Illustration of a muscular barbarian man bulking up and then cutting.

A Beginner’s Guide to Bulking & Cutting

Bulking and cutting are key terms in the muscle-building industry. Bulking is when you gain weight to facilitate muscle growth. Cutting is when you lose weight to burn fat. Some people do them in sequence, bulking, then cutting, and then bulking again.

Bulking is controversial, and understandably so. The average person is already overweight. They don’t need to gain even more weight. However, if you’re skinny, thin, lean, or in good shape, bulking is by far the most effective way to gain muscle and strength.

Cutting is less controversial. Most people have extra fat, and cutting is the best way to burn it. It’s a great first step for the average beginner. However, many seasoned lifters get distracted by trying to maintain overly lean body-fat percentages.

The main concern is that you could get stuck in an endless cycle of bulking and cutting seasons, bulking until you become overweight, cutting until you wither away, and then going back to bulking. This is especially worrisome for “skinny-fat” people who already feel too thin and fat.

We have solutions for all these issues.

Illustration of a skinny-fat guy bulking and cutting. Illustrated by Shane Duquette for Bony to Beastly.

A Brief Overview of Bulking

What is Bulking?

Bulking is when you gain weight to facilitate muscle growth. If you want to gain weight, this is the leanest way to do it. The only other option is to gain weight without emphasizing muscle, which yields mostly fat.

There are many different types of bulking. You could bulk with a small calorie surplus to minimize fat gain (lean bulking), or you could eat in a huge surplus to maximize muscle growth (aggressive bulking). You could get into that calorie surplus by eating more junk food (dirty bulking), or you could avoid junk food entirely (clean bulking).

Most people bulk the classic way. They eat in a moderate calorie surplus, gaining 0.5–1 pound per week. They prioritize nutritious foods but aren’t afraid of using sauces or eating desserts.

How Do You Bulk?

At its core, bulking is when you train and eat for muscle growth. That gives us two foundational tenets:

  1. Follow a hypertrophy training program: Hypertrophy training is a type of resistance training designed for building muscle. It’s often confused with “strength training,” which is actually quite different, especially within the lifting subculture. A good default is to start with full-body workouts, emphasize compound lifts, and do 3–4 sets of 6–20 reps per exercise.
  2. Eat a bulking diet: You absolutely have to eat enough food to gain weight, but it also helps to eat a nutritious and balanced diet. This can be especially hard for so-called hardgainers (like me). Some people need to eat a tremendous amount of food to gain weight.

You can delve much deeper into the art of bulking. Think of this article as a small temple sitting atop an endless network of cave systems. The deeper you go, the darker it gets, but the greater the treasures you will unearth.

Who Should Bulk

If you already have an abundance of body fat, you don’t need to get extra energy from your diet. You can build muscle with the extra energy in your gut. You can build muscle without bulking. Plus, if you’re already overweight, gaining even more weight might not be good for you.

Bulking is for underweight, thin, and lean people who want to get bigger, stronger, and more muscular. If your goal weight is higher than your current weight, you have a bulk in your future. You can take it slowly or go after it aggressively, but you’ll need to gain weight, and bulking is the best way to do that.

What Comes After Bulking?

Most people assume that cutting comes after bulking. That’s an option, but it isn’t the only option, and it may not even be the best one.

First of all, if you don’t gain much fat, there’s no need to cut. For example, here’s a photo of GK after he finished his first bulk. It would be ridiculous for him to start cutting. Instead, he should keep living a healthy lifestyle and keep some resistance training in his exercise routine. He can also embark on another bulk whenever he wants.

Before and after showing GK's bulking results as he went from skinny to muscular.

If you do gain too much body fat, you may find that it disappears by itself. Whenever I finish a bulk, my weight drifts down a bit. I keep lifting and eating well, so there’s no risk of losing any muscle mass. We call this Reverse Bulking. It works incredibly well for naturally thin people.

Or, if you want to make a dedicated effort to get leaner, you could cut. Let’s talk about how to do that.

An Introduction to Cutting

What is Cutting?

Cutting is when you lose weight to burn fat. If you want to get leaner, this is the best way to do it. The only other option is to lose weight without emphasizing fat loss, which inevitably results in muscle loss.

Just like with bulking, you can cut in different ways and at different speeds. You could get into a calorie deficit by skipping breakfast (intermittent fasting), cutting out carbs (keto), cutting out junk food, doing more exercise, tracking calories, or simply eating less food.

