Should you bulk or cut
Whether you should cut or bulk can be confusing. Watch this video that explains how to approach it while maximising their strength gains.

Should you cut or bulk? Understanding body fat levels and goals.

In this free guide I will delve into the question of whether you should cut or bulk. 

It’s a confusing question for many, often leading to indecision and a lack of progress. This discussion is aimed at those who want to be in the best physical shape aesthetically while maximising their strength gains. It’s important to note that personal preferences vary; some are comfortable with higher body fat, while others are not.

Answering the question of whether to cut or bulk is highly individual-dependent. To provide the best advice, a direct and personal assessment is often necessary. However, for the sake of this article, I will use hypothetical examples of common body types to suggest the best approach for each situation.

This is an example of the evidence based coaching and training that I provide either face to face in our gym in Taren Point or online.

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Benefits of a calorie surplus

Before going into the purpose of this video of whether you should cut or bulk, we need to touch on why a calorie surplus is ideal for gaining muscle, which ultimately visually improves your physique and contributes to strength gains. Building new muscle tissue requires energy; a host of processes occur to combine amino acids to form muscle tissue, and these steps require energy.

After a training session, we’ll simplify and say the body goes through two main processes: recovery and adaptation. Recovery is restoring the body to its previous state before the training session. During a hard session, stress is placed on the muscles, which generally results in fatigue and muscle damage. Following a session, training performance is usually lower, and some time will need to pass to restore performance to baseline (recovery)

However, adaptation occurs when the body is restored to a place beyond baseline (e.g., new muscle tissue is built, strength improvements are made, etc.). This is what we aim for in training: to adapt to the training stimulus so we can build and progress.

Now if energy availability is low (e.g. being in a deficit), energy will need to be prioritised to where it’s most needed. In our case, energy will need to be prioritised for recovery, with anything left over going to adaptation. Being in a surplus is ideal as plenty of energy will be left over after recovery to be allocated to adaptation. In turn, this maximises the muscle and strength gains that can be made following training sessions.

Furthermore, as you physically become larger from gaining weight and muscle, your calorie requirements will increase as there is more of you to move. Likewise, as your performance in the gym improves via being able to lift heavier, do more repetitions and more volume overall, your calorie expenditure will increase. You will need extra food to cover the increased energy cost of being physically larger and increased training. As such, it’s ideal that calorie consumption slowly increases over time to cover the extra energy costs of adaptation.


Beginner Lifters

Beginner lifters will be classified as follows:

  • Doesn’t train, just started training, hasn’t seen much progress yet, took a long break from training and starting back again
  • Has a lot of muscle growth potential
  • Able to progress weekly or fortnightly


Skinny Fat Beginners

Skinny fat beginners

Characteristics: Do not have much muscle mass (skinny) but, simultaneously, isn’t overly lean. Sometimes, these individuals might want to look leaner to want abs and think they need to be in a deficit to improve their physique. However, being in a deficit makes things worse as the individual will struggle to gain muscle and, as a result, will not develop that hard muscular look they’re looking for due to a lack of muscle mass.

What to do

  • Approach: Aim for a small calorie surplus, do NOT go in a deficit.
  • Goal: Focus on slow, steady weight gain (aim to gain 1 to 1.5% of body weight per month).
  • Reasoning: Skinny fat individuals lack muscle mass. A surplus will aid in muscle building, giving shape and definition.


Skinny Beginners

Skinny beginners

Characteristics: These individuals don’t have much muscle mass or much body fat

What to do

  • Approach: Enter a moderate calorie surplus.
  • Goal: Target a weight gain of 1 to 2% of body weight per month.
  • Reasoning: Have plenty of easy muscle gains to be made and a calorie surplus will facilitate this


Moderately Fat Beginners

Characteristics: Individuals who are not overly lean but not overly fat and have some base muscle mass. As a beginner, these body types have the opportunity to make easy strength and muscle gains. They should not be in extended deficit because not taking advantage of easy gains.

