One of the biggest problem people bump into once they’re done cutting is gaining most of their body fat back when transitioning into bulking.
Spending 2-4 months or more getting getting lean, just to gain most of the fat back within a few weeks sucks!
But at the same time we want to start eating more so that we can start packing on additional muscle sooner rather than later.
So, how do you transition from cutting to bulking without gaining fat?
Well, here’s the ideal way to transition into bulking after you’re done cutting:
- Have a big initial increase in calorie intake to quickly eliminate the calorie deficit
- Once you have found your maintenance, stay there for 2-3 weeks and try to eat as much as you can without gaining weight
- Then move from maintenance into a lean bulk, this is done by eating 5-10% more calories. When lean bulking you want to eat as much as you can without gaining fat.
In this post we’re going to cover why I believe this to be the best way to go about transitioning from cutting to bulking, and also cover the whole process more in-depth.
Table of Contents
Why It’s Important to Have a Post Cutting Plan
If you’re just coming of a cutting phase and been in a prolonged calorie deficit, simply eating on instinct based purely on hunger and cravings won’t work very well. In fact, that’s the exact recipe for quick fat gain.
So, if you want to avoid fat gain as you transition from cutting into bulking you can’t go by feel!
The reason for this is that your body is a very fine-tuned and adaptable system, and when you restrict your calories over any reasonable length of time, several important adaptations are made by your body to help you conserve energy and to operate efficiently on a lower calorie intake.
This is known as “metabolic adaptation” which is caused through different hormonal changes, where key fat burning hormones such as testosterone, leptin and T3 all decreases.
Also, since you’ve been cutting for a prolonged period of time, your body weight will be lower which means you’ll burn less calories per day both at rest and during any kind of activity.
Not only that, something called NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis) can decrease a lot during a prolonged calorie deficit.
Research has shown that when we’re in a calorie deficit, our bodies tries to conserve energy by reducing spontaneous movements such as fidgeting. It’s been shown that some people can burn 1000 calories less per day than others just through NEAT alone when dieting. So, imagine how much that can affect your maintenance level.
Furthermore, at the end of a cutting phase you’re also eating less food, so the energy required for digestion and absorption of nutrients is also decreased. This is known as thermic effect of food (TEF), which burns roughly 15% of the total calories you eat.
So, if you’re eating 3000 calories pre-diet that’s ~450 calories burned of by thermic effects. Now compare that to post-diet where you might eat 2500 calories and have a thermic effect of only ~370 calories.
Finally, your appetite and cravings will be significantly higher post cutting. This means that foods that you normally wouldn’t enjoy eating can suddenly become a lot more appealing.
The bottom line is that once your cutting phase is over, your body will be physiologically primed to store body fat and your desire for food will also be at its highest.
So, the summary here is that you must set up a good post cutting plan to easier offset fat gain once you start moving into maintenance and then bulking.
And as I wrote in the intro, here’s the ideal plan that you should use (I learned about this plan in the ShredSmart Program):
- Have a big initial increase in calorie intake to quickly eliminate the calorie deficit
- Then once you have found your maintenance try to eat as much as you can without gaining fat
- To move from maintenance into a lean bulk, you will eat 5-10% more calories. When lean bulking you want to eat as much as you can without gaining fat.
So, let’s look at these three steps one by one so that you can stay lean as you transition into bulking:
1. Increase Calories Quickly to Eliminate The Calorie Deficit
This is important. Staying at a calorie deficit way longer than what’s need will be very negative for your physique. Most people will be happy with their leanness at around 8-10% body fat, which looks like this (depending of course on muscular development):
Now, if you were to continue being in a deficit for to long, then you’ll start screwing with your metabolism, hormones and psychological well-being etc. This is also the reason why competitive bodybuilders and physique competitors can’t stay shredded at 5% body fat for long.
So, your goal should be to eliminate the calorie deficit as quickly as possible once you’ve reached your goal. So, 8-10% body fat is the goal, anything below that and you’ll risk fat re-gain.
Why Reverse Dieting Is Unnecessary
Reverse dieting is a popular strategy where you increase your calorie intake by 100 every week, which will slowly bring you back up to maintenance calories.
Now, I think that reverse dieting is both dangerous and unnecessary. It’s dangerous because keeping a calorie deficit can screw with your body and mind as I wrote about earlier, and it’s unnecessary because you won’t gain fat if you “only” go up to maintenance calories. In my opinion it’s simply more ideal to move into maintenance as fast as possible and not take a month or two to get there.
