Bulking vs. Cutting: 10 Tips on How to Cut and Bulk, From Fitness Professionals

Fitness pros explain the pros and cons of each method.

<p>Getty Images</p>

Getty Images

Gymshark, Ghost, greens, and creatine. Among bodybuilders there are no shortage of companies, concepts, and products designed to help them meet their goals. But there is one bodybuilding methodology that cannot be ordered online or snagged for a deal—cutting and bulking.

Bulking and cutting involve strategically editing your exercise, nutrition, and other lifestyle factors to gain muscle and lose fat at different phases in your sport or life, explains Jake Harcoff, MSc, certified strength and conditioning coach and owner of AIM Athletic. Typically, body-builders will enter a bulk during their off-season wherein their goal is to pack on as much muscle and strength as possible, he says. Then, they will enter a cut as a competition gets closer to shed any accumulated excess body-fat, while preserving the new gains, he explains.

Importantly, while cutting and bulking are most commonly associated with bodybuilders, other individuals can implement this methodology, too, Harcoff says. “The concept of bulking—as well as bulking and cutting—can be adapted to help people meet other fitness goals, including get stronger, become more effective in sport, or put on muscle mass."

A rugby or football player might enter a bulking phase ahead of season in order to be able to tackle more effectively, for example. While a skier, runner, or climber might enter a cut ahead of their season to improve agility.

Whether you’re a bodybuilder, a person with specific aesthetic or performance goals, or a curious beaver who's found themselves on a #FitTok rabbit hole, read on. Ahead, you will find a complete crib sheet on cutting vs. bulking.

What Is Cutting?

Put simply, cutting is a specific type of weight loss done in bodybuilding. During a cut, however, an individual doesn’t just merely want to lose weight—they want to lose body fat, says Jim White, CPT, RD, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios.  “The goal of a cut is to lower body fat while either maintaining or increasing muscle mass."

If successful, at the end of a cut an individual will be at a (much) lower fat percentage than they were pre-cut, while being just as strong as they were before dropping weight—if not stronger. Together, this combination can help an individual meet their particular goals.

For bodybuilders, specifically, a cut is an important step in achieving the “cut up” look that performs well on stage. Here, some pros and cons to think about—and talk through with a healthcare provider—before giving it a try, though.

Pros:

  • Promotes body fat loss

  • Creates a “cut” or “lean” appearance

  • Can improve agility and other athletic performances

  • May help improve certain health and blood markers

Cons:

  • Requires a tremendous amount of food and exercise tracking and vigilence

  • Can make you feel tired and hungry

  • Exercise recovery may be thwarted

  • Sleep may be negatively impacted

  • May lead to (slight) strength and muscle loss

  • May impact menstrual cycle

  • May negatively impact libido as well as mood

  • Needs the guidance of a professional in order to be done well and in a healthy way

How to Cut

Cutting is a complex process that requires modifying your eating and exercise habits. Ahead are five measures you need to implement for a successful cut.

Cut calories

During a cut, individuals need to reduce overall calorie intake, while keeping protein intake high, says Harcoff. “The calories consumed need to be less than the number of calories being burned throughout the course of the day."

How much less, exactly? Ultimately, that is going to depend on a wide variety of factors including current body composition, current exercise routine, age, and other health factors, he says. “While the ultimate goal during this phase is to be in caloric deficit, the amount by which an individual should cut their calories should begin by a modest amount."

Enter too much of a calorie deficit, he explains, and you put yourself at risk for muscle loss, as well as nutritional deficiencies, menstrual issues, and other health problems. The International Sports Science Association says that during a cut, calorie intake should be about 10% to 20% below the number needed for weight maintenance.

“In practice, individuals who body build generally end up in a 300 to 500 calorie deficit per day during a cut,” says Harcoff. “Intake needs to be monitored, and drastic changes in mood, new sleep disturbances, and poor performance at the gym indicate that the caloric deficit is too large."

Figure out macronutrient needs

Overall calorie intake matters, but so does where you get those calories, says Harcoff.  As a macronutrient, fat is more calorically dense compared to protein and carbohydrates, he explains. So, as a result, individuals typically have a macronutrient breakdown that favors protein and carbohydrates, while limiting fats.

The exact macronutrient breakdown will vary person-to-person, based on factors like how long the cut is, how their body metabolizes fat, and more. But according to research published in the journal of Sports Medicine, it is standard for bodybuilders to be at about 55% to 60% carbohydrate, 25% to 30% protein, and 15% to 20% fat.

