How to Bulk VERSUS Cut?


Today’s the day. You’ve stuck to your New Year’s Resolution, and now that you’ve gotten the hang of this whole gym thing, you feel up for the challenge: it’s time to lift at Wooden. Instead of taking your usual route, you head down Bruin Walk, through the entrance doors, and straight to the weight room. So far everything seems fine – the equipment you need is available, and the workout playlist you’ve been working on is helping to keep your mind at ease. That is, until, Gym Bro 1 shows up and starts warming up with your max weight. To make matters worse, his buddy Gym Bro 2 arrives and starts teasing Gym Bro 1 about how small his (massive) arms are getting on this ‘cut.’ Gym Bro 2 adds, “I live for the gains. I’ve been putting on mad size on this bulk.” Feeling frustrated and discouraged, you leave without finishing your workout and wonder what on earth are a “bulk” and a “cut”?

If you’re new to the realm of fitness, all of this gym jargon is a headache. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: gaining and losing weight is actually simple arithmetic. Put simply, ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’ are ways of manipulating your energy balance to either gain or lose weight, respectively. Energy balance is your total daily caloric intake minus your total daily energy expenditure (the calories you burn every day while active and at rest). If your intake is higher than your total daily expenditure (TDEE), then you are eating in a caloric surplus and will gain weight. If you’re eating less than your TDEE, then you are in a caloric deficit and will lose weight. [1, 2]


Why eat in a surplus or deficit?

It seems, for the most part, that everyone is either trying to shed fat or keep it off, especially with summer just around the corner. So who would intentionally gain weight? Athletes, bodybuilders, and fitness fanatics alike eat in a caloric surplus when their goal is to gain strength and build muscle, in other words, bulk. Then, when they want to shed the extra fat put on during their bulk, they transition to a caloric deficit to expose newly built muscle, in other words, cut. Paired with a well-structured exercise regimen and balanced nutrition, athletes eating in a caloric surplus will gain strength and muscle mass, and those in a caloric deficit will maintain lean mass and reduce body fat. [3, 4]

Ready to get started? Let’s break it down.

How to Bulk

1. Determine the size of your surplus

3500 calories equals one pound of fat, so if you want to gain a pound per week, you will need to eat in a surplus of 3500 calories a week. Distributing these calories evenly throughout the week averages to a surplus of 500 calories a day (500 x 7 = 3500). You can choose how aggressive or conservative you wish to be with your surplus. In general, the larger the surplus, the faster the rate of weight gain. [5]

2. Decide your macronutrient distribution

‘Macros’ is a term used to describe the three main food types you should incorporate in your diet daily: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. While eating in a surplus gives you more freedom to enjoy larger amounts of food, in order to maximize muscle gain, it is important to focus on eating sufficient protein. A study looking at the effects of a high protein diet on body composition found that, on average, the weights of individuals in the normal protein group increased more than those of the high protein group, even though the high protein group was consuming more calories than the normal protein group. Interestingly, the high protein group saw greater reductions in body fat percentage, and thus more improvement in body composition than the normal protein group. This suggests that the macronutrient composition of your diet translates to changes in your body composition. [6, 7, 8]

3. Train with intent

Identify specific goals and design a workout regimen that will help you reach those goals. If your goal is to build muscle, your focus should be on weight training. Also, train the muscle groups you wish to grow with more frequency! While incorporating both resistance and aerobic training in your weekly routine can lead to improvement in strength and endurance, resistance training has been shown to be more effective for muscle hypertrophy, or muscle growth. [9, 10]


How to Cut

1. Determine the size of your deficit

Similar to a bulk, if you want to lose a pound per week, you will need to eat in a deficit of 500 calories a day. Here, you also have the freedom to choose how aggressive you’d like to cut, but it is recommended that you start small. This is because when you sustain a caloric deficit for an extended period of time, you run the risk of metabolic adaptation, which leads to weight loss plateau.

