Do you want to know if it’s better to bulk or cut first?
It’s a common question that many people ask, especially at the beginning of their fitness journey.
In other words, you might be asking whether you should bulk and focus on gaining muscle or cut to lose some of that body fat and then transition into a bulk.
Both bulking and cutting have their advantages and disadvantages. And depending on your current body fat percentage and your training experience, one option might be better than the other.
So, if you’re asking yourself this question, then read this article and find out where you should start!
Jump to sections:
- Bulking vs Cutting: What is the Difference
- Should I Bulk or Cut?
- How To Bulk Without Getting Fat
- How To Cut Without Losing Muscle
- Can You Bulk and Cut at the Same Time?
- Should You Bulk or Cut if You Are Skinny Fat?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Bulking and Cutting
Bulking vs Cutting: What is the Difference
There are two main ways to change your body composition: by bulking or cutting.
Bulking is the process of eating more calories than you burn in order to gain weight. Bulking is accompanied by heavy weight lifting so most of that weight gain is in the form of muscle, rather than fat.
Cutting is when you consume fewer calories than your body needs so that you can lose weight. You will still be lifting weights during this time in order to preserve muscle mass.
Should I Bulk or Cut?
Here’s a simple flow chart you can follow to decide for yourself, whether to bulk or cut.
When to Bulk
Ultimately, you should bulk if all of the following points apply:
- You are not overweight
- You are satisfied with your current body fat percentage
- You want to maximize muscle gain
- You don’t mind gaining some body fat
- You can dedicate 6+ months to bulking
If any of these points don’t apply to you, then perhaps cutting or maingaining (which we will talk about later) is a better option for you.
At What Body Fat Percentage Should You Bulk?
You should bulk if you’re at or below 12% body fat (men) or 22% body fat (women) and are okay gaining some fat in the process.
How Long Does a Bulk Take?
A single bulking phase should take around 6 – 8 months for most people.
It is a long process, but it is the best way to maximize muscle gain.
When to Cut
On the other hand, you should cut if all of the following points apply:
- You are not satisfied with your current body fat percentage
- Your daily caloric intake is not severely restricted already
- You are okay with not gaining much muscle and strength during this period
If you have been severely restricting calories for some time, without significant progress in fat loss, then perhaps a reverse diet would be a better option for you.
Or if you are very new to lifting weights or have stopped going to the gym for a significant period of time, then a form of body recomposition might be the right option for you.
At What Body Fat Percentage Should You Cut?
You should cut if you’re at or above 17% (men) or 27% (women) body fat.
How Long Does a Cut Take?
A regular cut should last somewhere between 8 – 16 weeks or 2 – 4 months. After about 3 – 4 months, your body will start to adapt and it will become harder and harder to continue losing fat without sacrificing muscle mass.
During a cut, you should aim to lose 0.50 – 1% of body weight each week (1). Such a weight-loss rate would minimize the risk of losing muscle mass while cutting.
Recommended Reading: Ultimate Guide: Cutting Diet for Fat Loss
How To Bulk Without Getting Fat
If you want to bulk but don’t want to get fat, this is what you should do.
1. Create a Small Caloric Surplus
First, you should determine your maintenance calories.
You can use a TDEE calculator to estimate your maintenance calories, but note that these calculations are never 100% accurate. You should always take those numbers and then actually track your food intake and weight yourself to see if you’re gaining, losing or staying at the same body weight.
Once you know how many calories you need to eat to maintain your weight, you can create a small caloric surplus.
This means that you should eat slightly more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight.
According to a review of nutrition recommendations for bodybuilders, novice/intermediate athletes should increase their calorie intake by 10-20% (2). The goal is for them to gain 0.25-0.5% of body weight each week.
On the other hand, more experienced athletes should be more cautious and aim for a weekly weight increase half that of novice/intermediate athletes. That would represent a 5-10% increase in calories, and a bodyweight increase of 0.15-0.25% per week.
As you can see, this is a very small surplus.
To this day, people sometimes think they should consume a huge surplus of calories and “dirty bulk” in order to gain muscle mass.
