Whether you want to build muscle, lose fat or do both, there’s a good chance you’re going to come across the terms bulking up and cutting in your quest for figuring out how to best reach those goals.
In fact, I’m sure many of you have already done a couple of “bulk and cut” cycles over the years, and many others are probably thinking about doing it for the first time. How nice.
The thing is, how successful these bulking and cutting cycles have been for you in the past and how successful they will be for you in the future depends on a bunch of factors, the most important of which may just be understanding what these terms DO and DO NOT mean and applying them accordingly.
So, let’s start with the basics.
What Are Bulking And Cutting?
Honestly, they are just stupid words used to describe building muscle and losing fat. The reason I call these words “stupid” is because they are quite broad, and that leaves an opening for them to be interpreted many different ways… some of which are VERY wrong.
You see, in the most general sense, they can be defined the following way:
- The Bulk: A period of time when the primary goal is building muscle, gaining weight, increasing strength, or all of the above. Calorie intake is increased so a caloric surplus is present.
- The Cut: A period of time when the primary goal is losing fat, losing weight, getting leaner, or all of the above. Calorie intake is decreased and/or calorie expenditure is increased so that a caloric deficit is present.
The final constant about the scenarios these words entail is that they are typically done in alternating cycles. You know… bulk for X amount of time, then cut for Y amount of time (or vice-versa depending on your initial goal).
This is how countless people have gone about trying to reach their fat loss and muscle building goals for decades and will likely still do it decades from now.
Why? Because it works IF it’s done right. However, as you’re about see, that’s a pretty big IF.
Now For The Problems…
What sucks about these words is that they lack details and specifics. The general concept of each is well known and widely agreed upon, but exactly how those concepts should be applied will vary.
And therein lies the problem, because there’s a way of bulking and cutting that works well, and a way that works horribly. Let’s make sure you know the difference.
How To Bulk… The Wrong Way
The typical old-school approach to bulking up tends to take things literally. As in, the goal here is to just gain a lot of “bulk” at a fairly rapid rate.
Of course, “bulk” can be a few different things (muscle or fat), and while we might want it to mostly be muscle, this style of bulking doesn’t really put much of a focus on actually making that happen.
What I mean is, usually…
- Calorie intake isn’t closely monitored. In fact, there’s often little attention paid to calories beyond just making sure you eat a shitload of them.
- Nutrient intake also isn’t closely monitored (other than maybe protein).
- Food choices are typically “dirtier” than they would normally be (more junk food is allowed in the diet to provide that aforementioned shitload of calories).
- No cardio activity is done.
- The focus is largely on just gaining weight fast… even if a significant amount of that weight is ugly body fat rather than pretty muscle. As long as body weight is increasing, the bulk is successful!
This is the approach that comes with such genius sayings as “just eat as much as you can” and “eat whatever isn’t nailed down” and the always wonderful “you gotta eat big to get big, bro!”
There is some truth to this of course, as a caloric surplus is definitely required for building muscle. But here’s the thing… there’s a limit to the amount of muscle a person can build and the rate at which they can build it (more here: How Fast Can You Build Muscle?).
What this means is that there is also a limit to the amount of calories the human body can actually put towards the process of muscle growth. Consuming more calories than that amount doesn’t lead to more muscle growth or faster muscle growth. It just leads to you getting fat as hell.
See, once you have supplied your body with the extra calories it needs to build muscle, any additional calories you consume beyond that point will just be stored as fat. And with this style of bulking (where little to no attention is put on monitoring calories, and the attempted rate of weight gain is often hilariously high), this is something that always ends up happening.
And that fact right there is EVERYTHING that is wrong with the typical old-school approach to bulking that a surprisingly high number of stupid people still keep trying to make seem right. It’s not.
But What About REALLY Skinny People Who Have A Hard Time Gaining Weight?
