Cut or Bulk

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Questions

What is cutting, bulking, or recomping? Should I cut, bulk, or recomp?

Short Answer

Cutting is the act of eating and training in a calorie deficit to lose fat.

Bulking is the act of eating and training in a calorie surplus to gain lean body mass.

Recomping is the act of eating and training around maintenance calories to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

You should be relatively lean when you begin a bulk, and you should begin a cut when your bodyfat gets too high.

Long Answer

Cutting

Cutting is the act of eating and training in a calorie deficit. The goal of cutting is to maximize rates of fat loss while retaining as much lean body mass and strength as possible. For most intents and purposes, the term “dieting” is the same as “cutting.”

Calories

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-12x bodyweight in calories is usually an appropriate starting point for a cut. This puts most people at about 10-20% under maintenance calories.

Less active individuals and women should probably start on the lower end of the recommended values, while those who are relatively active or do significant amounts of cardio can generally go higher.

Protein

Necessary protein intake is a controversial topic in fitness. Depending on your citation, anywhere from 0.8-1.5g/lb LBM is recommended. General considerations for protein intake are as follows:

As calorie intake goes down, protein requirements increase. Higher intakes tend to preserve lean body mass more effectively when dieting, which allows people to be stricter with overall calorie intake if wanted. In other words, the more severe the calorie deficit, the higher your protein should be. As overall bodyfat decreases, protein requirements tend to increase – in other words, fatter individuals can aim for the lower recommended values.

Fat

Approximately 0.45g/lb is a decent starting target.

Outside of essential fatty acids (EPA + DHA), there is no physiological requirement for dietary fat. In other words, it can be set lower if more corresponding protein or carbohydrate intake is desired.

The only fat source that should be universally avoided when possible is trans fat.

Carbohydrate

Carb intake is highly dependent on individual preference and what the other two macros are set at. People with lower carb intakes can get away with higher corresponding fat intakes, and vice versa.

There is no physiological requirement for dietary carbohydrate.

A side effect of low carbohydrate intake is ketosis (think “keto” dieting). Some people do just fine with this, others not so much. As a general rule of thumb, keeping carbohydrate intake above 100g should prevent the onset of ketosis.

Refeeds and Diet Breaks

Refeeds and diet breaks are a special consideration for dieters. Both refer to periods of eating at maintenance calories or higher for a period of time, with some qualifications.

A refeed is a relatively short period of eating over maintenance calories, usually with a duration of 1-2 days. In terms of macros, refeeds are typically very high carbohydrate, low fat, and moderate protein.

A diet break is just that – a prolonged period of eating at maintenance calories and macros. Unlike refeeds, diet breaks are often a couple weeks in length.

Both are helpful tools in partially offsetting the issues attributed to stalling of weight loss and metabolic slowing. They have both physiological and psychological benefits for dieters when used correctly:


• Normalization of hormones that normally become skewed in a deficit (leptin, cortisol, ghrelin, PYY, etc.)

• Replenishment of glycogen

• Mental relief from increased calorie intake and less stringent restriction


There are multiple considerations to be taken into account in terms of calorie and macro composition for refeeds, and will not be explained in detail here. Several of the books in the resources section of this paper will explain this process much better. That, and I’m hesitant to simply give away their recommendations for free.

I’m also going to be relatively vague about when you should begin incorporating refeeds and diet breaks into your cut for the same reasons. However, the general rules of thumb are:


• The longer you’ve been dieting, the more necessary a refeed/diet break becomes.

• The leaner you are, the more frequent refeeds/diet breaks should be used.

Monitoring

Scale weight is a fine indicator of progress IF you can look past daily fluctuation. Weigh yourself in the morning, after using the bathroom and before eating/drinking anything. Then, I suggest using Excel or one of the countless weight monitoring apps available on the smartphone app stores to monitor your daily weight and judge it according to a 7 day average, not individual values. In other words, if the overall trend is in the direction you want, you’re good.

Some people dislike using scale weight for one reason or another. If you have a method of measuring progress that you prefer (clothing size, belt loops, etc.) that’s fine too.

