What is Bulking?
Bulking is the muscle-gaining result of a caloric surplus. To newcomers, this can seem daunting— after all, we’re bombarded with the notion that overeating and weight gain are “bad.” However, the extra weight gain is required to build muscle and strength.
Think of it like an equation.
So, if you currently weigh X and your ideal weight in muscle is Z, you’ll need X + Y (the excess weight) to build muscle. No matter what, you'll need to eat in a caloric surplus to gain your desired weight (muscle or fat).
This means that during the bulking phase, which often lasts months, you’ll typically have more energy to lift heavier weights, leading to increased hypertrophy (i.e., bigger muscles).
What is Cutting?
It’s common during a bulk to gain some fat in addition to muscle. Most people will "cut" to shed this excess fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible, which involves eating in a caloric deficit. The result is a physique that makes your muscles more visible.
What are the risks?
One of the most extreme risks of the bulk-cut cycle involves the potential amplification of disordered eating1. If not executed with caution, one's commitment to overeating or under-eating can lead to long-lasting physical and mental impairment. Research shows, for example, that athletes with disordered eating patterns are less likely to report their systems and tend to be resistant to treatment.2
From my own experience with cutting and bulking, I’ve found that the pressure to eat both more and less than my usual amount led me toward an ill perception of my body. Regardless of my physical gains, I always felt like I was falling short— I was either “too fat” or “too skinny,” not to mention tired and irritable.
This doesn’t mean it’s not for you— only that it’s okay if it’s not.
Does it work?
The answer to this is— it depends. If your goals are athletic-based, it’s probably not for you, as your performance will likely suffer during the cutting phase. If they’re aesthetic-based, it may work— but it’s typically better utilized in preparation for a special event, like your wedding or an actual bodybuilding competition, under the supervision of a trained professional.
Are there any alternatives?
A more sustainable alternative to bulking and cutting is a practice called “body recomposition.”
With body recomposition, you eat enough to maintain body weight, focusing on lean proteins to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously. Unlike bulking, body composition remains constant throughout the entire process.
Following a body “recomp” plan allowed me to progress with better mental clarity and less restriction. In addition to high protein, low-calorie foods, I had room in my day to consume my favorite treats. I’ve also enhanced my performance and lean muscle gains by adding the well-studied supplements Creatine and L-Glutamine to my Pre-Sweat shake.
The need to bulk, cut, or recomp is based entirely on where your body is now. But most don’t need to cycle between bulk and cut forever to achieve their fitness goals. Ultimately, it would be best if you didn’t let the over-saturation of a fitness trend make you believe it is the “right” way. The right path is where you are your healthiest— physically, mentally, and spiritually.
1. Ganson KT, Cunningham ML, Pila E, Rodgers RF, Murray SB, Nagata JM. "Bulking and cutting" among a national sample of Canadian adolescents and young adults. Eat Weight Disord. 2022 Dec;27(8):3759-3765. doi: 10.1007/s40519-022-01470-y. Epub 2022 Sep 9. PMID: 36085408; PMCID: PMC9462603.
2. Christine M. Bonci, Leslie J. Bonci, Lorita R. Granger, Craig L. Johnson, Robert M. Malina, Leslie W. Milne, Randa R. Ryan, Erin M. Vanderbunt; National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Preventing, Detecting, and Managing Disordered Eating in Athletes. J Athl Train 1 January 2008; 43 (1): 80–108. doi: https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-43.1.80
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