09 Sep Should You Bulk Or Cut First?
An age-old question I get asked all the time by guys looking to achieve their ultimate physique is:
Should I bulk or cut first?
This is usually asked by the skinny fat guy who hasn’t got substantial amounts of muscle mass, but at the same time still has moobs and a pot belly.
Exactly how I was when I started. I remember after 2 years of training, I was still a skinny fat 60kg, and it wasn’t a good look. Despite training religiously, my body wasn’t improving at all, and I had no idea why at the time.
I wanted to be bigger, leaner and more athletic looking but all I was becoming was a slightly bigger version of the skinny fat guy I already was.
I took the wrong approach. I looked at the number on the scale and thought a couple years of bulking would do the trick.
What I failed to realise at the time was I should have spent time getting lean first, and then starting the bulk.
So Why Lean First?
If you’re reading this and in the 15-30% body fat range, but also still ‘skinny’, and worried about the possibility of looking even smaller, it’s important you understand these three key benefits.
1. You’ll look better
Similar to the points discussed in the article, ‘How Heavy Will You Be When Lean’, there’s a common misperception that if you weigh XYZ, you’ll look how you want to do.
In most cases, when I hear people tell me they want to look better, bigger and leaner, what they’re after is the illusion. They want the V taper, the broad shoulders, the narrow waist and the chiselled abs.
A lot of this can be achieved by just getting leaner. By getting leaner, you’ll by default look so much better, and this can often be enough to satisfy your goals.
2. Your gains will be more productive
Once you get lean, and you know where you’re at with low levels of body fat, now you can start building.
Your body is so much more sensitive to growth when you’re lean to begin with. If you start bulking at 20% body fat, you’ll only start gaining even more body fat. At this stage, your body is very efficient at getting fatter and fatter. So it’ll not only frustrate you even more, but force you into dieting anyway.
Instead, when you’re lean, your gains will be far more productive. Your body is now sensitive to growth, with all your key muscle building hormones like testosterone optimised.
Additionally, your insulin sensitivity will be higher. This is a measure of how ‘receptive’ your cells are to insulin, which allows molecules such as glucose, creatine and amino acids to enter the cell.
By increasing your insulin sensitivity, your muscle cells are now able to better bind with insulin and allow muscle building nutrients inside.
This combination of heightened testosterone and insulin sensitivity means your body is more primed to build muscle. It’s also far more efficient.
For every pound you gain when lean, a higher percentage of it will be muscle, and a lower percentage will be fat. And this is the big reason why it’s so important to be lean before bulking.
3. You can bulk for longer
When you’re trying to build size, you’ll always gain some body fat in the process. It’s just part of the parcel.
Of course, we want to limit this, but it is also something we’ll need to accept if we’re in a calorie surplus.
That’s why it’s so important we start lean before bulking. It means we have ‘space’ to grow into while still being able to take advantage of the improved muscle building environment.
If you were to start bulking when your bodyfat is still high, you’ll not only be very inefficient in the weight you gain. But you’ll quickly become unhappy with the look you’re sporting, and force yourself into an early cut.
How Lean Should You Be?
Now we’ve established that you need to be lean before bulking, just how lean should you be to begin with?
A good target is 10-12% body fat. If you’re unsure with how this looks, aim for a solid set of abs when you flex (how defined and muscular they are will depend on your development and genetics). You should be lean, vascular and have definition across the body. You won’t be photoshoot lean, or ripped. But lean enough to start gaining size in a productive manner.
Once you start bulking, you want to take it slow and steady. Force feeding yourself is a quick way to get fat. In an ideal world, you don’t want to be gaining any more than 0.25-0.5lb a week. It really needs to be that slow if you want to avoid piling on a ton of body fat, and having to reign it in again.
As you push your bodyweight up over the months to come, you’ll start to get a little fluffier and lose some of the definition you had earlier on. This is fine, but we need limits too, or the body fat can begin to escalate quickly.
A good ball park figure to build up to is 15-16% body fat. This isn’t a hard figure, as it will vary from person to person, but it’s a sound guideline. It’s at this point you’ll begin to smooth over significantly, and may actually start to look smaller.
You’ll also begin to experience losses in appetite, weaker pumps in the gym, achy joints and a loss in the faint borderline of your abs/obliques/serratus.
This is when that optimal environment we discussed earlier becomes to disappear and you have two options:
1. Run a mini cut for 4-8 weeks to re-sensitise your body and bring body fat in check again.
2. Get really lean and see where you end up. I’d only advise this if you’ve been bulking for 12-18 months consistently, and you’re happy with your level of size. Otherwise it can be premature and slow overall progress down in the bigger picture.
In the past, I’ve always thought that to push the limits in maximum muscle size, you need to go through extended ‘fluffy’ periods where you might not be as lean or aesthetic as you like.
I still believe this to be true. But I’ve also come to realise that most people just want to look good year round. Going through hard, long bulks that can create dramatic transformations at the end are a thing of the past.
If you’re someone who’s never been lean, or started training to look better naked, then there’s no appeal to the old traditional way.
It’s far more sustainable to get lean, and then coax muscle onto your body over a long period of time. This way you can stay in good shape while improving your size and shape, which is a win-win situation!
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