Weight loss isn’t always a linear process, even when using trends and averages – water retention, sodium levels, food in the gut, etc. all can contribute to variability in day to day scale weight, often by several pounds. As a general rule of thumb, evaluate for 3-4 weeks before changing anything to your calories. If you’ve been stuck at approximately the same weight for a month or so, drop calories by 10-20% and see how that goes.

Training Considerations

The primary reason people cut is to lose fat and preserve muscle. So how do you balance the two? Most incorporate resistance training and cardio on a cut. Hands down, lifting weights is the most effective activity for preserving muscle on a cut, and should be a staple of any cutting routine. Beginners can even make considerable strength gains while dieting down.

However, most people find that their recovery and performance suffer in a calorie deficit – they can’t lift the same amount of weight for the same number of sets and reps, let alone add to it. In this case, something in their program has to give. Of the three basic variables to weight training, maintaining intensity (weight on the bar) is generally superior for muscle retention when compared to volume (sets and reps) or frequency (number of training sessions). As such, it is suggested that you prioritize maintaining intensity, and scale back volume and frequency as needed.

For cardio, there’s a fine balance between too little and too much when cutting, and there is no concrete rule for where that cutoff is. It’s dependent on a multitude of factors, including how often you exercise, what types of cardio you’re doing, how steep of a calorie deficit you’re in, etc. When in doubt, I would recommend erring on the camp of “less is more,” especially the first time around. Once you have a better idea of your recovery levels and how you feel when dieting, increase the cardio.

Bulking

Bulking is the act of eating and training in a calorie surplus. The goal of bulking is to maximize rates of lean body mass and strength gain while minimizing fat gain. Bulking is also referred to as a mass gaining phase.

Calories

By definition, it is essential that you are in a net surplus of calories during a bulk. This serves a twofold purpose. First, tissue synthesis is an energetically costly process for your body; it already has a calorie need to maintain the tissues in your body, whether it’s muscle, organs, etc. In order to add anything to that, your body requires additional nutrients and calories.

Second, a surplus of calories ensures maximal performance during the actual exercises you use to build muscle. It’s hard to continually push heavier weights or run longer endurance sessions when you have a deficit of calories.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 16-18x bodyweight calories is a decent starting point, and is usually around a 10-20% increase over maintenance calories. Less active individuals and women should probably start on the lower end of the recommended values, while those who are relatively active or do significant amounts of cardio can generally go higher.

There is no magic number of calories that allows for 100% of the calories you eat to go straight to muscle building. The body doesn’t work that way. A certain amount of the incoming calorie surplus will always be reserved for bodyfat gain. Building on that, it’s worth noting that your body can only synthesize new lean tissue so fast; in other words, you can’t force feed your body in an attempt to make it build muscle faster. Past a certain point (the fastest your body can make new muscle tissue), all excess calories will be stored as bodyfat.

Protein

Protein provides the amino acids necessary for the building of muscle tissue.

Compared to cutting, protein requirements are generally on the lower side. Protein requirements for muscle synthesis in a calorie surplus are lower than that of muscle retention in a deficit.

1g/lb bodyweight is the archetypal recommendation for bodybuilders, and seems to work relatively well as a safe target. Some people take this lower and aim for 0.8-1g/lb LBM, and, as authors such as Lyle McDonald have pointed out, there may be performance benefits to taking protein as high as 1.5g/lb assuming other macro needs are met. I have included all of these values in the recommendations, if only for the sake of completeness.

Fat

Fat intake on a bulk is primarily dictated by personal preference and insulin sensitivity. It is also worth noting that most sources of fat are calorie dense, making fat sources useful for reaching bulking calorie goals. As for fat vs. carb intakes, some people do relatively well on a lower fat, higher carbohydrate approach to gaining, while others prefer a more moderate split between the two calorically. For most people, 0.4-0.5g/lb bodyweight should be a decent starting point.

Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are a particularly useful macronutrient when bulking. Aside from the beneficial effects of insulin on muscle gain, carbohydrates are also one of the cheapest and easiest sources of extra calories, which can make reaching one’s target calories more reasonable. As mentioned above, carbohydrate intake is primarily a personal preference and will scale inversely with fat intake.

