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There are two main phases in the diet and workout cycle for those looking to lose fat and build muscle mass - bulking and cutting.
Bulking is when you deliberately gain body weight with the goal of building muscle (but some body fat gain is inevitable). To do this you have to create a calorie surplus i.e. eat more calories than you burn.
Cutting is when you lose body weight with the goal of improving your muscle to body fat ratio. The only way to decrease your body fat percentage is by creating a calorie deficit i.e. eat fewer calories than you burn. Cutting, when done correctly, will reveal a toned physique with a big difference in your abdominals.
But how do you figure out when you should be bulking and when you should be cutting?
Bulk vs Cut: Which one should I do?
The most important thing to ask yourself is what is more important to you right now, muscle mass gain or fat loss?
If you are more focused on increasing the size of your muscles and you can handle a little fat gain, then opt for bulking.
If on the other hand, the thought of gaining any fat makes you feel uneasy, consider a cutting phase.
We say this assuming that you have a good relationship with your body and aren’t suffering from body image issues or body dysmorphia. If you have any concerns relating to your mental health and your eating habits or the way you look, please seek the support of a medical professional before entering a bulking or cutting phase.
We recommend that men who have a body fat percentage of less than 15%, and women who have a body fat percentage of less than 25%, avoid cutting unless you have specific goals ie. training for a competition.
How to decrease your body fat percentage without losing muscle mass
The key here is to cut in moderation. If you drastically decrease your calorie intake, you will lose fat, but you will also struggle to maintain muscle mass.
You won’t have enough energy to workout properly and a huge drop in calories can actually harm your progress. It can have a negative impact on your strength and fitness, and it could make it harder for you to maintain a good physique in the long run.
Putting your body into starvation mode can also slow your metabolism, meaning that when you inevitably have to start eating more, you will gain fat quicker.
Aim to reduce your calorie intake by around 500 calories less than you are burning each day. Then monitor your weight loss to ensure it is no more than 1 pound per week. The 1 pound per week rule is more important than the actual number of calories, as the calorie deficit required to lose weight is different for everyone and it can change over time.
And remember, keep your protein intake high and get plenty of sleep. Keep up your resistance training and your cardio and forgive yourself if you occasionally slip up. Dwelling on yesterday's mistake will only hold you back.
How to gain muscle without gaining fat; the “lean bulk”
Bulking might seem like the easy part, but ensuring you don’t gain excess fat while you are doing it makes things more difficult. Like with cutting, moderation is key, as is ensuring that your diet is high in protein.
Aim for a calorie increase of 10-20% and keep monitoring your progress and adjusting this as necessary.
Stay away from the ‘dirty bulk’ i.e. eating whatever you want. Instead, focus on eating the right type of calories.
This phase is focused on maximizing muscle gain and 80% of your progress comes from what you eat, not what you do in the gym. That means your bulking diet plan has to be full of healthy foods including lots of fruit, veggies, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and high quality protein.
Of course, eating a high protein diet won’t trigger muscle growth on its own. This phase will only provide good results if you push yourself to the limit during your resistance training sessions. You’ve got plenty of fuel, so make the most of it!
How long should you cut or bulk for?
There is no set answer to this and it very much depends on how much muscle you would like to gain or how much fat you need to lose.
The bulking phase should be longer than the cut - aim for a 3:1 ratio. Usually, you will need a minimum of three months of bulk, which could be followed up with a one month cut.
How to transition from cutting to bulking
If you suddenly drop your calories to cut levels after a bulk, you could have issues with your energy levels and send your body into a panic starvation mode. Right after a cut, your body will gain fat more quickly, so going straight into bulk could lead to excess fat gain.
Therefore, we don’t recommend moving straight from one phase to another. Instead, implement a calorie maintenance plan for a couple of weeks between cutting and bulking.
How to cut and bulk when you first start lifting
If you are fairly new to weightlifting, particularly if you have some excess body fat, we have some great news. You are in the best position to be able to continue to gain muscle while you cut.
In fact, you might not feel the need to cut or bulk at all. Maintain your current calorie intake while increasing how much you exercise, and you may be able to simultaneously lose fat and gain muscle for a few months.
Make sure you improve your diet while you do this by increasing your protein intake and eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish etc. At this stage, small improvements in your diet can make a real difference.
Using protein supplements for bulk vs cut
If you aren’t already taking protein shakes, this is the time to start. Whether you are following a cutting, bulking or calorie maintenance programme, protein shakes can help you achieve your goals. If you are bulking, consider mass gainer to give you those extra clean calories.
You can check out our TRI-Protein supplements - which taste delicious and will help you in the bulking or cutting stage.