Episode 61 Transcript – How To Plan Gaining & Cutting Phases In Strength Sports

Aidan Muir (00:09):

Hello, and welcome to episode 61 of the Ideal Nutrition podcast. I am Aidan Muir and I’m here with my co-host Leah Higl. And today we’re going to be talking about how to plan gaining, cutting, and maintenance phases in strength sports. And it’s a bit of a topic we both have some thoughts on, because while there are definitely ways you can do this wrong, there’s also a lot of ways you can do it right as well. There’s so many different ways you can go about it. And we’re just going to try and clarify some thoughts about how we would try and avoid potential pitfalls and also good ways to go about it.

Leah Higl (00:45):

First things first is that it’s really good to identify that long term planning makes sense when we’re talking about planning body composition changes, particularly in a strength sport because of how the sport is usually structured. But in a lot of strength sports, particularly in power lifting, which we both have experience competing in and working with clients in, is that there is a lot of short term thinking when it comes to body composition changes or just generally as part of the sport. So it’s a lot of thinking that eight to 12 weeks leading into a competition, people will be really onto their nutrition and that’s when they might do a bulking or cutting phase, or they start to make plans around that time but it’s very short term. It’s not thinking, what am I doing six months out and 12 months out from that competition?

Leah Higl (01:36):

It’s very much in that short term. The difficulty in this question about kind of, when do you cut, when do you bulk, when do you maintain, really arises with, well, how is your programming even structured? Do you do block periodization where you have like volume blocks, strength blocks, and peeking blocks. And then within that, when would you cut, bulk or maintain to get the best body composition and best performance outcome for you? And another question would be, well, what if you don’t do that kind of programming? What if you don’t follow block periodization? What if it’s completely structured differently? How do you then structure your nutrition around that? How do you work that out? And then the third thing is like, well, what if you don’t even know how your programming is structured? A lot of coaches don’t communicate with their athletes exactly how their plans for the next 12 to 24 months and how their programming is structured.

Leah Higl (02:32):

So how are you even going to work out when you’re meant to do these things, if you don’t know what your programming is in the long term? The biggest issue that we see generally is that not only do people kind of have that short term thinking, is that people just go about cutting and bulking in the wrong stages of… Especially if they’re doing this like periodized kind of training, in that if you have a volume block, post competition, a lot of people will cut during those phases. And if you’re cutting through all of your hypertrophy blocks, all of your volume blocks, are you really ever giving yourself a chance to really get a good bulk in, because ideally when you’re bulking, you want to be doing a high volume as well. So how do you go about that? And then another issue would be if you are excessively bulking into a competition when you’re like doing strength or peaking blocks, is that the best time to actually try to gain muscle? Probably not.

Leah Higl (03:30):

And then on top of that, you have this whole other layer of making weight. Are you the person that leaves making weight to the last six weeks when you’re in your last strength block and peaking block? Is that the best time to be making weight? So there’s definitely a… It’s a really big topic. It really depends on how your programming is structured and what competitions you have coming up in the year. But we’re at least going to try to talk through our solutions and how we tend to approach this with athletes.

Aidan Muir (04:01):

Yeah. So I guess the starting point is really just addressing those problems you kind of identified like, one of them is the obvious starting point is thinking long term. And this sounds basic, but not many people do it. Everyone is just thinking about the next thing coming up and everything like that. And when you think long term, it makes you have to question a few things and be like, well, what will make me the best athlete long term? And I often think that there’s some lessons we can kind of draw from bodybuilders in a way, where it’s like, they just have these periods where just focus so much on the long term being they have this massive off season, they spend heaps of time in a calorie surplus, they might do mini cuts and everything like that and then they only have to get stage lane for their competitions or anything like that.

Aidan Muir (04:48):

Whereas there’s a lot of power lifters who might just stay at the same weight class all the time, or they stay at the same body weight all year round, or there’ll be other ones who do quite a quick bulk at times during late competition prep or something like that. And same kind of thing like that whole thing about cutting during volume blocks and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily think cutting during a volume block is wrong, so to speak. But if you do that every time you have a volume block, that’s when it becomes an issue, because it’s like, well, you are cutting or you’re on the lowest calories when your training is most set up for you to build muscle. And it’s often where you’re also looking to build muscle in certain places and certain address, certain weaknesses and stuff like that.

