It’s a question as old as time…should you lose fat (cut) or build muscle (bulk) first?
Knowing the correct answer can be difficult…
How do you decide?
Add to the mix that there’s a lot riding on the answer and it’s enough to make you pull your hair out.
Bulk when you should cut, and you could end up gaining a load of unwanted weight and not much muscle but cut when you should bulk, and you could end up skinny fat or just plain skinny.
Neither of these outcomes is what you want, yet this could easily be where you end up.
Get it right however and you can minimise muscle loss and maximise muscle gain to achieve that lean, muscular physique you’re after.
So, what do you do?
Fortunately, there are a handful of guidelines when it comes to making this decision which will help you know the right step to take.
First, we need to clarify a few popular terms.
You’ve surely heard these terms before, cut and bulk, after all, they’re used interchangeably with lose fat or build muscle.
However, ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ often refer to set periods of time where you focus exclusively on one goal, fat loss or muscle building;
These periods of ‘cutting’ and ‘bulking’ are often done in a cycle with fat loss being the primary goals for a number of week or months, followed by a number of weeks or months where muscle building is the goal.
Generally speaking, there is no real need to use ‘bulking’ or ‘cutting’ as the terms fat loss and muscle building accurately describe your goals…cutting and bulking, not so much.
Deciding whether to cut or bulk first, primarily comes down to knowing what will keep you motivated.
Trying to lose fat if you really want to build muscle is going to see you struggle. This means your primary motivation or desire should be your guide.
However, having said this you also need to consider your current weight and level of body fat when making your decision as there are favourable conditions for both fat loss and muscle building.
Guidelines for deciding whether to lose fat or build muscle first are;
You can push these boundaries a little each way depending on how you look and feel. However, for the most part, you’ll do best sticking to these guidelines.
If at this point, you’re wondering why I recommend these guidelines, let me tell you.
This is because of something called calorie partitioning, which is a fancy way of saying how your body uses the calories you eat for i.e. building muscle or storing fat.
Your ability to do this efficiently is the reason why some people will lose more muscle mass when dieting or gain more fat when building muscle.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a huge amount you can do about calorie partitioning as a lot of it is down to your genetics, however, one thing that does have an impact is your body fat percentage.
The lower your body fat percentage the more likely excess calories will be used to build muscle instead of storing fat. This means getting to approximately 10% body fat before you start building muscle will allow you to add more muscle and less fat to your frame.
This is for 2 primary reasons;
This is why it’s so important to start building muscle from a low body fat percentage if you want to maximise your gains.
Pretty straight forward this one. By not swinging between extremes, losing a lot of weight and gaining a lot of weight, you can maintain a good body all year round. This is not only beneficial for calorie partitioning benefits, but it also means you’ll look and feel good all year round too.
You won’t have to buy new clothes every time you go through a big ‘bulking’ period only to ditch them when you drop all the weight. It also means you won’t go through periods of feeling big and fluffy with no definition. Instead, you’ll look pretty lean all the time.
By staying between 10 – 15% body fat you keep things simple, straight forward and efficient.
Another benefit of losing fat and building muscle between the 10 – 15% body fat range is that you can see what you’re working with.
By this I mean, you can see more clearly how much muscle you’re adding to your frame, which gives you a better idea of how you’ll look when you drop the excess fat.
If you were to pile on the pounds in an old school ‘eat as much as you can’ bulk you’d have no idea how much muscle you’ve built and would have to spend months losing all the extra fat for not much in return.
By staying pretty lean you can see the increase in muscle definition, get leaner quicker and benefit from looking good all the time.
What typically happens when you use your typical bulking and cutting protocol is you gain a load of weight hoping that some of it is muscle, only to then spend months in an extended ‘cut’ to lose all the excess weight you gained.
This prolonged calorie deficit eventually becomes a grind as weight loss slows down and hunger ramps up. Next thing you know, you’re putting the weight back on having given up on your fat loss goals. Not ideal right?!
However, when you work within the 10 – 15% body fat range you skip this step by keeping both the fat loss and muscle building phases to a manageable time length.
