This is a form of dieting focussed on building muscle by eating in a calorie surplus (bulking) followed by caloric restriction for fat loss (cutting).
Or for many women, just cutting (eyeball roll).
You may have heard gym banter or #fitspo talk about bulking through winter then dieting down as the weather warms up in time for summer to “unveil all the hard work”.
The majority of physique athletes and professionals are on some kind of bulk and cut diet. Many aspiring power lifters will also adopt these diets to ensure they make it into a lower weight category come comp day.
But largely thanks to some enthusiastic IIFYM coaches and one-diet-fits-all PTs, the bulking and cutting trend has branched out from the realms of professional weight class sports to the average gym goer who wishes to lose weight, get fit, and/or look more muscular or toned.
But for the majority of normal people and non-professional athletes living busy lives, is bulking, cutting and macro tracking effective? Is it sustainable, healthy, and most importantly, is it safe?
Is it effective?
(Note I didn't use the more popular term fat loss, because when cutting you won't only lose fat - you will lose some muscle too. Y'know, that tissue most people are trying to build or at least maintain. You don't get to pick which body tissue you reduce when you diet!)
Cut too early or severely (or really, at all) and you will lose muscle mass, meaning performance can suffer. I’ve seen intelligent, experienced powerlifting coaches trying to make it into a lower weight class for a comp cut too early (or cut when they really didn’t need to, hello disordered eating disguised as athleticism) to the detriment of their performance...
...to the point where they couldn’t even compete due to health issues and/or overtraining injuries elicited by the calorie deficit. In which case, what the f*%k is the point?
As I alluded to, "cutting for comp" can be a free pass for some to control or lose weight using disordered eating behaviours.
For experienced and professional athletes who need to make weight, B+C can work for competitive purposes when performance nutrition and loss of the muscle mass that comes with cutting is carefully taken into consideration.
But remember for these folks, their sport is their full time career. They have an entire support team on board: sports coach, strength and conditioning coach, team or personal sports dietitian or nutritionist, and sometimes a personal chef behind them to do all the number crunching and food prep for them. How much support and time do you have?
Is it sustainable?
You may have heard of "If It Fits Your Macros", or IIFYM for short. Macro tracking is closely tied in with bulking and cutting, as it's frequently the diet of choice for people wishing to build muscle and then "reveal" it by losing fat through restrictive dieting.
As macro tracking is based on strict external rules, very little room is given for those times you feel hungry but have no macros left and aren’t allowed to eat. Or when you’re full but you haven’t hit your numbers for the day.
In short, it's a diet (despite emancipation-themed claims of "flexible dieting", "lifestyle change", etc.) No surprises there.
B+C can also obliterate your connection with your internal cues. And the low carb, low calorie hell of cutting can make you feel really hungry and fatigued - which isn't exactly a recipe for effective training and high athletic performance.
Remember, bodies resist restriction. And for the majority of people the cutting phase (which, let's face it, is just calorie restriction with a fancy #fitspo name) can’t last forever without you developing a long lasting restrictive ED in order to sustain it.
Which sadly, happens.
is it Healthy?
“But the athletes who bulk then cut look so happy, healthy and shredded!” Dig a little deeper and you’ll see that many of these athletes look good enough for a photo shoot once, maybe twice a year. The preparation for something like a bikini competition can be excruciating, and hormonal imbalances, loss of menstrual periods, low sex drive, thyroid dysregulation, exhaustion, constipation, and hair loss are not uncommon. Then there’s the dehydration and outright misery in the final days leading up to comp.
Not exactly sounding like a healthy - or safe - long term weight control strategy.
The rest of the time, these athletes are in "off-season" mode and look like any other human. Most experienced weight class athletes know B+C is a short term strategy, not a long term form of weight control.
Additionally, the physiological aftermath of years of bulking and cutting can be significant, with the attendant risks of derailed fertility, weight cycling, and eating disorders.
Unless you’re a professional athlete or physique competitor, you don’t have an off-season. Do you have the time to go through the horrendous mood swings of low carb hell or stringent macro counting when you’re busy parenting, working, and all the rest of it?
Only you can answer that. For me, it's a hell no.
If you've done this before, are comfortable with the process, and have support, your worth will (hopefully) not fall through the floor once your body starts to pack weight back on after the season ends.
But I suspect that most people reading this are not semi-professional or Olympic powerlifters or MMA fighters. Most people tracking macros and tweeting about cutting are doing so because they've heard that it's the latest sure fire way to get a 6-pack, and look like Brad Pitt or that celebrity female trainer.
Or if you are a fitness professional, you may be tracking macros and cutting to live up to some idealised version of the way you think you should look, eat and perform. This is a common pressure that many of us yoga / movement teachers and coaches face, and it blows. Especially when coaches start encouraging or teaching all of their clients and students how to follow said restrictive protocol as if it's the be-all.
If this is the case, you may want to think about long term sustainability and health issues (for yourself AND for any clients you're recommending this to), and the deeper reasons behind your wanting to lose or tightly control your weight.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to lose weight - it's a mere reflection of the (ridiculous) demands of the fat phobic, oppressive, healthist, weight centric society we live in. It's nothing to be ashamed of.
What's NOT ok is the culture that fosters this desire for shredded abs and sub-10% body fat scores, and myopic views on what health "looks like". It's not ok for coaches, movement teachers, and the like to promote weight loss services without divulging that the research clearly shows us that LONG TERM weight loss is unlikely for the vast majority of people regardless of how it's achieved, and without divulging the risks of weight cycling and development of eating disorders (or, indeed, their own eating disordered behaviours).
When it comes to macro tracking, bulking and cutting - if what it costs you is time, money, energy, and relationships you are not willing to lose, would it be worth investigating your relationship with food and your body rather than simply trying to change your body? If so, this is where a non-diet professional (like me!) can help.