Facebook just showed me this photo. It was from five years ago. I remember thinking at the time, “Getting a bit tubby there. You really need to lose weight.” Apparently I didn’t take that advice for a long time. Now, as I come to the end of the first phase of my body changing journey, I’d like to reflect back on some lessons that I’ve learned along the way and let you know my plans for the future. Hopefully you can learn something from my experiences that will make your own journey even easier.
Progress so far
I started this journey around 212 pounds and am, as of this morning, 167.4 pounds (45 pounds for those of you bad at math). It has taken exactly 7 months and 4 days to get to this point. Most of my progress was made on the a fairly aggressive caloric deficit. I have very strictly monitored my caloric intake and tracked my protein, fat, and carbohydrate intake. I’ve worked out three times a week (45 minute weight workouts) and walked on the off days. I haven’t done any running or high intensity cardio workout except for recreational (riding a bike with the kids) or situational (sprinting to get out of the rain).
As for the 45 pounds, I’ve actually lost more than 45 pounds of fat, because I’ve added some muscle along the way. For example, today I did 6 chin ups with 50 pounds attached. When I started I could barely do four bodyweight chin ups. For the purposes of this post, I’ll guesstimate five pounds of muscle for a total of 50 pounds of fat gone.
It’s Wednesday night as I type this, and on Friday, my relationship with cutting will end. I am officially going to lean bulk. This means that I am going to eat in a controlled caloric surplus for the express purpose of gaining muscle. And that’s where the topic of superstitions comes in. I don’t mean fear of black cats or bad luck for breaking a mirror. I’m referring to the psychological term superstition. It refers to the belief that if success is accompanied by a random event, the person (or animal) will associate the event with success. (Also works for bad things too.)
This is the product of our own brains working against us. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns. We are hard wired to learn from our experiences and continue what has worked in the past. This is known as heuristics. Unfortunately, our brains can also recognize patterns even where none exists, and this is especially true when it comes to losing weight. Losing weight is a very long, intentional process. Even though it all comes down to a caloric deficit, there are a large number of variables to account for, and the research is often controversial with multiple credible researchers lining up on opposite sides of a given issue.
So when a person successfully loses a lot of weight, they become highly attached to any behavior or action that occurred during the process, even if the action had no or minimal effect on their weight loss. When I first started flexible dieting, the recommendation in the program is walk 45 – 60 minutes on the days you don’t lift weights. It just so happens that 3 laps around my neighborhood takes about 55 minutes, so that’s what I did four times a week for several months. Then, midsummer, I participated in a steps competition at work (team with the most steps after eight weeks wins a Fitbit…most inefficient way in the world to win something if you ask me). Toward the end of the competition, I was doing 5 laps around the neighborhood. Even though it was miserable, took too long, and my feet hurt and got blisters, once the competition had ended I was actually afraid to go back to only 3 laps. “What if my weightloss stalls? What if the only reason I was losing weight was the extra calories of the extra two laps?” You get the idea.
What about this bulking thing?
Most people who begin this fitness journey by cutting a lot of weight don’t plan to simply get thin. Once they’ve lost weight, the goal is usually then to gain muscle mass. The problem is that after months of working hard to lose weight, they become afraid to eat more. When you’ve deprived yourself for seven, eight, even 24 months to get thin, the last thing in the world you want to do is get fat again.
The problem of, course, is that it’s impossible to build a significant amount of muscle while maintaining a deficit. Heck, it’s practically impossible to build muscle while eating maintenance calories. To grow muscle, you really need a surplus. So the one thing that a person needs to do in order to build muscle is the one thing that person is afraid of—even when they know better. I’ve seen it dozens of times on Facebook fitness groups. I’ve even experienced it myself even though my plan was always to bulk after losing the weight, and even though I’ve been far more successful losing weight than I ever thought I could be. After all, my weight trend has been up for the last 15 years.
Casting out fear
So let’s run some numbers and see just how silly it is to be afraid of bulking. The general recommendation for a lean bulk is about 1900 extra calories per week. There is a current controversy over whether beginners and intermediates should follow that recommendation or do a slightly larger bulk of 3500 calorie weekly surplus (500 extra calories per day). Now if you remember your fat math, one pound of fat is 3500 calories. So if every single calorie of surplus went into fat, I’d gain one pound of fat per week. It would take me 50 weeks (an entire year) to gain all that fat back.
Let’s say, just half of the surplus calories get funneled into fat, then in one year, I’d gain 25 pounds of fat. And if just a quarter of the calories go into fat, then I’d only gain 12.5 pounds of fat in a year’s time. Now I’m only planning on bulking through March (7 months), so in that time, assuming 25% of the surplus going into fat, I could expect approximately 7.5 pounds of fat. From my experience with AFL, It should only take about 2 months to lose those 7.5 pounds of extra fat.
So don’t fear the bulk. Embrace the bulk. Seven months of eating 3000 calories instead of 1925 calories. You get to eat that way all through Thanksgiving, Halloween, and New Year! You even get to eat that way for Valentine’s Day. If you really want to go to town, save 200 calories each day, and have an extra 1200 calories for an epic 4200 calorie day (a solid Thanksgiving plan).
Don’t cut too long
The decision to stop cutting and start bulking is complicated. The general recommendation is cut until you’re about 10% body fat, and then bulk until you’re about 15% bodyfat, and then lean down again. I’m only about 13-14% body fat, and I haven’t quite hit my leanness goals (as defined by waist measurement and having a six pack). So why am I bulking? Three reasons.
- The longer you cut, the harder it becomes. I’ve been cutting for 7 months now. At first my daily calories were 2000, and I lost almost 2 pounds a week. Now my daily calories are 1815, and I lose less than half a pound a week. As you lose weight, your body doesn’t need as many calories. That makes it progressively harder to keep losing weight.
- Cutting is stressful—quite literally. Your body thinks you’re going to starve to death and tries to mitigate things by losing excess muscle. So you have to do heavy strength training to convince your body to hold on to muscle and lose fat instead. This causes your body to be stressed. Eventually, your body will adjust hormonally to reduce your metabolic rate. This was the subject of the Biggest Loser Study that I discuss here.
- Cutting is also stressful mentally.
Bulking gives you a mental break and resets your hormones. Most importantly it allows you to gain muscle. At my current weight, I probably would have to lose 7-8 pounds of fat to achieve a 10% bodyfat. I would look ridiculously skinny at 160 pounds, and it would probably take 3-4 more months. By lean bulking I’ll add hopefully 10-15 pounds of muscle in the next seven months with only a small amount of fat. Then when it comes time to lose the fat, I can do so at a higher (more enjoyable) daily calorie intake, and it won’t take as long to lose, so it won’t be as stressful. So that’s the plan.
Why do you keep emphasizing lean bulk?
A lean bulk is a controlled bulk. In my case, 500 calories over maintenance, or about 3000 calories per day, while maintaining an appropriate macronutrient balance. The traditional way of bulking is just eat a lot, which is of course how I got into this problem in the first place. So don’t just bulk. Lean bulk!