Aidan Muir (05:30):

And you’re not really feeling you’re training well for that. So it’s like, if you think long term, it’s like, okay, we’re trying to set out programming or everything like nutrition wise up to build muscle long term, lose body fat long term, periodize based on that. And if you do that for multiple years, you probably end up in a better place than if you think short term and you just think about each upcoming competition and then chuck in the weight classes into this as well, where it’s like, well, you’ve got to make weight for each competition. So it’s like, I don’t know, six weeks out from a comp or something like that, you probably want to be at a certain weight, whether that’s just above the weight class or whatever it is that you’re trying to do. But you also don’t want to get weight cut, let weight cuts… Oh, sorry. Weight classes get too much into your head so that you worry so much about getting stuck between a weight class, for example.

Leah Higl (06:18):

Yeah. I love what you said on Instagram the other day in terms of just having that long term plan regardless of weight classes. Just like not taking that into consideration so much. I think that is really helpful.

Aidan Muir (06:28):

Yeah, because there’s certain situations like in say GPC, the weight classes there. For women, I think there’s a 90 kilo weight class and a 110 kilo weight plus or 90 kilo, 110, 110 plus. And what if you were normally sitting around 108 kilos and you wanted to drop a weight class, how long does that take? And is there going to be a time where you’re kind of stuck between two? It’s very likely.

Leah Higl (06:55):

Yeah. And there’s probably going to be many times in your strength training career where you are between weight classes and you will just have to kind of compete maybe in not your long term weight class, but you just compete say a little bit higher, because that’s like the end of the bulk for that year and you just compete in the 82s instead of the like under 75s or whatever it might be.

Aidan Muir (07:16):

Exactly. And yeah, this is always going to be an issue, particularly going up a weight class because gaining muscles a slow process and if you try and rush it like even going from the 75 to the 82.5 kilo weight class, if you go from being just above the 75 kilo weight class and viewing being optimal being just above the 82.5 kilo weight class, you’ve got more than 7.5 kilos to add. If you have like four or five months between comps, you probably don’t want to gain that much in that duration.

Aidan Muir (07:44):

One other thing I’ll add onto that as well is something I see a lot of people do, is they have quite a large calorie surplus leading up to competitions as well because they’re so focused on the short term of, I want to be as strong as I can in my next comp. But that’s where I come back to that kind of body building perspective of being like when somebody knows they’ve got a massive off season, they just try to have a small calorie surplus for most of it to balance that whole ratio of muscle to fat gain because going into a large calorie surplus doesn’t mean you gain much more muscle, just a small bit more muscle, but you probably gain a lot more body fat.

Aidan Muir (08:16):

And we know there’s a pretty strong correlation between having a lot of muscle mass and being a good power lifter and also having a lot of muscle mass within your weight class as well, which probably requires being relatively lean too. So it’s like we still need to keep that focus on body composition as well. And if you focus on body composition over the course of a training career, you probably wouldn’t do many, if any, large calorie surplus phases for extended periods of time.

Leah Higl (08:39):

Totally. I think what I’m going to do now is kind of go over my overall strategy, an approach to working with strength athletes in the most concise way I possibly can. So I would usually approach it in terms of thinking about a 12 to 18 month block. So when I work with strength athletes, I usually work with them for the long term and ideally, we’d be catching up fairly regularly across that time to kind of periodize their nutrition around their training. Ideally, we’re going to know what comps they’re going to be doing for that time period or at least the ones that matter because you’re going to throw… You can throw in comps that are like, okay, maybe you’re not going to get PBs, but it’s just for the comp practice, but if you’re doing states-

Leah Higl (09:24):

Qualifying, yeah. And you know that it’s going to be pretty easy to qualify anyway, but like states, national competitions, we’d already have those somewhat in the books, we’d know roughly when they are and we’d plan around that. The novice and intermediate athletes, going back to the weight class stuff, I really like to plan cutting and bulking phases with the main focus being on what’s going to make that lifter the best lifter possible? What’s best for their body composition and their performance in that long term and not even worry about weight classes at all for the time being? For elite athletes, it makes a little bit more sense that we’d be slightly concerned about more those weight classes because, I mean, there’s probably not going to be hu… By the time you’re an elite athlete, you’re probably not going to make huge changes in your weight.

Leah Higl (10:10):

It’s probably just going to be like, your bulks are going to be super, super slow. Maybe put two kilos on in like an 8, 12 month bulk. So maybe we take it into consideration there because they’re obviously already at the top of their sport, unless the athlete has like a significant amount of fat to lose, most of the year I would spend bulking. So I would plan so most of the year we’re in a slight surplus or maintaining with the focus really being on at least trying to build muscle mass, unless that athlete really does want to lose a lot of weight, in which case we might spend a considerable amount of time in a cutting phase, but that’s really going to depend on the athlete themselves. But generally, no matter your size, I like to spend a little bit of time, regardless, bulking with athletes. I think focusing on building muscle mass, it just… It sounds silly, but focusing on building muscle mass for long periods of time is super important for strength athletes and-

Aidan Muir (11:11):

Even adding onto that, I think that building mass is a huge thing particularly long term, but then also means you get this large period of time where you have just an abundance of energy, an abundance of calories, you’re in a calorie surplus and your training feels better. You’re constantly making good progress and everything like that. It puts you in a position where you get good training in for a long period of time. And that’s also why I like being intentional about it being, okay, let’s just keep a small calorie surplus because that way you keep it more controlled, but you can do it for longer as well.