During weight loss plateau, adaptive thermogenesis occurs, a process by which your body experiences changes to your resting and non-resting energy expenditure. Your body is constantly trying to reach a balanced state, so when your energy balance is negative, your body will attempt to counteract this “stressful” state by adapting to a lower caloric intake through energy sparing. In order to prevent this adaptation, you can incorporate ‘diet breaks,’ every 4-6 weeks, by bringing your calories back up to maintenance level.

2. Decide your macros

Analogous to the accumulation of unwanted body fat during a bulk, cutting usually leads to some losses in lean mass. In a study comparing individuals who consumed a low amount of carbohydrates versus a higher amount, researchers observed greater net muscle protein breakdown in the low carbohydrate group than those in the high carbohydrate group. This is due to increased reliance on protein for energy as opposed to carbohydrates, thereby increasing muscle breakdown in these individuals. This study suggests that adequate consumption of protein and carbohydrate supports muscle growth and maintenance. [12, 13, 14]

3. Train for your goals

There is no reason to adjust your training during a fat loss phase. By doing so, you run the risk of making your calculated deficit ineffectual for your fat loss goals. This is because altering your training can change your daily energy expenditure. At one extreme you could push yourself into a larger deficit, and at the other you could put yourself in a surplus. Remember that whether or not you lose weight is directly related to your energy balance, or calories in versus calories out.


How to stay motivated

Patience is key! While it is fair to have an aesthetic goal, do not let that be your prime motivation. Make sure you are having fun, however you choose to stay active, and set strength and performance goals. The physical changes you want will come eventually as long as you are fueling your body right.

Also, remember your mental health comes before any body goal. Change is difficult. As college students, we deal with all types of stress related to school, work, family, friends, etc. – don’t let frustration with your progress in the gym add to that stress! Give yourself breaks when needed – a few days off shrinks in comparison to weeks of consistent, hard work.

Finally, take time to reflect on and appreciate your progress. While the scale can tell you whether or not your weight is changing, taking progress pictures allows you to appreciate changes in body composition. We are our own harshest critics, and it is extremely easy to get caught up in negative thinking and forget where you started. The most sustainable changes take time, but you’ll never realize what you’re capable of if you never start.


  1. “Dynamic Energy Balance: An Integrated Framework for Discussing Diet and Physical Activity in Obesity Prevention-Is it More than Eating Less and Exercising More?” Nutrients. (2017).

  2. “Energy Balance and Obesity: What are the Main Drivers?” Cancer Causes Control. (2017).

  3. “Aerobic or Resistance Exercise, or Both, in Dieting Obese Older Adults.” New Eng J Med. (2017).

  4. “Effects of Aerobic and/or Resistance Training on Body Mass and Fat Mass in Overweight or Obese Adults.” J Appl Physiol. (2012).

  5. “Fast Weight Loss: What’s Wrong with It?” (2017).

  6. “A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women--a follow-up investigation.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr. (2015).

  7. “Dietary Protein for Athletes: From Requirements to Optimum Adaptation.” J Sports Sci. (2011).

  8. “What Are Macronutrients? Their Importance & Best Sources.” (2017).

  9. “Effects of Resistance vs. Aerobic Training Combined with an 800 Calorie Liquid Diet on Lean Body Mass and Resting Metabolic Rate.” J Am Coll Nutr. (1999).

  10. “Does Aerobic Training Promote the Same Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy as Resistance Training? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports Med. (2019).

  11. “Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans.” Curr Obes Rep. (2016).

  12. “Protein Recommendations for Weight Loss in Elite Athletes: A Focus on Body Composition and Performance.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. (2018).

  13. “Effect of Glycogen Availability on Human Skeletal Muscle Protein Turnover during Exercise and Recovery.” J Appl Physiol. (2010).

  14. “Higher Compared with Lower Dietary Protein during an Energy Deficit Combined with Intense Exercise Promotes Greater Lean Mass Gain and Fat Mass Loss: A Randomized Trial.” Am J Clin Nutr. (2016).

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