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Bulking VS Cutting Beginners Guide: Maximize Your Gains

bulking vs cutting

Bulking VS cutting is not really a fair fight, as the the two in a perfect combination is the ultimate way to grow gains in the long run.

In a bulking diet, you'll find yourself enjoying plenty of nutrient-packed and calorie-rich foods, all geared toward helping you build muscle mass. A cutting cycle leans towards nutrient-dense options with fewer calories, aiming to kickstart fat loss while keeping your body fueled and satisfied. Whether you're bulking up or trimming down, both diets play crucial roles in sculpting the physique you're aiming for!

I've been using bulking as well as cutting to help many of my clients reach the physique they've been looking for. And together with Reda, who is a nutritionist, I hope we can break it down towards the ultimate cutting and bulking guide.

Let's start with the very basics:

Bulking CycleCutting Cycle
Calorie positive and weight gain focusCalorie deficit and weight loss
Muscle mass gainMuscle toning
Heavier Weights, less repetitionsSlighty lighter weights, more repetitions
Potential fat gainFatt loss
Reduced cardio trainingConsistent cardio training
High carb, protein and fat dietHigh protein, low carb diet
my first bulk and cut cycle
4 months between the pictures. My first Bulk & Cut back in 2012

What is Bulking?

Ah, bulking—the muscle-building phase where you get to amp up your caloric intake while hitting those weights hard! Picture it like this: you're strategically eating a tad more than you burn, all while embracing high-intensity resistance training to sculpt those muscles. It's like giving your body the perfect fuel to rebuild and grow stronger, one rep at a time.

Now, when it comes to bulking, there's a tale of two approaches: the clean and the dirty bulk. And as we've already reached you before, the clean bulk is the way to go if your health is important to you – beyond the gains.

Think of it as a slow and steady journey, loading up on healthy, nutrient-packed goodies that your muscles crave—carbs, proteins, healthy fats, and a rainbow of vitamins and minerals. I'm not saying you shouldn't allow yourself cheat meals, or even days if you really need to gain weight.

I know a dirty bulk might sound tempting. It's like the Wild West of bulking —eating whatever your heart desires and crossing your fingers for gains. Sure, you'll score some muscle-building nutrients, but tread carefully. Too many trips to the junk food aisle, and you might find yourself packing on more fat than muscle. Plus, there's the risk of inviting unwelcome guests like obesity, insulin resistance, and heart issues to the party.

How You Start a Bulk

The first thing you need to do before you start your bulking cycle is to understand your maintenance calories. Meaning how many calories you need to eat just to stay in your current weight. You can do this either by contacting a professional nutritionist or starting by exploring a calorie calculator just to get an idea.

Next, you want to add a 10-20% calorie surplus to your diet:

  • For a 176-pound (80-kg) guy or gal of average size, we're looking at adding in a 10–20% calorie surplus. That translates to around 255–500 extra calories per day for our 175-pound friend and about 200–400 extra calories for our 140-pound (62-kg) lady.

Here's the scoop: Protein intake to support those gains! Aim for about 0.7–1 gram per pound of body weight (that's 1.6–2.2 grams per kg) every day. As for the rest of your daily calories, it's all about finding what works best for you in terms of carbs and fats. It's like customizing your own recipe for success!

Use mobile apps to track what you eat and invest in a scale. It makes it easier to stay on top of your macros.

Typically, one embarks on a bulking journey lasting at least from 8 to 12 weeks in order to see any noticeable muscle gain. So get yourself ready to eat more and lift heavier than usual during these weeks.

Don't see any results after two weeks? Increase calorie intake further. Check out our comprehensive season cycle guide for more guidance.

Speaking of calories, let's have a look at what you should be eating during your bulk.

Bulking Foods

When bulking up, your plate becomes your best friend! Think hearty, nutrient-packed foods that fuel your muscles and keep you energized throughout the day. You'll be loading up on lean proteins like chicken breast, turkey, or tofu—perfect for rebuilding and repairing those muscles after a tough workout. As you may have noticed, I'm going for a clean bulk here and not a dirty one.

You'll also need complex carbohydrates to keep your energy levels steady. Load up on whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and oats, alongside veggies and fruits for a boost of vitamins and minerals.

