Bodybuilding is cyclical. Physique pros embody this practice with defined “off-seasons,” where they devote months of dedicated time to packing on as much mass as possible before shredding down for big competitions.
Recreational bodybuilders go through similar bulking and cutting phases, albeit not as intensely. If you’ve just wrapped up a long cutting diet and finally brought those abs out, you might be chomping at the bit to hit the weights hard and bulk up again.
The question then becomes, how? What is the most efficient manner of moving out of your caloric deficit and elegantly into a surplus that enables and encourages hypertrophy without all that pesky fat gain?
This is your guide to transitioning out of a cut and into a bulk — safely, smoothly, and effectively.
How to Transition From a Cut to a Bulk
- When Should You Stop Cutting?
- How to Transition From Cutting to Bulking
- Best Supplements for Bulking
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
Phase Transitions vs. Reverse Dieting
Before you dive in, it’s important to acknowledge the nomenclature at play here. Most physique-minded gymgoers embrace different phases of their approach to bodybuilding, but this is distinct from the so-called “reverse diet.”
Reverse dieting is a dietary approach centered around “fixing” the metabolic and physiological damage caused by severe and prolonged energy restriction. The idea being that, by gradually reintroducing calories and nutrients over time, a bodybuilder can undo any unwanted side effects of their fat loss diet without picking up any new fat along the way.
Others regard reverse dieting as a reliable “pit stop” during a longer, multi-month cut. While reverse dieting is absolutely one method of transitioning between different dietary phases, it isn’t strictly mandatory to do — and is often considered more relevant for physique competitors who diet down to truly extraordinary levels of body fat.
Starting a diet with a specific, defined goal is often the hardest part. That said, inertia cuts both ways.
If you began your cutting phase with a specific target date or body weight goal in mind, power to you — but there are other considerations that might impact when you decide to transition away from your cut and into a bulk.
Once You Hit a Body Weight Goal
It’s quite common to enter a fat-loss phase or cutting diet with a specific time-based parameter in mind, such as dieting down for 12 or 16 weeks. This can often align with an upcoming physique show or, for recreational lifters, might line up with the beginning of beach season.
You might also start cutting with the goal of losing a specific amount of body weight; 15, 25, or more pounds off the scale. When you do eventually arrive at these benchmarks, you may want to stop to evaluate your physique and decide whether you’re happy with your progress thus far.
If You Lose Significant Mass or Strength
While muscle loss or strength degradation during prolonged periods of reduced energy intake isn’t a guarantee, they do tend to come with the territory, particularly if you’re in a steep caloric deficit for months on end.
In such cases, you may want to consider pulling the plug on your diet a bit early if you aren’t happy with the performance-related side effects — particularly if you’re a hobbyist bodybuilder who isn’t dieting for a specific competition or show.
In Anticipation of a Large Lifestyle Change
If you’re not a professional physique athlete, your gym goals generally have to coexist with your lifestyle outside of the weight room. That means balancing a cutting phase with the demands of your career, living situation, and social circle.
There’s absolutely no shame in calling off a fat loss diet if you notice, or anticipate, that it won’t be practically possible to adhere to the demands of said diet long-term.
If you know you’ll be changing jobs, moving from one location to another, or have a lot of social obligations on the horizon in the near future, you might save yourself some frustration by transitioning out of your cut a bit earlier than you initially planned.
Your best bet for nailing a seamless transition is to exit your cut the way you entered it — gradually. That said, you may not have to take things quite as slowly as you’d think.
When moving from a weight loss protocol to one of intentional weight gain, you should pay heed to your caloric intake, the nature and design of your training sessions, and the rate of weight change displayed on the scale:
Increase Caloric Intake
At the end of a long and potentially arduous cutting phase, the last thing you want is to close out your diet by putting back on the fat you worked so hard to remove. You do have to move from a net caloric deficit to a net surplus; how quickly you make that adjustment is up to you.
Researchers Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler of Stronger by Science have discussed the metabolic implications of dieting at length. Both their work and the larger body of scientific evidence seem to indicate that, whether you incrementally add calories over time or jump right toward your new energy intake, the long-term outcome will be mostly the same.
This isn’t to say that there’s no merit to gradually moving the needle either, though. If you were in a particularly steep caloric deficit and want to move toward a large surplus, you may not want to add in large portions of food all at once. Doing so can affect your appetite, satiety levels, or digestive system.
A gradual calorie increase will also let you closely monitor changes in weight if you prefer to take an airtight, granular approach. Your metabolism ebbs and flows in accordance with your activity levels and eating habits; (1) the deleterious effects of a long cutting phase will, practically speaking, work themselves out as you add calories. It doesn’t matter too much if you do it over the course of two weeks or six.
Helms and Trexler also theorize that there isn’t much of a difference between the energy demands of regaining lost muscle and adding new lean tissue. They acknowledge you may be able to recover some muscle tissue if you choose to take a “pit stop” around maintenance calories, but you’ll have to enter an energy surplus to make tangible progress long-term. (2)
Adjust Your Workouts
As your energy availability increases — meaning, you have more calories to put to good use in the weight room — you’re able to kick up your workout volume and intensity. While you might’ve stuck with a lean and mean approach to training in order to preserve muscle during a cut, (3) you can use your newfound abundance of carbs and calories to ratchet things up in the gym.
