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Should you bulk or cut first? It is one of the most commonly asked questions in the gym today. “Bulking and cutting” goes together with gym life like peanut butter and jelly. This is because you are (almost) ALWAYS doing one or the other when improving your body composition. You could maintain, but how many people are 100% happy with their physique?
The problem with answering the question of 'should you bulk or cut' is that there is no concrete answer as there are so many different variables that need to be taken into account. This bulking vs cutting guide will go through the criteria you need to ask yourself when considering what you want (or need) to do and it'll show you the best way to do it.
If you are unfamiliar with this term, bulking and cutting refers to the strategic process of eating a caloric surplus to gain muscle mass (usually with some fat gain along the way) and then eating a caloric deficit to cut the fat while retaining the added muscle (or at least as much as possible).
The main reason lifters cycle between a bulk phase and a cut phase is to gradually add muscle mass overtime while not accumulating too much fat. You don’t “need” to bulk and cut to gain mass and lose fat, but it is an effective means to manipulate your diet so that you can.
This brings us to the first common problem with bulking and cutting...Ok, maybe not so much a problem, but rather a misconception. “Bulking and cutting” refers to a cyclical process to be practiced for an extended period of time. It seems that many people are always "bulking" or always "cutting". You could do this, but that is generally not what is meant when talking about bulking and cutting. As a bulk without a cut is just gaining muscle or weight, and a cut without a bulk is just losing fat or weight.
Technically, bulking and cutting are supposed to go hand-in-hand. The ultimate goal is to gain muscle while keeping as lean as possible via this cyclical process. This is why you'll hear bulking and cutting discussed in bodybuilding (where aesthetics is the primary focus), but not in general fitness.
The process of bulking and cutting may look like this: 2 months of bulking, then 2 months of cutting, then 2 months of bulking, and so on. That said, there are no hard rules for how long you should bulk and cut. Some people will go 6 months of bulking, followed by only 2-3 months of cutting. It'll depend on how much body fat you gain during your bulking phase, as well as what body fat percentage you are happy with achieving during your cutting phase. And if you've been cutting for an extended period, you may want to consider including a reverse diet before moving into a bulking phase.
The apparent alternative to this process is to just do both at the same time. Duhhh. Add muscle and lose fat at the same time. If it were only so easy.
This theory’s main problem is centered around the concept of energy needed in the form of calories to do either. When discussing the anabolic vs catabolic process, there are a few things to consider. Building muscle is an anabolic (to build) physiological process that requires energy to complete. Burning fat is a catabolic process (breaking down) and requires a caloric deficit, forcing the body to break down stored fat to make up for the lack of energy.
Think of your body as a house and calories as bricks. In order to build onto the house (bulking), you need to have an excess of bricks to get the job done. This means that to bulk, you need an excess of calories to be able to build new muscle. However, if you want to make the house smaller, you need to take some bricks away. This means that you need to eat fewer calories. So the question is, how can you add bricks and take away bricks at the same time?
Most people will say that you can’t. This is not entirely true. There are certain populations who are able to do both at the same time:
Still, it has been shown that even advanced trainees can efficiently complete a body recomposition which we will get into below. However, the fact remains is that following a bulking and cutting regime is much easier for most people to follow and allows them to build muscle while lowering body fat percentage.
By far, the biggest problem with trainees who follow a bulking and cutting regime is not sticking to their plan. A typical example is that a trainee is bulking, but they think they look fat, so they don’t eat so much that day. This causes them to want to cut, but then a week later, they see their massive buddy. They obviously decided to go back to bulking. A week later, they see their other friend who just finished a physique comp and decided that they actually want to cut. What happens is they do neither and remain stagnant in their growth.
This is the same problem as program hopping. For bulking and cutting to work, you need to be consistent and follow the plan for a period of time. You can’t expect to gain any substantial muscle in a week or lose any noticeable fat either. Therefore, when you undertake this process, worry about your own progress and don’t let the situations of other people steer you in a different direction.
It is really dependent on the needs, wants, and training age of the individual. However, the most essential guideline is to just go off your body fat percentage…or how you look in the mirror and how you want to look.
Your average male lifter will be happy below 15% body fat, while your average female lifter will be happy somewhere between 20-25%. This a little higher than other numbers, but keep in mind this is for your average population who just want to feel good and look good but don’t want to stress too much over their diet.
