Bulk or Cut: Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First? (Ultimate Guide)

“Should I bulk? Or should I cut?”

Have you ever asked yourself this question? I bet you have. 

In fact, you’re probably wondering what to do right now.

Should you build muscle or lose fat first?

You’re not the only one who wants to know the answer to this question.

In fact, every single person that cares about building a good physique has faced this dilemma at some point. 

Let’s start with some bad news:

I can’t tell you which one is right for you because it truly depends on where you are now and what your body fat levels are. 

Now the good news:

By the time you finish reading this article, you’ll know exactly whether you should bulk or cut. 

Ready? Let’s dive in…

Bulk or Cut – Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?

Let me ask you a question:

Do you want to look like these dudes:

Zach Efron and Stephen Amell Physique - Lose Fat Build Muscle

Well, duh. 

Kinda like a no-brainer question. 

Here’s the thing: 

If you want a body similar to Zach Efron or Stephen Amell, then you’ll need a combination of cutting and bulking cycles. 

One cutting phase or bulking phase will not be enough.

I can almost hear you thinking: 

“Okay, great, but what should I start with?”

The short answer is: It depends on your current body fat level. 

But let’s not settle for that, let’s look at the benefits of cutting versus bulking and which one is right for you 

Look at this picture:

Which image looks more like you right now?

If you look like the guys on the top and the gals on the bottom, then you should definitely bulk.

If you look more like the guys on the bottom and gals on the top, then you should definitely cut. 

Here’s the truth:

Most people should cut before they bulk because most people don’t have low body fat levels (and if you’re one of those blessed with naturally low body fat levels, then learn how to set up a proper muscle gain plan).

But if you’re like me and most people on earth, then your first goal should be to lower your body fat levels before bulking. 

The table below shows the average body fat of Americans by age group and sex:

Shocking, isn’t it?

Even worse, this is from 2004, and it’s estimated that the average body fat numbers are even higher now. 

The average American looks kinda like this:

According to Medscape, these body fat levels are on the brink of obesity.

What’s worse? These are the 16-19-year-old group, teenagers for f#ck’s sake!

If you’re reading this blog I assume that your body fat levels are not this high because you’re taking care of your diet and fitness, and I assume you’re moderately active.

(And if your body fat is high, then good job on taking the first step towards lowering it).

But since the stats don’t lie, you’re most likely above the desired body fat levels for starting a bulking or muscle gain phase.

So, how low does your body fat needs to get before starting a bulk?

Glad you asked. Let’s look at that question in the next section:

Bulk or Cut 101 (Back to Basics)

Let’s dive into some cutting and bulking basics:

1. Get lean first (<10% body fat for men, <20% body fat for women) 

If you can’t clearly see your abs in the mirror, you should not start a bulk or muscle gain phase.

Why? Because during a bulk you will gain muscle, but you will also gain fat. That’s just how bulking works, and that applies even to “clean bulks” (I hate this term).

If you’re a male, cutting down to 8-10% body fat before you start a bulk is a good idea. Females should look to cut down to 15-20% body fat before beginning a bulk.

2. Start bulking up:

Start your bulk (or muscle gain phase), and focus on slowly gaining muscle (and weight) during a minimum of 3 months and a maximum of 6 months. 

Your aim should be to increase your bodyweight by 0.25% – 0.5% per week. Gaining weight at this rate will allow you to minimize the amount of gained fat and maximize the amount of gained muscle. 

And you’ll continue doing this until you get up to 12-15% body fat if you’re a male, and 20-25% body fat if you’re a female.

3. Cut down again 

Once you reach 12-15% for males and 20-25% for females body fat, you will maintain your new bodyweight for at least one month. This will allow your body to get accustomed to the new bodyweight and the risk of muscle loss will decrease. 

Then cut down again to 8-10% and 15-20%, respectively.

4. Repeat as many times as you want

Do this until you’re happy with how you look, or until you’ve reached your genetic potential. 

Now that you understand why getting lean before bulking is a good idea, let’s talk about some extra benefits of being leaner.

Why You Should Cut Before You Bulk: 5 Uncommon Benefits You Didn’t Know About

There are five benefits that you get from getting lean before starting a bulk or muscle gain phase. 

