Bulking and cutting phases might work for heavyweight bodybuilders, but it’s better for physique athletes to stay lean all year.
I’ve always believed that in order to be an excellent athlete you have to be a bit extreme. To become pro level at anything, you have to possess qualities that may seem a bit abnormal to society at large. Late-night practices, constant pursuit of perfection, and strict diets carve out a very specific label that many of us as high performance or aesthetic athletes carry with us.
But interestingly enough, it seems that in the world of bodybuilding and fitness, the extreme mentality can carry over into day-to-day life. In an effort to build the perfect body, many of us go to hardcore dieting techniques and sometimes forget that there is an alternative to the extreme bulking and cutting mentality that occurs within the competitive fitness community.
Recently, I have seen many fitness models and competitors jumping on a trend that I find to be a much healthier approach and one that provides a more sustainable outcome. This trend is staying lean 365 days per year rather than blowing up and then crash dieting for a given event. It seems as though the appeal of being in shape year-round is beginning to supersede that of being a bit softer in the winter and lean only in the summer or around contests.
From a purely mental standpoint, being in shape year-round provides exceptional benefits. When you’re feeling confident, it gives you the ability to conquer more in your daily life than you would if you were feeling self-conscious about your appearance. The problem with the traditional bulking and cutting approach is that the contrast of one condition to the other can sometimes leave you feeling a bit depressed or at the very least, with lower self-esteem. If you’re ripped all summer, but then you shift into bulking season, it can be difficult to watch the six-pack disappear and consequently leave you feeling a bit down.
Of course, staying lean consistently comes with its own mental pitfalls as well. We all know it means committing to a strict diet, and that isn’t always fun. Certain foods give us a dopamine response that makes us feel good, and without having a few meals to provide that, we can get disheartened. From a hormonal standpoint as well, excessive dieting can cause an increase in cortisol. This undesirable hormone can make us feel anxious, depressed, and fatigued. The best way to combat both of these roadblocks is to allow yourself a cheat meal one time per week. This lets you get a bit of a dopamine surge from your favorite food as well as helps blunt the excess cortisol that is on the rise from dieting.
One of the many reasons that bodybuilders and physique competitors enjoy the bulking and cutting method is the rebound effect that occurs when making the sudden switch from a diet phase into a bulking phase. What is meant by “rebound” is that the body experiences a dramatic anabolic effect when it switches gears out of diet mode. The body becomes exceptionally receptive to nutrients, and certain hormone responses elicit a tremendous surge in muscle growth that can carry on for one to two weeks. However, I don’t feel that sending your body into anabolic overdrive for one week is worth the negative health benefits of eating everything in sight for an extended period.
You can still achieve a rebound effect on a year-round clean diet by simply introducing appropriately placed cheat meals throughout your clean diet. It is the “binging” mentality that gets athletes into trouble, so just be sure to exercise control. When you schedule your cheat meals, try to orient them around larger muscle group exercise days. For example, schedule a cheat meal after a hard leg workout so that you can obtain the largest benefit from the workout and the meal. By adding cheat meals, you not only keep yourself sane throughout the dieting process, but you actually can build muscle while staying lean!
If you’re looking to stay lean year-round for your own cosmetic goals, I would recommend staying about three weeks out from your top condition. This way you’re not maintaining an unhealthy body-fat percentage, but you’re still close enough to be ready for any event. Remember, your body needs some adipose tissue to regulate hormones like testosterone, so do not to attempt to stay at three percent body fat all year. If you attempt to stay exceptionally lean for 12 straight months, you can do some metabolic damage, making it harder to lose fat in the future.
In this world, it is always a give and take; you can either give up your freedom to eat in lieu of abs all year, or you can give up the abs to enjoy some scrumptious food. I feel there is a happy medium between those two places. At the end of the day, we all have to keep in mind that this is about health, because without a healthy body, there is no six-pack, there is no working out, and there are no competitions. So make the choice that is going to allow you to lead a healthy life, yet still be far above average and setting the pace for those who aspire to be like you!
Pro Tip: Over time, you learn to read your body and determine when you should implement a cheat meal or engage in more aggressive dieting practices. I recommend using areas of your body that are the first to accumulate body fat as your gauge. For me, I notice it in my lower back, and if I find that I am accumulating more than what is desirable for my current look, then I throttle down on the diet a bit more. Another good indicator is the face. Your face will tell all when it comes to current nutrition and overall level of leanness. Generally speaking, the jawline begins to disappear early on in the bulking phase, so an honest glance in the mirror a couple times per week can be a great indicator of when to rein it in.
By Thomas DeLauer
Thomas DeLauer is an accomplished fitness cover model who has devoted himself to living an active and healthy lifestyle without sacrificing the fun and excitement of life. Although he has the body to show some serious time in the gym, he embraces every day to its fullest, using a fit body and a fit mind to achieve his goals and experience new things. DeLauer lives by what he says: “I don’t live to work out, I work out to live.” Facebook.com/ThomasDeLauerMP Instagram: @ThomasDeLauer Twitter: @ThomasDeLaue