Leah Higl (11:37):

Totally. And another thing would be being really like, I like reaching out to all the coaches of my strength athletes because a lot of the time like we’ve said, people are not going to have a great idea about their long term programming plans because I feel like just coaches don’t really have that conversation because people aren’t super interested in that.

Aidan Muir (11:58):

Yeah. I’ve also thought about this being like sometimes coaches like… Because we just talked about like, say somebody does that block periodization where it’s like volume block, strength block, peaking block, everything like that and then you go into a competition, when do you cut during that phase? Or when you lay it out like that, it’s a hard question to think about anyway. So I’m like a lot of people… I think a lot of coaches won’t necessarily always be thinking about, when does a cut fit into this program?

Leah Higl (12:22):

Yeah. I mean, they’ve already got so much to think about, so I definitely understand that, but we kind of got to go, okay, well when’s going to be the most beneficial for this athlete to cut? Is it when the coach really wants them to build bigger quads because their squat sucks? Probably not. That probably takes precedent in making you a better lifter, over cutting to make the weight class under. But I would always reach out to the coach and be like, well, what do you think would make this lifter the best lifter possible? And then we’d try to plan it from there. And if they’re in a volume block where the goal is to get bigger, I’m not going to say, Hey, let’s do a cut, where a lot of the times, there can be a large discrepancy between what the coach wants to do with that athlete and then what the athlete comes to us wanting to do with their body composition. So then just getting clear on that and working as a bit more of a team, super helpful.

Leah Higl (13:17):

And then just kind of generally talking about leading into competition, my preference, I know a lot of power lifting coaches and a lot of all the lifting coaches don’t think this way, but my preference is to have the athlete at least six to 12 weeks out from competition at the weight we want them going into that week of comps. So whether you’re going to do an acute weight cut or whether you are coming in just under or at your weight class, I don’t really care, whatever you’re doing is fine, but I don’t want to be in a calorie deficit over that 6 to 12 weeks where that last strength block and that peaking block and recovery is so important.

Aidan Muir (13:57):

Yeah, because the last thing you want going into a heavy squat session is got to be in a calorie deficit 

Leah Higl (14:02):

Exactly. It makes no sense to me and I feel like people always leave it up until the 8 to 12 weeks before a comp to make weight. And I’m like, well, that should have been thought about months ago.

Aidan Muir (14:13):

Yeah. And another thing particularly at a more elite level as well is an idea of like your leverage is changing over the course of a prep. If you drop like 6 plus kilos of fat over a 12 week phase, your positioning when you deadlift might be different. Whereas if you’re already at the weight you’re going to compete at, you can just use the same technique throughout the entire thing.

Leah Higl (14:34):

Totally. I hadn’t even thought of that, and that’s a really good point. But that kind of wraps up, I guess, the main points of things that I’d be thinking about in working with an athlete, an extra kind of strategy I would put onto that is just saying that like DEXA scans.

Aidan Muir (14:52):

Yeah. I wanted to talk about that too, yeah.

Leah Higl (14:52):

Wait, so I actually might let you go through your approach and your dot points and maybe we’ll talk about DEXA scans after.

Aidan Muir (14:58):

Oh, yeah. I was just going to jump into the DEXA scans thing. I just like the idea of using them between every phase. I like the idea of using them every time you go into a calorie surplus intentionally, every time you go into a calorie deficit, as long as it’s for a decent period of time, I like the idea of only really using them when there is going to be a significant change. But I think it should guide our long term planning a lot because we know over the course of a training career, at the start of a training career, it is easier to build muscle. Towards the end of a training career, it’s harder to build muscle as you get closer to whatever your potential is, it’s harder to build muscle. And how do we determine how fast somebody should or how large a calorie surplus should be or how long somebody should bulk for, how fast they should bulk.

Aidan Muir (15:40):

It’s really just based on their ability to gain muscle. If somebody, not possible, but if somebody could gain a kilo of muscle per week, every week, we’d gain it one kilo per week.

