Just about finished with a cutting cycle and it went far better than last time. When I first got into lifting I was doing Starting Strength and took Rippetoe’s advice on nutrition. Don’t. You don’t need to eat as much as he claims; a pound a week for a newb, less if you have been training a long time (after all you aren’t going to be turning as much of that caloric excess into muscle). Furthermore, as I said in a previous post lower bodyfat seems to encourage your body to put on muscle and not more fat. My hypothesis is that your leanness signals your body that you need more muscle to catch food, etc. Too lean (<10% for men), however, and your body will preferentially put on fat since it, justifiably, thinks you are on the verge of dying. As such, interspersing cutting and bulking fairly regularly is probably a better way to go.
Following my absurd diet (I was in fact drinking most of a gallon of milk a day), I plateaued at 200 pounds. A hip injury at around that time that prevented squatting suggested to me that maybe it was a good time to lose some weight. So I did. Over the next six months I dropped about 25 pounds, but especially near the end my lifts started to drop. A lot. I lost twenty pounds on my overhead press for instance. And I wasn’t even that lean! Also my weight loss started to stall near the end despite a rather harsh cut.
This time I just got off a 5 week bulk and went to cutting again to see if I could get closer to 10% bodyfat. I like to take a week off between blocks of cutting or bulking for healing minor injuries and resetting the body’s response to exercise (I think a previous post mentioned the study where one group took three weeks off every six weeks and still made the same progress as an always “on” group because of catch up growth). I try to line up my break with trips or when the school gym is closing, so this bulk was five weeks and this cut was seven. Ideally it would be six, but real life always takes precedence.
As I said, I am finishing this latest cut and my lifts haven’t deteriorated at all and the stubborn fat around my lower abs has melted off. This is in stark contrast to my long cut where my lifts went down, I started to look a bit softer in the midsection and weight loss stalled despite very low calorie deficit. So what did I change? Many things but here is a list of what I think worked.
1) Don’t cut for too long. Months of cutting was probably a bad idea. Your lipid levels are permanently low and who knows what other machinery you are messing up by sending the signal to your body that you are dying for months on end.
2) Don’t cut too hard. In a similar vein, don’t cut so hard your body panics. I was down to a protein shake and one meal at the end of my long cut and I stalled. Now I am eating a larger meal and small meal before bed along with my post-workout shake and the pounds melted off just as fast.
3) Meal Timing. Eating three meals spaced out turns on your muscle protein synthesis one more time than the two meals I was eating the first go around. Also eating some casein protein before bed probably helped.
4) Refeeds. When I was with my wife on the weekends I didn’t worry about my cut other than I didn’t want to pig out. This gives a couple days for your lipid levels to return to normal and therefore more propensity to use fat for energy. Also, some evidence that the first days after calorie restriction your body actually burns more calories. Finally, they are also called cheat days for a reason; it’s good for your self control to indulge a bit.
5) Workout Volume. You are on a cut so your body isn’t recovering as much so keep volume down. I went to two rather than three sets on all my exercises. Remember you aren’t going to put on any muscle during a cut, so just do enough to keep what you have. According to the research maintenance is much easier than progression.
6) Higher Rep Work and Supersetting. Evidence suggests that higher rep work is more likely to maintain muscle. For much of my first cut I was still doing Starting Strength which is all 5 rep stuff. This time I also started supersetting antagonist exercises together (bench and row, for instance) which burns more calories.
7) Cardio. I hate it, but it works.
Sadly, that means I wasted half a year where I lost fat and muscle. But lifting is a long game so I am not too upset about it. The upside is that I know more now and there is something empowering about knowing that you can control your weight in either direction. I think for a lot of people the scale is some number that inexorably goes up and is completely out of their hands. It goes back to the old behavioral psychology result that people that believe they can get better at something (in this case fitness) are more likely to indeed get better. It is an intuitive, but hard lesson. We often think oh I will never be good at math or I will always be an unfit slob and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But you can. It will just take you 10,000 hours to become an expert in a mental skill and whole lot less to look good naked.