One thing that I see recommended everywhere in the fitness industry is this:
If you want to build a lean and muscular physique, then you should first bulk up to build muscle and then cut down to get rid of the fat gained during the bulk. This should then be cycled overtime.
But, is this type of “yoyo” dieting really necessary? And more importantly, will it lead to a quicker body transformation? Well, I decided to find out, and here’s what I learned.
Are bulking and cutting phases necessary? No, bulking and cutting phases are not necessary. It’s entirely possible to use a “body recomposition” protocol where you slowly build muscle by using body fat as fuel for the process. With that said though, bulking and cutting phases allow you to build your physique quicker.
In essence, bulking and cutting phases aren’t required, but they will allow you to transform your physique quicker. In this post we’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of using either a bulking and cutting protocol or a “body recomposition” protocol.
Note: I’m personally very much inclined towards using bulking and cutting cycles. With that said though, I’m going to try my best to create a fair battle between cutting/bulking phases and body recomposition.
What are Bulking and Cutting Phases?
Bulking and cutting phases are where you take distinct periods of doing either a bulk or a cut.
In short, bulking and cutting are just synonyms for building muscle and losing body fat. Here are the basic definition of the words:
- Bulking: Is done over a period of time with the goal to gain weight, add muscle and/or increase strength. The word bulking is associated with being in a calorie surplus which is required to maximize any, or a combination, of these goals.
- Cutting: Is done over a period of time with the goal to lose body fat. For fat loss to occur a calorie deficit must be present.
Benefits of Bulking and Cutting Phases
There are two main benefits of using bulking and cutting cycles, and these are:
- Time efficiency
Let’s look at these one by one:
1. Bulking and cutting is time efficient
Using bulking and cutting cycles is hands down the quickest way to build a lean and muscular looking physique. The reason for this is because you’re maximize muscle growth, while also staying fairly lean in the process.
When it comes to transforming your physique, muscle growth is the thing that requires the most time by far, fat loss happens very fast in comparison. For this reason, using bulks to speed up muscle growth will make the whole process of going from your starting point to your goal physique faster. However, you must also implement cuts in-between to mitigate fat gain.
Trying to maximize muscle growth is somewhat of a paradoxical task. First of all, you need to be in a calorie surplus that’s bigger than the surplus just required to build the muscle in theory. In other words, if your goal is to maximize muscle growth, a bit of body fat storage must simply come with the territory.
And secondly, which is where the paradox comes in, you must also stay relatively lean to maximize growth. By staying lean you’ll have a better hormonal environment for growth in the body, with better insulin sensitivity and testosterone-cortisol ratios etc.
The fact is that after you’ve been bulking for a while you become more or less desensitized to growth, where you’ll only piss away time, by storing mostly fat if you continue to bulk once you reach a higher body fat percentage. So, as you can see, a cutting phase will be necessary eventually after you’ve been bulking for a while.
So to conclude, in order to maximize muscle growth (the thing that takes the longest), you simply need to use bulking and cutting cycles. In fact, here’s a chart displaying the difference in time between using bulking and cutting cycles and body recomposition (which we’ll talk about soon):
2. Bulking and cutting is exciting
This is actually a big benefit for a lot of people. After you’ve passed your beginner stages (first 1-2 years of training) muscle growth slows down immensely.
Doing bulking and cutting cycles at this point is usually a lot more exciting for most people than simply maintaining body weight and slowly recomping.
Looking for lean muscle growth after the beginner stages is like watching paint dry. Most people can’t adhere to the process when it feels like nothing is happening. So, taking distinct phases of bulking and cutting can really help mentally.
Taking 6-8 months in a calorie surplus where your bodyweight increases along with your lifts in the gym is fun, and so is taking 4-6 weeks cutting your body fat off and see the changes you’ve made to your physique during the bulking phase.
Drawbacks of Bulking and Cutting Phases
There are a two main drawbacks of using bulking and cutting phases as well, and these are:
- That it’s unhealthy
- You won’t look your best all the time
1. Bulking and cutting is a bit unhealthy
“Yoyo’ing” up and down in weight is a more strenuous process for the body than what slowly recomping at the same body weight is.
Now, correctly set up bulking and cutting phases should obviously not make you shoot up in weight during your bulks and then crash down in weight during your cuts. In fact, doing so is incredibly unhealthy.
No, we’re talking about a gain of 4-12 pounds over 4-8 months depending on your training experience, and then a loss of perhaps 2-8 pounds of body fat over 4-8 weeks. It’s very important that you’re not forcing your way up and down in weight to quickly as that is very unhealthy and unsustainable.
2. Bulking and cutting won’t allow you to look your best all the time
Since you’re bulking for the majority of the year, you won’t look your very best all the time, and this can be a huge drawback for a lot of people.
With that said though, this again comes down to setting up your bulks and cuts correctly. The first thing to get right is to start off lean, and the second thing to get right is to stay lean during your bulking phases.
