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Is Bulking and Cutting Necessary? A Guide to Physique Development

When looking to build muscle and ultimately a physique you will come across a few essentials basics that you’ll need to educate yourself on. The first is setting a training plan and workout routine that is focused around getting stronger and building muscle through weightlifting (this is the part everyone likes).

Next you’ll need to plan out your rest days to ensure you are getting adequate rest. Finally, whilst these are in no particular order you will need to plan your dieting plan based on your goals. Muscle like professional athletes need to fuel for performance you too will need to fuel your goal. 

For those looking into physique development and building muscle you will be faced with two primary options initially which will be eating in a calorie surplus to build muscle or eating in a calorie deficit to burn body fat. This is known as bulking and cutting. 

Is bulking and cutting necessary? When it comes to building a physique there are always multiple methods to get a result so bulking and cutting is not necessary, especially when it comes to building muscle. Bulking and cutting will however give you a clear goal during each cycle in order to optimize your results.

In this article I’m going to cover the bulking and cutting phases in order to help you decide whether or no bulking and cutting is actually necessary. 

What Is the Point of Bulking and Cutting

The main point of bulking and cutting is to have a dedicated period of time in which you focus on one single goal when it comes to physique development. I’ll just put it on the record that I am personally a big advocate of bulking and cutting, especially for a natural lifter.

The reason for this is that muscle growth takes a long time, much longer than what magazines, articles or videos by the supplement and health and fitness industry would lead you to believe. 

Beginners have the most potential for muscle growth and can gain up to 0.5kg/1lb – 1kg/2lb in a month of training meaning that a beginner could build up to 25lbs of lean muscle mass in their first year of training. 

There will always be genetic outliers and those that build more or less in this period of time but this is a good guideline to look at as a beginner. 

The more advanced you get in your training and more muscle mass you currently have then the harder it gets to build more over the years. Advanced lifters with 5+ years in the gym will be battling to add a few pounds of muscle each year. 

Therefore when you see claims of building 10lbs of lean muscle mass in 10 weeks and other such claims it’s just highly unrealistic. You’ll gain water weight, scale weight and likely fat but otherwise don’t buy into these hype programs. 

Therefore with that in mind you will need a prolonged period of time in which to both dedicate to building muscle but also for fat loss. Fat loss should be a slow and steady process in order to maintain as much muscle mass as possible during a calorie deficit. 

With most things in life then, to reach a specific goal you need to zone in and dedicate the majority of your time and efforts to achieving it. Therefore I won’t be claiming that bulking and cutting are the absolute best methods however for the purpose of physique development the do a good job.

Is Bulking and Cutting Necessary

Is bulking and cutting necessary? Whilst I’ve just given my own opinion on this and feel that for physique development they are necessary I will say of course that there are different dieting (and energy expenditure) methods that you can use to reach your goal. 

There isn’t a single best method to build muscle and ultimately a physique, if there was then everyone would be doing it and the human race would be ripped and weighing 200lbs of lean muscle mass. 

For now though, bulking and cutting phases offer the best opportunity for maximum muscle growth and physique development.

Benefits & Drawbacks of Bulking

When bulking you will consume a caloric surplus each day (or if reducing calories on rest days then a surplus average over the week) in order to ensure there is an availability of nutrients for absorption by the body to aid recovery and fuel new muscle growth. 

With a calorie surplus you will be stronger in the gym, constantly be fully fueled for each training session and be primed for recovery and growth outside of training. A calorie surplus is almost essential when it comes to building muscle.

There are a few methods to bulking however and each will suit the individual, if you want to see which approach is best for you (from lean bulking to dirty bulking) then you can check out this handy guide where I cover everything that comes with bulking:

Bulking for beginners

It’s not all benefits and muscle growth when it comes to bulking though. A calorie surplus doesn’t just go towards muscle growth, if that was the case we’d all eat as much as we could whilst building nothing but muscle!

For any surplus calories not utilized by the muscles or for energy expenditure on a daily basis then they will be stored as adipose tissue in the form of excess body fat. This is by far the biggest issue with bulking, the constant juggling process of building muscle whilst trying to minimize fat gain.

Depending on genetics some people are more prone to fat storage depending on how efficient the body is at nutrient partitioning and sending calories directly to the muscle instead of fat. 

Therefore it’s important to note that on a bulk you can’t just consume calories and build muscle, there is a fine line and you should be tracking calories and macros just as diligently as you would on a cut. The other drawback is that people don’t know how long to bulk for. 

For this reason I’ll cover some basics a bit later on.

