The million-dollar question: Should I bulk or cut first?
It’s okay, we’ve all been there. So, don’t feel stupid by asking this question.
I’m certain this question has been answered by many other bloggers and fitness figures, however, the question is not that difficult to answer to begin with.
Figuring out whether you should bulk or cut first may get overwhelming if you’re a beginner and want to make sure everything is being done properly. However, the truth is that there’s no wrong answer.
The right answer depends on many factors that we will discuss in this article. We just need to dissect the question and look at its components with an objective lens.
The right answer is…
It depends. There you have it. Just kidding, sort of. Whether you should bulk or cut depends on several factors such as:
- Training age
- Current body composition
- Natural or enhanced
As you can see, the answer isn’t -as usual- black or white but rather, depends on a multitude of factors. Let’s look at some of those factors and set some criteria.
Training age is how long you’ve been lifting weights properly. I cannot emphasize the importance of the word “properly” in that last sentence. You could’ve started lifting 5 years ago but, if you haven’t been training properly for those 5 years, chances are you are merely past your noob gains, if that.
We can divide training age into 3 main stages:
Each group requires a different approach to nutrition and training. Let’s break each group down.
Generally speaking, if you have been lifting consistently AND properly for less than a year, then you’re a beginner. Most beginners tend to be skinny fat, which confuses them as far as deciding whether they should bulk or cut first.
With that said, although not the majority, some beginner lifters tend to be on the heavy side and some tend to be naturally lean (lucky …..). So here are some guidelines:
If you are skinny fat, you should neither bulk or cut. That said, you should focus on recomping. In other words, you should focus on building muscle while losing fat at the same time. If you still think that is a myth, read this article. That’s because your body is primed for muscle gain as it is. So, if you follow a sound training program and a good nutrition plan, you will lose fat at an accelerated rate while building a good amount of muscle.
What defines skinny fat?
Although you should easily know this but, if you are on the skinny side and carry 20-30 lbs. of extra fat with little muscle mass then you’re skinny fat.
What if I’m not skinny fat?
If you are not skinny fat and you’re on the heavy side, you should cut. That’s because you have plenty of stored energy in the form of fat. So, get your nutrition in check, create a moderate caloric deficit, and focus on progression at the gym. Once again, you will build tons of muscle while losing a lot of fat. So, there’s no point of bulking at this stage.
If you are one of those lucky beginners who start off with striations and a six-pack, then you should bulk. Now, when I say bulk, I do NOT mean get fat as f*ck bulk. Since you’re blessed with decent genetics, chances are you won’t accumulate much fat anyway. However, if you push the calories TOO much, you will definitely gain a lot of fat and lose your abs. Take advantage of your genetics and always stay within 8-15% body fat
Most lifters fall in this category. Some people like to breakdown the intermediate stage into two stages: early intermediate and advanced intermediate. Both require slightly different approaches from each other. However, there are still some general guidelines to be followed.
How do you know if you are an intermediate lifter?
Intermediate lifters usually have successfully added about 12-24 lbs. of lean mass to their frame. The intermediate looks decent and looks like he lifts but doesn’t look quite impressive yet. Keep in mind that this is just a range. However, since it’s not so easy to quantify the amount of muscle you built, an easier way would be strength standards.
Intermediate lifters can usually put up the following numbers:
- Squat 275-315 for 1-5 reps.
- Deadlift 275-315 for 1-5 reps.
- Bench press 185 – 225 for 1-3 reps.
That’s an easier way to determine whether you’re an intermediate lifter or not. If you are advanced intermediate, you most certainly will be stronger than that.
Whether you are an early or advanced intermediate lifter, you should aim to follow bulk and cut cycles rather than try to recomp. Although body recomposition is certainly possible, it’s not as efficient as following traditional bulking and cutting cycles past the beginner stage. That’s even more true if you’re natural. That’s because your body isn’t as primed to put on muscle as it was when you first started lifting.
With that said, I am NOT telling you to get fat! You always want to maintain a somewhat lean body. You also do NOT want to be that guy who stays shredded year-round because “aesthetics bruh”. A happy medium will ensure that you look your best most of the time, enjoy life, and maximize progress.
Thus, you generally want to stay within the 8-15% body fat range. If you are currently near the top end of that range, cut till you are about 10% body fat before you attempt any type of bulk. If you are on the leaner side, you most certainly do not want to cut but rather follow a long lean bulk phase where you focus on adding quality weight and getting stronger at the gym
If you are an advanced lifter, you will know that you are. However, let’s draw some guidelines for fun.
Squat – 405 lbs. +
Deadlift – 425 lbs. +
Bench – 275 lbs.
Each lift would probably be performed for 3-5 reps.
Anyway, during the advanced stage, you become very close to your genetic potential. Thus, it would make any sense to try to bulk and add a ton of weight. Why? Because you’ll probably end up gaining mostly fat that you’ll have to shed later. Plus, you’re only a few pounds of muscle away from your genetic potential anyway, so it’s pointless.
The best approach to maximizing progress during the advanced stage is to either slowly lean bulk or recomp. Either method is viable.
Current body composition
Current body composition is simply how much muscle and fat mass you are currently carrying. Be honest with yourself. What’s your body fat percentage? What’s your waist size? Are you simply fat? Are you lean and mean? Or, are you a skinny twig?
Current body composition goes hand in hand with the former elements, which is training age.
But, maybe you took your bulk a bit too far. Or you cut for way too long and sacrificed some precious lean mass along the way. What do you do?