Chow down on protein

If there’s one non-negotiable for a successful cut, it’s getting enough protein, says Jenna Stangland, MS, RDN, CCSD, co-founder of A4 Health and performance dietitian for the Minnesota Wild. Your body uses calories for energy, the way a Jeep uses fuel. When you intake less energy (calories) than you need to get through your day and your exercise routine, the body will turn to other sources.

Obviously, if someone is trying to drop body fat while maintaining muscle mass, as they are in a cut, they want their body to rely on stored fat rather than muscle for that extra gas. Consuming an adequate amount of protein can help ensure as much, White says.

Protein is made up of compounds called amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle, he explains. When you consume adequate protein during a cut, it ensures that any amino acids used as fuel are immediately replaced.

“To maintain your muscle mass in a cut, consuming at least at 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is important,” Stangland says. That’s 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight, which would put a 150-pound person at 105+ grams of protein per day.

The key phrase here: At least. Research from Nutrients journal suggests it is safe and beneficial to get up to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So, for that same 150-pound bodybuilder, that’s 150 grams of protein per day.

Track your food

Hate to break it to you, but even if you have 20/20 vision you’re probably not as good at guessing how much you’re eating as you think you are!

“When it comes down to it, what gets measured gets managed,” says Harcoff.

So, assuming you can do so without triggering an unhealthy relationship to food or exercise, he suggests logging your food, body measurements, and workouts in detail. An app like MyFitnessPal which can connect to fitness trackers like Garmin can be helpful, and so can a fitness journal.

Related: The 8 Best Fitness Trackers of 2024, Tested by Shape

Enlist a pro

There are some great fitness and nutrition tracking apps available for download. But while these pocket experts may be free, for a cut and bulk you’d be better off enlisting the help of a sports dietician if you can afford it.

As far a cut is concerned, there is really no one-size-fits-all answer to matters of calorie intake and exercise routine, says Harcoff. That’s because what one needs to consume in order to put on muscle without also putting on (much) body fat is going to vary based on things like current body composition and chemistry, fitness experience, and personal goals, he says.

The right professional also has the expertise needed to help you adjust your routine especially if your sleep, mood, and recovery start to become negatively impacted by the cut, he says. Indeed, a successful cut isn’t measured just by how much body fat you’re losing, but by how you feel and are performing while you’re doing it.

What Is Bulking?

Bulking is the act of consuming a surplus of calories in order to facilitate muscle growth or hypertrophy. “Bulking season refers to a period of time where individuals purposefully take in more calories and direct their training in order to maximize muscle growth,” says Harcoff.

Put simply, bulking is a muscle building period. “Ultimately, during this season the goal should be to cultivate as much mass as possible, not maintain a six-pack,” he says.

To be clear: While bulking and cutting are typically paired together, with a cut strategically following a bulk, they do not have to go together. Just like peanut butter and jelly, they can be enjoyed on their own.

“Some people may go into their pre-season and find that they need to make a certain weight and/or body composition to be effective in their spot so then they go into one of these phases to achieve that,” Stangland explains.

Bulking (and cutting) also require a level of exercise and food-intake surveillance that may not be healthy nor sustainable for some people—in particular, those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating. Here are some pros and cons to consider and discuss with a healthcare provider before giving it a try.

Pros:

  • Promotes muscle hypertrophy

  • Supports strength gains and PRs

  • Impacts performance improvements in strength sports

  • Can facilitate bone density increases

  • Can feel like reprieve after being in calorie deficit

  • May correspond with greater overall energy

  • Better recovery from resistance training

Cons:

  • Requires diligence in and out of gym

  • Can result in decreased agility

  • Body fat gain may be mentally difficult after a period of extreme leanness

  • Certain cardiovascular exercises may feel harder

  • Certain blood and health markers may worsen

  • Greater risk of injury when lifting at high percentages of personal best

  • Needs the guidance of a professional in order to be done well and in a healthy way

How to Bulk

Just as cutting requires you to modify your exercise and nutrition routine, so does bulking. Ahead are five things to keep in mind for a successful bulk.

Eat enough calories

The basis of bulking is consuming surplus calories, says White. “Calories provide your body with the energy it needs to get through the day, as well as repair and build up your muscle."

