Bulk, Cut or Recomp–What can a habit-based approach look like?

For those of us who want bigger muscles and to be lean enough to see them, it can feel like chasing a golden unicorn. Muscles build better when eating in a surplus, but eating in a surplus means putting on some fat, too. Eating closer to maintenance gives us the option of staying in a body size that may feel more comfortable for us or reduce the challenges of a fat-phobic society, but it means accepting a slower rate of muscular growth. This conundrum leads us to the age-old recreational bodybuilder question: should you bulk, cut or recomp?

Most of the conversations on this topic, like this one at 3DMJ, start with the physiological aspects of the decision.

And one of the things I like about the folks at 3DMJ is that they actually acknowledge some psychological factors as well.

If you are working on having a healthier mindset around your body, is there an obvious choice? Do bulking and cutting cycles keep someone more tightly tethered to diet culture or would our psyches benefit from pushing back against this cycling by learning to embrace the natural cycles of our lives?

Why folks bulk and cut.

Putting on muscle requires having enough energy and enough substrate to build with. Our bodies need to feel that it is energetically worth the “expense” of spending our calories to build muscle, and we literally need the building materials to add mass to our frames. As a result, more muscle is built when we are eating plenty of food, assuming we are doing the necessary lifting to create a stimulus.

Everyone has a sort of natural ceiling to how much muscle we can obtain, and there are lots of models out there to help you guess what might be possible for you. Not surprisingly, one of the more well-researched comes from Greg Nuckols over at Stronger By Science.


The common refrain in the evidence-based world these days suggests that a new lifter working hard with progressive training, eating with sufficient protein and surplus calories can put on about 10 pounds the first year, perhaps 5 the year after that, and it diminishes by half over subsequent years. (1) (2) I don’t have much personal experience with a year or more of intense, intentional training that hasn’t also been followed up by major health issues, surgeries and other challenges that knocked me back a pace. So, I can’t say if these numbers feel reasonable or not based upon my own experience, but I don’t have any reason to doubt it as a rule of thumb, either.

Eating to a surplus isn’t necessary to put on muscle, and for folks with average body compositions, surplus energy can come primarily from our own adipose storage. Evidence-based discussions of the potential for recomping include this one on Iron Culture with Chris Barakat, who suggests it shows up in the literature more often than not.

How much muscle we can gain while losing body fat seems to be dependent upon how close we are to our genetic potential and our current abilities to do the work necessary to push the needle closer to the asymptote. The limits of our genetic potential encompasses our current training status (less training leads to more recomp), body fat percentage (more leads to more recomp), and current muscularity (less leads to more recomp). The most important training variables that lead to hypertrophy seem to include sufficient volume and/or sufficient intensity create a novel stimulus for the targeted muscles.

Regardless of training status, a lifter needs sufficient protein to build muscle. In conversations with women in nutritional coaching, it seems to be far more common for them to not be getting sufficient protein. The coaches I know recommend the protein calculator over at examine.com. And Eric Trexler at Stronger By Science wants you to know that you have more flexibility in your protein goals than some bros might make you believe.


Obviously exogenous testosterone can help a person along the recomp train, too, but unless your a trans man on T, I don’t really have much time of day for folks interested in changing their bodies or pushing their limits that way. Health, to me, is the first priority, not looking swole, and while I still adhere to body autonomy as a value, I would encourage folks to make choices that are best for their future selves.

So we have the variables of training status, nutrition, body composition, progressive programming, genetic potential, and sex all in the mix to help us guess where we’re heading and where in the journey we’re currently traveling. And this is the mental math that most evidence-based sources suggest we rely upon to make our decision about intermediate training and nutrition goals. However, this perspective, as is so often the case in this community, fails to ask some vital questions about the lifter and their capacity to follow through with this sort of plan.

Does the lifter have unscrutinised internalized fat-phobia that leads them to fear adding bulk, even when that might be the most efficient solution to their desired outcome?

Does the lifter have a history of disordered eating or chronic dieting leading to greater risk of psychological harm from intentional focus on cycling their eating and body sizes?

What are the gender, race, and other social dynamics that might make weight cycling have a greater negative impact on their work, family or social environments?

Does the lifter have a long history of emotional eating or other unhelpful eating patterns that they are concerned about being exacerbated by weight cycling?

Does the calorie-counting approach fail to address someone’s problematic eating behaviors and attitudes, leading them to endlessly fall “on” and “off” their diet?

Does the lifter have deeply unrealistic ideas about what would be necessary to reach their ideal physique and how to maintain it?

Why we might not choose to bulk and cut.

Building muscle is a long game, and there are assumptions built into bulking and cutting models that I rarely hear questioned. They assume consistency. They assume that we can eat at the desired energy level and train at the desired intensity for months at a time. And obviously there are people who can do this. And just as obvious is that many of us struggle with this sort of consistency. Yes, there are skills to learn, and there’s also life being lifey. Winter holidays, children on break over the summer, changes in workload, illness, injuries and so many factors, influence how long we can maintain a pattern of behaviors before we need to adapt to a new set of circumstances. Each moment of adaptation may mean moving in and out of a surplus or moving in and out of more or less intense exercise. What if we can create systems that allow for this natural ebb and flow while still moving towards our goals? What if the process goals became less rigid and more flexible?