Monitoring

As with cutting, the method by which someone measures their progress is largely based on personal preference: scale weight, mirror, measurements, etc. For simplicity, I’ll address tracking in the context of bodyweight. Just like cutting, the reasons for tracking on a bulk are twofold: to make sure you’re eating enough, and to make sure you aren’t eating too much. If you’re eating too little, you won’t have the energetic surplus necessary for new tissue growth. If you’re eating too much, you’ll likely accumulate disproportionate amounts of bodyfat in the process.

Since bulking is essentially the caloric opposite of cutting, monitoring works the same way, except inversed. There is no single magic number to how fast you should gain weight on a bulk. That being said, there are general considerations that can be factored in:


• The less training experience (time lifting, muscle accumulated, etc.), the faster you can gain.

• Women gain muscle at slower rates than men.

• Smaller individuals can put on less total LBM in a given span of time than larger individuals (same proportional LBM gain, less net total).

• Teenagers going through puberty are notorious for putting on muscle quickly as they grow.


As for how fast to gain weight, this table is adapted from Alan Aragon’s recommendations, and represents an expected ~3:1 ratio of muscle:fat gain. As women have slower rates of LBM gain, they should aim for the lower end of the recommended values:


Rates of muscle gain by Alan Aragon.jpg


As with cutting, monitor weight for 3-4 weeks before adjusting calories upward or downward.

As a final consideration, it’s not uncommon for weight to spike several pounds at the beginning of a bulk due to water weight, glycogen increase, food in the gut, etc. This is normal and not indicative of a sudden amount of fat gain.

Training Considerations

The point of a bulk is to increase your strength and lean body mass. The best method for that is resistance training. There are countless volumes of literature that can cover this in way more detail than here, but I will touch on two key points for a bulk – progressive overload and total volume. The most important consideration for muscle growth is progressive overload, or the idea that your muscles must do progressively more work over time. This is generally done by adding more weight to an exercise over time, or performing more repetitions with the same weight. You should be getting stronger over time when bulking.

As for volume, approximately 40-70 repetitions per muscle group, 2-3x/week is generally sufficient for optimal training stimulus [1]. This is an extremely wide training range, and can be scheduled effectively across many different exercises and routines.

Finally, cardio is still an excellent idea on a bulk. Cardiovascular benefits aside, cardio can seem a lot less painful during a cut if you are already used to doing a fair amount of it while bulking. Keep in mind that recovery is still affected by the amount of cardio you do, so you may have to balance it with your weight training.

Recomping

Recomping is short for “recomposition.” The goal of recomping is to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously. This is often implied to happen while keeping overall weight the same or nearly the same. Maintenance is the rough calorie level where your body does just that – maintain your current weight and body composition.

Calories and Macros

For most people, bodyweight x 14-16 is an adequate estimate of maintenance calories.

For the other macros, they tend to fall somewhere between one’s cutting values and bulking values – protein requirements are higher than they would be in a bulk, yet not as high as when cutting. Fat and carbohydrate intake will be dictated by calorie levels and personal preference.

Why Doesn’t Everyone Recomp?

Inevitably, everyone considers a recomp at least once, especially when starting out. The idea of gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously is a tantalizing idea. So why doesn’t everyone recomp?

The big issue is that the mechanisms behind fat loss and muscle gain tend to be mutually exclusive. The body generally doesn’t pull from fat stores without an energy deficit – it already has what it needs to sustain itself, so no need to tap your bodyfat. Similarly, it generally won’t prioritize adding new tissue without a surplus – maintaining your current stores and body processes comes first. Changes in hormones and activity support this. The two big exceptions to this rule are very overweight and/or new trainees. In other words, the leaner and/or more experienced you are, the less likely you are to see appreciable rates of simultaneous muscle/fat exchange. Even then, this effect can happen in a deficit as well, which leads us to the next topic.

Planning a Bulking/Cutting Cycle

Putting it together, most people spend a dedicated mass gaining phase to gain muscle and fat (bulking), followed by a dedicated fat loss phase to shed the accumulated fat (cutting).