Benefits & Drawbacks of Cutting

Cutting is the process of consuming a caloric deficit each day or averaged out over a week in order to lose weight, primarily in the form of fat loss. 

If I’m honest I don’t think people have as strong opinions about cutting phases as the do regarding bulking phases, maybe on the exact approach to cutting but I never read or hear anyone saying you shouldn’t cut to lose body fat. 

I make that point because so many people have an opinion over whether bulking is actually necessary for building muscle yet easily accept that cutting is necessary for fat loss.

That point aside, the main benefit of cutting is to burn excess body fat to reveal the muscle (and results of your hard work) that lies underneath it. Whilst the main reason is usually for aesthetic purposes you would also cut for a better hormonal balance. 

High body fat levels dampen testosterone production and insulin sensitivity meaning that the higher your body fat percentage the harder it will be for you to build muscle. 

I’ve mentioned this in multiple posts however anyone that is over 15% body fat should start a cut, 10%-12% is a typical ideal range to aim for and this is where you should focus bulking efforts. 

The main drawback of cutting in my opinion is that people do it too aggressively meaning they lower calories too quickly and in too much of a deficit whilst increasing cardio and energy expenditure too high. 

This combination and approach to rapid fat loss means that in the process you will lose muscle mass which makes the effort you improve your physique quite redundant. A slower and more sustained cut is always better for physique development.

The other drawback is that when the focus is on burning fat your efforts at muscle growth will take a back seat. This ties in with my last point but on a cut you should not be focusing on maintaining muscle mass during a caloric deficit and not just focusing purely on fat loss. 

Typical Bulk and Cut Cycle Lengths

When answering the question of whether or not bulking and cutting is necessary it’s good to look at the timelines of each cycle to get a better idea of what is required with each phase/approach.

I follow natural bodybuilding quite frequently because this is the standard and approach that is most attainable and realistic for the average individual, even if your goal is not to be the most muscular. The reason for this is they need to factor in hormonal and biological factors that are relevant to everyone.

If you followed a professional bodybuilders advice when they weigh 300lbs at <10% body fat and are taking a whole range of performance enhancing drugs then your results are going to vary wildly. 

Therefore using natural athletes as a baseline a typical bulking cycle can last anywhere from 8 months – 24 months. This is probably not the 12 week bulking plan you were expecting however if you refer to my earlier point about the rate of muscle growth then this certainly starts to add up and make sense. 

In order to maximize muscle growth when the rate of muscle growth can be 1lb every few months then you will appreciate that an extended bulking period is required and this is why bulking and cutting cycles are necessary. 

Not in the fad dieting sense but rather in the sense that it takes a long period of time in order to develop a physique. You can certainly accelerate this somewhat as a beginner and see the quick results that will motivate you to stick with it long term but building a physique is a process that takes years. 

For cutting I’ve already mentioned that you should want to maintain muscle mass as much as possible, therefore a cut should take around 6-12 months depending on how much body fat you need to drop. 

These slower and sustained approaches are key to physique development and therefore it’s important to spend a dedicated amount of time in each cycle to optimize results. Rushing each cycle will only lead to rushed and inadequate results.

Can You Gain Muscle Without Bulking and Cutting

I’ve talked about the optimal way to build a physique by making the most of a bulking and cutting cycle however that’s not to say it’s the only way. One approach you could have to build muscle and a physique is the lean bulk method. 

Lean Bulk

Whilst a lean bulk is still a form of bulking it does not fall under the typical umbrella of a bulking cycle and the reason for this is that you make the most of body recomp phases and stay as close to maintenance calorie requirements as possible whilst still allowing for a surplus. 

On average a typical person bulking will consume roughly 300kcals per day over their maintenance calorie requirements. This is a rough estimate based on general recommendations so some will consume more and some slightly less. 

A lean bulk however keeps the surplus as low as possible at around 100kcals on average and the reason for this is to attempt to build muscle whilst minimizing fat gain as much as possible in the process. 

With this approach your muscle building process will likely take longer than if you have more calories available to utilize however the benefit of course is that you stay relatively lean your round and have minimal fat gain in the process. 

Whenever you start gaining excess body fat you can then enter a recomp phase and do a mini cut last a few weeks to a month, this brings you back to maintenance level where you can then start the lean bulk process over again.

This is a popular process these days made easier by the invention of calorie tracking apps like Myfitnesspal meaning you can constantly keep on top of your intake whilst allowing some flexibility throughout the day. 

In terms of the optimal physique development process however I feel that a dedicated bulking and cutting cycle is necessary to see the best progress possible.

What Next

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