Before and after photo showing Johnny's cutting results as he went from overweight to lean.

How to Cut

The goal of cutting is to lose weight while preserving muscle mass. That gives us two core cutting tenets:

  1. Follow a hypertrophy training program: Just like when you’re bulking, you need to stimulate muscle growth. That’s how you signal to your body that your muscle is needed and cannot be burned for energy. That way, you’ll burn pure fat instead.
  2. Eat a cutting diet: You need to lose weight, which means you need to get into a calorie deficit. You need to keep eating enough protein to support muscle growth, so a good default is to eat less carbs and fat. A good place to start is by cutting back on junk food.

You can cut at any speed, but most people benefit from cutting at a moderate pace, losing about 0.5–2 pounds every week. You can skip breakfast or cut carbs if you want, but a good default is to simply trim some calories out of your diet.

You don’t have to track your calories, but many people find that it helps. Here’s a cutting calorie calculator and our review of the best calorie-tracking app. Alternatively, you could eat similarly sized meals at similar times every day, eating a little bit less whenever your weight loss stalls.

Another trick is to fill yourself up with nutritious, low-calorie foods. Here are some examples:

  • If you snack on chips every evening, you could cut those chips out or make some popcorn instead. Popcorn is simply popped corn. It’s high in fibre, rich in micronutrients, and incredibly low in calories (as long as you don’t add fat).
  • If you crave something sweet after dinner, you could tough it out or make a Greek yogurt parfait. You’d combine a cup of no-fat Greek yogurt with frozen mixed berries, giving you protein and micronutrients without very many calories.

You can also go for walks. Walking is a healthy way to keep yourself busy while burning calories. You could be at one with nature or work your way through a chapter of an audiobook. It works either way.

Who Should Cut

Cutting is best for people who are overweight. It also works well for anyone who wants to burn fat while keeping their muscle mass. Many beginners can gain a little muscle and strength while cutting.

The main thing to watch out for is cutting when it doesn’t serve your long-term goals.

  • If you’re a skinny-fat beginner: You can probably build muscle and lose fat at the same time without needing to bulk or cut. Instead of focusing on calories, you can focus on hypertrophy training, eating a good diet, and living a good lifestyle.
  • If you’ve just finished bulking: You might lose any fat you gained without needing to intentionally reduce your calorie intake. We call this Reverse Bulking. It’s a good option to consider.
  • If you want to build more muscle: You can build muscle leanly even at higher body-fat percentages. Taking a break to cut might not help in the long run. It’s up to you.

What Comes After Cutting?

When you finish cutting, you can start listening to your appetite again. Keep lifting weights, keep eating a nutritious diet, and keep living a good lifestyle, but let yourself eat a comfortable amount of food again. I would keep eating similar meals at similar times, just increasing the serving sizes such that they’re satisfying again.

You might gain weight, but if you’re following a good hypertrophy training program, that’s okay. Most of the weight you regain will be fluid, food, and muscle. From there, if you keep slowly gaining weight, you may find that you naturally bulk up a bit. That’s great.

You’ll almost certainly reach a point of homeostasis, where you’re eating a pleasant amount of food and your weight is holding steady. That’s the dream. Great job.

If you ever decide that you want to gain more muscle, bulking is the best way to do that.

Bulking & Cutting Results

You don’t need to alternate between periods of bulking and cutting, but you can if you want. Some of the most impressive transformations I’ve seen are from people who bulk fairly aggressively and then cut off any extra fat they gained.

Before and after photo showing Hugo's bulking and cutting results from doing the Bony to Beastly Program.

For example, here’s Hugo. He was tired of being so thin, so he bulked up aggressively, then cut off the extra fat he gained. He managed to gain 40 pounds in one year, finishing at the same body-fat percentage as when he started. It’s one of the most remarkable transformations I’ve ever seen.

Before and after photo showing Klaus' bulking and cutting transformation with the Bony to Beastly Program.

For another example, here’s Klaus. He started off skinny-fat, and he was eager to become both leaner and more muscular. He started by bulking, trying to build muscle as leanly as he could. Then he cut away the extra fat, revealing all the muscle he’d built. He finished in incredible shape.

Conclusion

Bulking and cutting are two of the most powerful methods for improving your body composition. Bulking is by far the most effective way to build muscle, especially if you’re thin or lean. Cutting is the best way to burn fat while maintaining muscle mass, making it great for overweight people (and anyone else who wants to be leaner).