This is simply not true.
You don’t need to eat in a large surplus to build muscle. In fact, doing so will only make you fat.
Instead, you should aim for a small caloric surplus and try to gradually increase your calorie intake over time, as your body adapts and grows.
This is often referred to as “lean bulk” or “clean bulk”.
Recommended Reading: Clean Bulk vs Dirty Bulk – Which One is Best to Gain Muscle?
Maintain a small caloric surplus of 10-20% above your maintenance calories if you are a novice/intermediate athlete and half that if you have more than 3 years of weightlifting experience.
2. Eat a High Protein and High Carb Diet
In addition to eating the required number of calories, you should also pay attention to the correct ratio of macronutrients.
During a bulk, it is important to consume enough protein and carbohydrates to support muscle growth.
Protein is essential for our muscles and has a significant impact on our general health and function. A daily protein intake of 1.6 – 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.7 – 1 gram per pound of body weight per day, is recommended during a lean bulk (2).
In most cases, around 20-35% of calories would come from protein.
To reach your daily protein intake target try to eat around 20 – 40 grams of protein in each meal, and spread it evenly throughout the day by eating 3 – 6 meals a day.
Typically, once you have determined your protein and fat intake, the remainder of the calories should come from carbohydrates. For most individuals, 40-60% of calories would come from carbs.
To learn more about how much protein, fats and carbs you should eat during a lean bulk, check out this guide on how to calculate your lean bulk macros.
Eat a high protein and high carb diet during a bulk in order to support muscle growth. Protein should make up 20-35% of daily caloric intake, while carbohydrates should make up 40-60%.
3. Follow a Proper Workout Plan
In order to continuously build muscle during a lean bulk phase, you should follow a proper workout plan that emphasizes compound weightlifting and progressive overload.
Compound exercises engage multiple joints and muscles groups at the same time.
Some of the best compound exercises for building muscle are:
- Bench presses
- Bent over rows
- Military presses
Doing compound exercises should be the foundation of your workout routine during a lean bulk. They should make up the majority of the exercises you do in the gym.
Isolation exercises, on the other hand, are exercises that only engage one muscle group at a time, such as bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, leg extensions, leg curls, and others. These should be used to supplement your compound exercises, not replace them.
Progressive overload is the gradual increase of tension placed on a muscle over time. This is achieved by progressively increasing the weight you lift, the number of reps you do or the amount of time you spend lifting weights.
Achieving progressive overload is essential if you want to make significant muscle gains.
If you don’t continuously force your muscles to adapt and grow, they will not get any bigger.
Simple as that.
If you are looking for a new lean bulk workout plan check out some of these 12-week lean bulk workout plan examples which you can download for free.
Or if you prefer to build your own workout plan from scratch consider using my Google Sheets workout template. It allows you to build your own weight training plan and keep track of the performance, including sets, repetitions, weight, and total volume.
Follow a proper workout plan that emphasizes compound weightlifting and progressive overload.
4. Pay Attention to Sleep and Recovery
Getting enough sleep is essential for muscle growth as it is during sleep that our bodies recover from the stresses of exercise and grow.
Most people need around 8 hours of sleep per night, although some may need more or a bit less.
In addition to getting enough sleep, you should also focus on recovery during a bulk. Recovery is important as it allows our bodies to repair the damage caused by exercise, adapt, and prepare for the next workout.
If you are not recovered from your previous workout, you will not be able to perform at your best and you may even risk injury.
The level of soreness is one simple test to determine whether the muscle group that you trained has recovered from your previous workout session.
I personally, try to avoid training the same muscle group if it is still sore from the previous session. Instead, I take a day off or train different muscle groups that are not sore.
Make sure to sleep at least 7 – 9 hours of sleep every day. Also, try to wait at least 48 hours before training the same muscle group again.
5. Monitor Your Progress
Aside from tracking your gym performance (weights, reps, sets, volume), take frequent body part measurements, weigh-ins, and progress photos.
All this will also help you assure you are staying lean while bulking.