What to do

  • Approach: Can either eat at maintenance or be in a slight surplus. Eating at maintenance will likely allow for body recomp. However, eating in a small surplus may also result in building muscle and losing fat simultaneously
  • If uncomfortable with current level of body fat, can do a small cut to clear some body fat but with the intention of increasing calories back up to make gains. The deficit should not be too long as this is time wasted that could be spent on gaining.
  • Goals: Be at maintenance for body reecomp. Go in small surplus or if uncomfortable with body fat, do a quick cut to clear body fat to move into surplus.


High Body Fat Beginners

High body fat beginners

Characteristics: No clear abdominals. Carrying significant amount of body fat

What to do

  • Approach: Go into a calorie deficit. Aiming to lose 0.5-1% of total body weight per week.
  • Goal: Lose weight until abs are visible or nearly so.
  • Reasoning: High body fat can be reduced while still achieving muscle growth due to the beginner’s growth potential and high energy availability (fat stores)



Intermediate Lifters

Characteristics:Have been following structured training for at least a year. Does not see PBs weekly, more like monthly or every few months. Gains have slowed down relative to beginner lifters. Body recomp is still possible but slower than beginner. Probably needs to do purposeful cutting and gaining phases for efficient progress


Lean Intermediate Lifters

Lean intermediate lifters

Characteristics: Has visible abs but still has room to gain decent amount of muscle but will probably look skinny if got very lean

What to do

  • Approach: Focus on going in surplus to make gains. Being in deficit will these people look leaner but is limiting their long term progress. Gaining muscle will enhance their physique both visually and performance wise
  • Being at maintenance or deficit calories is likely wasting time and will likely not see the progress wanted as a surplus will likely be ideal for putting on muscle size. Therefore should likely eat in a slow surplus and do intermittent cuts when needed to clear body fat which may have slowly accumulated from the surplus.
  • As a general rule of thumb, 4 weeks of gaining earns 1 week of cutting (4:1 ratio). So 12 weeks of a surplus earns 4 weeks of being in a deficit
  • When in surplus, aim for 0.5 – 1.5% of total body weight gain per month
  • Reasoning: At this stage, muscle gains are slower. A surplus will likely aid in continued growth and strength gains.


Moderate Body Fat Intermediate Lifters

Moderate body fat intermediate lifters

Characteristics: Can kind of see abs. Not overly lean but not overly fat and has a bit of muscle mass

What to do

  • Approach: Two options
    1. Go into a small surplus – Might put on muscle without gaining too much fat as muscle gain potential is still somewhat high as intermediate lifter
    2. Do a short cutting phase to clear body fat with the goal of moving into a surplus to start gaining
  • Either option is fine, it’s what body fat the person feels comfortable with being at.
  • Sticking at maintenance calories is possible to see body recomp for these individuals. However, if progress is slow, then probably should either do purposeful cut to clear body fat to move into surplus or go into surplus to start gaining (depending on what body fat you’re comfortable with)


High Body Fat Intermediate Lifters

High Body Fat Intermediate Lifters

Characteristics: Can’t see abs as body fat is too high but has gained some muscle mass. Carrying unnecessary body fat. Carrying this extra body fat isn’t providing any advantages and might be adding fatigue.

What to do

  • Approach: Do proper cut and get pretty lean. Losing 0.5 – 1% body fat per week can still result in getting stronger in the gym or at worse, maintaining strength. Once pretty lean (can see abs), do slow surplus and avoid getting too fat again.
  • For future gaining phases after doing the initial cut, keep body fat in a healthy range and avoid getting overly fat. The gaining phase should be done slowly over an extended time frame until abs are starting to fade, then can-do mini cuts to clear the fat. If the surplus is done correctly, will likely not need to do extended cuts like the initial one to get lean.
  • When in a surplus there are two options to keep body fat in check
    1. Do short 2-5 week mini cuts to clear fat to continue gaining (4 weeks of gaining earns 1 weeks of cutting). The purpose of mini cuts is to clear body fat to go back into gaining rather than continuing the gain and putting on too much body fat.
    2. Do an extended (but slower pace) 8-12 week cut if need to lose a significant amount of body fat
  • Goal: Focus on getting leaner while maintaining strength.
  • Reasoning: Cutting down on body fat will improve overall physique and health.


