Demystifying Cutting & Bulking
The Nuance That Is Often Overlooked
As time goes on, especially in the social media world, I see a flow and ebb, or rather a metaphorical pendulum, where topics in fitness seem to sway back and forth from one extreme to another.
Fitness as a subject is already a place full of dogma, egos, and overwhelming amounts of information for one reason or another—we won’t get into this today but will touch on it in the upcoming months.
A place where I see some of the most arguments and controversy is on the subject of traditional “Cutting and Bulking” diet models.
While I have written and gone over how to set up and do both in the past, today I want to really cut through the noise of why these are still great tools in the fitness arsenal and how we can leverage them in a way that takes us where we want to be in terms of our goals and body compositions.
There are a few key points I want to make regarding a few places I see the most friction in conversations around this topic.
Why We Even “Cut” and “Bulk” in the First Place
The concept of “Cutting” and “Bulking” can seem rather extreme to the normal person who just wants to go to the gym to improve how they look and feel. It can come off as some bro bodybuilder lingo which you might think is unnecessary. The reality however is this is just the common terminology of being in a caloric deficit (cutting) and caloric surplus (bulking).
The idea is that these are cyclical phases where we use a caloric surplus (bulk) to build mass and a caloric deficit (cut) to lose fat.
The reason for this is actually very simple:
Outside of total newbies or people who have been away from training for a long time, we cannot build muscle while in a caloric deficit and we cannot lose fat while in a caloric surplus (this one especially).
These come down to the laws of thermodynamics.
We need additional energy (caloric surplus) to allow our bodies to build additional muscle mass
We need to consume less energy than we burn (caloric deficit) in order to burn or use the fat (stored energy)
As you can see, these are quite contradictory themes, so logic brings us to the conclusion that they will need to be done at separate times to achieve any appreciable result we are after.
Now, the human body is not exactly this cut and dry, there are times and conditions where we can achieve what is considered the “holy grail” of fitness which is building muscle AND losing fat at the same time.
This is what is known as a “recomposition” or “recomp” for short.
As mentioned before and in numerous previous articles, the times where we will see this happen are total beginners, people who have had a long layaway from the gym, those using anabolic steroids, and a very particular diet model where one eats near maintenance (more on this as we go). HOWEVER, even within these niche groups, depending on your own circumstances, a caloric deficit or a caloric surplus will better suit you for your goals.
This comes down to the BIGGEST consideration of why traditional cut and bulk cycles work very well—EFFICIENCY.
Referring back to the top, our bodies have certain conditions where things are just going to work better. We could try to test our hand at achieving this “holy grail”, but is it actually going to work faster than just “doing it the old way”? This isn’t a trick question, this will be a completely context-dependent question (one I’ve gone over here) that you will have to assess for yourself.
More often than not, especially after your first year or two in the gym, the majority of people are going to find this traditional cut and bulk diet model just makes more sense. As muscle gets harder to put on our frames, we will have to maximize efforts to make that happen which means a good enough caloric surplus. With that caloric surplus will inevitably result in *some* fat gain (not a lot if we do this correctly) because as great as it would be, not all the extra calories will be used solely for muscle growth and extra calories will always be stored.
For this reason, once we put on enough size or reach a point where we don’t really like how much fat we’ve put on, we then go into a caloric deficit to then strip away the added fat and unveil the new hard-earned muscle we put on.
Now the thing is, most people want to get the cutting part done as quickly as possible and return back to more normal food levels/not be hungry, and, let’s be honest, most are gonna wanna put on more size (the day you decide to lift is the day you are forever small haha). So again, it’s one of those things we want to get in and get out of as quickly as we can.
However, this is where we run into a key consideration. In the caloric deficit, we will be at a place where we are using stored energy and just like how we can’t magically use all the calories from the surplus solely for muscle mass, not every calorie burned will come directly from fat storage. If we do not do this right, meaning too aggressively or messing up the finer details, we will lose some muscle with the fat… which would mean some of our efforts from our surplus are wasted… no good.
