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Does Bulking and Cutting Work? What You Need to Know

Jun 08, 2018

The question we are going to explore today is: does bulking and cutting work?

Whether you want to build muscle, lose fat, or do both, you will come across the phrases “bulking” and “cutting.”

Let’s define these two terms:

The Bulk: When your main goal is to either build muscle, gain weight, increase your strength, or a combination of all three.

The number of calories consumed has to increase to make this all happen.

The Cut: The primary goal here is to lose fat, lose weight, get leaner, or all of the above.

Caloric intake decreases and you burn more calories in your goal to have a lower BMI.

Originally bodybuilders used bulking and cutting as a dietary strategy to prepare for competition.

When you think about it, many of us sort of take this approach depending on the time of year.

We eat more and train hard during the wintertime, then we try to lose all those extra pounds by beach season.

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - Bulk or Cut?

Oftentimes bulking and cutting are done in alternating cycles where you bulk up for a certain period of time, then cut for a specific amount of time.

Or the cycle can be reversed, depending on your goals.

In an ideal world you gain around 30 pounds during the bulk phase, 10 or more pounds will be fat, and then during the cutting phase you lose all the fat and keep about 90% of the muscle.

Theoretically, if you bulked for four months, and then cut for four months, you would gain about 15 pounds of lean muscle by the end of the eight months.

But it doesn’t work that way in the real world.

Most people actually gain more fat than muscle during a 12 to 16-week bulk.

Instead of 20 pounds of muscle gained with 10 pounds of fat you usually end up with the reverse: 20 pounds of fat and 10 pounds of muscle.

There is a way of bulking and cutting that can work well and there is a way that doesn’t work at all.


Does Bulking and Cutting Work? How NOT to Bulk

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - How Not To Bulk

Some people take the old school, very literal approach when they want to bulk.

Their goal is to gain a lot of “bulk” very quickly.

They do this by:

  • Not watching their calories—they don’t pay attention to calories and just plan to eat everything in sight.
  • Not monitoring how nutritious their food really is, choosing to eat “dirtier” food: empty calories.
  • Giving up on any cardio activities.
  • Just wanting to gain weight quickly, even if that weight gain is from additional body fat rather than lean muscle.


Does this Method Work for Super Skinny People?

You might wonder does this old-school method for bulking up work for really skinny people?

The men or women with naturally thin bodies who can’t seem to gain weight and build muscle no matter what they do?

Nope, even for those who are “as thin as a toothpick,” eating more calories than needed for muscle growth will still lead to excessive amounts of fat.

A lot of weight will be gained really fast by bulking like this but the majority of that weight gain will always be fat, not muscle.

In situations like these, we hear the term, “skinny fat.”


The Body Can Gain Weight Quickly But Can’t Grow Muscles Quickly

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - Skinny fat

Ideally, when people bulk up they are building up their muscle mass, and not just increasing body fat.

Yes, you need additional calories to build muscle but there is a limit to how much muscle a person can build, as well as the rate in which they can build it.

There is also a limit as to the number of calories the human body will apply towards muscle growth.

Eating more calories than the body can handle doesn’t result in more muscle growth or faster muscle growth, you just end up getting fat.

Once you have given your body the additional calories it needs to build muscle, any additional fuel you ingest will be stored as fat.


Body Fat Linked to Estrogen Production

According to the Endocrine Society increases in body fat are linked to increases in estrogen levels.

Related: Obesity and Breast Cancer: The Estrogen Connection

Fred Duncan, a personal trainer in New York, tried bulking and cutting while he was part of the bodybuilding circuit.

He said, “Estrogen is the last thing you want to increase if you’re trying to put on muscle tissue.

At the end of the day, whatever is left over is going to be stored as fat.”

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - "Clean" vs "Dirty" Foods

One of the reasons Duncan believes bulking and cutting doesn’t really work is that this extreme diet was never meant for regular people.

When a bodybuilder starts a bulk he or she already has a high muscle mass and low body fat.

This often isn’t true of the average gym goer who has decided to explore the benefits of bulking and cutting.

Bodybuilders may also be taking additional substances that will enhance their ability to gain muscle and burn those extra calories.

So, does bulking and cutting work? 

Well, it seems there can definitely be more to it than diet and exercise — supplementation, sleep, etc. can all play a role, too.

