Generations of bodybuilders have followed the same practice: bulk up in the offseason to pack on muscle, then move to a cutting phase to get ripped before stepping on stage. This approach works great if you are on drugs. Steroids and other bodybuilding drugs are great not only for building muscle but also holding onto muscle during a cut. So, what does this mean for those of us who are not on drugs? Do we follow the same pattern as the drug-assisted or take a different approach? Let’s dive in!
People are always drawn to the extremes. The extremes get attention, but your best results are always somewhere between the extremes. Let’s start by looking at the bulking and cutting extremes and then we can move to a balanced, effective approach for drug-free muscle building.
Bulking Extreme 1: Aggressive Bulk
The focus of an aggressive bulk is driving the scale numbers up at all costs. You follow the see-food diet – whatever food you see, you eat! You don’t worry about fiber, transfats, or macronutrients, but focus all your attention on packing in as many calories as you can each day.
Pros: This method guarantees that you are in a calorie surplus for gaining muscle. You will enjoy eating tons of tasty foods while watching the scale numbers climb each week. To steal a phrase from the late John McCullum – you gain weight like a baby whale. The extra calories can help fuel hard training sessions. You will see a surge in your strength.
Cons: This method also guarantees that you will gain a lot of body fat. This excess fat will cover up your hard-earned muscles which can make you look less muscular. This excess fat will also take a lot of time to lose. During the long, hard, cutting phase needed to lose all the fat you gain, you will lose most if not all of the muscle you gained during the bulk. All the junk food will likely give you acne and increase inflammation. This will make your joints hurt. You will feel groggy, bloated, and gross. If carried on too long, you will experience health problems.
Bulking Extreme 2: Staying "Shredded"
The other extreme is trying to “bulk” while staying "shredded". This problem has been fueled by social media. In the old days, it was all about the stage. Bodybuilders didn’t worry about trying to be shredded all year. However, today many influencers feel they need to be shredded year-round to please their loyal followers. This method involves wishing you could build muscle but eating (at best) a maintenance level of calories. This approach has cleverly been referred to as “gaintaining”.
Pro: You stay lean year-round so you can always see whatever muscle you currently have.
Con: You don’t gain any new muscle.
Cutting Extreme 1: Aggressive Cut
With this extreme approach, you drastically cut your calories to lose fat as fast as possible. You use the hardest, most, most restrictive, most miserable diet you can find.
Pro: You lose weight – fast!
Cons: This is pure torture. You are always starving. You are always fantasizing about treat foods. You feel horrible, your performance in the gym and all life tanks. You are grumpy and irritable. You have trouble sleeping. You lose a ton of muscle and often end up at the same point you were before your cut. When the cut is over, many people who take this approach will end up binging and quickly gain back all the lost fat – with a bonus (i.e., gain back more fat than they lost).
Cutting Extreme 2: "I Can’t Lose Weight or Get Smaller"
In this approach you are so concerned with not losing any muscle, not being any smaller, or having your lifts in the gym drop that you don’t end up getting into a calorie deficit.
Pro: You don’t lose any muscle, size, weight, or strength.
Con: You don’t lose fat, but simply stay in maintenance mode.
A better approach
As with all things training and nutrition, the magical land of results lies somewhere between these extremes. Here are some tips for drug-free bulking and cutting
Drug-Free Bulking – Nutrition Tips
- Understand your goal – you want slow, steady muscle gain with minimal fat gain.
- Research is clear, for optimal muscle gain, you want to eat in a calorie surplus (Slater et al., 2019).
- Base your calorie surplus on your training level and genetics (see next point for genetics). If you are a beginner, you can probably gain 20-30 pounds of muscle during your first year with proper training, recovery, and nutrition. As a result, you can benefit from a larger surplus. If you are an intermediate, you can probably gain 5-10 pounds of muscle in a year. If you are advanced, you might only be able to gain 1-2 pounds of muscle in a year.
- Consider your genetics. If you are naturally lean and gain muscle easily, you may be able to be a little more aggressive with your bulking. However, if you really struggle to build muscle, you cannot afford to gain a bunch of at when bulking. The worse your genetics for muscle building, the harder it will be not only for you to build muscle in the first place, but to hold onto that muscle while cutting.
