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The phases of perfecting your physique

Last Modified: September 23, 2022

Sports & Exercise


This post was written by Sami Kauffman, sports dietian, Parkview Sports Medicine.

Creating your ideal physique requires three different stages, combined in different ways. Those stages include mass gain (bulking), fat loss (cutting) and maintenance (strength, transition or primer) phases. Your physique goals will determine how much time you spend in each. When making this determination, you should ask yourself what your main goal is, what type of training supports your goal and what type of nutrition supports that training. You should also  consult with your physician on these questions.

Goal: Increased muscle

If your main goal is increased muscle size, you should consider a mass gain or bulking phase, If your doctor believes this is appropriate for you. Training should include lifting weights in a moderate repetition range. This is supported by a caloric surplus, adequate protein to maximize muscle growth, sufficient fat intake for optimal hormone levels and high carbohydrate intake to support training.

A good rule of thumb for a caloric surplus is to aim for a calorie intake that supports a gain of 0.25-0.5% of your bodyweight per week. This is typically 10-20% over maintenance for most individuals. You can begin at 16 calories per pound of bodyweight and if you are not gaining at that rate increase to 17 calories per pound, continuing until you are gaining at the recommended rate.

As you progress through this phase, your calorie intake will need to adjust accordingly. Macronutrient goals for this stage are moderate protein and fat and high carbohydrate. Calories should be split between the 3 macronutrients as follows:

  • 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight
  • 20-30% of total calories from fat (total calories x 0.3 ÷ 9 to get grams of fat daily)
  • Carbohydrates should make up the rest of your calories (total calories - protein grams x 4 + fat grams x 9. Then divide this by 4 to get grams of carbohydrates.)

When progress stalls, increase calories and recalculate macros.

Goal: Reduce body fat

If your main goal is a reduction in body fat, you should consider a fat loss or cutting phase, provided your physician advises this is appropriate for you. Training should be more dynamic and increase heart rate (decreased rest periods, intervals and super sets can be used) while still lifting with higher repetitions and lower weight.

This phase is supported by a caloric deficit, sufficient protein to maintain muscle mass, increased fat intake and a carbohydrate intake that is high enough to support training volume but still allow for fat loss.

During this phase, your ability to recover decreases and the risk of hormonal disruption is higher. You may need to include some cardio exercise and consider starting small with your deficit. Aim for a loss of 0.5-1% of bodyweight per week. Begin by reducing intake by 10-20% of total maintenance calories.

Protein may be OK at between 1-1.1 gram per pound.  This should be based on your eating preferences. Fat may need to increase slightly in this phase to prevent hormonal disruption. If you  prefer more fat in your diet, keep in mind it is best to remain in the 20-30% range. The remaining calories should come from carbohydrates.

Measure progress using the scale, progress photographs and body composition measures, like a DEXA scan. As progress stalls, reduce intake by 100-500 calories per day using the lower end of the range the smaller and/or leaner you are.

Goal: maintenance

Maintenance phases are necessary to prevent the law of diminishing returns from kicking in. We cannot train harder and longer indefinitely, so we need to periodize our training with lower volumes mixed in. Maintenance phases allow for full recovery and prepare our bodies for the next hard muscle-building block. It allows for refueling and resensitizing our bodies to insulin, while decreasing fatigue and prevent adaptation to higher volumes.

This also helps with muscle retention from our bulking phases and allows the body to adapt to its new set-point. A maintenance phase should be used at the end of a bulking phase as a primer or transition between bulking and cutting phases. It should consist of lower volume strength training and an emphasis on maintenance calories.

Calories should allow your weight to remain steady. Adjust as needed to remain within 1 pound up or down of your weight when beginning this phase on a weekly basis (daily we may shift by more than that as sodium and fluid intakes change). Protein should be at 1 gram per pound of bodyweight with fat on the upper end of the 20-30% range of total calories and the rest of your calories coming from carbohydrates. This phase allows the return of some insulin sensitivity as well as a little relief from high carbohydrate foods paired with lean proteins that you consumed in the bulking phase. It also can prepare you for a cutting phase.

Bulking or cutting cycles should be no shorter than 4 weeks in duration or you likely will not see any results. Effective bulking cycles typically last 3-4 months or longer and you should expect some fat gain along with muscle gains. Effective cutting cycles are typically shorter and should be slow and steady, with the best results seen within 8-12 weeks. In general, you should  spend twice as long out of a cutting phase as in. As you become leaner, the amount of time in each stage may need to vary. A good example of how this could flow would be 4 months in a bulking phase followed by at least 4 weeks of maintenance and then 8-12 weeks in a cutting phase.

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