For optimal muscle definition, most fitness experts recommend the bulking and cutting approach. First, you’ll focus on a specific eating and workout plan that builds muscle mass and helps you put on some weight. Many bodybuilders are in this bulking phase at least 10 weeks. After this, you’ll either enter a transition period or go straight to the cutting stage. Cutting encourages fat loss while keeping the muscle gains. That process takes at least 3 weeks. During the three to six months you’re pursuing bulking and cutting, your nutritional plan is just as important as your workout plan.
In this article:
- Understanding Your Macronutrients
- The Bulking Phase
- The Cutting Stage
- Transitional or Maintenance Period
- Additional Bodybuilding Diet Tips
The Bulking And Cutting Guide You Need
Understanding Your Macronutrients
While you’re bulking and cutting, you’ll be focused on four essential elements of your diet: calories, protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fat. Although you’ll be changing the amounts you take in as you progress from bulking to cutting, each of these macronutrients will continue to play a crucial role.
The number of calories you take in during bulking and cutting are calculated to give you enough fuel for strength and cardio, while also influencing your weight. You’ll be trying to add some weight during bulking. On the other hand, during cutting, you reduce just enough so that you lose body fat, but not muscle.
Achieving muscle growth while bulking is a delicate combination of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and muscle protein breakdown (MPB). Both are crucial, but to add muscle mass, MPS needs to exceed MPB — in other words, you want to take in more protein than you’re burning.
You need even more protein for cutting as you did for bulking. That’s because you want to maintain those muscles you worked so hard to get, rather than losing it along with the body fat.
Lean proteins, for the most part, are the way to go during both bulking and cutting — but especially the latter. Chicken, fish, and lean beef are great meat options. Dairy products like yogurt, eggs, milk, and cheese also deliver protein. For vegan-based protein — or just to add a bit of variety — consider dried beans, nuts, and seeds. While you’re in the bulking phase, you can include a small amount of the fattier cuts of beef and full-fat cheeses as part of your protein allowance.
Carbohydrates give you the fuel you need to do all that resistance training, especially during the bulking phase. They also help you recover from your intense workouts. Your muscles pull from your stored carbs as you do your reps and other muscle growth workouts. Without replenishing that “bank account,” your nervous and muscular systems won’t have the fuel they need to keep going during the bulking phase.
Decreasing your carbs as you go from the bulking phase to the cutting stage will help you lose the weight you need. But you still need to fuel your workouts, so going “carb-free” is not an option.
Simple carbs like sports drinks can actually be helpful for you after a workout. But for the most part, your carb count should be made up of colorful, starchy veggies and whole grains. Brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat pasta, 7-grain bread, sweet potatoes, winter squash, and dried beans are all excellent sources of carbohydrates. Fruits like bananas and prunes also deliver fiber and a high carb count.
While in the bulking phase, fat is also crucial because it supports the production of muscle-building hormones. It also evens out the hormones that could contribute to irritability or depression while going through all of the physical challenges involved in bodybuilding.
For cutting, healthy dietary fats additionally help stabilize blood sugar levels, so that the calories you consume don’t turn into body fat. In addition, dietary fats “grease the inner workings,” so to speak. You’ll be less likely to experience joint damage after lifting if your system is well-lubricated.
Of course, monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats should comprise the majority of your fat allowance. Making about 10 percent of that allowance, saturated fats is a good idea while building muscle mass. (Avoid trans fat as much as possible.) Because you can have as much as 10 percent of your fat allowance from saturated fats while bulking, meats, eggs, and non-skim dairy products are natural choices.
Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are great options for Omega-3 fats. Other healthy fat choices that are also high in protein include sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pecans, cashews and almonds, peanut butter, and other nut and seed spreads. In addition, add olive oil, coconut oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, and whole avocados to your diet.
The Bulking Phase
During the bulking phase, you’ll be focused on building muscle mass. Nutritionally, the diet that supports your time in the gym will be a combination of extra calories and carbs, high protein, and adequate fat. All play a part in adding bulk and fueling your workouts. Your goal at the end of this stage is to achieve about 15 percent body fat. How long the bulking phase lasts depends on where you were at the beginning of your training. About 10 weeks is the average for most people to complete the bulking phase.
