The words “bulking” and “cutting” tend to stir conflicting emotions.
Bulking is marked by big, satisfying meals, vigorous workouts, and pleasing pumps, but it’s also marred by higher body fat levels and a loss of muscle definition and vascularity.
Cutting is the opposite—meals are smaller and less satiating, your workouts sag, and your muscles feel small and flat, but these negatives are counterbalanced by seeing your abs and veins come out of crypsis.
While this is largely unavoidable—you need to alternate between periods of cutting and bulking to build an appreciable amount of muscle—you can make both of these phases more productive and enjoyable by employing mini-cuts and mini-bulks.
The traditional, superannuated approach to bulking is to “eat big” for 6+ months or until the angst of gaining body fat overrides the gratification of getting bigger and stronger. Then, you cut for as long as it takes to be happy with what you see in the mirror (often 3+ months).
Mini-cuts and mini-bulks work by shortening these time frames.
You bulk and cut for fewer months at a time, but alternate between these two phases more often, maximizing their benefits and minimizing their downsides.
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Cutting refers to temporarily restricting your calorie intake to cause weight loss. Typically, people who are cutting also optimize their macronutrient intake (the proportion of their calories that come from protein, carbs, and fat) to ensure that most of the weight they lose is fat, not muscle.
Traditionally, bodybuilders and other athletes cut for as long as necessary to reach their desired body fat levels, usually aiming to lose about a pound per week. Since cutting tends to be unpleasant, most people also try to limit their cuts to no more than three-to-four months at a clip.
Some people claim that cutting for long periods of time (usually more than two or three months, depending on who you ask) “damages” your metabolism, but research shows this is false.
In reality, the reason longer cuts tend to be less effective than shorter ones is because they’re harder to stick to. You get hungry between meals, feel sluggish during workouts, and start making more and more “exceptions” to your diet. Most people have no trouble restricting calories for a few weeks or even a month or two, but the gears usually start to grind after two-to-three months of self-denial.
What’s more, while extended cuts don’t “damage” your metabolism, they do cause subtle decreases in energy expenditure that can make it harder to lose weight over time.
A mini-cut is simply a shorter and (usually) more aggressive cut, which offers two significant benefits over longer, more gradual cuts:
- You’re limiting your cut to the part that tends to be the easiest and most productive—the first 4-to-8 weeks. This is typically when you’re most eager to lose weight and thus have the easiest time sticking to your diet. It’s also long enough to lose a significant amount of fat, but not so long that your energy expenditure flags and your hunger flares.
- If you’re interspersing a mini-cut in between bulking phases, you can maintain a lower average body fat percentage throughout the year, which is more enjoyable than letting yourself get too puffy.
The goal is to lose a decent amount of body fat in a relatively short amount of time so that you can get back to bulking as quickly as possible.
Another benefit of the mini-cut is that you start with a clear deadline, which can motivate you to better stick to your diet. Instead of wandering down a dark tunnel, not knowing when you’ll see the light, you start your cut in sight of the finish line.
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Bulking refers to temporarily maintaining a moderate calorie surplus to increase body weight.
A mini-bulk is simply a shorter-than-average bulk that typically lasts 3-to-4 months instead of the more typical 6+ month approach.
The benefits of mini-bulks are basically the same as they are for mini-cuts:
- You don’t allow your body fat levels to rise as high throughout the year, which makes the whole process more motivating and enjoyable.
- You’ll probably have an easier time sticking to your diet (although controlled overeating is more enjoyable than controlled undereating, it still takes discipline and consistency).
The benefits of mini-cuts and mini-bulks are both physiological and psychological:
Your body fat levels never get too high (the physiological benefit), and you tend to enjoy and thus stick to your bulking and cutting diets more easily (the psychological benefit).
Using mini-cuts and mini-bulks also gives you more flexibility about when you cut and bulk throughout the year.
Although it’s axiomatic that bodybuilders cut in the spring, maintain their new, lower body fat percentage in the summer, and bulk in the fall, using mini-bulks and mini-cuts frees you from this schedule. Since your body fat levels never rise more than a few percentage points during your bulks (if you’re bulking correcting), you don’t need to worry about being “too fat” for beach season. You can bulk and cut more or less whenever you want, because you’ll always look pretty good.
And if you feel the urge to get significantly leaner for whatever reason, you can simply extend one of your mini-cuts by a month or two to trim off a bit more body fat.
Although this approach to cutting and bulking might sound unconventional, experts like Lyle McDonald, Dr. Eric Helms, and Alan Aragon have been recommending this for years. As is often the case, Lyle summed it up best—“bulk a little, cut a little.”
While mini-cuts and mini-bulks have a number of pros, they also come with a few cons.
First, they aren’t a good idea if you’re very overweight. Specifically, if you’re over 20% body fat as a man or 30% body fat as a woman, you shouldn’t be bulking for any length of time. Instead, focus on getting down to a healthier body fat percentage (<15% for men and <25% for women), then worry about gaining muscle.
Second, if you tend to be inconsistent about maintaining a calorie deficit, you’ll probably do better with longer cuts. That is, if you tend to lose weight slower than you “should” because you aren’t controlling your calorie intake, you won’t be able to make much progress if you only cut for a few weeks at a time.
This is why many people who are new to structured dieting tend to struggle with this strategy. They have trouble maintaining a consistent calorie deficit while cutting, and then end up needing to cut for much longer than they anticipated to get lean again. What’s more, these people also tend to overeat while bulking, thus shortening how long they can maintain a calorie surplus before needing to cut.
If you’re at a healthy body fat percentage and are good at controlling your calorie intake, though, then mini-cuts and mini-bulks are the winning formula for efficiently gaining muscle while staying lean.
In other words, everyone can successfully use mini-cuts and mini-bulks to lose fat and gain muscle, but it requires some experience and discipline.
