A: My fitness cycles are basically:
Phase 1: *”Bulk/Build* – When you hear us mention “bulking,” we are referring to this phase of the bulk cut cycle. This is when I eat slightly above maintenance level, and lift as heavy as possible (using splits sessions). I eat above maintenance, because it's needed in order to add on muscle. This is typically when I'll do a program such as STS, that relies heavily on my 1 rep max being figured in. I do minimal cardio, as needed for health purposes (1-2xs/week, sessions around 30 min), but I do not focus on losing weight at all during this time. I do still weigh in on occasion to make sure that I'm not simply getting fat and calling it “bulking” in the traditional, bodybuilding sense, LOL. I still keep the eats fairly clean, add in a bit more carbs than during my “cut” and try to keep the protein as high as possible. During this first phase of bulking, I keep a close eye on my body fat levels, more-so than the actual weight on the scale. If the weight is going up, but body fat is staying steady, I keep going – if it's vice versa, on to the ‘cut' phase, lol. I gain fat almost as easily as I gain muscle, so it's an extremely delicate balance for me… I usually plan for it to last for 3-5 months OR until my clothes began to get uncomfortable, lol. This is why I naturally pick this time of year (winter) for this phase, as I'm dressing in looser fitting layers most of the time, and am not as sensitive (mentally) to scale fluctuations.
Phase 2: *Cut* – I like to start this phase early spring (March/April) in order to be ready for the thinner (and less) layers of the up-coming season. Depending on how clean my “building” phase was, this typically runs pretty smoothly. This is when I begin to slowly (and by slow, I mean s.l.o.w) lower my cals on a week by week basis, and slowly increase the cardio (by replacing split workouts with a few full body/circuit workouts in order to invoke the “cardio factor” into every workout, and adding in extra cardio sessions -early AM/late PM/extra day- as needed). The reason that I do it slowly is because depending on how long this phase will last, I need to be able to continue to adjust with each plateau, so that my results don't stagnate. I like to be able to lose, while still eating as much as possible, and to still have another “trick” up my sleeve, so to speak. I don't get super restrictive with my cals (i.e. going below 1800) or excessive with my cardio (ie more than 3xs/week) until I'm almost at the finish line, so that I don't subject my body to it for more than 2-4 weeks MAX. I never want my body to just adjust and think that's the new norm, because there's no way that I could keep it up, thus setting myself up for failure. So basically, I don't pull my “trump card” too early…
Phase 3: *Maintain* – If all has gone well up until this point (typically around June), this period should be smooth sailing. I pretty much kick back and enjoy the fruits of my labor during this point, knowing that I'm ready for an impromptu trip to the beach or other random event where skin may be involved, lol. This is when I'll enjoy doing any and all workouts, not necessarily focusing on one particular thing. I'll often do splits and full body workouts in the same week (like two splits, one full), and begin to tone down the cardio just a bit (2-3 x's/week, or as needed). For me, it's the perfect time to enjoy some of my workout DVD's that may have been neglected during specific phases. I enjoy trying out Cathe Friedrich's* created rotations (which, in my opinion, mostly seem to geared toward maintenance – with exception to a few, that are more specific to certain phases). They'll typically give me lots of variety, allow me to stay in shape, but I don't have to depend on them to do anything specific for my body other than that. My eats slowly increase back to maintenance level (which is typically slightly higher than it was before, at this point – I re-test it each year by slowly increasing to see what my new maintenance is).
*Cathe Friedrich – You can find more about her DVDs on her website at Cathe.com, or read reviews on Amazon.
Q: Will I not succeed/not build muscle/not lose weight/plateau/fall off the face of the earth, if I don't do your “fitness cycles” or “bulk cut cycles”?
A: Maybe it's time for my disclaimer… So, here it goes:
I'm not saying that everyone wanting to build muscle must do it in the same phases that I do, or even use the traditional “bodybuilding” cut/bulk cycles. After years of trial & error, that is the method that I (Kiki) found works best for me, helps me to put on a good amount of muscle, and (most importantly) is convenient. For my lifestyle, it is just more practical to build muscle, deal with any unexpected “puffiness,” and eat more calorie dense foods starting right around Thanksgiving (convenient/brilliant, huh?). It is also more practical for me to eat less, do more cardio etc. when the weather is warmer, we are having active family outings, my garden is in full swing- so I have lots of fresh fruit/vegetables, and my hens (yes, I really have hens) are popping those suckers (eggs) out by the dozen. In addition to that, there are more clothing layers in cool months, so I can maneuver the clothing enough to look as if nothing has changed – a lot harder to do in warm months where more skin is exposed. I've learned the hard way that FOR ME, attempting to lose weight during the holidays, is equally as futile as trying to bulk during bathing suit season (been there, done that…DISASTER). My body is way too sensitive to the fluctuations/water retention, and it always backfires.
So THAT'S how I chose, and it's made my (and my family's) life much more pleasant. But, if that's not YOUR convenient schedule then you may need your cycles to be shorter/at different times of the year. Maybe you don't want to give yourself that much leeway on the scale, or you have events going on all year round where more “body” is exposed, or you live in a warm/cold climate year round. You can set your goals accordingly. You can stay in certain phases longer/shorter. You could do a gradual body recomposition throughout the year inserting 4-6 weeks dedicated solely to building muscle throughout the year, as often as it can fit, or do one month build, one month cut, etc.. There are many paths, but you SHOULD try to chose one, just walking aimlessly through your fitness journey should no longer be an option.
For more info/ideas on doing a body recomp, check out sites like Lyle McDonald's website, Body Recompostion. He's big on finding your happy medium, and the “bulk a little, cut a little” concept.