I recommend that you bulk and cut between the range 8-15 % body fat at all times. Doing this will allow you to look like this year around (of course depending on muscle mass):
Not only will staying between 8-15% body fat allow you to look better year around, you’ll also build more lean muscle during your bulks and you’ll stay healthier during both your bulks and cuts.
What are Body Recompostition?
To me, body recomposition is any scenario where a person’s body fat percentage goes down while muscle mass goes up no matter what happens to their body weight. And this could occur in three different ways:
1. You gain weight while losing body fat at the same time – In this case a larger amount of muscle is gained compared to the amount of fat lost. So, you’d go up in weight while becoming leaner at the same time.
2. You maintain your weight while replacing an equal amount of fat weight with muscle weight over a prolonged period of time – This is the most common definition of body recomposition.
3. You lose weight while gaining muscle at the same time – In this case a larger amount of body fat is lost compared to the amount of muscle mass gained. So, you’d lose weight while building muscle at the same time.
Benefits of Body Recomposition
Here’s a list of the main benefits of using a body recomposition protocol:
- You can stay lean year around
- It’s healthy
Let’s look at these one by one:
1. Body recomposition allows you to stay lean year around
This is obviously a huge benefit. The goal of fitness and physique development is obviously to look good, so why not do it year around!
Now, even though it’s a fact that bulking and cutting phases is a faster strategy for getting ripped, this doesn’t mean body recomposition is useless, no far from it. During your beginner to intermediate years, especially if you’re a bit on the fluffier side, then losing body fat and gaining muscle at the same time actually occurs rather rapidly. During this time you’re actually able to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously.
2. Body recomposition is healthy
It’s no secret that pending up and down in weight is a bit unhealthy, especially if you gain body fat too quickly during your bulking cycles. But the truth is that even a small calorie surplus is a bit unhealthy.
So, for some people focusing on body recomposition just makes more sense from a health standpoint.
Drawbacks of Body Recomposition
These are the main drawbacks of body recomposition:
- It’s a slow process
1. Body recomposition is a slow process
Body recomposition is only somewhat effective during four circumstances, and even then it’s slower than what using bulking and cutting phases are.
These four circumstances are:
- In beginners – People that are new to training can build muscle and lose fat very effectively at the same time because the stimulus to training is so fresh.
- In overweight and obese – These individuals have a large surplus of stored energy on their body, which effectively can be used as energy by the muscle building process.
- In de-trained – People that have been laying of their training for a while and become de-trained has increased their number of myo-nuclei within the muscles during the training they previously did. This myo-nuclei stay in the muscle far longer than actual muscle tissue do, ready to return it to the previous condition ones the training continues. This is known as the bro-term “muscle memory”
- In steroid users – Individuals that take supraphysiological doses of androgens effectively ramp up their amounts of myo-nuclei within the muscles, and will experience the “muscle memory” effect that de-trained individuals do, while not being de-trained at all!
In essence, trying to gain muscle without a surplus of calories eventually becomes a very slow process. The reason for this is that the muscle protein synthesis requires a lot of energy to work effectively. Once you get more advanced and lean, assuming you don’t take steroids, then you’re in for a slow change to your physique if you’re not eating enough.
2. Body recomposition is non-exciting
As I discussed earlier, watching muscle grow after a certain point (about 1-2 years of consistent training) is like watching paint dry. After a couple years of training just know that you will see very little change in your physique over the years.
Within a few years you will become leaner and more muscular if you focus on progressive overload in the gym while eating at maintenance, however you might not realize the changes to the same degree when you go through them. Personally I just think bulking and cutting phases is way more exciting, but that’s just me.
What Should You do? Bulk and Cut or Body Recomp?
Okay so we’ve been through the benefits and drawbacks of both cutting/bulking phases and body recomposition, and hopefully you’ve gotten an idea of what you believe to be the best for you.
Now, there are a few more things that we should look at that might help you decide what strategy to use:
This is a huge one, what you prefer and think will be the most enjoyable strategy to stick to will be the best choice. The better we can adhere to something, the better out results will be, no matter what seems best in theory.
So, what do you believe will be the best for you? Bulking/cutting phases or body recomposisiton? It’s up to you, really!
Now, even though it’s totally up to you what to choose. The genetics you have will impact what the optimal way for you are. For instance, if you’re gravitating towards the skinny fat physique body recomposition is usually the better choice.
The reason for this is that skinny fat individuals tend to store body fat easily, while struggling with muscle growth. So, using distinct bulking and cutting phases will usually lead to excessive fat gain during the bulk and muscle loss during the cut.
Things like appetite, stress levels and other genetic factors can also influence whether a bulking/cutting or recomping protocol is best for you.
I wanted to write this post to answer if bulking and cutting phases are necessary, which they’re not. In fact, it’s entirely possible to get ripped using a body recomposition protocol. However, using bulking and cutting phases is the quickest way to build a lean and muscular physique, and most people believe it to be the most exciting way as well.
This post then turned in to a brief discussion about what you should choose. Now, if you’re still not sure what to do, then I definitely recommend reading my completely free guide: How to build an aesthetic physique, where I cover exactly what to do depending on your own starting point!
You can read the guide here!