And then there's healthy fats! Avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil add that satisfying richness to your meals while supporting overall health and well-being.

This is what you should be going for in the grocery store:

  1. Lean Proteins:
    • Chicken breast
    • Turkey
    • Lean cuts of beef or pork
    • Fish (such as salmon, tuna, or tilapia)
    • Tofu
    • Tempeh
  2. Complex Carbohydrates:
    • Brown rice
    • White rice
    • Quinoa
    • Pasta
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Oats
    • Whole grain pasta
    • Barley
  3. Healthy Fats:
    • Avocado
    • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, cashews)
    • Seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds)
    • Olive oil
    • Coconut oil
    • Nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter)
  4. Fruits and Vegetables:
    • Berries (strawberries, blueberries, raspberries)
    • Spinach
    • Kale
    • Broccoli
    • Bell peppers
    • Oranges
    • Bananas
    • Apples
  5. Dairy and Dairy Alternatives:
    • Greek yogurt
    • Cottage cheese
    • Milk (dairy or plant-based)
    • Cheese (in moderation)
  6. Whole Grains and Legumes:
    • Whole grain bread
    • Lentils
    • Chickpeas
    • Black beans
    • Quinoa
    • Farro

Limit processed foods, sugary beverages (I recently found out that Celsius is ok) and saturated fats.

Bulking Exercises

You know, there's this common belief floating around that you need to switch up your exercise routine drastically between the bulking and cutting phases. Sure, there are differences: During a bulk, the focus is on packing on muscle, so doubling down on strength training is key to making the most of it. You will also notice that while bulking, you will have much more energy thanks to the calories, and you'll probably surprise yourself in how much you can lift.

Think about incorporating compound movements into your workouts—stuff like bench presses, deadlifts, squats, leg presses, military presses, and shoulder presses. By mixing it up with low reps and moderately heavy weights (6-8 reps), you'll be boosting your strength. But here's the kicker: to really amp up those muscles, switch to high reps to finish it off and get a nice pump.

Oh, and let's tackle another myth while we're at it: the idea that cardio is a no-go during bulking. Truth is, it's actually a good idea to keep cardio in the mix. Not only does it keep your heart in tip-top shape, but it also ensures your endurance stays top-notch. I've had clients who skipped the cardio entirely during the bulking season and had a really hard time going into cutting as they had second-to-none endurance. Don't be that guy.

Common Bulking Mistakes

Speaking of not skipping cardio, it's not the only common mistake that many make during their bulking season. Here is what you shouldn't do:

  1. Overdoing the Calories: It's tempting to go all out with the calories during a bulk, but too much of a good thing can lead to unwanted fat gain. Keep it balanced and aim for a moderate calorie surplus to support muscle growth without the excess fluff.
  2. Skipping the Cardio: As mentioned, while focusing on strength training is crucial during a bulk, neglecting cardio altogether isn't the way to go. Cardio helps keep your heart healthy, maintains endurance, and can even aid in recovery between weightlifting sessions.
  3. Ignoring Nutrient Quality: Not all calories are created equal! Loading up on junk food might seem like a shortcut to hitting your calorie goals, but it can leave you feeling sluggish and lacking essential nutrients. Go for nutrient-dense foods to fuel your gains and keep your body humming along smoothly.
  4. Neglecting Progressive Overload: Building muscle requires progressively challenging your body over time. If you're not gradually increasing the weight or intensity of your workouts, you may hit a plateau in muscle growth. Keep pushing yourself to new heights and watch those gains keep coming!
  5. Skimping on Sleep and Recovery: Your muscles grow and repair themselves during rest, so skimping on sleep and recovery can seriously hinder your bulking progress. Aim for quality shut-eye and prioritize recovery techniques like stretching, foam rolling, and rest days to keep your body in top shape.

FULL DAY OF EATING TO GET SHREDDED FOR THE OLYMPIA | PUSHING LIMITS
This is what it takes if you want to win Mr Olympia 5 times in a row like CBUM

What is Cutting?

Let's talk about the cutting phase—a time when you're aiming to shed body fat while holding onto your hard-earned muscle mass that you gained while bulking.

During a cut, you're eating at a calorie deficit, meaning you're consuming fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. This deficit prompts your body to tap into its fat stores for fuel, helping you trim down while preserving muscle.

