As you progress in your fitness journey your goals will change from time to time. You may want to lean out and cut down for summer, then capitalize on those winter gains and add on some size. Maybe you are looking for a new challenge in your training and physique to mix it up and keep your training from getting boring. Whatever your reason, there’s a time and place to add on mass and bulk up. There’s also a time and place for you to cut. In order to be successful at either, there are some parameters you need to be aware of to achieve the best results, such as being aware of body fat percentage, insulin sensitivity, and even hormone levels. [R, R] If you are asking yourself "When should I bulk or cut? What’s the difference between the two? Is cutting after bulking better? Can I put on muscle without getting fat?" You came to the right place. We’re going to cover bulk vs. cut and answer all these questions, plus more.
Bulk or Cut - Which One Should You Do?
Deciding if you should bulk or cut depends on your lifestyle, goals, aesthetic aspirations, and much more than your current body composition. It’s not as simple as taking your body fat percentage and determining if you should lose or gain. [R]
Successfully bulking or cutting also has to do with your level of training experience and expertise. If we were to summarize everything we’re going to get into here, if your body fat percentage is too high or above the recommended threshold, we recommend focusing your nutrition and exercise efforts around getting leaner, rather than gaining muscle mass. The opposite can be said for those who have a very low body fat percentage, whereas, for these individuals, we recommend gaining muscle, rather than focusing on cutting more body fat.
Bulk Then Cut -or- Cut Then Bulk?
Wondering if you should bulk before you cut to get that shredded physique? Choosing which one to start with can be confusing at first, but we’re here to help. If you find yourself with more than 15% body fat (for men) and more than 25% body fat (for women) then a cut is going to be for you long before you bulk. [R, R]
If you’re below 10% body fat (for men) or below 20% (for women) and your goal is to put on size and mass, then we recommend bulking, then cutting. Keep reading - we’re going to take a more in-depth look at why this is from a biological perspective.
MEN men, as a general recommendation, if your body fat percentage is over 15% we recommend implementing a cutting phase to between 10 and 15 percent overall body fat.
WOMEN as a general recommendation, if your body fat percentage is over 25% we recommend implementing a cutting phase to between 18 and 20 percent overall body fat.
Entering A Cutting Phase - Who Is It For?
The obvious answer here is this - if you’re unhappy with your total body fat percentage and you just want to lean out to have more definition and overall function, without adding on muscle or weight, then a cut if going to be ideal for you and your goals.
Likewise, if you’re overweight or unhappy with your body fat percentage, then cutting is going to be the smartest choice, even if you want to be the biggest, strongest guy in the gym someday (this should be a long-term goal). Cutting body fat is going to set you up for a higher rate of success as well as more optimal overall health levels.
If you’re somewhere in the middle and maybe you can see some (or all) of your abs with a low body fat percentage, but you’re also looking to get bigger, then determining whether cutting or bulking is going to be better for you, is going to come down to your body fat percentage.
Reason To Cut #1: You Won’t ‘Feel’ Fat
It’s nice to feel generally happy with the way you look at feel. The amount of body fat you carry on your body (as well as your overall health) can dictate this “I feel fat today” feeling. I mean, let’s face it, nobody likes gaining extra fat, but on the same flip side of that coin, it’s also not healthy to walk around at 5% body fat. This is why we stick to meal plans and our macro numbers as well as head to the gym consistently — we want to feel good and look good in our own skin, based on our own expectations and standards. It’s okay to admit that this is why you want to look good, there’s nothing wrong with that. Is it for everyone? No. But chances are, if you’re reading this article, you can relate.
When you like what you see looking back at the mirror, it’s simple to correlate that positive feeling to doing more positive things, like getting off the couch, making healthier food decisions, and busting your ass in the gym. Once you exceed certain body fat thresholds (this looks like around 15% for men and 25% for women), you’re going to start noticing declines in energy, increases in fatigue, and some notions of ‘feeling fat’.
