Chasing an elusive body-shape – being both ripped and built - is a common goal for gym fiends, and yet a paradoxical one. One involves getting leaner; the other getting bigger.
Many struggle with knowing whether to 'cycle' through alternate 'bulking' and 'cutting' phases, or tackle the seemingly opposing goals at the same time.
Defining your goals
"The question of cycling between 'bulking' and 'cutting' has vexed recreational bodybuilders and hard-gainers for decades" says Luke Ashcroft, a sports scientist with over twenty years of experience in strength and conditioning coaching.
It's important to define your understanding of the problematic terms from the outset.
"'Cutting' is effectively decreasing body fat while 'bulking' is increasing lean body mass. Confusion arises because many see 'bulking up' as just getting bigger at all costs with little regard to the composition of this increased size. They are in essence getting bigger by getting fatter."
What the nutritionist says
Go slowly, says clinical nutritionist Dr Vincent Candrawinata, who holds a PhD in Food Science and Human Nutrition.
"Take one step at a time. People think the two body goals can be done through diet at the same time, but this is just biologically impossible. One requires less calorie intake and another requires surplus calorie intake."
"Knowing your body is the first step on the journey of achieving your body goal," he adds.
"It all depends on your body type and your metabolic rate. I make no secret that I envy people who can eat 4000-5000 calories a day while I have to be cautious after 2000 calories."
What the fitness guru says
Trainer to the stars Chief Brabon recently helped singer Guy Sebastian lose 10kgs of body fat while adding six kilograms of lean muscle. But he didn't do it by cycling through cutting and bulking: "The main problem with individuals who go down the path of bulking then stripping is that, many of them add unwanted body fat during the bulking phase. Then, during the stripping phase - which requires more discipline, they hit a wall, and end up with more issues than they started with."
To cycle or not to cycle?
This question splits the fitness experts and the nutritionists. Sports scientist Luke Ashcroft isn't a fan.
"Unfortunately, the popularity of the 'bulking' and 'cutting' approach to building a lean and muscular physique has probably more to do with those who always seem to be in a 'bulking' phase and never quite get around to the 'cutting' phase. It's just an excuse to eat whatever you want and be out of shape and still convince yourself that you're working towards your goal!"
Dr Candrawinata supports the cycle method, but admits there are risks.
"Going through cycles is the way to go. However, unless you're an actor, model or bodybuilder, where your job may require you to be a certain body type, going through cycles could be damaging...and take a toll on your inner health."
Seaworthiness guru Chief Brabon says heavy weights are the way forward. His top tips are:
- Maintain a rep range of 8 to 12 reps for 3 to 5 sets
- Try to achieve momentary muscular failure on the last set of each exercise (ensuring to maintain good form and safety)
- Work each body part twice a week. The first time focus on compound movements. The second time focus on isolation exercises.
Tips for rips
Much of this comes down to nutrition. But, as accredited dietician Mark Robinson says, combining this with the right exercise can see you hitting goals.
"Fasted cardio in the morning! This is my number one tip to getting ripped and shredded. It forces the body to burn into stubborn fat stores to find energy."
Which is easier?
The genuine consensus is getting ripped is the more achievable of the two.
"It's definitely easier to achieve rapid fat loss, compared to rapid muscle gain," confirms Brabon.
However, while Robinson says it's not necessarily easier, it's absolutely speedier to achieve. "Getting ripped is quicker. But perhaps harder work. It requires the dieting discipline and cardio."
Too much pressure?
Nutritionists and fitness trainers make money from encouraging men to reach what can seem an unattainable goal, wholly dependent on their ongoing advice.
As Brabon says, "... most women simply focus on fat loss to achieve a slimmer figure, men tend to obsess over both a low body fat, and athletic musculature."