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There are far more intelligent options available to you than "bulk & cut".

This is an updated version of an infographic I made a while back that you might have seen already.

The "fuel gauge" graphic to the left represents what your current level of fueling might be, relative to your energy requirements as defined on the right. What I've added is the highlighted rectangles.

I've been a little irritated a few times recently to see people who should know better advocating for very low calorie "cutting" diets for females with fat loss goals. Even more so when the suggestion is that the only alternative to extreme calorie restriction is to "bulk first", for some reason.

Bulking and cutting might be required when your goal is to be a massive body builder or to compete in sports at a higher weight class. For people with a fat loss goal, you most certainly do not need to "bulk first" and actually increase levels of body fat. As I talked about here and on facebook recently, bulking & cutting is rarely an appropriate strategy for a female client whether a beginner or a more advanced athlete. At least, not in the context that people usually employ it.

The problems with how people usually bulk & cut:

In theory and when done properly, when bulking you accept that you'll gain some fat as you add lean mass and increase strength, but hopefully the amount is minimal, depending on how much mass you intend to add.

So, for most people that's a period of getting further out of shape before they get to get into shape. Especially if you're a woman reading this, how do you REALLY feel about the idea of getting further from goal condition (aka fatter) before we can get into leaner condition? Not so great right? Psychologically it is pretty hard to deal with, especially when you switch gears to cutting mode and all of a sudden become all too aware of how much more fat you have to lose and how much further you are from your goal condition than when you started. It's that "my god, what have I done?" feeling and it blows.

So that's bulking and you do add lean mass but also fat mass. Then comes cutting, when you restrict as far into calorific deficit as is necessary to lose fat mass. Again, you accept that you may lose some lean mass but ideally the idea is that you lose mostly fat mass and minimal lean mass.

In actuality though... when you restrict further and further into calorific deficit, your body finds it preferential to squander lean mass rather than to draw any more from fat stores than it absolutely has to. Performance at training and Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is also sacrificed, as you just aren't taking in enough energy to function on.

Now... why this is particularly problematic is that I keep seeing people who should know better telling people, and even with audacity to tell ME of all people, that when people are not seeing results in fat loss, regardless of how far in deficit of a sufficient level of energy intake they already are, if they're not seeing fat loss they need to slash intake even further. This is madness.

Further, I'll suggest from my observation that many people's supposed "bulking" period is really just a stint at working to targets that are "barely adequate" as per the chart. So in this situation there's no period where the body actually gets to prioritise putting energy and resources into the muscles and into lean mass where you want them, while drawing more from fat stores. At all points you're only at various levels of "conserve energy and survive as best you can under the stress of this level of activity".

This is why people might do a bulk every winter and a cut every spring, but over the long term they don't really produce any improvements in condition. They just end up back where they started, because they restrict to a degree that does not support an increase in lean mass, assuming they even achieved any increase the previous season anyway which they may well have not.

Basically, you have a period that involves adding fat mass, and a period that involves squandering lean mass. How does that sound like a strategy that is conducive to your condition goal?

You have more options in nutrition strategy than just "bulk or cut".

For some reason, not a lot of people seem to get this, and even more baffling to me, many of them are actually hostile to the concept. However, it's important to understand that just because you are not currently producing any changes in condition, this does not necessarily mean that you are "at maintenance" and that any increase in energy intake would mean "caloric surplus" and be "bulking".

You have better options, but it takes more competence than the average so called "macros coach" appears to possess. Bulk and cut... calculate an amount that's clearly too much and have them get fat working towards that, then calculate an amount that's insufficient at best, and keep slashing further until they develop an eating disorder. Pffft. That's garbage.

Wrapping this up, part 1: Winter Strategy. Performance & Anabolism. 

Assume we're talking about serious people who's level of activity is consistent, but who are not seeing improvements in condition. They may be paying no attention to their eating habits & energy intake, or they may have some sort of idea they're working to. They may have habits and levels of energy intake that are consistent, or they may have eating habits and levels of energy intake that are erratic. In any case what we can logically infer is that they do not have eating habits that result a level of energy intake such as is required to produce those desired changes in condition as an adaptation to training.

In a more advanced and experienced athlete with greater amount of time spent active and a greater level of prowess at training, the prospect of over eating other than while deliberately bulking is somewhat implausible. Even in beginners, my observation is consistently that if people are trying to "diet" or "eat clean" or even if they think they are doing IIFYM in accordance with their own estimations or even working to targets they have paid for... they're restricting to a level of energy provision that is insufficient to facilitate improvements in condition.

