I’ve been there – you look down, and you’re not sure where your quads end and knees begin… Is that an ab, or is this just good lighting?
The truth is when you stop bulking and start cutting depends completely on your training age and genetics.
But to really give you the best answer, allow me to first explain how to make the most of each period and when to switch.
Table of Contents
- What Is Cutting & Bulking?
- Bulking 101: How Far Should I Push?
- Cutting 101: How Do I Retain Muscle Mass?
- Maintenance 101: Do I Need a Maintenance Phase?
- So, When Should You Stop Bulking?
What Is Cutting & Bulking?
These are terms that are thrown around all the time, and it’s unclear whether everyone really understands what they actually mean.
Cutting refers to a period where your main goal is to lose as much body fat as possible. The second goal is to retain as much muscle mass as possible. That’s it.
“Toning” doesn’t exist – it’s all just fat loss. For most experienced people, this means you will not be gaining muscle mass in this period.
Bulking refers to a period where your only goal is to build as much muscle mass as possible – and yes, you will gain fat. If you don’t gain fat, you aren’t gaining the most amount of muscle mass that you could.
There’s a difference between gaining some fat and going all Michelin Man in three months. Get used to losing your abs – it’s normal.
Now, let’s answer some of your questions:
“But Why Do Bodybuilders Have Abs When Bulking?”
Well, they weigh 300lbs at 5’6’’. That’s a ton of muscle, and a lot of it is abs – logically. So they have abs because their abs are so huge it shows, even if they’re covered with a bit of fat.
But also, PEDs. So, don’t compare yourself to them.
“Why Can’t I Do a Lean Bulk?”
Well, again, you’re limiting the amount of muscle mass you can gain. It’s not like you’re trying to gain fat, but by thinking, “I need to stay as lean as possible,” you’re leaving pounds of gains on the table… Why not just cut for 3 weeks longer and take the extra bit of muscle?
“I’ve Heard About Maingaining?”
While I have respect for the coaches who advocate for this, I’ve never seen it done in real life. Also, you’re trying to break the laws of physics… Quite hard if you ask me.
So with those FAQs answered, let’s look into why we do these things, how we do them, and when to stop.
Bulking 101: How Far Should I Push?
Bulking is the term we use when you’re in the off-season. You’re eating plenty of food, your stress levels are low, and you’re (generally) enjoying life more than you are whilst cutting.
The time it takes to bulk will wildly depend from person to person. Some people just have an incredibly hard time gaining muscle and strength, while others gain just by looking at a dumbbell. The reverse is also usually true. The first person usually has an easier time losing fat.
When looking at planning your bulk, you should plan to gain around 0.5 – 1.0% of your body weight per week, of which some will be fat. Yes, you’ll gain some fat – get over it. This, however, comes with a caveat. Well, two, actually.
How Long You’ve Been Training
The older your training age, the less you should be looking to “blow up” while bulking. The reason is actually pretty simple: it’s unhealthy.
Gaining too much fat will drive up blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin resistance, and many other factors. These aren’t so bad when you’re young and fresh, but the older you get, the worse they are.
If you’re 1- 3 years into training, you can probably still go to around 15 – 17% body fat, and you should be fine. It’s okay to lose some muscle definition, and as Seth Feroce says, “It’s okay to be a little chubby.”
If you’ve been in the game for longer than 4 years, however, you just wanna be a bit more careful about gaining too much fat.
The other caveat is genetics.
If you were always a skinny person growing up, you could probably stand to gain a few pounds, and you’d still be good – no biggie. If you were the chubby or overweight kid, you shouldn’t be pushing as hard simply because there’s a greater chance of you rebounding.
Once you’ve established your parameters for how far you’re willing to push, then devise the “how.” Find a training style that suits your needs and lifestyle, and find a diet that you know you can stick to.
