So, you’ve been bulking for a while.
You’ve successfuly put on body weight, you’ve gotten stronger in the gym, and hopefully you’ve built a fair amount of muscle.
But now you’re wondering:
When should I start my cut? I’ve lost my abs, and my muscular definition on my arms, chest, back and legs are nearly gone.
Is it time to start getting ripped?
Well, here’s the answer to these questions:
When To Stop Bulking And Start Cutting?
Even though using bulking and cutting cycles is the most effective way to build a ripped physique in the long-term, it’s only effective if done right.
And knowing when to stop bulking and start cutting and vise versa, is a large part of doing these cycles correctly.
So, here’s the complete breakdown of the bulking and cutting strategy that’ll lead to the quickest muscle growth and fat loss, while also allowing you to stay relatively healthy in the meantime:
As you can see, your goal is to stay within 8-15 % body fat when utilizing bulking and cutting cycles.
Let’s look at why this is:
Why You Shouldn’t Bulk Above 15 % Body Fat
There are three reasons why you shouldn’t go above 15 % body fat when bulking:
- You’ll look great always
- You’ll gain more muscle and less fat
- You’ll stay healthier
I went deeper into these concepts in this post, where I covered why you should get lean before you start bulking.
But here’s a quick breakdown of these three reasons:
1. You’ll look great always
This is mainly a psychological benefit. But it’s very important nonetheless.
For most people, 15 % body fat is the place where they start to lose all the definition of their abs and musculature of their entire body:
Continue bulking past the point of 15 % is usually not sustainable for most people psychologically, simply because they feel out of shape.
And here’s the deal:
Building a fair amount of muscle takes time, especially if you want to do it naturally. And by staying below 15 % body fat while bulking, you won’t think as much about the time required to build muscle.
This is because you’ll be able to enjoy your physique more in the meantime. You’ll get great visible pumps in the gym, your clothes will fit you better, and you won’t feel ashamed of taking of your shirt in public.
In fact, it’s much more appealing to look like these guys consistently, right?
Now, even though these guys in the picture are fairly muscular, and perhaps you’re not quite at their level of development yet.
You should still work your way down to 8-10 % body fat before you start bulking. Sure you might look smaller, especially in clothes for a while, but trust me, staying lean is worth it.
And here’s why:
2. You’ll gain more muscle and less fat
By staying below 15 % when bulking you’ll gain more muscle and less fat, here’s why:
You’ll have better nutrient partitioning, or in scientific terms p-ratio when you’re lean.
Nutrient partitioning essentially means where the calories “go” in the body when you overeat, i.e bulking. Does it go towards fat storage or towards building muscle?
And it’s been shown that when you’re keeping your bulking cycles below 15ish % body fat, more of your surplus of energy will, in combination with resistance training, go towards building muscle as opposed to getting stored as body fat.
This is true mainly because you’ll have better skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity in the body when below 15 % body fat. Improved insulin sensitivity means that the body is more effective at using nutrients for the “right” reasons, meaning muscle growth.
Another big factor why you’ll have better nutrient partitioning below 15 % body fat, is because of various hormones.
In males this would be greater levels of free testosterone in the bloodstream, which has been shown to have powerful nutrient partitioning effects (more muscle, less fat).
Another hormone that affects nutrient partitioning is cortisol, which has the opposite effect to testosterone (more fat, less muscle). It seems that the fatter we get, the worse the ratio of testosterone to cortisol get. In other words, cortisol goes up and testosterone goes down with increased body fat percentage.
Lastly, our hunger hormone Leptin seems to affect how effectively we can build muscle as well. The way Leptin works is that it senses two things; body fat percentage and the amount of food consumed.
This largely explains why people who’ve been bulking for a long time, and starts to reach a high body fat percentage, feels more or less stuffed all the time.
What this does is subconsciously placing the individual at maintenance calories, sometimes even below. And this reduces the rate of muscle growth drastically, since there’s no longer a surplus of calories coming in.
In other words, a strong environment of muscle building resistance will be built up in the body if the body fat percentage gets too high.
So, taking a distinct phase where you’re focusing on cutting down to a low body fat percentage for a few months is going to be the smart move here. Which explains why bulking and cutting is so powerful.
3. You’ll stay healthier
Improved hormonal environment in the body is not only associated with better nutrient partitioning towards muscle growth, it’s also associated with better health.
In fact, bulking in and of itself is a bit unhealthy, even when staying below 15 % body fat.
But, it’s A LOT unhealthier to bulk above this range.
And that sounds terrible!
Why You Shouldn’t go Below 8 % Body Fat
Okay, so there are very good reasons to not bulk above 15 % body fat. But, let’s look at the opposite end and why you shouldn’t go below 8 % body fat when cutting:
All humans have a bottom body fat percentage limit to where their body can still remain healthy and functional. This is also known as our biological set point.
For males this limit is somewhere around 8 % body fat. Some genetically blessed individuals can go a bit lower and still feel fine and be healthy, but most of us can’t.
Going below this range will likely lead to ill-health, extreme food focus, reduced immune system, low energy, erectile dysfunction and a bunch of other negative health effects both mental and physical.
This is also the reason why competitive bodybuilders and physique athletes doesn’t stay stage ready year-round, simply because they can’t.
But don’t worry, here’s what 8-10 % body fat looks like with decent levels of muscularity (the guy to the right) and high levels of muscularity (the guy to the left):
Great looking physiques in my opinion!
Again, getting down to around 8-10 % body fat is usually where people can maintain their body fat percentage, stay healthy, still eat plenty of food, not feel low levels of energy and look athletic with abs and good muscular separations on their entire body.
How Do You Know When You’re At 8 % Respective 15 % Body Fat?
I’ve already displayed images of a few different body fat percentages in this post. And images is one of my most favourite ways to estimate body fat percentage. You simply compare your physique to your best ability to the guys in the pictures.
Body Fat Percentage Comparison Chart
Of course, trying to identify your body fat percentage without fancy equipment such as DEXA scans and underwater weighing is hard, and will always be estimations at best.
Good news though, for the sake of bulking and cutting, it’s enough to just be in the ball park.
Another great way to estimate your body fat percentage is with the U.S Navy Body Fat Percentage Formula. This formula have a standard error deviation of only 3% which is very good for a formula based tool.
You can calculate your body fat percentage using the free Iron Built Fitness body fat percentage calculator here.
By combining these two tools of comparison pictures with the body fat percentage calculator, you can get a pretty good idea of where your body fat percentage is at.
Do You Need To Do Bulking And Cutting?
Finally, when it comes to building your physique, a question I get very often is whether you need to bulk and cut.
My answer to this question is:
No, you don’t need to use bulking and cutting cycles. It’s very much possible to gain at maintenance and slowly use your body fat to fuel your muscle building process, and in that way end up with a ripped physique.
However, be ready to invest a lot of time building your physique this way. Both muscle growth and fat loss will be slower, just like displayed in this image:
I discussed this topic more in-depth in the post: Bulking And Cutting Cycles: Why It’s The Quickest Way To A Ripped Physique.
Make sure you read through that post if you’re unsure about whether you should do bulking and cutting cycles or not.
Okay so let’s recap. When should you stop bulking and start cutting?
Well, the ideal way to use bulking and cutting cycles would be to stop bulking once you’re at 15 % body fat.
And on the other end, you should’t go below 8 % body fat unless you’re looking to compete in bodybuilding or fitness.
The best and easiest way to know your body fat percentage, so that you can make the correct decisions, is to use comparison pictures in combination with the US Navy Body Fat Percentage Calculator.