The fitness world brings a lot of jargon. Lot’s of it is around weight training. If you’re new to the scene you might have heard the terms ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’ being used but have no idea what they mean. Or even if they apply to you. Let alone how to do them. So take a look at our guide to the bulk and cut.
What is bulking?
Simply put, bulking is when you intentionally put on weight, usually in the form of muscle, in order to bulk up. Most people want to build muscle but it can also mean gaining fat. Bulking requires you to take in more calories than you burn. Simply put, by eating more. A usual surplus would be around 500 calories more per day. The next step is to increase the intensity of weight training to build muscle. The extra calories you take in go towards gaining muscle, and usually some fat too.
Sound easy? If you like eating and weight training it’s a process you might find quite straightforward and enjoyable. However, bulking isn’t quite as simple as eating as much fast food and processed food as you like. Neither is it about eating as much protein as you can. The extra calories for bulking should come from nutrient rich foods and include a balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.
However, some people find it can be a challenge to eat enough food to increase body weight. This is particularly true for very active people with a very active job. Or for those who have an ectomorph body shape, meaning they naturally have a very slim frame and don’t carry much fat or muscle.
Right, gotcha. So what is cutting?
Cutting involves reducing your calorie intake below what’s need to maintain your weight in order to lose body fat. You’ve probably heard of bodybuilders getting ‘cut’ or ‘ripped’, which means having very high muscle definition and minimal fat. The result? You can see those abs very clearly.
When you’re cutting you need to create a caloric deficit. You need to consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight. Again, 500 calories a day is a common deficit. You can also increase the amount of cardiovascular exercise you do in order to burn calories. We all need different amounts of calories according to our height, age, metabolism, and activity level. So this exact figure is going to depend on the individual.
Lowering body fat is an essential part of cutting. Doing lots of weight training will help to build the muscle, but without reducing the amount of body fat you have through a caloric deficit, the muscle definition won’t be revealed. For example, the abs might be there but you need to ‘cut’ the fat to see them. For most people, maintaining their hard-earned muscle during this period of losing weight is critical. For this reason, it’s important to cut properly.
Starvation or over restriction is not the way to go. Cutting is about sensible weight loss with a controlled calorie deficit that will result in a lean, healthy physique. Not being so skinny you have no energy to do anything or restricting so much that you can’t maintain it as a lifestyle. It’s also important to keep providing your muscles with a strong stimulus of weight training to encourage the body to retain muscle mass.
What are the benefits to the bulk and cut?
There’s a lot of hard work and dedication involved in bulking and cutting. You’re sticking to a strict diet schedule and regular workout routine. It’s not always enjoyable and certainly isn’t sustainable.
So why bother?
Firstly, the most efficient way to build muscle is by being in a calorie surplus. It’s very, very difficult to build muscle and lose weight at the same time. Building muscle whilst in a calorie deficit is pretty much impossible. Your body doesn’t have what it needs to do the process properly. So that’s the reason for the bulk.
The cutting part is more about the aesthetics. If you want to reveal the muscles you’ve spent time building, and get rid of the excess body fat you picked up along the way, the cutting stage is going to help you do that. Not surprising really, considering it was originally designed by bodybuilders in order to prepare for competition.
Many people swear by the bulking and cutting approach as a seasonal routine. Winter is ideal for bulking up on extra calories, whilst you can cut back on fat in the summer. Bulking and cutting in this seasonal way seems popular with lots of people. Probably so they can feel as confident as possible in their swimwear. But also because mixing things up helps avoid their routine getting boring. If you struggle with motivation the cut and bulk strategy could help you stay consistent throughout the year.
Finally, by bulking and cutting you can also overcome plateaus you might have encountered in your training. This allows you to lift more, gain more body weight, more muscle mass, and experience faster muscle growth.
How long should you bulk and cut for?
The truth is there’s no set amount of time. It will vary greatly from person to person depending on situation and physique. It depends on your rate of fat gain and how comfortable you are with it. Some people might be best bulking for 6 months before starting to lose fat, while others might be able to bulk for years before introducing cutting at all.