So, I’m always moving straight into maintenance once I’m happy with my level of leanness.
But, if reverse dieting is unnecessary and potentially dangerous, why do people use it then?
Well, from what I’ve noticed people use reverse dieting for two main reasons:
- To prevent rapid fat gain when they move into maintenance
- To prevent binge eating once the diet is over
Let me address each of these points one by one and explain why reverse dieting may not actually help you with any of these things.
Does Reverse Dieting Prevent Rapid Fat Gain When You Move Into Maintenance?
Just think about this question for a while. I think that you’ll find the answer to be rather obvious as we’ve touched on it already. Here it goes:
If you bring your calories back up to maintenance levels, how are you going to store body fat? Maintenance means eating just enough calories as your body burns for energy, not more and not less. So, if there’s no calorie deficit or surplus present, then your weight and body composition will stay the same.
So, moving rapidly from a deficit to maintenance can by definition not lead to fat gain. Unless of course your new maintenance is lower than you think because of metabolic adaptations created by a prolonged calorie deficit, which means you’re actually moving into a calorie surplus instead of your old maintenance.
So, to successfully reach maintenance you must learn how to calculate your new maintenance calories after you’re done cutting. Here’s how you do that:
How to Calculate Your New Maintenance Calories
Usually I recommend using body weight in lbs x 15 and in kilo x 33. But since your new maintenance calories will be lower because of metabolic adaptations, I recommend the following:
- Bodyweight in lbs x 14
- Bodyweight in kg’s x 30
This will give you a rough estimate of your new maintenance calorie intake. Now, all you can do is put these numbers to the test. This is done by eating the number of calories you calculated for a week and see how your body responds.
Once you reach maintenance you should see a slight gain in weight, around 1-2 lbs, but still look just as lean, usually you’ll look even leaner! The reason for this slight gain in weight and rippedness is because of more food in your GI tract, and more muscle glycogen and water inside your muscles, which makes them look full while stretching your skin.
Occasionally some people continue to go down in body weight even with a higher food intake. No one knows for certain why this is, but guesses are that it’s a stress release from breaking the calorie deficit which flushes out any probable water retention.
If you find that you look as lean or leaner after the first week at maintenance, that’s great keep things unchanged for one more week. By now your weight should stabilize.
If however your weight continues to go down it’s time to slowly increase calories further. You do this by bumping up your calorie intake each week with 100 calories per day until you find your maintenance. This way it shouldn’t take you more than 1-2 additional weeks to find your new maintenance.
Does Reverse Dieting Prevent Binge Eating Once The Diet is Over?
The second reason why people recommend reverse dieting is to prevent binge eating after a show. With show I’m obviously talking about bodybuilders and physique competitors. And for these individuals I totally agree with the approach of reverse dieting.
In fact, I’ve read stories about bodybuilders regaining all the weight they lost in 6 months of dieting in only 3 weeks of binge eating. I can’t imagine how that would feel… seeing all that hard work go down the drain just like that.
So, in this case reverse dieting helps prevent binge eating by keeping people on a structured plan once the diet is over. Instead of feeling free to smash food you know that you gradually have to increase the calorie intake and take it easier on the cardio for a few weeks. This way you get to maintain your physique very close to your stage condition.
But, I see no reason why an average Joe cutting down to 8-10% body fat needs to reverse diet like a professional bodybuilder. For an average Joe the desire to binge isn’t psychological like in the case of a bodybuilder who’ve reached unnaturally low 3-5% body fat levels.
The reason why the average Joe goes on a binge is usually because he want a reward for finishing the cut. The fact is that we only feel the need to reward ourselves when we don’t believe that we’re meant to be lean and ripped.
If however we can believe that counting macros and being mindful of how much we eat is our normal behavior then we won’t feel the need to binge. This is known as self-image, where the way we see ourselves in our minds is the way we act on autopilot, at this point it’s our belief system.
The bottom line is that reverse dieting is completely unnecessary for people going down to 8-10% body fat using a sensible calorie deficit. Extending the cut by 5 more weeks won’t solve the binge eating problem. In other words, if someone at 8-10% body fat feels the urge to binge, I believe the problem is in their mind and not related to their diet.
Quick Recap of Step 1:
Increase your calories to maintenance as quickly as you can. This is to avoid staying in a calorie deficit for too long which is unhealthy. Furthermore, the quicker you can reach maintenance the faster you can start focusing on building muscle.
