Bulking and cutting are strategic diet and exercise plans designed to help you build muscle and lose fat in cycles.
Whether you want to bulk up or cut down, here’s the deal on these popular methods to get those muscles poppin’.
Bulking is all about gaining weight to increase muscle and typically involves:
- Eating a strategic calorie surplus. When you’re bulking, you eat more cals than you burn. The idea is to gain more weight to help you boost muscle mass.
- Doing high intensity resistance training to build muscle. Most people combine bulking with high intensity resistance training, which ups their muscle and strength gains.
You may have heard terms like “clean bulk” and “dirty bulk” too. A clean bulk means a regimented approach full of nutrient-dense foods, while a dirty bulk allows for plenty of junk food for a quick hit of cals. Either way, the goal is to up calories and boost muscle gains.
We’re gonna take a wild guess that dudes like the Rock and Arnold Schwarzenegger have done some bulking in their life (and then some).
Cutting is all about losing fat without sacrificing muscle mass. This typically involves:
- Eating a calorie deficit. When you’re cutting, you eat fewer cals as a way to lose body fat — while ideally keeping as much muscle mass as possible.
- Doing resistance training to maintain muscle mass. Even though resistance training usually still has a role in a cutting phase, you might not have the energy to lift weights with the same gusto as you would usually, or during a bulk.
Bodybuilders and some other athletes often go through a cutting phase following a period of bulking up to cut extra weight and fat they didn’t turn into muscle. Some folks also use a cut to lean out before certain competitions or sporting seasons.
Most people bulk anywhere from 1 month to over 6 months or longer, depending on their goals. Here’s how to start bulking:
- Determine your maintenance calories. This is the number of cals you need to maintain your weight. There are lots of online calculators that can help you estimate this number but talking with a registered dietician and personal trainer can help you come up with the best plan.
- Add a 10 to 20 percent calorie surplus. Yep, now you want to fuel up on a lot more cals so you can gain weight. For instance, a 175-pound person would need to add about 250 to 500 cals onto their daily intake — pretty much a whole dang meal. A 135-pound person would need about 200 to 400 more cals.
- Amp up the protein. Shoot for a daily protein intake of 0.7 to 1 g per pound of your body weight to aid in muscle gain. The rest of your calories can be made up of carbs and fats, depending on your preferences. (Pro tip: There are lots of apps that can help you manage your diet.)
- Weigh yourself regularly. While we’re not condoning getting obsessed with a number on the scale, tracking weight gain *is* a part of the bulking process. Most folks aim for a weight gain of 0.25 to 0.5 percent of their body weight per week.
- Do high intensity resistance training. Most people pair a bulk with high intensity resistance training to max out muscle gains.
- Reassess and adjust. If the number on the scale doesn’t rise after a couple of weeks, gradually up your calorie intake by 100 to 200 cals a day.
When you’re bulking, focusing on foods that are high in nutrients and calories will help promote rapid muscle and strength gains.
Food to eat during a bulk includes:
- Protein-rich foods: eggs, beef, chicken, fish, turkey, pork, Greek yogurt, cheese, tofu, tempeh, protein powder
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocado oil, nuts, nut butters, fatty fish, chia seeds, flaxseed, hempseed
- Legumes: (pretty much all beans) including chickpeas, kidney, navy, and black beans
- Complex carbs: whole-grain pasta, sweet potatoes, oats, quinoa, brown rice
- Fruit: apples, oranges, bananas, pineapple, grapefruit
- Nonstarchy veggies: asparagus, peppers, green beans, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots, celery
- Cruciferous veggies: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts
- Dark leafy greens: kale, spinach, Swiss chard
- Drinks: water, sparkling water, tea, coffee, kombucha, 100 percent whole fruit juice
Foods to limit include:
- Highly processed food: deep-fried foods like fries and chips, fast food, and full-fat ice cream (Ditto with processed meats like bacon, sausage, ham, and salami.)
- Saturated fat: margarine and certain oils found in packaged foods
- Sugary drinks: soft drinks, super-sweet coffee, sweet tea, lemonade
And if you’re wondering if your fave foods are off-limits during a bulk, the general answer is no. Go ahead and have the occasional slice of pizza, bowl of spaghetti, or baked good while you bulk.
Most of the time, cutting phases are shorter than bulks and usually last 2 to 4 months. Here’s how to start the cutting phase:
- Determine your maintenance calories. As when bulking, you’ll want to calculate the number of cals you need to maintain your weight. Check out online calculators that can help you estimate this number. You can also talk with a registered dietician and personal trainer.
- Subtract a given number (around 500) of calories each day. For weight loss, a commonly-cited rule is to consume 500 cals/day less than your maintenance figure. For reference, the average active woman needs about 2,000 cals a day to maintain their current weight — so that would mean she would need to eat about 1,500 cals a day to lose weight. Still, the right approach can vary a lot based on body size, genes, and activity level. According to 2014 research, gradual weight loss of 0.5 to 1 percent a week may be best to maximize muscle maintenance. It may take some experimentation (and maybe help from a pro) to find what’s best for you.