Our goal is to indulge our passion for training and to enjoy seeing improvements in condition from season to season and from year to year. I'm labelling this the winter strategy but really it's what you should probably start with immediately regardless of the season if you're currently at that unknown, insufficient or erratic level of intake.

As per the graphic, start at a level of energy intake that you'd consider a conservative estimate of what might be adequate to support goal weight, condition, and level of activity. Even if that goal weight is lower than current weight, and even if that level of intake is greater than current level of intake. From here, increase incrementally towards what your equations would determine is the maximal amount you could put to use in facilitating improvements in performance and increases in lean mass without "bulking" or significant weight gain beyond the weight of more food in your digestive tract.

Understand that although energy intake is significantly increased, we expect to see improvements in condition including fat loss.

Wrapping this up, part 2: Summer Strategy.

As per the chart, I'd suggest the above is a logical strategy for the Autumn (aka Fall) through Winter months. Maintaining that level of fueling means the body has had a chance and had resources available to prioritise increases in lean mass and making more energy available in the muscle cells, at the expense of fat storage. Therefore, by Spring you'll be stronger and leaner than you were in when you started... but you're also in a position to now apply a strategic level of caloric deficit to draw further still from fat stores. Rather than restricting to an insufficient level of intake for extended periods and squandering those lean mass gains the way people often do with a conventional "Spring Cut", we should still ensure we are working to levels of intake that are adequate to maintain performance and lean mass, while drawing further from fat stores to make up the difference.

True words often seem contradictory.

You'll best facilitate fat loss and lean condition by working towards more optimal (aka higher) levels of fueling, especially after having survived an extended period in caloric deficit. However, you'll also best facilitate fat loss by working to strategic levels of deficit, having previously established and maintained a more optimal level of fueling.

You do not facilitate best results in fat loss by restricting to insufficient levels for extended periods, and obviously "bulking" in the conventional sense infers fat gain. Your goal is to enthusiastically enjoy and indulge your passion for training, and to see continuous, on going, perpetual improvements in condition.

Estimating Energy Requirements Of Female Athletes & Why Men Are Shit At It

The following was a suggestion made in a discussion on a certain forum the other day:
"A lot of men do not understand how many calories women need because men in the fitness industry can obviously eat a lot more and be fine."
The context of course was more like "how few calories" rather than "how many".

A Short List Of Links And References.

Further reading for after you've finished this article, but I wanted to include them early on to illustrate why this is a matter of serious concern.

Here's the thing. 
A fit & active male, and especially one carrying a lot of extra muscle mass, will have massive calorie requirements. A younger &/or a taller one would have higher requirements than an older & shorter one, but level of activity and amount of lean mass are by far the greater influences on calorie requirements. And note that I am saying "requirements" as in "they actually require that amount to maintain performance and condition" rather than just "they can get away with it because they're male."
Regardless, it seems to be extremely rare that any males are thinking "well if I can eat 3600 calories a day then so can she" and issuing excessive targets, or anything remotely similar. Rather, quite the opposite is what occurs, with males in particular failing to understand and dangerously underestimating the energy / calorie requirements of females they are advising whether in a professional capacity, a mansplaining capacity, or even just an enabling "no that sounds fine" capacity when a woman is asking for advice about why she's not seeing progress on 1200 calories per day and I'm trying explain that she probably needs about 700 a day more at an absolute minimum.

So what we're talking about here is an observation of a tendency and next will be some speculation on why that might be happening. But also we can probably expect some indignant males in the comments section complaining with strawman arguments like "so you're saying NO men can ever give competent nutritional advice, that's sexist"... to which I point out that not only am I actually a man myself, but... and I mean, I don't who's going to show up, but I put it to you that I'm actually twice the man that any of them are.

With the right equations and some intuition we can accurately predict a person's energy requirements, based on an array of factors. Sex, height & age come into this but perhaps the most significant factors are the amount of lean mass we want to support, and Level Of Activity.

As elaborated upon recently, Level Of Activity refers to all of the following:
  • Amount of time spent active.
  • Frequency and consistency of attendance and participation in training.
  • Quality and efficacy of training strategy.
  • Intensity of effort.
  • Proficiency and prowess at training.
  • Activity levels outside of training.
Emphasis here is on proficiency and prowess at training, and the importance of taking this into account. The amount a more experienced, more advanced athlete requires bares little resemblance to an amount that would be adequate or necessary for a beginner. However, even at a beginner level we should be aiming to facilitate improvements in performance and increases in lean mass. 

