Cutting, Bulking, and the Fear of Gaining Weight: A Woman’s Perspective
Why This Matters
Women: Have you been trying to lose those last 10 lbs. for months or years? Stop cutting, start eating a little more, and start lifting weight.
[Read time: 12 minutes]
A friend graciously allowed me to borrow his macbook pro, while mine is in the shop, so I can finally get around to getting some blog posts up about a list of topics I’ve been thinking about. This one has been on my mind for awhile now, and moreso because of quite a few private messages and posts from different women. I wanted to discuss this from my perspective, as someone who IS NOT a bikini/physique competitor. So if anything I say does not apply in that sense, I realize that my knowledge is limited to the more “normal” side of trying to look as awesome as possible and gain as much shapely muscle as possible, while getting strong as possible. To those of you, who like me, stay “fit” as a part of life (not even because I work as a trainer), this may resonate with you.
I bounced some of these “musings” off of a couple knowledgeble chicks (one who was a competitor) and it seems we are all on the sameish track. So that’s a good thing. Here goes. I am also addressing this from a purely female point of view.
With the growing interest in women lifting heavy, getting lean and strong, and using intermittent fasting (Leangains or Eat Stop Eat etc) as a diet lifestyle, the words “cutting”, “bulking”, “recomping”, etc are becoming more common place. With the facebook group I am a member of (Fierce, Fit, Fearless), many women are starting the lifting and diet journey as beginners. They are calculating macros (how much protein/fat/carbs you eat a day), setting up calorie numbers, thinking about goals etc. This is great! For most of us who start a “diet” or exercise journey (I use the term diet here, as changing your diet habits, not necessarily going on a “diet”, if you know what I mean) because we have fat to lose or you just want to look better in general. Or maybe someone is not even “conventionally” fat (rolls or blobs), but squishy and carrying those extra pinches on places like our lower abs, back and under our butt. Most everyone starts out going on a “cut”. That basically means you calculate a calorie deficit in order to start that energy-in-vs-energy-out fat burning. Everyone wants to lose fat. LOSE FAT, LOSE FAT, LOSE FAT. The problem I have with this is not for those that ACTUALLY need to lose fat because they are overweight or obese, but those who are low enough in weight to look “thin” or “skinny fat” yet still have those trouble spots that they want to go away. But wait you say, I HAVE FAT. THAT’S ME!! LOOK I CAN PINCH IT! Here’s what I mean. I consider being greater than 15-20 lbs overweight significant enough “fat” to be lost so that a number on the scale will matter somewhat. That’s when scale numbers might be useful for a bit. Lower than that, and the scale is not gonna help you out much due to the inaccuracy of real life bodyweight fluctuations and the whole muscle to fat ratio. You are better off going by a goal “look”, size of clothes, and proper progress pics that can show body changes, even if the scale is not budging much. Of course if you have the time, patience etc to strictly monitor and calculate body weight and accurate body fat measuring that takes into account all variables, timing, averages etc, your “weight” might be one of those numbers, but like I said I am speaking from a more “normal” point of view. Those who approach the higher echelons of body composition can afford to get really picky. Or maybe you’re really nerdy. Either way, its not really practical for most of us chickies to focus on body weight at <10lbs. This is where my beef with the words “cutting” and “bulking” comes in. But first some definitions:
Cutting: a focus on stripping away fat and lowering the body fat percentage to reveal cuts and definition in your muscles.
Bulking: eating more calories than you determine your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) to be in order to feed new muscle growth and create a favorable environment for “growth”
You can get stronger and improve the “tone” of your muscle without adding NEW muscle. To add new muscle, you have to be eating more than you burn through regular living and exercising. The problem with this is that more calories may mean more fat too. Its not like you can pre-program your food to go straight to your muscles (or your boobs!!). Too bad eh. And that is one reason women get so scared about “bulking”.
The problem with these terms I have is that trying to lose even more fat and look “lean and tight”, when someone is at, or close to, a skinnier weight range is hard to do without any muscle. You will just look MORE skinny. If you are say 115-120 at 5’4-5’5, and still trying to “cut” to get to those last bits of fat, you will have to keep lowering your calorie intake more and more and risk losing any muscle mass you had in the first place. Continuing to cut when you don’t have muscle to “strip” the fat from is just gonna get you skinnier or keep you skinny fat. For those of you who WANT this look, well the method is still the same. Eat VERY little and do tons of cardio if you happen to overeat. Or just eat very little. Not only is that pretty stressful for your body, but it WILL make you just be skinny, if you can keep up with the low calorie intake and not develop an eating disorder.
