War on Bulking: Part 3 – The Typical Cutting Cycle

In Part 2 of The War on Bulking, I discussed the typical bulking cycle; a period in which a bulker is obsessed with gaining muscle, yet ends up fat and unhealthy. Muscle growth is limited to about 10 pounds per year. This growth isn’t limited by calorie intake, and therefore more food does not necessarily lead to more muscle mass. Instead, it often leads to a spike in body fat.

In Part 2, our hypothetical bulker (Serious Bulker) gained 48 pounds of body weight in four months. Of those 48 pounds, 43 were body fat and only five were muscle. Because our bulker gained weight the wrong way, he put on an excessive amount of body fat which brings us to his next step. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll discuss the cutting cycle: a period in which the bulker attempts to burn away all the excess body fat he’s gained.

The Typical Cutting Cycle

The typical cutting cycle is painful for a bulker to go through. The purpose of a bulking cycle is to gain as much muscle as possible. Unfortunately, one of the main consequences of using the wrong approach to gaining weight is a massive increase in body fat. The solution: a cutting cycle. Sadly, the same unrealistic expectations that lead to obscene gains in body fat during bulking are the same unrealistic expectations that will lead to the same caliber of results during cutting.

The purpose of a cutting cycle is to lose as much body fat as possible without sacrificing any muscle tissue. The problem here is that some muscle loss during a cutting cycle is inevitable. Undoubtedly, Serious Bulker will ignore this reality and create a half-hearted fat burning/weight loss program which he will end at the first sign of any muscle loss.

Losing Weight vs. Burning Fat

Before we get into our hypothetical cutting scenario, let’s take a look at the basics of cutting. Though many think losing weight, burning fat, getting ripped, increasing muscular definition and cutting describe different processes, they are all identical.

Losing weight puts the body in a situation where it’s forced to burn fat (and other non-food energy sources) for energy. Over time, this causes a reduction in body fat leading to a more toned appearance. Losing weight, burning fat, getting ripped, toning up and cutting are all different ways of describing the same process. This is important because most bulkers do not believe losing weight and burning fat are the same (we’ll get to this in a bit). This mistaken belief leads to poor results.

Losing weight, or cutting, requires a calorie deficit (the opposite of a calorie surplus): a state in which you burn more energy than you consume. For example, if you burn 3,000 calories and only eat 2,500, you’ve created a deficit of 500 calories. This energy deficit (500 calories) must come from non-food sources. A calorie deficit forces the body to use non-food energy sources to make up the difference between what’s burned and consumed. Non-food energy sources include body fat, stored carbohydrates AND muscle tissue.

Everyone would love it if body fat accounted for 100% of a calorie deficit. This would allow us to get ripped without losing any muscle or strength. Unfortunately, weight loss doesn’t work this way. The body doesn’t always like to use fat for energy. Furthermore, some cells in the body only have the machinery needed to burn carbohydrates; they can’t survive off fat. The body can convert muscle tissue and protein into carbs for energy, but lacks the ability to do the same with fat. Losing weight without losing some muscle and strength is impossible.

When Losing Weight and Burning Fat are Different

Remember, the steps required to lose weight, burn fat, get toned/ripped and cut down after a bulking cycle are identical. Most bulkers don’t believe this and separate weight and fat loss into two different processes. This false distinction leads them to avoid actual fat burning requirements; they see weight loss strategies such as cutting calorie intake and increasing cardio as different than fat burning strategies. Because they avoid these weight loss strategies (the same ones that also cause a decrease in body fat) their fat burning programs see limited success. Here are the two main ways bulkers differentiate between weight and fat loss.

Clean Eating. Bulkers are under the false impression that eating “clean” causes a reduction in body fat. Clean calories come from healthy foods such as whole wheat, fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and lean meat. The main benefit to “clean eating” is an improvement in overall health.

Unfortunately, the amount of calories you eat compared to the amount you burn is the only way to control body weight and body fat. Burning more than you consume causes weight and fat loss. In regards to increasing or decreasing body fat, the type of calories you eat is irrelevant; burning more than you consume is the only way to decrease body fat. It’s possible to get fat from healthy food just as it’s possible to lose weight or burn fat from junk food.

Ideally, a diet should include BOTH healthy choices and an appropriate calorie intake. An elevated calorie intake made up entirely of healthy or “clean” calories still leads to weight gain.

Fat Burning Zone. Another strategy bulkers use to burn fat is doing low intensity “fat burning” cardio. Most cardio equipment (treadmills, stair-climbers, ellipticals, bikes) have fat burning buttons. These cardio sessions are kept at low intensities in hopes of forcing the body to burn more fat than other macronutrients.

The type of macronutrient (fats, carbs or proteins) the body uses for energy depends on many factors; a big one being exercise intensity. Typically, the body burns a higher proportion of fat with lower intensity activities such as walking or slow biking. The problem is that while low intensity exercise might burn more fat than higher intensity activities, these sessions burn much less total calories/energy.