Setting a firm time frame in which to bulk up is questionable. It’s tricky to predict how fast you will gain muscle. How quickly you build muscle depends on your genes, how fast your body adds on body fat, the structure of your program, and how well you stick to it. For general guidance, the average person should aim to add about half a pound of body weight a week. So, 2-3 months is often recommended as a good amount of time.
Also bear in mind that you can’t control exactly which parts of your body you’re going to increase muscle mass at the fastest. Muscle growth tends to please itself depending on your body type. Only you know where you want the muscle to go and only you will know if you like the end result. So as much as you might like to bulk for 2-3 months, just remember there are a lot of uncontrollable factors at play.
You can continue the bulking phase for as long as you like until you’ve reached a stage of muscle growth that you’re happy with. You want to make some solid progress before you move on to the cutting stage.
Cutting is a process you can continue for as long as it takes until you’ve lost as much body fat as you want. This can vary depending on your body type, genes and metabolism, and how much fat you’ve got to cut. The time frame however, needs to be realistic and healthy. If you’ve got 10 pounds to lose, don’t aim for a month. Work backwards from how many calories you can cut a day and go from there. It also depends on how often and hard you exercise to add to this deficit. The main point is not to cut too quickly, or you could end up losing muscle instead of excess fat. Undoing your muscle gain would be very frustrating at this point.
Can you bulk and cut at the same time?
Well, it depends what you read. Look online and you will read numerous reports from people who’ve managed to combine cutting and bulking at the same time. And plenty of others who haven’t.
The main argument for being able to bulking and cutting simultaneously is by strictly controlling your intake of protein and carbohydrates. Because carbohydrates are a stored form of energy, they can end up being stored as excess fat if not used up. Protein, on the other hand, is a form of energy the body tends to use immediately. The answer some provide is to hugely reduce carbs and consume as much protein as possible. We’d take this with a pinch of salt, though. A large one.
The other argument says because bulking is dependent on excess calories and cutting is dependent on a calorie deficit, it’s impossible to do both at the same time. It’s also worth noting that most people do not bulk and cut at the same time. Doing them separately will be significantly easier and achieve more sustainable results. This is the recommendation.
Top tips for bulking
If you’re wanting to know how to bulk, here’s some tips to help:
Get your diet right. You can’t gain muscle without eating plenty of quality protein. So think protein, protein, protein. Think quality meat protein such as lean beef, poultry and eggs, full-fat dairy protein such as cottage cheese and whole milk, and plenty of vegetable protein sources such as nut butter, legumes and pulses. A protein shake can also help you out as they add calories and extra protein without you really noticing. Then you need your healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil and nuts. Plus good healthy carbs like sweet potatoes and wholegrain rice. It’s all about the balance.
Use supplements if you must. They’re not essential, but they’re easy, convenient, and they work. If you’re vegan, you’re likely looking into supplements anyway such as Vitamin B12.
Tailor your training. This means mixing up your workouts to stimulate those muscles. They will love resistance training, compound exercises, HIIT and callisthenics such as pull ups and tricep dips. Also schedule a few cardio sessions a week for your overall fitness. Just eat enough calories to cover it.
Sleep and recover properly. Rest each muscle group after training it to reap the full benefits. Muscle gain happens when your muscles are recovering. It’s just as important as working them out.
Top tips for cutting
Of course, you need similar tips for how to cut and lose fat. No problem.
Get the caloric deficit correct. While no foods make you fat by themselves, all food has calories so calculate how much you need each day. Then stick to it. If it’s not working, then your numbers are off. Use apps and calculators online to help you get it right.
Eat when you’re hungriest. The best way to stick to a strict diet is to minimise hunger. Rather than having set meal and snacktimes (e.g. post-workout), eat when you are hungry and listen to your body as best you can.
Prepare mentally. Don’t underestimate how tough this might be. Both bulking and cutting require extraordinary planning, hours of training and meal prep, and iron self-control. Weight loss is not an easy journey either.
Move more. Take every opportunity to be active each day. The more you’re moving, the more you’re burning energy without even noticing. It’s not all done in the gym. Walk more, take the stairs, stand up, and move every hour.
So if bulking sounds like a challenge you want to take on then be prepared to Hussle hard. Then if you’re looking to lose the fat after, cutting is the best next step.