If you are like most folks in the gym then your training tends to follow an unintentional diet and training cycle throughout the course of the year. Sort of an unplanned bulk, maintain, cut, maintain, but slowly move towards bulk. I think a good portion of this plan is intentional, but environment also plays a key role here. I’m actually speaking of THE environment. As in the weather and the seasons. This isn’t a nature versus nurture article, however and the issue at hand isn’t due to the lack of a plan. It’s more the plan itself that needs to be further looked into. Let’s look at a trainees typical yearly training cycle to see if we can shed some light on what needs to be improved upon.
In the summer is when you look your best. Your vitamin D levels are high as is your testosterone. Your appetite is somewhat suppressed by the heat, and your activity levels are at their highest. This is partly because of the weather and partly because that’s what everyone else is doing. So I guess there are two environments at work after all, but allow me to continue. You’re feeling great about yourself, you’re looking good and you don’t mind showing it off. Everything feels so effortless and you just know that you’re going to keep this fit and lean body all year round. It feels so good to feel so good, so why wouldn’t you?
Until September that is. It’s cooler in the mornings and evenings. For some reason your motivation for having that lean body isn’t as strong as it was when you weren’t wearing as much clothing. That’s just it too. It’s a little cooler outside so you need to cover up a little more, so why not relax on the diet a little and enjoy eating again? Makes perfect sense. We can’t work hard ALL the time.
As fall progresses and the sun starts to fade, things like hearty meals make their annual reappearance. I mean why not indulge a little. Lots of good food will help support all that muscle you’ve been building. You’ve gained 15 pounds in just two months. Great! It must all be muscle, although the mirror isn’t showing that same reflection it was in the summer. It’s probably the artificial light.
Fall turns to winter and it’s pretty much status quo. Your training is in a lull as is your life. The routine of it all is nice and comfortable. Then it’s the holidays. Now is the time to reward yourself for all your efforts. Time to loosen up the rules, and your waistband too. Besides, January is just around the corner and that’s when you renew your intentions at the gym. You’ll get rid of the holiday 10 no problem.
As January turns to February and so on you begin to realize that spring is rapidly approaching. This is the time to really kick your training up to a whole new level. You’ve lost five of that holiday 10 but there’s that 15 pounds you put on in the fall and when you add the five from the holidays that you’re still holding on to, that’s 20 pounds you want to shed to get back to your summer form. Because when you look objectively, maybe the 15 you put on in the fall wasn’t all muscle after all.
This my friends, is what I refer to as the seasonally dictated diet and motivation program. Those that follow this protocol are really only motivated by the summer as it’s the season to show off your body. The rest of the year is spent slacking or preparing. Which means if you follow this plan, you’re only training hard 50 percent of the time. If you’re serious about building muscle and getting fit for the long haul, then you must redefine and refine your approach.
The plan that I prefer to follow is one where my training is of course cycled to take advantage of periods of growth and plateaus, but also one where my body fat remains relatively static. I’m not a big believer in bulking up to build muscle followed by cutting to show it off. You gain too much or lose too much. Either way there rarely seems to be much progress made.
In my experience most of what is gained during a bulking cycle is fat and water. You may believe it’s muscle that’s being built because you’re getting stronger, but in reality it’s a combination of more energy to lift due to the caloric surplus and the cushioning effect on your joints because of the extra fat and fluid you’ve gained. That’s why at the end of the bulking cycle when the athlete cuts the fat and gets to their lean physique, inevitably their weight is the same as the last time they did this whole journey.
Therein lies the problem with bulking up to gain muscle. Even if you do gain real muscle, let’s say five of that 20 was true tissue growth, your calories must be cut to well under maintenance in order to lose the other 15. When all is said and done you’ll be lucky to have kept any gains at all. If you want to make solid gains naturally there’s a couple of realities you need to accept: you aren’t going to gain as much weight, nor get as strong as the bulk up method. You do get to keep your gains though.
It’s preferable to gain moderate amounts of muscle year over year because if you’re training for life as most of us that are dedicated to the gym plan to do, then that is real progress that can be measured in a real way. It may not be as much fun as saying ‘I gained 20 pounds of muscle in three months’ but in reality that 20 pounds is all coming off when it’s time to show the muscle that’s underneath all that bulk.
Revisiting that environmental component again, it’s great to get lean for summer and pig out all winter, but we’re supposed to be athletes and I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Otherwise we’re all just doing what everyone else does, and that my friends is rarely the path to success. Until we meet again,
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