Body recomposition is a delicate balancing act. Shredding body fat and building muscle mass are the main goals but aiming for both simultaneously aren’t going to yield the best possible results. For the greatest muscle gain and lowest body fat percentage, you have to master the art of alternating between cutting for weight loss and bulking with targeted strength training.
It might sound simple but there’s a lot of room for error. Bulking and cutting work in tandem and each affects how successful the other is. People aiming for a bodybuilder physique can’t get there by monitoring calories alone.
Understanding when to cut and when to bulk is tricky. It depends on your body type and fitness level. But whatever your situation, there are some surefire ways to maximize your muscle gain and fat loss through bulking and cutting. If you want a lean body and ripped muscles, this guide is for you.
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Bulking vs. Cutting: What’s the Difference?
The most obvious change between these two phases is your energy intake. Very generally speaking, you need a caloric surplus when you’re bulking and a caloric deficit when you’re cutting. The human body needs the extra energy for hypertrophy and, as always, a caloric deficit is the only way to lose weight.
But bulking and cutting are much more complicated than calorie counting alone. The bulking phase also needs to include targeted strength and resistance training that will build muscle mass and the cutting phase has to be structured so that your body fat percentage goes down but your muscle gains don’t disappear.
Dirty Bulking and Crash Cutting
Far too many people think the caloric surplus needed in the bulking phase requires them to ingest junk food and chug dairy. Upping your calorie intake with fatty, sugary foods is terrible for your overall health and it also robs your body of the nutrients it needs to build muscles and power through tough workouts. Avoid the dirty bulk at all costs.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are people who eliminate all carbohydrates and very nearly all food during the cutting phase. Since it mimics fad diets, we like to refer to this habit as crash cutting. If you don’t have enough carbs or other energy sources, your body will consume your lean muscle mass, undoing any progress you made during the bulking phase.
Clean bulking and clean cutting require a more nuanced diet. Essential macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and essential amino acids must be present at all times for your body to function properly, although the amounts might be different depending on which phase you’re in.
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When You Should Cut & When You Shouldn’t
Cutting when your body fat percentage is too high is a fine rule of thumb bet it’s not always so obvious that you should initiate a new cutting phase. Many people are right on the divide between what’s considered over or underweight or at a healthy weight but not fit. For example, “skinny fat” people are not overweight but do have a high body fat percentage.
Anytime you’re feeling unsatisfied with your weight is a fine time to initiate a cutting phase. If you want to build lean muscle you should start cutting to get lean first and concentrate on building muscle later. Since bodyweight is so subjective, it’s usually helpful to use your BMI or relative fat mass (RFM) to know for sure when it’s time to start cutting.
Aside from your body fat percentage, you can also use your muscle gains to determine when a cutting phase should start. If you’ve been bulking and building body mass in a bulking phase for 5 months or so and want your muscles to pop, try cutting for a while. Just don’t push the cutting phase too far or you may risk muscle loss.
There are a few times you should avoid cutting. If you have some kind of deadline, like an upcoming beach vacation, for instance, a week or two before is too late to start a cutting phase. You should also avoid cutting if you don’t have a definite plan to avoid panic cutting if your weight loss isn’t fast enough.
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When You Should Bulk & When You Shouldn’t
Bulking is different from a regular fitness routine because the calorie surplus is baked into the routine. As nice as it is to eat all that extra food, the large amount of calories is also the main reason why you can’t be in a perpetual bulking phase.
Plateaus in muscle growth present an ideal opportunity to start a bulking phase. The extra energy and macronutrients from bulking can help your body build more lean muscle. Another helpful rule of thumb is to bulk whenever you don’t have much body fat to cut.
However, you have to be careful about switching over to bulking from cutting. Stopping one abruptly and moving to the other can undermine your fitness goals. Your body will be primed for fat storage by cutting and if you suddenly start gorging yourself one day it could lead to serious fat gain. It’s vital to ease out of one phase before starting on the other.
Don’t continue bulking once you get past about 15% body fat or else your new bodybuilding physique will be hidden. To make the bulking process even easier, consider initiating a bulking phase in the autumn and carrying it through the cold winter months.
Macronutrients for Bulking and Cutting
Your body needs macronutrients all the time, but alternating the amounts you eat can help make both bulking and cutting even more effective. For example, your protein intake should be very high during a bulking phase so you can build more muscle. Here are some of the most important macronutrients and how you can use them when you’re bulking or cutting:
The last thing you want to do is cut carbs out of your diet completely, which is exactly what most lifters do when they start cutting. Carbs are your body’s preferred method of energy and what it’ll burn first to power through a tough training program. Though low-carb fad diets have made carbohydrates out to be a great evil, they’re actually a great source of energy for bulking and they’ll help keep muscle mass when you’re dieting to cut.
Carbs are stored in the body as glycogen, which is accessed for strenuous physical activity. Meals that include some form of carbohydrates also increase your body’s production of leptin, a hormone that makes you feel full. During the cutting phase, feeling full is tremendously important to keep you going and slow-burning carbs like oats, cereals, and lentils will help that full feeling stay around longer.
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Keeping up a high protein intake will help prevent muscle loss during cutting and help your body build more muscle when you’re trying to bulk up. While protein is the building block of life, it’s not the end-all-be-all of macronutrients. You need it for bulking but you should be careful not to saturate your body with protein.
Protein shakes are a longtime staple of bodybuilding but they can also be a vehicle for sneaking in additional fat or sugars that can be stored as body fat and cause you to gain weight. Generally speaking, your protein intake needs to be just high enough for muscle recovery but not so high that your body stores it as fat.
