Despite the rise of updated, science-backed knowledge coming out in recent years regarding physique development, the industry is far from free of outdated methodologies and outright deception by influential people that lead newcomers astray.
Of the many outdated strategies, the idea of classic ‘winter bulk’ and ‘summer cut’ phases on an annual basis still persist despite the multiple drawbacks they can create. In an effort to never assume information is common knowledge, I’m fortunate to team up with Layne in writing this article, as BioLayne and APFitness continue working to spread science-backed strategies that can help you get more out of your programming.
Below are some major points on how exclusively considering fall & winter as ‘bulking’ time and the spring and summer ‘cutting’ season may not be the most suitable approach in building a sustainable, consistently improving physique over a training career. You will also find some alternative considerations to help you best maximize your efforts for better overall results!
Train for virtually any amount of time, and aside from the initial ‘newbie gains’ we can all agree that muscle growth is a fairly slow process for drug-free athletes. This realization alone stands as reason for not just focusing on growth during the fall and winter months. That’s not to say that noticeable progress can’t be made in a 4-6 month time period, but when we’re talking about maximizing long-term progression, we’re leaving progress on the table by limiting our focus on growth to such a small window.
To put this in perspective, in addition to the next point I’ll be touching on in this article, for any competitive physique athletes I work with during prep, my general rule of thumb is to at least take one entire season off from competing again after finishing a contest prep.
If John Doe and I work together for a Fall 2018 season, that means reverse dieting, taking at least all of 2019 off from competing, and setting a minimum prep-start time for early spring 2020. If athletes are willing to take longer growth seasons, that’s even better. But at least establishing a ‘growth minimum’ can go a long way in allowing for sufficient time to make considerable, quality progress in developing more size & shape in our physiques.
Especially in the case of contest prep, the initial months of reverse dieting are allowing us to regain muscle tissue that was lost while in prep, not necessarily to gain new tissue. Thiss is evidenced by case studies of natural bodybuilders during prep and reverse dieting phases within recent years. So, to only ‘grow’ for ~4-6 months, leaves a very small window in actually building quality, new muscle tissue to help improve your physique from the last prep.
For those non-competitors reading this, the same general approach applies for you as well. Once completing a dieting phase, consider spending more time reverse dieting and focusing on a strategic calorie surplus to allow for more physique development, than the duration you just spent dieting.
General Growth Rules
Take at least ~12-18 months off after finishing your contest season, before starting your next prep.
Spend roughly twice the amount of time reverse dieting/growing as the length of your recent dieting phase. (I.e. 6+ months reverse dieting & growing for every 3 months spend dieting)
Cutting your growth phases short by only following ‘winter bulks’ can limit the progress made in adding new muscle tissue, hindering men from getting bigger and women from adding more shape to their physique. Likewise, dieting too often can hinder progress in reducing body fat in the long run by creating a barrage of metabolic and hormonal disruptions that can make it more and more difficult to continue losing body fat.
Metabolic adaptation is something I’ve discussed in previous BioLayne articles, including What Science Can Teach Physique Athletes and Why You Should Reverse Diet. These articles can be helpful for you to check out in order to further complement the points I’m discussing here.
That said, in brief, as we create a caloric deficit through adjustments in our nutritional programming and aerobic activity, and subsequently lose body fat, our bodies adapt to these changes to essentially become more efficient with the reduced food intake and increased activity level. By result, our ability to continue losing body fat declines at a given intake/activity level, which then requires further adjustments to prompt continued fat loss. 
From the adaptations, overall metabolic rate declines, and hormones such as leptin, ghrelin, thyroid and testosterone become disrupted. My undergraduate thesis research helped reflect this as ghrelin increased, while leptin, testosterone and thyroid hormones all decreased significantly throughout my contest prep. Not to mention, all took several months to return back to baseline during my subsequent reverse diet. 
Just as I mentioned, muscle tissue lost when dieting can take some time to regain, so too does metabolic and hormonal function to return to baseline, healthy levels. Very frequent dieting phases can limit how well these markers bounce back- keeping us in a less effective environment to continue losing body fat, but also making it harder to retain muscle tissue along the way as hormonal markers such as testosterone continue being disrupted. 
In the case of a ‘summer cut,’ if we’re dieting for summer, that often means beginning the diet as early as February or March to then be ready for May when the weather starts to warm up- and possibly even starting soon depending on how the ‘winter bulk’ was approached in terms of overall fat gain. Dieting or maintaining that summer conditioning theoretically from basically February through August only leaves ~5 months of the year to 1) get metabolic and hormonal levels back to efficient levels, and 2) regain and attempt to grow new tissue before likely aiming to diet again the following year.
Physical factors alone make a strong case for not approaching growth and dieting phases by a seasonal calendar, but instead planning each phase based on long-term goals & priorities. To make an even stronger case, it’s important to consider not just physical parameters in terms of metabolism, hormones and muscle tissue, but also how well we can stay mentally recharged.