When attempting to understand the very low calorie levels I often see males recommend or endorse, I can only imagine that they have entirely failed to take Level Of Activity and Support Of Lean Mass into account, and have based their estimates upon the requirements of a sedentary person. Either that or they've simply looked at the product of their equations, and instinctively thought "but she's a girl" and "but she's trying to lose fat" and thrown the lot out in favour of some arbitrary amount that feels right.

In other words, they don't quite have the balls to stick their neck out and instruct a female to eat that much food and consume that amount of calories. They may claim to coach IIFYM or Flexible Dieting but in the end, the client may as well have just joined a mainstream, commercial calorie restriction weight loss program with one size fits all calorie restrictions... as they are in no way working to an amount that actually reflects their individual requirements.

Here's why though. Or here's a pretty good guess at least.

My observation is that a lot of these males follow a "bulk & cut" body building styled approach, in which you have "calorie surplus to gain weight" and "calorie deficit to lose weight" periods. In theory and when done successfully, the weight gained includes muscle tissue and other lean mass, and the weight loss period takes care of any body fat gained in the process. Perhaps just as likely though is that after the end of a bulking and cutting cycle, you find yourself back at exactly the same weight and same (or worse) condition than you started with.

Now... obviously you can't make blanket statements like this as if they apply across the board, but it appears to me that in a lot of cases, (a) these males in question do not understand anything other than "bulk and then cut", but since (b) a female is always assumed to be in "cutting" mode with fat loss as the primary if not only focus... you end up with calorie restrictions based on wanting to be as far into calorific deficit as possible, and the least amount the individual can manage to subsist upon.

This is... pretty bad. Really quite bad indeed.

Male or female, as a serious athlete competing in sport your priority is performance, and when fueled for performance athletic condition will occur as a side effect or by product. As a serious but non competitive enthusiast, or even as a beginner, here's a short list of things you should be interested in:
  • Improved performance at training & sports.
  • Maintain and increase lean mass, in terms of;
    • Muscle tissue.
    • Bone density.
    • Energy stored within the muscle cells.
  • Variety of, enjoyment of, & positive relationship with food.
  • Physical & mental health.
  • Enjoyment of life outside of training.
Fat loss is likely to also be an aspect of your goal, but the idea should be to pursue all of the above at the expense of fat stores, rather than "fat loss to the detriment of everything else."

You would think it would stand to reason that when athletic performance and condition is the goal, you will require more energy and resources to draw upon than an amount that would sustain an invalid, or an amount that might be necessary to restrict to in order to force fat loss in a sedentary person. You would think so, and while you'd be correct, my observation is that you'd also be in the minority.

Bottom line: You must take Level Of Activity into account when estimating energy requirements for athletes, and bare in mind that your aim is to facilitate improvements in performance and condition.

Observations on advice regarding energy requirements from female coaches to female clients.

Obviously the quality and the nature of the advice given will vary, and we must assess the quality of any advice on it's own merits rather than on the gender of who it has come from. Increasingly and encouragingly, my observation is that a lot more female coaches are against restriction of energy intake or choices of foods in pursuit of body condition goals.

This is GOOD! Although often I'm concerned that the message might inadvertently reinforce the idea that "not restricting" means fat gain in some people. We must emphasise that best condition will come from improvements in performance while being more optimally fueled, and that an active person with these goals requires a greater energy intake than a less active person.

On the other hand though, there's also a tendency with some female trainers & coaches to attempt to normalise their own restrictive eating habits and fat phobia with the same sort of advice described previously, with inappropriately low calorie limits which do not take level of activity into account.

Reiterating the bottom line: there is nothing problematic about having a goal of a leaner athletic condition, but as an athlete, aspiring athlete, or active enthusiast you require appropriate sports nutrition guidance with a focus on improving performance and condition, and not based on "being a girl and wanting to lose weight". And you definitely don't need to bulk first and cut later, unless you intend to compete in a heavier weight class or are actually underweight due to illness or eating disorder.

If you'd care to discuss this article you may do so on my facebook page, here.

Does Movement Screening Predict & Prevent Injury? Masterpost

Credit to Robert Palka who collated all of these links for a recent facebook post.
Could we please stop wasting time and money on the FMS, and move on? I also thought "it worked!" when using it.
A preliminary list of links to research on the effectiveness of the Functional Movement Screen for prediction and prevention of injury.

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