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Bulking and cutting are terms that get thrown around casually in the fitness universe, but where should you start? Should you bulk first and then cut? Should you cut first and then bulk? Can you do both at the same time? More important, is there a right way to approach bulking and cutting, and are they something you should even attempt?
Before we answer these questions, let’s see if we can get clear on some of the definitions and realities around these two terms. “Bulking” and “cutting” are shorthand terms for adding muscle and losing body fat, respectively. Neither of these are easy to do, and they are completely opposite states for your body to be in. It is a physiological fact that you have to be in a calorie surplus to add mass (muscle) to your body, just like you have to be in a calorie deficit to subtract mass (fat) from your body.
Should You Bulk First, or Should You Cut?
As with so many things in fitness, it depends. Let’s say you go to the gym and lift regularly and heavy, but you’re carrying about 20 or more pounds of extra body fat. In this scenario, focusing on cutting first would be beneficial for two reasons. First, shedding body fat would reveal the muscles you already have, and second, the cut would prime your body to bulk when you’re ready to do so. For an even more accurate assessment of whether you should cut, use body-fat percentage as your guide. If you are more than 25 percent body fat, you’ll do better starting with a cut first.
By contrast, if you’re already on the lean side and you know you want to add muscle or you don’t have much muscle and you want to start lifting heavier, it would be better to start with a bulk. You can start adding muscle to what you already have, and if you’re upping the intensity of your workouts, your body will need the extra calories of a bulk for recovery and repair. Using body-fat percentage as your guide, start with a bulk if you are less than 20 percent.
If you are a normal weight and have experience lifting heavy or you are between 20 and 25 percent body fat, then you can choose which will get you to your ultimate goal. For example, if you are 22 percent body fat and just want to get lean enough to see your abs, start with a cut. But if you want to do a physique competition in the next six to 12 months or you want to start adding heavier lifts to your training routine, a bulk will serve you better.
Moderation Is Key
Because bulking and cutting involve placing your body in either a calorie surplus or calorie deficit, you can achieve either of these by adjusting how many calories you take in and how many calories you burn. The biggest mistake novices make is taking any – or all – of these tactics to the extreme. Eating burgers, fries and ice cream will certainly put you in a calorie surplus, but they won’t necessarily build muscle, just like starving yourself and running for hours won’t always lead to fat loss.
Bulking: Eat More, Lift More
How much muscle can you gain in a month? According to Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE health coach, it depends.
“Genetics dictate the upper limit for how much muscle mass is attainable per individual,” she explains. “In other words, how much and how quickly muscle grows is largely influenced by something you are unable to alter — your genes.”
That said, Nitschke is clear that the best approach to building muscle is by increasing overall training load and modifying daily calorie intake. “While the rate at which a person will build muscle mass is not predictable, with the right diet and proper training regimen, everyone has the ability to add strength and mass,” she says. Although men gain muscle more easily, women who follow this protocol can expect to gain anywhere from 0.5 to 1.5 pounds of muscle per month.
The best approach for bulking and cutting is to modify your diet and your training to match your goals without letting anything get too extreme. Rather than add thousands of extra calories each day to bulk, you only need to add an extra 200 to 300 calories in the form of lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Instead of lifting as heavy as you can every day of the week, perform three to five resistance-training sessions per week using moderate to heavy weight and medium to high rep ranges. By doing both these at the same time, you’ll be giving your muscles the right nutrients and stimulus to grow. Keep cardio to a minimum to avoid the counterintuitive calorie burn, and make sure you get plenty of rest and sleep — your body can’t build muscle without it!
Cutting: Eat Less, Move More
While it’s hard to overdo it on a bulk, it’s pretty easy to get too aggressive when you cut. According to the American Council on Exercise, it’s safe for most individuals to lose 1 to 2 pounds of body fat per week. A pound of body fat is equal to 3,500 calories, so this means you would aim for a calorie deficit of between 500 and 1,000 calories per day, which you can do through diet and exercise. Just make sure it’s the right kind of exercise.
“If the goal is weight loss, a higher-intensity activity is desirable,” Nitschke says. “The overall goal should be to increase the heart rate and burn off a significant number of calories.”
Unfortunately, most individuals are in such a hurry to lose weight that they often try to cut 1,000 or more calories out of their diet and add extra calorie-burning activity. This not only is a recipe for muscle loss and potential injury, but it also can have the opposite effect. Cutting too many calories too quickly can lead to fatigue, poor sleep and disruption of normal hormone levels, and it also can impact your metabolism, all of which can sabotage your fat-loss efforts.
“Remember, successful weight-loss strategies are a marriage between physical activity, sound nutrition, hormonal balance and positive changes in lifestyle habits,” Nitschke says.
A much better approach is to start with a more modest deficit, like cutting 300 to 500 calories per day, and adding more movement in the form of resistance training and cardio. Make sure you keep your protein intake high when you cut, eliminating simple carbs and sugars first and sticking to only healthy fats.
Bulking and Cutting: Can You Do Both at Once?
While it is physiologically impossible to be in a calorie surplus and a calorie deficit at the same time, it is possible to build muscle and lose fat within the same span of time. What this means is you might lose 10 pounds of fat in eight weeks while also gaining 3 pounds of muscle in that same time period.
This sometimes explains why so many get frustrated in their initial weight-loss efforts because the scale would only show a 7-pound loss in that time frame despite the significant change in body composition. This is why it’s so important to use more than one metric to measure your progress when bulking and cutting. When you factor in weight, body-fat percentage and waist circumference, you get a total picture of your health and your progress.