By minimising the amount of fat, you gain when building muscle (more on this soon) you reduce the amount of subsequent time you need to spend in a fat loss phase, making fat loss more manageable. There’s less or no swing between extremes as you’re using set checkpoints for your progress. It’s a win, win really.
Using this information, you should now know whether to lose fat (cut) or build muscle (bulk) first. The next step is how to do it, what you should and shouldn’t do to get the best results.
When it comes to fat loss there are a few things you really do not want to do. Namely, lose weight too quickly, do too much cardio and perform high rep ‘toning’ workouts.
Creating a big calorie deficit to lose weight quickly is the worst possible thing you can do when it comes to fat loss.
Rapid weight loss, also known as crash dieting, is a sure-fire way to run yourself into the ground mentally and physically. Not only will you lose fat, but you’ll lose muscle and strength too. Not to mention your cravings and hunger will be through the roof.
Ramping up your cardio when trying to lose weight brings on the same problems as crash dieting.
This is because all the additional cardio not only increases the size of your calorie deficit which impacts performance and in time your ability to maintain muscle mass and strength, but it also increases your recovery needs beyond what your body is capable of handling.
When trying to lose weight your number one goal should be the retention of your muscle mass, as it is this combined with steady body fat loss that will give you the lean look you desire.
Key to being able to maintain your muscle mass is your strength. This means you want to focused on performing low to moderate rep workouts with a focus on compound movements, as this will signal to your body that it needs to hold onto your muscle even as you lose weight.
To effectively and efficiently lose fat without sacrificing your muscle you only really want to do these 3 things;
As for building muscle there is one mistake you need to avoid, if you can do this then things become infinitely easier.
Gaining weight as quickly as possible is a remnant of the old school muscle building philosophy. It comes from a time when the strategy for gaining size was ‘eat big to get big’.
All that happens when you do this is you built a little bit of muscle, gain a lot of fat and none of your clothes fit. The bigger you get the less efficient your body is at building muscle, the more your testosterone goes down and the more likely you are to gain fat.
Not a good place to be if you want to build a lean, muscular body. Remember, weight gain can happen quickly, but muscle building cannot.
When it comes to gaining muscle without excess fat there is really only one way to do it.
Lean bulking is the name given to the process of reducing your body fat to 10 – 12% (15 – 17% for women) before you start building muscle.
As we touched on earlier in this article this is for several reasons;
Getting it done is really quite simple.
If you can follow these guidelines, you’ll see fantastic results.
Invariably when talking about whether to lose fat or build muscle first, the question of whether you can just do both at the same time crops up.
The answer is yes and no.
Confusing I know, so let me explain how this can be the case. You see, there are some circumstances where you can absolutely build muscle and lose fat at the same time and it makes sense to do so. These circumstances are;
When you’re a beginner, someone who has not weight trained before or not lifted weights consistently whilst applying progressive overload then it is possible for you to build muscle whilst losing fat.
This effect is often referred to as ‘newbie gains’ and it describes the period, often the first 6 months of proper training, where you can see a rapid increase in muscle and strength gained whilst losing fat.
These gains occur because the body is hyperresponsive to the stimulus of proper weightlifting in untrained individuals. However, as you adjust to proper training these effects diminish.
If you’ve taken some time off from lifting due to injury, illness or simply being too busy then in some circumstances you too will be able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
This is because of muscle memory, so in effect what is happening is that you’re gaining back the muscle you lost during your time off whilst also losing fat. This means it’s a lot easier to regain your physique after some time out than it is to build it in the first place.
This allows you to get back to where you were before your time out much quicker and without having to focus individually on fat lose then muscle building.
No need to say much here other than taking drugs like steroids allow your body to do things that it normally would not be able to do.
However, outside of these circumstances and for most other people it doesn’t make sense to try and lose fat whilst building muscle at the same time. Your results will be slower and generally not worth it when compared to spending time focusing on a single goal.
When it comes to deciding whether to build muscle or lose fat first there a number of things you need to consider, most important of which is your body fat percentage.
Using your body fat percentage, you can figure out whether you should focus on fat loss or muscle building first with my recommended guidelines being;
As for whether you can do both at the same time, for most people, it’s not worth your time or effort. However, there are a few situations in which you can;
This being said, for most guy goers you’re better off picking a goal and sticking to it.