Naturally thin people can often benefit from bulking and may not ever need to consciously cut. After all, we tend towards fat loss by default, especially once we start eating, exercising, and living well.

Naturally overweight people often benefit from cutting and may not ever need to deliberately bulk. After all, they tend towards muscle growth by default, especially once they start eating, exercising, and living well.

Image of the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program for skinny guys, showing the workout program, guide, and bulking recipe book.

If you want help bulking and cutting, we can walk you through the entire process from start to finish. Our Bony to Beastly Program includes a 5-month workout routine, tutorials teaching every exercise, a diet guide, a recipe book, and a year of online coaching.

Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's a Certified Conditioning Coach (CCC), has gained seventy pounds, and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in fine arts, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.

Marco Walker-Ng is the founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified trainer (PTS) and nutrition coach (PN) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. He has over 15 years of experience helping people gain muscle and strength, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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13 Comments

  1. AJ on June 18, 2023 at 7:55 am

    Hi

    I’m an ectomorph, tall, really thin wrists and long limbs. I am on a bulk – I’ve gained 6.62 lbs in 14 weeks, so 0.47 lbs a week. I want to build muscle, but so far i’ve only gained weight and strength. I do have a hormone imbalance too though. My body fat is around 17%, only on belly area. However, i have had this belly fat, for quite a few years, even though i’m naturally skinny everywhere else, so it’s not come from my bulk.

    Would cutting help me reduce this belly fat to around 13% or less? and when should i switch to cutting as I still haven’t gained the weight or any muscle yet?

    Thanks
    AJ from England

    • Shane Duquette on June 18, 2023 at 10:36 am

      Congratulations on those 7 pounds, AJ! That’s sweet.

      If you’re gaining weight and strength, you’re probably gaining muscle. Are you taking body-part measurements as you’re bulking?

      You could check out our article for skinny-fat guys. You aren’t fat enough to be skinny-fat, and you aren’t doing anything wrong, but it might help to ease your concerns.

      If you have extra body fat, you don’t need to bulk. You could try gaining strength without intentionally gaining weight. Sometimes that will help you lose fat while building muscle. Then, when you stop gaining strength, you can ease into a small calorie surplus to begin your bulk in earnest.

      A good rule of thumb is to build a foundation of muscle and strength first. Once you’re happy with how big and strong you are, you can cut (or Reverse Bulk). However, if you’re unhappy with your body fat, you can get rid of it by cutting. You can do that at any time. It isn’t needed, and it might not be the fastest path toward your ultimate goal, but you get to decide which goals you focus on first. It’s up to you.

      Maybe check out the skinny-fat article and then ask some follow-up questions, if you have any. I’m happy to help however I can.

      • AJ on June 25, 2023 at 6:21 am

        Hey Shane thanks for the reply

        I am thinking of waiting a little longer, until I reach 20% body fat, only because I still can’t see any muscle. I will try to give it more time before cutting.

        Is cutting preferred to a Reverse Bulk?

        I have read your skinny-fat article. Interesting. But I do not yet. I have 20% body fat.

        To add, my waist circumference has remained at 35″ since the 3rd of April 2023. So for 11 weeks. I have gained 5.6 lbs in those 11 weeks, but my waist has stayed the same.

        Also, I have high total testosterone 37.6 nmol (UK), which is 1084 converted to ng/L. But I also have high SHBG and quite high oestrogen. My free testosterone were normal though. I have seen a doctor about these.

        Thanks man
        AJ

        • Shane Duquette on June 27, 2023 at 5:09 pm

          My pleasure, man!

          Reverse Bulking is for when you finish a bulk and want to go back to eating less food. You can lean into your appetite and use it as an opportunity to lose some fat. If this sounds like you, I’d definitely give it a try when you’re ready.

          Cutting is needed when you aren’t naturally losing weight. It’s for when you need to be more deliberate about getting into a calorie deficit.

          35 inches is a perfectly good waist size. No need to switch to a cut based on that.

          Gaining weight without your waist size increasing sounds really good to me. If it were me, I’d keep going, doing what you’re doing, seeing how much more muscle you can gain.

          If your doctor says your testosterone is all good, I’d assume it’s all good. I’m not qualified to give advice about that, other than recommending things that are generally good for your hormones, such as exercising, eating a good diet, and living a good lifestyle.