If you are serious about lifting and aesthetics, guys will generally be really happy below 12%, while females will want to drop below 20%. Again, most dedicated trainees can sit at these numbers pretty easily with their training and diet.
If you want to sit below these numbers, then let’s assume that you definitely know what you are doing and don’t need this article.
Still, you need to be honest with yourself and ask yourself a few questions.
Once you know what body fat percentage you want to sit at, that’s your goal. You first need to get to that number before you start. If you want to sit at 15%bf but you’re 20%bf, it makes no sense to bulk up. Cut down until you’ll at about 13% or so and the bulk up.
Still, these numbers can be drastically different for your specific needs. Maybe you are competing in powerlifting, and you want to be sitting at the top of your weight class; use this number instead rather than your BF%.
If you look in the mirror and you have little muscle mass, you need to bulk up. Many trainees (guys and girls) in this group are sometimes referred to as “skinny fat”. A term that means that you’re skinny, but you still have fat folds. In reality, this should be called “skinny with no muscle”.
Too often, trainees in this position go get on the treadmill and follow diets thinking that their muscles will come popping out if they lose just a little more weight. In reality, there is no muscle there to see no matter how much weight you drop. You need to add some muscle, and you’ll be surprised at how you fill out.
On the other hand, if you’re carrying around some noticeable weight, bulking up won’t do you any good (assuming your goal is to become more fit.). Drop the weight first and then work on adding more muscle.
AND AGAIN…this is based on your own goals. You may find guys who swear they will never go over 10%bf while there are a ton of guys whose limit is 20%bf.
So, the primary factor that will control your bulking and cutting is your diet. In terms of the actual foods you should eat during bulking and cutting, they will remain relatively similar, with portion sizes being the determinator. The significant difference is that you will eat more calories during a bulk and less calories during your cut. This fluctuation in calories is mainly controlled by carbohydrates while also addressing some issues with protein.
Before you begin bulking or cutting, you need to determine how many calories you need to be eating to maintain your current weight. The easiest way to do this is to use an online TDEE calculator like this one. You just need to set up some numbers, and it will give you an estimate. However, these are not perfect, so you will need to monitor your weight weekly to determine if you need to make adjustments.
Nutritional strategies for bulking are a bit easier to follow, theoretically. The biggest mistake trainees make when bulking is actually eating too much. While you need to be in a caloric surplus to grow, muscle growth does not increase linearly with the amount of food you eat. This means you can not force feed your muscles! Well, you might be able to an extent, but the ratio of muscle to fat begins to drop significantly. This means you need to gain even more fat for less muscle.
This brings in the two common forms of bulking commonly used; a clean bulk and a dirty bulk—one you should use and one that you shouldn’t use. A clean bulk is merely when you are in just enough of a caloric surplus to give enough fuel to help build muscle while mitigating the amount of excess fat gain. If you're interested in clean bulking, the Vertical Diet may be an interesting option for you, as it encourages eating significant calories of easily digestible, gut-friendly foods.
A dirty bulk is simply eating enormous amounts of food that may or may not be healthy for you. A dirty bulk can pack on some more muscle, but it will also put on a ton of fat. Further, there really is no strict guideline to follow except “eat”.
This is why you should follow a clean bulk (or as close as you can) and aim to be a calorie surplus of 300-500 calories. Again, you should expect to gain 0.6-1.0 lbs of weight every week. Your goal is to pack on pure muscle or as much as possible. However, this will vary depending on the physiology of the individual.
You will want to follow the same basic advice for cutting except for a few caveats. The first is you do not need to eat such a high amount of protein. When bulking, you should be able to get by eating 1.6-1.8 g/kg/d and make up the difference with your carb intake. As far as food timing, follow the same advice as above and eat throughout the day. Then keep the 25% of your total calorie intake from fat and fill in the rest with carbs.
Do not follow a low-carb diet when trying to bulk, and definitely do not use the Keto diet. There is nothing inherently wrong with these diets when used correctly. However, when asking whether you can build muscle on keto or other low carb diets, the answer is that it's pretty hard to do.
These diets are used mainly to lose body fat or maintain weight. Multiple studies have found that trainees can have a hard time gaining muscle on a veto diet even if they are in a caloric surplus. The exact mechanisms are not explicitly understood yet, but, as mentioned above, carbohydrates play a significant role in muscle hypertrophy. Which is what bulking ultimately is.
