Is ‘gaintaining’ a thing (and does it work)?
written by Philip Stefanov | JUNE 20, 2023
Gaintaining is a somewhat new ‘trend’ in the fitness industry, particularly for gym-goers interested in building muscle and getting stronger.
So, let’s talk about it.
What is Gaintaining?
As its name suggests, the idea of gaintaining is to build muscle while maintaining the same body fat percentage. To do that, you must eat at maintenance, get enough protein, and train for muscle gain.
In other words, rather than going through the traditional bulking-cutting cycles, you stay on course and more slowly add muscle to your frame without having to diet several times a year.
Is Gaintaining a Thing?
Like most lifters, you’ve probably encountered this dilemma: Should I bulk to build muscle but lose some of my definition, or should I stay lean but not gain any new muscle?
The scenario plays out like this:
You do a cut to lean down, and you’re happy with the result: bicep veins, abs, lines in your quads, and maybe even a vein or two around your upper chest and delts. But then, like any self-respecting gym bro, you decide it’s time to pack on muscle. You’ve done the heavy work and have set up a nice foundation for yourself to add new mass.
So, you bump your calories and enjoy more food, higher energy levels, and better performance at the gym. Life is good.
But then, it happens. You look at yourself in the mirror one day, flex your abs, and they don’t look as defined as before. That bicep vein you were so used to? It’s also not as visible.
Time to freak out. You’re gaining fat. But why? You’re controlling your food intake and eating the recommended 150-200 calories above maintenance. What gives!
Well, that’s just part of bulking to build muscle. You can’t keep your gains 100 percent lean, despite what some people would have you believe. Even if you control your diet perfectly, some of the weight you gain will be fat. This is simply a trade-off we must accept on our quest to building muscle.
Many lifters, especially natural ones, start looking around for better ways to go about the whole thing. Why put so much effort into bulking and cutting when you can’t gain that muscle, anyway? According to most guidelines, intermediate and advanced lifters can only hope to gain a couple of pounds of lean tissue per year, so there has to be a better way.
In other words, why gain 10 pounds in a year to lose 8, and keep 2 when you can be more disciplined and only gain the 2 pounds that matter?
Does Gaintaining Work?
While gaintaining can work for some folks, it's not the most efficient or effective method for muscle gain, especially compared to traditional bulk-cut cycles. Here's why:
- Rate of muscle gain: Gaintaining involves gaining muscle while maintaining the same body fat percentage, which means staying at or very close to maintenance calories. This approach results in excruciatingly slow muscle gain.
On the other hand, traditional bulk-cut cycles involve periods of eating in a calorie surplus to promote muscle growth and periods of eating in a deficit to shed fat. This method allows for a faster rate of muscle gain during the bulking phase.
- Energy availability: Building muscle requires energy which comes from the calories we consume. In a gaintaining approach, you're only eating enough to maintain your current weight, which doesn't leave extra energy for hypertrophy.
In contrast, during a bulking phase, you give your body more energy, fueling muscle gain.
- Training effort: Eating more calories generally means having more energy to push through high-effort, high-volume workouts to create the necessary overload and promote growth.
In contrast, eating at maintenance means you don’t have as much extra energy to ‘work with’ during training and enjoy as productive training.
- Feasibility and precision: Gaintaining sounds good on paper, but the approach demands a ton of precision with calorie management and tracking, given how important it is to stay at maintenance. Doing so can be exhausting, especially for people who aren’t as detail-oriented.
On the flip side, bulk-cut cycles are more sustainable. You have more freedom during your bulk and should be more disciplined while cutting, which allows you to alternate and not feel like your nutrition is taking over your life.
- Motivation and mental aspects: Seeing visible changes in your body can be a powerful source of motivation. For example, if you notice that your arms are getting bigger during a bulk or that your abs are becoming more defined while cutting, you’re more likely to keep going.
With gaintaining, you look pretty much the same year-round, and only meticulous progress tracking (body weight, progress photos, circumference measures, etc.) can help you spot any improvements. Sure, that can also be rewarding, but not as much.
In conclusion, while gaintaining can be viable for some, traditional bulk-cut cycles are the tried-and-true approach that genuinely works.
The great thing is that you don’t have to bulk to a high body fat percentage if you want to maintain a degree of aesthetics. Gain until you start feeling uncomfortable and cut until you begin feeling hungrier than usual and more food-obsessed.
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