Bulking vs. Cutting: What’s the Difference?


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The bulking vs. cutting debate sits at the epicenter of the fitness industry, but it can be quite confusing for the uninformed. Bulking and cutting are not the same things. Fitness fanatics simply like to argue about which is more enjoyable. Both are essential for gaining and keeping muscle, but they play vastly different roles. So, what’s the difference? Read below for a complete guide to bulking vs. cutting, plus the common mistakes you want to avoid.

Bulking 101

Bulking is the most widely-used term for the muscle-building process because the name perfectly describes both parts: exercising and eating. You must eat a lot of food and get stronger in the gym to build muscle. No one is an exception to this rule, and if someone tries to tell you otherwise, they’re either horribly uneducated or just trying to hide their steroid use.

But bulking can’t be that simple, can it? Technically, bulking indeed is that simple. If you stuff yourself every day and lift heavy weights, you will gain muscle. However, you will also gain a lot of body fat and your muscles will go into hiding. 

Instead, you should follow this simplified bulking template to maximize muscle gains and minimize fat gains. Let’s cover the ground rules:

  • Remain in a consistent caloric surplus of 200-300 calories (eat more calories than you burn).
  • Consume at least .8 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day.
  • Progressively get stronger.
  • Devote at least six months to the bulk.
  • Aim to gain two to four pounds each month.

Dietary restrictions during a bulk are almost nonexistent. Still, you should keep your caloric surplus at a moderate level to avoid gaining significant amounts of fat. You must also always prioritize protein intake. Unless you’re a vegetarian, you will probably eat a lot of chicken, beef and eggs. Stock up on some protein bars too.

The rest of your diet should consist of calorie-dense carbs, healthy fats and a moderate vegetable intake. Carbs energize your body and aid in muscle recovery, while fats and veggies have essential vitamins and minerals. Add these foods to your shopping list:

  • Carbs: rice, pasta, potatoes, oatmeal, cereal, bananas, apples
  • Fats: peanut butter, milk, cheese, butter, olive oil.
  • Vegetables: personal preference

You must also devote at least six months to the bulk so your body has plenty of time to gain muscle, weight and strength. A lengthy timeline encourages you to take things slowly. You don’t want to stuff yourself for two or three months. Instead, you should take your time and control your weight gain. Slow and steady wins the race.

Common Bulking Mistakes

Bulking is a double-edged sword. You constantly tread a fine line between eating too much and not eating enough. However, people have encountered many other pitfalls while bulking. Here are the most common mistakes and what you can do to fix them:

  • Too much cardio: don’t try to micromanage their weight gain by doing a lot of cardio. You might inadvertently put yourself into a caloric deficit, which is the last thing you want. Put a cap on the cardio and stick to weight training.
  • Too much machine use: machines don’t build strength as effectively as free weights. Your training program should have a combination of both, with free weights as the primary exercises.
  • Focusing on the scale: while weight gain is a helpful metric to track your progress, it’s not everything. If the number on the scale hardly goes up but you still notice your muscles and strength improving, who cares what the scale says?
  • Skipping meals: the most ideal protein intake cycle for your body is every two to three hours. Most people can’t eat a meal every three hours, but you should still try to keep your protein feedings consistent throughout the day to optimize muscle recovery. Protein supplements come in handy for this task.
  • Not increasing calories: as the bulk progresses, you must increase your calorie intake to meet your body’s growing needs. If you keep eating the same amount as when you first started the bulk, your body’s weight and strength will plateau. To gain more, you must eat more.

Cutting 101

Cutting is the process of losing bodyfat and weight to give your muscles more definition. People often cut immediately after their bulks so the world can see their hard-earned gains. Here is our simplified cutting template:

  • Remain in a consistent caloric deficit of 100-200 calories (Burn more calories than you eat).
  • Consume at least one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight every day.
  • Weight train with moderate to high intensity.
  • Devote at least 12 weeks to the cut.
  • Lose no more than two pounds per week.

As you can see, bulking vs. cutting is simply an inversion. You build up muscle and fat for six months, then tear away the excess fat and leave your muscles behind. That sounds fun, right? Wrong. Cutting is controlled starvation, for all intents and purposes. When you keep your body in a caloric deficit, your force it to take energy from fat stores and muscles. The fat and muscles slowly burn away. 

Thankfully, you can minimize muscle loss through weight training and eating the right food. Cutting foods look largely the same as bulking foods, but some of them have low-fat substitutes that you should incorporate into your diet. Your shopping list should look like this:

  • Protein: chicken, steak, fish, eggs, egg whites
  • Carbs: rice, potatoes, plain oatmeal, vegetables
  • Fats: avoid all high-fat foods. You will get plenty of fats from the other foods on this list.
  • Low-calorie snacks: rice cakes, light popcorn, cottage cheese, almonds, strawberries, grapes, greek yogurt, etc.

Cutting requires you to eat “clean” most of the time, but you don’t have to cut out all of your favorites. Simply control your portion sizes and always monitor your protein intake.

Full Disclaimer: cutting is a mentally and physically challenging ordeal that leaves many people wondering why they began. You can take measures to ease the suffering, but expect to have some bad days. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

Common Cutting Mistakes

Since cutting requires a little more precision and discipline than bulking, you will encounter more obstacles. Keep these mistakes in mind:

  • Eating too little: you probably don’t need to restrict your diet as much as you think. Make your diet easily manageable to start and see how your body reacts.
  • Too much cardio: contrary to popular belief, you don’t technically need cardio during a cut. It’s simply another calorie-burning mechanism. You can avoid cardio entirely with the right diet and discipline, though most people use moderate cardio to give their diets some flexibility.
  • Going too strict: you can still eat all of your favorite foods, even the unhealthy ones. If you want pizza for dinner, simply eat a lighter lunch or skip the mid-afternoon snack so you can eat the pizza and remain in a caloric deficit.
  • Changing your training program: many people believe you should do more reps with lighter weights during a cut, but you don’t have to change your program at all. If anything, you should do fewer reps with more weight to preserve your strength and keep your muscles full.
  • Focusing on the scale: again, the scale isn’t everything. Focus on fat loss and muscle retention before the number on the scale.
  • Not decreasing calories: just like you must increase calories as your bulk continues, you must decrease calories as your get deeper into your cut. If you notice a plateau, bump your calories down a little bit.
  • Not taking diet breaks: you should take a diet break or a refeed day once every three weeks during your cut. It boosts your energy and metabolism, and also gives you mental relief. However, it’s not an excuse to pig out. Use your diet break responsibly.

Bulking vs. Cutting: Which Should You Do?

Should you bulk or cut? Many beginners have this dilemma when starting their fitness journeys. By answering these questions truthfully, you will arrive at the solution:

  • Do you have a main goal?
  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What is your current bodyfat percentage?

Your main goal should ultimately have the final say. If you want to get bigger, start bulking. If you want to look slimmer, start a cut. However, it’s also important to start strong and build momentum. If you’re excited about getting stronger in the gym, start a bulk and get those strength gains.

You must also be realistic. If your bodyfat percentage lies in the 10 to 15% range, you can start a bulk with confidence. Anyone past the 20% mark should consider cutting before they try to put on more weight. Look at yourself in the mirror and perform an honest self-evaluation.

Start Your Fitness Journey With a Bulk or Cut

Many people prematurely abandon their fitness goals because they lack direction. A bulk and a cut lays out a long-term goal, giving your daily habits purpose and urgency. You have a clear path to success, and all you have to do is follow it. Are you ready? Start your fitness journey today with a bulk or a cut.

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