This is a frequently asked question that I keep seeing on fitness and body building sites and I thought I might address it on here in slightly more helpful terms than “if you don’t know, how the hell should I?” which is usually the first thing that pops into my head.
I’m going to say that the definitive answer to this question is “maybe, but probably not”. It really depends on what your goals are and what state your physique is currently in. First up lets look at what a bulk is and what a cut is, shall we?
Exactly as you might expect, bulking is the act of attempting to gain mass and weight. The only way to get bigger is to eat more, so when bulking we want to add a lot of calories to our meal plan. An increase of say 500 – 1000 calories above maintenance levels is probably about normal.
Generally bulking is used by body builders and strength athletes trying to add a significant amount of muscle mass. When eating so far in excess of maintenance requirements you can also expect an increase in body fat as well, so I would say it is important to choose the source of these extra calories wisely and not just use “bulking” as an excuse to pig out on as much junk food as you like. Remember, at some point in the future you’ll want to start getting lean again, so the more fat you put on, the more work you’ll have to do later.
Even when trying to increase in size, I would say that you still want to see a flat stomach with the hint of a 6 pack (aka some ab definition) when you get up in the morning on an empty stomach. It’s ok if your belly looks a bit big in the evening after eating all day, but be more concerned with how you look before breakfast to make sure you are not putting on too much fat.
Cutting is the process of reducing calorie intake (perhaps to 500 – 1000 calories below maintenance) and trying to shed any body stores and really get line in time for summer, or a competition, your wedding or some other event that you want to look amazing for. Often this comes with a change in training program designed to burn more calories as well.
What most people do:
It seems to me that most people yo-yo between bulking and cutting in an unproductive manner that fails to produce the desired results one way or the other, leaving them too fat 1/2 the time and too skinny the rest of the time! The reason for this is in not starting out from a good enough position in terms of body composition.
What I mean by this is, even if your long term goal is to get bigger and stronger, if you’re not already quite lean when you start bulking, all you are really doing is getting fatter. Especially if you go on an undisciplined “I’m trying to get bigger anyway” bulk where you go even beyond your increased target of calories by eating whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you want it. Sure, if you are training hard you will pack on some muscle mass as well, but your physique is still going to suck and to the rest of the world you’ll just be another fat guy, really.
So what then happens is one day you look in the mirror and decide you’re too fat and need to go on a cut. So you drastically reduce calories and up the cardio. The issue here is that between bulking and cutting you need a decent maintenance period where your body gets used to holding all that extra muscle mass, and even then your cutting nutrition and training plan needs to be fine tuned to maintain as much of that muscle mass as possible while reducing body fat. Otherwise you just end up back where you started, usually just looking like one more “skinny-fat” guy, aka your physique still sucks.
So what’s the answer?
I would say for new people, unless you are very underweight you probably do not need to go on a bulk. And unless you are quite overweight indeed, you probably do not need to go on a drastic cut either. Assuming most new people will be looking to build some lean muscle mass while also losing the fat stores around their belly or butt, a more sensible plan would be to establish good nutrition habits at around maintenance levels, and then start lifting some heavy weights.