Good news, this can be minimized to a point where it’s negligible, or even completely avoided, if we are to do this correctly. By keeping nutrition proper, not trying to rush things, and otherwise having a good plan we can avoid the worst-case scenarios of both diet phases—not getting too fat and not losing our hard-earned muscle.
This is what we’re here to talk about today, the nuances to make sure we do this right.
Let’s Back Up a Second
I know there is something going on in the back of your head right now:
“Well, I don’t want to gain a bunch of fat and I don’t want to lose any muscle, why can’t I just look better without either?”
Totally valid, trust me, I’ve asked myself this more times than I can count.
I have some very good news as well as what many will consider bad news—we can, but at a cost.
No, that cost is not tren or some magic solution, that cost is simply efficiency and time.
We can try our hand at recomping—some have called this diet model “Gaintaining” where we gain muscle while maintaining (or even in some cases improving how we look by losing some fat). This is where you would eat close to your daily maintenance calories and because the body is not as cut and dry as I talked about above, we have some biological pathways that can allow muscle growth without a surplus.
Now the bad news.
This process requires you to be pretty meticulous and dialed into your diet and the results can take a long time because:
We are going against the conditions that would set us up for better success in our goals
We can spend a long time trying to reach our sweet spot for this to happen which is time we could’ve spent getting pretty much guaranteed results from traditional cutting and bulking
All bullshit out of the way, I have seen this work BUT it is very few and far between, and most, even though it sounds great, will spend a lot of time getting very little results where they will return to a more traditional model and see more progress there. For those this does work on, it does take A LOT of time to see results like someone who has dedicated phases of surplus and deficit.
Many of you will inevitably try this and I will not try to stop you because:
It could very well work for you and your goals, especially if you’re patient with getting results over a longer time period
We live and learn in this game by experimenting and trying to find methods that work best for us and our bodies
…Back To Cutting and Bulking
As I said, there are better and worse ways to do this. Now what I’m going to say is not law and there are numerous ways to go about this, BUT this is insights from my experience, experience of others I’ve coached, many of the leading minds in the fitness industry, a lot of science, and most importantly—logic and common sense.
Let’s first start with what a successful cut and bulk would entail:
What A Proper Cut Entails
First and foremost, healthy in a way that causes zero health issues, nutrient or vitamin deficiencies, and often not talked about—psychological issues or eating disorders around eating and food.
While fat loss will to a degree be uncomfortable, it should be something that is sustainable that you can over long periods of time stick with. You can still enjoy your diet while in a caloric deficit.
Maintain as much muscle mass as possible and minimize as much potential muscle and strength loss as possible. It is common to see some loss in size and strength, but it should not be significant at all outside of extreme instances like prepping for a bodybuilding competition or something similar.
Fat loss should happen on an acceptable time frame. Caloric deficit is not so aggressive that the above happens yet not so conservative that we are not making meaningful progress towards our desired outcomes.
What A Proper Bulk Entails
Again, no health, nutritional, or psychological/eating disorders happening because we are not eating right. Should be much harder to do in a surplus but…
We want our food choices to be something that doesn’t make us miserable or make eating a chore. Again, dieting can be fun, and in the instance of a surplus we might need to get creative with higher-calorie meals.
Goal is to put on as much muscle as we can while minimizing fat gain.
We want to be able to bulk long enough that we can actually see good results and appreciable muscle mass. Ideally, we want to spend 3+ months in a surplus because this is just how long it’ll take to see appreciable results—truly, as long as you can go without becoming too fat is really a good goal for many.
Achieving Success With Both
Tying these 2 together and expanding on them, we are going to have some overarching concepts we’re going to want to establish first.
