Bulking and cutting are different phases of a diet and workout plan designed for muscle gain or fat loss. During a bulk, you eat more calories and lift heavy weights to maximize muscle gain. While cutting involves eating fewer calories and a combination of weights and cardio to burn fat.
Figures 1 & 2. Bulking prioritizes muscle gain with some fat gain likely. While cutting prioritizes fat loss with the possibility of muscle loss.
Generally, body fat also increases during a bulk due to the high calorie intake necessary to gain muscle. However, you can keep fat gain to a minimum with a good nutrition plan.
Likewise, it’s common to lose some muscle while cutting since calorie intake is reduced. But this too can be minimized, or even eliminated, with proper diet.
With this potential for gaining fat and losing muscle, bulking and cutting might seem like the long road to success. Wouldn’t it be faster to do both at the same time?
Can You Bulk And Cut At The Same Time?
The short answer is yes, you can gain muscle and burn fat at the same time – also known as body recomposition. Although it’s a very complex process and it’s not right for most people. While recomposition may seem like a shortcut, it can take much longer to see the results you want.
Figure 3. Body recomposition may or may not result in a change in body weight.
As illustrated above, body recomposition is a slow process because it requires a delicate balance of opposing forces. Basically, you’re trying to break your body down while building it up at the same time.
The reason cutting and bulking move faster is that you prioritize either breaking down or building up. Therefore, when you need to lose a lot of weight it’s usually better to cut. And the same is true for bulking and muscle gain.
To illustrate, here are some typical rates at which your muscle, fat, and body weight change for each goal.
Table 1. Rate of Change Bulk vs Cut vs Recomposition
+2 to 3 lb/month
-0 to 1 lb/month
+0.5 to 1.5 lb/month
+1 to 1.5 lb/month
-4 to 7 lb/month
-0.5 to 1.5 lb/month
+3 to 4.5 lb/month
-4 to 8 lb/month
+/- 1 lb/month
Slide the table left to view all columns on mobile.
Now keep in mind, it’s likely that you will gain or lose more weight per month. But some of that is water and glycogen. Whereas, the numbers in this table reflect actual changes in muscle and fat.
And remember that the rate your body changes depends on your current body composition and experience level. For example, you can lose fat faster when you’re overweight. And you can gain muscle faster when you’re new to working out.
Now that you know the difference between bulking and cutting, let’s determine which one is best for you.
Should You Bulk Or Cut First?
Most of the time, the decision to bulk or cut should be based on your current body fat percentage. When you’re overweight or obese you should cut first. But if you’re already lean, it’s usually best to bulk first.
However, there can be gray areas where reverse dieting or recomposition are the best choices. So here are some more detailed recommendations.
When To Cut First
Body fat percentage greater than 17% for men and 25% for women
Or, you need to burn fat at the fastest rate possible
One exception is if you’ve been in a prolonged calorie deficit. That means undereating or eating fewer calories than you burn for the last month or more.
In that case, your metabolism has probably slowed down and further attempts at cutting will fail. Therefore, you should consider a reverse diet before cutting.
Reverse dieting is where you gradually increase your calorie intake in order to build up your metabolism. In the long run, this makes fat loss easier.
Figure 4. Illustration of how reverse dieting helps rebuild your metabolism after calorie restriction. TDEE = total daily energy expenditure. BMR = base metabolic rate.
When To Bulk First
Body fat percentage less than 17% for men and 25% for women
Or, you need to gain muscle at the fastest rate possible
Again, a prolonged calorie deficit could be an exception. If that’s the case for you, then you may want to choose recomposition in order to transition into your bulk without gaining excess fat.
When To Use Recomposition
Body fat percentage less than 17% for men and 25% for women
And, you’re okay with making gradual changes in body composition
Or, you just completed a cut or a bulk and you’re ready to transition the other way.
Or, you’re a beginner and new to training
Figure 5. Body recomposition expectation vs reality. Recomp is not the best goal if you want a dramatic body transformation.
How Long Should You Bulk vs Cut?
Generally, you should stick with one fitness goal for at least 8 to 12 weeks. Any shorter than that and you don’t get into a good rhythm or see significant changes in your body.
That being said, I also don’t recommend cutting for longer than 6 months unless you’re obese. As prolonged dieting causes changes in your metabolism and hormone balance. Although these side effects can be avoided if you use my approach to metabolic confusion.
In addition, bulking for too long can result in problems like insulin resistance. A condition that leads to excess fat gain. Which is why my nutrition plans use carb cycling to maintain insulin sensitivity while you bulk.
Finally, the duration of your bulk or cut also depends on how much weight you need to gain or lose. Here are some estimates for how long it takes to reach certain milestones.
