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Calorie intake restriction while trying to gain strength seems not to be easy, and I have experienced with my own eyes an improvement from one workout to another, by simply eating more than usual in the three days rest in between.

I guess it is time to start tracking down macronutrients and calories. I would like to avoid that, and I am thinking about a complementary approach: not paying much attention to the scale (well, at least within some reasonable limits) for some time until achieving some decent results in my strength training, and then entering a phase in which I might try to loose weight while doing the exact amount of work each workout with the hope of forcing the body not to loose muscle during that phase.

I think that might have something to do with the words "bulking phase" and "cutting phase" that I have read here and there, but I am completely ignorant and the net is full of bad advise motivated by commercial interests.

Can anybody explain a bit on the matter before I do something unhealthy?. To phrase it more specifically: I would like to know if those "bulking" and "cutting" bodybuilding phases are essentially what I am pondering to do, and I would like general guidelines on how to do it, why should I (or should not) do it, perhaps some online references. What are the advantages of both approaches? (trying to gain strength and muscle at constant body weight vs bulking and then cutting).

  • +1. I'm in the same situation, considering the same options. I've also found gaining without a surplus very hard. I lifted for a long time while not eating enough and make very little progress. – Tyler Mar 8 '15 at 6:06
  • Why do you want to stay the same weight? What is your height and weight? Could you phrase your question more specifically than "can anybody explain ___?" – Dave Liepmann Mar 8 '15 at 9:49
  • @DaveLiepmann I phrased it more specifically. Regarding my data (I thought it would be better to keep the question of general validity, but here they are), I am 42 yr, 185 cm and 86 kg (BMI 25), neck 41 cm, waist 101 cm (25% fat according to the Navy estimator). I try to stay the same weight because it is the least bad option I can think of, since loosing weight while gaining muscle seems difficult. My goals are gaining strength and loosing body fat, reducing waist. I have done strength training consistently for 12 weeks now, and cardio for one year approximately. – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 12:22
  • Why do you want to stay the same weight? – Dave Liepmann Mar 8 '15 at 12:24
  • @DaveLiepmann (sorry, my comment was not complete, I have edited now and it has the answer to why I try to stay the same weight). I don't care much about weight as long as I manage to reduce my waist measure and gain strenght (e.g. I want to have more muscle mass and less abdomen). – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 12:27
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There's some context from a comment of yours that's missing from this post:

I don't count calories. I simply try to follow a lifelong habit of no fast carbs or refined wheat, no sugar, no alcohol, lots of fruits and some vegetables, olive oil, fish and lean meat and I try to include some extra protein in all meals (a couple of extra egg whites and ham during breakfast, sardines during dinner, meat or fish at lunch time, post-workout low-fat milk with some honey, and some yoghurt). I watch my weight and cut down a bit on carbs when it rises. But lately with strength training it is difficult not to be hungry and not to gain weight at the same time.

This sentiment, along with other questions of yours, makes me think that you are not eating enough. For one, the only source of fats are fish and olive oil, and you mention deliberately avoiding both fats and carbs multiple times. Furthermore, from previous posts it's clear that you run into tremendous overtraining injuries when you work out any more than once every three (!) days. That's unusual even for someone over 40.

I want to reiterate: I'm not a professional in any sense. I'm not a trainer, I'm not a doctor. More importantly, I can't see what you're doing. But man, does it sound like not eating enough could be a significant cause of not recovering from session to session.

Your body needs fats. If you're strength training, you need to eat a lot in general, and protein in particular (which it sounds like you're doing). If you're doing cardio or anything high-intensity (such as some kinds of strength work), you need to be getting enough carbohydrate.

Why deprive yourself? You gain nothing by watching the scale. What would it mean, for instance, if you do a bunch of inverted body rows, eat a bunch, and then see your weight go up? Most likely it would mean your body built some muscle. That's nothing to try to prevent by undereating.

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  • Wow! I think you might be right. I probably need to eat more. Sleep is another problem, I don't manage to sleep more than six hours in average, no matter how I try, but that I cannot change it. I might try to eat more and track how my lean mass and total weight evolve (so that I can see if that increase after the inverted rows is really muscle). I am going to increase a bit my fat and (slow) carbs intake and follow my lean mass for a few weeks (I order an adipometer by Amazon). If that fails, then I will start counting calories as suggested by Kaufman. – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 22:05
  • To be sure I understood, it seems you suggest I should eat a bit more fat and carbs, but you don't recommed the "bulking and thereafter cutting" approach. Is that right? – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 22:10
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    Bulking and cutting doesn't fit your goals--you just want to gradually get stronger and look better at approximately this size. Working out and fueling that workout generally works for that purpose without explicit bulks and cuts. – Dave Liepmann Mar 9 '15 at 6:03
  • @DaveLiepmann Overtraining unless you work more than once every three days...do you mean per body part? – s3v3ns Mar 9 '15 at 6:20
  • @s3v3ns I do not. The "you" in my sentence means Mephisto, not people generally. – Dave Liepmann Mar 9 '15 at 6:40
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Bulking and cutting is a staple of the body building community, and on forums primarily devoted to aesthetics you'll find a lot of information supporting them.