          This is all to say that it sounds like you’re doing great, and I think your plan is solid 🙂

  2. Michael on July 18, 2023 at 1:48 am

    Hey Guys,

    I am writing to shed light on a crucial topic that has significantly impacted my personal fitness journey and, I believe, affects countless others in the fitness community as well. It think we should address the issue of unrealistic expectations surrounding body fat percentages. As a dedicated fitness enthusiast who has undergone a transformative journey, I feel compelled to share my experiences and advocate for greater honesty and transparency in this domain.

    Over the past two years, I embarked on a remarkable journey towards a healthier lifestyle and achieved an impressive 40-pound weight loss. Going from a body fat percentage of 25% to approximately 12% was an incredible accomplishment, one that I should have been proud of. However, the harsh reality that I encountered along the way was that even at this relatively low body fat percentage, there was still some lingering belly fat around my lower abs.

    Initially, I was devastated by this revelation. I had bought into the notion perpetuated by the fitness industry that achieving a low body fat percentage equated to achieving a perfectly chiseled and washboard-flat abdomen. This misrepresentation of fitness outcomes can be deeply demoralizing and can lead to feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and frustration. It think it’s important to challenge these unrealistic ideals and promote a more transparent narrative about what is realistically achievable, even at relatively low body fat percentages.

    Best,
    Mike

    • Shane Duquette on July 18, 2023 at 9:35 am

      Hey Michael, congratulations on losing those 40 pounds! That’s amazing!

      I’m at about 12% body fat, too. There’s some fat on my lower abs. I don’t see that as any sort of negative. We store body fat for a reason. It’s usually better to be at 15% than 8%, even if that means you have a flat stomach instead of chiselled abs.

      We’re a site for naturally thin people, so you won’t find much fear of fat coming from us. We’re more interested in getting bigger, stronger, and fitter, even if that means gaining a bit of fat. We know we can get rid of any extra fat we gain pretty easily. Gaining weight is usually harder for us than losing it.

      Is there something you think we could be doing better?

  3. Sam on September 26, 2023 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Shane!

    Want to start by saying thank you. You guys started me on this fitness journey and I have to credit so much of my success to you. I’ve gained nearly 40 pounds over the last two years and have completely transformed myself which has been a lot of fun!

    I have a question that might sound a little.. out there, but I wanted to run it by the man I know will carefully consider and respond! Here is my thought: we know bulking and cutting to be as painful and inconvenient as they are effective. Both do their job with many physical, emotional, and financial side effects. Is it possible to decrease these side effects by performing them at the same time? For example, in a 7 day week: day 1 is a bulk day, day 2 is a cut day, day 3 is bulk, day 4 cut, etc? OR, perhaps a week to week basis? Week 1 bulk, week 2 cut, etc? 1 week is 2700 calories/day, the next is 1700? That way, you relieve yourself of the pain of bulking or cutting for weeks and months on end and can simultaneously build muscle and cut the fat as you go?

    Curious as to your thoughts. I imagine that could take a toll on your digestive health but who knows, maybe there is something to this?

    Thanks!

    • Shane Duquette on September 27, 2023 at 9:58 am

      Congratulations on those 40 pounds, Sam! That’s amazing!

      The idea of bulking one day and cutting the next is called calorie cycling. You’d consume more calories before and after your workouts, fewer calories further away from your workouts. The idea is to feed your muscles when they’re most primed for muscle growth, then eat less during periods where they wouldn’t grow as quickly. It was a promising idea, but it hasn’t really panned out in the research. It seems that we build muscle gradually during the 2–4 days after working out. If you’re following a good workout program, you’d be building muscle steadily all week long.

      The idea of bulking for a very short period of time is called a mini-bulk. Cutting for a short period is called a mini-cut. That can work, but it doesn’t seem to work quite as well as doing longer bulking and cutting cycles, it robs you of momentum, and, as you’ve guessed, it confuses your digestive system. We get used to eating certain amounts at certain times. Our hormones acclimatise to our circumstances. Nothing horrible happens with some chaos—we’re built to be versatile and tough—but building muscle is usually smoothest when things are steadier.

