Transitioning from bulking to cutting can be complicated. Most often, the transition is done improperly and we end up either losing precious muscle mass during a cut or gaining too much fat during a bulk. I’ve been there and so have you, don’t kid yourself.
When switching from cut to bulk, we might overestimate the rate at which we can gain muscle, which results from a lack of knowledge about the human physiological response to dieting. Some inexperienced bodybuilders might make an immediate switch from a strict diet to free eating, which results in the immediate reversal of any recent diet progress.
Of course strategies will differ dependent on the individual, but the basic concept should remain the same. You will have to accept that your first couple attempts at bulking will result in either very little muscle gain or unnecessary fat gain. It is all a matter of trial and error.
Let’s examine a couple different diet transition strategies.
This is a great strategy for the following types of people:
- off-season bodybuilders who purposely overeat to bulk, but can’t afford to complicate future dieting by gaining too much fat all at once
- your average lean weightlifter who only needs to drop a couple pounds to dial in his 6-pack
- an athlete that needs to drop weight quick to meet a certain weight class
A mini cut is a short, aggressive diet lasting 1-3 weeks. This is used to maintain a manageable body-fat level when the overall goal is to bulk. To use this strategy effectively, you should set a weight limit that will trigger the mini cut.
You can see how this strategy would be great for athletes such as fighters, wrestlers, and powerlifters, who need to meet or maintain a weight class. These athletes will be able mini cut their fat away without suffering the performance hit that normally occurs on a prolonged restricted calorie diet.
This is not a good protocol for models or bodybuilders who need to dial in their physique to show, for weekend warriors, for beginners, or for novice athletes who need to ease their way into a longer-duration diet. Attempting a strict mini-cut can be devastating for athletes who are ill prepared to handle the diet, and the transition on and off the diet.
Transitioning off the Mini Cut
Since the mini cut is so short, you should not experience any decrease in metabolism. Once you lose 5-10 pounds of fat on the mini cut, you can jump right back into your bulking phase. Your insulin sensitivity will also be improved by the mini cut, which will result in better recovery and nutrient partitioning when transitioning back to the bulk.
A standard cut is an ideal strategy for these types of athletes:
- a bodybuilder preparing for a show a month or two away
- a model preparing for a photo shoot a month or two away
- a beginner or novice athlete or bodybuilder that needs to start off slow
- a weightlifter coming back after a prolonged injury, illness, or sedentary lifestyle
- a competitor who plans to drop to a lower weight class and has at least a month to do it
The standard cut lasts between 4 and 12 weeks, and evolves from sensible to strict as the athlete hits plateaus along the way caused by a decrease in metabolism. To get significantly lean is the goal. For men that means sub-8% bodyfat. For women it means sub-14% bodyfat.
Since this cut lasts a couple months, there will most likely be a drop in metabolism, so you shouldn’t transition directly back into whatever calorie-surplus diet you were following before the standard cut. Because your metabolism is slower, the calorie requirements that caused you gain 2 pounds a month before the cut, will only result in several pounds of immediate, unnecessary fat gain that can be avoided.
Transitioning off the Standard Cut
The best strategy is to slowly taper your calories back up by increasing your carbohydrate intake 20-40 grams a week (80-160 calories) until you are close to your pre-diet levels. Carbs are what we primarily eliminate when we transition into a cutting phase, so it only makes sense that we would phase them back in to transition out of a cutting phase. The next step is to bring your fat intake back up to pre-diet levels.
Of course, your body composition will be different after the cut, so your calorie, fat, carb, and protein requirements may all be different from what they were pre-diet. You may want to avoid taking each number completely back to its pre-diet level, especially if you want to settle into your new level of leanness.
On the other hand, you might want to take advantage of the optimized nutrient partitioning that low body fat levels provide, and use your post-cut metabolism to add a couple quick pounds of muscle. In this case you WILL want to bring your calories and macronutrients back up to pre-diet levels. Just don’t get carried away.
The long term cut lasts anywhere from 3 months, to several years, to a lifetime. This diet strategy is best for:
- people who need to lose a large amount of body fat
- healthy athletes who want to maintain a lean physique indefinitely
- regular folks who need or want to stick to a healthy, low calorie diet indefinitely
- marathon runners, except for 2-3 days prior to the race
The goal of the long cut is not to reach extremely low body fat levels, but instead to reach a level that is healthy and fairly lean. This is not the type of diet that is used before a contest or photo shoot, nor is it ideal for extremely active individuals or sports athletes.