Now even if you’re someone who agrees that the old-school “bulking up” method of just eating as much as you can, not closely monitoring calorie intake, and gaining weight fast is totally wrong and dumb for most people… you might however still feel that there is one exception to this. A group of people who a typical “just-shut-up-and-eat” bulk IS ideal for.
I’m talking the super skinny. The guys/girls with naturally thin body types and ectomorph genetics who seem to be unable to gain weight and build muscle no matter how hard they try and how much they eat.
Surely a guy who is something like 5’11 125lbs is someone who would benefit from just “eating whatever isn’t nailed down” and sticking with the old-school bulking approach we just covered, right?
Um, as a dude who literally started lifting at exactly 5’11 125lbs… I’m here to tell you that this approach is still completely and utterly WRONG.
Super skinny or not, eating MORE calories above what is needed for optimal muscle growth will STILL lead to excessive amounts of fat being gained just the same. Sure, it may seem like less of a problem if a really skinny person gains that extra fat rather than someone who isn’t as skinny to start.
But who gives a shit? No one wants to unnecessarily gain extra fat, period. Even the super skinny.
As someone who once fit that description (it may have even been an understatement), I know I sure as hell didn’t. But, all of the advice I was hearing at the time made it seem like someone as skinny as I was needed to ignore everything and just eat a ton. Eat big, get big, right?
Why should someone who is barely 125lbs and the width of a broomstick waste time closely monitoring their calorie intake or try to gain weight at a slower more moderate pace? Someone with my body type should be gaining 20lbs in the next 10 weeks!!! Right?
This seemed to make sense in my silly noob head, so that’s exactly what I did. And do you know what happened? I built some muscle, but I also got fat as hell in the process.
So fat that looking back at those pictures right now still makes me feel terrible. One day I may even fight the embarrassment and post them as proof that a super skinny guy can easily become disgustingly fat as a result of old-school bulking methods and just eating big with no real regard for closely monitoring the exact extent of the caloric surplus and the rate of weight gain taking place.
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Weight Gain Can Happen Fast… Muscle Growth CAN’T
That’s why whenever I see people recommend the “eating whatever isn’t nailed down” approach, or to not bother closely counting calories, or suggesting you aim for 2 pounds gained per week (or more), or doing GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) for the purpose of gaining something as insane as 25lbs in 25 days… I do a combination of laugh and cringe.
Seriously… as someone who started off as skinny as anyone ever will, I can tell you firsthand that it’s all just flat out wrong. Even for the super skinny. You’ll certainly gain a ton of weight really fast by following this type of bulking advice. There’s no doubt about that at all, and if all you care about is just gaining weight, then I guess it’s alright.
But if you actually give a crap about what that weight is, then it’s not alright at all. Why? Because the majority of that weight will always be fat, not muscle.
And besides making you look like crap (hooray, now you’re skinny-fat instead of skinny), this is just going to create a much bigger time-wasting job for you when it comes time to cut and get rid of that fat. Trust me, I know.
And I know how tempting the thought of fast weight gain is to someone super skinny. I also know how the weight gain feels awesome at first regardless of what the composition of that weight is. It’s just nice to have people notice that you’re filling out your medium shirts a little better, even though what’s going on underneath that shirt is getting uglier by the pound.
Still, none of this changes the fact that in the end, this type of bulk will ALWAYS cause you to gain a bunch of body fat that you DID NOT NEED TO GAIN!
That’s why I feel that the old-school approach to bulking up is wrong for EVERYONE. Not just “most people,” but the super skinny as well. (Additional details here: Ectomorph Workout & Diet Guide And The Skinny-Fat Hardgainer Solution)
How To Bulk… The Right Way
And now for the new-school approach to bulking, although I use the term “new-school” loosely. There’s nothing really “new” about this type of bulk at all. It’s just that many people have finally seen the light in recent years, so to the people who have been doing it wrong all this time, this just seems like the newer way to bulk.
In reality, it’s just the smarter way to bulk.