At the end of the day, the TOTAL amount of energy you burn matters much more than how much fat you burn. Extra energy is stored as body fat. If you burn more fat but less of the other macronutrients, at the end of the day, the body simply stores the left over energy, fat or otherwise, as body fat for later use. Lower intensity exercise sessions force the body to store more total fat than higher intensity sessions because at the end of the day, there is more left-over energy. Low intensity cardio sessions do very little for weight loss or fat burning. Real change comes from higher intensity sessions.

Mitigating Muscle Loss During Weight Loss

Losing weight without sacrificing some muscle is impossible. Fortunately, there are a few steps a bulker can take to mitigate muscle loss during a cutting cycle.

Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplements. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are three special amino acids known as the Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCAAs. BCAAs are thought to have an important role in preserving muscle tissue, especially during weight loss. BCAAs come in powder and pill form and should be taken before and after a workout to preserve muscle mass.

Eat Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation with the rise of low-carb diets. Low-carb diets work because they cut calorie intake. Alone, carbs, fats and proteins do not cause unwanted weight gain or weight loss. Controlling the difference between total calories consumed and burned is the only way to gain or lose weight. The types of calories you eat is irrelevant. Fats, carbs of proteins can all lead to weight gain when eaten in excessive amounts.

Carbs are the body’s main source of energy. A lesser known function of carbs is to spare protein as an energy source. All of the macronutrients (fats, carbs and proteins) provide energy to the body. Protein is special as it’s the only one of the three to contain nitrogen. Nitrogen allows protein to build/repair body tissue. Protein is the only nutrient the body can use to build/repair tissue.

The body also has the ability to use protein (and even breakdown muscle tissue) for energy. Eating an adequate amount of carbs (45-55% of daily calorie intake) allows the body to use protein for its intended purpose and keeps the body from breaking down muscle tissue for energy.

Serious Bulker’s Cutting Cycle

Once Serious Bulker is done bulking, he’s realized he’s gotten too fat. Instead of sticking around 198lbs, he decides to lose the fat and begin his cutting cycle. From now on, we’ll call him “Serious Dieter” or SD.

A cutting cycle is the opposite of a bulking cycle. It’s a period of time in which the goal is burning as much fat as possible without losing any strength or muscle (unrealistic expectation). Losing weight and burning fat are two ways of describing the same process. During weight loss, AKA fat burning or cutting, some muscle loss (and therefore decrease in strength) is inevitable.

Serious Dieter’s Plan

SD doesn’t want to lose a lot of weight so he creates a deficit of 500 calories per day. This results in 0.5 pounds of weight loss per week. He sets his total weight loss goal at 10 pounds. At a rate of 0.5 pounds per week, 10 pounds will take about five months to reach, a much slower pace than bulking.

In our hypothetical bulking scenario, we assumed generous muscle growth of 15 pounds per year. During cutting, it’s difficult to estimate how much weight loss comes from body fat and how much comes at the expense of muscle tissue. While bulkers believe it’s possible to create a 100% body fat and 0% muscle loss split, the truth is that losing some muscle is inevitable.

For our cutting scenario, we’ll [generously] assume body fat accounts for 80% of weight loss while muscle only accounts for 20%. This number greatly differs in real-life and is nearly impossible to accurately predict.

Serious Dieter’s Outcome

After losing eight pounds in 16 weeks (four months), SD weighs 190 pounds and has had enough of this cutting cycle. His bench press and squat numbers are starting to suffer and he’s happy with all the fat he’s burned. He is very eager to start bulking again. Let’s take a look at SD’s cutting cycle.

The blue line represents body weight in pounds and corresponds to the numbers on the left side of the graph. The red line represents body fat percentage and corresponds to the numbers on the right side of the graph. Note: week 16 was the last week of the bulking cycle. This graph was made on the same scale as the bulking graph so we can [later] compare how lopsided bulking and cutting are.

During his cutting cycle, SD lost a total of eight pounds. Assuming 80% of his weight loss came from body fat, his body fat percentage decreased from 26% to 24%. SD lost 0.4 pounds of body fat per week. His total body fat decreased from 51.6 pounds (at 26% body fat) to 45.6 pounds (at 24% body fat). SD lost 0.1 pounds of muscle per week for a total loss of 1.6 pounds of muscle.

The Bottom Line

The point of a cutting cycle is to lose the fat you gained during the bulking cycle. As much as we would all like to only lose body fat during cutting, weight loss burns through both fat and muscle. While there are steps we can take to minimize muscle loss, body fat never accounts for 100% of weight lost. Muscle and strength losses during a cutting cycle are inevitable.

We can begin to see the major problems with these perpetual bulking and cutting cycles. Bulking adds much more body fat than most bulkers are willing to lose during cutting when the reality of how much muscle the body burns through sets in. With each subsequent bulking and cutting cycle, bulkers get fatter and fatter without ever getting back to a lean and healthy state. This eventually begins to harm overall health.

In Part 4 of the War on Bulking, I’ll discuss the entire outcome of the bulking and cutting cycle, show why this constant weight gain/weight loss is the worst way to gain muscle and explain the effects of bulking/cutting on overall health.

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