      Simultaneously building muscle while cutting fat is called body recomposition. I really ought to write an article on that. It works best on people who are overweight, out of shape, and new to hypertrophy training (or detrained). Their muscles are eager to grow and they have plenty of energy stored as body fat. They can use that energy to feed their eager muscles. Some people have really good luck with it. If you’ve already been training for two years, I’m not sure you’re in a good position for it, though you could try! The best way to do it is to eat according to your appetite, follow a really good workout program, eat a good diet, and live a healthy lifestyle. See if you’re able to make progress in the gym even without gaining weight. If you can do that, that’s a great sign you’re using fat to fuel muscle growth.

      The best way to reduce the difficulty and fat gain with bulking is to bulk slowly, with a small surplus. That will minimise the amount of extra food you need to eat, cut down on the financial costs, and reduce fat storage. That might work best for you.

      • Sam on September 27, 2023 at 10:16 am

        Thanks for all this info Shane! Will probably look to lean bulk going forward. Dirty bulking was fun while it lasted

  4. Steve on May 28, 2024 at 9:34 am

    Hey Shane,

    Wanted to get your opinion on this. I am in the cutting phase and am struggling with energy levels when I lift. I never skip a gym session, but sometimes I lift less because of my energy levels. My stomach doesn’t handle caffeine or eating before a work out well, so that’s not an option. Am I shortchanging my gains because of this? Or am I still getting a good workout in and building or maintaining muscle despite not having the energy to lift as much as I’d like? Thanks!

    • Steve on May 28, 2024 at 1:38 pm

      To further clarify: am I losing out on gains by not taking pre-workout or coffee before lifting? Or does it not matter how much energy I have, as long as I’m giving 110% of whatever I have in the moment?

      • Shane Duquette on May 29, 2024 at 9:44 am

        Caffeine can help, especially if it gives you more energy to push harder! You’re missing out that on. But it’s not a huge factor, and you don’t need it, and I recently completely cut out caffeine, so I’m in the same boat right now.

        Also, it’s pretty common for people to be so habituated to caffeine that they barely get any benefit, especially if they only have a small amount before working out. Plus, if they have that caffeine later in the day, it can harm sleep, reducing their overall energy levels.

        I don’t think you’re at much, if any, disadvantage overall.

        A pre-workout might be a tool you want to use to partially solve your problem. It doesn’t need to be caffeinated, though. I gave you some options in the last comment. And it’s optional.

        Giving 90–100% of your effort is enough. Lift athletically, explode the weight up, and bring your sets within a rep or two of failure. Maybe bring your isolation exercises all the way to failure.

    • Shane Duquette on May 29, 2024 at 9:39 am

      Hey Steve, I hear you. Eating less energy leaves you with less energy. That’s somewhat unavoidable. You might have more stress hormones giving you energy, but it isn’t the same.

      It’s especially dramatic when you compare cutting (less energy) against bulking (a natural performance enhancer).

      You could try eating more calories and carbs in the meal before working out, even if it isn’t right before working out. That energy will still be there. But it’s a bandaid over a bullet hole, especially if your calorie deficit is steep, you’re already reasonably lean, or you’ve been cutting for a long time.

      You could also try making sure your sleep is good. Sleep is another natural performance enhancer.

      And you could try sipping on some carbs while training. Even just the taste of energy in your mouth can help. My favourite is cranberry juice. It isn’t very high in calories, but it has some carbs in it, and those carbs give some energy. It isn’t heavy, so I doubt it will disturb your stomach, especially if you’re just slowly sipping on it when thirsty. Sometimes I mix 8 grams of citrulline malate into it. You could also add some BCAAs. All of that’s optional. None of it should bother your stomach.

      If you continue doing what you’re doing, I think you’ll be okay. It’s normal to lose some strength, performance, and energy while cutting. We usually cut back the number of sets people are doing and add some easy cardio in (like going on brisk walks). That keeps your activity levels high while making your workouts easier to get through. Plus, you can make good cardiorespiratory adaptations while cutting. Those adaptations aren’t as reliant on a calorie surplus.

      If your performance is decreasing, I doubt you’re building muscle, but you’re probably doing a decent job of maintaining it, especially if your performance levels off at that lower point and stops decreasing.

      If your performance keeps going down, you could try taking a break for a week. You’d keep lifting and eating well, but you’d eat according to your appetite, which should bring you out of the calorie deficit (and maybe even pop you into a slight calorie surplus). That should replenish some of your energy, giving you a second wind for another few weeks of cutting.

      None of these tricks are perfect. Cutting means having less energy. You aren’t doing anything. What you’re experiencing is totally normal.

      You got this! Good luck!

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