Have you ever wondered,
“How long should I bulk and cut for?”
“Is shorter bulking and cutting cycles better than longer when it comes to building muscle and losing fat?”
“Is it possible to stay lean year around?”
It’s clear that shorter bulks of 2-4 months with 2-4 weeks of cutting in between is a great way of staying lean while still focusing on building muscle.
But, do you lose out on potential muscle mass doing shorter cycles compared to longer, say 8-10 months of bulking with 8-10 weeks of cutting instead?
Or is it the other way around, that the shorter cycles allow you to build more muscle?
These are all good questions, which we’ll look closer at in this article.
Short or Long Bulking and Cutting Cycles – What’s Optimal For “Body Recomposition?”
You’ve probably heard that long term controlled bulking is required if you want to put on muscle mass at any noticeable speed. And that you shouldn’t be afraid of some fat gain as well. Fat that you lose later by cutting.
This concept is completely true, as an early novice to late intermediate (0-4 years of productive training), you’ll build muscle optimally if you allow for some fat gain as well. I.e. if you’re lean-bulking.
My bulking range of between ~10-15 % body fat
But there’s one thing that’s still somewhat unclear.
And that is:
How long time should ideally be spent bulking and cutting?
Some say that an optimal gaining phase is one that lasts at least 8 months, up to as long as two years.
But, is this true?
What about us who want to stay more lean year around? Will we be forever doomed to have lesser or slower rate of muscle gain because we decide to cut more often?
And on the other hand, is it even attainable to have a low body fat percentage year around?
That’s what I’ve decided to dig deep into in this article.
Definition of gaining and cutting
It’s important to have a clear definition of what the rate of weight gain should be when it comes to gaining, and what the rate of weight loss should be when it comes to cutting, before we can make any assumptions whether there’s much difference between longer or shorter cycles.
Rate of weight gain when gaining
First of all, rapid weight gain, the dirty bulking method, is dead. It was and will always be a stupid way of approaching weight gain.
Contrarily, going the lean-gaining route by only allowing for 0,5-1 lbs (0,25-0,5 kg) a month is only worth looking into if you’re a fairly advanced trainee, where you’ve reached 80-90 % of your genetic potential.
What I think most people should use is the controlled lean-bulk where you allow for a weight gain of 2-3lbs (1-1.5 kg) a month, depending on training experience.
Now, regarding whether you should bulk or cut first, the answere is that males above 15 % and females above 30 % body fat should never decide to bulk first. Cut down to 10 % for males and 20 % for females before thinking about bulking.
Rate of weight loss when cutting
How fast you should drop weight will be decided by a few factors.
The first one is, how much body fat you have when beginning the cut:
- If you’re above 15 % for a male and 25 % for a female, don’t be afraid of a larger calorie deficit, aim to lose around 1-1,5 % of your total body weight per week.
- If you’re between 10-15 % for a male and 20-25 for a female, aim to lose 0,5-1 % of your total body weight per week.
- If your leaner than that, never lose more than 0,5 % of your total body weight per week.
The second factor is how long the duration of the cutting phase will be.
A longer cutting phase requires slower weight loss than a shorter phase.
For longer phases use the lower end of the recommendations above and for shorter phases use the higher end.
If we follow this rate of weight gain and loss, somewhat accurately, 1 month of gaining will equal a little more than 1 week of cutting.
Now that we have our rate of weight gain and loss accounted for, it’s time to see if shorter bulking and cutting cycles is a viable strategy for building a lot of muscle mass while staying lean in the process.
Short bulking and cutting cycle theory
Here’s a theoretical illustration that I created of what would happen if an intermediate trainee would decide to use short bulking and cutting cycles.
The data I based this on are the following:
- Lyle McDonald’s potential rate of muscle gain per year (intermediate = 1 lbs (0.5 kg) of muscle per month).
- Gaining muscle and fat in a 1 to 1 ratio to maximize the muscle building process.
- A ~10 % loss in FFM during the cutting phases.
Now gaining 2 kg of fat free mass while losing 2% of body fat definitively looks promising in theory, but let’s look at what the current available data says when it comes to short bulking and cutting cycles. And let’s make a comparison to longer cycles as well.
Benefits of short bulking cycles: 2-4 months, with 2-4 weeks of cutting in between
Keeping the cycles shorter seems to have positive benefits on hormonal environment and adaptations, both when cutting and bulking.