If you didn’t already know, dieting for fat loss can be pretty tough. I know, I hate to be the one to break the news. Losing fat is relatively simple process, but far from an easy one even for the most devoted athlete. Anyone who has been through serious contest prep or an extended diet can attest to the fact that the last thing they want to think about for a while after finishing a dieting phase is dieting again.
For those very determined to reach their ideal physique, they may be able to will themselves through multiple, extended attempts at dropping body fat before willpower starts to wane. But, sooner or later, that mental battery fueled by motivation and moxie will start deplete.
Deplete too much, too often, and recharging that mental battery enough to continue adhering to a nutrition and training plan can be a tall order. I see athletes willing to do anything to reach their goal physique, often resorting to extreme methods to reach it. As expected, the longer they dig, the harder it is for them to maintain that effort, until they completely burn out. Many of these folks end up giving up altogether.
That isn’t to say dieting for fat loss will destroy your will to achieve, but constantly dieting without sufficient breaks to recharge and grow is not only less effective in the long run, but can be outright sabotage to our outlook on mindful nutrition and exercise as a whole.
As spring and summer seasons approach, if you aren’t mentally ready to begin dieting, or just as importantly- are willing to spend more time in a strategic caloric surplus to allow for more physique development and metabolic/hormonal support, then embrace that decision. Spending even just a year or two focused on growth and development, with minimal dieting phases, can do wonders for a physique transformation. Not to mention, it can help you feel that much more comfortable with the idea of dieting when the time comes.
During those longer growth phases, periodically ‘mini cutting’ rather than running extended dieting phases, when you want to lean out a bit to stay in a comfortable spot can be a clutch decision. You can read more about mini cuts and how to incorporate them by checking out my article, Maximizing Offseason Body Composition.
A Bad Look
A constant flux of dieting and bulking can certainly hinder long-term physique development, but I would be amiss without also touching on the effect it can have on our self-image. Although we live in an age where beneficial information is constantly at our fingertips, so too is the constant barrage of marketing and pseudo-motivation that, held unchecked, can create some serious self-deprecation and anxiety about our appearance.
This includes doctored photos, misleading claims, ‘half truths’ from athletes and models in explaining what actually helped them achieve and retain that photo-shoot ready physique year around. There’s a lot of information constantly floating around to make us feel like we need to do more in order to be adequate or catch anyone’s attention.
For sure, we should always push ourselves to be better and achieve more, but there’s a balancing act between being productive and being self-deprecating. Seeing our fitness journey as a constant need to hold a certain look, at certain times of the year, can be a slippery slope toward rarely being content with how we look, and how that look relates to our overall wellbeing and confidence.
My Reminder to Clients
Something I try to help remind my clients of when they’re struggling with the feeling they should constantly be dieting and maintaining a low body fat is this: To those of us constantly pushing to achieve more, we can hold ourselves to some unrealistically high standards, but it’s important to keep in mind that we’re in the minority. To most average Joes and Janes on the beach or out and aboutth, ose of us that track our diet consistently and make a point to train intensely 3-6 times each week, even in our ‘offseason,’ look pretty darn fit. It’s not only unrealistic and unfair to ourselves to expect a stage or photo-shoot look year around, but it’s also just unnecessary in order to achieve an appealing look to the large majority of people we’re around.
Slow, Steady & Sure
One helpful solution to avoid this ‘bulking/cutting’ flux is simply taking your growing and dieting phase in a much more conservative approach. It can be hugely beneficial to avoid the mindset of needing to start pounding the extra calories as soon as our diet ends, in order to grow effectively.
Instead, focusing on taking a gradual reverse diet and slowing your rate of gain can help support performance and muscle growth, while allowing you to keep total weight gain in the growth phase to a more manageable range.
Instead of feeling the need to diet for months on end just to feel a bit better on the beach come summer, run a shorter mini cut to bring your weight down a couple pounds, which along with a more subtle growing phase (in place of a classic ‘bulk’), will help you find a middle ground between a body composition you feel comfortable in through the summer, while still making progress in the gym and avoiding the issues extended dieting phases can cause.
As much as old-school hypertrophy advice often revolved around ‘eat big to get big,’ research continues to show that although a positive energy balance is needed for continued strength and size development, we may not need the copious amount of extra calories once thought to be necessary. Not to mention, eating more for the sake of eating more leads to additional body fat that we will then just have to diet longer to lose, making a more conservative approach better for those prioritizing aesthetics anyway.
As much as old-school wisdom would have people believe it, our physique goals don’t have to change with the seasons. Not only that, but our physique goals are likely that much harder to attain by being so sporadic with the direction we take to achieve them. Giving ourselves some leeway to enjoy each phase and adjust as needed to navigate the various stages in life we’re in, and realizing even in our ‘offseason’ we’re looking good and doing great things, can help avoid burnout and keep progress that much more consistent along the way!
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