Aside from the duration, the long cut is different from the standard cut in that it is not super strict, although someone who runs into a fat loss plateau might need to add in a mini-cut or standard-cut phase to keep progressing. There comes a certain level of leanness that just cannot be reached by most people on a standard healthy diet.
Maintaining a long term cut can be difficult as it demands long term discipline. In fact you may have to occasionally transition out of the cut to take a break.
Transitioning off the Long Cut
When coming out of the long cut, you will have a significantly slower metabolism, both from the prolonged calorie deficit and from the overall loss of body mass. Keep in mind that you will have to calculate new calorie and macronutrient requirements based on your new body weight. Post-diet requirements will be much less than pre-diet requirements.
You will need to taper up your carbohydrate intake as with the standard cut, but the increase should be much more gradual. An increase of 10-15 grams (40-60 calories) per week of carbs is suitable for transitioning off a long cut, and like I mentioned before, your new maintenance requirements will be less than they were pre-diet. Therefore, using pre-diet numbers will put you into a calorie surplus and will very likely result in moderate to rapid fat gain.
As you increase your carbohydrates, you will also increase your body weight. This happens automatically because every gram of glycogen stored in the body is accompanied by roughly 3 grams of water. Therefore, slowly increase calories until you start gaining weight, then stop until your metabolism stabilizes. At that point you will either have found your new maintenance calories or you may need to further increase calories.
Notes on Contest Preparation
Preparing for a bodybuilding show or modeling shoot requires an extremely strict, moderate-duration cut. A longer standard cut (up to 4 months) is usually sufficient, but some bodybuilders diet for up to 6 or even 8 months. As you reach low levels of body fat, the diet must grow progressively more strict in order to continue to lose fat. Some dieting bodybuilders subsist on a diet of plain boiled chicken and green vegetables for days on end.
Successful Contest Preparation
The goal of contest prep is extreme leanness. This means 3-5% body fat in men, and 6-8% body fat in women.
Contest preparation and extreme leanness also affect hormone levels, sleep patterns, and mood. This level of body fat is not sustainable, and usually can’t be maintain for longer than a couple weeks at a time without drugs. Standard levels of off-season body fat must be attained in order to progress in competitive bodybuilding. Following a pre-contest diet for a long period of time can also be unhealthy due to the low variety of food choices.
Transitioning off of Contest Preparation
After the content prep diet, your metabolism is at an all-time low. Insulin sensitivity is peaked. Your body wants to store every gram of glucose as fat because it thinks you are caught in a famine. Perfectly designed content preparation can minimize some of the damage to hormone levels and metabolism, but a certain level of physiological changes cannot be avoided.
When transitioning off of a contest prep diet, athletes should stay within 20-30 lbs of their contest weight. This keeps the skin tight, the body healthy, and minimizes the body fat that must be dropped for the next show.
Like the long cut, carbohydrates should be added in increments of 10-15 grams per week. You will gain some body fat. You WANT to gain some body fat. Gaining fat at this juncture will help fix your hormone levels and metabolism, but don’t gain too fast! The body’s desire for food, especially junk food, can be overwhelming at this point. Just remember to use moderation. You will probably experience some cravings and you will most likely binge at some point, you can go with sometimes but try to stay somewhat disciplined.
After any diet, especially the longer ones, your body and mind will try to convince you to pig out. Just exercise the same discipline you used during the diet, when transitioning off the diet, and you will be fine.
Remember, our bodies were designed to be hunters and gatherers. We evolved to survive ice ages, droughts, and famine. Our physiology was built for endurance; brief bursts of maximal strength, speed and power; and to maintain ‘healthy’ levels of body fat when food is scarce.
When your body holds on to that last bit of body fat, or rushes to store every calorie you consume as body fat after a strict diet, it is just obeying Mother Nature. She will attempt to usurp total control of your body whenever you force yourself not to follow her designs. You have to display the willpower it takes to fight the demands of Mother Nature in order to accomplish your own goals.
Everyone struggles with dieting and transitioning to the off-season. Stick to your plan. Don’t beat yourself up over small lapses. Four months later it will seem like you just started yesterday and the results will already be on display. Follow this advice and your transition to and from cutting phases will be successful.