You might think fat means death during your cutting phase but your body still needs it for healthy cardiovascular function and energy, among other things. Fat helps with cell growth and increases leptin production in addition to regulating hormones in general. All of that bodes well for muscle growth in the bulking phase and for preventing muscle loss when you’re cutting.
Somewhat counterintuitively, healthy monounsaturated fats like you’d find in olive oil and polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 will help your body burn bad fat. They also help your muscles move better and reduce inflammation. Healthy fats are essential for your body to function and it cannot produce them on its own so make sure to include them in your bulking and cutting diets.
Balancing Macronutrients for Bulking and Cutting
So how much of these macronutrients do you need when you’re trying to build muscle and burn off pesky fat? It will vary depending on which cycle you’re in. Here are some basic ranges to help you balance your macros when you’re cutting and bulking:
Macronutrients for Lean Bulking
Maintaining a 5 – 10% caloric surplus when you’re bulking is called a lean bulk. Keep in mind that this process should go on for several months so you don’t need to double or triple your entire caloric intake with dirty bulking. Pacing is key for building muscle mass and not body fat.
As a ratio, you need one part protein for 2.5 to 3 parts carbohydrates and anywhere from 0.5 to 1 part healthy fats per kilogram of body weight. That’s around 2 grams of protein and healthy fats for every 4 to 7 grams of carbohydrates. As you can see, there’s wiggle room in these levels to make it applicable for a variety of body types.
Macronutrients for Cutting
You’ll want a calorie deficit between 5 and 10% during the cutting phase, eliminating excess fat and maintaining the amount of protein you eat to prevent muscle loss. Many people also increase their protein intake and bring their carbohydrate levels down when they’re cutting.
As a percentage of your daily calories, 40% each of carbs and protein and 20% on healthy fats is an easy rule of thumb. Some people monitor their carb intake more loosely and just concentrate on calorie counting and making sure they take in enough protein.
Working Out in the Cutting Phase
You have to keep moving if you want to preserve the muscle gains you made in the bulking phase. Compound exercises like deadlifts that target multiple muscle groups are great for the cutting phase but you might not be able to fit in as many reps due to the calorie deficit. Use bodyweight exercises and isometrics when your muscles are fatigued to keep them active during the cutting phase.
Targeting specific muscles can also help highlight your new muscle mass. Long head biceps exercises, for example, will give you huge peaks and massive arms. Working out should also aim to keep your body primed for the next bulking phase. Exercises to improve balance, flexibility, and function in key joints like the wrists, hips, shoulders, and ankles all have a place in a cutting phase workout routine.
Working Out in the Bulking Phase
Bulking is meant to increase the amount of muscle mass while keeping pesky fat at bay. You won’t be making the most of a bulking period with bench presses and isolated exercise alone.
Fill your bulking workout routine with intense HIIT and plyometric explosions to make sure you’re burning fat while you’re building muscle. You’re going to have extra energy from the extra calories so you’ll want to make sure you burn it off with rigorous exercise.
Flipping tires is a great compound exercise that will help you get huge muscles and build lean mass that isn’t covered by body fat.
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Optimizing Insulin Sensitivity for Bulking and Cutting
Most people don’t know much about insulin. Your pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream when a certain amount of sugar is detected in your blood. The insulin promotes the absorption of the sugar into muscles, which helps with muscle growth and function.
If your fat intake is too high, you can create an insulin resistance that will prevent glycogen from being stored in your muscles and cause your body to create more fat. Healthy fats don’t present as high of a risk since they’re useful for the body in other ways.
Insulin resistance can also cause more muscle soreness and disrupted sleep, both of which will negatively impact your gains in the bulking phase and your maintenance training in the cutting phase. You can boost your insulin sensitivity by increasing cardio and eating complex carbohydrates.
The Cheat Meal: How Strict Should Your Bulking and Cutting Be?
Believe it or not, it’s very possible to derail both bulking and cutting with an over-indulgent cheat meal. That makes sense in the cutting phase but you can think of a fat-laden, sugary cheat meal as a dirty bulking microcosm. Just as you need to lean bulk and get your macros in, you have to avoid binging too hard when you decide to have a cheat meal.
In a perfect world, we’d say get rid of the cheat meal altogether. However, allowing yourself some of the foods you typically avoid is great for your mindset and will help keep you motivated through a long-term fitness plan.
The smartest move is to add in a cheat meal two or three times a month and don’t go all out on processed or fast food. Add in whole foods like cheese, carbohydrates, cream, and fruits to make your meals feel indulgent without throwing your cutting plan off. Clean bulking operates on much the same principle. To cheat responsibly, you should aim to alter your regular meal with delicious additions rather than disregarding your plan and hitting the drive-thru.
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How Long Do Cutting and Bulking Take?
You can bulk for months but most people have a hard time cutting for as long because of the reduced calorie intake. How long it will take to see results depends on your body composition at the start. People who have a high amount of fat might be able to use weight training and a moderate diet plan to cut and bulk simultaneously, while more athletic types will have to work a bit harder.
If you want to look ripped for a beach trip a few weeks from now it might be too late for bulking and cutting. Plan on cutting until you have a low body fat percentage, which can take a couple of months, and then bulking through the winter and cut again in the spring. The whole process can easily take a year, but it will be worth it when you have a lean, chiseled body.
Bulking and cutting alternatively leads to great muscle gains that are chiseled and visible. Cycling from through one and then the other takes some planning and attention to detail, but once you get the hang of it you’ll find it gets easier. Using this method of alternating calorie deficits and surpluses is the best way to build muscle steadily and healthily, which means the muscle you build with it will function better and stay built up longer.
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