| November 4, 2021

How do you know when you should bulk vs. when you should cut?

Are you a healthy body weight? What are your long term goals? Are you training for an event, or general fitness? Do you have great energy? Are you sleeping well? Do you have a good relationship with food? When was your last dieting phase?

By Michelle Moen

Read time: 4 min.

As always, it depends.

Are you a healthy body weight? What are your long term goals? Are you training for an event, or general fitness? Do you have great energy? Are you sleeping well? Do you have a good relationship with food? When was your last dieting phase?

These are just some of the factors to consider before making a decision. I’d first like to address that the answer could also be neither. Someone could potentially train on their ‘maintenance’ calories indefinitely, and still make progress. This option would be best for those who don’t want to track their calories, or those who have a history of eating disorders. So why doesn’t everyone train at maintenance, if it’s the simplest option? Training at maintenance is simply slower to build muscle than in a slight surplus, so it’s slightly less efficient for reaching your goals, especially if you’re trying to make major changes to your physique. If this wasn’t the case, bodybuilders wouldn’t bother putting on weight in their offseason. 

So which one should you start with?

I would head into a cut if you’re not happy with your current body fat levels, or because it’s starting to negatively impact your health. This can happen, especially if you’ve been bulking for quite some time. Are your cholesterol levels going up? Is your resting heart rate increasing? Do you get significant highs and lows in energy throughout the day? These are all biofeedback markers to pay attention to. Sometimes a 4 week cut is sufficient to bring your health back to a great place, allowing you to bulk again. Other times it may take a few months, depending on your current situation. If you’re cutting because you’re unhappy with your current body fat levels, take a step back and reflect before heading into a cut. When was your last cutting phase? If you are still in the process of reverse dieting out a long cut? This is not the time to start another cutting phase. Psychologically it can be tough to see the scale go up, making you want to cut again, but I urge you to reconsider. This is where coaching can be really helpful, having an objective set of eyes can keep you on track. Remember, when you’re in a cutting phase, you are not building muscle. If your body fat levels are high, and you haven’t recently been in a cutting phase (3 month minimum), this can be a great time to start a cut. Keep in mind that your training intensity should remain the same. Training within 2 reps of failure will help maintain your current muscle mass while you cut. If you decrease training intensity significantly, and trade it for cardio, you’re at a much greater rate of losing precious muscle mass. Be patient. Losing body fat is easy relative to building muscle. 

So when should you be bulking?

Bulking should make up the majority of your year. I can't reiterate enough how difficult it is to build muscle. It is a slow process, where most of us are fighting to put on 1LB of lean body mass per month, sometimes even less if you’re advanced. You should bulk if your body fat is within a healthy range, or you’ve been dieting on low calories for quite some time without any progress. Most importantly, you should bulk if you want to make long term changes to how your physique looks. I often see women chronically dieting when they’re already lean, tying to change how their physique looks. This is not a productive way to change your shape. Muscle is very energetically expensive tissue, which is why it requires a caloric surplus. You need to EAT. How much will depend on the person. Some people only need 100-300 extra calories per day. Others will need 1,000 more than they thought was necessary, especially young, healthy people in their early 20’s. You should aim to be about 1-3 LBS up each month. If you’re not gaining weight despite increasing your calories, you need more food. I personally like to bump carbs in particular in a bulking phase, over fats. Protein tends to stay the same, despite what kind of phase you’re in. Start with protein set to 2g/kg of lean body mass, fats 0.8g/kg of bodyweight, and roll the rest over to carbs. Your fats are still important, as they will maintain your hormone function, so don’t cut them too low. Finally, your bulking phase should last at least 3 months. Building muscle need time. I often have clients bulking essentially for years, with 1 cutting phase per year (1-3 months long), to maintain health. If you want to truly change how your physique looks, or improve sport’s performance, bulking is where the magic happens. 

Choosing when to cut and when to bulk can be tricky business, but ultimately it’s up to the individual. Do you have high body fat, but want to get really, really strong? Bulk anyway. Are you a fairly healthy body fat percentage, but prefer a leaner look? Go ahead and cut. Ultimately, you get to decide what best fits your goals.

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