Elite Athlete Claire Thomas

Bulking vs Cutting: What's the Difference?

Bulking and cutting are terms commonly used in the bodybuilding industry.

It's what bodybuilders and physique competitors do to get in great shape for their competitions.

They do this by strategically gaining and losing weight leading up to their shows or in their "off-season" or "growth-season".

Now that fitness is becoming more popular, these terms are being used by all types of fitness enthusiasts.

Even though it has become more popular for people looking to get in better shape ... bulking vs cutting can still be easily misunderstood, and they aren't for everyone.

"Do you have to do bulking and cutting phases to see great results in your fitness?"

No, it's not necessary to cycle back and forth between bulking and cutting. It all depends on what your individual goals are when determining whether to bulk vs cut.

For someone whose goal is to lose body fat, it wouldn't make sense to bulk. That's because it contradicts their main goal, and their weight would go in the wrong direction.

For someone whose goal is to gain weight and add muscle, it wouldn't make sense for them to do a cutting phase.

Why Can't I Lose Weight?

That's because it also contradicts their main goal, and they would lose weight instead of gain it.

Both can be used in a strategic way, but not always in the traditional way. For example, you don't have to cut for a short period of time, then add a bunch of weight just for a couple pounds of muscle.

Which might leave you wondering, when should you use cutting vs bulking?

What is Bulking?

The term "bulk" in bulk vs cut means to gain weight through eating in a calorie surplus. Bulking is a strategic way to train and diet in order to add muscle tissue and gain weight. There are different styles of bulking, such as clean bulking and dirty bulking.

The common denominator between all bulking styles is that you must eat enough protein for your goals, train with resistance, and be in a calorie surplus.

A calorie surplus just means you are eating more calories than you are burning. If you want to gain weight or "bulk", you have to do this over an extended period of time.

The goal of bulking is to add lean muscle tissue, but there is always a likelihood that fat will come with it.

You see, when we eat more calories than we burn, those excess calories will get stored or used in some way. Your body will either use it as fuel to add more muscle tissue, or it will be stored as body fat ... which is important to know!

That's because when you're in too much of a calorie surplus, or not eating enough protein ... it will likely cause you to gain more body fat than what's necessary.

With that, even though I'm covering different scenarios, I always recommend that you work with someone who knows how to effectively bulk.

This will not only help you to maximize your "gains" in the gym, but it can also help prevent you from gaining unwanted fat.

On top of that, it will help make sure you aren't developing any health issues that can come with bulking.

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Bulking Diets

As I mentioned above, there are different styles of bulking. All of them have their own pros and cons, but weight gain is always the desired result. I will explain these styles in more detail below.

One thing you need to understand first is this...

Total protein and calorie intake are super important when it comes to bulking. Without monitoring these two pieces of a good nutrition plan, your results will be less than optimal.

Think of building muscle like building a brick wall.

You need three things to build a brick wall: Bricks (materials), energy, and a bricklayer (worker).

If you do not have enough bricks, it is physically impossible to build a bigger wall.

When it comes to building muscle, the bricks are protein.

Without enough protein, your muscles can't grow. Just like how you can't build a wall without bricks.

The energy used by the bricklayer in this scenario is coming from calories being burned.

Ironically, the energy used to build muscle is coming from the exact same thing: calories. If the bricklayer doesn’t have the energy to build the wall, they won’t do it. The same goes for your body.

If you do not give your body enough calories, your body will not have the energy to add new muscle tissue.

No matter what style of bulking diet you choose to follow, you must eat enough protein and calories.

On top of that, you need to make sure the protein you eat comes from complete protein sources. A complete protein source is one that has all 9 essential amino acids your body needs to build new muscle.

These complete protein sources come from animal sources like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and protein supplements like whey protein powder.

With that being said, it's very difficult to get enough essential amino acids if you follow a plant-based diet.

You'll likely need to supplement your protein intake with a plant-based protein powder. That's because you need to make sure you're getting enough of each essential amino acid to see the best results possible.

How Much Protein Do I Need?

There are a lot of different opinions on how much protein is necessary to eat for bulking. A good rule of thumb is to get 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal body weight.

That means if you want to weigh 180 pounds, you should be eating 180 grams of protein a day. That will make sure you're getting enough protein to put on muscle mass.

There are definitely situations where that number can change. Although, that will definitely put most individuals in a great starting point to see real results.