Bulking vs. Cutting as a Beginner

Inevitably, the first question most people new to bulking and cutting ask is “which do I do first?” In a similar vein, people who are dieting want to know when to stop and begin to build up muscle instead.

The short answer is “personal preference.” There’s arguments for starting with either approach. However, I’m personally in the camp of dieting down first, for a couple different reasons:


• Beginners can make decent strength and limited size gains even in a deficit. This is particularly true of overweight individuals.

• Nutrient partitioning (muscle vs. fat gain) tends to skew more towards fat accumulation as you get fatter. In other words, the fatter you get, the more likely your incoming calorie surplus will be stored as fat. You can (somewhat) control this by starting relatively lean.

• Although you don’t have to get fat on a bulk, you will gain fat on a bulk. Therefore, if you start on the leaner side, you’ll be able to bulk longer before getting too fat.

• Building on the previous point, the more total bodyfat you have, the longer you’ll have to cut to get lean again. If you start relatively lean and stay that way, your dieting periods will be much shorter and arguably less painful. Remember, less time spent dieting = more time spent bulking.


Recommendations

There’s many different approaches to determining when to bulk and when to cut, depending on individual goals and preferences. I will be referring to using body composition as the determinant for when to do so. The quick and easy steps to setting up a bulk/cut cycle are as follows:


1. Set an approximate upper and lower bodyfat percentage limit. It should be something reasonable – your upper limit should be high enough to allow for several months of bulking before hitting it, and your lower limit shouldn’t take more than a couple months to reach on a cut. Although the range set is based on personal preference, a rough ballpark would be 10-15% for men, and 17-22% for women. Keep in mind these are approximations.

2. Diet down to your lower limit.

3. Take two weeks at maintenance calories. Do not spend excessive amounts of time “reverse dieting” back up to maintenance. If you’re worried about fat gain, shave an extra 5-10% off of your estimated maintenance calories to compensate for any metabolic slowing/adaptation from your dieting period. These two weeks serve to normalize hormones somewhat before moving to your next phase, as well as to keep you from alternating between bulking and cutting too often (more on that in the next section).

4. After the 2 weeks have ended, jump up into your bulking calories.

5. Several months later, as you approach your upper limit, move to another 2 week maintenance period.

6. After the 2 weeks have ended, begin your cut.

7. Repeat ad infinitum.


Scheduling

The last consideration is timing: When you should be bulking, and when you should be cutting. One archetypal plan for bulking and cutting is to bulk in fall and winter, and cut/maintain during the spring and summer. The logic behind this is that you bulk when most people won’t be seeing your skin anyway, cut as it gets warmer, and maintain your lean physique to show off in the sun. Although it makes sense, there’s a couple issues I have with this approach. First, depending on the person, 6+ months of accumulated fat gain from bulking may be a lot to shed off in one go. At the very least, it’ll make for a long and painful cutting session. Secondly, maintaining over the summer is essentially a waste of training time. As mentioned above, trying to gain muscle or lose fat at maintenance calories is usually difficult for most people. On the other end, there’s people who constantly cycle between bulks and cuts in an effort to always stay lean. They spend a month or so in a bulk, instantly move to a cut, then repeat several times over the course of the year.

The main problem with this approach comes from a training standpoint. It’s very difficult to make considerable progress in the weight room in such a short span of time, especially when progress keeps halting during a cut. Since strength progression is a primary driver of muscle gain, this can be problematic. Therefore, what I recommend is a compromise. Plan to spend at least a few months for each respective bulk and cut, and do each part properly. Assuming you don’t bulk too fast or diet ineffectively, you should be able to spend at least half of the year (ideally more) growing.

As for time of year, plan around what’s going to be happening. For example, it might be a good idea to schedule your bulk during the holidays – nobody likes having to diet during Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Similarly, it might be a decent idea to have a cutting period before or during summer – although maintaining through summer is a poor idea, entering summer lean (or leaning out during it) might be up your alley.

There’s a lot of wiggle room here, and you don’t need to set anything in stone. It’s still a good idea to get a rough idea of when you might want to transition from one to another.

References

  1. Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R. The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Sports Med. 2007;37(3):225-64. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17326698