Should I Cut or Bulk? — The Definitive Guide

Ahh, the eternal question. But before I answer it, let me point out that yes, I used the word bulk, because that’s probably what you Googled. But actually, “bulk” should be removed from your vocabulary. The term implies rapid weight gain likely to put on unnecessary body fat, leaving you frustrated and forcing you to cut your gaining phase short. Thus, from here on out, I’ll use the terminology “gaining”.

However, before considering rates of weight gain (or loss for that matter), you might be thinking, “Hold on, I don’t know if I should be trying to gain muscle or lose fat in the first place!” In this, you are not alone. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Should I bulk or cut?”…well, let’s just say I’d need an additional room in my home just for piggy banks.

The answer to this question depends on more than just your current body composition. It’s not quite as simple as saying: cut if you are high in body fat, gain if you are not. There is also an interaction with training experience.

Advice for Obese Individuals

I wouldn’t advise someone with obesity who is just starting a weight training program to purposely start tracking and weighing to achieve a targeted amount of energy restriction (although there is nothing wrong with simply adopting healthier eating habits such as consuming more fruits, vegetables, protein, and water). Just becoming more active alone can give someone who was previously sedentary more finely tuned hunger signals 1, and body-fat percentage will go down even if muscle is gained without fat mass losses. Also, metabolic health will improve purely from resistance training without dieting. In this case, I’d only advise you to institute a caloric deficit once the initial “magic” of newbie gains end, and if at that point you still had a goal of lowering your body fat (which as I said, may happen anyway just from lifting regularly).

Those Who Are ‘Skinny Fat’

In the case of someone who is generally not very muscular, but is also higher in body fat than average (often referred to as “skinny fat”; I’m not a fan of the term, but it hopefully helps you understand what I’m referring to), I also don’t recommend cutting. However, I also don’t really recommend gaining at the rates I recommend later in this chapter for novices either.

In this case, once again, just let the magic of partaking in serious progressive resistance exercise (for specifics, check out our Muscle and Strength Training book—sample programs also free on this site here) do its thing for 6 months, without focusing on instituting a significant deficit or surplus. With a low starting level of muscle mass, you’re ripe for putting on muscle regardless of your nutrition (outside of it being totally off base). After letting this initial phase occur, you will probably have a much better foundation to work from.

When the Cut or Bulk Decision Is Clearer

The times the answer to this question are cut and dry, is when you aren’t a novice. If you have a few years under your belt of training, and you fit into the “intermediate” or “advanced” categories (defined later in this chapter of the book), gaining or cutting does pretty much just come down to your body fat level.

However, the answer to this question is also not as critically important as you might believe. There is a common notion that if you aren’t reasonably lean, efforts at gaining will produce a disproportionate amount of fat and little in the way of muscle. This concept is called your ‘P-ratio’, which is simply defined as the proportion of fat to muscle you put on when gaining weight. Indeed, there is research showing that very lean people—who are naturally lean, not who dieted—gain more lean body mass during periods of overfeeding, and people with obesity gain more body fat during periods of overfeeding 2.

However, what two things that are frequently misunderstood are: 1) putting on more lean body mass when overfeeding occurs in naturally lean people who walk around lean. If you dieted to get really lean, your body if anything, is actually a bit more primed for fat storage. Also; 2) that this relationship is based on observations of individuals who aren’t resistance training.

If you start lifting weights this drastically changes the game. Nutrient partitioning in your now highly active skeletal muscle is much more favorable for muscle gain as you are providing a stimulus for growth and regularly depleting your muscle of energy and pushing them to become energy efficient and adapt.

If it was true that individuals with a high body fat couldn’t gain muscle mass effectively, sumo wrestlers wouldn’t have the highest recorded lean body masses of any athlete…but they do 3. Likewise, super heavyweight powerlifters would be weaker than weight classes below them, but they aren’t.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a license to go on a dreamer permabulk! But rather, I’m saying don’t be the guy who is afraid to enter a surplus because they aren’t 8% body fat (or the gal who is afraid because they aren’t 16%).

The Difference in Body Fat for Men and Women

Men and women have different ‘essential body fat’ levels—the body fat essential to life and physiological function (largely not subcutaneous body fat). Meaning, even in shredded, stage condition, a female competitor will be at a higher body-fat percentage than a male. While individual differences do come into play, on average this value is around 2-4% for men and 8-12% for women. Thus, I often present examples of bodybuilding contest condition in this text as around 4% body fat for men, and 12% body fat for women (actually, measuring body fat accurately is another story, which we’ll cover in the Making Adjustments and Measuring Progress section). Likewise, when I present body fat examples of men and women they will be ~8% apart and should be seen as equivalent.