  1. You’ll look better when you gain weight. 
  2. You’ll stay lean year-round. 
  3. You gain more muscle and less fat during a bulk
  4. You’ll be healthier
  5. Your cutting phases will be shorter

Let’s look at each one separately: 

1. You’ll look better when you gain weight

Here’s the thing:

If you’re just starting out, you’ll need to add a lot of muscle to your body to achieve the look that you want. 

But if you start a bulk and you’re already fat, you will gain muscle—but you’ll also gain more fat. 

That means that if you start a bulk at 15% you’ll finish it at 20% or 25%. 

Yeah, you’ll gain a ton of muscle. But how are you gonna feel at 25% body fat?

Probably like crap. 

Check this out:

This is me at around 15%-20% body fat, and as you can see here is the point where your abs start to fade away.

That said, 15% is the max I like to take my own and my client’s body fat to because all aesthetics disappear after that. 

After 15% you lose muscle definition, your cheeks will be round and puffy, and your 6-pack will be well hidden under a layer of fat. 

Instead, if you start your bulk at 8-10% body fat, then you’ll finish at around 15% and you’ll still hold good aesthetics. 

And your time in the gym will be a lot more enjoyable because you’ll be able to show off your crazy bulking pumps. 

Which takes me to my second point: 

2. You’ll be lean year-round 

Staying lean year-round is awesome because you’ll be confident 365 days per year, 24/7 to take your shirt off. 

Now, I’m not saying that you should stay at 8-10% body fat all year. If you want to improve your physique, you do need to build muscle, and building muscle requires you to bulk up, and when you bulk up you put on a bit of fat. 

But like in point #1, if you start your bulk phases at 8-10% body fat, then you’ll still be lean when you finish them.

Which means that you’ll be lean year-round.

Which is exactly what I did:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

4-month transformation:⠀ ⠀ It’s pretty dope to post a transformation picture. ⠀ ⠀ But I find that It misses a lot of what happened in the middle. ⠀ ⠀ The end result is glorious. ⠀ ⠀ But there was shit ton of effort, sacrifice, and doubt in between these two pictures. ⠀ ⠀ How did I achieve this transformation:⠀ ⠀ I went to the gym 6 times a week for four months. Didn’t skip one single session. ⠀ ⠀ I ate 5 meals per day and tracked every single meal. Never went off track. ⠀ ⠀ You wanna look like a machine? You gotta live like a machine. ⠀ ⠀ You don’t need to go to this extreme. ⠀ ⠀ This is only my personal preference. ⠀ ⠀ You might have other goals. ⠀ ⠀ Just figure out what you want. And work towards that. ⠀ ⠀ The bottom line?⠀ ⠀ You can change A LOT in 4 months, if you dedicate yourself 100% to your goal.⠀ ⠀ Happy Monday!⠀ .⠀ .⠀ .⠀ #transformation #losefatbuildmuscle #julianhierro #fitness #life #iifym #rpstrength #fitness #bodybuildong #life #diet #nutrition #barbell

A post shared by Julian Hierro (@julianhierro) on

On the left, I was finishing a bulk and was around 15%-20% body fat. I have to admit it was a little higher than I wanted, but I was still lean and didn’t mind walking around shirtless.

And on the right is after finishing my cut at around 8% body fat. 

Now I’m ready to start another bulk, which I’ll finish at around 12-15% body fat instead of finishing at +20%, which will make a HUGE difference aesthetically.

3. Your potential to gain more muscle increases

Many newbies think that the best way to gain muscle is to eat everything in sight, but that is completely wrong (unless you wanna gain a bunch of fat as well). 

Let me explain:

There’s this thing called the P-ratio, which is the ratio of fat to muscle gained (or lost on a diet). 

When you do a bulking phase properly, you’ll have a favorable p-ratio (you’ll gain more muscle than fat). 

Why?

The main reason is that the leaner you are, the more sensitive to insulin you become and thus your muscles will allocate more nutrients towards muscle building (especially carbohydrates). 

Furthermore, your testosterone:cortisol ratio improves as you lower your body fat and increase your lean body mass. 

This means that lean individuals tend to have more testosterone and less cortisol than fat individuals. I’m sure you know how important testosterone is to muscle building

The more muscle and less fat you carry the better your hormonal balance. 

The bottom line?

Rushing your bulks and doing “dirty bulks” (I also hate this term) will give you bad p-ratios, which means more fat and less muscle gained. No bueno. 