Protein's Role in Fat Loss

Clean Bulk

A "clean bulk" is when you eat healthier food options, but you're still in a calorie surplus. Clean bulks are much more strict when it comes to eating.

The reason for this is to minimize body fat accumulation and keep overall health in check. When you're trying to bulk, this is the most ideal approach you can take to build muscle.

There is no real downside to this style of bulking, but it does take effort to pay attention to the food choices you make. It also takes effort to keep track of the amount of food you eat.

I believe it’s important to pay attention to what you eat.

This is especially true for general health reasons. When I go through a bulking phase, clean bulking is my go-to diet approach.

Lean Bulk

Some people like to do what is called a "lean bulk". It's very similar to a clean bulk, but still different in its own way.

This style is focused on adding the least amount of body fat while also building muscle.

A downside to this way of dieting is when you're trying to add muscle ... it takes much longer to see major changes.

In some cases though, you may see the same amount of muscle growth as you would by eating more calories, while gaining less fat.

This is also commonly called "body recomposition" or "body recomp" for short.

Dirty Bulk

Another popular style of bulking is called "dirty bulking".

Dirty bulking is when you eat in a calorie surplus, but don't pay much attention to the quality or quantity of food you eat.

This style of dieting usually includes fatty, greasy, and processed foods because they are calorie dense ... meaning it is easy to hit your calories when you eat these foods.

While this method isn't generally recommended, it will help ensure you maximize muscle growth.

The downside to this method is it may cause much more body fat storage, and it certainly isn't great for your overall health.

For example, eating a lot of high-glycemic and processed carbohydrates can have a negative effect on insulin sensitivity.

This just means your body will have a harder time keeping blood sugar in check, which can increase fat storage and can lead to negative health consequences.

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How Many Calories Do I Need To Be In A Surplus?

There isn't a perfect equation for every person to find out how many calories you need. The only way to truly find out would be by using expensive machinery to run tests.

Even then, you still have to estimate how many calories you burn through your daily activity.

With that being said, there is a simpler, much less expensive way to get within a close range.

When it comes to bulking, a good rule of thumb is to multiply your body weight by 15.

This is a good starting point for a lean bulk. For someone not concerned with gaining some extra fat, multiply your body weight by 20.

The number you get is the calories you should consume daily.

These calculations will at least be a good starting point.

From there, if you're hitting your workouts and eating enough protein, you can adjust as you go.

If you're not adding any weight after 2-4 weeks, adjust your calories upward by 5-10%. If you are adding more body fat than you'd like, just adjust your calories downward by 5-10%.

How the Body Builds Muscle

Let’s go back to the brick wall scenario to truly understand how to stimulate muscle growth.

We know that the bricks are protein, and the energy is calories, but what is the bricklayer?

The bricklayer is the worker using energy and bricks to build the wall.

So when building muscle, the worker using energy and protein to build muscle is: mTOR. I know this is a new term to a lot of people, so bear with me...

To break it down further, mTOR stands for “mammalian target of rapamycin” and is a protein kinase in the body that regulates how much muscle is being built at any given time. In a way, it's the muscle building "worker".

How Long Does It Take To Build Muscle?

The muscle building process is called muscle protein synthesis (MPS for short). This process is turned on in response to workouts, calories, and protein.

So basically, hitting the weights wakes up mTOR (bricklayer) so he can go to work to start building and repairing muscle.

If that was all that mattered though, then building muscle would be SO simple and easy! Unfortunately, the body doesn’t care about building muscle, so it gets a little more complicated.

Your body also has a state called muscle protein breakdown. This is where your body breaks down muscle.

The key to new muscle growth is by being in muscle protein synthesis more than you're in muscle protein breakdown.

That's why protein intake matters so much.

When you consume enough protein, your body goes into muscle protein synthesis (the muscle building state). But if you aren't getting enough protein, your body will fall into a state of muscle breakdown.

Bulking Workouts

When it comes to any style of bulking, you must do some form of resistance training. It doesn’t necessarily have to be with free weights, but the resistance aspect has to be there in some way.

You could do calisthenics (training with your body weight only), use machine weights, resistance bands, free weights, or a combination of all of them.

The key is to increase the stress on the muscle tissue with resistance training.

Some of the factors you can change to increase the stress on the muscles could be:

• Decreasing rest time between your working sets
• Increasing the time under tension by slowing down your reps
• Increasing the weight
• Increasing the number of reps
• Increasing the number of sets

To sum this up, this is called progressive overload. Over time, the stress has to be increased in some way or your body will have no reason to change (AKA build muscle).