- While a slight calorie surplus is great, building muscle takes time. If you are eating well above your body’s ability to grow new muscle tissue, you will just gain extra body fat.
- Make sure you are getting enough protein, fats, and carbs. For protein, shoot for 1.6-2g per kg of body weight per day. Get 1-1.5g/kg/day of fat and your remaining calories from carbohydrates.
- While some treats are fine (and even helpful), emphasize minimally processed, nourishing foods. These foods will minimize inflammation, help prevent nutrient deficiencies, and improve your overall health.
- Use an outcome-based decision-making model. I know everyone likes simple numbers (e.g., eat 20 x your body weight in calories to bulk) or easy online calorie calculators, At best these are rough, non-personalized estimations. If you want to maximize your muscle gain without gaining a bunch of extra body fat, you need to find your ideal calories. Every week, take your body weight under the same conditions (e.g., first thing every Monday morning). In addition, take some measurements every 2-4 weeks. Be conservative and patient to minimize fat gain. You do not want to have to "cut" your bulking phase short for a cut. If the scale is slowly climbing up and your waist measurement is staying the same, then you are on track with your food intake. If your weight has stabilized for a few weeks in a row, then it is time to up your food intake a bit more. If you start to notice your waist measurement increasing and more fat accumulating, decrease your number of food items or portion sizes per day and stay there for a few weeks. Then reassess.
- Take a break as needed. If you are burning out, take a break. Go back to maintenance calories and training (this would be training with about 2/3 lower volume and frequency than you used to build muscle).
Drug-Free Bulking – Training Tips
- Emphasize the Big-6 movements (squat, hinge, vertical pull, vertical push, horizontal pull, and horizontal push). Throw in some isolation exercises for the muscles that need extra attention.
- There are several exercise options for each of the Big-6 Movements. Use your best exercises and don’t worry if they are different than your favorite fitness influencer (see How to Find YOUR Top 10 Muscle Building Exercises)
- Stay in a range of motion that lets you place a lot of stress on the target muscles without stressing your joints. Don’t worry if this is different than someone else’s range of motion.
- Keep a training logbook.
- Make sure you are getting stronger in the 5-12 rep range while maintaining good form. If you are trying to build muscle without drugs
- Real-world training form is “good”, not “textbook perfect”
- Start with a more conservative training volume (~6-10 sets per muscle group per week - yes I know this is lower than what the research says). If you are getting stronger, and recovering well, but not growing, you can experiment with gradually adding more sets. Do not be afraid to experiment with lower-volume training. It is not for everyone, but it works amazingly for some people.
- Don’t fear rest between sets. Give 2-3 minutes between your big exercise sets (you can rest less for smaller, isolation exercises).
- There are lots of options for training splits (see this video lecture for ideas). Use one that you like, and that allows you to consistently add weight to the bar. Don’t worry if your training split or frequency is different than other folks. When volume is the same, frequency doesn't really matter that much (Schoenfeld et al., 2018)
- Your muscles grow at rest. Make sure you have sufficient rest days. For most drug-free lifters 3-4 times per week works well. However, there are outliers who do better with 2 times per week, or training 5-6 days per week.
- Base all other training decisions on your ability to get stronger for moderate reps. To build muscle without drugs, you will have to get substantially stronger.
- Be patient and give it time. Adding lean tissue to your body without drugs takes a long time!
- Avoid the “more is better” trap. While increasing volume and/or frequency may help you in the short run, taking a more conservative approach will likely yield better long-term gains and reduce your risk of joint problems.
- Avoid program hopping. If you are recovering well and progressing, don’t jump to a new program because you think it will give you faster gains. Save new programs or training styles for when your progress has stalled and you need a fresh stimulus.
- Stick with the basics (see all the above tips). Too many guys get hyper-focused on small insignificant details and lose sight of what really matters.
Drug-Free Cutting – Nutrition Tips
- Understand your goal – you want slow fat loss with minimal muscle loss.
- Don’t do anything drastic! (See aggressive cut extreme above)
- Shoot for around 2g/kg/day of protein. Never cut protein to cut calories.
- Gradually decrease carbs and/or fat to get into a moderate calorie deficit.
