Take Home Points:
- Always bulk if you are close to or below 8% or 17% body fat for men or women, respectively.
- Always cut if you are close to or above 18% or 28% body fat for men or women, respectively.
- If between 8-18% (men) or 17-28% (women), you can choose either, depending on how lean you want to be in 2-3 months’ time.
- A good cut-off is 13% for men and 23% for women. Cut if higher than this, bulk if lower.
- Lean bulking (200-500 kcal surplus) is enough, more will get you exponentially fatter.
- Bulk by adding calories through animal protein, dairy, eggs, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains. Hardgainers can also add nut butters, fruit juices, pasta and desserts.
- Cut by eating mostly fruits, vegetables, lean protein and saving calories using artificial sweeteners.
- Avoid muscle loss on a cut using a moderate deficit, high protein, lifting, and good sleep.
- Counting calories is useful, but not necessary if you choose the right foods.
- Learn how to eat healthy without counting calories using our Diet Like a Doctor System.
Bulking and cutting phases are a common theme within fitness circles. They might seem foreign to the average person, but they’re quite simple. Bulking means to intentionally eat more to gain weight and maximize muscle growth. Cutting just means to intentionally eat less and maximize fat loss. Cutting is no different than what the average person refers to as dieting down.
Ultimately, at some point you’ll have to do both in order to get the most muscular and lean physique as reasonably possible. This is why advanced lifters don’t worry about scale weight too much. They know to get a jaw dropping physique, they’ll have to go through periods of both weight gain and weight loss.
Anyways, now that we’re clear on vernacular, let’s talk about how to optimize these phases.
When are You Supposed to Bulk?
The best time to bulk ultimately comes down to one factor, body fat percentage. Having too much body fat not only makes bulking difficult, but counterproductive. With excess body fat, chronic inflammation is higher which is also linked to poor anabolic hormone levels (1).
Both of these not only create an environment where muscle growth is difficult, but fat gain becomes easier. During a bulk where calories are abundant, the ratio of tissue gained should be favorable, after all you are intentionally overeating.
For optimal muscle growth and little to no fat gain, low body fat levels are a crucial pre-requisite to bulking.
This ideal body fat range will be different for everybody but should be between 8-15% in males and 17-25% in females. Any more than this, chronic inflammatory markers are high, insulin sensitivity is poor, and thus nutrient partitioning sucks (2). In other words, start a bulk too fat and all you’ll be gaining is more fat.
Setting an exact limit is difficult, but we’d say that 13% for men and 23% for women is a good cut-off, where lower levels make bulking a priority, while higher levels makes cutting a priority. However, this still depends on what type of physique you want in the coming months. For example. If you’re a man at 15% body fat, cutting would usually be a priority, but if winter is coming you could do a bulk to 18% body fat before commencing your cut.
Lean vs Dirty Bulking
Lean bulking is a smarter approach and here’s why. For bulking to be successful, you need to eat in a caloric surplus meaning you eat more calories than you can burn over time. This then begs the question; how big should this surplus be?
A lean bulk suggests a small surplus to minimize fat gain. This is more of tortoise approach, slow and steady if you will.
Whereas a dirty bulk suggests a big surplus to maximize muscle gain by also accepting the consequences of more fat gained. Dirty bulking gets its name because most dirty bulkers eat tons of junk food without tracking to skyrocket caloric intake. This is more of a hare approach.
However, research shows us what’s best. Based on current evidence, dirty bulking doesn’t have much merit (3). With extreme caloric intakes, studies show at best slightly faster muscle growth, but exponentially more fat gained. You’ll have to spend additional time cutting later to lose this fat anyways.
So while you might hear about dirty bulking from many old school bodybuilders, it likely won’t work well for most people. Sure, you’ll get to eat a ton of food and you’ll definitely get big, but it’s not the type of big you’d be proud of.
Therefore, a lean bulk of about 200-500 daily calories above your maintenance is ideal. The tortoise really does beat the hare and you should continue gaining until desired size is achieved or until you exit optimal body fat range.
You might get a little soft towards the end of a bulk, but it’s ok. That’s normal and a quick switch to cutting (as discussed later) will torch off any excess body fat revealing the muscles you grew.
What to Eat When Trying to Bulk
This depends on how hard it is for you to gain weight. Everyone needs to get enough protein, but hardgainers can get away with more nut butters, fruit juices, pasta and desserts, while people who easily gain fat should focus on eating more animal protein, dairy, eggs, fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains.
Even in a small surplus, bulking will allow for much more calories than cutting. This can be tempting to start inhaling a dessert buffet, but for most people that’s not optimal.
Whole food choices that fight chronic inflammation, provide adequate protein, and ensure micronutrient coverage will maximize muscle growth.
Practically speaking though, there are people who struggle to eat enough for an optimal surplus like chronically skinny people and first-time bulkers. Whole foods might be too satiating for this population and thus adding in calorically dense choices should be considered like nut butters, fruit juices, and pasta. Calorically dense supplements can help as well.
