Bodybuilding Cutting vs Bulking: Losing Body Fat Whilst Gaining Quality Muscle

It’s very fashionable amongst many bodybuilders to cycle nutrition, weight training and cardio routines in order to go through ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting’ cycles every few months. Most of you will, no doubt, be well aware of what these two terms mean, but for those who don’t:

  • BulkingThe structured prioritisation of the addition of muscle through increasing food intake in order to create an excess of energy and other nutrients sufficient to increase muscle mass, in conjunction with a suitable weight training regimen
  • CuttingThe structured prioritisation of fat loss whilst maintaining lean body mass aiming to maximise muscle definition, through dietary manipulation in order to create an energy deficit sufficient to mobilise body fat, in conjunction with a suitable weight training and cardiovascular exercise regimen

Personally I am not a big believer in alternating bulking and cutting cycles because you don’t need fat in order to gain muscle, and the cutting period then becomes a waste of valuable muscle growing time. But that’s just my opinion and one which is clearly different to that of some pro-bodybuilders like Lee Priest who willingly shows off-season photos of himself topless, gut and all, tens of lbs over his stage weight stuffing his face! Apparently Lee diets for less than 14 weeks once per year in order to get his world champion cuts you see at the Mr Olympia and other events.

There is a common myth that you need to bulk in order to grow muscle. Whilst this is true to a point, you certainly don’t need to gain too much fat. What you do need in order to grow muscle, is to be in calorie surplus, i.e. consume more calories than you need to maintain your weight (protein intake aside), and by doing this a little fat deposition is inevitable and nothing to worry about.

Myself, I carry about 1½ stone of fat over a stage weight so I always look big and still have that shapely bodybuilder appearance rather than just ‘bulk’ (well, so people tell me!). This is ample fat in order to grow muscle. Holding too much fat puts you at greater risk of some diseases, including heart disease.

Conversely, however, I would certainly not recommend that a bodybuilder stays with a low bodyfat (under 6-7%) all year round, as this will limit energy levels required for growth, unless of course you are one of those guys who is fortunate enough to have a naturally cut physique.

Reasons for Wanting to Cut

There are three principle reasons why a bodybuilder would want to cut:

  1. You are into the bulking-cutting cycles and want to ‘lose a bit’ to look good for summer or for a special occasion
  2. You are naturally prone to holding excess bodyfat and want to cut it down in order to get the ‘bodybuilder appearance’, then when you’ve got it stay in reasonable shape but not too lean so as to limit muscle growth
  3. You are training for a bodybuilding competition and need to get the rock hard appearance with cuts and cross-striations in order to be in the best shape of your life

Whilst this article is principally about (1) and (2), as cutting for a competition is a very much more extreme approach and would warrant a lengthy article in its own right, the first few weeks are much the same whatever your reason for cutting.

Cutting Regimens – How to Cut

Obviously the main goal of many bodybuilders who are cutting is to lose fat whilst maintaining or, if possible actually gain some quality muscle. There is another bodybuilding myth that you cannot gain muscle and cut at the same time. I see so many newcomers and experienced bodybuilders who do efficiently lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously.

Strictly speaking, from a scientific viewpoint, it isn’t possible to gain muscle whilst being in an energy deficit due to the fact that muscle growth is an energy-requiring process. As you can only lose fat if you are in an energy deficit, the trick to cutting whilst gaining muscle is to fluctuate your body between energy surplus and deficit at different times of the day, or on different days of the week, through diet and exercise.

However, if you are cutting extremely strictly, then it is not possible to gain muscle at the same time as losing body fat, as there is far too insufficient energy reserves for muscle growth. Here the priority is maintaining muscle mass. But, for the main, with gentle dieting you can successfully lose fat and grow, reaching your bodybuilding objective, i.e. looking and feeling great.

Meals must be small but regular, and in order to keep growing, it is essential to keep protein intake high. The key to effective cutting lies in careful manipulation of your intake of carbohydrate foods, i.e. carbs should be low, but not omitted. Consume complex starchy carbohydrate foods regularly, but in small portions only. You will also have to be that little bit stricter in avoiding treats and junk food of course!

Following a meal plan similar to the one below should give a steady loss of body fat, and if you are training hard, you will gain muscle too. It is also reasonable in portion sizes, so should help in keeping you feeling full up and satisfied whilst cutting.