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There are five steps to getting the most out of your mini-cuts and mini-bulks:
- Get lean before you try mini-cuts and mini-bulks.
- Maintain a moderate calorie surplus during your mini-bulks.
- Maintain an aggressive (but not reckless) calorie deficit during your mini-cuts.
- Bulk for at least 12-to-16 weeks, mini-cut for no more than 4-to-8 weeks.
- (Bonus) Coordinate your bulking and cutting cycles with your training program.
The whole idea of mini-cuts and mini-bulks is that your body fat percentage will stay within a fairly narrow range over time. If you start this process at a relatively high body fat percentage, then you’ll never get much leaner.
For this reason, it’s best to cut until you’re around 10-to-12% body fat as a man or 20-to-24% as a woman before you start doing mini-cuts and mini-bulks. Not only will you be happier with how you look, but any muscle you gain will also be more apparent.
The most common mistake most weightlifters make when bulking—mini or otherwise—is overeating.
They wind up gaining fat much faster than necessary, which forces them to shorten their bulks and cut for several months instead of weeks.
Instead, aim to maintain a moderate calorie surplus of around 10-to-15% above your maintenance calories, or enough to gain about 0.25-to-1% of your body weight per week. People who’ve been weightlifting for a year or less should aim for the upper end of this range (0.5-to-1% per week), and people who’ve been lifting for more than a year should stick to the lower end of this range (0.25-to-0.5% per week). This approach is often referred to as “lean bulking” or “clean bulking,” and you can learn more about it in this article.
If you want to calculate your bulking calories, use the Legion TDEE Calculator to determine exactly how much you should eat to maintain a 10 to 15% calorie surplus.
The larger your calorie deficit, the faster you’ll lose weight. And since you’re only cutting for a few weeks during a mini-cut, it’s tempting to crash diet (or maybe try some extreme diet like a protein-sparing modified fast) to lose weight as fast as possible.
The problem with this approach, though, is that recklessly restricting your calories banjaxes your strength, accelerates muscle loss, and turns your hunger up to eleven. Not only does this leave you feeling haggard and weak at the end of your cuts, it often leads to binging and excessive fat gain during your bulks.
This is why I normally recommend that you set your calorie deficit at 20-to-25% (eat 20-to-25% fewer calories than you burn every day). This is enough to lose fat lickety-split without losing muscle or wrestling with excessive hunger, lethargy, and the other hobgoblins of low-calorie dieting.
Since you’re doing a mini-cut, though, you can afford to be slightly more aggressive and maintain a 25-to-30% calorie deficit. While you shouldn’t need to restrict your calories this much if you’re bulking properly (not gaining too much fat), it probably won’t cause any major problems, either, and will allow you to bulk even longer before needing to cut again.
If you want to learn how many calories this is for you, check out the Legion Calorie Calculator.
As a general rule, you want to use a 3-or-4:1 ratio of time spent bulking to cutting. In practice, this means bulking for three or four months before cutting for one month.
Of course, the exact length of your bulking and cutting phases depends on your preferences and how closely you stick to the diet (if you overeat while bulking, you’ll need to cut more frequently), but this is a good target to shoot for.
Since muscle-building is a slow, long-term process, you also want to make sure that you spend at least two-thirds of the year bulking and no more than one-third cutting. Cut for longer than this, and you simply aren’t giving yourself enough time to gain a substantial amount of muscle.
Not spending enough time in a calorie surplus and spending too much time in a deficit is perhaps the single biggest mistake people make when trying to build muscle.
If you browse message boards online, you’ll often find people who recommend bulking for a month or two and then cutting for a month or two. While this can (kind of) work in the short-term, it shortchanges your gains and generally just doesn’t work over the long term.
We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty details of why this is, but the long story short is that it takes time for your body’s “muscle-building machinery” to warm up and get into high gear when you enter a calorie surplus. Thus, by entering a calorie deficit too often, you prevent this from happening.
Or put differently, muscle-building is a slow process that takes time to gain momentum, and you’ll hamstring this by pumping the brakes every month or so with mini-bulks. This is why you should aim to bulk for at least 12 weeks at a time, preferably longer.
The main reason so many people use mini-bulks and mini-cuts of equal length isn’t because this approach is optimal. Instead, it’s because they gain too much fat during their bulks, and thus need to spend a greater proportion of their time cutting to get rid of it. If you’re bulking properly, you should be able to go for three or four or more months before needing to cut.
You don’t need to modify your training program to coincide with your bulking and cutting cycles, but if you already periodize your training, syncing both your diet and training plans can make the whole process more enjoyable.
If you want to try this, what typically works best is to focus on lower-reps, heavier-weights, and fewer sets (volume) during your mini-cuts; and higher-reps, lighter-weights, and more sets during your mini-bulks.
The reasoning behind this strategy is that although high-volume workouts can be a boon to muscle growth, they can also be difficult to perform and recover from when restricting your calories (especially your carbs). While high-intensity workouts aren’t a walk in the park, they don’t tap glycogen levels as much as high-volume workouts, and thus are usually better tolerated while cutting.
The reason this is a “bonus” tip is that it really isn’t that important, and the rationale behind it is somewhat theoretical. If you don’t want to fuss with this, feel free to keep following your normal training program regardless of whether you’re bulking or cutting. Unless you’re following a very high-volume training program, you probably don’t need to change anything except your expectations.
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If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s an example of how you could alternate between mini-cuts and mini-bulks throughout a 2-year period. In this case, only 20% of your time is spent cutting, which leaves the bulk of your time (harhar) for bulking.
Granted, this is a best-case scenario, and you shouldn’t expect to perfectly stick to cycles like this in reality, but it illustrates the general idea of what you’re aiming for.