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SHOULD YOU BULK OR CUT?

The age old question many physique enthusiasts ask is – should I bulk, or should I cut. We know that to maximise muscle growth we need to be in a calorie surplus, and that to lose fat we need to be in a calorie deficit, but whether you bulk or cut may not be as clear cut. For many of you reading this, chances are you won’t be shredded to the bone, similarly you won’t have reached your genetic potential in terms of muscle development.

So, do you bulk, and try to build as much mass as possible?

OR,

Do you cut, and try to get as lean as you can?

First, some definitions, and before we delve into this age old question, today I am referring specifaclly to diet as this is the primary difference between a fat loss phase and a gaining phase.

What is a bulk?

To define a ‘bulk’, it is classically known as a deliberate attempt to gain weight, in a bid to build as much muscle as possible.

Personally, I hate the term ‘bulking’, as it has typically been used as an excuse to get fat, and eat as much food as humanly possible without any regard to health, performance or actual progress, so long as the scale is climbing.

Whilst we do need a calorie surplus and a progressive resistance program to gain muscle size, it is not in your best interests to get fat and you’ll see why later in this article when we discuss nutrient partitioning.

What is a cut?

Conversely, a ‘cut’ is a fat loss phase, where the goal is to lose as much body fat whilst maintaining as much muscle as possible. This can be achieved by creating a calorie deficit via diet, exercise or a combination of both.

The Background of the Bulk & Cut…

The process of cutting and bulking has been customary in bodybuilding circles for decades… It dictates that one should ‘bulk’ in the off season and ‘cut’ into a show.

This methodology has been adopted by regular gym goers, and many have implemented the two phases into their diet and training to improve their body composition over time. However, most people bulking should probably be cutting, and those who are shredded should probably bulk…

The problem is, many have become confused as to whether or not they should bulk, and whether or not they should cut, often cycling between the two without any real understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve and which one should be done and when…

What I have seen over the years is trainees who spin their wheels and never make any measurable progress due to the fact that they chop and change between cutting and bulking.

Without complicating the matter, I’m going to outline how to determine whether you should cut, or whether you should bulk, and bare in mind that your decision is largely determined by your current body fat percentages and primary goal…

NOTE: I am making assumptions here, specifically, that your goal is to gain as much muscle and strength as you are genetically capable of doing.

YOU SHOULD ‘BULK’ IF…

There are four primary scenarios when you should consciously ‘bulk’ or ‘gain’…

  1. Your primary goal is to build muscle & strength.
  2. You are a beginner who is relatively lean.
  3. You are below 10% body fat as a male OR 20% as a female.
  4. You have been training for more than 2 years and are not getting stronger or bigger.

YOU SHOULD CUT IF…

Here are the following scenarios when you should deliberately ‘cut’.

  1. Your primary goal is aesthetic related.
  2. You are over 20-25% body fat as a male OR 30-35% as a female.
  3. You have a specific weight/aesthetic goal – E.g. An occasion, event, competition or photo shoot which requires you to be lean or make a specific weight.
  4. Your current body fat percentage is unhealthy.
  5. You have metabolic health complications that can be minimised or improved through diet and exercise.

Now, before any one turns around and says, I don’t want to get lean, or I don’t want to gain size, let me physiology your arse…

NUTRIENT PARTITIONING 101.

What is of great importance when deciding which way to go with your nutrition, is something called nutrient partitioning. This refers to where the excess calories go when you ‘bulk, and where they come from when you ‘shred’.

In an ideal world, when we eat at a calorie surplus, we would store all of those calories in the muscle tissue and get jacked. However, life isn’t fair, and often those calories get stored as fat. This is why, ‘gaining’ when you are at a low level of body fat is advantageous, and it is related to what is called insulin sensitivity/resistance.

A Primer On Insulin Sensitivity/Resistance.

Insulin is a hormone responsible for shuffling nutrients into tissue – fat, muscle and the liver.

Now, it is due to this that your body fat percentage will likely determine whether you cut or bulk…

Here is why…

High insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle occurs when there is less body fat around. This is when calories are stored in the muscle.

Poor skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity occurs as a result of excess fat accumulation (being over weight), means that the muscle tissue is resistant to the additional calories you eat and the fat cells are sensitive and will take any calories that are above what your body requires.

Hence, the more fat you carry, the less likely you are to build muscle.

On the contrary, the leaner you are, the greater the chance you have of partitioning the excess nutrients to muscle.

How do I increase skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity?

Unfortunately, much of what occurs hormonally is dictated by genetics, but there are a number of factors that can increase your sensitivity to insulin, important regardless of whether or not you want to cut or bulk:

  • Lower Body Fat %;
  • Decreased consumption of highly refined sugars;
  • Increased Fiber intake;
  • Reduced consumption of saturated fats.
  • Increased monounsaturated fat e.g. Fish Oil, Olive Oil.
  • Contract Skeletal Muscle – Move/Lift weights.

It should now be obvious as to when and why you should bulk, and when and why you should cut…

A quick side note is that regardless of your overall goal, you should cycle your nutrition so that there are three distinct phases:

1. Surplus (Gaining)
2. Maintenance (Maintaining).
3. Deficit (Fat Loss).

Muscle Gain Vs Fat Gain

Before we conclude, it’s worth mentioning that there is only so much muscle tissue that can be synthesised within a given day, week, month and year. However, fat tissue is easily synthesised and when in long periods of energy surplus, the rate of muscle growth will slow down at a much faster rate than fat tissue growth.

Wrap Up…

There you have it. You should now have some further insight and direction as to whether you should enter a gaining phase or whether you should aim to lose a few kg’s.

Most importantly however, your overall goal will dictate which phase you spend the majority of your time.

For example over a 12 month period, if you’re primary goal is to lose fat, you may spend your time accordingly:

  • 70% deficit
  • 20% maintenance
  • 10% surplus.

Conversely, if your goal is to gain an appreciable amount of muscle then the ratio may be:

  • 70% Surplus
  • 20% Maintenance
  • 10% Deficit.

The take home point is, if you’re super overweight, bulking probably isn’t a great idea, and it is in your best interests to cut down somewhat to maximise the likelihood of gaining some tissue, of the muscle variety.

And if you’re someone who is lean, and aren’t jacked to the nines, chances are ‘cutting’ won’t do you much good long term, unless you’re paid to have, which you probably aren’t…

Regardless of whether you ‘cut’ or ‘bulk’, there are three things you MUST do to be successful:

1. Commit.
2. Be Patient.
3. Monitor Your Progress. 

If you don’t do the above when bulking, you’ll probably just get fat, sorry to be rude.

Likewise, if you aren’t committing to your fat loss phase, and find yourself dieting year inconsistently, the physiological and psychological torment is another issue in and of itself, but that is a story for another day…

Remember, the more muscle over time means improved metabolic rate, decreased risk of osteoporosis, improved nutrient partitioning, decreased risk of metabolic related disease and so forth… Similarly, less fat over time will also lead to improved health, aesthetics etc etc.

The key is to play chess with your nutrition, and to plan out periods of bulking, maintenance and cutting to maximise your body composition over time…

Coach Jacob.

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