There’s no need to do a reverse diet unless you’re coming of a bodybuilding or physique show. If you feel the urge to binge eat, focus on your self image instead and figure out why you want to binge, reverse dieting won’t help you.
2. Stay at Maintenance For a While
Now, before you move into bulking you should stay at maintenance for a little while.
After your weight has stabilized take 2-3 weeks at maintenance to further reset some of the adaptations your body made during the cutting phase. This will help prevent rapid fat gain once you move into a calorie surplus.
The human body is an adaptable machine. By staying at maintenance for a few weeks before starting to bulk you will find that you put on lean mass easier with less body fat. I really recommend that you take this step seriously if you want to stay lean as you start bulking.
3. How to Move From Maintenance to Lean Bulking
Okay so you’ve been through 1-2 weeks of finding your new maintenance, and an additional 2-3 weeks at maintenance making sure you reset as much metabolic adaptations as possible. You are finally ready to start lean-bulking!
How to Set up Your Lean Bulk
For most beginner to novice trainees (0-2 years of training) I recommend eating a calorie surplus of 1800 per week, which comes down to ~250 calories above maintenance per day.
Now, I don’t recommend eating the same calories each and every day, I rather suggest that you cycle your calories by eating more on training days and less on rest days. This seems to work a lot better to maximize muscle growth while minimizing fat gain as much as possible.
So, the protocol I recommend for lean bulking is this:
- Rest days (4x per week) +75 calories over maintenance
- Lifting days (3x per week) +500 calories over maintenance
This will lead to maximum muscle growth, and only cause slim amounts of fat gain. Now here’s the deal, gaining a bit of fat just comes with the territory if you want to gain muscle at the quickest rate possible.
So, if you tend to gain weight (body fat) easily then you can reduce calories slightly on rest days. So, instead of eating +75 calories on rest days you could eat -75 calories on rest days. Your protocol would now look like this:
- Rest days (4x per week) -75 calories under maintenance
- Lifting days (3x per week) +500 calories over maintenance
This will lead to better lean gains, but you will reduce your muscle growth potential just a bit. It’s totally up to you if you rather maximize muscle growth or minimize fat gain.
If you want to learn more about setting up a good calorie surplus I recommend reading this post
Also keep in mind that once you increase your caloric intake following a cutting phase, your daily caloric expenditure will start to increase as your fat burning hormone levels come back into balance and your metabolism re-adjusts itself.
So, you have to be prepared to gradually push your calorie intake higher and higher by consuming more food as the weeks go on, of course without any accompanying body fat gains. Simply keep control on your weekly body weight changes and if you notice that you start to stand still during the coming weeks, then increase calories a bit.
Here’s how I’m keeping control of this:
If you want a good method for tracking body composition changes, read this post next. (I know it’s called “How to measure fat loss progress” but the same principles is true for bulking as well)
Conclusion – How To Transition From Cutting To Bulking Without Gaining Fat
Cutting off a significant amount of fat is a rather tough process that requires discipline and self-control, and the last thing you want to do is gain most of that fat back once you’re done with your cut because you didn’t have a post-cutting plan in place.
With your adapted metabolism and natural spike in hunger that comes with a prolonged fat loss phase, simply eating after hunger and cravings is one of the worse things you can do if you want to maintain the new level of leanness you’ve achieved.
That said, it’s unnecessary to turn the post-cutting period into an overly drawn out and complex process, especially since switching from cutting to bulking is relatively simple as long as you know what to do. The most important thing is to control your calorie increases by having a plan set up for yourself.
The plan should be:
- Increase your calories quickly to reach your new maintenance calorie intake. Find out your new maintenance calorie level by following the information provided above.
- Monitor the scale and do your best to stabilize your post-cutting body weight. Increase calories if needed until you land on an appropriate number where you’re not gaining or losing weight. Stay at maintenance for 2-3 weeks to reverse the metabolic adaptations.
- Shift into lean bulking by adding in a moderate calories surplus, preferably more on training days and less on rest days to ensure maximum muscle growth with slim fat gain.
In comparison to the popular reverse dieting method, this approach will get you back to a balanced physical and mental state as quickly as possible without much, if any fat gain. It also allows you to shift into lean bulking mode without wasting too much time and effort getting there.
If you want to successfully stay lean long-term as you build your physique, then I recommend checking out the ShredSmart Program. Staying lean is not only about having the correct strategies in place, but moreso about getting your psychology in check. The ShredSmart Program created by Radu Antoniu definitely delivers in this area!