Have you ever asked yourself the following question:
What should I do first, should I build muscle or should I lose fat?
Well, in this post, I’m going to show you why I think getting lean first is definitely the best choice.
Let’s get to it!
Bulk or Cut – Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?
First of all, whether you should bulk or cut first is a very valid question to ask.
Because here’s the thing:
If your goal is to get a similar physique to, let’s say, these fellas:
Then chances are high that you need to put on both muscle and lose fat, which most effectively is done by utilizing bulking and cutting cycles.
This is especially true if you start out with more of the skinny fat or fat physique.
Okay great, but what goal should I start with?
Well my short answer is that you should definitely get lean before you start bulking.
But let’s not settle with the short answer.
Instead, let me tell you the great benefits that comes with getting lean before bulking. And more importantly, how to stay patient once you start bulking!
But first, let’s look at some depressing facts that shows us black and white why most of us likely need to start with a cut:
The average body fat percentage of Americans are getting higher every year, even in younger population.
This chart displays the mean percentage body fat of Americans by age, group and sex:
These statistics are from 2004, but the numbers are believed to be even higher as we speak.
The average American teenager between the age of 16-19 has a body fat percentage of 22.9 % for males and 34.8 % for females and the mean goes up with age.
And these body fat percentages look something like this:
Also according to the American Council on Exercise, these body fat percentages is just at the brink of classifying as obese for males, and above the obese line for females. Already at 16-19 years old!
Now, as a reader of this blog it’s very likely that your body fat percentage isn’t this high. Simply because you’re into fitness and hence are probably watching your diet, and staying relatively active already.
But nonetheless, chances are high by looking at the statistics that you’re still above the preferred body fat percentage range for starting a bulk.
So, what is the preferred body fat percentage range?
Well, here’s the whole ideal bulking and cutting process:
As you can see, most people probably need to focus on getting lean before bulking, and here’s why:
Why You Should Cut Before You Bulk: The 4 Huge Benefits of Getting Lean First
There are four benefits that comes with getting lean before going on a bulk.
And these are:
- You’ll look great while building your physique
- Being lean allows for a sustained lean-bulk
- You’ll put on more muscle and less fat during your bulk
- Staying lean is healthy
Let’s look at these one by one:
1. Look Great While You’re Bulking
Here’s the truth:
If you’re fairly new to strength training, you probably need to add 30-40 lbs (15-20 kg) of lean muscle to your frame, in order to achieve the physique you’re after.
And this will take time.
But, here’s the thing:
Time is rarely the problem.
The problem is the unnecessary amount of fat you store by starting to bulk before you’re lean enough to do so.
Here’s an example of this:
Let’s say you’re a male, completely new to training and choose to start a bulk at 15 % body fat.
For 6 months, you add 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of muscle to your frame while simultaneously reaching 25 % body fat.
Putting on 10 lbs of muscle in 6 months is great.
But truthfully, will you be happy with your look as you start to reach 20-25 % body fat?
As you can see in the picture, it’s at the point of 15 % body fat that any hint of aesthetics really starts fading away.
You’ll lose out on the definition of the muscles you build, you’ll look puffy, have a swollen face and you won’t fit too well in clothes.
By staying between 10-15 % body fat while bulking, you won’t think as much about the time required to build muscle.
This is because your time in the gym will be a lot more enjoyable. You can rock your favorite tank top and flex your “bulking pumps” in the gym with leanness to also show for it!
2. Being Lean Allows For a Sustained Lean Bulk
In the example above, you started bulking at 15 % body fat.
Let’s look at a much better way to do it:
If you, instead of bulking, start with a well set up fat loss diet, you can go from 15 % body fat down to 8-10 % in 6-8 week.
This is exactly what I did as well, I started out skinny fat and here’s a before and after picture of my first cut:
As you can see, I even built some muscle during this time, which is very common in the early stages of training.
By doing it this way, you will, after you’re done with your cut be able to lean-bulk for a good 6-8 months before you reach 15 % body fat, where an aesthetic physique starts to disappear.
During these months of bulking, you might add 10-15 lbs (5-7 kg) of muscle as a beginner or perhaps 6-10 lbs (3-5 kg) as an intermediate if training is set up correctly.
Which by the way is a lot of muscle in such a short time!
And because you chose to start with a cut, you’ll now go from 10 to 15 % body fat instead of 15 to 20 % during your bulk, which is a HUGE difference aesthetically:
3. You’ll Put On More Muscle And Less Fat During Your Bulks
As a beginner I used to believe that the most effective way to build muscle was through dirty bulking.
The more you stuff your piehole, the more you’ll grow, right?!
Well, that’s completely false!
As a matter of fact, research shows that you’ll achieve something that’s called better nutrient partitioning, or in scientific terms p-ratio (more muscle and less fat) when you’re lean:
This means that, if you keep your bulking phases within a fairly lean range, between 8-15 % body fat for males and 17-25 % for women, more of your caloric surplus will go towards muscle growth rather than fat storage:
The reason why your nutrient partitioning improves is because your body maintains a better hormonal balance when you’re lean.
You’ll also have better testosterone-cortisol ratios levels in your blood, creating a more anabolic environment in your body which promotes muscle growth.
So, the higher body fat percentage you accumulate during a bulk, the more fat versus muscle you’ll put on with additional calories.
That’s a good reason if any to never rush a bulk, as well as staying below 15, max 17 % body fat for men and 25, max 27 % for women.
4. Staying Lean Is Healthy
Improved hormonal environment in the body is not only associated with better muscle growth, it’s also associated with better health.
