Every day, millions of people ask Google some of life’s most pressing questions, big and small. And I’ve taken it upon myself to provide you with the answers.
Today, I tackle six of the most popular questions on the subject of bulking and cutting.
1. What’s the Difference Between Bulking and Cutting?
The main difference between bulking and cutting is that you gain weight during the former and lose fat during the latter. Bulking describes a training program and diet set up for the primary goal of building muscle. Cutting, on the other hand, refers to a training program and diet geared towards losing fat.
During a bulk, the idea is to increase your calorie intake so you’re in a caloric surplus. This means that you’re taking in more calories than you’re burning off. The end result is that weight – usually a mix of fat and muscle – is gained.
During a cut, you put yourself in a calorie deficit. This means that you’re burning off more calories than you’re taking in, which leads to fat being lost.
2. Should I Be Bulking or Cutting?
If your body fat percentage is 15% or higher (20% for women), make cutting your primary goal. if you’re in the 10-12% range, focus on bulking. The “sweet spot” for gaining muscle while still looking like you’re “in shape” is somewhere between 10 and 15% body fat.
In other words, whether it’s better to bulk up then cut or the other way around depends a lot on you, what kind of shape you’re in now and how you want to look.
Keep yourself in the 10-15% range and you’ll still be able to make great muscular gains while looking lean, strong and athletic. Once you get much above 15%, your appearance starts to suffer.
3. How Long Does It Take to Cut?
That depends on how much fat you want to get rid of. If you’ve got 10 pounds or less to lose, give yourself 2-3 months to do it. Dropping between 11 and 20 pounds will take around 3-5 months. The more fat you have to lose, the longer it’s going to take.
It is possible to lose fat faster. But if you try to cut too quickly, you can end up losing muscle as well as fat.
Keep in mind that fat loss does tend to slow down over time. Put differently, the more fat you lose, the harder it gets to lose even more. Going from 30 to 20 percent body fat, for example, will be faster and easier than dropping from 20 to 10 percent.
Someone who is very fat (think your typical Biggest Loser contestant) will be able to lose fat very quickly when they start dieting – several pounds of fat per week in some cases.
But if you’re lean and want to get even leaner, while simultaneously holding on to your hard-earned muscle mass, you’ll be better off losing fat much more slowly. If you want to go from “lean” to “ripped,” for example, you’re not going to be losing much more than a pound of fat every other week.
4. Can You Bulk and Cut at The Same Time?
Although some people – overweight beginners, those who are returning to exercise after a layoff, very genetically gifted or using drugs – can lose fat while building a decent amount of muscle in the process, they’re in the minority.
While it is possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you’re not going to do so at the same rate.
That is, don’t expect to replace every pound of fat lost with one pound of muscle.
The rate at which you lose fat will almost always exceed the rate at which you gain muscle, and the best you can hope for is to build a small amount of muscle while losing a much larger amount of fat.
Gaining five pounds of muscle might take 3-4 months. But you can lose five pounds of fat in 3-4 weeks.
Rather than trying to bulk and cut at the same time, you’re better off working on one after the other. In other words, focus on either bulking (building muscle while minimizing fat gain), or cutting (losing fat while preserving muscle).
Don’t try to do both simultaneously.
If you spend 5-6 weeks on a smart bulk, followed by 3-4 weeks on a cut, then you’ll have lost fat and gained muscle at the end of the 8-10-week period (which some people might class as “the same time”). But you’ll have done it by alternating periods of bulking and cutting.
This type of approach produces a “sawtooth” pattern of weight gain and weight loss, with the result being more muscle and less fat after several cycles.
5. What’s the Best Way to Bulk up?
The old-school approach to bulking usually involves eating a massive amount of food, sometimes upwards of 5000 calories a day.
But, for most people at least, building muscle doesn’t require such vast quantities of food.
There’s an upper limit on the amount of nutrients you can take in and turn into muscle. If you’re currently eating below this upper limit, then you’ll build muscle faster by increasing your nutrient take.
But once you’ve “maxed out” your rate of muscle gain, simply adding more calories won’t automatically lead to a faster rate of growth.
Once you’ve moved past the beginner stages of training (and assuming you’re not rebuilding lost muscle), you’ll be gaining no more than a pound or so of muscle each month.
If you’re putting on weight a lot more quickly than this, there’s a good chance that more of it is fat than muscle, which is a situation you definitely want to avoid.
If you’ve been training for several years, the rate at which you can gain muscle will have slowed down. So you’ll need to adjust your calorie intake to compensate.
Someone in their first few months of training will be able to gain muscle relatively quickly, and will need a calorie intake to support that rate of growth.
