Should I bulk or cut? This is the age-old bodybuilding conundrum.
You want to be bigger. But you also want to get leaner. You want to gain weight and build muscle. But you also want to lose weight and trim fat.
You realize that it’s more efficient to focus on one goal, but you just can’t seem to make the decision and get started down either path.
The first thing to realize is that there’s usually not one ‘right’ choice. Both options will lead to improvements in your physique. The two exceptions to this rule are if you’re significantly overweight or noticeably scrawny. If you fall into the former category, you should cut. And if you fall into the latter, you should bulk. It would simply be unhealthy to do otherwise.
With that being said, here are five things you should take into account when making your decision.
#1: Bulking Takes More Time than Cutting
This is a big one. The process of muscle hypertrophy simply takes longer than the process of burning fat. Experts agree that, at best, you can only build 2-3 pounds of muscle per month. On the other hand, most people can reliably cut 1 pound of body fat per week without sacrificing muscle mass (the exception being if you’re already very lean – think under 10% body fat).
When it comes to deciding whether to bulk or cut, this fact is important because it allows you to set realistic expectations. If you have a vacation to the beach coming up in a month or two, then cutting will make the biggest difference in terms of how ‘good’ you look between now and then. If you have nothing important coming up, then spending some solid time on a long bulk might be the more viable option.
In general: aim to cut for at least one month at a time, and to bulk for at least three months at a time. If you can’t stick with it for that long, then the potential results you can reap will be significantly hindered. The processes your body must undergo to build any noticeable amount of muscle mass or burn any noticeable amount of body fat simply take time.
I know this can be demoralizing if you’re seeking instant results. But take a moment to realize, if you can stick it out and commit to cutting or bulking for several months at a time, your patience will be handsomely rewarded.
#2: If You Are Young, When in Doubt – Bulk
One of the key factors that goes into how much muscle mass your body can synthesize is your level of testosterone. This is why testosterone is a commonly used drug by professional bodybuilders who want to pack on mass.
It’s also why you have the potential to build much more muscle mass when you’re in your twenties versus later in life. It’s generally agreed upon that your testosterone levels begin to decline in your thirties. This means that you have the highest potential to build muscle mass and pack on size when you’re in your twenties.
What this means when it comes to your decision of bulking or cutting is that you should err on the side of bulking if you’re still in your twenties. At this time, you’re in the golden age of being able to build muscle and you should take advantage of it.
Muscle that you build during your twenties will be easier to maintain as you age. However, if you elect to cut throughout your twenties and then decide you want to bulk later in life, you will be limited by your declining testosterone levels. So, again, take advantage of these prosperous years – you’ll have plenty of time to cut down and get shredded later in life.
#3: It Pays to Understand Your Motivations
When it comes to making big decisions in life, whether it’s deciding to cut or bulk, deciding to take job A or job B, or deciding to stay put or move to a new city – it always pays off to question your motivations for pursuing either option.
Take some time and ask yourself: why do I want to bulk? Why do I want to get bigger? Or why do I want to cut? Why do I want to be leaner?
And don’t just stop at your first answer. Maybe you said, “I want to cut because I want to lose my stomach fat.” Go one level deeper. Why do you want to lose your gut? Maybe your answer is, “Because I want to be flattered when I look in the mirror.” Cool, but still: go deeper! Why? Maybe your next answer is, “Because my dad was always overweight and now he’s overridden with constant health problems that are killing his quality of life and threatening his life-expectancy.”
Boom! There you go. Now that’s a pretty big reason to cut and stay lean. Not only is it most likely the right decision to make, but now that you realize why you want to do it, you’re far more likely to remain accountable to yourself and stick with it, rather that questioning your decision and changing your mind after a few weeks.
#4: Others Can Give You an Unbiased Opinion
So maybe you performed the exercise above and you’re still not sure! Well, first of all I’d urge you to go back and try again, because knowing why you want to do something is huge. But okay, I get it. This is when it’s time to call in for some outside help.
We tend to be very poor judges of ourselves. We simply are too emotionally invested in our own lives to make level-headed decisions much of the time. This is why you should take the time to ask someone you respect whether they think you should bulk or cut.
It might seem silly. But explain to them that it’s important to you and that you really value their opinion. It doesn’t need to be a gym rat or a bodybuilder. Just someone whose judgment you respect. Explain to them why you want to pursue both options and then see what they say.
Give their opinion an honest listen. Don’t jump to conclusions. But also be perceptive to how you react. If they tell you to bulk and you immediately start to defend why you think you should cut, then take notice. That just might be your gut telling you what to do.
#5: Consider Option 3 – The Recomposition
The one thing we haven’t considered yet is deciding not to bulk AND not to cut. This is a viable third option. It’s known as recompositioning and the goal is to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously.
The main drawback to the recomposition is that it takes longer to build muscle and burn fat than if you chose a dedicated bulk or cut – but it does work. One big upside of this option is that you don’t have to commit to a long period of eating a relatively low (or high) calorie diet. The other major upside is that it may be considerably better for your mental health.
You see, when you get into the cycle of bulking and cutting it can be extremely addicting. And it can often lead people into developing body image disorders where they always want to be bigger and leaner, and they’re never satisfied with their physique. This is a real danger. It can eat away at your self-esteem and even lead you to developing eating disorders.