Now, while resistance training remains an important part of your routine during a cut, you might find that you're not able to lift weights with the same gusto as you do during a bulk. Why? Well, it's mainly because you have less energy to spare. Your body is operating on a reduced calorie intake, so it's natural to feel a bit less energetic during workouts.

Many bodybuilders and athletes incorporate a cutting phase into their training regimen, either after a period of bulking or leading up to a competition or athletic event. While regular gym goers usually start cutting prior to summer. It's all about fine-tuning your physique and performance to be the best you can be when it counts!

How You Start Cutting

Again, the kitchen scale homes handy as you need to be even more on top with your macros.

And just as with bulking, you're gonna need to know how many calories you need in order to maintain your current weight.

But, during a cutting phase, instead of adding calories, you'll be trimming them down each day. In simple terms, you'll eat fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. This strategy helps kickstart fat loss and get you closer to your fitness goals.

An average active man typically requires around 2,600 calories per day to maintain his weight, while an average active woman needs about 2,000 calories (resource). By eating slightly fewer calories than these amounts, you create the calorie deficit needed to encourage fat loss while still supporting your activity levels and overall health. It's all about finding that balance to help you achieve your desired results!

Rule of thumb: Start with a calorie deficit of 500 calories a day to test your body and mind. This is not a number I made up; you don't want to lose more than 0.5-1% of your body weight weekly while cutting because it's not about losing weight but maintaining and toning your muscles.

Speaking of maintaining your muscles, you're going to need proteins – plenty of them.

1.4 grams per kilo or pound per day. So if your current weight is 80 kilos, you're gonna need around 112 grams protein, daily. So lets speak of that.

Cutting Foods

Think of cutting foods as your ally in achieving your fat-loss goals. Picture your plate adorned with an array of delicious options that not only satisfy your taste buds but also support your journey to a leaner you.

Savouring lean proteins like tender chicken breast, succulent turkey, or flaky fish—foods that keep you feeling full and energized without weighing you down. With vibrant fibrous vegetables like crisp spinach, hearty kale, and crunchy bell peppers add a burst of colour and nutrition to every meal.

And when hunger strikes between meals, you'll go for smart snacks like creamy Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or an apple dipped in peanut butter – options that keep you satisfied without derailing your progress.

So you'll be eating the same foods pretty much as you did while bulking – but in smaller portions and skipping rice, pasta and bread due to the high carbs and sugar content. Saturated fats, overprocessed foods and sugary drinks are again a big no-no.

Cutting Exercises

Abs are made in the kitchen but you still gonna need to make some small adjustments to your workouts. You won't be able to lift as heavy as during your bulk cycle anyway.

So, for start, higher the reps and lower the weights slightly. Same exercises as you did before but you're about to do them with more repetitions and a bit more intensively. This will not only help you to maintain your muscle mass, tone your muscles but also burn more calories, which helps your overall calorie deficit goal.

You also want to add more cardio training to your routine. This doesn't mean that you have to run 10k a day. What you can do instead:

Mix it up and have some fun. I know that jogging is not for everyone, and it's important that you enjoy your workout – specially when cutting as it is tough mentally!

Common Cutting Mistakes

The most common mistake that I've noticed over the years is that people confuse cutting with overall weightloss – this is not the same thing. Or, in the perfect world, it is, but I've seen so many online programs that help one lose 2-3 kilos a week by extreme calorie deficit and heavy cardio. This would result in becoming skinny for a short period just to gain fat back as soon as the diet is over.

When we cut, we focus on defining the muscle mass. We don't want to lose the muscles along the way!

These are your common mistakes during cut; this is what you shouldn't do:

