Whether you’ve spent a lot of time in gyms, picked up a muscle magazine, or spent some time browsing bodybuilding forums online, you’re probably aware of the basic concepts of what is cutting and bulking. Cutting is also known as shredding, and the terms can be used interchangeably.
Generally, the idea is pretty straightforward; you have gains to make, and to get there, you’ll either aim to cut your body fat percentage or build muscle. But what’s the real deal? How does bulking and cutting work? Is it all it’s cracked up to be? And more importantly, is it the right approach for you and your goals?
Since the glory days of bodybuilding, when superstars like Arnold Schwarzenegger dominated the scenes, they’ve pursued an aesthetically pleasing physique using bulking and cutting cycles.
If you’re new to bodybuilding, or you’re just considering a bulking or cutting cycle for the first time, read on, this article will explore the ins and outs of cutting and bulking, including the pros & cons, as well as foods to eat and avoid.
What is bulking?
Ultimately the idea when you’re bulking is to strategically create a calorie surplus, so you’re eating more calories than you burn. The goal is to increase your weight, which you can then pair with high-intensity resistance training and turn that weight gain into muscle mass.
There are two main types of bulking:
- A clean bulk that is much more rigorously controlled, and you’re only eating lean meats, fruits, veggies, protein, whole grains, etc.
- Or a dirty bulk, which is effectively you eat whatever you want to achieve the calorie surplus that you require, including junk and processed food. This isn’t really the method we would recommend, but if a clean bulk is too strict, you can open it up a bit.
Regardless of the approach that you choose, the goal is to eat more calories than you burn to promote muscle gains.
What is cutting?
Basically, a cut is the opposite of a bulk. You’re eating at a calorie deficit to lose body fat whilst still maintaining as much of your muscle mass as you can. Resistance training still plays a role during a cutting cycle or phase, but you may not be able to achieve the same intensity or at the same weight as during a bulk. This is because of several factors, but primarily due to less energy available (due to less food).
Many professional athletes and bodybuilders will often implement a cutting phase following a period of bulking or if they’re in the run-up to a competition or their overall competitive season.
Now that you know what cutting and bulking are, let’s look at how to do them.
Bulking: how to build muscle
How to get started with a bulk
When getting started, your first step is to understand how many calories you need to maintain your weight. You can use a number of online calculators to help you work this out, but essentially you need to figure out your Base Metabolic Rate (BMR), and this is the rate of calories you burn in a day, just as you are.
To get a calorie deficit, you then add on a 10-20% surplus. For example, a guy weighing 175 pounds would add around 250-500 calories to their daily intake. Usually, when you’re eating at a calorie surplus, your body will be in an anabolic state, meaning it’s in a growth phase, so will be growing new tissue, muscle, and bone.
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From here, you’re aiming for a daily protein intake of 0.7-1 gram per pound of body weight to support muscle gain. Then depending on your preference, the rest of your daily calories are carbs and fats.
To help you keep on track, you may find it helpful to track your intake using a food diary app or something similar.
Weigh yourself regularly to keep track of your progress. You’re aiming for 0.25-0.5% of your body weight gained each week. If you’re not gaining weight, after a couple of weeks, increase your weekly calorie intake by 100-200 calories. Your strength and weight should be slowly rising with minimal fat gain.
To maximize muscle gains, most people will typically pair a bulk with high-intensity resistance training.
A bulk can last anywhere from 1-6 months, or even longer, depending on your goals.
What to eat when bulking
While low-carb diets are popular when it comes to weight loss, they’re not a great diet for bulking up. When you’re in a bulking phase, your body needs the glycogen that is produced by carbs to power your heavy lifts. The insulin spikes that are associated with high-carb intake also play a role in promoting muscle growth, hence why elite bodybuilders will often inject insulin.
Usually, protein is considered the number one macronutrient required for building muscle. Research has shown that your bulking protein requirements are lower than you might think, and as we said above 0.7-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is the highest level where protein intake impacts your body composition during a bulk.
Keep your fat intake moderate to ensure you don’t create imbalanced hormones.
Resistance training whilst bulking
You want to lift heavy and focus on a moderate rep range of about 8-12 reps per set. Plus, compound lifts should be the foundation of your workouts; use moves like the squat and bench press to create your workouts. Then add in assistance exercises and isolation moves to hone in on particular muscle groups. You want to focus on steady progression in your lifting.