If you do want to play around with your carb intake during a bulk, you may be able to do it following this 7-day carb cycling meal plan. When carb cycling, you'll have a mix of high and low carb days, and you'll strategically place your high carb days around your toughest workouts.
For the vast majority of people, a 300-500 calorie deficit works well. This range is given to account for the size of people. Obviously, if you are small, you will want to be on the lower end. Even if you are a big guy, if your body fat is relatively low, you’ll also want to be on the lower end. Keep in mind that no matter what, the larger deficit you are in increases the chance of breaking down muscle (aka muscle loss).
Note: Some diets will say some trainees with high bf% can go upwards of a 1000 caloric deficit. This may be true for general weight loss, but if you are following a bulk and cut cycle, do not do this!
A daily caloric deficit of 300-500 calories will equal 2,100-3,500 calories a week. It takes about 3,500 calories to lose one pound of body weight, resulting in a weekly loss of 0.6-1.0 lbs. This is much less than most people are expecting but should illustrate the need to be patient. Further, it shows you why you shouldn’t try to drop “20 lbs In 1 Month!”
When cutting, your nutrition habits become much more important. We suggest you focus on eating these 12 best foods for cutting to help you shed fat and maintain muscle. Nutrition during a cut is essential because your goal is to retain all of your muscle while being in a caloric deficit. This takes some special consideration, and it all revolves around protein and food timing. In addition, these 8 Best Supplements For Cutting can help you burn more fat and preserve your hard earned muscle mass.
Protein is your best friend during a cut. Because your body will want to breakdown muscle while in a deficit, you actually want to increase your daily protein intake. This will provide sufficient amino acids to support your muscle mass while under stress.
The majority of trainees will do well with the upper recommendation levels for protein and stay close to 2.0 grams of protein per kg. of body weight per day (g/kg/d). If you handle these amounts well, you could experiment with even a bit higher numbers.
In terms of nutrition timing, you want to do everything you can to optimize your results. This means that you should aim to divide your protein into 4-6 meals, with every feeding consisting of at least 20g. of protein. Then, eat these throughout the day, eating every 3 hours or so.
The other important time is centered around your actual workout. This is a nuanced subject, but the common thought of an “anabolic window” is not entirely true. Still, you should pay attention to your pre and post-workout meal. If you are eating every 3-4 hours, you do not need to worry too much about a special post-meal but should still try to eat within 2 hours of finishing your workout. This meal could also contain a bit higher amounts of protein of around 30-40g.
Further, protein consumption promotes much higher satiety levels than the other macros. This means you’ll feel fuller for longer, which is important to keep those hunger pains away.
Healthy Protein Examples:
Keep your fat intake (healthy fat) at 25% of your total calories and then fill in the rest with carbs. Keep this simple. The only practice that does seem to help some trainees is to keep a good portion of your carb intake post and pre-workout.
And eat clean. Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.
Healthy Fat Examples:
Healthy Carbohydrate Examples:
If you want to simplify things, you can create a tailored meal plan with Trifecta Nutrition and have your meals delivered straight to your door!
There are two supplements which you can take to help you when bulking and cutting:
1. Protein Powder: Protein powder is merely an efficient way to get your protein in. You should get the majority of your protein from whole foods but having some powder on hand can help. Further, it’s low in calories which can be helpful during a cut as you can get in your high protein amount while minimizing calories.
2. Creatine: Creatine is the most widely studied supplement on the market and most effective. Creatine supplementation will help you build muscle during the bulk while helping maintain muscle during your cut.
3. Pre-Workout: Pre-workout can be helpful for both a cut and a bulk simply because it can give you more energy when it comes time to train! This can mean more calories burned or added volume and intensity for muscle growth.
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The easiest way is to simply track your weight every week. If you are following a progressive resistance training program, this should be a good indicator of how you are doing. If you find that you are losing or gaining either too much or not enough weight, simply adjust your macros.
However, there is more at play here. You also pay attention to:
Again, using a deficit or surplus of only 300-500 calories should be moderate enough to mitigate any of these concerns but just keep these in mind.
It’s not...Jokes aside, a bulk and cut comes down to your diet, not your weightlifting. This is a good time to plug a great lesson you can apply throughout your career.
Use your diet to gain or lose weight and use the weights to build muscle or maintain muscle.
