September 18, 2021

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Beauty Made Perfect

Bulking vs. Cutting: Pros, Cons, and Comparison

To gain muscle and strength, athletes and recreational gym-goers go through phases called bulking and cutting. These are strategic periods of weight gain and loss, respectively.

While these strategies are fairly common, you may wonder about the specific upsides and downsides of bulking and cutting, and whether they are even necessary at all.

This article explores the ins and outs of bulking and cutting, including some pros, cons, and recommendations for doing them.

A bulk is a period of eating in a strategic calorie surplus. That is, when you’re bulking, you eat more calories than you burn. The goal is to gain weight, primarily due to increased muscle mass.

People most often combine bulking with high intensity resistance training to help boost their muscle and strength gains.

You can accomplish this in a tightly controlled fashion, which people refer to as a clean bulk, or with a more liberal approach, often called a dirty bulk.

With either approach, the goal is to eat more calories than you burn to promote muscle gains.

Summary

A bulk is a phase of eating in a strategic calorie surplus. The goal is to gain muscle and strength. You may also gain some fat during bulking.

A cut is a period of eating at a calorie deficit as a means to lose body fat while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.

While resistance training continues to play a role during a cutting phase, you may not be able to lift weights with the same intensity as you can during a bulk.

This is due to a number of factors, though the main one is that you have less energy available.

Bodybuilders and athletes often implement a cutting phase following a period of bulking, or leading up to a competition or their competitive season.

Summary

A cut is a period of eating at a calorie deficit with the goal of losing body fat and maintaining muscle.

When starting a bulk, the first step is to determine your maintenance calories — the number of calories you need to maintain your weight. Various online calculators can help you estimate this number.

You then tack on a 10–20% calorie surplus. For example, a 175-pound (79-kg) man of average size would add around 250–500 calories to their daily intake (1).

Meanwhile, a 135-pound (61-kg) woman of average size might add about 200–400 calories (1).

From there, aim for a daily protein intake of 0.7–1 gram per pound of body weight (1.6–2.2 grams per kg) to support muscle gain. The rest of your daily calories are made up of carbs and fats, though this depends on your preference (1).

You may find it helpful to track your daily intake using one of several smartphone apps.

Weigh yourself regularly to track your progress, shooting for a weight gain of 0.25–0.5% of your body weight per week (1).

If the number on the scale isn’t moving over the course of a couple of weeks, gradually increase your weekly calorie intake by 100–200 calories.

People usually pair a bulk with high intensity resistance training to maximize muscle gains.

A bulking phase can last anywhere from 1 month to over 6 months or longer, depending on your goals.

Summary

To start bulking, add a given number of calories to your typical daily calorie intake. You can determine how much to add with a quick calculation. The goal is to promote a weight gain of 0.25–0.5% of your body weight per week.

To start a cut, it’s also helpful to determine your maintenance calories, or how many calories you need to eat per day to maintain your weight.

From there, instead of adding calories, you’ll subtract a given number of calories each day. In other words, you’ll eat fewer calories than you need to maintain your body weight. This will help stimulate fat loss.

An average active man needs about 2,600 calories per day to maintain weight, whereas an average active woman needs around 2,000 calories (2).

That said, weight maintenance calorie needs can vary substantially due to body size, genetics, and activity level.

To stimulate weight loss, a general rule is to consume 500 calories below maintenance. While it was traditionally thought this would help you lose approximately 1 pound (0.45 kg) per week, actual weight loss differs between people and may change over time (3, 4).

Research suggests that a gradual weight loss of 0.5–1% per week may be best for maximizing muscle maintenance (5).

To help maintain muscle mass, it’s best to keep your protein intake fairly high at 0.6–1.4 grams per pound (1.4–3.1 grams per kg) of body weight and continue to practice resistance training (5, 6).

You can experiment with what works best for you within this range.

In addition to a gradual calorie restriction through diet, cutting phases usually include some form of cardio or step counting to provide added calorie burning and fat loss.

In general, a cutting phase is shorter than a bulk, usually lasting 2–4 months (3).

It may be best to adhere to a cutting program for the minimal amount of time you need to meet your goals. This may help you preserve muscle mass throughout the process.

Summary

You can start cutting by subtracting a specific number of calories from your maintenance calorie level to promote a weight loss of 0.5–1.0% of body weight per week while maintaining as much muscle as possible.

Both bulking and cutting come with several benefits when combined with a proper resistance training program.

That said, there are some downsides to be aware of with each.

Bulking

Cutting

Summary

Both bulking and cutting come with several potential benefits, though it’s important to be aware of their respective downsides.

Some foods may help with bulking, and others may help with cutting.

Bulking foods

During a bulk, it’s best to focus on foods that are high in nutrients and calorie content to promote rapid muscle and strength gains.

In general, steer clear of high calorie processed foods. Some people may include these foods in a dirty bulk, in which excess fat gain isn’t a concern. However, this is not recommended.

