The simple answer is yes, it does.
But it’s easy to get it wrong and end up looking like an overfilled water balloon or a stick-insect depending on which end of the scale you get it wrong at.
It’s also possible, and very common, for you to get it wrong and stay looking almost exactly the same as you do now for months (and sometimes years) at a time. We all know someone who’s been “smashing the gym” for the last five years but doesn’t look any different.
What is Bulking and Cutting?
Alright, so you’ve probably heard all the gym bros talking about being on a bulk or on a cut.
All this actually means is they’re either primarily aiming to build muscle or lose body fat.
You might be thinking “but I want to do both at the same time.”
Join the club.
Now it actually is possible to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously but it requires a very specific set of circumstances or performance enhancing drugs, neither of which are likely to be applicable to you right now.
So let’s just shelve that idea for the moment because aiming to do both will most often leave you with neither.
To quote Earl Smooter “You can’t ride two horses with one ass, sugarbean”
I mean you could try, but you won’t get very far, you’ll probably end up being extremely frustrated and it certainly won’t be the optimal way of getting from A to B.
So in the interests of success, just pick one horse.
Bulk or cut.
Gain muscle or lose fat.
And I’ll tell you how to do it effectively.
Which One Should Your Choose?
In the quest for your dream body you’re going to do both of them at some point but which one you do first is up to you ‘cos it depends on a) how you look right now and b) how you’re aiming to look in the future.
My advice is always to get lean first and once you’re happy with your body fat levels then aim to ‘bulk’ and build muscle.
Doing it the other way around (building muscle first then losing fat) usually ends up making getting lean much tougher than it needs to be.
So look in the mirror, if you’ve still got a fair amount of body fat to lose before you’re happy with how lean you are then do that first. Conversely if you look in the mirror and you’re already pretty lean but lacking in muscle mass then bulk first and only cut if you gain too much unwanted fat.
Now here’s the important part; once you’ve chosen which route to go down commit to it.
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is switching between bulking and cutting too soon.
They’ll bulk for 4 weeks and as soon as they see a slight increase in body fat they panic about losing their abs and go on cut before they’ve even really built any muscle. Then they start cutting and maybe they lose a little bit of muscle mass and again they panic and switch back to bulking. All the while never seriously committing to either and not making much progress – they stay looking the pretty much the same.
So make sure you commit.
And accept that whilst bulking you’re likely to gain a bit little of body fat and whilst cutting you might lose a bit of muscle size and gaining strength may be tougher – we’re obviously aiming to minimise this but it will happen to some degree.
It’s all about keeping your primary goal in mind, eyes on the prize.
How Long Should Your Bulk or Cut For?
This is a good question.
And the simple answer is; it depends. There’s no magic time frame for either, simply set a specific (but realistic) goal and work at it until you get there. I’ll explain what realistic targets are in the next few sections.
As an example you might bulk for 12-16 weeks or so and gain some muscle but also a bit of body fat too. So next you’ll go on a cut and aim to reduce your body fat levels whilst keeping as much of the muscle you gained as possible – that would be a smart approach
How To Bulk (Build Muscle)
Let’s talk about making gains.
If this isn’t your goal right now feel free to skip to the next section but you might miss some golden nuggets of information.
The classic, old-school bodybuilding bulk is simply eat everything in sight and aim to gain as much scale-weight as possible.
I advise you not to do this if for no other reason than; you’re not a bodybuilder.
The majority of us train to look and feel good so carrying excessive amounts of body fat all in the name of “bulking” and gaining muscle doesn’t make sense and is likely to leave you feeling unhappy and unhealthy – the opposite of what we’re aiming for.
Plus, that continual addition of body fat will make getting lean a much longer and more arduous process later down the line.
So let’s look at bulking in a different way.
A successful bulk is one where you gradually gain as much muscle as possible with minimal increases in body fat.
For most beginner to intermediate lifters this equals a rough body weight increase of somewhere between 0.5-1.5% per month.
So a 90kg guy could expect to gain 0.45-1.35kg of body weight per month without gaining too much fat in the process. Any faster than this and he isn’t just getting jacked, he’s getting fat as well.
Now it’s worth pointing out that there will almost always be some gains in body fat but not excessive amounts where you ending up looking like a human beer barrel, just small increases simply because you’ll be eating an excess of calories.
The first (and most important) thing you’ve got to get right when it comes to eating to gain muscle is; creating a positive energy balance.
In other words, you need to be eating more calories than you’re burning each day. If you’re not doing that you simply won’t build muscle mass.
It doesn’t matter what your macro split is, what supplements you’re taking or what training you’re doing, your body will not increase in mass unless you’re in a calorie surplus.
So, before you do anything else you need to make an educated estimate as to how many calories you need to consume each day in order to build muscle mass.
A really simple starting point for this is to take your body weight in kilograms and multiply it by 36, this will give you an initial daily calorie target.
Next you need to work out what your macronutrient split is. By this I mean, how much protein, carbohydrates and fats you should eat each day.
An easy and effective way to do this is to aim to get one third of your calories from each macronutrient; one third of your daily calorie intake from protein, one third from fats and one third from carbohydrates.
Of course you’ll need to make sure you’re tracking what you eat each day using an app like MyFitnessPal to make sure you consistently hit these targets.
