“Do I bulk, cut, maintain or recomp?” 3DMJ Podcast #190: Q&A Session 19

CW: Talk of weight manipulation, body size, and body fat

I always enjoy these Q&A episodes from the folks at 3DMJ. This week’s conversation starts with the age-old question, “do I bulk or do I cut?”

This time around, the question is being asked by a person with a history of higher body fat who has lost and maintained a lot of weight already. In essence, the question is: I don’t like how I look. I know I want to gain muscle and lose fat; which one do I do first or do I try to do both simultaneously?

The 3DMJ folks (Andrea, Alberto and Jeff) break down their considerations for answering this question but boil it down to the most important factor being training status. A newer lifter probably should focus on lifting and maintaining weight, or possibly going into a slight caloric surplus, rather than trying to lose more body fat. More changes in appearance will occur with a year or more of solid lifting under their belt than underfeeding and hoping to recomp.

I really appreciate that psychological factors are taken into consideration in this conversation, and Bert, Andrea and Jeff discuss that not everyone would be comfortable with a long “bulking” period, especially if they’ve been higher body fat in the past. Those of us who have made behavioral changes to reduce our overall levels of body fat may have a hard time giving ourselves permission to eat enough to put on weight, even if we know it is allowing for increased muscle development.

Honestly, for myself, a few years ago I thought I was eating enough to put on muscle, but it was not until I really let loose for the first half of COVID did I find out how much I needed to eat to really change my size! I’m working on slowly leaning out again right now, and I’m finding out how much muscle I was able to pack on while free-feeding on baked goods during the hardest part of lockdown. It was my psychology holding me back before–fear of getting back into old habits that didn’t feel good, fear of losing control and ending up back where I started a decade ago. I know it wasn’t rational, but the fear (and let’s be honest, fat phobia) was there, and it was holding me back from my goals.

The part of this conversation that I wouldn’t expect the 3DMJ crew to really connect with is understanding that if we’ve been larger-bodied, we have not only the psychological elements of fat gain and loss to address but the physiological changes as well. If we accept that obesity is not defined by body fat but by our abilities to regulate our appetites appropriately, there may be some limits for those of us with obesity in how lean we are ever likely to get. I’ve had to learn strategies for hunger management in order to maintain a so-called “normal” body weight. I’m not uncomfortable and these strategies aren’t unpleasant for me, but it did require learning some new ways of thinking about food and how I interact with it.

I have a hard time imagining how much hunger I’d have to endure in order to become competitive bodybuilder lean. I don’t think I could do it. I know I don’t want to do it. But I would be interested to learn if there’s any data to suggest if these boundaries, these issues around hunger for folks with obesity, could be quantified as we get leaner. I would hypothesize that for the vast majority of us, it would soon become unbearable and lead to the sorts of disordered behaviors we see in all people when they get to unsustainable levels of body fat. My guess is that the body fat/body mass threshold for those problems is higher for those of us who are particularly sensitive to our current obesogenic environment.

Do we bulk or do we cut? For those of us with a history of obesity, I think it’s a very personal question that may require some coaching and counseling to help us understand the potential pitfalls we encounter along the way. It sounds like everyone who faces this question struggles with the patience necessary to see results. It seems like every conversation I’ve heard along these lines boils down to “commit to one for a long time before you switch to the other.” I’ve also heard plenty folks who say we needn’t bother with either, as long as we’re comfortable being patient and letting the results come in a slower, steadier pace. For folks with an unhealthy history with dieting, I would think this would be the best approach–skip the weight cycling entirely.

For me, for now, I’m in a pretty good place. I’m excited to see what kind of mass I’ve put on underneath the bonus COVID flub. Honestly, even at this higher body fat, I think I’m looking pretty good! Once I get down to a comfortable level of leanness again, I want to think I’d be more open to really eating up into a bulk for a while to see what kind of muscle I can continue to put on.

Do you struggle with choosing a bulk or a cut and sticking with it? What are your thoughts on how our histories with body fat and dieting play a role in weight cycling as a bodybuilder? I’d love to hear about it! Please leave a comment below, or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook.

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