Whether you’re a professional athlete, a casual enthusiast or someone looking to gain muscle — bulking up and cutting down are two important ways to keep your weight in check for optimal performance and stay in shape.
Both bulking and cutting involve manipulating your calorie intake to achieve specific goals. However, these terms have different meanings depending on the context.
Bulking and cutting as weight-loss strategies are used in different contexts.
There is no right or wrong way — it’s all about which approach fits your lifestyle better. In both cases, the goal is to achieve one result while directly opposing it simultaneously.
You can bulk by eating more calories than you need at any given time. In contrast, you can cut by reducing your caloric intake until you’ve reached a level that helps accelerate fat loss with minimal muscle loss.
|Calorie-surplus diet and weight gain
|Calorie-deficit Diet and weight loss
|Muscle maintenance or slight loss
|Improved resistance-training performance
|Potential decrease in resistance-training performance
|Potential for excess fat gain
You can use our daily calorie intake calculator to find out an estimation of how many calories you consume each day. It can also calculate the optimum calorie intake for your specific goal of either cutting or bulking.
What is Bulking?
A bulk is a period of time in which a person attempts to gain weight by increasing their caloric intake above and beyond what their body needs for essential daily functions for an extended period of time.
It is most often done by people who wish to gain weight or add muscle mass.
In simpler terms to gain muscle mass, you need to add additional calories to your diet.
A bulk is sometimes followed by a “cutting” period, in which a person attempts to shed the extra weight they gained during the bulk by reducing their calories.
Bulking is usually done while gaining muscle mass is the main goal while cutting is usually done to shed as much fat as possible while keeping as much muscle as possible.
However, it is not uncommon for people to switch between the two during intervals of weeks or months.
What is Cutting?
In weight lifting and bodybuilding, cutting is a period of time in which a person attempts to shed some amount of fat while minimizing any loss of muscle mass.
As it leads to fat loss, more muscle definition can be seen in people who are going through the cutting phase. The lower fat percentage also leads to well-defined abs or the coveted six-packs that we often hear about.
A person “cuts” by reducing their overall caloric intake and/or increasing their level of physical activity.
Cutting is sometimes followed by a “bulking” period, in which a person increases their caloric intake and attempts to add some amount of muscle mass above and beyond what they currently have.
Cutting is usually done while losing fat while still keeping some level of muscle mass as the main goal while bulking is usually done to gain as much muscle mass as possible while shedding as much fat as possible.
However, it is not uncommon for people to switch between the two during periods of weeks or months.
Can you bulk and cut at the same time?
In specific situations, some individuals may want to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. This process is called body composition.
Everybody wants simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss. However, the rate at which we can achieve this diminishes with training experience.
While this may seem attainable in theory, it’s generally only possible in a few specific circumstances:
- if you’re a total beginner to training
- if you have excess weight or obesity and have a significant amount of body fat
- if you’re on anabolic steroids
The key is your current training levels, whether you are a beginner or not. People with a good deal of training find it difficult to efficiently build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
For a beginner to intentional training and exercise, it may appear achievable.
Should I Bulk or Cut?
This simple flow chart will help you decide whether you should bulk or cut — based on your current body fat percentage. You can calculate your body fat percentage using various methods, if you want a general reference point we have a body fat percentage calculator.
Once you know your body fat percentage approximation — You can refer to the flowchart below to help decide whether bulking or cutting will help you reach your goal.
How to Know If You Should Bulk
You should only bulk if you want to maximize muscle gain and don’t mind gaining some extra fat.
As mentioned above, some people can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but unless you’ve been training for less than six months, you probably don’t fit the bill.
So, assuming you’re okay with that, you should bulk if you’re a . . .
- Man at or below 10% body fat
- Woman at or below 20% body fat
The reasons I recommend getting to a fairly low body fat percentage before bulking are:
If you’re too fat when you start bulking, then you’re either going to have to cut your bulk short or end up with too much fat at the end.
Start your bulks lean, though, and you’ll be able to stay in a surplus for much longer before having to cut, and this means more time spent gaining muscle.
Getting lean before you start bulking makes for shorter post-bulk cuts because we have less fat to lose to get back to our ideal “maintenance bods.”
