Its a question loads of fitness fans start asking themselves as they up their fitness game. But when should you do what? @danmacfitness, Coach and Performance Nutritionist, has given us the lowdown.
Bulk vs Cut?
If there was ever a most popular fitness question award, this would definitely be in with a shot. It’s one that always comes up when we have consultations with new clients. And this is with good reason. The answer goes deeper than your current body composition. We need to look at the overall picture, not just high body fat = diet, low body fat = bulk.
Let's look at the options:
1. Fat loss phase (or cut)
2. Mass phase (or bulk).
There is also a third option - body recomposition (Simply put, muscle gain and fat loss at the same time, which is not always as easy as you think and is only effective in certain circumstances; I'll cover that later in the article!)
When to Enter a Cut
Firstly we need to remember the goal of a fat loss phase is to maximise muscle retention whilst losing body fat. This is where the calorie deficit comes in. A calorie deficit in its simplest term is expending more energy than you take in. If you apply this over time you will lose fat.
Contrary to popular belief you may be able to gain some muscle during a cut, although this gets harder in certain circumstances :
The leaner you get
The longer your training age (how long you've trained for)
The size of the deficit
If you’re carrying a large amount of body fat or are overweight then this would be the best option. To find out this information you can use a formula or make it even easier try a calorie calculator.
Capping a bulk at 20% body fat for men and around 28% for women would be my preference. Some may be comfortable pushing more but this is dictated by the individual.
Simple advice for those who are overweight: there is no need to whip out the food scales and dive straight into weighing everything. A better and simpler approach would be to adopt the habits of the person you want to be.
For example, consume more protein. Eat more fruit, add more veg to your diet. Drink more water. And becoming more active in general can start to retune the hunger signals and start to see body fat drop.
In conclusion - think about training for muscle gain and diet for fat loss.
When to Enter a Bulk
The goal here is to gain at a steady rate of gain rather than gain uncontrollably as this leads to unnecessary fat gain. This is where the word “Bulk” comes with its own set of issues, it implies rapid weight gain and images conjures of big, huge, chonky bodybuilders. I prefer the words “massing” or “gaining” but for simplicty we'll keep using bulk.
Compared to fat loss gaining muscle takes time. It is a much slower process so this requires a little patience. For this to happen it would be preferable to be in a calorie surplus (where you take in more energy than you expend). This only needs to be slightly as mentioned, it is just to help make that muscle development easier.
Lucky for some, the less advanced a trainee is, the faster you can gain muscle. Some rough rates of gain :
Beginner - 2% per month
Novice (less 6 months) - 1.5% per month
Intermediate (6-12 months) 1%
Advanced (4-5 years +) 0.5%
To help you decide if you're ready for a bulk, I like to go on current body weight and fat levels; if you are already lean and can see some ab outline this might help!
When to Switch from Cut to Bulk?
If the goal is muscle gain, spending as little time in a fat loss phase as possible should be the aim. Don’t push to excessively lean levels of body fat, you’ll only be hungrier when you make the switch which could lead to gaining too quick. Aim to have about 5-6 months in each phase.
Worry less about being super lean and more about your training program as this helps with the nutrient partitioning (how the nutrients get used) There needs to be a stimulus for growth to occur. The stimulus is weight training.
When to Switch from Bulk to Cut?
As mentioned above 20% body fat for men and 28% for women would be a solid marker to use. Some will stop sooner and some will push past, but ultimately aim to log the data so you can make the most of gaining, instead of ending up in the cut - gain - cut cycle.
This is purely guidance based on research and experience and as mentioned each person will be individual, so my advice is to work on what’s best for you and your circumstances
What About Body Recomposition?
The holy grail! Losing fat and building muscle at the same time. Although this is possible, it’s not effective for everyone.
This works well for new trainees and those who are coming back after a period of time off. For example after an injury. Ideally if you are overweight you’d cut and if you are underweight you’d bulk. So this leaves the recomp for those who are in the middle BUT keep in mind it works best for those newer to training or after time off.
If you are new to resistance training (Beginner or Novice) and are not really over or underweight then look at the recomposition.
If you have some training experience then aim to keep the cut / bulk phase between 10-20% body fat for men and 18-28% for women. Cap bulk at 20% - past this point is leading to diminishing returns and risk to health.
Cut at any point but warning dropping lower than 8-10% men & 16-18% for women is difficult and hard to sustain. The body doesn’t want to sit paper skin thin, year-round.
To power up your training and strength, cycle between these and find the sweet spot for YOU, around 10-15% body fat men or 18-23% women.