If I had a nickel for every person who ever asked me, “Should I bulk or cut?” I could buy myself a protein shake at my local gym.
Like many before you, I assume you’re somewhere between decently fluffy and not muscular enough to know what you should do. On the one hand, you don’t have much muscle to warrant a cut. On the other hand, you’re not lean enough to bulk.
So, what should you do? In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at the very question and help you determine if bulking, cutting, or recomping is the best option.
Bulking, Cutting, And Recomping: A Brief Look
You have three options for achieving your goal physique in the long run. Two of them are mandatory, and one is optional:
Bulking, also known as gaining, is about establishing a calorie surplus and training regularly to build as much muscle as possible while minimizing fat gain. To achieve this, you should maintain a small to moderate surplus of 100 to 300 calories, get plenty of protein, and do more work in the gym (1, 2).
Cutting, also known as losing fat, is about establishing a calorie deficit and training regularly to lose as much fat as possible while keeping the majority of your muscle. To achieve this, you should maintain a moderate deficit of 300 to 500 calories, consume lots of protein, and do a bit less training (3, 4).
3. Recomping (Body recomposition)
Recomping, also known as building muscle and losing fat simultaneously, is a complex process where you need to establish a slight calorie deficit, train regularly, and get enough protein. If you’re new to training or have recently come back from a long break, you can take advantage of your state and achieve an impressive transformation in mere months (5, 6).
To bulk and cut effectively, you need to alternate between the two states strategically until you’ve built enough muscle and are decently lean. If that’s all you aspire for, you can focus on maintaining afterward.
Body recomposition is different because it alone is a means to an end. You can use it to achieve an initial body transformation and establish a solid foundation. After that, you can start alternating between bulking and cutting.
The question is, which of the three options is suitable for you now? Bulk, cut, or recomp? Let’s see.
Bulking: Who It’s For (And How to Do It Right)
Before deciding to bulk, you need to realize that muscle growth brings some inevitable fat gain. No matter how slight of a surplus you try to keep, your body fat percentage will most likely increase as a result.
So, before reading further, ask yourself, “Can I stand to gain some extra fat, and would I still feel comfortable in my skin?” Too many people - including myself in the past - dedicate themselves to a bulk, only to realize they are too fluffy within a few weeks. This can be problematic because people start doubting themselves and often jump from bulking to cutting.
Bulking is excellent for everyone who wants to build muscle and is decently lean. If you are at a higher body fat percentage, I would recommend losing some fat first.
Before moving on, I would also like to say a couple of words about effective bulking:
Gaining muscle is a slow process that takes patience. You should do it for multiple months before ever thinking of cutting. First, you gain momentum with your training and nutrition. Second, you create an anabolic environment in your body and allow for good muscle gain.
For long and productive bulks, I recommend taking things more slowly, which for most people means gaining no more than a couple of pounds per month. Your body has a limit of how much muscle it can build in a given period. Overeating to spark more growth won’t help you progress quicker but will most likely result in more fat (7). You will later have to spend more time cutting to get rid of the fat - time you could otherwise use to be in a surplus for muscle gain.
If you’re relatively new to training and don’t have much muscle, you can gain weight a bit more quickly - between 1.5 and two percent gain per month. For instance, if you weigh 160 pounds, you can aim for 2.4 to 3.2 pounds per month. Some of this will inevitably come from fat, but you will also gain more muscle.
Cutting: Who It’s For (And How to Pull it Off)
Since cutting is about fat loss, you should do it if you have considerable fat you want to lose. It brings fantastic benefits like:
- Bringing out muscle definition
- Feeling light on your feet
- Having more confidence
- Establishing a solid base for bulking
The goal is to cut until you’re decently lean, which typically means seeing an outline of your abs, seeing some muscle separation in your thighs, and having above-average vascularity.
Cutting brings satisfaction for many people, but I do want to warn you:
Fat loss is a relatively quick process and you should do it sparingly. Far too many people fear putting on any fat and instead find themselves dieting year-round. This is problematic because time spent in a calorie deficit is time you can’t use to grow effectively.
Unless you’re just getting started with training and are quite overweight, you likely won’t be able to build any muscle while cutting, so you should do it every now and then when you get uncomfortably fluffy.
Similar to productive bulking, I also recommend aiming for gradual fat loss. This will help you maintain your performance in the gym and retain as much muscle as possible. General guidelines recommend anywhere from 0.5 to one percent weight loss per week (4). The more fat you have, the more you can afford to lose. In contrast, the leaner you are, the more you should slow down your weight loss.