Well, if your body fat percentage is high (That’s 15% and more bf) you most certainly need to cut. No exceptions. Well, unless you are a “powerlifter”. Get down to 10% body fat before you attempt any sort of bulk. Yes, that includes lean bulks as well. Chances are you will get stronger and build a bit of muscle along the way if you’re doing things properly.
If your body fat percentage is in the 10-15% range but you are a beginner lifter, I suggest you follow a long lean bulk phase. Not only will you not get fat along the way but, you will also maximize protein synthesis and lose fat simultaneously. Your body fat percentage will probably decrease due to the newly-acquired muscle mass, which will skew your composition in a positive direction.
If you’re one of those people that don’t seem to gain weight and stay shredded year-round, congratulations! You can probably eat more than the average Joe and still look fantastic. As a bonus, you will probably get to enjoy junk food more often as well. Not recommended but, junk food could be delicious from time to time. So, what you want to do is bulk! Don’t be an idiot and get fat though.
The third most important factor in deciding whether you should bulk or cut is your ultimate goal. Are you a powerlifter? Are you a bodybuilder? Do you plan on competing? Do you just want to get stronger? Or do you just want to have a beach body? Maybe you just want to be healthy.
Let me show you why this is important.
If you are a competitive or even recreational powerlifter, chances are you care more about your big 3 numbers than your waist size. While this holds true for majority of powerlifters, some like to stay lean. To each his own. However, it’s not a coincidence that the heavier you are the stronger you will be. Someone who weighs 200 lbs. will almost always be stronger than someone who weighs 130 lbs. Hence why weight classes exist. Physics, people
With that said, if you are a powerlifter who doesn’t care much about aesthetics, you will want to spend as much time as possible in a bulking or maintenance mode. That will maximize recovery, accelerate progress, and raise your lifts faster than if you were to bulk and cut. If you gain some extra weight, you can always cut not too long before your competition to make sure you stay in your weight class.
If you are a powerlifter and/or bodybuilder, then you will want to follow traditional bulking and cutting cycles. You do not want to get too lean though. Unless you are getting ready for a show, of course. However, you want to stay in the realm of 10-15% body fat. 10-13% body fat is where most people feel their best, look amazing, and still maintain their strength.
If you are a recreational lifter who wants to look good and be healthy, follow the above advice as well. You have more leeway than a powerlifter or bodybuilder though.
If you care more about aesthetics and are currently lean, you can either lean bulk or maintain and focus on getting stronger (recomp). Either method is feasible
Frankly, the former 3 elements are the most important in determining whether you should bulk or cut. One of the slightly less-important factors is age.
It’s not a secret that younger lifters are generally in better health, have a better hormonal profile, recover faster, and have faster metabolisms.
After carefully looking at training age, goal, and current body composition, our lifter in question should consider his age. Generally, the younger a lifter is, the farther he is from his genetic potential. However, if you have an individual who has been lifting for 20+ years, then he is most definitely incredibly close to or at his genetic potential.
I would not recommend an older (40+ year old) lifter to go on an aggressive bulk. Not only does it defeat the purpose of achieving better body composition but burning the excess fat will be a hassle. And if life gets in the way, our lifter in the question might get frustrated and quit altogether. No bueno.
Younger lifters who are in good health can generally get away with slightly more aggressive bulks. Although I do not recommend those unless you really know what you’re doing.
Male lifters can get away with more aggressive bulks and cuts. That’s because even if a male lifter dirty bulks, he will have the excess weight distributed across a larger surface area (bigger frame). Thus, the aesthetic aftermath won’t be as horrendous as if a female lifter was to dirty bulk.
Also, since females tend to have slower metabolisms due to carrying less lean mass, and have less testosterone, an aggressive bulk will almost always results in more fat accumulation than if a male lifter was to aggressively bulk.
Generally speaking, female lifters should follow the same guidelines outlined in this article. However, I NEVER recommend a dirty bulk approach to any of my clients. It just never works. If strength is your goal, that’s a different story as discussed above.
Natural or Enhanced?
This one is critical. Are you natural or enhanced lifter? Don’t worry, I don’t give a f*ck whether you are natural or not. I’m apathetic towards the whole subject.
The general consensus is natural and enhanced lifters could benefit from both bulking and cutting cycles. However, natural lifters hit a plateau at some point. Meaning, as you get more advanced, muscle gains slow down dramatically and pushing the calories any more than you should will make you gain excess fat.
On the other hand, enhanced lifters make more progress at a much faster rate than natural lifters. In fact, many enhanced lifters go well beyond their genetic potential if they do things right. Thus, enhanced lifters will benefit from bulk and cut cycles much more than natural lifters. Moreover, at a certain point, natural lifters should not even bother with a bulk-or-cut approach anymore since they’re so close to their genetic limit. However, enhanced lifters don’t have that problem and can follow slightly more aggressive bulks as a result.
Keep in mind, whether you should bulk or cut mainly depends on your training age, current body composition, and goals. Being natural or enhanced is just the icing on the cake.
Therefore, the general guidelines stated early in this article still apply. If your goal is a balance of aesthetics, health, and strength then bulk if you are at 8-10% body fat. If you are around 15% body fat or more, cut first. Get lean then bulk. Preferably lean bulk. If you are enhanced, feel free to push the calories more. You have an advantage so use it.
Before you decide whether you should bulk or cut, you must first assess your current body composition, training age, and goals. Be honest with yourself. Don’t be at 20% body fat and claim that you are at 10% because you barely see your top two abs in good lighting. Generally, you want to be as lean as possible before you attempt any sort of bulk, especially a long one. Not only because you will look better but, also because your body works better at lower body fat percentages. When your body fat is low nutrient partitioning is significantly better, your metabolism is more efficient, inflammation levels are low, and insulin sensitivity is improved.