And here are the benefits:
Better leptin control
Fat cells seems to be an endocrine organ in their own right, releasing a lot of different hormones and chemicals that have effects over the entire body. And the big player here is a hormone called Leptin.
Leptin is known as the “hunger hormone” that scales with body fat percentage and food intake, especially carbohydrates.
When you lose fat, your leptin levels get lower, which signals the brain to slow down basal metabolic rate (BMR) and to make you hungrier. And vice versa as you gain fat.
It’s also known that leptin levels scale with food intake. This means that, if you’re cutting on, say a 500-calorie deficit or a 1000-calorie deficit, your leptin levels will be drastically lower, making you more lazy and hungry during the latter.
Finally, what seems to be the biggest contributor for dropping leptin is the length of the calorie deficit itself. So, by keeping the cutting phases shorter you avoid the hormonal adaptations to a much higher degree, making it easier to stay lean.
That’s one great benefits of shorter cycles.
When it comes to muscle building there seems to be hormonal benefits of shorter cycles as well.
Shorter cycles will leave you more insulin sensitive. Which is great for nutrient partitioning when combined with resistance training.
What nutrient partitioning means is that a larger portion of the calorie surplus will go towards building muscle, instead of being stored as fat.
But there’s one caveat.
Not all your calorie surplus, especially a big one, will become muscle mass.
During your cutting phase, not only will your muscle cells sensitivity to insulin be increased, your fat cells will as well.
This means that with too big of a calorie surplus, your fat cells will gladly accept nutrients just as well as your muscle cells will. This seems to be especially true if you’ve been on the fatter side earlier in life.
There’s good news though. If you make sure to eat at a small calorie surplus, one that’s slightly above what’s required to support training as you start your lean-bulk phase. Then you won’t balloon fat back, the surplus is small enough to mainly provide energy for the training adaptations to take place, and not so much for fat gain.
Lastly, another great benefit of shorter cycles are a better testosterone to cortisol ratio in your body. Now this doesn’t have to do with the shorter cycles itself, but more so by staying lean.
What naturally happens during longer bulking cycles is that the body fat percentage is getting high, screwing with the anabolic environment in the body, which in turn reduces the effectiviness of building new muscle tissue.
Here’s an example:
Let’s say you’ve been eating at a caloric surplus, that’s big enough for you to put on muscle mass at your quickest rate possible, and you do this for 10-12 months. Now, at this point it’s very likely that you’re around 20 % body fat or higher, even if you started out at a lean 10 %. This is just logical because the time spent in a caloric surplus is so long.
Sure you’ve put on a lot of quality muscle mass as well. But here’s the thing, if we look back at the hormonal benefits of doing shorter cycles instead, not only would the shorter cycles make it easier for you during the cutting cycles, but they would also enable you to put on more muscle mass in the long-term.
Here’s a chart displaying the difference between shorter and longer bulking and cutting cycles:
As you can see, after each mini cut your muscles become resensitized to growth again, meaning that they’ll experience rapid gains over and over again, while the long bulking cycle only experience this once, just to slowly taper of because of poor nutrient partitioning, insulin resistance and worse testosterone to cortisol ratios.
Note: This chart doesn’t take diminishing returns in gains caused by increased training age into consideration, but it still paints the picture of the difference between shorter and longer bulking and cutting cycles.
I’ve also found that on a psychological level most people seem to adhere much better to shorter and a bit more aggressive bulking and cutting cycles.
This seem to be because the hormonal balance isn’t disrupted to a wide enough degree when the cutting duration is kept short, as I mentioned above. Meaning it won’t have the time to affect the brain very much.
Also, by knowing that the diet will be shorter, the misery of being in a calorie deficit will soon be over.
And when it comes to gaining, 2-4 months is still a long time in a surplus, which makes it easy to adhere to.
Shorter bulking and cutting cycles will have you look good the majority of the time. Something that’s a main priority for a lot of people.
Benefits of long bulking cycles: 8-12 months, with 8-12 weeks of cutting in between
On a physiological level, there doesn’t seem to be any additional benefits on muscle growth by having longer bulking cycles compared to shorter, except for people that are extremely skinny. Think the classic “hardgainer.”
As a hardgainer, you need to really commit to a caloric surplus for a prolonged period of time to get used to the appetite required for muscle growth to occur.
But even then, this seems to be more of a psychological issue.
Some people do better on longer periods in a caloric surplus.
Having to cut fat often can be taxing for people that have stressful lives, problem with anxiety, or just hate cutting in general.