Table 2. How Long To Bulk vs Cut
Lose 10 lbs of fat
Lose 20 lbs of fat
Lose 30 lbs of fat
Gain 5 lbs of muscle
Gain 10 lbs of muscle
Gain 15 lbs of muscle
I realize that the durations in the table may be longer than you expected. But again, that’s because these numbers represent actual pounds of fat and muscle, not just pounds on the scale. Your total body weight will change more in the given timeframe.
In addition, you should allow +/- 2 weeks due to the variation in the rate of fat loss and muscle gain I mentioned earlier.
How Do You Switch From Bulk To Cut (or Cut to Bulk)?
In most cases, it’s not ideal to jump straight into a bulk after cutting or vice versa. The reason is that your body stores fat or breaks down muscle in response to large changes in energy balance.
Instead, it’s better to make small adjustments in calorie intake as you transition. By doing this you give your body time to adapt to the change in energy balance.
To that end, recomposition can be an appropriate stepping stone from one goal to the other. Because the calorie target for recomp is between your cutting and bulking targets.
Figure 6. Illustration of gradual transitions from bulk to cut and cut to bulk.
Another approach is making incremental adjustments in your calorie intake each week. For example, you could cut 100-200 calories per week to get from bulking to cutting. This is the same concept of metabolic adaptation used in reverse dieting, it works both ways.
Whichever method you choose, give yourself at least 4 to 8 weeks to make the transition. And the longer you bulk or cut, the longer your transition should be.
Bulk vs Cut Calculator
Here at Nutritioneering, I specialize in tools and calculators that take the guesswork out of fitness. So I created an easy “Bulk or Cut Quiz” to help you choose the right fitness goal with confidence.
bulk or cut quiz
All you have to do is answer the questions below and you’ll be pointed in the right direction.
Goal Specific Meal Plan
Get your bulking, cutting, or recomposition meal plan. Personalized for your body, activity level, and goals! Including daily menus and recipes for just $13.99 per month.
Now that you know whether you should be bulking or cutting, I’ll give you some general advice.
Tips for Cutting
Cutting requires you to be in a calorie deficit. That means eating fewer calories than you burn. You want the deficit to be large enough to burn fat at the fastest rate possible.
You also don’t want to cut calories so far that you lose muscle and damage your metabolism. Therefore, being more active is a good way to increase your calorie deficit and burn more fat. This means standing and walking more throughout the day. As well as exercising at least 5 days a week.
Cardio (aerobic) exercise burns the most calories from fat. Include 30-60 minutes of low-intensity cardio such as walking or jogging. Doing cardio in a fasted state can burn even more fat. Also, high-intensity cardio (HIIT) is another option that can burn more calories in less time.
Figure 7. Multiple studies show that fasted exercise results in a significant increase in fat burning compared to exercise after eating.
Resistance training is important to preserve or build muscle while burning more calories. Use weights you can handle for 8-12 or 10-15 reps. And shorten rests between sets to 75 seconds or less.
Make sure you eat enough nutrient-dense foods to ensure you get all your vitamins and minerals. Such as leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and a moderate amount of fruits or berries.
Gain an edge with strategic meal timing. Eat your carbs around the time of day that you exercise to promote muscle building. During the rest of the day, keep your carb intake low to reduce insulin levels.
Tips For Bulking
In order to maximize muscle gain, you must be in a calorie surplus. That means eating more calories than you burn. You want the surplus to be large enough to gain muscle at the fastest rate possible. But not so much that you gain excess fat.
Resistance training is absolutely necessary to induce muscle growth. Your workouts should focus on heavier weights in the 5-10 and 8-12 rep range. And give yourself about 1.5 to 2 minutes rest between sets.
Cardio workouts aren’t always necessary when bulking, especially if you’re a hardgainer. But including 20 minutes of low-intensity cardio a few days a week is a good way to minimize fat gain.
A clean bulk is highly recommended. It consists of eating mostly natural, whole foods that promote good health while gaining muscle. Dirty bulking, where you eat junk food, is not advised as part of a healthy lean muscle diet plan.
Adjust your macros for maximum muscle gain. Increase your carb intake, especially on days you workout. And eat plenty of protein to give your body the raw material to build muscles. Also, include a moderate amount of healthy unsaturated fats.
Figure 8. Good fats nourish your body and provide key vitamins. While bad fats are empty calories that clog arteries and cause serious health problems.
Use the science of meal timing. Depending on your body, you may be eating carbs all day. But most of those carbs should be before and after your workout to give you energy and promote recovery.
Bulk vs Cut Results
Over the last 20+ years I’ve experimented with bulking, cutting, and everything in between. In my experience dedicated phases of muscle gain and fat loss deliver the biggest results.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that every situation is unique. And there are definitely times where reverse dieting and body recomposition will help you bridge the gap between the extreme phases.
Below is an example of my 8-month transformation from cut to bulk. Along the way, I used a reverse diet and a lean bulk to make the transition without gaining excess fat.