For instance, if you have a lot of fat on your frame and start cutting at 200 pounds, you can initially afford to lose up to two pounds per week. This is one percent. But, as you go down to 190, 180, and even below that, you should slow down your rate of weight loss to around 0.5-0.6 percent per week. At 180 pounds, this would mean losing nearly one pound per week.
Body Recomposition: Build Muscle And Lose Fat Simultaneously?
Many people get so caught up in bulking and cutting that they forget the third option: doing a body recomposition.
A body recomposition is an approach where you aim to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. In other words, you put together bulking and cutting into one.
Research finds that we don’t necessarily need a calorie surplus to build muscle (5, 6). We only need an adequate protein intake to create a positive nitrogen balance. So long as we do that, we can gain some muscle even if we are otherwise in a calorie deficit and losing fat.
It’s important to note that body recompositions come with their fair share of drawbacks. Most notably, it means that results come more slowly. You are not building muscle or losing fat at an optimal rate but are instead sacrificing speed for efficiency. Another drawback of a body recomposition is that it’s more challenging to track your progress, and you might find yourself feeling like you’re stagnating at times.
And finally, the most significant drawback of a body recomposition is that not everyone can do it successfully. It’s primarily suitable for beginners and de-trained lifters because they are primed for building muscle and can pull it off even in a small deficit.
Overweight beginners and folks who’ve taken a long break from the gym are prime candidates for a successful body recomposition. Everyone else would benefit from strict gaining and fat loss phases.
Similar to effective cutting and bulking, a good recomposition comes from a gradual and methodical approach. You need to cover the following:
- Maintain a slight calorie deficit of around 200-250 calories below maintenance.
- Eat enough protein - somewhere between 0.8 and 1.2 grams per pound of body weight.
- Lift weights three to four times per week and focus on progressive overload.
- Get enough sleep every night - seven hours is good; eight hours is even better.
- Do cardio sparingly to burn some extra calories and boost your health.
You can read my complete guide on body recomposition here.
So, Should I Bulk Or Cut? Or Maybe Recomp?
The most straightforward answer I can give you is this:
Beyond the beginner stage of training, gaining and cutting come down to your body fat percentage. If you’re at a higher body fat percentage, do a fat loss phase. If you’re lean enough, do a gaining phase. I typically recommend most people stay between twelve and twenty percent body fat year-round. In other words, bulk until you’re at twenty percent, and cut until you go down to around twelve percent.
Now, you might be wondering, “Well, why?”
Recent rodent research shows that a higher body fat percentage doesn’t seem to hinder muscle hypertrophy (8). Still, I don’t recommend going over twenty percent body fat (or 28 percent for women) because most people don’t feel comfortable, it leads to unnecessarily long dieting periods, and it might impact your health to a degree.
I also don’t recommend going below 10-12 percent body fat for most men because it simply isn’t worth it. Sure, you’ll probably look better at 8 percent body fat, but how much better? Would the sacrifice be worth it? In most cases, I’d say no.
Dieting too much before going on a bulk can also lead to absurdly high hunger levels. Many people find themselves overeating for a while and re-gaining some body fat before their hunger signals go back to normal. Plus, there is also the psychological impact to consider. Too much dieting can make people reluctant to then go into a calorie surplus.
I’ve been there, and I’ve seen countless individuals make the same mistake. In their efforts to stay lean year-round, people don’t spend productive time in a calorie surplus. As a result, they mostly stay the same from year to year, never making much progress.
Beyond the early stages of training, you should mostly guide your decisions based on your body fat percentage.
What If I’m New to Training?
There are three categories of beginners:
- Skinny and lean beginners.
- Skinny beginners with a high body fat percentage (also known as skinny fat).
- Overweight and obese beginners.
If you’re a skinny and lean beginner, your best option would be to start a simple training program and start eating more with an emphasis on whole foods and good protein sources. This will help you gain muscle and get stronger over the next few months.
If you’re a skinny fat beginner, I recommend doing a body recomposition for the next few months. Maintain a small deficit, practice regular strength training, and sleep enough. This will help you see some quick initial results and establish a good foundation for a gaining phase.
If you’re overweight or obese, you need some form of a calorie deficit to start shedding fat. I also strongly recommend doing resistance training and making sure to eat enough protein. These things will help improve your hunger signals and allow you to lose fat while retaining - and even increasing - your muscle mass (9). If you fall into this category, you don’t necessarily need to start by tracking your calories. Instead, simply improving your nutritional choices and doing strength training might be enough to get you started.
Click the button below to download a beginner's training program you can start using immediately:
When to Stop Cutting And Start Bulking (And Vice-Versa)?
Regardless of your current state and short-term goals, you likely aspire to build as much muscle as you can and stay relatively lean in the long run. Beyond the initial stage, body recomposition, and whatnot, your best option is to cycle between cutting and bulking.