In order to put on muscle mass, it is crucial that you consume enough calories. Fail to eat enough calories, and your body will be forced to break down your pre-existing muscles for energy, rather than being able to use the excess energy to build them back up, he says. This is not ideal for anyone interested in holding onto their gains.

Exactly how much of a calorie surplus you will need depends on your exercise routine, your current build and body composition, and how long of a bulk you’re planning on. But typically a bulk will require people to consume 200 to 500 more calories per day than they are burning, according to White.

Pound even more protein

Eating enough protein is crucial for building and repairing muscle tissue. Protein is needed to facilitate muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of putting on muscle, says White. That means, muscle growth can only occur when the muscle protein synthesis is greater than the breakdown, he says.

That’s why he recommends consuming at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight for individuals in a bulk. He also recommends consuming animal-based protein products that are low(er) in saturated fat, such as chicken, turkey, pork, shrimp, trout, and bison.

“Animal protein sources have a high absorption rate and contain all essential amino acids,” he explains. This means you’re able to get the tools you need to repair and rebuild muscle without as much surveillance.

“If you are having a hard time meeting your protein intake goals, you might consider supplementing with whey protein powder to meet your goals,” says Harcoff.

Related: The 16 Best Protein Powders for Every Health Goal, Tested and Reviewed

Go slow and steady

Bulking is a marathon, not a sprint. So just as you’d hit a 26.2 slow and steady, so should you hit your bulking season, says Whitle. “The best way to ensure that you are putting on weight in such a way that you’re maximizing muscle gain while minimizing body fat gain, is to stick to about 0.5 to 1.0 pounds per week."

Assuming that you track your body weight and body fat percentage each week, he explains, this rate will allow you to make incremental adjustments to your calorie intake and macronutrient breakdown if you are noticing excess fat gain, muscle loss, or weight stagnation.

Figure out your timeline

It may not seem like it at mile 18, but even a marathon comes to an end—and so must a bulk, says White. “A bulk can last anywhere from 16 to 52 weeks."

If you are pairing a bulk with a cut ahead of a bodybuilding competition—common practice for individuals in the sport—you’ll need to leave ample time in your schedule for both, he says. Typically a cut lasts just eight to 16 weeks, he says.

Exactly how much time you spend in each phase will depend on things like your current build, specific competition, fitness level, ease with gaining and losing weight, and more. But generally, individuals spend two to three times as long bulking as they do cutting.

Lift heavy…and then even heavier

If you want to get strong, you have to lift heavier…and heavier…and heavier. When you strength train, explains White, your body physiologically adapts to the work and weight you are throwing at it. That means that while a 100-pound deadlift may have been heavy enough for you to make gains at one point, but once that weight starts to feel easy, your body will not continue making the same degree of physiologic changes.

In order to keep making progress at the same weight, he says, you have to up the ante, most commonly, by upping the weight. By implementing this exercise methodology—known as the progressive overload principle—you ensure that you will continuously see and make muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy gains, explains White.

During a bulk, putting on muscle is your number one priority, Harcoff adds. “To get the muscle growth you’re after, it can’t just be your eating habits that are geared towards muscle growth, your exercise habits have to be, too. Doing progressive overload while you bulk ensures that your muscles are constantly being challenged so that you come out of a bulk with thicker, stronger muscles."

The key to implementing a progressive overload is following a tailored-for-you training program, says Harcoff. Simply making an effort to increase weight or reps every time you go to the gym is not going to be the most effective or efficient way to put on the muscle you’re after. In order to see the progress you’re after, he suggests hiring a fitness coach or paying for programming. 

Related: The 11 Best Weight Benches of 2024, According to Fitness Experts

Bulk vs. Cut Takeaway

Bulking can be an effective way for individuals to fast-track their way to muscle and strength gains, while cutting can be a short-term solution for dropping body fat. Together, these strategies can be implemented to help people, such as bodybuilders, meet their specific performance or aesthetic goals.

However, there are downsides to both bulking and cutting, as each requires extreme attention to details in matters of sport and nutrition, which is the main reason why they are not a methodology that makes sense nor is healthy for everyone! And to be clear: There are ways to get stronger without bulking, and lean out without cutting.

In order to find out if bulking and cutting are right for you, talk to a healthcare provider as well as a fitness professional about your particular health, fitness, and sports goals. Because both cutting and bulking come with some pretty mighty potential downsides, it’s worth chatting to an expert before editing your eating and fitness habits to either. 

For more Shape news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!

Read the original article on Shape.