Now before you come at me for going here, realize we’re not picking on anyone or any ‘body’ for that matter. Keeping your body in a general range of fat percentage can help you improve your overall perspective of yourself and your health, and if you get outside of that range? Then maybe you should consider a cut so that whatever your own personal standard is, you can get back to it.
Reason To Cut #2: Optimize Body Fat & Maintain Muscle
A successful cut will do two things: optimize your body fat levels while maintaining the muscle mass that you have, preventing unnecessary muscle metabolism and breakdown, contributing to an overall reduction in body weight. [R]
BIGGEST CUTTING PHASE MISTAKES:
Restricting calories too much
Restricting calories for too long
A cut takes time, patience, and persistence. It’s not a quick fix weight loss solution or an optimal way to go from being overweight or obese to a healthy natural weight. That’s not what we’re addressing here, and unfortunately, many people look at ‘cutting’ synonymously with starving themselves for long periods of time due to the high amount of body fat that they want to eliminate. [R] This doesn’t set you up for success and only sets you up for a major disaster.
Now can you see why we set forth the specific body fat ranges a few paragraphs before? If you are able to keep your body fat at reasonable levels, within specific ranges, then cuts will be shorter and more manageable, avoiding stark hunger, cravings, and fatigue.
If you’re within the body fat ranges and are able to do a quick, short cut, you’re going to set yourself up for more success, both physically and psychologically, than if you’re trying to lose a large amount of weight and body fat.
Reason To Cut #3: Gain More Muscle And Less Fat On Your Next Bulk
When you try to bulk with too much body fat you’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. Why? Because your body’s insulin sensitivity is too low.
TRUTH BOMB #1:
The more fat you have the easier it is to get fat and stay fat.
We’re not fat-shaming, it’s fact. When you have poor insulin sensitivity due to high levels of body fat in the body, you decrease your body’s natural fat-burning process, increasing your overall likelihood of weight gain. [R] With this process hindered, you also reduce your body’s ability to synthesize protein and gain muscle. Yikes. It seems like a recipe for a failed bulk, doesn’t it?
In order to have a successful bulk, you must cut your body fat levels to a range in which it can respond better to insulin. The more insulin sensitive your body is, the better it can build muscle mass and resist gaining unnecessary body fat, which are the two biggest, most eminent goals of a bulking phase. [R] Gaining muscle mass without gaining body fat. In terms of cut vs bulk, if you find yourself with higher body fat levels and poor insulin sensitivity, then a cut is going to be more ideal and set you up for more success than a bulking phase will, even if it’s winter.
RELATED ARTICLE 7 Common Bulking Mistakes
TRUTH BOMB #2:
Higher body fat percentages = low testosterone and high estrogen.
To put this in simple terms, testosterone is the key hormone for building muscle and estrogen promotes fat storage. [R,R] If you are to perform a bulking phase when you have too high of body fat, you’re going to lack the key hormonal driver that stimulates muscle growth, testosterone, and you’ll probably end up gaining even more body fat because your hormonal profile is dominated by estrogen. [R, R] Where will this get you? Probably fatter than when you started.
RELATED ARTICLE Do Increased Testosterone Levels Help Burn More Body Fat?
This is why we recommend a cutting phase if you’re over the 15%/25% body fat range and are looking to develop a seriously chiseled and optimized muscular physique. Scared to get too small? We get it - losing body fat and weight when you just want to be big can be an odd psychological perspective at first, but if you’re serious about your goals and you want to be big, look big, and lift big in the future, you have to take the proper steps to get there. You can’t cheat out body fat and expect to build muscle. That’s just not how we work physiologically.
Entering A Bulking Phase - Who Is It For?
How do you know if you should bulk? It’s simple — if you’re looking to maximize muscle gain and don’t mind gaining some body fat and overall weight, then bulk is for you. While yes, it’s possible to gain muscle while simultaneously losing body fat, this is going to depend on the quality of your training, nutrition, and overall expertise in the gym. [R]
If you’re new to the gym or weightlifting in general, chances are you need to be prepared to gain some weight during your bulking phase. Instead of looking at this as a bad thing, just realize that gaining weight is a necessary part of adding on mass because you’re going to be in a slight caloric surplus and there’s really no way around that.
