Welcome to the realm of fitness where questions like “Should you bulk or cut first” are not just everyday debates but lifestyle determinants. These concepts represent two distinct phases every fitness enthusiast juggle in their quest to sculpt their ideal physique.
Bulking, the phase of intentionally consuming more calories to gain muscle mass, juxtaposes cutting, a period characterized by a calorie deficit to shed body fat and reveal the sculpted muscles beneath. While it might seem like a straightforward cycle, the journey from bulking to cutting is anything but simple—it’s an art, science, and above all, it’s a test of physical and mental resilience.
In this comprehensive guide, we dive deep into bulking and cutting, shedding light on their differences, the science behind each approach, and the effective strategies to navigate these phases to reach your fitness goals.
Whether you’re a gym novice or a seasoned bodybuilder, we aim to help you understand these crucial fitness cycles better, enabling you to make informed decisions tailored to your unique body and aspirations. So, let’s start flexing those knowledge muscles!
Table of Contents
Should I Bulk Or Cut First
For most people, this will be pretty simple to figure out.If you consider yourself overweight and want to slim down, you should cut first.If you consider yourself skinny and want to gain lean muscle, you should bulk first.
The only time this decision isn’t so easy is when you are somewhere in the middle.Should You Lose Fat Before Building Muscle
You should cut first if you’re a man with more than 15% body fat or a woman with more than 25% body fat.You should bulk first if you’re a man with 10% body fat or less or a woman with 20% body fat or less.
Some people prefer having excess weight on their bodies, and if you are one of those people, you can obviously choose to bulk no matter your body fat percentage. Remember, the higher your body fat percentage, the easier your body will retain fat.
What Is Your Goal? Lose Weight Or Build Muscle
The first step is to decide what you’re trying to accomplish.
There are many different reasons that will make someone want to change their fitness habits.
- If you’re overweight and want to slim down.
- You may be on the skinny side and want to build muscle.
- Or you’re in the middle and don’t know if you want to lose fat or build muscle first.
The most important part of creating a fitness plan is first identifying what goal you are trying to reach. Are you trying to bulk (build muscle) or cut (lose fat)?
The answer to this will determine your daily caloric intake, which is the most fundamental factor in creating a nutrition plan, regardless of your goal.
What To Do As A Beginner
A lot of confusion happens when people new to working out and dieting start thinking about bulking and cutting.
Simply put, cutting is when you want to lose weight and create muscle definition, and bulking is when you want to build muscle.
As a beginner, you don’t want to do anything too stressful such as too much of a calorie deficit to lose weight faster or too strenuous of a fitness program to build muscle faster.
Another mistake I see people always make is comparing their results to someone else.
You want to avoid doing this because other people’s genes may be better suited to build muscle; their metabolisms may work faster, allowing them to burn fat better or be on steroids. Trust me, you never know.
The biggest mistake I see people making is thinking eating more calories will make them build muscle or that not eating enough will make them lose weight faster.
Both of these are falsehoods and should never be done.
If you eat more calories than you should, you will only gain excess fat.
If you don’t eat enough while cutting, your body will start to hold on to its existing fat stores, thinking it’s starving.
Can You Gain Muscle While Cutting
You’re going to read and be told by people that you can build muscle while losing fat, but I’m going to tell you right now that this is only possible with people that are absolutely new to weightlifting.
When building muscle, you have to be on a calorie surplus. This means you’re adding 300 to 500 calories daily to your caloric total to give your body the fuel it needs to build muscle.
When you’re trying to lose weight, you have to do the opposite and abide by a calorie deficit so that your body can use excess body fat as fuel.
Can you see why the two are impossible to do at one time?
People will say that as long as you’re lifting, you’re giving your body the means to build muscle, but this is bullshit. If you’re not eating enough calories, you’re not giving your body the means to build muscle.
It really is as simple as that.
Is Cutting Better Than Bulking
This will depend on what your goal is.
Cutting is better than bulking for your goal if you’re trying to lose fat and create muscle definition.
If you’re trying to build muscle mass, cutting is what you don’t want to do.
This is why I first tell you to figure out what goal you want to reach. You can’t put the proper fitness or nutrition plan together if you don’t know what you want to achieve.
How Long Should It Take
This will be different for everyone; genetics and metabolism affect how fast or slow you gain or lose weight and how much effort you put into your workout sessions.
If you are bulking first, you should continue until you attain the lean muscle you desire or become uncomfortable with the amount of fat you have accumulated.
When bulking, you eat a calorie surplus, which will always add fat. How fast this happens depends on your metabolism and the cleanliness of your diet.
