There is a lot of dialogue in the fitness and strength industry about “cutting” and “bulking.” Cutting and bulking cycles started with body builders who needed to get in the single digits for body fat percentage to get stage ready, which is not ideal for building muscle, so they would “bulk up” in the off season by eating in a surplus and try to pack on as much muscle as possible before it became time to cut again to get stage ready. Because of this, many people believe that bulking is the most optimal way to put on strength and muscle size, followed then by cutting to shed the excess body fat usually acquired in a bulk. These cutting and bulking cycles typically lead to a fluctuation of 10-20lbs, and can put a fair amount of physical, mental and biochemical stress on an athlete’s body.
Being strength sport athletes, we want to put on size and strength without compromising our weight class (i.e. having to lose 20lbs before a competition). Besides cutting and bulking, there is a third option that is only just starting to gain traction, specifically through our own program Eat for Strength (insert link), and that is based on the principle of eating in a caloric balance and allowing the body to go through recomposition as part of the natural evolution of strength training (losing fat and gaining muscle while maintaining your weight). However, before we get into this, we need to briefly discuss the science of fat loss and muscle gain.
Science of Weight Loss:
Weight loss is simply a math equation. Your body requires a certain amount of calories to maintain weight based on your lifestyle and activity level. This caloric number is referred to as your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE). If you consume less calories than your TDEE, you will lose weight. If you consume more than your TDEE, you will gain weight. When you are consuming less than your TDEE, you are in a caloric deficit. Without sounding too dramatic, this means you are not fueling your body for all of its normal, biological processes (including protein/muscle synthesis). In terms of strength, this means that your body with prioritize other processes and will leave muscle protein synthesis (MPS) near the end of the priority list. Although you can get stronger in a caloric deficit, it is not optimal, and will no where near compare to the strength you could gain if you ate in a caloric balance
Science of Muscle Gain:
Whether you know it or not, the body is constantly breaking down and building protein structures (including by not limited to muscle). If we think of this as a balancing act, ideally our body will stay in a neutral state where for every protein it breaks down, it builds another. This concept can be applied to MPS. For muscles to grow in size, MPS must occur faster than muscle protein degradation. Heavy resistance training and dietary protein ingestion are the two primary drivers of muscle growth. Muscles are stimulated to grow by subjecting them to progressive overload (i.e. putting them under heavier and heavier loads). As the load is increased, the muscle cells are damaged and the body responds through a complex cascade of things that, in the end, cause the muscle fibers to thicken and grow, thus increasing muscle size and strength. Therefore, the primary goal of a strength sport athlete is to increase the weight on the barbell in order to continually drive new muscle growth and strength.
This all is great, but you have to eat enough protein to repair damaged muscles while still supporting all other biological processes, and enough calories (i.e. energy) to ensure protein synthesis can, in fact, occur.
Body recomposition refers to changing the composition of your body through either % Body Fat, % Lean Muscle Tissue or a combination of both. The most commonly referred to method of body recomposition is in regard to fat-loss and muscle gain.
The Fast Approach:
Putting yourself in a caloric deficit. In a caloric deficit, you will not be optimally fueling your body for training, recovery and normal daily activities, but you will notice changes rapid changes in your body composition (based on a typical 8-12 weeks cut). However, as mentioned before, being in a deficit will decrease your ability to build muscle, decrease recovery, and will increase your hunger, especially if you are training at a high level. In some cases, the hunger can lead to binges if the caloric deficit is too severe or is carried out for prolonged periods (16+ weeks).
The Sane Approach:
Eating for performance and letting physiology work for you. What does this mean? This means putting your caloric intake at maintenance and give your body what it needs to carry-out its normal, biological functions and a little extra to support optimal MPS. As an athlete, this means you have the energy to push harder in training sessions, increase progressive overload and build more muscle over time than you would be able to in a caloric deficit. As you continually build muscle, you will find that you body composition will change. Your body will start to lose fat as a consequence of gaining muscle. No, you won’t be replacing fat with muscle, but more muscle requires more energy. 10lbs of muscle burns 50 calories a day at rest, whereas 10lbs of fat burns 20 calories a day at rest. Where do these extra calories come from? That’s right, your fat stores. So your body will become a fat-burning machine all while building muscle and strength and fueling your athletic performance.
There isn’t a lot of discussion around the saner approach to body recomposition because it takes time and isn’t glamorous. Ideally, you will be maintaining your weight while your body undergoes this recomposition, which is hardly social media-worthy.