How to cut
Similar to starting out your bulk, when starting a cut, it’s helpful to work out your maintenance calories or your BMR so you know how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your weight.
However, unlike bulking, from here, you’ll subtract a number of calories each day to create a deficit, helping to stimulate fat loss. An average active man needs around 2,600 calories a day to maintain weight, but weight maintenance calories can vary between individuals due to genetics, body size, and activity level.
A general rule of thumb is to consume around 500 calories below your maintenance rate, and you want to aim for a gradual weight loss of around 0.5-1% per week so you can maximize muscle maintenance.
To maintain your muscle mass, you want to keep your protein intake fairly high at 0.6-1.4 grams per pound of body weight. Plus, keep going with your resistance training, but be aware that you may not be able to lift as heavy.
In addition to a calorie deficit and resistance training, cutting phases usually will also include some form of cardio to increase calories burnt and fat loss.
Typically, a cutting phase will be shorter than a bulk and last for around 2-4 months. Although you may find that you preserve muscle mass better if you stick to as minimal a cutting phase as possible.
Eating at a calorie deficit puts the body in a catabolic state, where the tissue in the body is broken down. You need to keep your calorie intake below maintenance, but not too low that you can’t function.
Don’t rush weight loss
We can all be tempted to cut corners and opt for quick fixes that will help us to lose weight quickly, but the truth is, the results of diets like these just don’t last. If cutting out certain foods works for you, that’s great, but major lifestyle changes tend to work better when they’re part of a larger plan. Lasting progress takes time; it won’t happen overnight, so take the time to achieve your goals safely.
In addition, you need to make sure that you’re getting all the nutrients that your body needs to stay fit and well.
Focus on exercises that get your heart racing and burn calories
When in a cutting phase, you need to make sure that you’re burning as many calories during your workouts as possible. Make your training as dynamic as possible to keep your heart rate up. Plus, reduce your rest times and use supersets. Cardio and HIIT workouts are great for burning calories in a shorter amount of time.
Also Read: What is dirty bulking?
Don’t let your protein intake slide
Protein is more important when cutting than in a bulk because it helps to prevent muscle tissue wasting. You don’t need to boost your protein intake dramatically, but keeping it higher can be a good idea.
Keep pushing with your strength training
Although your gains might not be as strong, resistance training has been shown to support the maintenance of muscle mass during a calorie deficit. So, you might not be able to lift as heavy or make gains but continuing your strength training is essential to preserve muscle.
Remember, if you’re considering bulking and cutting, ensure you understand the benefits and risks before you get started. Always listen to your body and take it easy.
Cutting and bulking: pros and cons
Both cutting and bulking have benefits, especially when combined with a proper strength training program. However, there are risks and downsides to be aware of.
- Promotes muscle gain
- Increases strength
- Increases bone density
- Allows for recovery from exercise
- Promotes a healthy libido
- May lead to excess fat gain
- Can impact blood values
- It can make you feel sluggish or lethargic
- Can decrease insulin sensitivity
- Can decrease athletic performance
- Promotes fat loss
- Can improve muscle appearance
- May promote improvements in blood values
- Can increase insulin sensitivity
- Enhances athletic movement
- Some muscle loss is common
- Can decrease sex hormones and libido
- May feel hungrier
- Can decrease bone density
- Can impact sleep quality
What is cutting and bulking? Foods to eat and avoid
As we mentioned above, when you’re bulking, it’s best to eat foods that are high in both nutrients and calorie content to promote muscle and strength gains. Whilst some might eat processed, high-calorie foods in a dirty bulk, we don’t recommend those, and you should stay clear.
Foods to eat
- Lean proteins such as beef, chicken, fish, turkey, pork, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, reduced fat cheese, protein powders, bars, tofu, tempeh, and eggs
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butter, fatty fish, and seeds like chia, hemp, and flax
- Beans such as chickpeas and kidney, navy, black, and Great Northern beans
- High-quality carbs, in particular, whole grains such as oats, quinoa, whole grain pasta, rice cakes, breakfast cereals, white and sweet potatoes, and brown rice
- Fruit such as apples, oranges, bananas, pineapple, grapefruit, and berries
- Vegetables such as peppers, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery
- Leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, and kale
- Beverages such as water, seltzer, diet soda, tea, coffee, kombucha, and 100% fruit juice
Foods to limit and avoid
- Highly processed foods such as deep-fried foods, fast food, and full-fat ice cream, plus processed meats
- Saturated fats such as margarine and certain oils
- Beverages such as soft drinks, sweetened coffee, sweet tea, lemonade, and other sugary drinks
Whilst cutting, you’re still aiming to eat foods that are high in nutrients, but you want them to be lower in calories as this will support gradual weight loss, as well as muscle maintenance. You’ll see that there’s a lot of overlap between the foods that you can eat; the difference is in the amount that you’re eating.