This doesn’t mean that weightlifting doesn’t create a caloric burn. It actually makes a large one. However, what happens is that trainees start to put too much focus on trying to burn more and more calories in the gym, and they lose sight that they should be using a resistance training program designed to maximize muscle gain OR maintain muscle mass.
Using your gym time to create a “caloric burn” is a waste of effort and time. You can control how many calories you eat the entire day, but when else are you going to be able to use a squat rack and bench? Again, you will burn calories at the gym, but this is a secondary benefit after building muscle.
Even still, most trainees actually get this wrong and suggest lifting oppositely in that you should. For example, a common suggestion is to do high reps with low weight when cutting for the “extra calorie burn”. This type of high-volume workout is designed to build muscle which we already discussed as not being your goal when cutting.
During the cutting phase, you are in a calorie deficit, so when you are breaking down your muscle with the high volume, your body has very little stores to support adequate recovery. Not that you can’t use some high volume, but you should incorporate your heavy training with loads greater than 85%1RM. You should then concentrate on using higher volume with a typical program design for muscle hypertrophy during your bulking phase.
This is going to depend on the individual person. For professional bodybuilders or other athletes, their bulking cycle is more of a season. It can last months or during the entire off-season. The year is simply divided into two parts; time to bulk and then time to cut. However, for your average trainee, this is excessive and can lead to unneeded stress.
If you are your average trainee, you should keep your cycles on the shorter end. Other than dealing with massive waves of weight fluctuation, another benefit of keeping your cycles short is to keep you from getting accustomed to them. After bulking for 6 months, some trainees can become too “used” with that mode, leading to more stress when you switch. Keeping your cycles short can help you get into a natural rhythm.
The bulking cycle should last 4 weeks at a minimum. Anything less and you will not be able to notice any gains. Still, the more effective cycle will be around 12 weeks or so. This is adequate time to get your body accustomed to the lifting and put on a good amount of muscle mass. However, some trainees may not like to bulk this long if they are too concerned with gaining some fat. Therefore, your bulking cycle should be around 1-3 months.
The one factor to consider is “why” are you bulking. Are you just trying to be fit and put on a bit of size but want to stay trim? Then you’d be better of using bulks at the shorter end of the cycle. Or, is your primary goal to put on as much muscle mass as possible? You may find that going a bit longer works best for you. There’s really no right or wrong answer if you are happy with the results.
If you didn’t do a dirty bulk, your cutting cycle should be shorter than your bulk. This is because, during your bulk, you put on muscle AND fat. During your cutting cycle, you are only going to be cutting (hopefully) fat. This means that you will be losing less weight than you gained since your muscle will be left behind. That being said, your cutting cycle generally ends once you get back below your desired weight.
Once you are done with a cycle, you have two options.
1) Do it again.
2) Bring your calories up to maintenance level for a little bit and relax.
This is really up to you. You probably won’t need a break after your first cycle, but some trainees will like to relax and just maintain for a while. If you’re on fire, then just keep going.
The most common person to ask this question is a beginner as they are new to lifting and are looking for some good advice on what they need to be doing. In somewhat of an oxymoron is that the same group who asks this question the most needs to worry about it the least. This is mere because this group is the only group who can actually do both at the same time…kind of.
As mentioned above, beginners are completely new to the stimulus of weightlifting, so they should be able to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. Still, they should definitely be able to gain strength as they lose fat.
This being said, the same rules apply concerning the body fat percentages, yet there is some nuance. When you first start training, your focus should be on learning movements and learning the main lifts’ biomechanics. Clean up your diet, and you will definitely become stronger, more muscular, leaner and vascular.
Above, we mentioned how some trainees are able to successfully add muscle and burn fat at the same time. So how do they do it? A high-protein diet. Actually, a very high-protein diet. One of the few studies to look at this had trained athletes consume a diet of 3.4g/kg/d protein and follow a periodized resistance program using compound lifts. The high-protein group increased their fat-free mass, decreased fat mass, and improved their body composition to a greater extent. If you are experienced and want to experiment, then go ahead and give it a shot. Just be mindful that your diet must be consistent.
Bulking and cutting is a very efficient regime to follow for both women and men to follow to improve their overall body composition long-term. Just keep in mind that every cycle you complete gets you a little closer to your goal. It will take some time but you’ll have your dream body sure enough!
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