If you’re in a place where you’re unsure of whether you want to bulk or cut, chances are that you comfortable with your body. You might not be as big and as lean as you want, but you’re also not uncomfortable with your body fat percentage or your level of muscle mass. This presents the opportunity to eat however you feel like eating on any given day, stop obsessing over bulking and cutting, and just enjoying the thrill of an intense workout at the gym.
Remember, there is no right choice. Just be sure to make an educated, level-headed decision whichever way you go.
Thank you. For me the most important point is motivation. I did many things for the wrong reasons in the past.
Thanks Oliver. I have also pursued a lot of things because of insecurity in the past. I’m actually writing an article on understanding yours motivations now (I’ll post in a few weeks).
Thank you, David. The part about really knowing why you want to bulk/cut really spoke to me.
I’ve been saying I want to gain weight/strength for years, but hardly changed in either direction. I like being lean, but I also know I want to be and look stronger. Now I just need to dig deeper to find something to grasp and keep me accountable. I’m always working out and have no problem with motivation there, it’s the doing too much and not eating enough to support growth that gets me nowhere.
I’ve been reading your content for a while, and look forward to anything you post on this topic!
Thanks for the comment RC! It sounds like you want to bulk up, so I’d suggest just barely raising your calories and pursuing as conservative of a bulk as possible – just barely gaining weight. This way fat gain will be minimal, but you will definitely get stronger and build at least a little more mass.
Good point, thanks again, David! Keep up the great posts, they really help with great information and of course….motivation!
#3 is something that struck me. Maintaining health is paramount. Some guys try to get quick results by over doing it and succumb to an injury that would put a halt to their regimen. Believe me, nursing an injury is a LONG process.
Having a young son also puts the reason why I must maintain my health and look good. I need to set an example for him to look up to. When we go to a school activity with other parents, you notice how the other kids’ fathers all look out of shape. You also notice the kids’ mothers checking you out…right in front of their husbands! I’m not saying this is the reason to get healthy, you do it for your own health/satisfaction. The rest is just a side effect. You get respect from other men as well.
All great points John. And funny anecdote about getting checked out at your kids school, but I’m sure it’s true! Our physical shape it hugely important for our quality of life… but improved first impressions are a great side effect.
Totally agree, John. I feel the same way about my daughter, and although she’s not in school yet, I want to “prepare” myself now to be a dad she is proud of! And yes, good health and leading by example is paramount too. 🙂
Hi , David nice article , i want a bulky body , currently i’m weighing 65 kg , i have cuts and lean body , how to get bulk mass ..?? plz help me.
plz mail me.
thanks in advance.
Hey Sumit – check out some of the other free articles on here! Unfortunately I don’t have time to personally assist everyone over email although you can use the contact form if you’re interested in private Skype coaching.
you should eat, sleep and train hard, thats it, no secrets there
Very good read David. Thanks. I’m in my mid 40s now and my main motivation is to keep trim, fit and healthy. Point #5 is what I work on. It works for me.
Thanks Leon, I prefer the recomp as well, it’s keeps me the most mentally ‘healthy’ vs an aggressive bulk or cut.
Thank you for this information.
I have been working out since 2 years and am always confused when to start cutting or what is the right amount of body weight to start cutting. This post has really helped me.
Thanks Rohan – most guys who get into bodybuilding get very indecisive about this (including myself) – so it’s good to be logical and strategic about making your decision.
I really like your blogs and have been following for quite some time, I read almost all of your posts, but I am a girl, is it possible to maybe make one or two posts for the ladies?
Thanks Jane. Most of my audience is men, but what would you like to see covered that’s specific to ladies?
Which food or exercises is good for bulk my body
Can u gave me proper chart of food or exercises of all parts like.
Biceps , back , tricep , legs , sholder , chest etc
I am 17 year old or 68 kg weight and height is 6 feet
My body is in proper cuts but i am looking skinny i want to gain muscle fast ?Plz help me
Hey Preet, read this article for how to bulk up: https://www.howtobeast.com/how-to-build-muscle-and-stay-lean/
Hey, thanks for your article, It was a good read.
I am almost coming toward the end of my bulk. I’ve been trying to do some research to find out whether it’s better to aim for 2 or more pound a week of weight loss rather than 1. After my cut I plan on wasting no time and starting my second bulk.
My question is will I not have to worry about losing too much muscle when it come to muscle memory and bulking again?
I’ve been bulking for a year so I hope to shred the weight quick and bulk again for 4 month and then cut at a slower rate.
You might as well just stick to 1 lb/week man. You’re only setting yourself up for more work if you’re too impatient and lose weight too fast.
Enjoying the free info you provide. Will definitely give it a try.
Hey David! I am currently an 18 year old at 155 lbs. I was 139 roughly in August. I am not so sure about my bodyfat %, I am positive that I am probably between 15-17% though, might be a little less.
I am fairly strong, but in my life I had never had abs. I can do weighted pull ups, handstands, and all other exercises but I feel like my body does not show it if that makes sense.
Should I just continue to weightlift and cut when I am in my mid 20s?
Loved this article btw.