Other Things to Consider When Bulking
When you’re bulking, you’ll also need to:
- Eat 200 – 300 calories above maintenance in order to gain muscle mass
- Be in a bulk for 12 – 16 weeks to actually make noticeable changes
- Eat healthily, but make the food appetizing. If you’re not going to eat good-tasting food, you’re going to grow sick of it – fast
- (optional) Have a cheat meal every now and then. Again, be an adult about it
With all this mentioned, how far do you push?
Really, When Do You Stop Bulking & Start Cutting?
When you (specifically) get too fat. Getting too fat looks different for everyone.
When John, who’s been overweight his whole life, bulks to around 16% body fat, he needs to stop ASAP. When Eric, who’s had abs his whole life but zero muscles, goes to 15%, he actually is in a good position to keep going.
It really depends on your history.
Be honest with yourself. If you don’t have “lean genetics,” then you shouldn’t be allowing yourself to go that far. If you have trouble gaining any weight, then you should be pushing that hard!
And as mentioned, if you’re a mature lifter, going for leaner and more gradual gains could be even better. A big reason for this is estrogen. Yes, the “female” hormone.
Surprise, men have it, too. Double surprise, men need it.
Men need estrogen for various reasons, such as health, libido, etc. However, too much estrogen could lead to water retention, blood pressure elevation, mental side effects, etc. But one thing that does seem to lead to more estrogen in men is fat.
See, the fat cells have something called aromatase, an enzyme that will convert testosterone into estrogen – which is normal. If this happens at too high of a level, it could lead to some adverse effects.
We still need estrogen, however, and if you had zero estrogens, you wouldn’t be growing optimally.
Estrogen allows for more inflammation, and since hypertrophy is – first and foremost – an inflammatory response, estrogen will allow for better gains! But again, too much, especially in more mature men, can be detrimental – so keep that fat level to around 12 – 14%.
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Cutting 101: How Do I Retain Muscle Mass?
As you read in the beginning, a big goal of cutting after bulking is the retention of muscle mass. Why is that? Is it really that easy to lose muscle mass?
For most, no. But it is possible.
See, when you restrict calories, your body will need to find energy somewhere else. This is the law of Energy Conservation:
“Energy is neither created nor destroyed, it can only be converted”
A car that is braking will turn kinetic energy (moving car) into heat (the brake pads heat up). You will turn stored fat into kinetic energy, heat, and all the other types of energy your body needs on a daily basis.
Seems perfect, right? Well, there’s a problem.
The body won’t always play along. See, at some point, your body will say, “Sheesh. I can burn fat, OR I can burn fat and muscle. Fat is better for preservation… That’s it! I’m burning both!”
This is not what we want! Argh! What are we going to do?!
There Are Actually Quite a Few Things You Can Do…
To preserve muscle mass while cutting, you should:
- Eat a high-protein diet that’ll allow for the preservation of muscle mass. Not only that, but protein has a higher thermic effect on food, which on its own can lead to more fat loss.
- Train really intensely so the body will say, “Damn, this bro is probably deadlifting tomorrow again. Sh*t, we can’t burn muscle. We need that!”
- Do some cardio so that your food intake doesn’t drop drastically low.
- Manage your stress. This is probably the one most people forget about – cortisol.
Cortisol is a stress hormone found in the body, and while it’s natural and all good, too much is terrible. Too much cortisol can lead to decreased fat loss and more muscle loss.
You can control your cortisol by training with volume that’s not too high, not doing too much cardio, eating a higher carbohydrate diet, sleeping more than 8 hours per night, and just lowering your stress in general.
If you push too hard, the body pushes back. Again, you should only be losing 0.5 – 1.0% of body weight per week. Push harder, and you might end up losing some muscle as well.
What are the signs of muscle loss, you may ask?
- Feeling extremely fatigued, even more so than usual. This may also spill over into losing your libido and your “happiness.”
- Losing a lot of strength is usually a sign. Losing some strength is normal and expected, but losing way too much in a short time is bad.
These are the two main things to look out for. This is fine in the last 10 days of a cut, but it should be avoided everywhere else.