  1. Slashing Calories Too Low: It's tempting to drastically cut calories when you're aiming to shed some extra pounds, but going too low can backfire. Severely restricting calories can slow down your metabolism, zap your energy levels, and even lead to nutrient deficiencies. Aim for a moderate calorie deficit to keep your body nourished and energized.
  2. Ignoring Protein Intake: Protein is your best friend during a cut—it helps preserve muscle mass, keeps you feeling full, and supports fat loss. Skipping out on protein-rich foods can leave you feeling hungry and may cause you to lose muscle instead of fat. Make sure to include lean protein sources in each meal to stay satisfied and support your fitness goals.
  3. Overdoing Cardio: While cardio is a valuable tool for burning calories and improving cardiovascular health, doing too much can have negative effects. Excessive cardio can lead to muscle loss, increased hunger, and burnout. Incorporate a mix of cardio and strength training to maintain muscle mass and keep your metabolism firing on all cylinders.
  4. Relying on Processed Foods: It's easy to fall into the trap of relying on processed foods when you're cutting—after all, they're convenient and often low in calories. However, these foods are typically high in unhealthy fats, sugars, and preservatives, which can sabotage your progress and leave you feeling sluggish. Opt for whole, nutrient-dense foods whenever possible to fuel your body and support your goals.
  5. Neglecting Sleep and Recovery: Cutting calories and increasing activity levels can take a toll on your body, so it's crucial to prioritize sleep and recovery. Skimping on sleep can disrupt hormone levels, increase cravings for unhealthy foods, and hinder recovery from workouts. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night and incorporate rest days into your routine to allow your body to recharge and repair.
bulked vs cut abdominal

Pros and Cons of Bulking vs. Cutting

Bulking ProsBulking Cons
Muscle gain Can lead to excess fat gain 
Increased StrenghtCan decrease agility and movement
Can increase bone densityIt may make you slower 
Better metabolismIt may affect blood values 
Promotes healthy libidoCan decrease insulin sensitivity 
Cutting ProsCutting Cons
Fat loss If not done properly, can lead to slight muscle loss
Improves muscle visibilityMay make you grumpy
Can improve agility and speedCan leave you feeling hungry and low energy 
May promote improvement in blood valuesCan decrease bone density 
Can increase insulin sensitivity Can decrease certain sex hormones

Can you Do Both at the Same Time?

Oh, so we're tipping our toes in recomposition?

Let's talk about body recomposition—a fancy term for gaining muscle while shedding fat. While it sounds like the ultimate fitness dream, it's not easy to achieve.

Studies have been done on recomposition with quite interesting results. To make it simple, it is only possible if:

  1. If you're just starting out on your fitness journey and are new to lifting, your body is more responsive to building muscle and burning fat simultaneously.
  2. If you're carrying excess weight or dealing with obesity, you have a better chance of experiencing body recomposition due to the higher potential for fat loss.
  3. You're on steroids.

However, for athletes who have been training consistently for a while, efficiently building muscle and losing fat at the same time can be nearly big challenge. It's not impossible, but it often requires careful attention to nutrition, training, and recovery to strike the right balance.

Expert Tip: How You Achieve The Best Results

Before we finish off, I think it's fair to hit you with some final tips on how you can ensure you achieve the best results when doing a bulking and cutting cycle. After all, I do this year in and year out, and I've helped hundreds of achieving their fitness goals thanks to bulking up and cutting down. So here it is:

Track everything

I don't really care how you do it, but you need to track your results in the gym, and in the kitchen. You have to track your macros to know if you need to add/cut calories, and you also need to track your results while lifting in order to challenge yourself and constantly add more resistance. Don't try to keep everything in your head, as it's nearly impossible. There are great apps that you can use for this as well, so there is no need to bring a pen and paper to the gym.

Invite a friend or partner to join

It's way more fun to do this together. Bulk together and cut together – help each other and keep the motivation up! You can even challenge each other and do a meal prep each.

Use Supplements

Supplements like BCAA's, protein powder and even gainers will make your life easier while on a bulk or cutting cycle, I promise. It's a small investment, sure, but it's gonna be worth the time you save and the results you gain.

Don't let excess fat scare you off

Many will stop the bulking period after 3-4rd week because they “feel fat”. THE POINT IS FOR YOU TO GAIN WEIGHT!

You're not gonna be able to add muscle weight unless you first add some fat. Don't be a quitter, this is a marathon and not a sprint.

Let's Wrap it Up

Ok I pretty much covered everything that you need to know about cutting and bulking.

You are out of excuses now, it is time to hit the gym and grocery to begin your journey. One usually starts with bulking up but if you've already been lifting weights for some time and need to shred down, why not jump straight to cutting?

Remember:

  • Bulking = Muscle gain & high calorie intake
  • Cutting = Muscle toning & calorie deficit

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