Should I bulk or cut?
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of muddy water surrounding the terms “bulk” and “cut” – many people have created their own definitions for them, and many of those definitions range from either misleading or outright wrong. It is therefore necessary to establish that for the context of this page, we will be working with the following definitions:
- Bulk – Deliberately targeting a caloric surplus for the purpose of gaining weight over a period of time.
- Cut – Deliberately targeting a caloric deficit for the purpose of losing weight over a period of time.
It is important to note that the magnitude of the caloric surplus or deficit, or the rate of gain/loss, is not included – any amount of deliberate surplus is “bulking” and any amount of deliberate deficit is “cutting”. Advice on this page to “bulk” is not to be interpreted as stuffing your face so much that you mostly just get fat, nor is advice to “cut” to be interpreted to mean radical, unsustainable calorie restriction.
The decision to “bulk” or “cut” is often a very difficult one for trainees to make. Before digging in to the guide on making this decision, there are two meta topics to cover.
First and most importantly, a good mindset to follow is a quote from John Berardi, PhD’s article series “Tailor-Made Nutrition” – “To improve body composition in the long term, you must forget about body composition in the short term.” Put another way, don’t be afraid of temporarily being too fat or too skinny – you will be able to lose the extra fat or build more muscle in a future phase of your training.
You may also want to consider this alternate perspective on the Bulk vs Cut debacle from r/Fitness MVP and competitive strongman MythicalStrength – Don’t Cut Unless You Are Bodybuilding / Don’t Bulk Unless It’s the 1940s.
All that out of the way, here’s the nitty gritty. Keep in mind that this advice assumes that whatever your current body composition is, you are not happy with it and want to change.
If You Are Clearly Overweight
If you can describe yourself with terms like fat, chubby, pudgy, “a little extra”, and so on, your best option will be to focus on losing weight. You will get the best results in terms of looking better, feeling better, and your overall health. If you start doing resistance training (and you should), you may also be able to add a little bit of muscle during your weight loss (but don’t expect much).
If You Are Clearly Underweight
If you can describe yourself with terms like thin, skinny, spooky skeleton, and so on, your focus should be on gaining weight, with the goal of most of it being muscle. The specifics of how much are dependent on your goals. This will require that you eat in a calorie surplus, eat enough protein, and do resistance training.
You should expect to gain some fat during this time, and that’s perfectly okay. Besides that you can always lose the fat later, being too lean can also make you appear smaller, and if your goal is to look big, a modest amount of fat can make a big difference without sacrificing much definition.
If You Are “Skinnyfat”
The term “skinnyfat” is used to describe a person who has low muscle mass and high fat mass, but outwardly appears to be of relatively normal weight. People who fall into this category tend to be the most conflicted about what direction to choose – they fear bulking and getting even fatter, but also fear cutting and getting too skinny.
The option that will almost always give you the best results in your training and your aesthetics up front is going to be to focus on trying to gain muscle. This will require that you eat in a modest calorie surplus, eat enough protein, and do resistance training. Attempting to lose weight is not often recommended – you likely have too little muscle mass to look good lean, and it will be more difficult for you to make progress in any exercise due to low muscle and the calorie deficit.
Remember that you can always lose the fat later, and remember the quote from above – “To improve body composition in the long term, you must forget about body composition in the short term.” There is no use in agonizing over the decision.
To stop being “skinnyfat”, you must spend some time either being fatter or skinnier than you want to be. There is no single correct answer and it is based entirely on your own personal preference. Choose which – too fat or too skinny – that you are most comfortable with.
If You Can’t Decide Whether to Bulk or Cut First
If you know that you need to both bulk and cut to get to where you want to go from where you are now, similar advice to being skinnyfat applies. Which one you do first is a matter of personal preference – Is it more acceptable to you to first be fatter than you want, or to be skinnier than you want? Otherwise, it matters very little which you do first. Some people believe that you should cut and get sufficiently lean before bulking, because this will improve the ratio of muscle to fat gain, but that idea is not supported by evidence.
In general, if you don’t fall into one of the above categories, the decision is much more up to your own judgement. Some guidelines:
- If you are as big as you want to be, but not as lean, lose weight.
- If you are as lean as you want to be, but not as big, gain weight.
- If you are trying to improve physical performance, avoid cutting weight, or at least do so very modestly.
But what about a recomp?
In general, r/Fitness users will usually recommend against pursuing the recomp Holy Grail. While research has shown that it is technically possible for some individuals, under specific circumstances, to both gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, it is important not to confuse “possible” with “probable”. When considering whether or not to try to recomp, keep in mind the following disadvantages:
- The margin for error in your diet is much, much lower and you must be more precise and meticulous in measuring both your caloric intake and expenditure.
- It will take longer to lose the same amount of fat or gain the same amount of muscle as if you were to focus on one or the other goal.
- It is much more difficult to measure and see progress, and confirm that you’re doing everything correctly. When focusing on gaining or losing weight, simply tracking your scale over time removes all doubt. While trying to recomp, however, your scale may not move at all, and there is no way to easily determine if this is good or bad.
- Because you are not eating at a calorie surplus, it is likely (though not guaranteed) that your performance and/or ability to recover from or make progress with your training will take a hit.