Transitioning from a Cutting Phase to a Lean Gains Phase
For many the time immediately after their cutting phase be it for a show, photoshoot or a holiday, is a time to relax a little on your diet and training, allow yourself foods you would not normally have during the cutting phase, having them in unmeasured amounts and then stepping on the scales once a week just to make sure you are “getting bigger”. However, like with any sport, the progression of science, monetary rewards and the depth of competition has lead to top level bodybuilders and physique athletes leaving fewer and fewer stones unturned as they do everything possible to gain an edge on the competition. This has resulted in much more attention being paid to the progress that can be made during the offseason and coaches are no-longer only employed by elite athletes solely for that 12-16 weeks prior to a show, but also for the knowledge they can employ during the athletes offseason. The science that is applied at this extreme level of physique development gives principles that also apply to anyone once they have completed their cutting phase.
Following a cutting phase there are two main priorities that should be focused on in order to either maintain or progress your physique development further:
Restoring a healthy metabolism/improving metabolic conditioning
Increase in lean muscle mass/improving weak points
“You’re able to consume all those calories with that little cardio and still able to achieve that condition! You lucky $%@£!”
The above quote is something I have heard many times before and something many of my clients also often hear! Why is it that some people are able to get super-lean with very little cardio and are still able to consume a large amount of calories right up until the end of their cutting phase yet others seem to need to drop all their carbs 4 weeks out and are spending 2 hours a day walking on the treadmill to achieve the same result? Is it really just “luck”? Sure, genetics do play a role, but with time, your metabolic conditioning can be improved dramatically and focusing on doing so with each significant break between cutting phases will mean that each time you diet, you are able to do so from a higher caloric maintenance baseline. Having a higher caloric baseline to start your diet from will give you more room to manoeuvre, make it easier to adjust each time a sticking point is reached and results in your final look being achieved with less cardio and/or a higher caloric intake. I have worked with many clients who have seeked out my services initially for assistance reducing body fat. In many of these cases, due to their prior metabolic health we have had to go very low on the caloric intake as well as incorporating large amounts of cardio. But once they have achieved their desired condition and we spend time working on their metabolism whilst adding muscle mass, the next time they come to diet, say 6 months later, they are able to do so starting with a caloric intake in many cases 50% higher than they started their previous diet with and consequently less drastic measures are required to achieve the same condition.
As you get closer to the end of your cut, your metabolism will begin to fall and hence calories are reduced or cardio increased week on week to maintain the caloric deficit. Resting anabolic and catabolic hormone levels will also become less favourable for fat loss and maintaining/increasing muscle mass. Immediately after the cutting phase, focus should be on restoring these hormone levels, so they become more favourable for muscle building whilst minimising fat gain, as well as on improving your metabolic condition. Whilst the exact protocols will vary from individual to individual and going into the specific details is beyond the scope of this article, reverse dieting through gradual increases in fats and carbohydrates will gradually improve metabolic health as well as restoring these hormone levels.
Calories should be gradually increased over time through increases primarily in fats and carbohydrates relative to weight gain targets. This will allow the trainees metabolism, initially to recover and then, with adequate time and continued caloric increases, begin to improve from its state prior to starting the previous diet. Body composition needs to be monitored throughout, ensuring that weight gradually increases whilst body fat levels are kept in check. Of course some fat gain is necessary when following a caloric surplus, but getting the balance right to maximise possible muscle gains whilst minimising gains in body fat is an important part of the process. At the start of the next dieting phase, the less fat you have to lose the more muscle you are likely to maintain throughout the prep.
As with the cutting phase, careful planning in the lean gains or growth phase is needed to achieve this! Set an initial target of how much weight you would like to add – ensure it is realistic and can be achieved within the timescales. Timing therefore, is another factor - how long are you able to allow the lean gains phase to last? If improving upon your previous metabolic conditioning and/or adding significant amounts of muscle are more important for your long-term goals than looking ripped again 6 months later, ensure you give yourself the time to do so even if this means taking a break from competing or just enjoying the bigger fuller look on the beach next time around! Make sure you then plan for adequate time to diet down though when that next peak date is set. With all this in mind, you can know pretty much exactly how long the lean gains will last and therefore, you can give yourself a long-term body composition target for the duration of the lean gains phase. This target can be broken down into shorter-term targets and progress can be monitored weekly to ensure you are on track!
Now you have your targets in place, how do you keep hitting them? How do you adjust if you are missing these targets? What if weight is going up too quick and too much fat is being added, or what if weight gain stalls? Well, like you would during a cutting phase, you need to make adjustments and the only way you can accurately make these adjustments is by knowing exactly what you are currently doing. This means that even during the lean gains phase, you need to be logging and measuring your food intake. You need to know exactly how much protein, fats and carbohydrates you are consuming so that you can adjust as and when needed.
Of course in the world of the physique athlete or fitness model, certainly at the top level, adding all over muscle mass may not be a priority and therefore, after metabolic health is restored, they may wish to cease the caloric increases to maintain the physique they have whilst making more steady improvements to weak points through training adaptions. This in turn allows them to stay in better condition and have the option of undertaking photo-shoots and other physique modelling work year round. But for many, improving metabolic conditioning and adding more muscle mass take priority. Either way, a carefully planned and constructed lean gains phase that is in line with the improvements you need to make as an individual can make the difference when it comes to improving on your look from your last peak!
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