The goal with this approach isn’t to just gain weight, eat whatever isn’t nailed down, and get as “big” as possible as fast as possible. Instead, the goal here is to build quality lean muscle mass while keeping fat gains to an absolute minimum.
A caloric surplus is still DEFINITELY required, only now it’s closely monitored and set to a level that is optimal for both muscle growth AND preventing any unnecessary body fat from being gained. The same goes for the rate of weight gain. Since muscle can only be gained so fast, the focus is on slow and gradual (yet still consistent) increases in body weight to ensure muscle is being gained without a ton of fat coming with it.
Similarly, the rest of the diet plan and the entire weight training routine is set up accordingly to improve calorie partitioning (meaning how your body uses the extra calories you’re consuming… to support muscle growth or just go towards fat storage?).
With this type of smart bulking, we’re doing everything we can to ensure muscle is being built as fast as it can while ALSO doing everything we can to ensure there is as little fat as possible coming with it.
Now, unless you’re using drugs and/or have the greatest genetics on the planet, everyone will always gain at least some small amount of fat along with muscle when creating a caloric surplus. But the goal should be to adjust diet and training to ensure the ratio of muscle to fat gain is as ideal as it can possibly be. Details here: How To Gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat
And that’s what this approach to bulking is all about (and why some people like to call it lean bulking or a clean-bulk… but it’s really just a smart-bulk).
So whereas an old-school bulk ends with you having gained some muscle along with a ton of fat that now needs to be lost in order to actually see it, a new-school bulk ends with the same amount of muscle being built, only now there’s significantly LESS fat that needs to be lost.
(UPDATE: Since writing this article a couple of years ago, I’ve had an insane amount of people ask me for more specifics about doing the kind of “smart-bulk” I just described. Well, it took me a while, but I’ve finally put together the ultimate answer. I call it Superior Muscle Growth, and it’s a program designed entirely for one specific purpose: allowing you to build lean muscle as quickly and effectively as realistically possible WITHOUT gaining excess body fat along the way. If you’re interested, I highly recommend it: Superior Muscle Growth)
And that brings us to cutting.
How To Cut… The Wrong Way
The typical old-school approach to cutting is really about just losing weight as fast as possible. It’s probably because at the end of a typical old-school style bulk, you’re so F-ing fat that you just can’t wait to get rid of it by any means necessary… no matter how dumb.
And that describes old-school cutting exactly. There’s usually…
- An extra large reduction to your calorie intake.
- A huge increase in cardio… something like 30-60 minutes of steady state activity done 5-7 days per week is pretty normal (coming from doing zero cardio during the bulk), with maybe some HIIT thrown in for good measure.
- A switch from heavy weight and low reps (for bulking and building muscle) to light weight and high reps (for cutting and toning, duh)
- A switch from eating lots of junk while bulking to only eating “clean” foods now that you’re cutting.
- A switch from barely paying any attention to nutrient intake to now paying all sorts of OCD-like attention.
- And it’s usually all added instantly and simultaneously as soon as the bulk is over.
If all of that sounds right to you, then please have a close friend or family member kick you square in the nuts (or, for those without nuts, somewhere equally attention-getting). Everything associated with the old-school approach to cutting is VERY wrong and VERY counterproductive.
Yes, you’ll lose weight for sure… probably really fast too. But, THAT’S the problem with cutting this way. “Weight” isn’t just fat… it can also be muscle. And believe me, when following these methods… you can bet your ass that a significant amount of the weight you lose will be quality lean muscle instead of body fat.
Yup, the same quality lean muscle you just put in a ton of time and effort to build.
And that fact right there is EVERYTHING that is wrong with the old-school style of cutting. Losing weight is simple, but ensuring the weight being lost is fat and NOT muscle takes effort and attention that this approach not only doesn’t provide… but completely goes against. I don’t recommend it to anyone.
