This is an updated version of an infographic I made a while back that you might have seen already.
The "fuel gauge" graphic to the left represents what your current level of fueling might be, relative to your energy requirements as defined on the right. What I've added is the highlighted rectangles.
I've been a little irritated a few times recently to see people who should know better advocating for very low calorie "cutting" diets for females with fat loss goals. Even more so when the suggestion is that the only alternative to extreme calorie restriction is to "bulk first", for some reason.
Bulking and cutting might be required when your goal is to be a massive body builder or to compete in sports at a higher weight class. For people with a fat loss goal, you most certainly do not need to "bulk first" and actually increase levels of body fat. As I talked about here and on facebook recently, bulking & cutting is rarely an appropriate strategy for a female client whether a beginner or a more advanced athlete. At least, not in the context that people usually employ it.
The problems with how people usually bulk & cut:
In theory and when done properly, when bulking you accept that you'll gain some fat as you add lean mass and increase strength, but hopefully the amount is minimal, depending on how much mass you intend to add.
So, for most people that's a period of getting further out of shape before they get to get into shape. Especially if you're a woman reading this, how do you REALLY feel about the idea of getting further from goal condition (aka fatter) before we can get into leaner condition? Not so great right? Psychologically it is pretty hard to deal with, especially when you switch gears to cutting mode and all of a sudden become all too aware of how much more fat you have to lose and how much further you are from your goal condition than when you started. It's that "my god, what have I done?" feeling and it blows.
So that's bulking and you do add lean mass but also fat mass. Then comes cutting, when you restrict as far into calorific deficit as is necessary to lose fat mass. Again, you accept that you may lose some lean mass but ideally the idea is that you lose mostly fat mass and minimal lean mass.
In actuality though... when you restrict further and further into calorific deficit, your body finds it preferential to squander lean mass rather than to draw any more from fat stores than it absolutely has to. Performance at training and Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis is also sacrificed, as you just aren't taking in enough energy to function on.
Now... why this is particularly problematic is that I keep seeing people who know better telling people, and even with audacity to tell ME of all people, that when people are not seeing results in fat loss, regardless of how far in deficit of a sufficient level of energy intake they already are, if they're not seeing fat loss they need to slash intake even further. This is madness.
Further, I'll suggest from my observation that many people's supposed "bulking" period is really just a stint at working to targets that are "barely adequate" as per the chart. So in this situation there's no period where the body actually gets to prioritise putting energy and resources into the muscles and into lean mass where you want them, while drawing more from fat stores. At all points you're only at various levels of "conserve energy and survive as best you can under the stress of this level of activity".
This is why people might do a bulk every winter and a cut every spring, but over the long term they don't really produce any improvements in condition. They just end up back where they started, because they restrict to a degree that does not support an increase in lean mass, assuming they even achieved any increase the previous season anyway which they may well have not.
Basically, you have a period that involves adding fat mass, and a period that involves squandering lean mass. How does that sound like a strategy that is conducive to your condition goal?
You have more options in nutrition strategy than just "bulk or cut".
For some reason, not a lot of people seem to get this, and even more baffling to me, many of them are actually hostile to the concept. However, it's important to understand that just because you are not currently producing any changes in condition, this does not necessarily mean that you are "at maintenance" and that any increase in energy intake would mean "caloric surplus" and be "bulking".
You have better options, but it takes more competence than the average so called "macros coach" appears to possess. Bulk and cut... calculate an amount that's clearly too much and have them get fat working towards that, then calculate an amount that's insufficient at best, and keep slashing further until they develop an eating disorder. Pffft. That's garbage.
Wrapping this up, part 1: Winter Strategy. Performance & Anabolism.
Assume we're talking about serious people who's level of activity is consistent, but who are not seeing improvements in condition. They may be paying no attention to their eating habits & energy intake, or they may have some sort of idea they're working to. They may have habits and levels of energy intake that are consistent, or they may have eating habits and levels of energy intake that are erratic. In any case what we can logically infer is that they do not have eating habits that result a level of energy intake such as is required to produce those desired changes in condition as an adaptation to training.
In a more advanced and experienced athlete with greater amount of time spent active and a greater level of prowess at training, the prospect of over eating other than while deliberately bulking is somewhat implausible. Even in beginners, my observation is consistently that if people are trying to "diet" or "eat clean" or even if they think they are doing IIFYM in accordance with their own estimations or even working to targets they have paid for... they're restricting to a level of energy provision that is insufficient to facilitate improvements in condition.
Our goal is to indulge our passion for training and to enjoy seeing improvements in condition from season to season and from year to year. I'm labelling this the winter strategy but really it's what you should probably start with immediately regardless of the season if you're currently at that unknown, insufficient or erratic level of intake.
As per the graphic, start at a level of energy intake that you'd consider a conservative estimate of what might be adequate to support goal weight, condition, and level of activity. Even if that goal weight is lower than current weight, and even if that level of intake is greater than current level of intake. From here, increase incrementally towards what your equations would determine is the maximal amount you could put to use in facilitating improvements in performance and increases in lean mass without "bulking" or significant weight gain beyond the weight of more food in your digestive tract.
Understand that although energy intake is significantly increased, we expect to see improvements in condition including fat loss.
Wrapping this up, part 2: Summer Strategy.
As per the chart, I'd suggest the above is a logical strategy for the Autumn (aka Fall) through Winter months. Maintaining that level of fueling means the body has had a chance and had resources available to prioritise increases in lean mass and making more energy available in the muscle cells, at the expense of fat storage. Therefore, by Spring you'll be stronger and leaner than you were in when you started... but you're also in a position to now apply a strategic level of caloric deficit to draw further still from fat stores. Rather than restricting to an insufficient level of intake for extended periods and squandering those lean mass gains the way people often do with a conventional "Spring Cut", we should still ensure we are working to levels of intake that are adequate to maintain performance and lean mass, while drawing further from fat stores to make up the difference.
True words often seem contradictory.
You'll best facilitate fat loss and lean condition by working towards more optimal (aka higher) levels of fueling, especially after having survived an extended period in caloric deficit. However, you'll also best facilitate fat loss by working to strategic levels of deficit, having previously established and maintained a more optimal level of fueling.
You do not facilitate best results in fat loss by restricting to insufficient levels for extended periods, and obviously "bulking" in the conventional sense infers fat gain. Your goal is to enthusiastically enjoy and indulge your passion for training, and to see continuous, on going, perpetual improvements in condition.