But there’s no point taking in a large calorie surplus designed to support a rapid rate of muscle growth if you’ve been training for five years and simply can’t build muscle that quickly.
Rather than eating too many calories and having to burn them all off again, it makes a lot more sense just not eating them in the first place.
Let’s say that the amount of energy required to keep you alive, fuel activity and synthesize new muscle tissue is 3000 calories per day. But, you’re only eating 2000 calories per day. In this case, taking in an extra 1000 calories will lead to a faster rate of muscle growth.
But just because those extra 1000 calories have helped you gain muscle faster doesn’t mean that twice as many calories is going to result in muscle being built twice as fast.
That is, bumping up your calorie intake still further to 4000 calories per day won’t make your muscles grow any faster.
In other words, there is a muscle-building sweet spot to be found between “not enough” and “too many” calories. Find that sweet spot, and you’ll be able to maximize your rate of muscular growth while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained.
“Training is the actual stimulus while nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth,” explains strength and conditioning expert Dr Eric Helms.
“Nutrition can permit the growth of muscle tissue but it is not the root cause. That is the function of training. All you can do is eat to provide the ideal environment to permit growth. You can train to grow, but you cannot truly eat to grow.”
A far better approach to bulking is the “smart bulk,” which is explained in great detail inside Superior Muscle Growth (one of my favorite books on the subject of building muscle). Rather than aim to simply “get big” and gain weight at any cost, the purpose of a smart bulk is to gain muscle while keeping fat gain down to a minimum.
You’ll still end up building the same amount of muscle as you would have done with a traditional “old school” bulk. But, because you haven’t gained so much fat, the cut that follows is going to be over with a lot more quickly.
6. Does Bulking and Cutting Work?
There’s nothing wrong with splitting your training into bulking and cutting cycles, where you focus on one specific goal – such as losing fat or gaining muscle – at a time. Bulking and cutting does work. But there is a right and a wrong way to go about it.
Here’s what’s supposed to happen…
You spend most of the winter months training like a demon and eating everything in sight.
And sure enough, your weight on the scales, some of which is muscle and some of which is fat, goes up.
Then you go on a cut to drop the fat and reveal all the new muscle you’ve built in time for the summer.
During a bulk, you might put on 20-30 pounds in weight, with 60-70% of that weight coming from muscle. Then, you spend a few months cutting down, stripping away any extra fat that was gained to reveal the Herculean physique that you’ve been working on for so long.
Like I said, that’s what’s supposed to happen.
The reality goes something like this…
During the bulking phase, you gain some muscle. But you also end up gaining a lot of fat as well. In fact, those with less favorable genetics may end up putting on a lot more fat than they do muscle.
Then when it comes to stripping off the fat (which usually takes a lot longer than it did to gain it) you somehow end up losing much of the muscle you’ve spent months gaining. Either that or you realize that most of it was never really muscle in the first place.
You end up right back where you started at the exact same size, having wasted several months of your life (not to mention all the money you’ve blown on food and supplements).
You also need to consider the fact that, with few exceptions, it’s rare to build a decent amount of muscle while simultaneously losing a large amount of fat.
Which means that during a long cutting phase, you won’t gain much in the way of new muscle. It’s time that could have been much better spent getting bigger and stronger rather than losing fat that had no business being there in the first place.
But there’s another problem with the standard approach to bulking and cutting.
A lot of guys start lifting weights because they want to look like one of the cover models on Men’s Health or Men’s Fitness. But when you add 10 or 20 pounds of fat to your body then you’re actually moving further away from this goal.
If you’re carrying around a significant amount of muscle, adding a layer of fat can create the illusion of size, especially when you’re wearing clothes.
People may tell you that you’re looking bigger, which is always nice to hear. And you might feel that warm glow of satisfaction when you step on the bathroom scales and see your weight going up every week.
But what’s the point if you’re just getting fat?
If you spend half the year bulking up and a few months cutting, there will only be a few weeks in the year, usually around July or August, where you actually LOOK like you train.
Truth is, a lot of guys who get bulking and cutting wrong spend most of the time looking like they’ve never seen the inside of a gym, let alone spent any time in one.
To repeat, I’m not saying that having distinct phases of your training where you focus on losing fat or gaining muscle is a bad idea.
Rather, it’s the way most people go about doing it that’s less than ideal.
The main problem with old-school bulking and cutting is that you can only build muscle at a certain rate.
No matter how much food you shovel into your mouth, you can’t force feed muscle growth.
Eating more calories doesn’t automatically translate into a faster rate of muscle growth, and will usually just lead to large amounts of fat being gained.
SEE ALSO: THE FLAT BELLY CHEAT SHEET
If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.
It's a “cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF that tells you exactly how to get rid of belly fat. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.