Limits to How Much Body Fat You Should Gain

There probably should be some limit to how high your body fat is before you decide it would be better to cut versus bulk, but it’s for logistical reasons, not “anabolic resistance”.

Essentially, you don’t want to only get a month or two out of your gaining phase before you have to diet. If you are a powerlifter you don’t want to be too far above your weight class, and for bodybuilders, you don’t want to be too far off your stage weight. In either case, the inevitable diet to come will be unnecessarily hard or long if you are.

Likewise, for recreational lifters, you probably don’t want to be so high in body fat at the start of a gaining phase that you aren’t happy with your body shortly after starting it. Essentially, in each case, you want enough of a runway to be able to spend at least a few months in a surplus.

My rough guidelines are a maximum of ~15% body fat for men and ~23% body fat for women for beginning a gaining phase. After starting, allow your body fat to climb ~3–5% in the course of a gaining phase before you do a brief ‘mini cut’ (I’ll bring this concept up throughout the text, but for a full description see the end of The Recovery Diet section) to clean things up a tad before you rinse and repeat.

But remember, this is The Muscle and Strength Pyramid, not the constantly-cutting-to-be-aesthetic (but not actually succeeding) pyramid. A general recommendation (for those who aren’t starting with a high body fat level) is to have a minimum of a 4:1 ratio of the time spent in a gaining phase vs a cutting phase. Thus, if you spent four months in a surplus putting on muscle, you earned yourself no more than one month to do a mini cut.

Now, the tough part is actually assessing your body fat level (see the ‘Making Adjustments and Measuring Progress’ section of the book—also covered on this site here, here, and here). Everyone stores body fat differently. Also, having more or less muscle mass can make a given body fat level look better or worse. So in the end, just make your best guess as to whether you are below or above the cut-off. If you are somewhere in the range where either a cutting or gaining phase could be appropriate and you can’t tell where you fall and what you should do, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter which you choose to do. You hopefully realized that though, now that you are no longer under the false impression that your gaining phase will be sabotaged if you don’t start it lean enough.

I (meaning Andy) have recorded a quick video guide using coaching client photos as examples to help you estimate your body fat percentage here:

Note that it’s common for people to over-estimate how much muscle mass they have. So, after identifying someone who you believe fits your body type, click through to see what their lifting stats were. If they were a lot stronger than you, they probably carry more muscle mass than you, which means you won’t look as good as them when you have finished your cut. There’s nothing you can do about that but it’s something you need to be aware of to avoid disappointment.


Cut or Bulk? Summary Guidelines

  • Don’t try to get super lean before doing a gaining phase, you’ll be so hungry you’ll gain too quickly, and after dieting to a very lean level you’re actually more primed for fat storage. Don’t diet to the point where you are really feeling food deprived and hungry (this often around 8–10% or lower for men and 16–18% or lower for women, but also depends on how you dieted).
  • If you’re a novice trainee with obesity or who is starting with a relatively high body-fat level, train hard for 6 months, establish a basic structure with your eating and then reassess. You might find you substantially improved your body composition.
  • If you’re a novice trainee who is both higher in body fat than they’d like (but not overweight) and also doesn’t have much muscle mass yet, just eat around maintenance (the point where you are not gaining or losing weight) and train hard for 6 months, then reassess.
  • For the non-novice male over 15% body fat or female over 23%, you can go into a surplus for a gaining phase and you will put on muscle, but it will come with some body fat as well. If you don’t want to push your body fat too far over these levels, you should consider a fat loss phase first.
  • For the non-novice male up to 15% body fat or female up to 23%, it’s fine to start a gaining phase. For competitors, you’ll probably be able to push it until you gain 3–5% more body-fat percentage points before you should consider a mini cut. This will ensure your next contest prep diet isn’t more difficult. For non-competitors, in my experience, this point is where many (but not all people) want to trim up. However, you should know it’s not unhealthy at all to be in the high-teens of body fat for a male, or high-twenties for a female.

The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Nutrition v2.0

If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Training companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.

Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.

Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Eric, Andy, and Andrea


Reference List

  1. Beaulieu, K., et al., Homeostatic and non-homeostatic appetite control along the spectrum of physical activity levels: An updated perspective. Physiol Behav, 2018. 1(192): p. 23-29
  2. Forbes, G.B., Body fat content influences the body composition response to nutrition and exercise. Ann N Y Acad Sci, 2000. 904(1): p. 359-65.
  3. Kondo, M., et al., Upper limit of fat‐free mass in humans: A study on Japanese Sumo wrestlers. Am J Hum Biol, 1994. 6(5): p. 613–8.
About the Author

Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Eric is a coach, athlete, author, educator, and researcher. Andrea is a lifelong athlete, experienced coach, and content creator. Andy is an online training and nutrition coach. Together they are the authors of The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books. RippedBody.com is Andy's website, his sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire him to coach them, which he has been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, find out more here.