A bulking phase could last 4 months, 6 months, 8 months, or over a year. The duration will depend on how fast your body adds fat. I can bulk for about six months before I need to trim back down. Fortunate people can bulk for years before having to cut.
If you decide to cut first, you shouldn’t stop until you reach the desired body fat percentage you were trying to achieve.
What Not To Do While Bulking
Many people think you eat a ton of calories; this will equal more muscle production, which is untrue.
You need to be on a calorie surplus to give your body the extra fuel to build muscle. However, this is generally around 300 to 500 extra calories daily, depending on your metabolism and lifestyle activity.
Excess food won’t make more muscles.
Another awful habit I see people do is focusing on the calorie number they have to hit, not the quality of food they eat to get there.
If you eat a bunch of crap while bulking just to hit your calorie quota, your results will also be crap.
It really is that cut and dry, 2500 calories from chicken breast, eggs, rice, and pork are higher-quality nutrition sources than fast food and processed foods.
Your nutrition plan needs to be made up of whole foods, made by you, so that you can have complete control over how and what you’re putting in your body.
How Do You Cut After Bulking
You’ll make only two changes to go from a bulking phase to a cutting phase.
It would help to change your daily caloric intake from a calorie surplus to a calorie deficit. If you don’t properly do this, you won’t lose weight.
It’s all about calories in and calories out; you have to burn more calories than you eat for your body to burn excess fat stores.
The other change you must make is to start doing more cardio to maintain a calorie deficit.
When bulking, you need to limit your cardio to take yourself out of a calorie surplus.
This is the opposite when you’re cutting; you have to do more aerobic exercises to burn fat, but make sure you’re not losing more than a pound a week, or you’ll start eating away at the lean muscle you worked so hard to build.
What Not To Do While Cutting
Let us get this out of the way; first and foremost, cutting sucks!!!
No one likes being hungry, tired, and unmotivated. Unfortunately, there is no way not to feel some of these symptoms once you have a calorie deficit.
Cutting, however, is a necessary evil if you want to show off the muscles you just worked your ass off for.
How you go about your cutting phase will determine if you keep that hard-earned muscle or lose some of it.
People have a bad habit of going on too much of a calorie deficit, thinking that the more extreme their diet, the faster they’ll lose the fat.
This is somewhat true; you will lose weight in faster increments, but some of that weight will be lean muscle.
You don’t want to lose more than a pound a week; this will keep most losses to body fat and not muscle.
Can You Bulk And Cut At The Same Time
I’ve been involved and witnessed many conversations on this topic, and I’m not sure why it’s unclear to people that the answer is NO.
The one exception is when you’re brand new to lifting. Some people will experience fat loss while building muscle, but this only happens with certain individuals at certain times. Not nearly enough to warrant a yes to this question.
When you’re bulking, you have to eat more calories than you burn; this will always result in some build-up of body fat.
This is why you cut to eliminate the fat you gained from bulking to create muscle definition.
Bulking and cutting phases depends on your daily caloric intake; this makes it impossible to do both simultaneously.
You can practice lean bulking; you eat just enough calories to build extra muscle while adding the smallest fat possible. This takes experimentation while tracking your progress until you find the right amount of calories and exercise.
When doing a lean bulk, your results may be slower, but you’ll never have to go on a strict cutting phase if done correctly.
How To Track Your Progress While Bulking
- You want to gain around 0.10% of body weight per week. For example, a 170-pound person would gain between 0.4 and 0.8 pounds weekly. Remember that your weight fluctuates for many reasons, including water retention, digestion, and time of day. For this reason, when tracking your muscle gains, try to weigh yourself, wearing the same clothes in the morning.
- If you seem to hit a strength plateau, one of two things is happening. You’re either not eating enough calories or not gradually progressing with the amount of weight you’re training with. If you think it’s your diet, add 100 to 200 calories to your daily allotment and see if that helps. If you realize that you haven’t increased the weight or amount of reps you’re doing every week, you need to start. This is how you train your body not to adapt to your routine and stop building muscles.
- You should notice increased strength during your workouts’ 6 to 12-rep range.
How To Track Your Progress While Cutting
- You want to lose around 1% of body weight per week. For example, weighing around 200 pounds, you’ll expect to see about 1 to 2 pounds weekly.
- If your weight loss diminishes, you either need to decrease your calories in intervals of 100 per day until you see results or increase the amount of cardio you do.
- Various tools to track your weight loss include scales, body fat calipers, and before and after pictures.
Body Fat Raises Estrogen Levels
Most people think that women only produce estrogen and men exclusively produce testosterone.
