How Do You Know Whether You Should Cut or Bulk?

Rudy Mawer
Written By: Rudy Mawer
September 26th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Nutrition
43.2K Reads
How Do You Know Whether You Should Cut or Bulk?
It's one of the most common questions in the fitness realm, should you be cutting or should you be bulking? Read on to learn which strategy is best for you.

One of the most common questions people have is whether or not it’s a good idea to begin bulking or cutting.

Sadly, there’s no “one answer”; it’s such an individual question, with many different factors playing a role in making the right choice, ranging from current body composition, experience, gender, goals, ideal body shape, health factors, timeframe, etc.

As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to determining whether or not you should begin a bulk or cut.

In this article, I will explore four common scenarios you might find yourself in. I’ll then breakdown the pros and cons of going on a bulk or beginning a cut, so that you can attempt to make the best decision, based on your current situation.

Let Your Goals Drive Your Decision

Before getting into specific details relative to your current circumstances, I’m a great believer that you should let your target goal drive your decision as to whether you should go on a bulk or begin a cutting phase.

People often get caught up in what they are “supposed” to do, rather than following what they “want” to do.

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All too often, I see people doing certain things in the gym or eating a certain way because someone on the Internet told them they should do so. While the following sections will provide suggestions, you should ultimately make your own decision, based on your primary goals and desires.

Truth is, if you’re overweight, but really want to get super strong, restricting your calories probably isn’t a smart move. Despite the fact that doing so will allow for fat loss, it probably won’t lend itself to making you stronger. Plus, you’ll probably be demotivated and so won’t be best placed to continue, which is really a key factor.

Related: 5 Tips to a Successful Bulking Season

While that’s only one circumstance, it holds true for whatever your goals are. After considering your circumstances, in addition to your primary goals, use this information to make the decision.

Remember, in 6 months, you will always be far more successful with a goal that motivates you vs what you are ‘supposed’ to be doing.

What Factors Should You Consider?

There are multiple factors from a physiological standpoint that will help you decide if you should be cutting or bulking.

As mentioned, personal preference is ultimately key. Beyond that, there are certain physiological factors to consider. Here’s an overview of 3 key factors:

Insulin Sensitivity: This dictates how well you tolerate carbohydrates and metabolize other key nutrients such as proteins or amino acids. There’s a close correlation to your body fat levels and a reduction in this, or increased insulin resistance. Therefore, it’s best to keep body fat down, to maximize insulin.

Overall Body Fat Level: As above, excess body fat has widespread effects on your metabolism and body. Along with impairing insulin function, it can also impair vital factors such as blood sugar levels that will alter your ability to partition nutrients and maximize performance/recovery.

Additionally, excess body fat carries its own risk of health issues over the long term, such as high cholesterol, blood pressure etc.

Goals or Sport: Linked to what you enjoy the most and your goals, you may need to consider your sport when making your decision. While a little excess body fat may not give you those six pack abs, it could have a bigger impact on sports performance, especially as body fat levels alter your speed and power.

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Scenario 1: You’re Inexperienced With Excess Body Fat

Starting at a basic level, if you’re inexperienced and have a significant amount of weight to lose, the decision to begin a diet should be your number one choice.

Doing so, however, is likely not the same protocol as if you were an experienced exerciser with only a bit of body fat to lose. If you’re a beginner, it’s suggested that you attempt to lose weight by focusing on two core principles: pinpointing your nutrition and basic exercise routines.

While some people who are overweight want to build muscle right away, their main priority, especially if it’s driven by physical appearance, will be to lose some body fat. Just doing this alone, drastically increases the perception of muscle mass because you become more defined.

Remember, no amount of muscle will begin to reveal itself if it’s covered by a significant amount of body fat.

Additionally, just beginning a solid workout program will likely result in an increase in muscle mass, muscle strength and a reduction in body fat due to the extra amount of activity. In other words, a beginner can do both at the same time if they optimize their training, calorie intake, and protein intake.

Scenario 2: You’re Inexperienced And Slightly Overweight

Despite the fact that you only have a small amount of weight to lose, it’s still a good idea to either maintain or reduce calories slightly.

As with scenario one, since you’re considered to be untrained, just beginning a regular exercise program will significantly benefit you in terms of strength and muscle growth, while helping you lose the last amount of fat before you go into a long-term ‘bulk’.

If you’re inexperienced and slightly overweight, I suggest sticking with your current calories or even reducing slightly, in addition to beginning a sound and regular exercise program. Doing so will likely lead to favorable changes in body composition in just a few weeks and set you up in a stronger position over the long term.