Post-Workout Stack

You see, your body is constantly adapting to what you do on a daily basis.

If you keep doing the same workouts over and over without change, your body will stop responding. That's because it has already adapted to the change.

Whatever workouts you choose to do for your bulk, just make sure to switch things up to increase the volume over time.

Volume can be calculated as sets x reps x weight. This means you don't have to keep increasing the weight to increase volume!

You can always add in more reps or more sets too. You can even do this by doing less weight.

For instance, if your bench press max is 250 pounds, and you have been doing the bench press for 5 sets of 5 at 225 pounds for a while ... one way you can increase the volume is by dropping the weight down to 175 and doing 3 sets of 12 reps ... or something similarly to that.

If you calculate the volume of both scenarios:

• 5 x 5 x 225 = 5625
• 3 x 12 x 175 = 6300

Now, does this mean you should only do the 3 sets of 12 because it's a higher volume? No, that’s not what I mean at all!

The higher the weight used in the set, the more potential strength is being built.

So, knowing that, it's easy to see how throwing in different rep ranges into your workouts can help build strength.

And the more strength you have ... the more volume you can produce.

That means, your potential to build muscle will increase too. Let's say, eventually, you can do 5 sets of 5 bench press with 250 pounds.

The volume is now 6250 instead of 5625. When you drop down to 3 sets of 12 with 190 pounds, your volume will increase up to 6840 instead of 6300.

Sure, you could just add in another set every time ... but at some point, you'll surpass a reasonable (or safe) rep range (ex: 20 sets of 5 with heavy weight) ... which could put you at an increased risk of injury, because of the extreme volume.

It's much safer to change the volume of your workouts in different set and rep schemes over time. Or at the bare minimum, increasing your weight over time.

What is Cutting?

Now going to the other side of cutting vs bulking, cutting is a strategic way to train and diet in order to lose body fat. Ideally, this also means trying to maintain as much muscle as possible. Essentially, the goal with cutting is to eat fewer calories than you burn in order to lose weight, ideally in the form of body fat.

In bodybuilding and physique competitions, this is the final phase before stepping on stage.

That's because each competitor is trying to be as lean as possible to show off the muscle tissue they've built.

For those who don't compete, this is just to focus on losing fat for a leaner look.

The way you do this is by restricting your calorie intake, so you're no longer in a surplus.

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This is called a calorie deficit ... which means you're burning more calories than you're eating.

This energy difference is ideally taken from body fat. And over time, that’s how people lose body fat and get leaner.

Cutting Diet

The problem with going into a cut vs a bulk is you will increase the amount of time your body is in muscle protein breakdown.

That's because muscle tissue requires a lot of calories every day for maintenance.

The human body doesn’t like losing large amounts of body fat.

In fact, stored body fat is an energy bank saved for a rainy day when you didn’t eat enough food, or when you don’t have access to it.

The more stored fat you have, the longer you’ll survive if you get stuck on a deserted island somewhere, with no access to food.

This means the body is finding ways to burn less calories, so you go through less fat ... so that you can survive longer in extreme situations.

Your body is always worried about what is happening right now, and how it is going to affect survival.

One major way your body will try to decrease the calories you burn on a daily basis is by increasing muscle protein breakdown.

When going back and forth from bulking and cutting, this can become a big issue.

The whole point is to increase the amount of muscle mass you have over time ... not lose large amounts of the muscle gained while cutting body fat.

There are ways to ensure minimal muscle tissue is lost, but it takes more protein and hard workouts still.

When you're cutting, a good rule of thumb is to shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal body weight. Eating a little more protein than that won't hurt though!

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I personally may shoot for up to 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight just to ensure I'm getting enough protein to hold onto muscle. I worked hard for it, so I definitely don't want to lose it.

The truth is though, you're likely going to lose some muscle during your cutting phase. It's a necessary evil to get the body that we want.

As far as calories go, yes you need to be in a deficit.

Like I said earlier, if you are losing body fat too quickly from being in too much of a deficit ... your body loses more muscle.

That's why it’s best to be conservative on the calories, and lose it at a slower rate, rather than drastically drop them and hope for the best.

Remember, there isn't an easy and inexpensive way to be 100% sure how many calories you're burning in a day.

Fitness trackers can be wildly inaccurate on how many you burn.

One way you can establish your calories is by multiplying your body weight by 10-12. That's about how many calories you want to shoot for every day while in a cut.