How To Perfect Your Cut
To run the most perfect cut, follow these simple rules:
- A cut shouldn’t be too long. Around 12 – 16 weeks is ideal for most. If you struggle to stick to a diet, you might benefit from diet breaks, but staying on track will shorten the diet time.
- Aim to lose 0.5 – 1.0% of body weight per week. If you naturally lose weight faster, you needn’t cut your calories too quickly. If you’re more stubborn with fat loss, do what’s necessary to lose those pounds.
- Eat a high protein and carb diet while keeping calories in check. Protein should be around 1 – 1.2 grams per pound of weight, and keeping carbs as high as you can (while losing weight) will allow for greater strength and recovery.
- Cardio or steps are great ways of burning a few extra calories per day. Again, don’t start with an hour in the beginning. Work your way up, and only increase it when fat loss stops.
- Supplementing with creatine can help you retain more muscle mass.
These are really the only steps you need to take in order to lose mostly fat mass while retaining muscle mass. There are other smaller things you can do, too, like partitioning more carbs around your workout for a better hormonal response. But these are the essentials.
A quick note on training while cutting – CUT YOUR VOLUME. There’s a direct link between doing too much volume and losing muscle mass. You don’t have the energy to grow. You barely have the energy to maintain on a cut – why suddenly increase your volume?
You’re already adding cardio (stress) and removing food (more stress), so how would volume (even more stress) possibly lead to more muscle retention?
Instead, make sure your sets mean something. Make them hard. Choose movements that won’t tax your back and CNS too much, and get dirty strong.
Anecdotal evidence is incoming!
I’m a few weeks out from a bodybuilding show. My food is low, and my cardio is high. I literally – and I’m not joking – I literally do 6 sets of quads per week (2 sets of adductors, 2 extensions, and 2 leg presses). That’s all that’s needed to retain muscle mass, granted these sets are challenging enough.
Maintenance 101: Do I Need a Maintenance Phase?
Most people do, yes.
A maintenance phase, as the name suggests, is a phase in which you simply maintain your current body weight. This is to allow your mind and body to recover from the stress of cutting or bulking.
While some people scoff at the idea, most professional athletes even take these. It isn’t essential, and if you’re getting ready for a wedding or event, you’ll most likely skip this. That said, for the best results, it seems to help.
You’ll slowly decrease or increase your calories back to maintenance, depending on if you were cutting or bulking. This will avoid a fat gain rebound or a massive drop in weight, respectively.
Let’s look at the example below:
|Weeks||Cutting ended at 2000 calories, maintenance is 3200||Bulking ended at 4400 calories, maintenance is 3200|
|0 – 2||2200 Calories||4000 Calories|
|2 – 4||2600 Calories||3800 Calories|
|4 – 6||2800 Calories||3600 Calories|
Then, after this, you’d fall into maintenance, and your body would have had the time to retain as much of the results as possible. Yes, it is boring. Then again, boring sometimes gets the best results…
You can expect to lose or gain 2% of your weight every time you change your calories in this period. That’s completely normal, and it should revert back to normal in those 2 weeks.
Once you’ve gotten back to maintenance calories, you can then decide – do you want to cut or bulk? You can even cut or bulk twice in a row!
There aren’t any laws saying you cannot. In fact, many people take maintenance breaks in a phase like that. If you really want to be the best, you have to think about longevity. It is, after all, a marathon and not a sprint.
So, When Should You Stop Bulking?
The short answer is “once you get too fat.” But your “too fat” and my “too fat” differ greatly.
It’ll depend on a myriad of factors, but we can summarize it as:
- The younger you are, the more you can allow yourself to spill over (17 – 18%).
- The older you are, the leaner you should try to stay (12 – 14%).
- If you’re genetically super lean, you can really push (17 – 18%).
- If you’re genetically a big person, be careful (12 – 14%).
Some of the best off-seasons occurred when people let go of the fear and anxiety of being a bit chubby and just focused on getting stronger. Who cares about IG posts? Post your lifts!
That said, if you know you’ve always been a bigger person, don’t revert back to that. It’ll always be harder for that type of person to lose weight.
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