(Well, you can also try building muscle at around maintenance, but this is tremendously slow, near-impossible to track, and requires incredible discipline spread over many years. Plus, you will inevitably gain some fat, anyway.)
Like most people, you’re probably wondering, “Well, how and when do I switch between the two?”
As I stated above, I recommend staying between twelve and twenty percent body fat for most people. First, this range is sustainable for most people, allows for steady improvements, and doesn’t push you too far into either direction. You don’t have to diet too long after a gaining phase, and you don’t have to feel exhausted and starved by the time you’re done with your cut.
Second, once you have some muscle on your frame, you will look quite good at around twelve percent body fat.
When to Stop a Bulk And Cut Instead
I firmly believe people should bulk for at least a few months before dieting. Muscle growth is a slow process and takes more time and patience to achieve noticeable results. If you constantly find yourself jumping from one to the other, you won’t get far.
With that said, I recommend stopping a bulk once you’re at near twenty percent body fat and start feeling uncomfortable with how you look. By this point, many people also start losing their appetite and find it increasingly difficult to maintain a calorie surplus.
Once you’ve decided it’s time to cut, gradually lower your calories over several weeks until you find yourself losing fat.
When to Quit Cutting And Start Gaining
The good thing about cutting is that you can achieve good results relatively quickly. Fat loss occurs much more rapidly than muscle gain, so you don’t have to cut for months to see noticeable results.
I recommend stopping a cut once you’re decently lean with a somewhat visible six-pack and above-average vascularity. For most people, this will be at around twelve percent body fat. I recommend stopping there because most people can get to this level of leanness without extreme fat loss phases, depriving themselves, and becoming food-obsessed. Plus, starting a gaining phase at around twelve percent gives you an ample runway to gain before you feel fluffy again.
In any case, should you find yourself starting to feel too starved, food-obsessed, and tired, it might be a good idea to stop the cut and remain at maintenance for a while.
The 4:1 Rule For Muscle Gain And Fat Loss
Before wrapping up this guide, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs on gaining muscle and losing fat. Most notably, I recommend spending most of your time in a slight calorie surplus because this will be the most significant driver of improvements over the years.
The more time you spend in a surplus, the more muscle you’ll be able to grow over the years. Of course, provided you train well and get enough sleep. Even if you gain a bit more fat than you should on several occasions, you can still take some time to diet down and lose it later. Having five, ten, even fifteen pounds more muscle on your frame will significantly improve the way your physique looks.
In contrast, if you never commit to gaining or quit after just a few weeks, you’ll never improve much. You’ll instead stay the same, never truly making any progress in either direction. Sure, you might avoid gaining too much fat, but you’ll also prevent yourself from building noticeable muscle mass.
There is inherent value in gaining momentum with a specific process, so we should take advantage of it. While seemingly similar, bulking and cutting require different things, and your daily life will look a certain way depending on what you’re focusing on.
For instance, when I bulk, I tend to track my calories more loosely, eat more frequently, and do more training (more often and having longer workouts). I enjoy the process, I get in the groove, and I let time do its thing.
Similarly, when I’m trying to lose some fat, I track calories more strictly, eat less frequently (I sometimes even fast for 16-18 hours), do less training (shorter and less frequent workouts). I enjoy this process too, but for different reasons. Once I gain momentum, it tends to get easier to keep going, and time rewards my efforts.
Eric Helms proposes a simple rule when approaching gaining and fat loss phases: keep the ratio between bulking and cutting at four to one. For every four months of bulking, give yourself a month of cutting. This isn’t to say you should cut every four months. Instead, see it as a goal to aim for when setting up your nutritional goals in the future. For instance, you might choose to bulk for twelve months straight and then do four months of cutting.
Before you go: I've put together a handy PDF that goes over the question, "Should I bulk or cut?" If you're interested in downloading it, click the button below.
The question of “Should I bulk or cut?” can be difficult to answer sometimes. I’ve struggled with this in the past, and I’ve gotten more than a few questions from people about it.
It’s understandable. Aligning your goals and immediate desires with the current reality isn’t always easy. Plus, your best course of action might contrast with what you want to do, which is another thing worth considering.
I’ve done my best to answer the question, and I believe that following these guidelines will always give you the best possible response.
In any case, choosing the most productive path also comes down to discipline. You might sometimes find yourself setting aside your immediate desires in favor of long-term improvements. This is a sign of maturity and shows that you’re in this for the long haul.
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6. Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Conlin L, Vargas A, Schoenfeld BJ, Corson A, Gai C, Best S, Galvan E, Couvillion K. “Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Nov 1;28(6):580-585. doi: 10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0389. Epub 2018 Jul 3. PMID: 29405780.
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