If your body fat is at or below 10% and you’re looking to gain some size and mass, we recommend bulking until you reach anywhere between 15 and 17 percent body fat.
If your body fat is at or below 20% and you’re looking to gain some size and mass, we recommend bulking until you reach anywhere between 25 and 27 percent body fat.
Body Fat Percentages And Bulking
As we covered previously, the amount of body fat you have dictates your hormone response (testosterone and estrogen) [R] which contributes to your overall body composition. There are three main reasons why starting a bulk from a leaner body fat phase can set you up for better success.
TRUTH BOMB #1:
You are able to build more muscle from a lower-body fat starting point
When you are leaner (lower body fat percentage) your body does a better job at building muscle and maintaining body fat at a lower level, thanks to efficient insulin response and hormone functioning. [R] Estrogen levels can be normalized and kept here while keeping testosterone production at strong levels. [R, R]
TRUTH BOMB #2:
You store less body fat when you have a lean physique
Even though you enter into a bulk, you don’t want to let yourself gain too much body fat, so that you set yourself up for the best possible success at growing sheer muscle during a bulking phase. [R] Starting lean, with a low level of body fat, sets you up for the highest physiological rate of success when entering into a bulking phase. This is due to the way our body utilizes insulin. [R] When you have a high sensitivity to insulin in the body, your body does a more efficient job at storing calories as glycogen and muscle as compared to storing them as extra body fat. [R, R]
TRUTH BOMB #3:
If you’re too fat when you begin to bulk you’re going to end up fatter
Swallow that truth. The less body fat you have when you start a bulking phase, the longer you’re going to be able to actually bulk for. The thought process behind this is simple - if you’re already heavy, and you want to get heavier, there is a threshold at which you will just end up gaining fat and reducing muscle mass, the exact opposite goal of a bulking phase. So why do it? When you start lean, you have more room to grow from, literally. You can build more quality muscle and gain less overall body fat than if you started big in the first place.
RELATED ARTICLE 6 Rules For A Successful Bulking Season
How To Naturally Increase Testosterone Levels To Optimize Body Composition
Regardless of the goal, we recommend aiming to optimize testosterone levels, not only to improve overall health and functioning but to set yourself up for the best chance of gaining and keeping muscle mass.
Bulk or Cut For Obese/Overweight Individuals
A small note here - we don’t advise a bulk or cut for someone who is obese or just starting a weight training program to start here. When individuals are looking to change their weight using drastic food or fluid restriction to lose weight, the individual can suffer more negative consequences than positive, including loss of lean tissue, hormonal disturbances, and performance impairment. [R] While there’s nothing wrong with these methods (cutting/bulking), they aren’t designed for this type of individual with the best rate of success. When overweight or obese, an individual can gradually improve nutritional habits and implement exercise and activities that gradually reduce body fat percentage while maintaining and building muscle mass.
Bulk or Cut For ‘Skinny Fat’ Individuals
We have a whole article on being skinny fat, and while we’re not necessarily subtyping or subjecting any individual to this if you find yourself with a very low muscular stature with a high level of body fat, but not out of the general weight range recommended based on height and gender, then you may find yourself in this category. If you find yourself here, we don’t recommend a cutting phase, however, we don’t really recommend a bulking phase, either. Instead, focus on total body recomposition, improving overall nutrition, eating more protein, and starting a resistance training exercise program to build muscle and lose body fat.
In Conclusion: Bulk Or Cut
All in all the goal of cutting and bulking is to optimize muscle mass and reduce overall body fat. If you start a bulking phase within the 10 to 15% body fat range (for men) and the 20 to 25% body fat range (for women) you will optimize your body composition with more quality and effectiveness from your hard-earned efforts. [R] What does this mean? It means you’ll like how you look and feel better, you’ll be healthier overall, you’ll cut and gain mass and size at a sustainable rate, and you’ll lose more body fat when you cut and gain more quality muscle mass (and not fat) when you bulk. It seems like this is the best way to go when you’re considering if you should bulk or cut, doesn’t it!?
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