Process goals are the “how” that leads us to the outcomes we want. The outcome may be “I want to deadlift 300 pounds.” The process goal is “Twice a week I’m going work up to a heavy double then do a back-off set of 8-12 reps.” Bulking and cutting can sound like process goals, but they’re actually outcome goals. How are you going to eat in a caloric surplus and train harder? How are you going to maintain a caloric deficit and keep up with your training?

The compassionate, habit-based approach asks the question “what do you want the process to look like, not just the result?” For me, I am not interested in intentionally cycling between pants sizes. I’m not interested in having to micromanage my food and my training, forever eking out the hypothetically most-optimal results. It isn’t optimal for me to live my life for years with that level of scrutiny. And it actually isn’t necessary to go through that process to have success.

I also embrace a process that acknowledges that our bodies will continue to change over time, and a sustainable outcome must embrace that reality, too. I want sustainable results that accept the ebb and flow of life. I recognize that can sound oxymoronic but hear me out. No one stays one weight, one body composition, or can train to the same or ever-increasing intensity forever. So, a sustainable result must encompass a more fluid definition of success. What I can maintain for months or years will be a range of body weights, compositions and training intensities. I set the goal to keep doing something, to do my best under the current circumstances, and to practice the skills of getting back to it when I can, as I can, each time a barrier shows up. And the compassion shows up as not trying to force a fixed definition of success while life is swirling around me.

We are each our own authority–what kind of challenge do you want to choose? Which one works best for you–really? I wish I could be a person who saw a calorie count, could adhere to it, have that acceptance to hunger that Trex talks about, and get to goals efficiently. But for me, the most efficient route is the slow one. Hunger carries baggage for me, and I have to pay attention to the thoughts I have around it and constantly monitor that I’m taking actions that suit my long-term goals and health, not just reacting habitually to them. I have to pay attention to how often I’m reaching for food for emotional support rather than to address my physical needs. And sometimes, the best solution for me is to eat even when I’m not hungry, because meeting those needs is a higher priority than hitting a particular calorie count for the day.

So the process for me has to include a compassionate acceptance that I’m not a robot with eating, and as I’ve written about many times before, I can’t be robotic about my lifting, either. How much I can lift, how intensely, and how frequently is impacted week to week by stress, and in particular, by my PTSD symptoms. My lifting isn’t going to be “optimal” based on research, but it is what is best and optimal for me given my circumstances. Regardless, I can’t plan out an intensity block while bulking and just assume I can handle the extra volume. I also can’t plan on pushing through hard training if I’m already in the added stress of eating in a deficit. These factors make a traditional bulk and cut far from ideal for my circumstances. And if you’re weighing the pros and cons for yourself, you need to be realistic about your barriers to this sort of plan as well.

An alternative to bulking and cutting.

I have concerns about using traditional bulk and cut cycles to build my physique, and if we only listen to professional bodybuilders, there aren’t a lot of alternatives put out there for us to build from. How do we figure out what will work for us in a compassionate, habit-based way? We need to start with our “why” and letting that define the “how.”

I ask myself often why all of this matters to me. I get visions of strutting down the sand at Venice Beach, lifting at the Gold’s Gym, hitting a double biceps to show off, and feeling confident that I belong there. I know this is problematic, and I admit, I struggle sometimes with confusing the look of my outsides with the value or worth of my insides. I don’t write this blog as an outlet to convince everyone to be just like me. I’m no paragon of enlightened practice in all things and all ways. I’m human, complicated, full of hypocrisy and personal challenges, just like everyone else. AND I think sharing our stories, moving towards our ideals, working in community to define who we are moving towards, rather than just talking about what we want less of in our lives, can be a powerful act of positive resistance and change.

So, when I’m in a place of my wise, inner self having the reigns, I recognize that I’m a pretty amazing person, persistent and resilient (or maybe just really fucking stubborn), capable and adaptable, and focused on always doing the best I can within the boundaries of the challenges life continues to throw in my path. THE GOAL is not truly a physique that helps me fit in at Venice Beach or hitting that double biceps. The physique is the hopeful result of living a life that is closer in alignment with the ideals and values that I hold above others–personal expression, autonomy, individuality, interdependence, health, structure and progress. What does the process look like that honors these values and then what outcomes come from those choices?

In the context of building a physique, therefore, I am seeking a process that honors my health and happiness along the way, not just hoping for health and happiness someday, whenever my body is “good enough.” Every behavior I commit to along the way is filtered by this metric–does this behavior move me closer to these ideals or further away from them?

