Confused by gym jargon? Bulking and cutting explained

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If you’ve been working out for a while, you’ve probably come across the phrases bulking and cutting. But what does it all mean? Gee Leary, chief instructor at No1 Bootcamp, explains…

What is bulking?

To understand bulking we have to understand the body’s need for energy in (storage) vs energy out (consumption). Put simply, we eat an amount of energy (food containing calories) relative to our energy out. This can be worked out against age, gender, height and personal activity levels (P.A.L.).

To bulk, you need to ingest more than these maintenance calories to maintain your weight thus creating a surplus amount of energy storage relative to physical and lifestyle demands.

There are many reasons why someone may want to bulk e.g. a bodybuilder wanting to bulk to increase lean muscle mass in the off season with the aim to get down to extremely low body fat percentages, or alternatively a mixed martial artist wanting to increase overall weight with normal body fat levels and maintain peak performance whilst moving up into a heavier weight category. Both of these examples require different approaches to training and nutrition.

Terms that are now more commonly used are ‘cut and bulk’. These terms are more readily available to the average gym-goer and people typically talk about bulking over winter (increasing calories and doing more resistance training to build muscle) and getting leaner for the summer (reducing calories and increasing cardio to lose the fat and reveal a lean cut physique).’

Other terms often heard are:

1. Clean bulking

This refers to adding excess calories, however, these calories come from ‘clean’ healthy calories. The foods eaten aren’t dissimilar, if not exactly the same, as foods used to ‘lean’ up or ‘cut’ just eaten in different macro ratios (macros being fats, proteins, carbs). An example of this type of bulk may see nutritional profiles coming from 40% proteins, 40% carbs and 20% fats.

This profile still considers the surplus requirement, however, 90% of the calories ingested are specific to the bulking profile. Treat meals may be implemented but are controlled to once or twice (max) weekly. These can help with energy storage and improved mindset. Strength gains and muscle gains increase steadily over time, which results in a leaner and more muscular physique and in my opinion a healthier mind and body long term.

2. Dirty bulking

This involves loading the body with nutrient-dense high caloric foods to add as much muscle possible whilst seeing the scale go up as soon as possible. The downside here is that consuming high caloric foods can have adverse effects on the body and give rise to all manner of health complications such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and cardiovascular-related diseases. In my opinion, this type of bulking is a dated method of increasing muscle mass and if undertaken you often see a person increasing weight far too quickly, which results in huge changes in diet, training and lifestyle not including health implications.

What is cutting?

In short, cutting is simply the reduction of energy in (calories) against energy out (expenditure calories) meaning if your calorie intake is less than your calories out over a given period of time you should be losing weight, however, it’s a little more complicated than this.

One of the biggest mistakes is cutting too many calories at the beginning of the eating plan/diet while increasing training thresholds and volume way too quickly.

Two of the most common terms I hear are:

1. Weight loss – muscle and fat loss including water loss

This type of loss may offer short term relief from weight gain but rarely yields any long term success and will always lead to weight gain once returning back to normal lifestyle habits and activities. This can leave you feeling demoralised and in poor health. The bottom line is cutting calories should be progressive over a longer period of time.

2. Fat loss – maintenance of muscle whilst losing fat

Nutrition should be the last priority when cutting calories. If you’re able to maintain your daily calorie count and create a deficit purely from training alone then this would be a great place to start a fat loss journey. Over time reduce your calorie intake marginally by decreasing calorie intake. Over a period of time the training volume you are following may plateau and this would be the time to cut calorie intake marginally. The benefits of cutting are to lose fat slowly through a structured nutritional program, these ‘cutting programmes’ can be effective if done correctly but expect fat loss to occur in small sustainable increments rather than large quick losses.

What are the risks?

Rapid weight changes up and down are not healthy and can play havoc with your body and mind. I don’t advise ‘cutting’ as this implies taking weight and body fat to unhealthily low levels, nor do I promote weight-loss. It’s better to follow a fat loss programme designed to make small sustainable losses (1lb-2lb) each week over a period of 12-16 weeks.

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