In fact, bulking in and of itself is a bit unhealthy even within the “healthy range” of 8-15 % respective 17-25 %
But, it’s A LOT unhealthier to bulk above these ranges.
Lastly, science shows that the fatter you’ve once gotten, the harder you will have to maintain a low body fat percentage after your future cuts, or when the time comes to stay lean for good.
That sounds terrible!
The mistake of not starting out lean is one of the biggest reasons a lot of people struggle getting and keeping a lean physique in the long-term.
Okay, so now you might wonder:
Why Not Build Muscle and Lose Fat Simultaneously?
One very common question that I get is this:
Why can’t I just eat at maintenance while consistently improving in the gym over time. Won’t that turn my fat into muscles?
Well, here’s the answer:
As a beginner to early intermediate to training, you can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously, as long as the protein intake is high enough and your training is on point. This is especially true if you’re starting out with a higher body fat percentage as well.
But, here’s where this approach gets troublesome:
In order to lose fat you must be in a caloric deficit. Since fat loss applies to the law of thermodynamics there’s no way around this.
And even though it’s possible to build muscle in a caloric deficit, once you’ve passed the newbie stages and gotten leaner, “body recomposition” as this phenomenon is called, becomes extremely slow.
In fact, here’s a visual of what would happen doing either bulking and cutting cycles or body recomposition:
Graph is just an illustration of the difference between the cutting and bulking vs body recomposition strategies, and doesn’t take training experience into consideration
As you can see, the body recomposition strategy builds less muscle, and will require more time reaching the goal of getting shredded. While the bulking and cutting strategy, even though some muscle will be lost during cutting phases, will build muscle quicker and reach the goal sooner.
Mindset: The Secret Behind Getting a Lean And Muscular Physique
Okay, so before finishing up this post, let’s look at one of the most common problems that arises when it comes to bulking and cutting:
Which is that many of us can’t seem to grasp that it just takes time to create an outstanding physique that’s not only lean, but muscular.
Trust me I’ve had my fair share of battling this:
I used to go on cuts, then jump straight to bulks, I mean binges and repeat the cycle again and again because I had zero patience for letting muscle growth occur.
Do you recognize this pattern?
If you do, don’t worry, let me show you the “secret” to stay lean while building a ripped physique in the long-term.
Change Your Focus!
A big mistake that people make when starting their fitness journey is focusing solely on the end goal.
Something I always hear is this:
“How long will it take me to build a muscular, ripped and fit physique?”
I usually start of my answer by asking what their dream physique is, while also looking at their current physique.
And my answer is usually:
“1 to 4 years or more.”
The reaction is often:
“WHAT? Are you kidding me!? Do I need to stick to my training and diet plans for so long?”
My answer is then:
“Of course! That’s how you build a great looking physique that’s both lean and muscular.”
But, don’t get discouraged by this, if you do, you miss one extremely crucial point, which is:
“You won’t go from your current physique to your dream physique overnight”
Neither will you have the same physique, same physique, same physique and suddenly “poof”, after 100 days you wake up with your dream physique.
No, the process of changing your body will happen gradually as you’re making progress towards your goals.
I know this can feel dull to hear, but it’s just the way it is.
For this reason it’s first and foremost important that your fitness plan is connected with your lifestyle. In fact, I wrote an entire guide on how to fix that here.
And secondly, it’s important that you:
Focus More On The Process Than On The Goal
Being more process oriented as opposed to goal oriented is VERY important if you want to be successful, and more importantly happy, in your pursuit of a lean and muscular physique.
Because as I’ve covered; it takes time to build an outstanding physique, especially if you’re after a lot of muscle mass naturally.
And on that note, there’s one thing you must stop and ask yourself, which is this:
Are you freaking sure you are/will enjoy the journey and the process that goes into building the physique?
Because, you only have one life, and what you do with the time you’re given on this planet should add value to your life and not the other way around.
Sure, I get it, looking great is awesome, and it’s a valuable goal to pursue. But, it’s very important that you don’t forget how the process towards the goal makes you feel.
For me, working on my physique goes a lot deeper than just the aesthetics. It gives me a deep feeling of purpose, where I’m constantly learning, growing and improving myself.
I also feel that it’s exciting and fun to see the difference in my physique as the years go on.
Furthermore, constantly improving my physique makes me feel extremely proud and confident in myself, and in my ability to go after the things I want in life.
Perhaps you get totally different feelings from the process. But no matter what they are, it’s important to take a step back and think about them every now and then.
Because when you acknowledge the feelings that drives you on a regular basis, it’s going to be a lot easier sticking to the plan you’ve laid out for yourself. Simply because you’re going to focus more on enjoying the process, rather than just being fixed to a goal in the future.
Conclusion – Should You Bulk or Cut First?
You should definitely get lean at ~10 % body fat for men and ~20 % for women before you start bulking. (You can find out your body fat percentage here.)
This sets you up for a long and sustainable lean bulk, where you’ll be able to maximize muscle growth for 6-8 months without losing too much muscular definition.
Doing this makes the bulking periods more fun, because you can flex the incredible pump you get in the gym with leanness to show for it.
Not only that, it’s also a lot healthier for the body to stay lean, and you’ll build more muscle because of it.
And best of all, you’ll only need 6-8 weeks of cutting in between the bulking periods.
Finally, adopt the mindset where the process is more important than the goal, and you’ll stay lean easier during your bulking phases.
So, are you going to avoid looking fat half of the year and just okay the other half?
And are you going to start looking good and end up looking great?!
Okay, so you should be clear on your goal by now, right? Then the next step is to start working towards it. So, start by setting up your diet following this free guide: