Q&A: Should I Be Bulking or Cutting?

by Robert Maxwell

Q: I'm 34, and recently started weight training for the first time. I'm seeing some strength gains, but feel I'm falling short on the nutrition side. I know I need to eat a high-protein diet to build muscle, but beyond that I'm totally confused. I hear guys at the gym talk about "bulking" and "cutting", and am not sure exactly what they mean, or which one I should start with. I'm 5 foot 10, 190 pounds with no visible abs. My goal is to build more muscle all over my body, and have a 6-pack. Can you help?


A: Great question! Proper nutrition is vital. Without it, your progress will be extremely limited, even if you're training properly. Most experienced trainees agree that nutrition is responsible for about 60% of your results, and training 40%. That's why knowing how you should eat is crucial. 


The terms bulking and cutting were made famous by competitive bodybuilders, who have an off-season and a competition season. During competition season, they try to get as lean and defined as possible, losing body fat while maintaining all the muscle they've built in the off-season. This is known as cutting. When competitions are over, they usually start bulking in an effort to add more muscle, plus some unwanted body fat which they'll try to burn off as they approach competition. This approach works fine for competitive bodybuilders. Trouble is, most guys don't want to go through a constant cycle of extreme weight loss and weight gain every year. Most guys want to look good all the time while eating in a way that's sustainable year-round. How do you do this? Smaller, less extreme cycles of bulking and cutting.


Bulking means eating more than you burn (a calorie surplus) to build muscle and increase bodyweight. Cutting means eating less than you burn (a calorie deficit) to lose fat and decrease bodyweight. You might be wondering why you need to eat differently for muscle building versus fat loss. The reason boils down to the laws of physics. You can't add mass to your body if you're not eating more calories than you burn – a surplus. Likewise, weight loss is impossible if you're not in a calorie deficit. There are no exceptions to the second statement, but a few to the first. Since you're new to training and don't have a 6-pack, you're likely carrying some excess body fat. I recommend starting with a calorie deficit. Since your body is relatively untrained, you will probably enjoy some "novice gains" – short term muscle growth despite your calorie deficit. This won't last long, so enjoy it while you can. As you get leaner and your body adjusts to training stress, you'll find it increasingly difficult to build any muscle without being in a calorie surplus. Eating at a surplus will allow you to build more muscle, but will also inevitably mean gaining some fat. Weight training helps minimize this fat gain, turning as much of your surplus as possible into muscle. Eventually though you'll need to switch to a deficit when your body fat gets higher than you'd like. So how do you tell if you're in a calorie surplus or deficit? Counting calories is probably the most accurate method, but also the most annoying. There's a simpler way which I explain in this article.


Now to answer your main question: when you should switch between bulking and cutting. The answer is expressed in body fat percentage – the percentage of your total bodyweight that's made up of fat. At 10% body fat, most guys start to have a visible 6-pack. Most bodybuilders compete at 4 – 7 % body fat, which is VERY lean. Higher than 25% body fat and you're definitely too fat. As a general guideline, guys interested in looking fit and muscular should aim to stay between 10% and 15% body fat. There are several ways to measure your body fat percentage. Body fat calipers are one of the cheapest and easiest. You can buy them online for a few bucks. Hydrostatic weighing is a more accurate, more expensive method that involves being dunked underwater and measuring body density. In practice, I've found the best method is to simply make an educated guess. A Google search for "body fat percentage chart" can help with this. Just don't worry too much about it. It's easy to obsess about body fat percentage, but in my experience this does more harm than good.


You're right about protein – you need to eat lots of it to build muscle. The optimal amount is about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight. This applies whether you're bulking or cutting. Since you'll be losing some fat, start by aiming for 180 grams of protein each day, 10 pounds less than your current bodyweight. Get that protein through high quality natural sources like eggs, beef, chicken, pork, cheese, etc. You can also supplement with whey protein shakes after workouts, which make it easier for lots of guys to hit their daily protein goals without stuffing themselves with so much food they feel sick. So how do you know how much protein is in your food? Nutrition info on the package is a great place to start. Nearly every food in the grocery store comes with a complete nutritional breakdown printed on the package. If you've never paid attention to this, it's time to start. The information is there for a reason. You won't reach your goals if you're in the dark about what you're eating. When it comes to food, knowledge is power. Since protein consumption should be consistent whether you're bulking or cutting, as should dietary fat consumption, that leaves only one basic nutrient which will go up or down as you bulk and cut – carbohydrates. When you're cutting, create your deficit by eating fewer carbs. When bulking, achieve your surplus with more carbs.