Foods to eat

  • Lean proteins: beef, chicken, fish, turkey, pork, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, reduced fat cheese, protein powders, bars, and mass gainers, as well as tofu, tempeh, and eggs
  • Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, fatty fish, and seeds like chia, hemp, and flax seeds
  • Legumes: all beans, including chickpeas and kidney, navy, black, and Great Northern beans
  • High quality carbs: oats, quinoa, whole grain pasta, rice cakes, breakfast cereals, white and sweet potatoes, and white and brown rice
  • Fruit: apples, oranges, bananas, pineapple, grapefruit, and all types of berries
  • Non-starchy vegetables: peppers, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, and celery
  • Cruciferous veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage
  • Dark leafy greens: spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, and kale
  • Beverages: water, seltzer, diet soda, tea, coffee, kombucha, and 100% fruit juice
  • Occasional foods: pizza, regular pasta, baked goods, full fat cheese, high sugar breakfast cereals, and pan-fried meats

Foods to limit

  • Highly processed foods: deep-fried foods, chips, fast food, and full fat ice cream, plus processed meats like bacon, sausage, ham, salami, and pâté
  • Saturated fats: margarine and certain oils
  • Beverages: soft drinks, sweetened coffee, sweet tea, lemonade, and other sugary drinks

Cutting foods

When you’re cutting, your focus should be on eating foods that are high in nutrients and lower in calories. These will support gradual weight loss and muscle maintenance.

You’ll see that some of the foods for a cutting diet are similar to those for a bulk. The difference is largely in the quantity of these foods consumed.

Foods to eat

  • Lean proteins: chicken breast, lean ground turkey, lean cuts of beef or pork, fish, extra firm tofu, high protein plant-based meat substitutes, low fat cottage cheese, low fat cheese, and eggs and egg whites
  • Limited healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, and seeds
  • Legumes: all beans, including chickpeas and kidney, navy, black, and Great Northern beans
  • Fibrous carbs: brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, oats, low sugar cereals, rice cakes, and quinoa
  • Lower sugar fruits: apples, pears, peaches, berries, melon, grapefruit, oranges, figs, kiwi, and plums
  • Non-starchy vegetables: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, zucchini, carrots, peppers, and celery
  • Dark leafy greens: spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, and kale
  • Beverages: water, sugar-free flavored seltzer, mineral water, and unsweetened coffee and tea

Foods to limit

  • High calorie foods: pizza, deep-fried foods, creamy pasta sauce, gyros, fast food, ice cream, baked goods, and certain casseroles
  • High fat proteins: fatty cuts of pork and beef, regular ground chicken and turkey, bacon, chicken wings and thighs, and fatty fish
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages: soft drinks, iced tea, lemonade, nectars, juices, and sweetened coffee and tea
  • Processed foods: most frozen prepackaged meals, chips, ham, pâté, salami, packaged cookies and cakes, and packaged ramen noodles

Summary

A bulking diet focuses on nutrient- and calorie-dense foods. These stimulate controlled weight gains to enhance muscle building, whereas a cutting diet includes nutrient-dense, lower calorie foods to stimulate fat loss and muscle maintenance.

When deciding whether a bulk or cut is right for you, consider your starting point and long-term goals.

If you’re new to exercising and following a structured diet, it may be best to start by improving your food choices and slowly increasing your exercise intensity before bulking or cutting.

Once you’ve developed good practices surrounding food and exercise, you can consider whether a bulk or cut is right for you.

If your goal is to gain muscle and strength and you aren’t concerned with gaining a bit of fat in the process, a bulk may be a good choice.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to lose fat and maintain muscle, a cut may be more in line with your goals.

For individualized guidance, consult a registered dietitian.

Can you do both simultaneously?

In certain situations, some people may want to gain muscle while losing fat. People call this process body recomposition.

While this may seem attainable in theory, it’s generally only possible in a few specific circumstances (4):

  • if you’re a total beginner to training
  • if you have excess weight or obesity and have a significant amount of body fat
  • if you’re on anabolic steroids

Athletes with a good deal of training find it difficult to efficiently build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

How to achieve the best results

To optimize the results of bulking and cutting, it may be best to alternate them in cycles.

For example, if you’re initially looking to put on some muscle size and strength, you may want to start with a period of bulking.

During that time period, while you may have put on a good deal of muscle, you may have also gained some fat in the process.

At that point, you may initiate a period of cutting to lose the extra fat you gained while maintaining the new muscle you built.

In theory, this cycling method will allow you to gradually gain muscle while preventing you from gaining excess fat.

Summary

People usually bulk for a given amount of time followed by a cutting period to reduce excess fat. Most people with training experience find it difficult to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Bulking and cutting are two complementary strategies that bodybuilders often use, one after the other, to gain muscle and lose fat.

While each comes with some notable benefits, there are several potential downsides you should keep in mind.

A bulking diet includes nutrient- and calorie-dense foods to promote muscle gains, whereas a cutting diet focuses on nutrient-dense, lower calorie foods to stimulate fat loss.

To decide which strategy to start with, assess your current body composition and long-term muscle and strength goals.

As with any major change to your diet or exercise regimen, it’s important to consult your healthcare provider before starting an aggressive bulk or cut if you have underlying health conditions.