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How To Cut… The Right Way
And now for the new-school approach to cutting. Once again, there’s nothing really new about it. It’s just that it seems “new” in comparison to the silly incorrect way many people have previously gone about doing it. This is really just the smarter way to cut.
The goal with this approach isn’t to just lose weight as fast as possible. The goal here is to lose body fat while maintaining all of your hard-earned muscle and strength.
A caloric deficit is still DEFINITELY required, only now it’s closely monitored (as is the rate of weight loss) and set to a level that will produce optimal fat loss without hindering recovery and negatively impacting your performance in the weight room (which would lead to muscle loss).
Cardio is completely optional but can still definitely be done to create/help create the required deficit. However, it’s programmed properly in sane amounts (and intensities) to avoid the same recovery related problems I just mentioned would lead to muscle loss.
Similarly, the rest of the diet plan (especially protein intake) is set up accordingly to suit the goal of preserving muscle while losing fat in a way that is the perfect combination of highly effective, enjoyable and sustainable.
And, most important of all in terms of maintaining muscle… your weight training routine is designed to provide an optimal muscle maintenance signal, and may also need to be adjusted to compensate for the drop in recovery/performance that comes with being in a caloric deficit (thus helping to ensure that strength levels are maintained). My Fat Loss + Muscle Maintenance Routine (which is now available within my Superior Fat Loss program) makes all of these adjustments for you.
With this type of smart cutting, we’re doing everything we can to ensure body fat is being lost as fast as it can be while ALSO doing everything we can to ensure ALL of our lean muscle and strength is being maintained during the entire process.
So whereas an old-school cut ends with you having lost fat but also a significant amount of muscle and strength right along with it, a new-school cut ends with the desired amount of fat being lost without any problem, and muscle and strength levels maintained perfectly (or, in some cases, possibly even increased).
(UPDATE: I actually just released a brand new program designed from top to bottom to allow you to lose body fat WITHOUT losing lean muscle. Feel free to check it out: Superior Fat Loss)
The End Result: Wrong vs Right
Now that you’ve seen the major differences between these two approaches to bulking and cutting, let’s quickly compare their end results.
The WRONG Way To Do It
When you attempt to build muscle in a way that is associated with “old-school bulk up” methods, you’re always going to end up gaining some amount of excess body fat that you just didn’t need to gain. When you attempt to lose fat in a way that is associated with “old-school cutting” methods, you’re always going to end up losing some amount of muscle and strength that you just didn’t need to lose.
And alternating between these types of bulk and cut cycles is really the ultimate recipe for disaster. You’ll just keep building underwhelming amounts of muscle and while gaining overwhelming amounts of fat, and then go on to lose most of that fat while also losing a large amount (maybe even ALL) of that muscle.
Sounds pretty terrible, huh? Oh… it is. I’ve been there and done that, as have countless others. You just keep gaining and losing the same weight over and over again and end up EXACTLY where you originally started at. No real new muscle or strength, and not really any leaner either. Just spinning your wheels.
If anything, you usually look slightly worse at the end of each bulk and cut cycle.
But that’s what you can expect when you attempt to build muscle and/or lose fat in this manner. I’d absolutely NEVER recommend it. Anyone who does is an idiot, and you can tell them I said so.
The RIGHT Way To Do It
Instead, anyone looking to make these kinds of improvements to their body should do it the way that I’ve described as new-school and smart.
That means if your goal is building muscle, bulk in a way that allows you to slowly but optimally build that muscle while simultaneously keeping fat gains to an absolute minimum. Superior Muscle Growth is tailor made for this exact purpose. If your goal is to lose fat, cut in a way that allows you to lose that fat optimally while simultaneously maintaining all of your lean muscle mass at the same time. My Superior Fat Loss program is entirely designed for that purpose.
And if you want or need to do both, just alternate between cycles of SMART bulking and cutting.
Doing it this way, you can be sure that you’ll always end up with more muscle and less fat than you previously had… as opposed to the other way around.
(Wondering which phase to start with first? Read this: Should I Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?)