Two very common bodybuilding terms. Athletes, celebrities and gym-goers alike all go through bulking and cutting phases to gain muscle, strength and achieve aesthetically pleasing physiques. These are commonly known as weight gain and loss periods.
With each phase, bodybuilders are aiming to change their body composition with muscle growth and additional body mass (bulking) or shredding body fat whilst maintaining their muscle (cutting). Think about it like this, if you want to bulk out of your t-shirt, you want to size up and look more muscular whereas if you want to fit into a smaller size t-shirt and look lean, it's the polar opposite.
We sat down with ex professional boxer and Village Club Manager, Lee Clayton, to get the low-down on bulking and cutting, plus how you should approach each phase, especially if it’s your first bulk or cut.
What is bulking?
“Simply put, bulking is sizing up. If you are bulking, you are eating in a calorie surplus (eating more) because you want to eat more calories than you burn. The end goal is to increase your body’s muscle mass and gain weight - don’t be scared about weight gain in this phase as muscle is essentially more dense than fat and therefore weighs more!
Within your bulking period you want to include intense resistance training workouts to boost your gains!
In-between fights is always an extremely important phase during any boxing career and one many an athlete gets wrong, evident with many boxer’s ballooning in weight between fights. The aim should always be placed around increasing muscle mass, power and strength whilst gaining as little fat as possible. The easiest way to achieve this was through clean eating, whilst still achieving the calorie surplus. Staying away from takeaways where possible was always a key factor throughout my career.”
What is cutting?
“It’s the opposite, sizing down with muscle definition. Therefore a cut phase is when you eat in a calorie deficit (eating less) to shred body fat whilst retaining as much muscle as you can. Train hard, eat less.
Within this phase you will continue with hard resistance training but your lifting intensity might dwindle as you don’t have as much energy or fuel as your body is cutting foods and fats.”
An important factor for Lee during this professional Bantamweight boxing career, correctly cutting enabled him to compete at the correct weight.
“Holding more fat would have made it much harder to compete at the elite level as I would have been up against much bigger guys that carry more power. It would also have affected my fitness which was always my biggest asset.”
How To Bulk (Beginners Top Tips)
When you begin your bulk, you need to be eating in a calorie surplus to ensure your body is able to grow muscle. So, Lee suggests looking at your maintenance calories and gradually…
“Add calories as you go, week by week to see the results. Your body needs to be in an anabolic state to create new muscle tissue.”
“Remember, this is a gradual process, don’t overdo it by adding 1,000 calories onto your daily intake. A good sign is when your weight and strength rise with minimal fat gain. During your bulking phase, MyFitnessPal, or other food tracking technologies, can help you track your calories and macros.”
Lee recommends that as you go through your bulk, make sure you are still eating nutritious foods.
“Just because you are gaining, you want to eat filling foods, not junk food. High carbs and high protein are key macronutrients for your bulk. Keep your fat intake quite moderate as you don’t want to gain body fat or imbalance your hormones.”
We’ve listed some of our nutritious favourites below.
- Meats (beef, lamb and pork)
- Chicken and turkey
- Yoghurts, milk and cheese
- Protein supplements (powders and shakes)
- Protein bars (watch the fat in these though)
- Fruit and veg
- Whole grain foods
Within your bulk, you need to progressively overload which means you up the weights, lessen the rest period or up the reps. Should your goal be purely for aesthetic reasons Lee recommends aiming for about 8-10 reps when lifting heavy. This would vary slightly if you were looking more towards strength or power gains. Stick to your compound lifts like your squat, deadlift and bench press; and then your accessory exercises for added resistance to focus on set muscle groups.
How To Cut (Beginners Top Tips)
“So, you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight and body fat. From your maintenance calories, you need to slowly reduce the calories you consume per day to ensure your body is in a catabolic state.”
Cutting is not a quick fix. Don’t rush. Don’t drop the calories drastically because your body won’t cope and you may binge eat to recover. Be patient and consistent because this is a lifestyle change. Dieting isn’t forever, tell yourself that, regularly.
“Keep your proteins high to keep your body fuelled in between meals to settle the hunger. It doesn’t need to be a huge jump in protein, just make it high enough to satisfy your hunger and maintain some muscle tissue. Your body will be unable to digest excess protein and will only result in unnecessary calorie intake. With regards to carbs and fats, you’ll need to reduce your carb intake slightly, whilst still ensuring you intake enough to have the energy for training at the correct intensity.”
“Stick with the resistance training to maintain some muscle mass and continue to progress your lifts when you can. Don’t expect big jumps in weight intensity as your body is consuming less foods therefore your testosterone and energy levels will be lower.”
Within this phase, you want to be burning high calories therefore you’ll need to incorporate dynamic training and cardio to keep your heart rate high. Supersets and reducing the rest period in between sets is an easy way to keep your body in a burning state. HIIT, spin, and boxing are great classes to start attending if you want to burn high calories in short bursts. Lee recommends spending time on the cardio machines, pre or post weights session, to keep burning through that body fat.
“Bulking and cutting is a process. It takes time. It takes perseverance. The results you want will come if you are consistent with your nutrition and training. Consistency is key throughout the process.”
Thanks for the tips Lee! Check out our handy FAQs in case you need more information on either phase.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long is the bulking and cutting cycle?
That often comes down to the individual. The most effective bulks range from 4 - 8 months and effective cuts need to be at least 4 - 8 weeks for results.
Is bulking and cutting effective?
Yes, with time and dedication, you will see results. If you’d like to gain muscle mass or gain a lean physique, these phases will help you achieve the best results.
Can I bulk and cut at the same time?
We would never recommend bulking and cutting at the same time however, if you increase your protein intake and reduce your carbs intake, you can bulk and cut at the same time.
How much should I bulk before cutting?
A good rule of thumb for lifters is at least 8 - 12 weeks for bulking and then you can go into your cut phase if you’re happy with the results.
How long does it take to cut after bulking?
The cutting phase varies per person, often cuts are around 8 - 16 weeks, dependent on your goals and achievements.
Should you bulk then shred?
If you have a lean physique then (10-15% body fat or less for a man, or 18-23% of body fat or less for a woman), you should definitely bulk and then shred down.
Should I lift heavy when cutting?
Yes, we would always recommend continuing to lift heavy during the cutting phase. Your strength will go down due to lower calories however, you should continue to push on heavy weights for compound exercises.
Should I do high reps while cutting?
For getting lean, we’d recommend higher reps within sets. Your strength will go down due to the calorie deficit therefore you may have to drop the weight.
How do I cut without losing muscle?
Let’s be realistic. When you cut, you will end up losing muscle mass along with body fat. However, a well structured nutrition plan and exercise programme can help manage muscle loss.
Can you put on muscle while cutting?
It is possible to gain muscle and still cut body fat but completing the bulking and cutting phases separately will give you the best results.
How do I flatten my stomach while bulking?
Bulking is in short fat gain. But you can minimise belly fat accumulation with cardio integration, calorie consumption, progress pictures discipline and eating the right foods.
Want to learn more for your fitness journey? Check out our depository of fitness and health related articles on our Village Life blog.