Cutting Diet Plan 1

Example cutting meal plan for a bodybuilder who wishes to lose body fat, whilst gaining muscle mass

Wake 7:30 am  
7:30 breakfast1 scoop quality whey protein in water20g
 2 slices granary bread toasted + olive oil based spread 
 ½ portion MRP with ½ scoop whey protein in water31g
 100ml orange juice + 1 tblsp flaxseed oil 
10:301 ½ scoops whey protein in water30g
 2 oatcakes 
12:30tuna (95g) + 1 tblsp low fat natural yoghurt27g
 ½ small chicken breast (60g)18g
 1-2 slices granary bread + olive oil based spread 
 huge salad 
15:001 ½ scoops whey protein in water30g
 2 oatcakes 
17:30½ portion MRP + ½ scoop whey protein in water31g
(after training)
2 scoops whey protein in water40g
19:30mackerel (95g)20g
 ½ small chicken breast (60g)18g
 either 1 small jacket potatoes 
 or 50g boiled brown rice 
 or 75g boiled wholewheat pasta 
22:001 scoop whey protein in water20g
23:30100g cottage cheese20g
23:30 – BED  
Total Protein   305g

*MRP stands for meal replacement powder.

Cutting Diet Plan 2

This second plan relies less on supplements for protein intake and more on food for a bodybuilder who wishes to lose body fat, whilst gaining muscle mass.

Time Food Protein
Wake 7:30 am    
7.30 1 scoop whey protein in water 20g
8.00 breakfast 1-2 slices granary bread + olive oil based spread  
  3 egg whites + 1 egg yolk scrambled 10g
  250ml skimmed milk 10g
  100ml orange juice + 1 tblsp flaxseed oil  
10.30 120g chicken breast 30g
  2 oatcakes  
12.30 Tuna (95g) + 1 tblsp low fat natural yoghurt 27g
  ½ small chicken breast (60g) 18g
  1-2 slices granary bread + olive oil based spread  
  Huge salad  
15.00 120g chicken breast 30g
  2 oatcakes  
17.30 100g tuna + 2 tbsp low fat natural yoghurt 25g
  + sweetcorn  
18.30 (after training) 2 scoops whey protein in water 40g
19.30 Mackerel (95g) 20g
  ½ small chicken breast (60g) 18g
  Either 1 small jacket potato  
  or 50g boiled brown rice  
  or 75g boiled wholewheat pasta  
22.00 1 oatcake  
  Stick celery  
  50g low fat soft cheese 20g
23.30 100g cottage cheese 20g
23:30 – BED    
Total Protein   288g

Both plans are merely a guide and must not be stuck to rigidly! You must eat a variety of different meats/fish, complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables every day, and drink plenty of water. Adapt the plan to suit your own needs according to your results in order to attain a steady loss of body fat. Varying portions from day to day, along with hard training will help you to gain some lean muscle too.

Following a suitable cutting regimen, should provide high and regular protein, low but regular quality carbohydrates and low fat, whilst including essential fatty acids and sufficient amounts of fruit and vegetables. You may also wish to use some of the more thermogenic / cutting supplements, but as these are ineffective alone, you must still consume a calorie deficit diet. Whey protein and meal replacement powders (MRPs) are also included, two fundamental supplements, invaluable in your quest for lean muscle.

Exercise and Cutting

Weight training whilst cutting, must remain intense. You will be able to continue to train hard as your calorie intake will not be mega low and you’ll be including regular carbohydrates. In order to achieve optimum results, I’d also try to include 30-40 minutes of cardiovascular exercise or high intensity interval training (HIIT) three or four times a week, as exercise preferentially burns fat whilst maintaining muscle mass.

This ideally should be done on a different day or a different time of day to weight training so as not to interfere with nutrients required for muscle growth. Intensity should be low, say about 55-60% maximum heart rate, the optimum level for mobilising fat reserves whilst maintaining muscle tissue. In practice, this is the level so when you cease exercising you feel slightly warm and just out of breath.

A Couple of Recipes!

Here are a couple of home-made low calorie-high protein ‘meal replacement’ recipes for you to try! Feel free to jig the ingredient amounts around to suit your goals.

Vanilla Fruity

  • 25g vanilla whey protein powder
  • Handful of sultanas
  • Handful of oats
  • 3-4 chopped plums
  • A little water or skimmed milk to make up to desired consistency

Blend all this up and it comes out as a thick consistency but feel free to add more water/skimmed milk to suit your own taste.

Low Carb Chocolate Nut

  • 25 g chocolate whey protein powder
  • 1 tbsp Udo’s Choice or macadamia oil
  • Tiny handful of ground flax seeds (linseeds)
  • Dollop hazelnut butter
  • Water to desired consistency

Blend all ingredients together

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James Collier

James first started bodybuilding as a teenager back in the 1980s and obtained his degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Surrey back in 1995. After qualifying he worked as a clinical Dietitian for the NHS in various UK hospitals.

Having competed several times during the 1990s, his passion now lies in helping other bodybuilders, strength and fitness trainees reach their goals.

He is a Registered Nutritionist and a full member of The Nutrition Society in the UK. James is also co-founder and developer of Huel, nutritionally complete food.

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