I don’t have anything against anyone that wants to just be skinny (and I am not talking about those whose genes dictate that they are always skinny, they have other concerns in regards to diet, but the muscle growth part still applies). But I do know that the requirements of being skinny and staying skinny are often more than people can pay for healthily. As Gwyneth Paltrow put so succintly in her godawful workout video with her trainer. “You either starve or do tons of cardio…its not an accident I look like this”. Well it sure was an unfortunate accident with who you chose as a trainer! This video makes me so mad, I can’t even do the subject justice. GOD. Its not her body type, shape or whatever that I am against, it’s that she is saying “I do this and this, and that’s the only way I can look this way” WHICH IS BULLSHIT. Its dangerous bullshit!!! If I wanted to go ahead and be vain I would say NO WAY WOULD I WANT TO LOOK LIKE HER ANYWAY.
Seeing lines and “tone” from being skinny is not the same as seeing lines and “tone” from having muscle. When you lower bodyfat everything will stand out more, and if you are fine staying there GREAT, but it doesn’t really look the same as being lean from muscle, and the reason is THE MUSCLE. I have a friend who is skinny. She runs a couple miles for exercise, yoga once a week and eats very little. Mostly carbs and “sugar free” stuff and “cheats” all the time (though she likes to say its not often). She is not what I would call fit at all in the athletic sense. In the watered down American version, sure. But she is skinny, so people assume she is fit. She is VERY soft, no curves, and desperately needs some protein. But she does what she does. She is older (40′s) and someone that would look PHENOMENAL with some proper weightlifting. She claims that when she lifts weights she “bulks” up and doesn’t like how she looks. Knowing her, I can almost positively say that she wasn’t “lifting weights” correctly, and it probably made her more hungry and with the way she eats, that would be disaster (white bread, some cheese, lite yogurts, chocolate, a little chicken), so my guess is that along with the “muscle” she actually just gained fat too. But its not my place to tell someone that they NEED TO CHANGE, when they like whatever they are doing even if I can see what they are unhappy with about their body and I can pinpoint WHY. If they ask, I’ll tell. But people usually don’t like the answer. They’d rather not change what’s comfortable, and THAT’S when the dangerous reasoning starts happening. You reason away why you do what you do, even if its wrong and not working. But rather than find out why its not working and what you should be doing, you rationalize your “goals”. You say its this or that, or I am this type or that type. etc etc. But whatever, that’s not a battle someone else can fight for you. This friend gets very frightened of overeating (though she frequently does it) and makes up for it with cardio and undereating. If she was going to try and budge some lingering stubborn fat, I would say it would be damn near impossible, with her habits. Scared of lifting weights, bad diet cycles, compensation cardio, and thinking that “one can of tuna is a TON of protein for the day”.
You need some muscle to look lean. Lean is not skinny. Lean is… I don’t even know what. I don’t like the word much in the ways its usually used because it implies almost godlike levels of hardness and vascularity. I like the word when it conjures up the right image ESPECIALLY IN REGARDS TO WOMEN. Of strength, shape, athleticness, glowing health and what YOU look like at that happy place. It might be at a different number than you thought when it comes to percentages, or the calories you are eating, or it might not look like what you imagined (hey I have some decent hamstrings). If you are already “thin” and lifting heavy and being good with your diet etc, to “get there” maybe you need to get off a cut, and eat more so you can get some muscle! I wrote before about plateaus, and sticking to the plan when things slow down because success is not a straight line. It’s two steps forward, one step back. But once stuff really isn’t changing for a good while and you are not getting to that shape, reevaluate that cut, because “shape” is muscle (unless genetics were ridiculously kind). How much muscle is entirely up to you! But most girls can lift pretty damn heavy and a lot before “too much muscle” becomes a concern (if it ever does). When you are already thin/normal skinny, losing MORE fat, usually the stubborn lingering kind, means dipping into fat loss techniques that are unsustainable, but building muscle is an option that more-than-not will get you to the goal you are envisioning. Stubborn fat is just that. Stubborn. And you know what helps? MUSCLE! Building muscle (which means transitioning into a recomp or bulk diet wise) is usually the next step to getting to your goal look. And no, it doesn’t have to involve uncontrollable eating, regression into bad habits, lots of fat gain etc. A little fat gained is probably inevitable, and that’s where some girls get scared and just can’t bring themselves to do it. But guess what? The same good habits will serve you all around. Losing fat, building muscle, eating right. That same stuff applies to it all. Knowing your body, reenforcing good habits, working with what is convenient and sustainable to you, and see the good results. And the fat gain that accompanies eating more does not need to be anywhere near excessive or really “noticeable”.
Increasing your lean mass, will give you shape, increase your TDEE (muscle mass burns calories just to stay “alive”), and enable you to eat more and stay lean at the same time. Patiently (and I say patiently, because its not a 3 week “cleanse and tone” thing) working right in the gym, and eating well, WILL change your body. Adding more muscle will enable you to then efficiently cut again if you choose, to get to the stubborn fat. Your body cannot hold onto fat with the energy equation being put to work. But diet is not the only way to affect that energy equation, and sometimes its not the best way IF you are already skinny enough (anecdotal ya’ll, just as a reminder).
