If you’re looking to build a leaner, stronger, and more muscular body, you’ve probably got some questions concerning bulking vs. cutting.
Specifically, you probably want to know if you should “bulk” and focus on gaining muscle as quickly as possible, or “cut” to strip some fat and then bulk.
Both bulking and cutting have pros and cons.
Bulking adds both lean mass (yay) and body fat (boo), and cutting unveils your abs (hooray) but stunts muscle growth (hiss).
And it’s this dilemma that makes for a fitness purgatory of sorts where you don’t really commit to one strategy or another and thus stagnate in terms of progress.
If you want to avoid this pitfall, this is the article for you. In it, you’ll learn . . .
- How to know if you should bulk or cut
- How to cut without losing muscle
- How to “lean bulk” (gain muscle without gaining fat)
- How long you should cut or bulk
- How to cut and bulk when you first start lifting
- If you can bulk and cut at the same time
- How to transition from cutting to bulking
Table of Contents
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Bulking refers to temporarily maintaining a moderate calorie surplus to increase body weight.
Typically, people who are bulking optimize their macronutrient intake (the proportion of their calories that come from protein, carbs, and fat) and training to ensure that most of the weight they gain is muscle rather than fat (though some fat gain while bulking is inevitable).
Cutting refers to temporarily restricting your calorie intake to cause weight loss.
Typically, people who are cutting optimize their macronutrient intake and training to ensure that most of the weight they lose is fat, not muscle (though some muscle loss while cutting is inevitable).
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You should only bulk if you want to maximize muscle gain and you don’t mind gaining some fat.
(Yes, some people can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but unless you’ve been weightlifting for less than about six months, you’re probably not one of them.)
So, assuming you’re okay with that, you should bulk if you’re a . . .
- Man at or below 10% body fat
- Woman at or below 20% body fat
Here’s a flowchart to illustrate this:
The reasons I recommend getting to a fairly low body fat percentage before bulking are:
- If you’re too fat when you start bulking, then you’re either going to have to cut your bulk short or wind up way too fat in the end. Start your bulks lean, though, and you’ll be able to stay in a surplus for much longer before having to cut, and this means more time spent gaining muscle.
- Getting lean before you start bulking makes for shorter post-bulk cuts because we have less fat to lose to get back to our ideal “maintenance bods.”
If you’re currently unhappy with your body fat percentage and you want to get lean before worrying about gaining a significant amount of muscle, then you want to cut.
There’s no reason to get fatter just to gain some muscle if that’s not your primary concern at this point. Do what’s going to keep you motivated.
If you’re in the middle, however—if your body fat is in a normal range and you like the idea of having abs but also want to get bigger—then whether you should cut is dictated by your body fat percentage.
Specifically, you should cut if you’re a . . .
- Man with more than 15% body fat
- Woman with more than 25% body fat
If you prefer a visual, refer to the flowchart above.
If you follow this recommendation, you’ll . . .
- Be happier with how you look because you’ll never “feel fat,” which helps you stick to your diet and training program.
- Lose more fat and less muscle when you cut because you won’t have to heavily restrict your calories or cut for a prolonged period of time.
Studies show that the only way to lose fat is to eat fewer calories than you burn.
When you eat fewer calories than you burn, you’re in a “calorie deficit” because, well, you’re feeding your body fewer calories than it needs. And when you maintain a calorie deficit for long enough, your body is forced to burn through substantial amounts of stored body fat to meet its energy demands. (In other words, weight loss is about calories in versus calories out).
Now, the larger the calorie deficit, the faster the weight loss, but if you make it too large (by eating too little), you can shoot yourself in the foot by priming yourself for muscle loss and binge eating.
We want to avoid that, but we also want to push the needle so you can lose fat rapidly.
This is why I recommend that you set your calorie deficit at 20-to-25% (eat 20-to-25% less calories than you burn every day).
(And if you’d like even more specific advice about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
When we’re talking body composition, protein is by far the most important macronutrient.
Studies show that eating adequate protein helps you . . .
- Recover faster from your workouts.
- Gain muscle and lose fat faster.
- Retain muscle better while restricting your calories for weight loss.
- Feel more satiated by your meals (and thus be less likely to overeat).
The bottom line is high-protein dieting beats low-protein in every way, especially when you’re cutting.
So, what’s the right amount of protein?
Well, when you’re looking to lose fat, then you should eat about 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.
