Saturday, February 4, 2012

Should I Cut or Should I Bulk?

The most popular question among weight lifters is "Should I bulk or should I cut?" This question is posted on bodybuilding forums daily due to the fact that the person asking the question never gets a clear cut answer. Unfortunately, that's because there is no clear cut answer as to whether you should bulk or cut. The answer is highly individual and is determined by your goals, lifting experience, and level of patience and comfort.


The most important factor in deciding whether you should bulk or cut is what your goals are. If you are going for a lean and athletic look then it doesn't make much sense to bulk. If you are training to get bigger and stronger for a sport then it doesn't make sense to cut. No one can tell you what your goals are so it doesn't help much to ask a stranger what you should do.

What if My Goal is to Get Big AND Lean?

The problem is that often times your goal will require both a bulk and a cut and you aren't sure which one to do first. This is the case with most people and if this is your case, there are some guidelines to follow to help you decide.

Lifting Experience:

This is the main factor in determining whether you should bulk or cut. A complete beginner can add muscle at a much faster rate than an intermediate or advanced lifter. For this reason, if you are a beginner, 9 times out of 10 the answer to whether you should cut or bulk is bulk. The only exception would be if you are significantly over weight (over 20% body fat). If you are over weight, you should cut.

Beginners: As a beginner, even if you would like to be leaner, the best approach is to bulk first. Your body is primed to add muscle and you can add as much as 30 pounds of muscle in your first year. Take advantage of this opportunity and try to put on muscle. As long as you are under 20% body fat, you should bulk. As tempting as it may be to cut down to look good at the beach during the summer, try to resist. You won't have very much muscle anyway so look at this as an an investment of your time so that you can look great at the beach next year.

Intermediates: At this level you should have built a solid foundation. I consider an intermediate lifter someone who has been lifting anywhere from 2 to 10 years. It has more to do with the amount of development your physique has and not so much how long you have been working out. You won't be able to add muscle as quickly as if you were a beginner so this is where you should follow what I call the 12% rule. This rule says that if you are below 12% body fat you should bulk and if you are above 12% you should cut. Assuming your goal is to be bigger, there is not much of a point in cutting if you are under 12% since when you bulk in the near future you will most likely wind up right back at 12%. It's just wasted time. If you would like to be bigger but are above 12%, it would be a good idea to cut a bit to get down to the 12% mark before you continue bulking. This is because your hormones are at a more optimal level at the 12%-15% body fat level and also because if you are already fat at the beginning of your bulk, by the end you will look pretty sloppy. This doesn't mean that once you get above 12% you should cut back to 12%. It's just a starting point. At no point should you need to get above 15% body fat though. If you do, it would be a good idea to cut back down a bit before you continue.

Advanced: At the advanced level, you have been working out for a significant amount of time and have built a pretty impressive physique. You don't really need to bulk or cut at this point. You are in more of a maintenance and fine tuning mode. You already have the majority of the muscle you will ever have if you stay natural. All you need to do is make minor adjustments to attain your goal physique. If you would like to be 8% body fat all the time, then cut to 8% and maintain. If you like being around the 10% mark then you can stay there. If you think you look and feel best at 12%, then maintain there. No one else can tell you what your goal physique is.

Patience and Comfort

An overlooked factor as to whether you should bulk or cut is your level of patience and comfort. Sometimes the most efficient path to your desired physique isn't the most pleasant. For example, let's say you are 150 pounds and your ultimate goal is to be 200 pounds. That goal can take more than five years and the best approach would most likely be to bulk slowly for five years until you have enough muscle and then finally cut down. However, five years is a long time to bulk. During that time you may want to see how you look shredded even if you aren't quite at your ultimate goal yet. That's completely fine but it will obviously extend the length of time it will take you to reach your goal physique. Therefore, the more patient you are, the less bumps in the road there will be and the quicker you can reach your ultimate goal. Ultimately, you should never do anything you are uncomfortable with. Don't gain too much weight because someone else thinks you should. Even though it might be the best approach in the long run, you still need to weigh the short term effects as well.


Summing up, whether you should bulk or cut is highly individual. It is determined by your goals as well as lifting experience and level of patience and comfort. In most cases, a beginner should be bulking. An intermediate lifter should base the decision of whether to cut or bulk on the 12% rule. That is, bulk if you are below 12% body fat and cut if you are above. Even with these guidelines, nothing is set in stone and there are always exceptions. Ultimately, you need to decide what you are comfortable with even if it goes against what this article or anybody else says.

If you need help deciding whether you should bulk or cut, like Pfau Fitness on Facebook and send me a message. In your message, tell me your goals, how long you have been lifting, and provide some recent pictures and I can help you decide.


docmansound said...

Great article again! What would be the equivalent of the 12% rule for women? 18 or 20?

OoFaP said...

Good question. 12% on a male is equal to about 20% on a female.

yeayaknow said...

Great article!

But I have one question: Is it possible to gain strength while burning fat? I heard that it is near impossible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but what about strength gains?

I was thinking of increasing my calorie intake to near or at maintenance in order to increase the chances of getting gains in strength, and increasing the cardio to take care of the deficit.

What would you advise?


OoFaP said...

You're right that you can't really build muscle while cutting but you can get stronger.

I would just cut normally but follow a routine geared for strength like 5/3/1 or something else. Lose 1-2 pounds per week and you should still be able to gain strength. Once you get under 8% body fat it becomes difficult though.

chelle said...

does this not apply to females? you said if we're under 20% we should bulk. But females the average have about 20% body fat!

SolarBlast said...

Great articles! I really could use some help though. So, I'm 18, male 5'8.5'' and I originally was doing a pretty intense cardio/calorie deficit routine to loose fat and get that ripped look. I lost plenty of fat and got down to around 130. Yet, I still didn't look ripped at all; I mean like I just wanted to look toned and defined I was really going for super bulked. But, no matter how much of a deficit or cardio I put in that darn fat wouldn't leave. Then I have this absolutely depressing issue of fat seeming to be isolated a fair bit around my glutes. Oh, by the way I was doing strength training all the while as well and I have been gaining strength. After a while I just got tired of it all and decided to switch to a maintenance caloric range. That's what I'm at now; but I just feel like I'll never get that physique I've fought so hard for. I tried keto, and it really didn't do anything either. It's really aggravating to see people around me who eat crap, don't workout, and still have a lean physique. Any suggestions would really help!

OoFaP said...

Sorry, I didn't expect many females to read this. The numbers don't apply to females but if you convert the body fat percentage then it could.

OoFaP said...

Well to be lean, you need to have muscle to show under the fat. No offense but at 130 pounds, you don't really have any muscle. I would try to bulk up slowly and then cut again in the future. If you do it correctly, there's a good chance you will start looking leaner as you fill out a bit more.

SolarBlast said...

Alrighty then, thanks for the advice! I'll get on a clean, steady bulk.

BigDnMo said...

I am a male, 6'4" 240lbs. I've only recently started lifting, trying to increase my over-all strength, (I do construction, but that is an entirely different kind of strong compared to a strength training program). I have added muscle and strength, but I want to get rid of the "softness". Would a cut be out of line right now, or should I just continue lifting and eating at maintenance? Thanks in advance.

OoFaP said...

It's impossible to tell without pictures but at 6'4 240, you have a lot of size already. Whether that size is mostly fat or mostly muscle, it wouldn't hurt to do a cut.

Unknown said...

Here's a good calculator site to help decide and calculate your macros

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