If you’ve spent any time at all trying to get bigger and stronger, you’ve probably come across the terms “bulking” and “cutting” before. And while they’re relatively easy concepts to grasp on the surface, there are all sorts of things you’ll ultimately need to get right if you want to do either successfully.
So in order to give you a better understanding of what you’ll need to do from both a dieting and training perspective, we’re going over all the ins and outs of bulking versus cutting.
What Do The Terms “Bulking” and “Cutting” Even Mean?
In essence, the terms bulking and cutting refer to 2 different physiological processes that exist on the opposite ends of the spectrum from one another.
On one side of the spectrum, you have the anabolic process (AKA bulking), which is oriented around increasing your overall body mass, while on the other side, you have the catabolic process (AKA cutting), which is centered around reducing it.
No matter whether you’re bulking or cutting though, the goal is not just to make changes to your body mass, it’s to make the right changes. With bulking, the ultimate goal is to add lean muscle mass to your frame, while the objective of cutting is to trim off unwanted body fat.
Each of these opposing approaches ultimately requires different things from the standpoints of both your diet and training, which is why people like bodybuilders spend their time cycling back and forth between bulking and cutting “phases”.
Bulking vs. Cutting: Diet
Your calorie intake is one of the most important things you’ll need to get right in order to have success with your bulk or cut. At the end of the day, the total number of calories you consume each day is going to directly affect your ability to gain or lose weight.
Simply put, your weight stays the same when you consume the same amount of calories that your body burns off in a day -- this is known as an energy balance. So in order to either gain or lose weight, you’ll need to get yourself out of an energy-balanced state. However, building muscle and burning fat ultimately require opposite things from the perspective of your energy intake.
The Bulking Diet
In order to add muscle mass to your body, you’ll ultimately need to have a calorie surplus in your diet, which happens when you consume more calories than your body burns off in a day.
So before you can set up the perfect bulking diet, you’ll first need to have a pretty good idea of how many calories your actually burning off over the course of an average day. Only then will you be able to determine how much extra energy you’ll need to add in to your daily diet.
The total number of calories you burn up in a day is known as your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) and you can easily estimate yours using a simple and free online TDEE calculator. Once you have a good idea of what your TDEE is, you can begin tacking on some extra calories to create a surplus.
Dirty vs Clean Bulking
When it comes to determining the size of your surplus, there are a couple of different approaches. On one hand, you have “dirty” bulking, where the name of the game is simply eating plenty of extra calories, with little attention given to what exactly you’re eating or how large your surplus is.
The benefit is that you can eat pretty much whatever you want and you can make some significant gains in size and strength, however, the downside is that you’ll likely gain plenty of body fat as well, which is obviously not ideal.
That’s why many people ultimately choose instead to go with a “clean” bulking approach. With clean bulking, you’ll only be going with a moderate calorie surplus of somewhere around 500 extra calories a day. In addition, you’ll also be staying on top of your macronutrient intakes.
While it might require a little more effort than dirty bulking, the main benefit of a clean bulk is that most of your gains will come in the form of muscle and not fat, which ultimately means that you’ll have to spend less effort on your cut.
As opposed to bulking, cutting requires the exact opposite from a nutritional perspective; it requires a calorie deficit, which happens when you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
However, just like with the bulking diet, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what your TDEE is before you can set up a deficit in your diet. Once you know that though, you’ll be able to easily start manipulating your calorie intake to create the necessary condition for fat loss to occur.
In order to preserve lean muscle mass, and more exclusively target fat during your cut, you’ll only want to go with a moderate calorie deficit. While it might be tempting to drastically reduce your calorie intake in order to lose fat faster, it doesn’t quite work like that.
When your daily calorie intake sinks too far below your TDEE you become extra susceptible to losing lean muscle mass as your body has to scramble to get energy from any place it can. So while you might lose significant amounts of body fat with a large calorie deficit, you’ll also lose significant amounts of muscle, which just about nobody wants.
That’s why your best bet is to go with a moderate calorie deficit of somewhere between 20 - 40%, meaning you’re taking in twenty to forty percent fewer calories than your TDEE. This appears to be the sweet spot when it comes to maximizing your fat-burning potential and minimizing your risk of muscle loss.
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Bulking vs Cutting: Training
On top of having different dietary requirements, your approach to resistance training will also require different things when it comes to bulking versus cutting.
Training During a Bulk
When you’re on a bulk, the goal is to build as much size and strength as possible, and research shows that working at higher intensities and/or with higher training volumes in your workout sessions is the best way to do that.
On a bulk, the objective during your workout is to push your muscles outside of their comfort zone to the point that damage occurs at a cellular level -- this is really where the magic happens. When your muscle tissues get broken down (which is totally natural) your body ultimately has to repair them through a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
And it’s through this basic process that muscle growth occurs. With an ample supply of protein and the right training stimuli, your body can actually rebuild the damaged muscle tissues to be even bigger and stronger than they were before the damage occurred.
Training During a Cut
On the flip side, your goal during a cut is to shed as much unwanted body fat as you can while simultaneously maintaining your lean muscle mass.
In order to make sure that you’re not losing muscle, you’ll still need to be regularly hitting the weights, however, when you’re on a cut, you’ll be working with lower intensities and training volumes.
Instead of challenging your muscles to grow, like you would on a bulk, the goal is simply to maintain the size and strength that you’ve already developed when you’re cutting. The main reason you don’t want to go too far overboard with your training is that you don’t want to cause too much damage to your muscle tissues when your energy intake is reduced.
When you're on a calorie deficit, your body’s resources are scarce, so it may ultimately not be able to make all the necessary repairs if you really push yourself in the gym, which on top of increasing your risk of injury, can also lead to muscle loss.
On top of a regular weight lifting regimen, many people also do cardio during a cut. That’s because cardio can help to increase your total daily energy expenditure, which at the end of the day, can help you burn even more fat when paired with a calorie-restricted diet.
HIIT in particular has been shown to be an excellent way to improve your fat-burning potential, while also helping to preserve your lean muscle mass. However, research does show that in order to see the best results -- both in terms of losing fat and maintaining muscle -- it’s probably best to do your weight training and cardio in different training sessions if possible.
Bulking and cutting exist on opposite ends of a spectrum. On one end, you have bulking, which is oriented around gaining weight in the form of lean muscle, and on the other, you have cutting, which is centered around losing weight in the form of fat.
Each approach requires different things from both a dieting and training perspective. When it comes to dieting, bulking requires a calorie surplus, while cutting requires that you take in fewer calories than your body burns off in a day.
On the training side of things, you’ll also be approaching the weight room in different ways. With bulking, you’ll be working with higher intensities and training volumes trying to build as much size and strength as possible, while you’ll simply be shooting to maintain your size and strength during a cut.