The Almost-Science of Bulking and Cutting

Some people hit the gym because they want to burn off a few excess pounds, or to tone up, or even because they want to feel better about themselves after last night’s blow-out.  Walk into any of the discount gyms which have proliferated in recent years and you’ll see row upon row of treadmills being relentlessly pounded, and exercise cyclists and steppers galore.

The weights section, by contrast, is usually a little more sparsely populated, but even there a dichotomy is often to be observed.  Middle-aged guys in loose-fitting t-shirts will be effortlessly lifting token poundages with no more difficulty than when they lift their pint along the short walk home, whilst the serious trainers sporting vests strategically torn to expose their proudest protrusions will be straining and groaning their way through their punishing routines.

A Scientific Approach to Resistance Training

There is no right or wrong way to use the gym.  Anybody who gets from it what they came for has had a result, but the goals differ tremendously from one user to another.  For those who adopt a scientific approach to training with weights pumping iron is only one part of the equation.  Absorbing the necessary nutrition, at the correct times and in the correct quantities, is every bit as important.  This is where the bodybuilder differs from the gym user who trains simply to improve fitness.

As no two bodies are exactly identical, different individuals will usually have different requirements and only through trial and error can a weight trainer gauge precisely which balance of which foods is precisely right for him or her.  But there are some general rules which are pretty much universal, not least that the consumption of sufficient amounts of protein is essential for muscle growth whatever may happen in the gym.

Bulking and Cutting in a Nutshell

For those whose aspiration it is to build lean muscle mass, received wisdom has it that a calorific surplus is necessary during the gaining phase.  The question of whether it is possible to gain muscle mass and lose weight at the same time has never quite been satisfactorily resolved in spite of all the knowledge we as a species have acquired through the ages, but what is certainly true is that to make the kind of gains that bodybuilders seek it is definitely necessary to increase calories.  So more food is consumed, and this they call “bulking”.

The downside of this is that an increase in calories cannot under most circumstances be achieved without some incidental increase in body fat.  And so the bodybuilder needs to add another phase to the routine, known as “cutting”, when a calorific deficit is maintained along with a reduction in the weight used on the bar and an increase in the number of repetitions performed, thereby expending more energy and burning more calories.

The Unscientific Side-Effects of the Scientific Approach

Whilst sound as a principle, bulking and cutting can in practice be something of a hit and miss affair.  Bulking is designed to increase muscle, but fat is also increased along the way.  Cutting is then used to reduce the fat, but inevitably some muscle will be lost as well.    Catch 22.

It is surprising too how many otherwise sensible bodybuilders will take the arrival of a bulking phase as a cue to gorge almost anything in the name of science.  Hamburgers and doner kebabs contain some protein after all, and there are only so many chicken steaks or tins of tuna that one can eat in a sitting.  Bulking and cutting is a logical but imperfect approach based on a philosophy that is almost but not quite scientific.  But it works (almost) perfectly.