Related: Weight Loss as a Journey: Max’s Transformation Story


Does Bulking and Cutting Work? The Smarter Way To Bulk

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - Dark Iron Fitness' Dip Belt

Here the goal isn’t just to add weight and to get as “big” as possible, as quickly as possible.

The goal here is to build lean, quality muscle while gaining as little fat as you can.

Extra calories are definitely a requirement.

But now calories are monitored and the amount is ideal for muscle growth as well as preventing unnecessary body fat.

This is also true with the rate you gain weight.

You can only gain muscle so fast, so you want a slow, gradual increase in body weight.

Of course, this means a smart diet and weight training routine where your body uses the extra calories the right way, to ensure that you get the desired result.

Your body does need the additional calories to synthesize new muscle tissue and to support the recovery and training performance needed for a progressive overload.

Make those dips count with the Dark Iron Fitness’ Leather Weightlifting Dip Belt.


What is Progressive Overload?

Progressive overload is the ultimate key to getting the results you want.

The human body doesn’t care that you want big muscles or less fat.

Your body just wants to keep you alive as it functions efficiently to make this happen.

Related: How To Get Insanely Strong

Your body will do what it needs to in order to adapt to its environment.

The only way you can change or improve your body is to create an environment that convinces your body that these changes MUST be made.

Therefore if you lift the same amount of weights, for the same number of reps, for the next 10 years—nothing will happen.

Your body will never change or improve.

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - Dark Iron Fitness Belt

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By upping the weight you lift and/or increasing the number of reps you increase the demands placed on your body.

Now your body has no choice but to make the necessary changes and improvements to adapt to this new environment.

Or, to put it another way, your body will not change or improve unless you force it to.

Which leads us to cutting . . .


Does Bulking and Cutting Work? Cutting—The Wrong Way

The usual, old-school method of cutting is really about losing weight as quickly as possible.

Do this through:

  • A big reduction in your caloric intake.
  • A huge increase in your cardio activities.
  • Switching from heavy weights with fewer reps (for bulking up) to lighter weights with more reps (for cutting and toning).
  • Rather than eating “dirty” junk food while bulking to now only eating “clean” foods.
  • Paying much more attention to the nutritional value of foods eaten.

With this approach, you will lose weight quickly but “weight” isn’t just fat—it can also be MUSCLE.

A significant amount of the weight you lose will be the lean muscle that you spent so much time and effort to build.


Does Bulking and Cutting Work? The Smarter Way to Cut

Does Bulking and Cutting Work? - Cut Male

The ultimate goal here is to lose body fat while keeping all of that muscle you worked so hard to get.

A caloric deficit is a must so that means closely watching your calories as you consume less food.

The number of calories should produce the ideal level of fat loss without affecting recovery and negatively impacting your workout in the weight room.

Cardio work is optional but adding them will help with the needed deficit.

But monitor the amount and intensity, don’t take extreme measures.

You don’t want to have to recover from an injury, which will lead to muscle loss.

The diet plan, with more proteins to preserve muscle while losing fat, needs to be enjoyable enough to be maintained.

Also, to help keep muscle, your weight training program should send a muscle maintenance signal to your body.

Adjust your routine since you are consuming fewer calories.

If you are not a bodybuilder and need to bulk and cut for professional reasons, moderation works better.

Studies have suggested that consuming no more than 500-800 calories per day when trying to bulk is a healthier approach.

You also want to keep your bulks shorter, in the range of 30-45 days, for maximum muscle gains with less fat gains.

Related: Ask The Muscle Prof: Is Bulking Really Necessary?


Does Bulking and Cutting Work? Start Right and Do it Smart

Use your current body fat percentage to help you determine if you should bulk or cut first.

If you are around 15% body fat start a muscle building food plan but make smart choices.

Stick with healthy foods and don’t go overboard on the calories.

You need to eat more calories but if your maintenance caloric intake is about 2,300, don’t eat 6,000 calories a day.

Related: Why Bulking and Cutting Just Doesn’t Work


Conclusion: Does Bulking and Cutting Work?

If your goal is to build muscle, bulk in a way that allows your body to slowly but optimally build that muscle while keeping fat gains to an absolute minimum.

If your goal is to lose fat, do a cut that allows you to lose that fat while maintaining all of your lean muscle mass.

So bulking and cutting can work if you adopt a smarter, modified approach.

With the right tactics, you’ll keep more muscle, while cutting down weight.

Does bulking and cutting work then?

Yes, if done right, according to your body!

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