Cutting Workouts

While there is a specific target to shoot for when you're trying to bulk in your workouts ... there isn't anything that is quite as specific for cutting.

A lot of people will have you think you need to do cardio, and that's it. But the truth is, it really isn't that simple.

If you stop doing resistance training, why would your body need to maintain any of the muscle you built?

It is no longer being stressed, so if you stop working out with resistance, you can lose muscle rather quickly.

Resistance training should always be incorporated into your workout plan, because it will help you burn calories and maintain muscle tissue.

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An upside to this is muscle tissue burns more calories than any other part of your body. So, when you're trying to cut, it makes sense to keep as much muscle as you can.

Working out with the same intensity in a calorie deficit is not as easy. That's because your body is taking in less energy to use during your workouts.

One way to burn a few extra calories would be to increase cardio in addition to your resistance training.

You can do steady state cardio, high-intensity interval training, or even just walk to burn more fat in a cut.

The key is to burn more calories, so increasing any of these would be sufficient in order to enhance the cut.

Is any one style better than another?

The truth is, they all have their benefits and drawbacks. The best plan of action is to do what you like most in addition to your resistance training workouts, because that's what you're most likely to stick with.

Steady State Cardio

Steady state cardio is a type of cardio training that is done at a low intensity.

Your heart rate is only slightly elevated and does not typically go up and down drastically at all. If you are able to speak sentences still, you are most likely doing steady state cardio. I find that most people do steady state cardio before or after they weight train.

But one drawback to this style of cardio is this ... if you do it too much without resistance training, it can cause your body to favor your type-1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibers.

These are not the type you are typically growing in the gym. Your type-2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers are what typically grow in the gym.

Your fast twitch fibers are more dominant in situations that require strength, power, and explosiveness. Slow twitch muscle fibers take over in situations that require low levels of energy sustained over longer periods of time.

If your body starts to favor the slow twitch fibers from lots of low-intensity cardio, your muscle tissue can start shrinking a little at a time.

It's important to note that this would be a slow process. You wouldn't likely notice a huge difference in the short-term.

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High-Intensity Interval Training

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is short bursts of high-intensity training with brief periods of rest and recovery.

This type of training can be really taxing, but it allows you to burn more calories in a shorter amount of time.

Another benefit to HIIT is that it is a form of anaerobic training (without oxygen). This training style makes your body use more oxygen than it's consuming.

When this happens, your body has to regain its levels of oxygen, which causes you to burn calories after your workout. This is called excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

If you haven't done HIIT training yet ... trust me, it's hard work.

The key is to really give it everything you have during your workout. Catch your breath as much as you can in the short recovery periods!

Another benefit to HIIT training is that it favors your type-2 muscle fibers. The increased intensity actually helps you maintain muscle tissue.

A drawback though is that it can be hard to push yourself during HIIT workouts when you're in a calorie deficit.


Walking is a very under-appreciated and overlooked way to burn body fat. Going on a 45-60 minute walk every day can help you lose significant amounts of body fat over time.

Walking is obviously a lower-intensity way to train. However, your primary fuel source while walking is body fat.

Walking is a super easy way to burn some more calories. It will help you lose body fat without having to do high-intensity exercise.

Walking is my go-to choice when I'm sore and beaten down from my workouts.

Another benefit to walking is that it increases blood flow to your muscles without tearing them down much. This actually helps increase recovery rate, and gets more oxygen and nutrients into the muscle.

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Bulking vs Cutting: The Bottom Line

Going through bulking and cutting cycles can be very beneficial for your physique over time. You'll be able to add more muscle and keep body fat off.

It isn't for everyone though. If you are typically fairly lean, and don't need to lose body fat ... you'll likely want to focus on a muscle-building goal.

If you are overweight and your primary goal is to lose fat ... then bulking doesn't necessarily need to be something you should focus on until you lose enough body fat.

But at the end of the day, your goals are for you to choose when deciding between bulking vs cutting or doing both. You have to make an educated decision for yourself and what's best for your overall health and goals.

If you aren't sure where to get started, or just aren't sure how to do this in an effective way ... check out the 1st Phorm App and all it has to offer!

You'll get access to a NASM certified advisor to ensure that you are doing everything you can to succeed in your health and fitness goals.

You can also keep track of all the food you eat in the app, as well as using workout plans in the app to help you build muscle, burn fat, and reach your goals effectively!