The ideal weekly weight gain during a lean bulk can differ from person to person but for most people, it should be between 0.25 – 0.50% of body weight each week for beginners, and 0.125 – 0.25% for experienced lifters.
For women athletes, it should be half that percentage amount.
Learn more about this topic in my guide about how much weight should you gain per week when bulking.
Aside from the rate of weight gain, you should also monitor other key body composition indicators such as:
- Body part measurements (arms, chest, legs, shoulders)
- Waist circumference
- Body fat percentage
- Monthly progress photos
By monitoring these indicators you will be able to fine-tune your bulk and make sure you are not gaining too much fat.
If you want to learn more about how to lean bulk without getting fat then check out these 20 tips for staying lean while bulking.
Monitor your progress while bulking, by weighing yourself, taking progress photos, and taking body part and body fat percentage measurements. This will help you ensure that you are not gaining too much fat.
How To Cut Without Losing Muscle
Now let’s cover the main steps you should follow if your goal is to cut while maintaining as much muscle as possible.
1. Create a Caloric Deficit
In order to start losing fat, you will need to create a caloric deficit.
This means eating fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight.
First, you will need to identify your maintenance calorie intake or your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE), using a TDEE calculator and then create a 20-25% calorie deficit.
You can create a caloric deficit either by eating less food or burning more calories through exercise. Or ideally, a combination of both.
Such a caloric deficit should result in recommended bodyweight losses of around 0.5 – 1% per week, as mentioned previously (1).
Create a 20-25% caloric deficit. This can be done by eating less food, burning more calories through exercise, or ideally, a combination of both.
2. Eat a High Protein Diet
Protein is essential for muscle growth and should be a key part of your diet when cutting.
A high protein diet will help you maintain muscle mass and lose fat.
According to studies, a high-protein diet is better than a low-protein diet for retaining muscle when in a calorie deficit (5).
The following are a handful of additional reasons why higher protein diets are more effective when cutting (6):
- Increased thermogenesis (more calories burned processing protein)
- Increased satiety
- Improved body weight control
The recommended protein intake for bodybuilders is between 2.3 – 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass or 2.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight (1).
If you translate that into pounds, it comes to about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
To cut while preserving muscle mass, you should eat a high protein diet. This will help you burn more calories and feel fuller. The recommended protein intake is between 2.3 – 3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body mass.
3. Emphasize Compound Weightlifting Exercises To Maintain Strength
If you’re trying to lose fat without losing muscle, compound weightlifting exercises should be a priority.
These types of exercises engage multiple muscle groups at once and help you maintain or even build muscle and strength better than any other form of exercise while being in a caloric deficit.
As discussed previously, progressive overload is the key to building muscle, so even if you’re not trying to build muscle during a fat loss phase, you should still try to progressive overload your muscles or at least maintain your current strength levels.
Using a workout tracker like my free Google Sheets workout template will help you keep track of your reps, sets, and weights lifted in every workout session.
Focus on compound weightlifting exercises and progressive overload. Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and help you maintain or even build muscle and strength while being in a caloric deficit given that you apply progressive overload into your workout routine.
4. Include Some Cardio Into Your Training Routine
Cardio, cardio, cardio.
It seems like that’s all people talk about when it comes to fat loss.
But is cardio really the be-all-end-all of fat loss?
The answer is: no.
In fact, a proper diet plan that puts you in a caloric deficit is really all you need to lose fat. However, that’s not to say that cardio can’t be beneficial for creating that caloric deficit and helping you lose fat if done properly.
Research shows that HIIT cardio burns the most calories, helping you lose more fat (7, 8). Although at the end of the day it’s best to do the form of cardio you can stick to for the long term, like moderate or low-intensity type cardio.
While cardio does have its health benefits, the main one being the reduction of risk related to cardiovascular health problems, it’s important to do it in the right amounts (9).
Too much, and you risk losing muscle mass.
Too little, and you won’t notice the fat loss advantages you were expecting.