That means hitting them every single day, not four days or even five days a week. Seven days a week . . . for at least 4 weeks at a time.
Note: You don’t need to be spot on to the exact gram or decimal point but you should be in the right ball park every day (+/- 100 calories).
Doing this means you can see how successful those initial targets have been.
If you’ve been hitting those targets for 4 weeks and managed to increase your body weight by 0.5-1.5% then stick with those targets until your weight gain plateaus and whenever that happens simply increase your daily nutrition targets by around 5%.
The main aspects to consider when it comes to training are volume (how much work you do), intensity (how much weight you lift and in what rep ranges), frequency (how often you train) and exercise selection (what lifts you perform in your session).
Here are some simple, effective guidelines;
More volume is better than less volume when it comes to building muscle, this can be measured by simply tracking how many reps you perform per body part worked in a session – a good target to aim for 40-70 reps per body part.
Eric Helms’ extensive research into muscle building and strength training summarised that for optimal hypertrophy (muscle growth) you should spend 65-75% of your session working in the 6-12 rep range and the remaining 25-35% of your session working in the lower (1-6) and higher (12-15) rep ranges.
The number of training sessions you do each week can vary depending on your personal schedule, simply aim to train each body part 2-3 times a week regardless of how many sessions a week you perform.
For some people this may equal six 40 minute sessions per week, for others it will be three 75 minute sessions per week. Simply do what works for you.
It won’t really matter too much as long as you train each body part 2-3 times a week and hit the rough volume target of 40-70 reps for each body part trained in a session.
Perform 1-2 compound lifts and 1-3 isolation exercises per muscle group trained in a session.
Compound lifts use two or more joints at once; bench press (shoulder and elbow) or squat (knee and hip) for example. These types of lifts should be the staple of your program.
Isolation exercises focus on just one joint or muscle at a time like dumbbell curls (biceps) or lat raises (shoulders) for example.
They’re the basics of bulking without getting dead fat, now let’s talk about cutting.
How to Cut (Lose Fat)
Alright so, losing body fat.
Typically when people think about doing this their mind drifts to being on restrictive diet, eating chicken and broccoli for every meal and doing endless hours of cardio.
And yeah, technically you can lose fat that way but you’d hate it, it’d be boring as fuck, it wouldn’t be optimal and unless you’re planning to step on stage it simply isn’t necessary to go to those extremes.
So let’s not do that.
Let’s do this instead…
In the simplest terms, if you consume more calories than your body uses you will gain weight.
It’s basic science.
I don’t care what Slimming World says.
So if you find yourself getting fatter it’s very unlikely that you’re insulin sensitive or have a Thyroid problem, it’s much more likely that you’re just eating too much food for the amount of activity you do (or don’t do).
Sorry if that offends you but it’s the truth.
You probably don’t need medication, you probably do need to consume fewer calories and/or increase your activity levels.
Which leads me on to my main point about nutrition.
In order to cut successfully, energy balance matters, or more specifically making sure you’re in a slight calorie deficit matters.
Basically this means making sure you consume less calories than you’re burning each day, if you do this you will start to lose weight and in the right circumstances (good nutritional habits, smart training and lots of sleep) this weight loss will primarily (or totally) be body fat.
Here’s how to get started…
Take your body weight in kilograms and multiply it by 2.2
This will give us your body weight in pounds.
Then take your body weight in pounds and multiply it by 12
And this will give us your estimated daily calorie target for losing body fat.
Here’s an example…
90kg x 2.2 = 198lbs
198lbs x 12 = 2,376 kcal
So someone who weighs 90kg and wants to lose body fat should start by aiming to eat around 2,376 calories each day.
Remember, this is the key part.
It doesn’t really matter how good your habits are or how “clean” your daily diet is you simply won’t lose body fat if you’re over-eating.
Of course having good nutrition habits is important too and you should aim to eat good quality food most the time but you know that already.
Having said that don’t be scared of having some not-so-great food every now and then. Just make sure that it fits into your daily calorie targets so you don’t end up massively overeating (this will lead to gaining unwanted body fat).
Most people can expect to lose between 0.5-1.0lb of body fat per week (more if you’re severely overweight) so if you’re not seeing this kind of progress i.e. your weight is staying around the same then simply reduce your overall calorie intake by 5% or so.
As with bulking it’s important to track your food intake to make sure you’re hitting these calories targets otherwise we have no way of knowing if a) you’re even getting close to them and b) if these targets work or if they need adjusting.
Honestly when it comes to fat loss, nutrition is where most of your calorie deficit is created so beasting yourself in the gym with hours or cardio in the hopes of burning calories or attempting to out train a bad diet is not the most effective use of your time.
That’s not to say training hard isn’t important, it is.
But since your nutrition largely takes care of the fat loss side of things your gym time should have a big focus on getting stronger, preserving muscle mass, becoming more durable and moving better. This basically means you should be doing mobility work and lifting weights with conditioning mixed in.
I explained why just “smashing the gym” isn’t enough for fat loss in more detail here.
So that’s a quick guide to the basics of bulking and cutting, sticking to these basic principles will help make sure you successfully reach your fat loss and/or muscle building goals this year.