When all is said and done, if you can eat a consistent diet that provides enough calories, protein, and vitamins/minerals, muscle growth should be robust assuming training/recovery is also optimal.
When Are You Supposed to Cut?
When body fat is too high! Cutting, also sometimes called shredding is essentially just dieting. We’re now talking about intentional weight loss not weight gain. The most optimal time to cut is the opposite of bulking so ideally you’d begin when body fat is over 18% and 28% for men and women, respectively.
In fact, most people starting their fitness journey will need to cut first seeing as the average person is sedentary and pudgy.
You continue cutting until you reach optimal body fat levels for health/hypertrophy as discussed earlier. Once here, you’ll have appreciable muscle definition. You can then decide to maintain your weight here or switch to bulking to get bigger muscles.
How to Maintain Muscle Mass While Cutting
A suitable caloric deific, protein, lifting, and sleep are most important. When cutting, your body is focused on breaking down tissue. You’re now restricting calories to reach a caloric deficit. On a daily basis, you’ll be taking in less energy than your body burns off aka a caloric deficit.
Muscle loss during a cut can be a major concern, but if you know what you’re doing, this shouldn’t happen.
The 4 keys to preventing muscle loss are as follows:
- Don’t drop calories too low. Big giant deficits below a 30% deficit will cause more fat loss, but also trigger muscle loss especially in leaner people (4). This is why tracking calories is so important. You not only ensure you’re eating in a deficit, but that your deficit is not too low. Just like many things in life, there’s always a sweet spot.
- Keep protein high. The average person eats too little protein. Fitness junkies love their protein because it’s the key nutrient in retaining and even growing muscle during a cut. Getting is 1.6 grams per kg of bodyweight daily is recommended (5).
- Strength train. Lifting weights is the ultimate anabolic style of training. It builds significant slabs of muscles compared to other styles of training and evidentially, what builds the most muscle during bulk will retain it best during a cut (6). Simply put, you can’t afford to not strength train when cutting.
- Sleep. Sleep is quite underrated, but it’s been shown to improve the composition during weight loss. With adequate sleep, you’re more likely to lose fat and less likely to lose muscle (7).
What to Eat When Trying to Shred/Cut
Fruits, vegetables, lean protein and switching sugars for artificial sweeteners where you can. Nutrient dense foods are key to health and as you can see were great choices for bulking. Cutting is deeply similar. These foods are highly beneficial, but with cutting you now are playing a similar game with less resources (fewer calories allowed).
To maximize consistency, you have to learn to manage hunger and thus some choices become more or less crucial based on satiety.
Fatter protein, full fat dairy, nuts, and fruit juice become poor choices despite their health benefits because they provide a lot of calories with disproportionately less satiety.
On the other hand, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein become increasingly important. They’re generally the most filling foods in the world while providing minimal calories. Most fat loss meals should consist of these.
Furthermore, another option to suppress appetite and combat cravings are artificial sweeteners. Research shows they’re safe and can aid in weight loss (8).
Ultimately, you’ll have to adjust the specifics towards your individual needs and preferences. At the end of the day, it’s about staying in a reasonable deficit consistently and managing hunger, so you don’t fall off track and binge.
How to Get Shredded Without Counting Calories
Eating 80% low calorie foods is crucial for this to work. I like counting calories because it helps people be accurate and lets people fit treats into their intake if possible, but practically speaking it’s not always the best strategy for everyone. Many people prefer to eat freely without reading labels and logging food.
The scientific term for this is called ad libitum eating and it’s an extremely viable way to lose fat also.
Remember that the key to cutting is being in a consistent caloric deficit, right? You can do this without necessarily knowing the exact calories you’re eating. While it can be tricky, it boils down to choosing low calorie foods or restricting food groups.
This is often how popular diets like gluten free, low carb, low fat, weightwatchers, etc get you losing fat. None of these diets are particularly special, but rather they get the user into a deficit by limiting food choices or portions.
Bulk and Cutting Through Life
Depending on how closely you want to reach your genetic limits of an ultimate physique, you’ll likely have to go through multiple bulking and cutting phases each year.
A few bulks and cuts likely won’t give you your best body. Ultimately it could take years as muscle growth physiologically slows down with training experience. No worries though, this whole process is a marathon not a sprint. In fact, that’s what kind of makes it fun. Lifting and dieting would get bland real quick if we all could look like Arnold in a couple months.
Do I have to Bulk and Cut?
Doing strict bulk and cut phases can work well if you are looking for a bodybuilder-type of physique after your cut, but you can also get lean and muscular by focusing on proper progression of training, good sleep and setting up your baseline diet with the right foods. Getting a healthy baseline diet that doesn’t make you fat over time can be hard, but luckily we’ve figured out the best way to stay lean using our Diet Like a Doctor system.
Article written by Calvin Huynh