Bulking and Cutting or Recomping: What's More Effective?
Most people who train in the gym (myself included) do so because they want to look jacked, plain and simple.
The goal is to grow muscle, lose fat, and build a lean muscular physique.
But what is the best way to approach this?
Bulking and Cutting, or Recomping
If you want to change the way you look, you can take one of three approaches:
- You can commence a bulking phase, in an attempt to build some muscle.
- You can commence a cutting phase, in an attempt to lose some fat.
- You can try and recomp, which describes the process of losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time.
Keep in mind that, realistically, if you are going to choose a bulking phase, it will need to be followed by a cutting phase (or vice versa), as that will only get you halfway to building a solid physique.
With this in mind, we normally consider bulking and cutting a single approach, where you can change the order of them as needed.
The first approach I want to discuss is body recomping, because this is the one that seems to garner the most attention -- probably because it is the one that sounds the best.
I mean gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time… What more could you want?
Before anything else, I do want to highlight that for a long time people thought that recomposition was impossible. Because these two processes were “physiological” opposites, they simply could not be accomplished.
But that is not the case at all.
Over the last few years we have seen an abundance of research clearly demonstrating that individuals can gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously . In this manner, you do have the capacity to make large changes in your physique in a short amount of time.
However, because building muscle is easier when you are in a calorie surplus, and losing fat requires a calorie deficit, body recomping does become more challenging as your training age increases.
Which means that body recomposition appears to be most effective under a couple of different conditions:
- You are relatively new to training (and are yet to experience your “newbie gains”)
- You are regaining muscle after a period of not training
- You have a lot of body fat to lose
If this sounds like you, and you are keen to try a recomp, you want to make sure that you are eating around maintenance calories, consuming 1.4 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and training hard 3-5 times per week.
This is going to provide enough protein to facilitate muscle growth, while making sure you are not eating enough to gain fat.
With all this in mind, recomping may not be the best option for people who are quite advanced (and close to their genetic limit in terms of muscle mass), already quite lean, and have been consistently training for years without a break.
Which is where bulking and cutting enter the discussion…
Bulking and Cutting
Broadly speaking, if you are already somewhat lean and have been training pretty consistently for more than two years, then bulking and cutting cycles are probably your best bet.
As I have already alluded to, bulking refers to a phase dedicated to building muscle.
Within this, a bulking approach involves eating in a calorie surplus, which will also result in the accumulation of some fat mass -- however, because being in a calorie surplus facilitates muscle growth , this is a cost that most are happy to pay (especially if they want to make some progress).
If you are unsure when to bulk, I recommend pursuing a dedicated bulking phase if you are keen to get bigger and currently have visible abs when tensing.
One thing to note is that most people ruin a bulk by eating too many calories and gaining too much fat. The goal should be to maximize muscle gain while minimizing the amount of fat you gain.
If you are starting to bulk, aim to eat ~300 calories more than maintenance each day here, while also aiming for 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.
Cutting phases are periods where we spend time in a calorie deficit to lose fat.
However, it is important to note that during periods of energy restriction (i.e., a diet) that muscle loss can also occur, the goal of a cutting phase should really be to lose as much fat as possible while minimizing muscle loss .
I would suggest pursuing a cutting phase if you would consider yourself a relatively advanced trainee who is overweight (i.e., has poor muscle definition, despite holding a relatively high amount of muscle mass).
Much like our bulking phases, we want to make sure that we don't cut too aggressively, as this is what can lead to higher degrees of muscle loss. As a result, when cutting, aim to eat ~300 calories less than maintenance each day, while also aiming for 1.8 to 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight .
When to stop a cut and start a bulk, or vice versa?
Based upon this information, under most circumstances rotating through bulking and cutting cycles will be your best option for long term progress. But how do you know when it is time to change from one to the other?
Well, for this I like to refer to the 10-20 rule.
As a rule of thumb, you want to keep your body fat somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. If you are bulking, and you get up to around 20% body fat, it is time to start a cut. Conversely, if you are cutting and you get below 10% body fat, it is time to start a bulk.
This is a simple way to ensure you keep making progress long term, without ever being too far away from leaning out if needed.
Recomping certainly is possible, although it does get harder the more advanced you become.
As a result, it should be reserved for people who are new to training, coming back from an extended period away from the gym, or for people who are quite overweight and have a large amount of fat mass to lose.
For anyone else, bulking and cutting cycles is the best approach moving forward.
- Barakat, Christopher, et al. "Body recomposition: can trained individuals build muscle and lose fat at the same time?." Strength & Conditioning Journal 42.5 (2020): 7-21.
- Slater, Gary John, et al. "Is an energy surplus required to maximize skeletal muscle hypertrophy associated with resistance training." Frontiers in nutrition (2019): 131.
- Cava, Edda, Nai Chien Yeat, and Bettina Mittendorfer. "Preserving healthy muscle during weight loss." Advances in nutrition 8.3 (2017): 511-519.
- Helms, Eric R., Alan A. Aragon, and Peter J. Fitschen. "Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11.1 (2014): 20.