This isn’t true; both sexes produce both chemicals, women produce estrogen at higher levels, and men produce testosterone at higher levels.
Estrogen plays an important role in the muscle-building process in males. It helps with repair and cell regeneration.
The problem is when an individual has too much excess body fat, this will increase their estrogen levels and interfere with their testosterone development, leading to an estrogenic effect in men that will decrease their muscle-building results. This is why men must prevent estrogen levels from becoming too high.
The Importance Of Calories While Bulking And Cutting.
What is a calorie?
Simply put, a calorie is the energy you receive from the food and liquids you ingest.
If you eat excess calories, your body will store the extra energy as glycogen or fat to be used later. Glycogen gets stored in your liver, muscles, and fat cells. Continually eating excess calories causes your fat stores to grow, creating weight gain.
The next step is to figure out your caloric maintenance level. This is how many calories are needed daily to maintain your current weight. Use the calculator below to figure out your daily caloric needs.
This will tell you your BASAL METABOLIC RATE (BMR).
BMR is the number of calories your body needs to perform all its natural functions while at rest—breathing, controlling temperature, digesting food, and circulating blood flow. Even laughing burns calories.
Then I’ll explain what to add or subtract to give you the number of calories you need, whether you’re bulking or cutting.
Now you want to take the number you received from the calculator and follow the directions below, depending on your goal.
If you’re bulking, you will want a CALORIE SURPLUS, which means you will add 350 calories to your total.
If you’re cutting, you will want a CALORIE DEFICIT, which means you will subtract 500 calories from your total.
This formula is very accurate in helping you determine how many calories are needed daily. However, it would help if you still remembered that different genes and metabolisms could cause varied results. If you track your progress properly, you will know if you must tweak your diet.
What To Eat While Bulking and Cutting
Your diet will comprise whole foods consisting of the three major macronutrients: proteins, healthy fats, and carbohydrates.
You need to understand the ratio of each and which types of food to receive.
That amount of information is way too much to get into in this post, so when you’re done reading this, click over to my article called How to Create a muscle-building diet.
Ignore the title; after reading it, you’ll better understand how to create a nutrition plan, whether you’re bulking or cutting.
What To Eat While Bulking
Protein is the most important macronutrient in building muscle; it has all the amino acids your body needs to allow protein synthesis.
You want to aim for 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight, so a 20-pound person would want to eat around 200 grams daily.
Split this up between the 4 to 5 meals you eat daily so your body can digest and use the highest amount of protein for each meal. Eating too much protein in one sitting can be useless because your body can only digest a certain amount.
Fats get a bad rap due to how dense they are in calories, but they are essential for hormone function and balance. Without the proper amount of fat in your diet, your testosterone levels will diminish, hindering your muscle growth.
Aim to get 20 to 30% of your daily calories from healthy fats.
Once you figure out the percentage of proteins and fats, you eat the rest of your diet comprised of carbohydrates.
Carbs also play a large part in hormone production, but most importantly, they are the primary fuel source to energize your workouts.
When you eat carbs, they break down into sugar or glycogen. Rough;y 80% of your workout is fueled by your glycogen stores.
What To Eat When Cutting
Protein helps you maintain your lean muscle during a cutting phase and will also help you stay and feel fuller longer.
You’ll want to aim for 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight; if you’re 180 pounds, you’ll want to eat 180 grams of protein per day.
Being on any calorie deficit for a prolonged period of time will hinder hormone production; one way of countering this is to eat enough fats throughout the day.
Fats will also help you not feel like a lazy piece of crap while dieting.
Aim for 1g/kg of fat per day
Carbs will give you the energy to work out at a high intensity, even while on a calorie deficit.
Aim to eat 2g/kg of carbs per day
In conclusion, the decision to bulk or cut first is highly personal, influenced by factors such as your current physique, fitness goals, lifestyle, and even your metabolic health. If you’re a leaner or a beginner to weight training, starting with a bulking phase could fuel muscle growth and strength gains. On the other hand, if you carry a higher percentage of body fat, cutting first may help you shed the excess before building lean muscle mass.
Remember, both processes require commitment, patience, and a carefully planned strategy that includes nutrition, effective workout routines, and ample rest. Your journey might require several bulking and cutting cycles to reach your desired physique. It’s also essential to seek advice from fitness professionals or a healthcare provider to ensure you’re making healthy choices.
Above all, listen to your body and prioritize its overall health. Whether you decide to bulk or cut first, the path to physical transformation should enhance your well-being, not compromise it. Your fitness journey is just that – a journey, not a destination. Embrace it with understanding, resilience, and consistency, and you will surely see the results you’re striving for.