How to Know If You Should Cut
If you’re currently unhappy with your body fat percentage and you want to get lean before worrying about gaining a significant amount of muscle, then you want to cut.
There’s no reason to get fatter just to gain some muscle if that’s not your primary concern at this point. Do what’s going to keep you motivated.
Similarly, if you’re currently very overweight, then you want to cut. This is the healthiest and smartest choice, even if your long-term goal involves gaining muscle.
If you’re in the middle, however—if your body fat is in a normal range and you like the idea of having abs but also want to get bigger—then whether you should cut is dictated by your body fat percentage.
Specifically, you should cut if you’re a . . .
- Man with more than 15% body fat
- Woman with more than 25% body fat
If you prefer a visual, refer to the flowchart above.
If you follow this recommendation, you’ll . . .
Be happier with how you look because you’ll never “feel fat,” which helps you stick to your diet and training program.
Lose more fat and less muscle when you cut because you won’t have to heavily restrict your calories or cut for a prolonged period of time.
Always Track Your Calories
Always track your calories, regardless of whether you’re bulking or cutting. This is the most important thing you can do to ensure that you are getting the best results from your diet.
You can use a tracking app such as Fat Secret or just by using a spreadsheet. Tracking your calories will allow you to make sure that your intake is in line with your goals, whether that be gaining weight, losing weight, or maintaining your current weight.
If you’re not tracking your calories, then you’re flying blind, which is a recipe for disaster. You also don’t have to be in a “bulking” or “cutting” phase of your diet to benefit from tracking your calories.
Even if you just want to maintain your current weight, it’s always a good idea to keep track of how many calories you’re consuming. You may be surprised to see that you’re either eating too few or too many calories and need to make some adjustments.
Pros of Bulking
The main advantage of bulking is that you will put on muscle mass while gaining minimal fat. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate will be, which means you’ll burn more calories at rest.
With a higher metabolic rate, it will be easier to maintain your current weight, as well as lose any excess fat.
You can bulk at any time of the year, regardless of what time of the year it is. If you are planning a bulk during the winter months when people often gain fat because they aren’t as active, then you won’t add any extra fat.
Pros of Cutting
The main advantage of cutting is that you will shed some amount of fat while minimizing any loss of muscle mass. The less fat you have, the easier it will be to maintain your current weight. – You can cut at any time of the year, regardless of what time of the year it is.
If you are planning a cut during the winter months when people often gain fat because they aren’t as active, then you won’t lose any muscle mass.
Cons of Bulking
You will put on some fat while gaining minimal muscle mass. The more fat you have in your body, the lower your metabolic rate will be, which means you’ll burn fewer calories at rest.
With a lower metabolic rate, it will be more difficult to maintain your current weight, as well as lose any excess fat.
If you bulk during the summer months when people are more active, then you will add some amount of fat.
If you plan a bulk during the winter months when people are less active, then you won’t add any extra fat.
Cons of Cutting
You will shed some fat while minimizing any loss of muscle mass. The less fat you have, the harder it will be to maintain your current weight.
If you cut during the summer months when people are more active, then you will lose some muscle mass.
If you plan a cut during the winter months when people are less active, then you won’t lose any muscle mass.
The bottom line
To optimize the results of bulking and cutting, it may be best to alternate them in cycles.
For example, if you’re initially looking to build muscle size and endurance, you may want to start with a period of bulking.
During that time period, while you may have put on a good deal of muscle, inevitably you will also end up gaining some fat.
At that point, you may start a period of cutting to lose the extra fat you gained while maintaining the new muscle you built. Again you can minimize the muscle loss but there will be some while you cut.
In theory, this cycling method will allow you to gradually gain muscle while preventing you from gaining excess fat.
Bulking and cutting are both viable strategies and can be used effectively by almost anyone. However, it’s also important to note that neither approach is entire without risk.
If you’re struggling with how much or how little to eat, or you aren’t seeing the results that you expected, then it could be a sign that you need to make some changes. Remember, the best diet is the one that works for you.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet, and there is no “right” way to bulk or cut. It’s all about which approach fits your lifestyle better.