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 eight 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 bulking diet, 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. How Do You Get Cut after Bulking?
The main difference between cutting and bulking is your diet. On a bulk, you’re focused on building muscle and gaining weight. To get cut after bulking, you simply reduce the amount of food you eat so that you’re in a calorie deficit.
Set your deficit at around 20-25% below your maintenance requirements. The reduction in calories can come from carbohydrate, fat or a combination of the two.
On a cut, you want to keep your protein intake relatively high. Protein is important because it helps you hold on to the muscle you’ve gained during the bulk. Without adequate amounts of protein, you run the risk of losing muscle along with the fat.
As far as your workouts are concerned, the type of training you do on a cut is very similar to the type of training you do on a bulk.
However, cutting back on your intake of carbs and fat can have an adverse effect on the quality of your training sessions, as well as your ability to recover from those training sessions.
In other words, a hypertrophy training program that works just fine during a bulk (when you’re in a small calorie surplus) may not work as well when you’re in a calorie deficit, and you’ll need to make a few tweaks and adjustments to compensate for the fact that you’re not eating as much food.
The main change I’d suggest is to reduce the total number of weekly sets per muscle group. You can do this by training each muscle group less often, doing fewer sets per exercise, or a smaller number of exercises for each muscle group.
7. How Do You Lean Bulk?
There are two main approaches to bulking, usually referred to as the “dirty bulk” and the “lean bulk” (sometimes referred to as a clean bulk).
A typical dirty bulk involves a large calorie surplus, where the “quality” of the food you eat is a lot less important than simply eating as much of it as you can. On a dirty bulk, your main goal is to put on a lot of weight in as short a period of time as possible.
A clean bulk, on the other hand, involves a smaller calorie surplus, and more of a focus on food quality, The idea is to build muscle while minimizing the amount of fat that’s gained.
And that’s really the key to a lean bulk. You want to keep the size of your calorie surplus relatively small – somewhere between 100-500 calories per day over and above your maintenance requirements.
Maximizing your rate of muscle growth is unlikely to require a surplus larger than 500 calories per day. In many cases, particularly for those who have moved past the beginner stages of training, it’s going to come in at under 250 calories a day.
8. Can You Build Muscle While Cutting?
Body recomposition does happen, in the sense that it is possible to build muscle while cutting. But it’s usually only seen in weight-training newbies with a lot of fat to lose, or someone coming back to exercise after a layoff, where “muscle memory” means that their muscles grow faster than someone who’s just starting out.
There are various calorie cycling protocols out there promising to deliver muscle growth on a cut. But even then, the best case scenario is that you’ll add a small amount of muscle while losing a much larger amount of fat. It’s highly unlikely that you’ll end up gaining a pound of muscle for every pound of fat lost.
Bulking vs Cutting: Final Thoughts
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.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is the nation’s leading authority on science-based, joint-friendly ways to build muscle. A former "trainer to the trainers," he holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.