Instead, you can induce some progressive overload by gradually increasing your training volume over time. A large body of research indicates that optimal training volume for hypertrophy tends to fall somewhere between 10 and 20 hard sets per week, per muscle. (5)
If you’ve been undershooting your volume in the gym, work up to that ballpark over the first few weeks of your bulk via the increased availability of nutrients. The start of a new bulking phase is a great time to experiment with new movements, particularly the inclusion of more single-joint isolation exercises.
Monitor Your Weight
If you’ve been in the trenches of a cutting diet for a while, you may not have an accurate sense of where your caloric maintenance level is. Moreover, adjusting your activity levels through picking up a new workout routine can (and in all likelihood, will) affect your total energy expenditure.
Either way, you should strive to stay on top of tracking your body weight when changing dietary phases. You may experience significant fluctuations in weight as you increase your food intake early on — expect this to level out within a couple of weeks as your body acclimates.
After a few weeks of adjustment, your bulking caloric intake should confer pretty well to what you see on the scale: A 500-calorie daily surplus should result in about one pound of weight gained per week, for example.
If there’s a disconnect between how much you’re eating and what you see on the scale week over week, it may mean that your caloric maintenance level has shifted further than you thought.
Diligent scale tracking isn’t mandatory for transitioning between a cut and a bulk, but it will give you a better and more accurate picture of how your dietary choices impact your weight gain.
The more prohibitive your dietary protocol, the more relevant you’ll generally find nutritional supplementation to be. As such, moving from a restrictive cut to a permissive bulk should generally mean that you don’t need to lean on extra supplements as hard.
That said, there are a few products that might make the transition between cutting and bulking a bit smoother, if you utilize them properly.
If you’re following most modern protein recommendations for people who hit the weights regularly, you probably don’t need to add much more protein to your bulking diet than you had while cutting.
In fact, experts like Nuckols and Helms acknowledge that, if anything, your protein intake should be a little higher while in a caloric deficit to help preserve muscle. When you move into a surplus, though, the percentage of total calories derived from protein does usually shrink.
Protein Intake Calculator
As such, you may want to pick up (or keep using) a whey powder supplement, if only for convenience. A good whey isolate or concentrate can help you hit your protein target without filling your stomach up, allowing you to get more of your other macronutrients from whole-food sources.
Creatine is a viable all-year supplement, no matter if you’re cutting down or bulking up. Some athletes do opt out of creatine supplementation during fat loss diets as it can cause them to hold unwanted extra water.
If that’s the case for you, a new bulking phase is the perfect time to bring creatine back into the mix. As one of the most well-researched and thoroughly-established supplements on the market, adding creatine to your regime can do a lot for your power output and endurance in the weight room.
A fiber supplement won’t make or break your bulking phase, but it might help you stomach the extra food you’ve got to put down. Fiber performs a whole host of beneficial regulatory actions within your body, the least of which involve modulating satiety levels and helping to ‘smooth out’ digestive processes. (6)
In the event that your hypercaloric diet ends up causing digestive or gastrointestinal distress, you may want to consider adding a fiber supplement to your protocol.
Finishing a fat loss phase is one of the most fulfilling moments for any physique-minded gymgoer. Gains are ripe for the picking as you come out of a long-term energy deficit. If you want to make the smoothest transition possible, you should take care with regard to introducing a new dietary plan or training program.
- The point at which you end a fat-loss diet depends on a combination of psychological, physiological, and environmental factors.
- You’re liable to regain some portion of body fat as you introduce a higher caloric intake. A conservative, closely-monitored energy surplus can mediate much of that unwanted fat.
- If you cut down into single-digit body fat territory, you’re more likely to regain fat than someone who ceased their diet at a higher relative level of body fat.
- Reintroduce higher training volumes or different exercises slowly to avoid accumulating excessive fatigue or risking injury.
It’s easy to get carried away after months of restrictive, rigorous dieting. However, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater just because you aren’t cutting down anymore.
The early stages of a bulking phase are among the best times to put on new muscle — or regain what you’ve lost during your cut. Tackle the transition with grace and you’ll set yourself up for long-term success.
Famines and Feasts
Cutting and bulking are two sides of the same coin; protocols and plans that shape and mold your physique to be just a bit bigger or a little sharper each time. While transitioning between a cut and a bulk isn’t as simple as flipping a switch, you shouldn’t need to turn your whole lifestyle upside down either.
The beginning of a new dietary phase is an opportune time to make new gains, if you go about it properly. On the other hand, rushing this transition can spell disaster and create headaches down the line. Take it slow, follow the science, and let the gains come to you.
1. Trexler, E. T., Smith-Ryan, A. E., & Norton, L. E. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 11(1), 7.
2. Slater, G. J., Dieter, B. P., Marsh, D. J., Helms, E. R., Shaw, G., & Iraki, J. (2019). Is an Energy Surplus Required to Maximize Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy Associated With Resistance Training. Frontiers in nutrition, 6, 131.
3. Trappe, S., Williamson, D., & Godard, M. (2002). Maintenance of whole muscle strength and size following resistance training in older men. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 57(4), B138–B143.
4. Colquhoun, Ryan J.1; Gai, Christopher M.2; Aguilar, Danielle2; Bove, Daniel2; Dolan, Jeffrey2; Vargas, Andres2; Couvillion, Kaylee2; Jenkins, Nathaniel D.M.1; Campbell, Bill I.2. Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2018 – Volume 32 – Issue 5 – p 1207-1213
5. Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of sports sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082.
6. Barber, T. M., Kabisch, S., Pfeiffer, A. F. H., & Weickert, M. O. (2020). The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre. Nutrients, 12(10), 3209.
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