If you've been into fitness for more than 10 minutes and your goals have anything to do with your physique then chances are you've heard of the terms "bulking" and "cutting".
What is "bulking"
Bulking is a term widely used by gym go-ers to define a mass gaining phase or period. Typically, a bulking phase consists of a increased calories (to a caloric surplus) & decreased cardio with a view to gain muscle. It's worth noting that while a caloric surplus (along side a resistance training protocol) is optimal for muscle growth, some of those extra calories will be stored as fat.
What is "cutting"
Cutting is a term used to describe a phase of body fat (and weight) reduction. During a cut, an athlete will be on reduced calories (to a caloric deficit) and whilst cardio isn't strictly necessary usually cardio goes up.
So when should I do what?
Whether you bulk or cut is a very individual thing and largely depends on what your goals are. Its quite common to see people use autumn & winter time as "bulking season" to give their body a break from the rigors of dieting & build muscle (and enjoy their food of course) then transition into a "cutting" phase some time around spring - to drop bodyfat, reveal some of that hard earned muscle and ensure optimum conditioning ready for the summer.
Cant I just stay lean all year round?
The key thing here is to identify what your definition of lean is. Lets take a competitive bodybuilder or bikini athlete for example. To reach the levels of bodyfat required to be even borderline competitive takes a serious amount of effort. This effort comes at a physiological cost, and if you speak to anyone at the tail end of a competition prep phase they'll tell you they feel tired, weak and generally less than great and as a result, trying to sustain this for a prolonged period of time can not only lead to loss of lean tissue, but also some pretty nasty health issues (hormonal/joint/menstrual issues to name just a few). As a result, its not practical nor safe to try and maintain this.
With that said, after a dieting phase where you achieve 12-14% bodyfat (and 16-20% for females), you could increase your calories to maintenance and hover around this number if you're a casual trainee who's goals are just to maintain some kind of decent shape all the time then it is absolutely possible.
The problem with this is that whether you're if you're actively interested in building muscle & strength, then hovering around your maintenance calories is a sub-optimal way of achieving this, and this applies to both men and women. The fact of the matter is that dieting is controlled starvation, and when your body is in this state, it will prioritise functions needed for survival rather than making sure you get that extra mm on your biceps!
Okay, so I want to bulk, but I don't want to get fat?
Of course, you want to gain as much muscle as you can without gaining any fat. Wouldn't we all! The fact is however, if you enter a caloric surplus for a decent period of time you're going to store some of that extra energy as fat. To which extent you store fat will largely be determined by the size of the caloric surplus - and this is where working with a coach can help get the most out of you "bulking" phase.
It's worth noting your body will only build muscle at a certain rate. Let's take Joe Bloggs for example ( a completely made up character). Let's say the optimal calories for Joe to build muscle is 3500kcal/day. If joe decides to eat an extra tub of ben n jerry's a day, Joe wont actually build any more muscle. Joe will just get (more) fat. (And probably diabetes too)
Some people use the "bear mode" bulk approach, eat everything in site and yes, whilst their body weight will shoot up, proportionately a lot more of this weight will be fat mass, which ultimately will give the person more work to do when it's time to cut again. Whilst a bulk does afford you a little more freedom when it comes to food, nobody wants to spend any longer than they need to dieting down and as a result should take care during a bulking phase to ensure there is still some food discipline being exercised.
Pros of bulking:
Building muscle mass
Increased strength & performance
Increased hormone levels (& sex drive)
Increased food freedom / less critical to stick to calorie targets
Better recovery between sessions
Cons of bulking:
Increased fat gain
Increased food consumption (is this even a bad thing?)
Reduced / loss of definition
If you take it TOO far, having to size up your wardrobe
Increased deliveroo bill
Pros of cutting:
More defined / aesthetic physique
More tinder matches
Having an excuse for not going to dinner with the inlaws
Cons of cutting:
Reduced strength / lifts going down
Reduced sex drive (in more extreme cases of dieting)
Having to be more consistent with weighing / prepping foods
Increased food focus
More "effort" required to stick to plan
We all want to look good. We all want to perform our best too. And while there is a large crossover between the two, when you want to start pushing either one to the extreme, as is often the case in fitness, things work on a sliding scale. And if you max out on one, then be prepared for a little give on the other and vice versa.
Thanks for reading,