18 Comments

  1. Hi Andy , had sleep issues on my last cut , I would wake up several times during the night wide awake and then have difficulty falling back asleep . This plagued me most nights and was quite miserable at times . I have read this can occur during cutting phases and also while Intermittant fasting , have you experienced with your clients and if so what are the reasons ? Thanks .

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years and this has never been my experience, Chris.

      I know from Eric that sleep disturbances can be common with competitors at the tail end of their diets and they just have to suck it up. However, this is very different from recreational trainees getting to ~8-10% body fat, so if that doesn’t describe you, it doesn’t apply.

      • Are you severely stressed in other areas and the diet is an additional burden?
      • Have you been dieting for too long without a break, or in too severe a caloric deficit?

      ^ Some things to consider.

      If hunger is an issue, see the FAQ item on that. I updated it today.

      1. Thanks Andy , perhaps too much of a deficit and cutting for too long . I noticed once I stopped cutting and ate more my sleep improved . Also had had just stopped doing shift work as I was cutting so maybe all this contributed to sleep issues .

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          I’d bet that the irregular sleep patterns are the main culprit.

  2. Steve says:

    “If you dieted to get really lean, your body if anything, is actually a bit more primed for fat storage.” Is there any research/proof of this? I’ve seen both sides argued.

    1. Eric Helms says:

      Steve, great question. The arguments that you are going to store less fat and more lean mass post diet are actually using inappropriate data to inform that opinion, they are based on the p-ratio research I mentioned in this article, which is in fact, not on people who dieted to be lean, but rather on people who simply were lean normally, and also was not on trained individuals. So there is no data to support the position that dieting down first will make a bulking phase more effective from a body comp perspective. On the other hand, it is incredibly well documented that energy expenditure decreases as a result of dieting, hunger increases, and that body fat overshoot (gaining more body fat than was lost) can sometimes happen after rebounding post diet. Pretty good review with a focus on athletes covering this that is open access here https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-11-7

      Regards

      1. Steve says:

        Thanks for the response Dr. Helms! Do you think there are any negative effects on muscle/fat partitioning when bulking after dieting down to get very lean? At least speaking anecdotally (Aaaaaoooo!!!) since there may not be data on this in trained individuals. I’m curious as someone who tends to be comfortable in the upper teens % body fat. I’ve previously cut down to around 10% body fat to see if it would result in better gains. I’m not convinced it really did lol.

        Thanks for all the work you do.
        -Steve

        1. Eric Helms says:

          Steve, you’re very welcome! To answer your question: within reason, beyond what I said in the article in the paragraphs following the sentence you had the question about, no I don’t think so.

          Regards
          Eric

  3. James says:

    Hi Andy, is the second edition free for those who purchased the first ?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes. Upon release, new download links will automatically be sent to the email address you purchased on. This applies to the 95% of people who bought the 2-book set as part of our “free lifetime updates” offer. Those who bought just the one book will need to purchase the second editions. There is no upgrade offer.

  4. Carlos Vanegas says:

    Great article Andy, can’t wait to read the full second edition of the books.

    I have been training for 2-3 years now, and most of my main lifts have transitioned to intermediate progression, so I consider my self as a novice-intermediate transition. I’m finishing a 3-4 month cutting phase sitting on 14%BF (I’m 6′-0″ 155lbs ). And getting ready to move to a gaining phase for several months.
    How should I transition (training and nutrition) from cutting to gaining to avoid unnecessary weight gain the first few weeks? I was thinking a 1-2 week @ maintenance coupled with 1 week deload.

  5. Wayne Bulk says:

    What do you think about mini cuts for older trainees? I am in my late 40’s. I put on muscle more slowly now and I am guessing have to work harder to retain it in a cut. I like the ideas of mini cuts but have the worry that because they are often positioned as cutting at a faster pace that even though short may just strip off muscle that has been built in the bulk.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Keep the fat loss target to 0.5-1% of body weight per week and you’ll be fine.

  6. Vijay says:

    What do mean by metabolic health?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Metabolism refers to a whole range of biochemical processes that occur within us. “Metabolic health” refers to whether these processes are functioning normally, which gives the indication of disease risk. So, where I have said, “…metabolic health will improve purely from resistance training without dieting,” I’m specifically thinking of insulin resistance, hypertension (high blood pressure), cholesterol abnormalities (serum triglycerides & HDL), and blood clotting risk will all decrease, which is a very good thing.

  7. Vijay says:

    Please explain why the below happens?
    …and body-fat percentage will go down even if muscle is gained without fat mass losses.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Sure, another way of saying it is: More muscle with the same amount of body fat means a lower body fat percentage overall.

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