals, there are traditionally 3 phases. But also keep in mind, that if you are an athlete, or aspire to be, these phases should align with your training throughout the year.
“Bulking” (scale weight x 16-18+)
“Maintenance” (scale weight x 14-16)
“Cutting” (scale weight x 12-14)
#1 - “Bulking”
This does not mean fall off of the wagon and eat everything you want and crave because it is winter and you are bulking….if you want to gain muscle, there needs to be consistency in your training and nutrition in order to NOT put on a significant amount of excess body fat. Gaining lean mass much more difficult than losing body fat, in my opinion.
To be in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than we are burning) we take body weight times 16-18 +. So, if we have guy @ 180lb, we would take his scale weight x 17 = 3,060. As generic as that seems, generally it is fairly accurate. On average, I like to see an increase in scale weight 0.5-2.0 lbs 10-14 days. If it is more or less than that…then we would adjust. The discrepancy of 0.5-2.0 lbs is due to differences of type sizes/types – I wouldn’t want a female starting at 120 lb to add 2# in 2 weeks, she would be closer to the 0.5-1.0, but with the 180# guy I would feel comfortable him adding 1-2# two weeks. If and when we need to adjust to keep from hitting a plateau, I generally recommend adding 200-500 calories a day. These calories should come from carbs or fats…and keep adding calories at that rate until you are gaining weight. As far as the macros go… you don’t have to be as aggressive with the amount of protein you are taking in to see the results that you want – I like to have people around 0.75-1 gram of protein per body weight – you really don’t need more than that and your body probably won’t use it anyway. In my opinion, carbs and fat can fluctuate throughout the week. As long as you are monitoring your saturated fat (if needed) and sugar intake (below 30% of total carbs is a good start) – eat what your body wants. Some people do much better with a higher amount of fats – some do well with higher carbs, lower fats. I really like for people to play with it and see what you feel best with and what your body really wants (not what your head wants
) But for those of you that need to see the numbers, I usually have people start with 45-50% carbs and 30-35% fat.
This does not mean “I ate entirely too much garbage the six months – I now need to fast and cut calories so low that I can hardly function.” If you want to lose body fat and be successful long term, there needs to be consistency as well as balance – Deprivation turns into Your “cheat meal”….which turns into your “cheat day”….which turns into your “cheat weekend – which turns into I’m starting Monday”
Bulking means surplus – so that means cutting means deficit…it’s as simple as that. By the numbers, we take scale weight times 12-14. With that same @ 180lb guy x 13 that would be = 2,340 calories. Or when I have the opportunity to work with people for 2-4 months, I get a better understanding of what their maintenance calories are and then typically will take 200-400 calories a day from that baseline number and that tends to be more accurate. If there isn’t a change in 10-14 days (0.5-2.0 lb), take more calories (200-400). Your macros will be roughly the same. You can add in a little more protein if you are training hard, but the 1 gram per 1 lb of body weight should be sufficient. Monitoring carbs and sugars become may become increasingly more important when you are in a deficit, but in reality – total calories and consistency with protein is much more important. So, keeping fairly close to the same ratios is always ideal - I never really recommend going super low with carbs or fat during your cutting phase, because maintaining balance (of carbs and fats) will ensure that you are getting adequate macro and micro-nutrients and your maintenance phase will be easier and more successful long term. Mayyybe… When you get stuck and need something to adjust to get things moving - you can drop carbs…but keep them as long as you can!
Lastly, we have “maintenance” that is a beautiful day and all of the stars are aligning – I’m a firm believer in the 80/20 rule at this point!!! But 80 needs to be 80 CONSISTENTLY or it turns into down hill real fast!
Maintenance numbers (like the above 2 numbers) will change depending on your activity level…so keep that in mind. Typically, it is scale weight times 15. Our 180lb guy gets 2,700 calories a day…his protein stays around his body weight (1 gram per pound) and carbs and fats fall where they may – again, being mindful of sugars and saturated fats. So as the pattern goes, throughout the 3 phases adjustments should all be made by adding or taking away 200-500 calories a day. For some, maintenance isn’t so easy, and there are many reasons as to why, but I do think that if you are maintaining balance in the “cutting” and “bulking” phase, maintaining becomes much easier. It is when we get into the habit of extremes that things become more difficult and then you become much less likely to maintain.
In an ideal world, I would want everyone to live in the “intuitive eating” phase. Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full, and eat what your body needs – not what your head wants. I am a firm believer that everyone can get here, but it takes work. By work I mean, mentally put in the effort to be mindful of what your body needs, what it performs best with, and creating balance. For most of us, we spend so much time going to the gym, working on weaknesses, and worrying about making it to the crossfit games, we forget nutrition is 80% of the battle.
Last but not least, here are some things that you can try that will help you be more successful in your maintenance – check your scale weight once a week, or often. When we don’t do it regularly, it is much easier to not notice the 5-8 lb we’ve gained. I don’t love when people get so attached to the scale and the number that it represents, but I do believe it can help keep you on track. Keep a journal. It can be a food journal, a journal for your goals, a gratitude journal….whatever resonates with and for you. We often times have so much going on, we don’t slow down enough to organize our thoughts or recognize our accomplishments – journaling can help you slow things down and create order and balance! Take progress pictures and measurements monthly or bi-monthly. Find what works for you. “maintenance” is balance, in my mind – and it is certainly where I would choose to spend majority of my time…because you don’t have to work as hard