Here’s a concrete example: currently, I am lifting 3-4 days a week, typically between 45 minutes to an hour each session. However, how long I lift each session is run through the metric of “how does this feel in my body today, and how might this training session impact my wellness afterwards?” Due to my PTSD symptoms, sometimes my life is better off with a shorter session, or with a less intense one, or with skipping it and taking a break that day. This less rigid approach keeps lifting in my life as much as possible, and although it may not be “ideal” on a spreadsheet or compared to the values some researcher might come out with on ideal lifting conditions for building muscle, there’s no question that doing something regularly is far more advantageous than the on-again-off-again of an all-or-nothing approach to my sessions.

So for me, the training side of things is a day-by-day process. What I’ve witnessed is that my capacity increases steadily for a while and then dips down for a bit before beginning to climb again. These waves of intensity mimic conventional wisdom of many training cycles closely enough, including built-in deloads, that I’m satisfied with it.

Food is far trickier and can feel higher stakes. Having rejected bulking and cutting for myself, I’m instead doing the work of exploring the reasons behind my emotional eating, automatic eating, and other times when I eat outside of hunger and taking the steps to become more consistent in how I eat day-to-day. The goal for me is to create consistency in my eating even as life can be more chaotic. It is my belief that this consistency is the key to creating the gentle calorie deficit necessary for me to slowly return to a smaller size, lose some body fat and help my muscles pop.

And regardless of whether or not you think you have some fat to lose, are hoping to recomp, or prefer to focus on adding mass, the goal of consistency is a good one. Only when our eating is fairly predictable and consistent can we then slowly manipulate the variables to move the needle towards our goals of deficit, maintenance, or small surplus. Eric Helms refers to building this sort of consistency in his athletes at 3DMJ as the “default diet.”

For plenty of you, the work of consistency will look differently than it does for me. You might need to build skills around eating at regular mealtimes, finding strategies for meal prep, or learning to eat more mindfully in social situations. I’ve watched people have amazing turnarounds in their eating consistency when they upped their protein at breakfast or when they added a protein-filled snack in the afternoon. Whereas other folks will need to challenge their beliefs about cleaning their plates, always eating when food is offered, or pairing watching a show with a snack. These strategies each will require some trial and error and doing the work of being curious about what might work, what might become a barrier to do it more often and getting comfortable with a new habit. THAT is what a habit-based practice looks like–focused on the processes that can lead you to the outcome you want of being more consistent with how you eat. Those are the skills that get us to the calorie targets spit out by some calculator.

A habits-based approach, which takes the focus off of results, means understanding that some of the early changes we make may not obviously impact our desired outcomes at first. Sometimes we have to stack several habits together for a long enough period of time, and only after they reach that critical mass do we begin to see measurable changes in strength, weight, body composition, etc.

These moments of seeming to tread water while building skills are actually where the magic happens and sustainability is achieved. That is when we are learning to make the changes and for them to stick and become integrated parts of our lives. This can feel deeply uncomfortable for folks trying to uncouple themselves from diet mindsets. The desire and expectation to see quick results or “proof” that the changes “matter” can derail us before we’ve built enough skills for those measurable changes to show up. However, this is the work of making meaningful changes that can last for a lifetime.

Habit-based work can feel less linear and slower than traditional calorie and macro-counting approaches. And for folks who can set a target and just follow along ad infinitum, maybe it is. But if you have evidence that you struggle with these more mathematical strategies long term, or if you do “good” for a while and then fall apart eating all the things, or as soon as you reach your targets you return to your prior habits and prior physique, then the habit-based, slower-feeling process may actually be more efficient, and will certainly be more sustainable for you. This approach to physique change requires a willingness to run the experiments and take your time to see what you can sustainably maintain, but the end result are habits that you truly can do for the long-term in a wide variety of life experiences and a realistic physique based upon your own unique physiology and circumstances.

I’ve been working in this way towards my own physique goals for about six months now, and things are definitely changing in my body. My body fat is down, and my lifts are up. More wonderful than that, nothing I’m doing right now feels truly hard or unsustainable. I’m continuing to enjoy dessert every day (chocolate crinkle cookie bars–I should probably share the recipe–update! below!). I don’t find myself distractingly hungry or overwhelmed by my training. I am living a values-driven life, as my coach would say, and I don’t feel conflicted. It’s possible I could get similar physical results from a traditional cut or recomp effort, but there’s no way the process would feel as good in my body or cause so little stress.

Do you bulk, cut or recomp? What if this isn’t the right question to lead you to your best results? Ask yourself what process you’re willing to adhere to for months or years at a time. Ask yourself how important sustainability of those results is and learning the skills to maintain them. Ask yourself why these goals matter to you and can you lead from a place of what truly is important to you. If the answers to these questions steer you away from traditional bulking and cutting cycles, there are other ways. You can learn to eat and train with consistency, to ride the ebbs and flows of life and build a physique that results from those choices. Whatever your goals and preferences, I’m looking forward to strutting down Venice Beach with you some day.

(1) For people born with a uterus. For people born with a prostate, those numbers can be doubled.

(2) Ok, I’m kinda intentionally being a dick here. How many articles, podcast conversations and YouTube videos have I read, listened to and watched that assumed a lifter was male? So, I’ve decided for this article, we’ll flip the script and see how it feels.

Photo credit: Stephen Leonardi, via Unsplash

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