And if you’re very overweight (25%+ body fat in men and 30%+ in women), then this can be reduced to around 40% of your total calories per day.
Heavy compound weightlifting doesn’t just help you maintain muscle while you cut—it helps you lose fat, too.
This is mainly due to the rise in metabolic rate that occurs between sets and after your workout as your body recovers, also known as the “afterburn effect.”
By “a lot” of heavy compound weightlifting, I mean about 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week spread across three to five workouts per week.
Studies show that these are the types of exercises that produce the greatest increases in metabolic rate, muscle mass, and strength.
And by “heavy,” I mean lifting weights that are above 75% of your one-rep max (weights that you can do 12 reps or less with before failing). Research shows that training with heavy weights not only helps you build more muscle, it helps you burn more fat than training with lighter weights.
The best way to include cardio in a weight loss regimen is to do as little as needed to reach your desired rate of weight loss and stay fit and happy, and no more.
Here’s what typically works best:
- Do mostly low- to moderate-intensity cardio like walking or rucking. This will burn plenty of calories, requires very little motivation to complete, and interferes with weightlifting less than high-intensity cardio.
- Do a small amount of HIIT if you enjoy it. You don’t actually need to do HIIT as it’s no more effective for weight loss than low- to moderate-intensity cardio, but it does offer some fitness benefits you can’t get from other kinds of cardio and injects some variety into your workouts.
- Do at least two easy cardio workouts per week of 20-to-40 minutes each. This is a good starting place for maintaining your health and boosting calorie expenditure.
- Don’t do more than 3-to-4 hours of cardio per week. This minimizes fatigue so that you can put most of your energy into weightlifting.
- Do your cardio and weightlifting on separate days if possible. If you have to do them on the same day, try to separate them by at least 6 hours. And if you have to do them in the same workout, do your weightlifting before cardio.
Unfortunately, no amount of weight loss pills and powders are going to automagically decrease your body fat percentage.
In fact, most fat loss supplements are completely worthless.
But, here’s the good news:
If you know how to eat and train to drive fat loss, certain supplements can speed up the process. (And if you’d like to know exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz.)
Here are the best supplements for fat loss:
- 3 to 6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight per day. This will raise the number of calories you burn and also increases strength, muscle endurance, and anaerobic performance. If you want a clean, delicious source of caffeine that also contains five other ingredients that will boost your workout performance, try Pulse.
- 0.1 to 0.2 milligrams of yohimbine per kilogram of bodyweight before fasted training. This increases fat loss when used in conjunction with fasted training, and is particularly helpful with losing“stubborn” fat. If you want a 100% natural source of yohimbine that also contains two other ingredients that will help you lose fat faster, preserve muscle, and maintain training intensity and mental sharpness, try Forge.
- One serving of Phoenix per day. Phoenix is a 100% natural fat burner that speeds up your metabolism, enhances fat burning, and reduces hunger and cravings. You can also get Phoenix with caffeine, or without.
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If you want to maximize muscle gain, you need to maintain a mild calorie surplus.
That is, you need to eat about 110% of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) every day.
The reason for this is a calorie surplus optimizes your body’s “muscle-building machinery,” so to speak, greatly enhancing your body’s ability to recover from and positively adapt to your training.
Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that if overeating by a little is necessary to gain muscle, then overeating by a lot will be even better.
However, you can’t force your muscles to grow faster by drowning them in calories, because beyond a certain point, food stops fueling muscle growth and just makes you fatter.
This is why you should shy away from “dirty bulking”—a bodybuilding term for eating everything in sight—and instead “lean bulk” using this approach.
In addition to eating the right number of calories, it’s also important that you eat enough protein and carbs to build muscle and fuel your workouts.
Protein: Eat 0.8-to-1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. This is enough to maximize muscle growth—eating more than this won’t help you bulk up faster. This usually works out to around 20-to-40% of calories for most people.
Carbs: Eat at least 2-to-3 grams of carbs per pound of body weight per day. The reason you want to follow a high-carb diet while lean bulking is that this keeps your glycogen levels topped off, which improves your performance in the gym and positively impacts genes related to muscle growth. This usually works out to around 40-to-60% of calories for most people.
Generally, the best way to set up a lean bulking diet is eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, set your fat intake at about 20% of calories, and fill in the rest with carbs.
(Again, if you feel confused about how many calories, how much of each macronutrient, and which foods you should eat to reach your goals, take the Legion Diet Quiz to learn exactly what diet is right for you.)