Of course, it still boils down to what really motivates you each day - if you want to focus on bulking at first, you can do so, but I suggest you keep it within a sensible range so you don’t gain more body fat.

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Scenario 3: You’re Untrained And A Normal Bodyweight

If you find yourself in this situation, the answer really boils down to your goals.

Ask yourself, do you want to get incredibly lean, or focus on adding muscle size?

As mentioned in the previous sections, muscle growth and strength will likely come fairly easily to an untrained individual, especially if you have a sound, periodized training and diet program.

In this situation, I suggest sticking with a normal calorie intake to start with, to see how your body adapts. This gives you a great baseline; you can then make small 200 calorie tweaks (up or down, dependent on the goal you picked) every 2-4 weeks, maximizing muscle growth without fat gain.

If things are moving too slowly in terms of progress, then consider increasing calories slightly. Just be sure to not use a traditional dirty bulk where you just gain excess fat without any additional muscle growth.

Scenario 4: You’re Experienced And Overweight

As an experienced lifter, chances are you have a better understanding of how your body functions and have a clear set of goals that you wish to achieve.

Unless you are happy with the excess body fat, it obviously makes sense to diet down for a short period of time.

Even if your main goal is long-term muscle size, there’s no reason you can’t have a 2 or 4 week break to cut calories and lose the excess body fat. This will not only improve your body image, but it will also improve factors such as insulin sensitivity that will, in turn, help with muscle growth.

Overall, let your goal drive your decision but be sure to keep body fat to a sensible level, even if only for health reasons.

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How Do I Know Whether I Should Cut Or Bulk?

The question of whether or not to cut or bulk first is a very common one with no clear-cut answer as it varies so much on your experience, goals, and current body fat level.

For most people, it’s not a bad idea to start by just reducing some body fat. This creates a better baseline for a long-term lean bulk, rather than starting a bulk and having to diet after just 4 weeks because you are unhappy with your fat levels.

Related: 4 Supplements You Should be Taking This Bulking Season

Of course, if you are already very lean or happy with your current body fat, the answer is much easier and you should likely start a lean bulk.

Importantly, many people still make the mistake of thinking they must go to either end of the spectrum and do a hardcore diet or dirty bulk. While, in the past, this may have been the way for many years, newer methods and research have shown great results when you actually stay closer to maintenance.

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By doing so, you can often achieve both goals at the same time when starting out. To do this, I often recommend you start within a 500 calorie window, up or down from your maintenance. This sensible range allows for either fat loss to occur without muscle loss, or muscle growth to occur with minimal fat gain.

Either way, it’s a sensible solution in the long term as you won’t be yo-yoing between drastic cuts and then crazy bulks like some people still do.

Finally, another important factor is to monitor progress whichever route you take. This allows you to make informed changes as required and actually see what is working and what is not.

Either way, place your focus on what really motivates you, and if you are stuck in the middle, simply focus on the basics of diet and exercise to achieve a mix of fat loss and muscle growth.

Posted on: Mon, 03/11/2019 - 16:26

This is a really tough situation to handle correctly. I used to be 220 lbs. of pretty solid muscle, but not really cut like a bodybuilder. I lifted a lot of weight. I used machines and free weights. I ate a lot of food. Not always perfect choices though. I also did a lot of cardio to stay fairly trim. A hard balance to maintain good muscle definition. Then I had a Stroke. Recovery took about ten (10) years. I'm now about 165 lbs. I'm really lean and muscular without a lot of mass. I think changing and improving my diet was a really good decision. It took a while to get back to lifting weights. I will never get back to where I was years ago because I don't want to. Fitness and diet are the keys to looking good. Just remember that.

Posted on: Tue, 10/03/2017 - 09:32

How about my scenario? I have been dieting for 2.5 years and lost 90 pounds (6' 1"), but I've still got about 15 pounds of fat. I've been lifting for 2 years. Being old (44) and sedentary day job, I'm at 1700 calories. Performance has started to decline in the gym. It'd be nice to get some strength and muscle size and get my metabolism back up. Lean bulk or keep cutting?

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Posted on: Tue, 10/03/2017 - 11:02

Hi DJ,

It depends. If you've been in a calorie deficit for the entirety of that 2.5 years, it might be worth eating at or slightly above maintenance level for a month or 2. This will allow your metabolism to reset and help you be able to shred that last little bit once you've gone back into a calorie deficit.

I'd recommend giving this article a read:

Reverse dieting or maintaining for a little while might be exactly what your body needs physically and mentally. Just be sure not to add in too many calories back into your diet otherwise you may add back on some fat mass.

Hope this helps!