The word “bulk” is scary unto itself. It has a stigma to it of huge muscular women that have lost their femininity, and just have shapeless muscles with fat. Bodybuilders use cut and bulk to signify what they are working on at the moment, and some girls legitimately have the body shape that ends up looking “bulkier” even at lower bodyfat levels. You can play around with your training to find what you like! For us normal people, cutting and bulking can mean what they mean, but we need to keep the “definition” in perspective as it relates to those who are not a.) competitive physique athletes b.) looking to look awesome while not actually being in a fitness profession thinking you have to have massive amounts of knowledge on the subject c.) doing so in the context of normal living, with jobs, families, careers and hobbies. Focusing SOLELY on every minute detail involved in how you look, is well, for those who do it for a living. If you train or coach as a profession, its also your job to know as much as possible, but the great majority of quality trainers, fitness writers and nutritionists that I follow, do not promote or practice that strict focus at all (unless they will be competing). The bulk of their work (pun intended) is getting normal people to be their best. Sometime someones best often looks “abnormal” to us, because, well most people are willing to do a lot of the wrong work that sounds fancy, but not the right work which might be much simpler but requires qualities like patience, work ethic and consistency. But good trainers and coaches will relentlessly encourage those qualities, because your “BEST” is not nearly as impossible to get to. In fact, its the simplicity of it that often backfires. People have a need to do more, calculate more, add more, subtract more thinking that it’s DOING more. No, that is not always the case. In fact it’s usually not the case. Consistency, balance, and patience. Work smarter, not just harder (unless you are just being lazy). The absolutely fabulous thing about your body, that you can do whatever the fuck you want with it!!!!!!!! BUT, if you tell me you want to LOOK a certain way, I will say “this is probably the best way to go about it”. There are certain ways that have shown time and time again to work well in the parameters of individual needs. BE SPECIFIC ABOUT YOUR GOALS AND YOU WILL THEN BE ABLE TO DECIDE ON THE METHOD. Don’t tell me you love running every morning, and then don’t understand why your shoulders aren’t growing, and your squat stalled. Well, if that’s the case, I ll say “which do you love more?” If you want to keep running, eat more to fuel it, and keep it separate from lifting, while understanding that you have to build up to a higher training level in order to successfully combine both. So maybe cut down the running, work on strength, than feed it back in to balance your looks goals with your activity goals. Everything is possible, not everything is possible at once. If you tell me that having a great ass is really important, I will tell you to get off the elliptical and come in the weight room. If you say that abs showing is important, but you are unwilling to talk about your diet…….
Let’s say that you are 117 lbs and 5’5 (using the measurements of someone who wrote me). You have leaned out a bit, there’s the curves and the gentle “tone” going on, but you are not losing more “fat”. You want to look The softness around your abs, ass and lower back are still there, but your “weight” is low. You are eating pretty low calorie already because you have been on a “cut”. Congratulations! Your body wants to gain some muscle, and with good habits and perspective (bulking is not stuffing your face endlessly unless you are a powerlifter before a meet hahah), you will get to eat more and put on muscle. Soon those gentle tones, will be shape, and you ll have that “toned” look. hahaha. Your strength will go up as well, because more muscle = more pushing/pulling power available. Increased strength will make you more efficient physically in any physical activity you do. Soon, you will start being able to actually “flex” on command, and your body will take on an increasing “athletic” look. You will start looking to most people like you “spend too much time on your body and in the gym.” But the great thing is
No. you. don’t.
You just are doing it right vs doing it.
But how do I know how much to eat? How to I transition without feeling like I am getting fat? The answer is really just a simple “take it slow”. You can do this with percentages, calorie numbers, or even intuitively if you don’t count calories/macros. There is no magic number, but my response will always be to err on the side of consistency and sustainability. YOU DON’T WANT TO HAVE TO REDO WORK YOU ALREADY “DID”. Starting with 10% or 1-200 calories is a pretty low start, and not one that will make your body freak out in growth (hardly anything “natural” causes freaky growth or changes in a short amount of time hahahah)
Below is a little gallery of pics I got permission to use of women who live full and normal lives, who look the way a lot of people would like to look. Some are trainers, most are not, including several mothers and a couple over 40 yr olds. Despite popular opinion (which is usually someone trying to soothe the mental anguish that comes from finding out that YES its possible for normal people), their lives do not REVOLVE around making themselves look a certain way. It is the result of good habits, patience, and researching good information and making their diet and training work FOR THEM, and is reachable by anyone (I am obviously not making reference to competitive physique athletes whose goals do revolve around that, as in any other sport). Not the other way around. They are not slaves to a diet/training schedule that requires enormous amounts of “sacrifice”. They work hard, when its time to work and keep everything in perspective. They have balance, and as a result are reaching their goals and are an inspiration to others. Women, its not impossible, stressful, mind-numbing, or exceedingly difficult to look and feel REALLY GOOD about your body. Looking good does wonders for anyone, because it opens up new possibilities about ourselves. It makes other more important challenges more possible. That’s what I like about being a trainer. In the end, its not just sculpting a good body, its opening up someones mind and helping them see possibilities, through the medium of strength and health and everything those two qualities will do for your life!