Foods to eat
- Lean proteins such as chicken breast, lean ground turkey, fish, extra firm tofu, low-fat cheese, high protein plant-based meat alternatives, low-fat cottage cheese, eggs, and egg whites
- Limited healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butter, and seeds
- All beans such as chickpeas, kidney, navy, black, and Great Northern beans
- Fibrous carbs such as brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, oats, low sugar cereals, rice cakes, and quinoa
- Lower sugar fruits such as apples, pears, peaches, berries, melon, grapefruit, oranges, figs, kiwi, and plums
- Non-starchy vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, carrots, peppers, and celery
- Dark leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, and kale
- Beverages such as water, sugar-free flavored seltzer, mineral water, and unsweetened coffee and tea
Foods to limit and avoid
- High-calorie foods such as pizza, deep-fried foods, creamy pasta sauce, fast food, ice cream, baked goods, and pastries
- High-fat proteins such as fatty cuts of pork and beef, ground chicken and turkey, bacon, chicken wings and thighs, and fatty fish
- Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, iced tea, lemonade, nectars, juices, and sweetened coffee and tea
- Processed foods such as most frozen pre-packaged meals, chips, ham, pâté, salami, packaged cookies and cakes, and packaged ramen noodles
Can you bulk and cut at the same time?
Typically, you would do cycles of bulking and cutting cycles, as when it comes to cutting and losing fat, you need to consume fewer calories than you’re burning, whilst bulking, you need to consume more.
However, your body compartmentalizes nutrients differently, and the way calories are allocated to muscle and fat isn’t the same. This is known as calorie partitioning.
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To build muscle and increase muscle growth, your body needs protein and energy (from calories), but if your protein intake is high enough, your body will get the necessary energy and calories for growth from its stored fat mass, therefore allowing you to build muscle even in a deficit. This is why a keto diet has been shown to increase muscle mass.
However, whilst it’s attainable in theory, it’s only possible in a few specific circumstances:
- You’re a total beginner at training
- You’re obese or have a significant amount of body fat
- You are anabolic steroids
Most athletes will find it difficult to efficiently build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
Why should I bulk and cut?
There are, of course, other ways to lose fat and gain muscle, but there are some advantages to bulking and cutting:
- Bulking allows you to feel full and satisfied
- If you’re not a fan of cutting and cardio, it’s like pulling a tooth out all in one go, you cut for a period of time, and then you can go back to bulking and gaining muscle mass
- Bulking and cutting allow you to cycle your fitness routines and maximize the results for each one.
- You can easily compartmentalize each bit of the cycle and focus purely on it
What are the disadvantages of cutting and bulking?
Of course, you may also want to skip cutting and bulking due to these reasons too:
- You’re almost never at your ideal weight; you’re either going to be chasing muscle gains or fat loss. For a professional bodybuilder, you’d only be at an ideal weight for contest season.
- Rapid weight loss and gain can ruin your health, causing hormone imbalance as well as psychological harm to the dieter
- Cutting means you put on weight more easily later. So, for instance, you’ll find your next bulk cycle after cutting is easier to gain weight
Is bulking and cutting for you?
When you’re trying to decide whether bulking or cutting is right for you, think about your short- and long-term goals. If you’re new to working out and following a structured diet, it might be better to start by improving your diet and slowly increasing your lifting ability before introducing bulking or cutting.
If your goal is muscle and strength gains and you’re not too concerned with gaining a bit of fat in the process, then bulking could be a good choice for you. However, if you’re looking to lose fat and maintain muscle, then a cut cycle may be more in line with your goals.
If you’re unsure, speak to a dietician for their advice.
How to achieve the best results when bulking and cutting?
To get the most out of your bulking and cutting cycles, it may be best to alternate the cycles. So, if you’re looking to gain muscle and increase your strength, you may want to kick off with a bulking phase. Then once you’ve gained a good amount of muscle, you could then cut and lose the extra fat you’ve gained whilst preserving your new muscle.
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