Bulking is when we gain weight to build muscle. Cutting is when we lose weight to burn fat. The problem is, most of us want some combination of muscle gain and fat loss. We want to gain 20 pounds of muscle and lose 20 pounds of fat. In that case, should you start with a bulk or a cut?
And once we start bulking and cutting, how do we know when to switch from one to the other? If we start with a bulk, how high should we let our body-fat percentage rise before switching to a cut? And when we cut, how lean should we get before going back to bulking?
When Should You Cut?
Cutting is when we lose weight to lose fat. The idea is that when we eat fewer calories than we need, then we get to get those missing calories from burning body fat. And that’s true. Getting into a calorie deficit is the most effective way to lose fat.
But what makes cutting different from typical weight loss is that there’s an emphasis on gaining (or at least maintaining) muscle mass. To do this, we combine weight loss with hypertrophy training and a higher protein diet. This, too, works very well. It’s common for beginners to gain muscle mass and strength while cutting. As our body composition improves, that gets harder. But even so, intermediate lifters can often maintain their muscle mass.
The problem is, when we’re cutting, we aren’t able to gain muscle very quickly or efficiently. There’s no extra energy to invest in muscle growth. Yes, it’s possible to gain a bit of muscle and strength, and we see that all the time in the research, but the results are often fairly underwhelming. Cutting is designed for fat loss, not muscle gain.
So, when should you cut?
- If you’re overweight, cutting is the best place to start. The more fat you have on your frame, the more energy you have to invest into muscle growth. As a result, you can likely build a significant amount of muscle even while losing fat.
- If you’re skinny-fat, you don’t have to start by cutting, but it’s usually the best approach. Since you aren’t very muscular yet, and since your body is holding onto excess fat, you can probably gain a bit of muscle while trimming off that extra fat.
- If you want to prioritize getting leaner, cutting is how you do that. If you’re already muscular and already in the habit of lifting weights, you might not be able to gain any muscle or strength while cutting, but you can trim off the fat, becoming as lean you like.
Everyone is a bit different, so it’s hard to be precise, but as a general rule of thumb, if you’re over 20% body fat, you can improve your health and appearance by cutting down to a lower body-fat percentage. That’s when we recommend cutting.
If you’re between 15–20% body fat, you might be a bit fatter than you’d like, and so cutting is certainly an option. But you don’t have to cut. There’s nothing wrong with being, say, 17% body fat. So it’s entirely up to you. If you want to be leaner, cut. If you want to be bigger and stronger, keep bulking.
If you’re between 8–12% body fat, the only reason you’d need to cut is that you’re a bodybuilder, fitness model, or you really want to be exceptionally lean. Otherwise, you probably shouldn’t cut. It won’t improve your health, it might not improve your appearance, and your chances of building muscle are basically nil.
When Should You Bulk?
Bulking is when we gain weight to build muscle, becoming bigger and stronger. The idea is that when we eat more calories than we need, then we have extra energy that we can invest in muscle growth. And it’s true, gaining weight radically increases how much muscle we can build (study). Plus, the only way to get heavier is to gain weight. If you’re 150 pounds and dreaming of being 200 pounds, bulking is the only way there.
What makes bulking different from how most people gain weight is that there’s a heavy emphasis on gaining weight leanly—on building muscle. To do that, we do hypertrophy training, we eat enough protein and carbs, and we gain weight at a pace that matches how fast we can build muscle. That way, most (or all) of the weight we gain is muscle.
This, too, works very well. It’s common for beginners to build muscle incredibly fast, and even intermediate lifters are often able to gain muscle quite steadily and leanly, allowing them to bulk for several months before needing to do another cut.
The problem is, when we’re bulking, we do tend to gain at least a little bit of fat. There’s all of this extra energy we’re eating, and what isn’t invested in muscle growth inevitably gets stored as body fat. The good news is, if we start our bulks fairly lean, then even if we gain a bit of fat, we can stop our bulks while we’re still fairly lean. For example, if you start your bulk at 12% body fat and switch to a cut at 16% body fat, you’re lean in both cases. You’ve never gotten close to that 20% threshold where you start to look chubby.
So, when should you bulk?
- If you’re skinny, thin, or underweight, bulking is the best place to start. Bulking is how you’ll become bigger, stronger, and more muscular. And since you’re still so far away from your genetic muscular potential, you can build muscle quite quickly and leanly—your so-called “newbie gains.”
- If you want to prioritize building muscle, bulking is how you do that. It’s much easier and faster to build muscle when you’re eating in at least a small calorie surplus.
So as a rule of thumb, if you’re between 8–12% body fat, getting even leaner won’t improve your health or appearance, and it won’t allow you to gain much muscle or strength. You could hang out there for a while, maintaining your progress, or you could gear into a bulk to start building muscle again.
If you’re between 12–17% body fat, you might be a bit fatter than you’d like, so cutting isn’t wrong, but you’re still in a great place to build muscle from. This is where it really comes down to personal preference.