Although less commonly talked about, the cycles of bulking and cutting fit quite nicely with anabolic steroid use. With something like deca/tren, a 12 week cycle is normally used, and you'll notice that most bulking cycles are usually in the same time frame. It's naive to think independently of steroids and body building: they've been coupled together for a long time.

What you won't see are a lot of long-term healthy and strong people (3+ decades) who are constantly bulking and cutting. Body building techniques (like bulking and cutting) are optimized for short term gains and by nature focus on aesthetics. It's entertainment, but from body builders the Hodge Twins even put their two cents in on the damage of constantly bulking and cutting.

Personally, about ten years of training for strength sports I've gotten to this realization:

  • It's pretty easy to be in calorie excess. On an intermediate or higher program, I default to eating more. It's not scientific, but because I've tracked macros long enough I have a pretty good feel for how much I need to eat. And like I said, I default to eating a bit more.

  • When I'm sick, traveling, taking a break, or recovering from an injury a common thread there is that I'm probably in maintenance mode and not progressively adding strength numbers. As such I watch my calories a little closer because I simply don't need as much.

  • Religiously counting your calories and macros every now and then is required. You can only make quick educated guesses on diet if your opinions are founded in reality, and you can only know the reality if you've measured and watched your diet. Every few months, I track everything for a week or so. It's a good check point to ensure I haven't slipped into bad habits or forgotten something important.

  • I have a family, and I'm never going to tell my kids "Sorry darling, daddy can't share that ice cream cone with you because I'm on a cut right now and want my abs to pop out." It's important to me that my fitness goals fit well with a relatively normal life. The point of fitness to me is to enhance my life, not to become my life. It's a tricky balance.

  • Some time periods, like the holidays are notorious for rich and calorie dense meals. Don't be that guy showing up for Christmas dinner with your grilled chicken and veggies in some tupperware. Lifting heavy through the holidays and watching your stomach-gooey-ness in the tail end of spring is a pretty simple way to make sure you're not fighting reality.

If you want to win body building contests or be muscled up with <8% body fat, you're going to need to bulk and cut, and probably take steroids to be honest especially if you want to stay there.

If you want to look good with your shirt off, be strong, and develop healthy patterns that will last you the rest of your life, you need to balance all the fitness techniques with real life and look around at people in their later years who aren't dropping dead of heart attacks and see what they're doing.

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  • Counting macros and calories is not a problem. The problem is what to do with that information. It has been exhausting for me to figure out how to train among the bunch of misinformation and crap in the net. Now, can you recommend a single, clean source of information on what to do after counting macros and calories? By "clean" I mean "clean of hidden commercial interests"... – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 22:02
  • Well, I remember Scooby had some simple guidelines he called "A top-down approach to bodybuilding nutrition". I have to check it out. – Mephisto Mar 8 '15 at 22:12
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Let me preface this by saying that what I’m about to share is somewhat opinion based (on experience) and laced with anecdotal evidence. I've watched this post and initially hesitated in jumping in with an answer. I think there may be some general misconceptions running through this thread. I've actually lived the bodybuilding lifestyle as a competitor, and, trainer, so, I’d like to offer my experiences from a different, although, probably more common perspective.

I constantly see the terms “bulking” and “cutting” in the context of bodybuilding. As Eric indicated in his answer, those terms should be closely coupled with bodybuilding’s steroid community. Most of us who strength train, however, are not steroid users. And, some of us, have actually been successful at competitive bodybuilding without abusing steroids.

For a natural strength training athlete or bodybuilder, bulking and cutting tend to be counterproductive. It’s almost like “yo-yo” dieting. We all agree that ensuring sufficient calories for growth is important. However, unless you’re genetically gifted, adding extra calories by “bulking” tends to make you store more fat unless you increase your activity proportionately. In my opinion, a more sensible approach would be to monitor your caloric intake to ensure you’re eating enough as Dave indicated in his response. A steady flow of nutrients to support your strength training makes more sense to me than the occasional cycle of “bulking”.

As for “cutting”, the typical reason for reducing calories tends to be aesthetic in nature. And, the “cutting” phase tends to be a long, gradual, multi-week process with the goal to reveal underlying muscle. For a bodybuilder, the “cutting” phase is typically used right before a competition (10 to 12 weeks). It’s not something that is done on a regular basis because of the stress (physical and mental) resulting from a calorie restricted diet. Again, if you monitor your caloric intake and follow a sensible diet, there’s no need to “cut” for a natural strength training athlete.

To sum up, I would follow a modified version of the first approach in your question – Gaining strength while maintaining a sensible weight. That would mean adding or reducing calories based on the current context of your training. But, not to the extent that you are “Bulking” and “Cutting”.

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