Instead going on lean-bulks that lasts for several months, up to a year will make these individuals adhere better to productive training and muscle growth in the long-term.
So this begs the question,
Do we have a winner?
What’s best? Short or long bulking and cutting cycle?
Looking at the benefits of each of these cycles, shorter bulking and cutting cycles outperform the longer ones. In most cases anyway.
Shorter bulking and cutting cycles:
- Seems to build more muscle mass because of better hormonal environment in the body.
- Are easier to adhere to for most people, because the cutting phases are short.
- Are more enjoyable, because it keeps you lean year-round.
- Might be difficult for hardgainers, because they need longer time to adapt their appetite for anabolism.
So, it sure looks promising in theory to build muscle quickly and stay lean by utilizing shorter cycles.
But we still have one more thing to consider. That is, how manageable is it to stay lean year around?
Is it practical to stay lean? Or will it require a rigid mindset?
I’m sure you’ve seen the folks on Instagram or YouTube that maintains a totally ripped physique with extremely low body fat percentages “effortlessly” year around.
One guy that comes to mind is this handsome fella:
Matt Ogus is known to rock an extremely low body fat percentage all year-round.
But, just how effortlessly is it really to maintain this level of leanness?
I mean if it’s stressful and draining to maintain a low body fat percentage, is it even worth going on shorter bulking and cutting cycles to stay lean while building muscle?
Let’s find out what science says!
The set point & settling point theory
These are two theoretical concepts that are only partly supported by the literature at this stage. And here’s what the terms are defined as:
- Set point is where your body genetically gravitates towards.
- Settling point is where you’ll end up depending on non-genetically factors.
We know that when we diet people down to low fat percentages, a bunch of different metabolic adaptations will occur. Like for example reduced Leptin signaling for hunger, low energy and laziness, as I discussed above.
But when do these metabolic adaptations actually start to take place?
Where is this genetical set-point?
It’s a tough question to answer, because it depends on so many factors. Rate of weight loss, fat percentage, training status, age, genetics and so on.
However, for bodybuilders and physique athletes, a general number where these metabolic adaptations seem to significantly take place, is around 8-12 % body fat for males and 15-20 % for females.
The metabolic adaptations will be more severe if the individual simultaneously is in a calorie deficit within that specific body fat percentage range, and especially if they’ve been dieting for long.
So, purely physiologically, placing your bulking and cutting cycles within the range of 10-15 % body fat for males and 15-23 % for females seems like a great idea if you’re looking for a way to stay lean while building a lot of muscle mass.
If you go under these recommendations on the other hand, chances are high that you’ll start fighting your biological set point, which not only are unhealthy but won’t be sustainable either.
But heck, with decent muscularity 10-15 % body fat looks pretty well in my opinion:
Now, there’s another part of the theory that complicate things a bit.
The evil settling point
You can’t look at things on a purely physiological plane. Factors like the environment, your habits, your past body fat and so on will affect how easy it’ll be to stay within a lean range and build muscle utilizing shorter bulking and cutting cycles.
And this is known as the settling point.
If your environment is full of tasty junk foods that you can’t seem to avoid, then you’ll gravitate towards a higher settling point.
If this is how you regularly get treated at work, you’re in a bad environment for staying lean!
Likewise, if you got a habit of staying inactive. Like taking the car or bus to work every day, working a desk job and lying on the sofa all evening, rarely working out, then you’ll gravitate towards a higher settling point.
So, what to do?
If you’re looking to stay lean and build optimal amounts of muscle mass utilizing shorter bulking and cutting cycles, while still valuing your sanity, here’s what you should do:
- Slowly and steadily get down to ~10 % body fat for males and ~15% for females before bulking.
- When you start bulking use a caloric surplus that’s big enough to have you build muscle at your quickest rate possible.
- Don’t put yourself in an environment where you’d want to eat a lot of junk food.
- Stay active on a daily basis.
- Never get overweight or obese.
Shorter bulking and cutting cycles seems to be the best option, in most cases, if your goal is optimal muscle growth, while also staying fairly lean in the process.
However, to manage staying lean you must put yourself in the right environment and create healthy habits to successfully do so.
Now pull out your schedule, start planning your bulking and cutting phases, and start working towards a better physique and body composition right away!
If you’re looking for more in-depth information about improving your physique and body composition, check out these guides:
- The Complete Diet Guide for Improving Body Composition
- The Complete Muscle and Strength Training Gudie