If you’re much over 20% body fat, insulin sensitivity may start to go down, and so it might get a little bit harder to build muscle as leanly (study). That’s also the point where gaining more fat can start to have a negative impact on your health. So around 20% body fat tends to be the bulking cutoff point. Time to start cutting.
Is Bulking & Cutting the Best Way to Build Muscle?
Most people want to look better, live longer, and become stronger. A great way to do that is to build muscle and lose fat. But what if building muscle came at the cost of gaining fat? Or what if losing fat came at the cost of getting smaller? That’s the dilemma that most people struggle with when deciding between bulking and cutting. That’s why body recomposition is so popular.
With body recomposition, the idea is to gain muscle and lose fat while maintaining the same overall body weight. And it can work. Some people are indeed able to build muscle while losing fat. Those people tend to be:
- Skinny-fat beginners: guys who are new to proper hypertrophy training are often able to gain muscle and lose fat quite easily, especially if they’re under-muscled and over-fat.
- Detrained lifters: if you were muscular in the past, but you’ve let yourself get out of shape, then you’ll be able to take advantage of muscle memory, regaining your lost muscle without needing to be in a calorie surplus. (This includes guys who are still in the habit of lifting but who aren’t as big or strong as they used to be.)
- Overweight guys: if you have quite a lot of extra body fat, you might be able to burn fat while building muscle.
If you’re in one of those situations, feel free to eat according to your appetite, letting your weight stay about the same. If you’re gaining strength from workout to workout, then you’re making progress, and there’s no need to change what you’re doing until you hit a plateau.
For example, here’s Reetta. On the left, she was in great shape but new to hypertrophy training. As soon as she started training for muscle growth, she noticed that she lost quite a lot of fat, especially in her lower body, while gaining a similar amount of muscle. And she was happy with her overall body weight, so that was perfect.
But keep in mind that if you want to weigh less than you currently do, you need to cut. And if you want to be bigger than you currently are, you need to bulk. When I was 130 pounds, the only possible way for me to get up to my current weight of 195 pounds was to gain weight. There was no other option. I had to bulk.
The other thing to remember is that you’ll make faster progress by bulking and cutting. If you’re skinny-fat, the quickest way to improve your body composition is to quickly cut off the fat, trying to build a bit of muscle as you do it. And then, when you’re lean enough, gear into a lean bulk to improve your rate of muscle growth.
Finally, it’s common to hit a plateau while attempting body recomposition. At a certain point, it can get damn near impossible to lose more fat while building more muscle. If you’re under 12% body fat or near your genetic muscular potential, you’ll probably need to bulk to continue building muscle.
In fact, most intermediate lifters plateau forever because they stop going through periods of gaining weight. That’s not necessarily bad. Maintaining a strong and healthy physique is great. But if body recomposition stops giving you the progress that you want, consider gearing into another bulk.
Finding What Works for You
For me, when I get below 11% body fat, I find it hard to maintain my strength, hard to feel good, and my face starts to look corpselike. So at 10–11%, I’m done cutting. From there, I either maintain or gain weight.
When bulking, I start to feel chubby at around 16% body fat. Not that I look bad or that I’m unhealthy, just that I don’t like it. So when I stop being able to see my abs, I might spend a month losing a bit of fat. Not necessarily a bonafide cut, just a break from bulking that allows my body fat percentage to drift down a little bit.
That zone of 11–15% body fat works really well for me. I never get so lean that I start to feel bad, and I never gain so much fat that I start to look out of shape. I’m always staying within that fairly narrow range. But more importantly, that range gives me room to manoeuvre. At 11%, I can bulk fairly aggressively, gaining quite a lot of muscle and strength. And when I get to 15%, I’m still happy with how I look. That’s how I’ve gained 65 pounds.
That’s just what works for me, though. Everyone is a little bit different. You might start to feel miserably hungry and weak as soon as you dip below 14%, or maybe you get all the way down to 9% before it becomes a problem. The same is true with bulking. Maybe you look and feel great at 18% body fat, and that’s totally fine. You have to find what works for you.
Bulking and cutting is the fastest and easiest way to improve your body composition. The trick is to keep within a healthy body-fat percentage range as you do it. That typically means staying between 8–20% body fat, with most people preferring to stay between 10–17%. That way, you’re never so lean or so fat that it harms your health or appearance.
When should you bulk? Any time that you want to prioritize muscle and strength gains, you should be bulking, even if you’re gaining weight very slowly. When you’re under 20% body fat, it’s perfectly fine to bulk, but most people will have better luck by cutting down to 15% or lower first.
When should you cut? Any time you want to prioritize fat loss, you should be cutting. When you’re over 20% body fat, it’s recommended to cut, but some people want to stay quite a bit leaner, cutting any time they get over 15–17% body fat. And that’s okay, too.
If you want a customizable hypertrophy training program (and full guide) that builds in these principles, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. Or, if you’re still skinny or skinny-fat, try our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program or Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program. While doing these programs, you can bulk, cut, or do body recomposition.