Bulking vs Cutting Diet: Differences between the strategies

Bulking vs cutting diet

Bulking for Building muscle or cutting to lose weight while maintaining muscle are goals that cross each other frequently for the avid gym goer. There are a lot of differences and misconceptions, so we’re going to break down a bulking vs a cutting diet.

Make sure to read the whole post if you are confused about these two diet phases at all.

Overview of both Bulking vs Cutting diet

Before I get into the comparisons, let’s talk about what the bulking and cutting phases are.

These eating strategies are two very valuable tools in bodybuilding.

Bulking is the process of eating calories in excess so as to provide your body with enough fuel to gain weight and subsequently build muscle.

Cutting is the phase where you enter a calorie deficit with the goal to lose weight yet still maintain as much muscle as possible.

Those are the basic definitions of both strategies, although their are common misconceptions and mistakes that we’ll get into later.

Being a fitness instructor myself, certified for personal training and nutrition coaching, I’ve spent a lot of time learning what can help people reach their fitness goals.

I’ve found understanding these concepts of bulking and cutting to be a very important topic for average people to go a long way in their muscle building goals.

When should you start a bulking vs cutting diet

When comparing a bulking vs cutting diet, one of the biggest differences of note is when exactly you begin each respective phase.


Bulking typically begins when a person’s goal changes to building muscle. This can either be when first starting to work out, after a maintenance phase or immediately following a cutting period.

But how do you know when you should change your goal to bulk?

This can sometimes be a difficult question for yourself. Luckily, there are several commonly used indicators you can use as guidelines. 

  • Body fat percentage under 14% for men or 21% for women. These are some recommended body fat percentages for fitness enthusiasts. Having a number below can mean its a good idea to bulk. Adjust this rule according to your own personal goal. 
  • You want to build muscle or increase your strength. When tackling these to goals, being in a bulk will greatly improve your efficiency. 


Cutting normally starts when a persons goal changes to eliminating body fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible.

In addition to cutting, you might decide add cardio like walking or running in an effort to burn extra calories. But a proper cutting phase is plenty enough itself even if cardio can help a little. 

Similar to to bulking, cutting can be started as the starting phase, after maintenance or following bulking. 

When should you start a cut?

  • Body fat percentage OVER 17% for men or 24% for women. Having a percentage over these can indicate a great opportunity to cut and lean out.  
  • You are overweight. Not only is cutting a great way to lose body fat, but for overweight and/or untrained individuals, cutting in tandem with progressive resistance training often leads to both body fat elimination and muscle growth. A process commonly referred to as body recomp.

There are several tools to calculate your own bodyweight like a at home scale, or fat calipers

How should you eat when on a bulking vs cutting diet

Of course, you eat more when on a bulking vs cutting diet, but there are more differences in the food consumed then just that.


Aside from protein which we will get into later, bulking is centered around giving your body more food than it needs to maintain your current weight. 

It is recommended to shoot for a 10 – 20% increase in calories over maintenance. This might not seem like a lot but if someone needs 2500 calories a day just to maintain where they are at, following this rule would mean an extra 250 – 500 calories every day.

Many in the fitness community use bulking to go easy on their diet, eating very openly and not caring too much about quality, just weight gain. This is often referred to as a dirty bulk. 

What often happens with a dirty bulk is a increase in muscle mass but a big increase in body fat as well.

That’s why its important too consume calories from nutritious sources. 

It might be more troublesome because of how satiating whole foods are compared to processed ones, but it can give you better long term results to choose a healthier diet. 

Eating tips while bulking

  • Eat enough protein
  • Choose whole foods over processed foods
  • Consume liquid calories if you find it hard to reach your calorie goal (protein shakes, smoothies)
  • Aim for 10-20% over your maintenance calorie level.


Of course the main goal of cutting is to eat less food so you can drop the number on the scale.

But the key difference between a plan focused on just weight loss and a cutting diet is you are trying to preserve as much muscle as possible when cutting. 

This means you need to be more specific about your eating strategies, more so than just eat less and lose as much weight as possible. 

Too avoid losing as much muscle mass as possible, its best to take a slower approach to weight loss. 

Aim for a .5 – 1% drop in bodyweight each week. For a 150 pound person, that means losing between .75 and 1.5 pounds.

Diet adherence is difficult for many, a key problem area is the feeling of deprivation which can occur in the form of hunger or cravings. 

Like bulking, you should stick to whole foods. This will help keep you feeling as full as possible.

Note: Because you will be eating less you might not get sufficient nutrients. Adding a daily multi vitamin to your daily routine, can help meet these goals. 

Eating tips while cutting

  • Eat whole foods to keep yourself feeling full
  • Go slow, aim for a .5 – 1% weight loss each week
  • Use a multi vitamin

How much protein should you eat when on a bulking vs cutting diet

The minimum recommended intake of protein is .36 per pound according to the Dietary Reference Intake.

Although a good starting point for most individuals, this number changes depending on your goal. 

For those who do resistance training and have a goal of building muscle, the actual recommended intake of protein lands between .7 and 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.

When bulking you should stay within this range, at minimum the lower end. As your goal is to build muscle, your body needs to be fueled with the rights building blocks to do so. 

When planning out your diet, It’s going to be a good idea to schedule your protein first so you can be sure you will hit the daily goal. 

Now on the other side, it might surprise you that is actually commonly recommended to eat even more protein when on a cutting diet. 

You should stay on the higher end of the .7 – 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.

Studies have shown that being on a high protein diet is very effective at maintaining muscle while losing weight. Of course this applies to individuals who also partake in resistance training. 

In those who are overweight and/or very new beginners, its also possible to build some muscle and lose weight at the same time when eating a high protein diet.

To make things easy just keep your protein at a high level regardless of which diet phase you are in.

Remember no matter what route you go. Take your time and make sure its a healthy and sustainable journey.