Aim for about 1 – 2 hours of moderate-intensity cardio per week, for example, this could include activities like:
- Walking or jogging on a treadmill
- Using an elliptical trainer
- Using the Stairmaster
- Bicycling under 10 miles per hour
- Playing sports like basketball, football, volleyball
Cardio can be beneficial for fat loss if done in the right amounts. Aim for about 1 – 2 hours of moderate-intensity cardio per week.
5. Get Enough Sleep
Getting enough sleep is important for all of us, but it’s particularly important if you’re trying to lose fat without losing muscle.
Insufficient sleep does not seem to influence overall weight reduction, but it has a big impact on the percentage of fat mass loss (10). So make sure you get enough sleep, around 7 – 9 hours per night, especially if you’re trying to lose fat.
To learn more about how to cut properly, check out my guide on how to lose fat without losing muscle.
Make sure to get around 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night if you want to lose fat effectively.
Can You Bulk and Cut at the Same Time?
A lot of people think that you can either build muscle or lose fat, but not do both at the same time.
However, body recomposition is possible – that is, achieving simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss. “Maingaining” and “gaintaining” are two other phrases that may be used to describe it.
You can do that by simply sticking to your maintenance calories while working out regularly and consistently progressing in your workouts.
I would not recommend “maingaining” to people that are overly overweight or very skinny. Cutting would be more optimal for very overweight people and bulking for the ones that are skinny.
Maingaining can be beneficial, especially for novice/intermediate lifters looking to get their newbie gains and who are not very skinny or overweight.
As a beginner, you are going to build muscle over time whether you are cutting or bulking. The advantage of a “maingaining” approach is that you won’t have to cut later.
It’s easier to build muscle when bulking, but when you will have to cut it will be harder to build muscle while “maingaining” puts you in a sweet spot.
Another group of people who would benefit from such an approach, for a certain period of time, would be those who have lifted weights in the past and are starting out again.
Worth noting, that it is not the most optimal solution for building the most amount of muscle possible over the long term, and over time you will start noticing diminishing returns.
So, if you are new to weightlifting, you could follow a “maingaining” approach for 6 months to up to 2 years. And as an experienced lifter getting back to working out again, you may only benefit from it for 2-6 months from such type of body composition approach.
After that, you will achieve more progress by focusing more on either building muscle or losing fat.
Should You Bulk or Cut if You Are Skinny Fat?
If you’re skinny fat and unsure whether you should cut or bulk, the most common solution is to cut.
This will help reduce body fat and improve muscular definition.
However, there are exceptions if you’re a beginner at resistance training and are simply skinny – in this case, you might prefer to bulk up instead.
The key thing to remember is that everyone’s body is different, so what works for one person might not work for another. That’s why I recommend you check out an in-depth guide on whether you should bulk or cut if you are skinny fat.
Frequently Asked Questions About Bulking and Cutting
Is It Better to Bulk and Cut or Lean Bulk?
It’s best to lean bulk and cut only when you start losing definition in your abs. Such an approach will help you to continuously build muscle mass while keeping body fat levels under control most of the time.
Is Bulking and Cutting Necessary?
Lean bulking and cutting are both necessary for maximizing muscle gain and minimizing body fat levels. But if maximizing muscle growth is not your priority then maingaining could be a better option.
How Long Should Bulking and Cutting Last?
Typically, you would want to spend more time bulking than cutting, as it takes more time to put on lean muscle mass. For instance, in a 12 month period, you could dedicate 8 months to lean bulking and about 4 months to cutting.
How To Cut After Bulking?
If you’re looking to cut after bulking, the first thing you’ll need to do is determine your new caloric maintenance level.
Then, you’ll need to create a caloric deficit in order to start losing weight.
Thereafter, you’ll need to optimize your diet plan and make sure you’re emphasizing weight training in order to maintain as much muscle as possible. By doing all of this properly, you’ll be able to lose weight at an optimal rate and transition smoothly from bulking to cutting.
Bulking and cutting are two of the most common goals for people who lift weights.
Hopefully, this article has helped clear some things up for you and given you a better idea of when to cut or bulk, and how to do either properly.
What have been your experiences with bulking and cutting?
Let me know in the comments below!
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