A couple days of gorging per week while bulking is enough to cause you to bulk up fast, but you’ll gain fat at double or even triple the desired rate.
Don’t do this.
Learn how to “cheat” intelligently instead, and control your calories while bulking the same way you would while cutting.
Research shows that if you want to build muscle as fast as you can, nothing beats compound weightlifting.
Exercises that involve just one joint and major muscle group at a time—also known as isolation exercises—can still have a place in your program, but if building muscle is your main goal, you should put most of your energy into compound exercises.
That’s not all, though. You also need to progressively overload your muscles.
When you’re new to lifting weights, the simplest and most effective way to do this is to strive to add weight or reps to every exercise in every workout. If you bench pressed 135 for 5 reps last week, you try to bench press 145 for 5 reps this week. It’s that simple.
This forces your muscles to produce greater and greater levels of tension over time, which in turn helps you grow bigger and stronger.
Unfortunately, no amount of pills and powders are going to make you muscular and lean.
But here’s the good news:
If you know how to eat and train to build muscle—following the steps we just covered—certain supplements can speed up the muscle-building process.
Here are the best supplements for building muscle:
- 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ protein powder or Casein+ protein powder.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
Again, if you feel confused about what supplements you should take to reach your goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz to learn exactly what supplements are right for you. It’s the best way to ensure you get the most out of your supplement regimen.
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How long you spend bulking and cutting depends on the following:
- How much weight you want to gain or lose.
If you want to gain a lot of muscle, you’ll need to stay in a surplus for longer than someone who only wants to add a few pounds of muscle to their frame.
Likewise, if you have a lot of fat to lose, you’ll need to stay in a deficit longer than someone who’s only looking to drop one or two body fat percentage points
- How many years you’ve been training.
The more experienced you are, the longer it takes to build muscle, and thus the longer you have to spend in a surplus to gain lean mass.
That said, a good rule of thumb for most lifters is to spend at least 8-to-12 weeks bulking and use a bulking-to-cutting ratio of 3:1 (unless you’re very overweight, in which case you may need to spend considerably more time cutting than bulking until you reach a more healthy weight).
For example, if you spend 12 weeks bulking, you should spend the following 4 weeks cutting.
Keep in mind, though, that none of these figures are etched in stone and will likely change as you become more experienced with bulking and cutting.
For example, once you’re good at controlling your calorie intake and can easily maintain a healthy body fat percentage, you may prefer to shorten your cycles of cutting and bulking using mini cuts and bulks.
Regardless of whether you’re new to training or not, the same rules apply:
If you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible and you’re at or below 10% (men) or 20% (women) body fat, then you should bulk.
And if you want to lose fat as quickly as possible and you’re at or above 15% (men) or 25% (women) body fat, then you should cut.
Although the process of bulking and cutting is the same regardless of your training experience, you’ll be able to build more muscle while cutting when you’re new to weightlifting than you will after your first six months, and this effect will all but disappear after your first year of weightlifting.
This is because your body is hyper-responsive to the muscle-building effects of resistance training, which allows you to gain muscle even when you’re in a calorie deficit.
This “newbie gains” phase generally lasts six-to-eight months for most people, after which you’ll have to alternate between cycles of cutting and bulking depending on whether you want to lose or gain weight.
Physiologically speaking, fat loss and muscle growth have “irreconcilable differences.” Their mutual incompatibility stems from their relationship to the body’s energy balance.
That said, it is possible to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously—or achieve body recomposition—when you’re new to weightlifting.
In your first year of weightlifting alone you can expect to gain anywhere from 15-to-25 pounds of muscle as a guy and about half that as a woman, a phenomenon known as “newbie gains.”
And in most cases, you can pull this off while gaining very little body fat or even losing fat—thus achieving “recomp.”
Once the honeymoon phase is over, though, your goal will be to lose fat and not muscle while in a calorie deficit and to gain muscle with minimal fat while in a calorie surplus.
Many people think that you need to gradually “come out” of a cut by incrementally increasing your daily calorie intake each week until you reach maintenance—a method that’s known as reverse dieting.
I’ll make this simple: you don’t.
Reverse dieting has no advantages over simply raising calories immediately back to maintenance (and may even be counterproductive).
Thus, when you’re finished cutting, recalculate your maintenance calories and increase your daily calorie intake accordingly by increasing carbs and fat as you prefer. And when you’re ready to start cutting, you can drop your calories again just as fast—no transition period needed.
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