First thing, when I saw “getting too fat” what I’m really saying is avoiding gaining fat on a bulk beyond 15-18%, body fat. Getting beyond these levels can not only be plain unhealthy, but aesthetically this is where your looks are really going to start suffering… and most of us are doing this because we want to look good.
So keeping in mind that we don’t want to get too fat and that the percentage I just threw out is actually an improvement for many… where does this mean to start?
Generally, in a perfect world, I’m going to suggest guys get LEAN, around 10-11% body fat lean… but as I’ve grown to learn in the years doing this, many find this unrealistic (mainly because people are so out of shape now it’s very rare). While I’m not trying to argue this today, what I will say is the leaner you start the better so that you give yourself enough TIME and wiggle room in body fat to be able to
Put on an appreciable amount of muscle
Not reaching the upper threshold of what should be acceptable body fat
Now, we can break this down even further. This means that if we want to be able to do this, we probably can’t be in a huge caloric surplus and rapidly gain fat. We’re going to have to be smart and give ourselves as much room as we need to plan out into the future a few months of bulking.
Another reason we don’t want to just gain a bunch of fat quickly is because the more fat we gain, the longer we’re going to have to cut to burn it off, which increases our chances of doing the 1 thing I KNOW all of you want to avoid at all cost which is losing muscle mass (see how this is all coming together *insert winky face).
Now, some will say “fuck it, eat whatever you want and grow” I am telling you, unless you have really good wiggle room and a great metabolism… this is going to end badly.
We want to ensure we’re getting *enough* to grow and can err on whatever side of aggressive or conservative you want, while not getting too much that we’re growing in the wrong places.
This comes back to cutting as well. We want to get in and out of cutting phases as quickly as we can *correctly* BUT that might mean taking it “slow” and eating in a more conservative caloric deficit so we can adhere better to our diets and maintain muscle mass.
Something that will really, royally fuck up a cut is always slipping up on your diet. Every day you mess up your caloric deficit is another day of dieting, or worse, you might need multiple days to fix the damage. For this reason, the whole “sustainable and adherable diet” thing really comes into play.
No matter how fast you want to get shredded or start that new bulk and add more mass, if you decide to crash diet and do it as fast as you can with an overly aggressive deficit, you are going to run a major risk of losing muscle and/or just struggling to remain in a deficit without going off the rails on your diet. Delayed gratification is your friend. Now the first month or two of your bulk is only going to replace the muscle mass you lost.
Now, another big thing I want to mention, which is all too common, is the “diet hopper”—the person who can’t stick with a cutting or bulking diet for any extended period without changing their mind. This is an excellent way to make zero progress and waste a bunch of time. For this reason, you really need to think this through and account for the things I’ve talked about here. This is NOT a good place to be.
If you’re new here you’re probably waiting for me to explain the exact process for both of these, fortunately, I already have in the past you just haven’t seen it.
Here is the one on Cutting:
These lay out, in detail, how to set up both of these phases of diet, the goal here was to explain why and how these dieting phases tie together and why for many people it is going to be one of, if not the, best options for long-term dieting.
As you can see here and with most everything I write about, the magic is where things just neatly tie together because common sense + science is going to be undefeated nearly every single time.
This is how I want people to approach the way they think about their own fitness planning.
The goal of this post and the entire substack is to get you (the reader) to a point where you think critically and have control of your own programming and diets with the confidence that it all makes sense.
Being that dieting and especially concepts like this get extremely convoluted, this is where these tools come into place and why this traditional cut and bulk cycle is the most popular method of dieting for trying to build muscle and lose fat—get jacked.
As I said above, these are just tools and aren’t the only answers. If you want to try your hand at a recomp, go for it, if “gaintaining” is more your speed, power to ya. The key is we are thinking critically and using the right tool for our expectations and our desired results. Full Stop.
This is not Legal, Medical, or Financial advice. Please consult a medical professional before starting any workout program, diet plan, or supplement protocol. These are opinions from a Cartoon Ox.