- As a drug-free lifter, do not use a keto or low-fat diet. Both low-fat and low-carb diets can cause a drop in testosterone (Fantus et al., 2020, Whittaker & Wu, 2021, Whittaker & Harris, 2022)
- As with bulking, be evidence-based. You want to see a gradual drop in body weight and a gradually decreasing waist measurement. If you can decrease your waist measurement without losing weight that is even better (though it won't happen for long). If after a couple of weeks, there is no change, decrease your food intake a little more. If you are losing more than a pound per week, up your food intake a little.
- Remember that a drastic change (e.g., a fast drop in weight, looking like you lost a lot of muscle overnight) is a drop in glycogen. For every 1g of glycogen you lose, you will also lose 3g of water. Therefore a drop in glycogen leads to fast weight loss and muscles that are noticeably flatter or smaller.
- Be realistic. Getting totally shredded comes at a high cost (e.g., health, sleep quality, energy levels, libido, mood, hormones, excessive muscle loss, etc.). Unless you are planning to step on stage or make your living as a fitness model, your goal for a cut should be to remove the fat gained during a bulk and get to a “lean” not “shredded”. Then you can get back to building muscle.
- Take cutting breaks as needed. If you have a lot of fat to lose (hopefully you don’t if you followed the bulking tips above) or you are burning out, take a break. Go back to maintenance calories and training (this would be training with about 2/3 lower volume and frequency than you used to build muscle).
Drug-Free Cutting – Training Tips
- Your number one goal will be to hold onto as much muscle as possible while avoiding injury or burnout.
- The best way for you to maintain muscle while cutting is likely very similar to the method you found most helpful for building muscle.
- Avoid light weights, high reps, high volume, and short rest intervals. While drug-assisted bodybuilders can get away with this, it likely won’t help you.
- Do your best to maintain your strength. This will help you hold onto muscle. However, know that some strength loss (especially on the big movements) is likely to happen.
- Up your walking. Walking is amazing for health. Outdoor walking is very relaxing while helping your burn some extra calories. In addition, walking is very unlikely to interfere with your training or recovery.
- Experiment with different training strategies. For example, you may find it best to emphasize resistance training at a moderate volume similar to what you used when bulking and up your walking. If you find maintaining muscle is easier, but fat loss is harder, you could experiment with a lower volume of resistance training and include more HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and/or loaded carries.
Bonus tip: Sleep & Chillin'
I know that talking about sleep and rest is boring and you have heard this before. However, whether you are bulking or cutting, sleep is one of the best things the drug-free lifter can do for natural hormone optimization. Poor sleep will increase your cortisol (which leads to muscle wasting) and decrease your testosterone. Better sleep will help you gain more muscle and less fat when bulking. It will also help you lose more fat and less muscle when you are cutting. Adjust your schedule to increase your sleep opportunity. Then, experiment with ways to improve your sleep quality.
Once you have your sleep in order, make sure you take time each day to chill. This doesn’t have to be any fancier than simply lying down for 10-20 minutes and doing some deep breathing with your diaphragm. This will help you reduce stress and anxiety and improve your mood (Hopper et al., 2019, Balban et al., 2023)
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Fantus, R. J., Halpern, J. A., Chang, C., Keeter, M. K., Bennett, N. E., Helfand, B., & Brannigan, R. E. (2020). The Association between Popular Diets and Serum Testosterone among Men in the United States. The Journal of Urology, 203(2), 398–404. https://doi.org/10.1097/JU.0000000000000482
Hopper, S. I., Murray, S. L., Ferrara, L. R., & Singleton, J. K. (2019). Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI database of systematic reviews and implementation reports, 17(9), 1855–1876. https://doi.org/10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003848
Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 131. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2019.00131
Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., & Krieger, J. (2018). How many times per week should a muscle be trained to maximize muscle hypertrophy? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies examining the effects of resistance training frequency. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(11), 1286–1295. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2018.1555906
Whittaker, J., & Harris, M. (2022). Low-carbohydrate diets and men's cortisol and testosterone: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition and health, 28(4), 543–554. https://doi.org/10.1177/02601060221083079
Whittaker, J., & Wu, K. (2021). Low-fat diets and testosterone in men: Systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention studies. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 210, 105878. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsbmb.2021.105878