Let’s face it:
Learning how to gain muscle mass and lose fat effectively is challenging, but most people get good at the entire process in little time.
The problem is, which goal should you focus on, and when might it be a good idea to make a change?
This is where most people find themselves unable to make the right decision.
To that end, I’ve put together this guide. Below, we’ll answer the ultimate question:
“Should I bulk or cut?”
Let’s dive in.
Bulking vs. Cutting – What You Need to Know
Before answering the primary question, we first need to set the record straight and make sure we’re all on the same page. So, let’s first go through an overview of bulking and cutting.
At its core, the goal of a bulking phase is to build muscle at the fastest rate possible, while simultaneously gaining the least amount of fat possible. To achieve this, you ideally want to be in a small to moderate caloric surplus and avoid gaining too much weight in a short period of time.
Because building muscle (hypertrophy) is a much slower process than fat loss, you should dedicate more of your time on bulking. Of course, there are always exceptions to this. For example, if your body fat percentage is particularly high, then you should probably commit the majority of your time to a calorie deficit so that you lower your body fat.
According to a recent review, aiming for a rate of weight gain of ~0.25 – 0.5% per week is recommended, with adjustments in energy intake based on body composition changes. It’s important to note that when measuring weight, average weekly weight data is often more useful than once weekly weights, as discussed in my previous article.
Bringing this recommendation into practical application, we might want to consider some individual nuances. For example, a new trainee who is further from their genetic ceiling may have a comparatively better capability of accruing muscle mass than a more experienced trainee.
So, a complete beginner who weighs 180 pounds might aim for the higher end of these recommendations (0.9 pounds of weight gain a week), whereas an advanced trainee of the same weight might only shoot for ~0.5 pounds of weight gain per week.
The goal of a cutting phase is fat loss, while also retaining as much muscle and athletic performance as possible. To do this well, you need to be in a moderate calorie deficit and avoid crash diets or incredibly demanding training protocols.
As far as rates of weight loss go, most gym-goers who have an interest in preserving as much muscle mass as possible should aim for somewhere in the region of 0.5 to 1 percent body weight loss per week. As a general rule of thumb, the more fat you have on your frame, the quicker you can afford to lose weight. Conversely, the leaner you become, the slower the rate of loss should become.
Using this recommendation in a practical example, let’s again imagine a guy who is 180 pounds and relatively lean. With the recommended rate of weight loss above, he might want to aim for a weekly weight loss of between 0.8 – 1.9 pounds per week. What should be considered here, however, is that while this rate of loss may be realistic, a larger calorie deficit is required to achieve the higher end of recommendations compared to the lower end.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is that a calorie deficit is an intentional period of under fueling. As such, biofeedback measures such as weight training performance, energy levels, mood, recovery, etc may be affected throughout the process and can become exacerbated by more aggressive calorie restriction.
Ideally, we should consider this and plan a rate of weight loss that corresponds to a calorie intake we can stick to while also preserving muscle and biofeedback as much as possible. Of course, ideals don’t always work out in reality and occasionally, the rate of weight loss may be pre-selected for us.
For example, take the scenario of the guy above who is now wanting to compete in a natural bodybuilding contest in 8 week’s time, but is 20 pounds off stage levels of leanness. In the situation, there’s a decision to be made regarding attempting to lose weight at a faster rate than ideal (2.5 pounds per week), which could compromise muscle mass leading up to competition, versus, being able to compete. A risk-reward scenario that isn’t ideal but all too common.
But for most of you that aren’t bound to time-sensitive goals, my advice would be to aim for a rate of loss that corresponds to both a reasonable pace of fat loss, but also something you can stick to. Losing fat can be difficult so let’s not make the process harder than it needs to be!
Should I bulk or cut – When to Cut
Ultimately, the decision to cut is a personal one and often boils down to your psychology relating to how you look and how you feel at your current body fat levels. I try to sway away from authoritative statements relating to measured bodyfat levels to direct the decision for cutting (or bulking for that matter).
For example, maybe you’ve heard that “you should cut if you have more than 15% bodyfat.” The question becomes though, 15% using what method of bodyfat analysis? DEXA, BIA, skinfold calipers, BodPod? Each method will have a varying degree of error from true bodyfat. That’s not to say we can’t use equipment to help inform this decision though. But sometimes it’s best to keep things simple and make decisions relating to your physique based on arguably the most important measure – how you feel about how you look.
If you feel you’re beginning to carry more bodyfat than your comfortable with, your best course of action may be to cut for a while and achieve at least some level of leanness. From here, you may be better primed to enter a bulking phase and begin optimising rates of muscle gain.
If you’re not sure whether you should cut now, a simple question you can ask yourself is this:
“With my current level of body fat, am I comfortable putting more fat on my frame over the next few weeks or months?”
This answer is predicated on the fact that bulking phases, will often be associated with at least some increases in fat mass as we attempt to increase muscle mass. This is a normal part of the process.
It should also be noted though that under some conditions, you might be able to gain some muscle while cutting – this is known as body recomposition. But this is more likely for novice trainees, those returning to exercise after a period of detraining, those with higher bodyfat levels and enhanced athletes. For the majority of people, it usually isn’t the best goal to aim for and something of an additional benefit if it does occur.
Should I bulk or cut – When to Bulk
If you’re quite skinny or lean enough to begin seeing muscular definition, you might consider bulking. If not, then you might consider cutting for a while instead. There are a couple of reasons for that:
First, we have the psychological factor. If you always feel uncomfortable with your level of body fat, then bulking is not a good idea. You won’t enjoy how you look, you will doubt yourself all the time, and you will be much more likely to give up on that goal and jump into cutting. And of course, we want to avoid this! After all, fitness should elevate us, not burden our lives.
And next up, there is also an argument to be made about the length of the bulk. As we mentioned above, muscle growth is a slow process. We should bulk for longer, so we can gain more muscle. By starting each bulk from a leaner state, we create a longer ‘runway’ for ourselves, and we don’t have to jump between cutting and bulking constantly.
Because of these reasons, we should avoid going on a bulk at a higher body fat, and we should do our best to gain weight at a steady rate. That way, we’ll create a better muscle-building environment, we’ll feel better about ourselves, we’ll look a lot better throughout each bulk, and we’ll have more time to put quality mass on.
The question of, “Should I bulk or cut?” appears simple to answer, but there are several things to consider.
Aside from putting yourself in the best possible position for both, you should also consider how you feel about it. So, one of the most important things you need to consider is your level of comfort.
If you’re at an uncomfortable body fat level, cut first. On the other hand, if you don’t mind getting a bit fluffier and you’ve gained some momentum on a bulking phase, keep going a bit longer.
Then, come time to cut, get reasonably lean, but not to the point where you’re ravenous all the time and obsessed over food.
A periodized approach to your nutrition such as this, coupled with carefully programmed weight training will put you in the best position to build your goal physique over time.