Aidan Muir (15:50):

That’d be great, but obviously, it’s going to be slower than that. But how do we just determine how slow? As you talked about, like maybe somebody would gain like two kilos over six months or something like that. If somebody was able to go quicker, we can kind of identify that with a DEXA scan. If somebody gains five kilos over a bulking phase and say more than half of it is body fat, we probably went too quick. And the same kind of thing with a cutting phase where we can identify, did we lose a bunch of muscle? Did we not lose muscle? Did we gain muscle? What did we do?

Aidan Muir (16:19):

And I also think that comes in with training and stuff like that because something that’s really worth being aware of is pretty much every power lift I see has some form of injury niggle or something like that. It’s very rare for me to come across somebody who’s like, yeah, I just feel great. Nobody feels good right now. And that gives us some information where it’s like, okay, well we probably need to train through some level of pain to be a good power lifter, most likely. But it’s like, how much do we try enter all of these kind of things? And DEXA scans can fit into that as well, being like, if you go through a calorie surplus phase while you have a lot of niggles and you don’t really gain that much muscle, maybe you should reevaluate how you’re going about that as well and how that fits in. And yeah, same thing with cutting and everything like that. I think it just gives us a lot of useful information that we can use.

Leah Higl (17:05):

Yeah. Having data to work off can really allow you to individualize your next bulking/cutting phases to you personally and just make them the most… You just get the most out of them that you possibly can. And just talking about bulking, if I see someone’s DEXA scan come back after like a six month bulk and they have a ratio that’s like… I work off the two to one ratio kind of method in terms of, I want two parts of that weight gain to be muscle and one part to be fat. And I feel like that’s a pretty good sweet spot for most people in terms of, okay, we’ve at least optimized muscle gain but we’ve not gained a huge amount of fat in that process enough to kind of cut off the other end. If people are like a one to one ratio then yeah, we’ve gone a little bit too quick and we can slow that down. And whilst we try to like take everything about that athlete into consideration, when we pick that calorie surplus, we never know how someone is going to respond until we actually work with them.

Leah Higl (18:10):

My preference is to have maintenance phases between cutting and bulking. Again, I know that’s not everyone’s preference, not every dietician or coach is going to think the same way, but I think just generally it makes sense from the fact that if you’re going from a surplus to a deficit, that can seem like a huge change in calorie intake. So it’s more of an issue for athletes who struggle with weight cuts mentally or hunger wise, like just having a bit of a maintenance phase in between can just break it up and make it not feel like such a drastic change overall.

Leah Higl (18:45):

And then going straight from a deficit to a surplus, I think that can just end up in being like, oh, I’m not cutting anymore, I’m bulking, I can go crazy and then they just go into accidentally too big of a surplus and end up gaining fat quite rapidly after we’ve just spent time getting body fat off of them. So again, I think a maintenance phase purposely put there for like two to four-ish weeks can make a lot of sense, or maybe even a bit longer, depending on the training cycle of that athlete and the individual. And then I’ve actually… I’ve heard with Barbell Medicine a few months ago, talking about this and they…

Leah Higl (19:24):

I don’t know how true this is, I couldn’t… They didn’t cite any research, but moving from a deficit to a surplus, is your body more primed to put on body fat after a deficit than if you’re moving from maintenance to a surplus? I feel like Barbell Medicine is a pretty good source being doctors, but it’s something I think about in terms of, well, I don’t want to… If they are primed for putting on body fat after a deficit, I can’t hurt to wait two to four weeks to go into a bulk.

Aidan Muir (19:55):

Yeah. So it’s not something I often do, there’s some situations where I will do that maintenance phase in the middle, particularly if somebody… I think it’s more so if somebody is really good at controlling their weight, so to speak, as in they never have any issues where that accidentally.

Aidan Muir (20:10):

Getting quicker or whatever, then I’m super comfortable just going straight back into a surplus. And like with the fat gain aspect, it’s like it’s one of the things that may or may not necessarily be true, but ideally we have such a small surplus that doesn’t… Or such a controlled surplus that it doesn’t matter being like, well, you’re not going to gain a bunch anyway.

Leah Higl (20:25):

I’d say it’s more like less that you are primed to put body fat back on with that surplus and more that like your hunger cues are increased and your desire to eat is increased and that can cause the surplus to be bigger.

Leah Higl (20:38):

So I think that there’s definitely more of an argument to be made there.

Aidan Muir (20:41):

Yeah, for sure. That makes sense to me. Yeah.

Leah Higl (20:47):

All right. Sweet. So this has been episode 61 of the Ideal Nutrition podcast. We’d love if you could leave a rating or review, but otherwise thanks for tuning in.