- Add about 500 calories to your normal calorie count. Another way to figure out what you need for the bulking phase is to multiply your current body weight by 16 to 20. That comes to between 2400 to 3000 calories for a 150-pound person.
- Consume about 1 to 1.5 grams of protein for every 1 pound that you currently weigh. For example, a person who weighs 150 pounds should aim to eat between 150 to 225 grams of protein a day during the bulking phase.
- Calculate about 2 to 2.5 grams of carbs for each 1 pound you currently weigh. For a 150-pound person, that equates to 300 to 375 carb grams every day. The majority of these should be complex carbs, but simple ones like sports drinks are OK after a workout.
- Multiply your current weight by .30 or .35 to get an estimate of the number of fat grams you should have. For a 150 pound person, that would give you a fat goal of about 45 to 52 daily fat grams.
The Cutting Stage
Your goal for the cutting state is to jump-start fat loss while retaining lean muscle. When it comes to the diet component, you’ll be adjusting all of the macro-nutrients from what they were set at during the bulking phase. Most people who are going for defined muscles seek body fat of about 10 percent. Some will need longer than others to achieve that 10 percent goal.
- Eliminate about 500 daily calories from what you consumed during the bulking phase. This should give you a sensible 1 pound of weight loss each week. (You don’t want more than that, or you’ll lose muscle gains, as well.) If you don’t see the weight loss and defined muscles you were looking for, decrease your calorie intake a bit more.
- Increase protein to 1.5 grams of protein for every 1 pound of your current weight. So if you previously had 150 grams of protein a day, you would now aim to consume about 225 grams of protein.
- Aim for about 1 gram of carbs for every 1 pound of your current weight. The majority of your carbs should be consumed during the four- or five-hour period before and after your workout. A pre-meal snack that’s high in complex carbs will help fuel your lifting and cardio. Have a sports drink or fruit smoothie just after, and another carb-rich meal within two hours of your workout.
- Eat about .5 grams of fat per 1 pound of your current weight. A 150-pound person would take in about 75 grams of fat each day. If you find that you’re not losing weight, however, lower it back down to about .35 grams of fat per 1 pound of your current weight.
Transitional or Maintenance Period
Some bodybuilders finishing the bulking phase choose to transition for a few weeks before entering the cutting stage. Others just need to maintain once they finish those weeks of cutting.
- Eat about as many calories as you usually do to maintain your current weight. At this stage, you’re neither trying to bulk up nor lose more body fat.
- Consume the amount of protein and fat as you did during the bulking phase, in order to aid your training.
- Reduce carbs so that you don’t bulk up again.
Additional Bodybuilding Diet Tips
For some people, consuming the extra macronutrients needed during bulking and cutting can be a challenge. That’s why going beyond three meals a day is a good idea. Divide your requirements by four meals — or have three big meals and two or three snacks. You’ll soon hit on a routine that works for you.
Don’t forget those items that may not contain many macronutrients, but which are nonetheless packed with immunity-boosting compounds. Non-starchy veggies and herbs, as well as low-carb fruits, can get lost in a bodybuilding diet if you only focus on the macronutrients. Yet they’re easy to add to virtually any meal.
Toss some spinach into your protein shake, or some tomatoes and peppers into your morning eggs. Consider adding broccoli florets to the sauce you pour over your whole grain pasta. Put some watercress into your hearty sandwich. Add raspberries berries to your Greek yogurt, or squeeze lemons and limes into your water. Slice some ginger into your Asian chicken stir-fry. All of these items are packed with vitamins, minerals, and other immunity-boosting phytonutrients.
Is it your first time to build muscle? Check out some bulking and cutting tips from this video from PictureFit:
Bulking and cutting takes an enormous amount of discipline. Give yourself a break if you miss a gym day, or indulge in junk food from time to time. What’s important is sensibly building up to the muscle mass you want during the bulking phase, then achieving the ideal body fat through cutting. Even if it takes you longer to get to a perfectly cut look than it took your gym partner, you will get there!
Share your bulking and cutting progress in the comments section below!