- Keep that protein intake up. Keeping your protein levels high can help you keep your energy levels up. In a 2014 study, researchers say “most but not all” bodybuilders will respond best to consuming 2.3 to 3.1 g per 1 kg of lean body mass per day of protein.
- Practice resistance training. Even if you don’t have the strength for high intensity training, practicing resistance training while cutting will help you lose fat and maintain muscle.
- Experiment. Weight loss isn’t one-size-fits-all, so take time to figure out what works for you. And remember — quick n’ dirty weight loss isn’t always safe or the most sustainable. And if you’re super tired, it’s prob just not worth it!
When cutting, your focus is more on high-nutrient, low cal foods. These support gradual weight loss while maintaining muscle.
Even though many of the foods on a cutting diet are similar to those on a bulk, remember you’ll be eating less overall. You’ll also eat less fat and carbs, and fewer calorie-dense foods.
Here’s what to eat while cutting:
- Leaner cuts of protein: chicken breast, lean cuts of beef or pork, lean ground turkey, fish, high protein plant-based meat subs, tofu, low fat cottage cheese, low fat cheese, eggs, egg whites
- Limited healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds
- Legumes: chickpeas, kidney beans, navy, black beans
- Fibrous carbs: oats, quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole grain pasta, rice cakes
- Lower-sugar fruits: apples, berries, peaches, melon, grapefruit, oranges (Consider limiting higher-sugar fruits like mangos and grapes.)
- Nonstarchy veggies: asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, green beans, cauliflower, mushrooms, onions, cabbage, zucchini, carrots, peppers, celery
- Dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens
- Lower-sugar drinks: water, seltzer, unsweetened coffee, tea
Foods to limit include:
- High calorie foods: pizza, deep-fried food, creamy pasta sauces, fast food, ice cream, baked goods, certain casseroles, etc.
- High fat proteins: pork and beef, regular ground chicken and turkey, bacon, chicken wings and thighs, fatty fish
- Sugary drinks: soft drinks, lemonade, juices, sweetened coffee and tea
- Processed foods: most frozen and prepackaged meals, chips, ham, salami, packaged cookies and cakes, ramen noodles
Both bulking and cutting are legit ways to achieve fitness goals when combined with a regular exercise regimen. Still, there are some potential downsides to both methods.
Due to all the factors involved, it’s a good idea to consider your unique needs and bod before making major changes to your diet or exercise routine. When in doubt, talk with your doc.
Here are the deets.
- promotes muscle gains
- can boost strength
- can boost bone density
- may help exercise recovery
- can lead to excess fat gain
- can affect blood values
- can make you feel sluggish
- can decrease insulin sensitivity
- can make you less agile
- promotes fat loss
- can improve muscle appearance
- can improve blood values
- can increase insulin sensitivity
- can increase athletic performance
Can you bulk and cut at the same time?
If you’re a little extra (🙋 same), losing weight and gaining muscle at the same time is technically possible. This process is actually called body recomposition. But research shows body recomposition usually only works if:
- you’re a newbie to training
- you’re overweight or have obesity and have a high percentage of body fat
- you’re taking anabolic steroids
On the flip side, it’s actually pretty difficult for athletes who train hard and often to build muscle and fat at the same time. But with the right plan, it is possible.
Should you bulk or cut first?
Generally, it’s better to bulk first and then cut if your goal is to build muscle. But, again, it all depends on your goals. Bulking first and then cutting allows you to increase muscle mass and then cut down excess fat or weight you gained during the bulk.
How long should a bulk and cut last?
It depends on how much muscle you want to gain and your current body composition. Folks often bulk anywhere from 1 month to over 6 months to get their desired results. Following up with a cut will typically be shorter, usually 2 to 4 months.
Since everyone’s different, what works best for you when it comes to bulking and cutting will be personal. In general, folks in the bodybuilding and fitness communities recommend these tips:
- Cycle. Even though it *is* possible to bulk and cut at the same time, most people still recommend cycling between the two. So, if you’re looking to put on some muscle and gain strength, start with bulking. Then, cut to lose the extra fat, and repeat.
- Track and then track some more. Use a fitness tracker to keep tabs on your calorie intake, whether you’re on a deficit or surplus. This can really streamline your cycles.
- Adjust as you go. Bulking and cutting tend to be a learning process. It’s smart to have a plan but you might find out halfway through that some things aren’t working or could be improved. Maybe you need more protein to get your energy up, or you need to hit the gym more often to meet your goals.
- Enlist a pro. Even if Google’s your BFF, doing this with the support of a personal trainer and registered dietitian can be super helpful. They can use their knowledge and experience to customize your regimen to your unique goals and needs.
Bulking and cutting are strategies that bodybuilders and fitness aficionados alike use to gain muscle and lose fat.
Bulking means eating calorie-dense foods to promote muscle gain, while cutting focuses on lower calorie foods to stimulate fat loss. Both include a resistance training routine to stay fit and gain muscle.
Before making major changes to your diet or exercise routine, talk with your doc. Since both of these strategies come with potential cons in addition to the pros, it’s a good idea to get some expert advice.