Advanced Lifters

Characteristics: Been training for multiple years consistently and has gained a high amount of muscle mass. Progress is slow for these people and may only hit PBs a few times a year


Lean Advanced Lifters

Lean Advanced Lifters

Characteristics: Has visible abs and is very muscular

What to do

  • If the person is happy with their physique, cool, they can stay here but they’re not going to make much progress if they don’t try to put on weight. However, will need to suck up gaining a little bit of body fat and going in a surplus to build muscle
  • Can possibly get stronger without gaining weight but might be at a very slow rate and wasting time. If training appears sound but progress is not being made, these people will likely need to focus on gaining more size to see strength improvements
  • Goal: Gradually build muscle (go in small surplus) or maintain current physique. Aim to gain approx 0.5 to 1% of total body weight per month. Use intermittent mini-cut phases to clear body fat when required. If fat has accumulated and abs getting cloudy, do a longer slower cut to get at the leaner end of their body weight range to allow for another 4-6+ months gaining phase
  • Reasoning: Advanced lifters will see very slow gains; a surplus can aid in further muscle development.


Moderate Body Fat Advanced Lifters

Moderate Body Fat Advanced Lifters

Characteristics: Can kind of see abs. Not overly lean, not overly fat

What to do

  • Same response as an intermediate lifter. Can either continue to gain or do a quick cut to drop body fat to allow to go into gaining phase, depending on what the person is comfortable with
  • Strength gains are slower and will need all the help they can get as an advanced lifter (build muscle). Probably wasting time if not trying to gain muscle.
  • If a lifter is getting stronger eating at maintenance, cool, they can remain at maintenance if they choose. But if strength is stalled regardless of programming changes or progress is very slow, probably need to gain more muscle.
  • If an advanced lifter wants to gain muscle, eating at maintenance is probably inefficient and should be in a small surplus

High Body Fat Advanced Lifters

Characteristics: Can’t see abs but has lots of muscle mass

What to do

  • Unless the person is a super heavy weight power-lifter and concerned about lifting absolute weight, then they should probably run a deficit. I’d suggest cutting all the way down to the lifter is lean (can see abs) so then an extended surplus phase can be done. For those concerned about strength, it’s possible to drop down a weight class and maintain the majority of strength if body fat is initially high. If the deficit is done correctly (not too fast), the lifter will likely lose minimal strength while getting lighter. Unless losing a large amount of weight, like 25%+ of one’s body weight.
  • Reasoning: Reducing excess fat will lead to better health, an aesthetically pleasing fatigue and may help your lifts become more efficient as there’s less total body weight to move (fat)


Making a choice

The decision to cut or bulk depends on a person’s current body composition, goals, and training level. Beginners have more leeway for simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss, while advanced lifters need to be more strategic and should likely do purposeful gaining and cutting phases. 

If your program seems sound but you’re not seeing progress in strength, muscle gain or you just want to look a little leaner, it might be time to make a nutrition change.

Paul Attard
Paul Attard

Paul is the founder and head coach of SPC Performance Lab. Paul has been coaching since 2014 and has worked with all different types of people. From first timers learning the basics, all the way up to the experienced power-lifting competitors.

He tailors his approach depending on the needs, goals and experience of the individual. Paul has extensive theoretical and practical coaching experience.

- Masters of Sports & Exercise Science (Strength & Conditioning)
- Bachelor’s degree in Exercise & Sports Science with First Class Honours
- Competed and won multiple natural body-building shows & power-lifting competitions.
- Held an Australian power-lifting record.

Free advice

SPC Performance Lab is a gym in Taren Point in the Sutherland Shire, Sydney NSW. It is a private gym that offers strength training, powerlifting and body building training. The gym is open 24 hours, 7 days a week with membership options that include casual or regular visits.

Paul also provides a choice of personal training one on one or the option of online coaching.

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