To avoid this: 

  • Don’t rush your bulks, don’t do dirty bulks, go slow. And aim at gaining 0.25% – 0.5% of your bodyweight per week.
  • Start your bulks lean and finish them lean.

4. You’ll be healthier overall

The better your hormonal environment the healthier you’ll be.

And as you know (#3), lean individuals tend to have a better hormonal environment than their fat counterparts. 

One of the worse side effects of getting too fat is that once you create a fat cell, you can’t destroy it; it will stay with you for the rest of your life. 

If you gain too much fat too fast, your fat cells can multiply by a process called fat cell hyperplasia. And when you add a new fat cell to your body, it’ll be with you for the rest of your life. 

You can empty the fat cell, and it’ll shrink, but it will not disappear. 

People with more fat cells tend to get hungrier and are way more likely to gain more fat in the future, which makes getting and staying leaner harder. 

#scary

5. Your cutting phases will be shorter

Have you ever gone on a diet for a long time?

If you haven’t, I’ll tell you what it’s like:

It sucks. 

And the more fat you carry, the longer you’ll have to diet to get lean. 

Being on a calorie deficit for a period longer than 12 weeks is not easy.

  • You get tired.
  • You get moody.
  • You get cravy.
  • Your sex drive gets lower. 
  • Your sleep is disrupted. 

Not fun. 

And it takes around 4-8 weeks for things to get back to normal after you finish a long diet. 

(trust me, I’ve dieted for 20 weeks).

You can avoid long diets by making sure you never get too fat. 

If you always stay between 8-15% body fat for males and between 17-25% body fat for females, your diets will not have to be crazy long to achieve a lean look. 

By staying within this range, you’ll only need 8-12 weeks to get shredded if you want to. 

Now, I can almost hear you thinking: But what about gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time? Let’s look at that next:

What About Body Recomposition? Why Not Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?

I swear I get this question ALL the time:

“But what if I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?”

Here’s the truth:

It’s not an efficient strategy. Building muscle and losing fat require COMPLETELY opposite approaches (one requires a calorie deficit, the other one requires a calorie surplus)

That said, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

There are a few instances where someone can actually increase lean body mass and decrease fat mass. 

Let’s look at each one:

New to training and dieting: if you’ve never trained and never dieted before, and you start doing both properly at the same time, you can recomposition your body for a couple of months, which is what’s known as newbie gains.
The stimuli of training and dieting can be so new and powerful to your body that you’ll be able to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

When you are new to dieting: if you’ve been eating like crap your whole life and all of the sudden you start a proper diet where you control your calories, macros, timing and food composition, you will be able to gain some muscle and burn some fat at the same time. Some people can even gain weight and lose fat at the same time.
Sadly, this effect disappears after a couple of months of dieting and training.

When you’re new to training: If you’ve never lifted weights before or you’ve done really shitty programs for your whole life, once you start a proper weight-training program you can get similar results as the people that are new to dieting.
Here are a couple of great training programs for you

When you use performance-enhancing drugs: the last case in which you achieve body recomposition is by taking drugs. These powerful compounds will allow you to gain muscle while you lose fat. However, in most countries they are illegal and they carry certain health risks. Just like when you’re natural, there’ll be a point where your body will stop recomping and you’ll need higher doses to achieve the same effect. 

If you fall into one of the categories above, then you can get some body recomposition. 

But it isn’t a practical goal. 

If you have a high body fat percentage (+15% men and +25% women), then focus on doing a fat loss diet, and you’ll get the recomposition along the way (if you fall into one of the categories above). 

And if you have a low body fat percentage (-10% men and -20% women), then focus on a bulking diet, and you’ll get the recomposition along the way (if you fall into one of the categories above). 

The bottom line?

Splitting up your phases into dedicated periods of cutting (where you focus on losing fat) and bulking (where you focus on muscle building), and maintenance (where you focus on maintaining your bodyweight) will allow you to build more muscle and lose more fat in each phase. 

If you do it over years and years, those small gains compound into very large gains. 

And that’s how you build a jacked body.

How and When to Transition From Cutting to Bulking

Now, this is important. 

If you are going to alternate between cutting, bulking, and maintenance cycles, then you must have a transition plan between each cycle. 

Having a plan will allow you to lose fat and keep it off, and not having one will increase the chances of regaining all the fat you lost once your cut is over, which can dramatically increase the time it takes to get ripped…

After a diet, you should do a post-diet maintenance phase (both after a cutting or bulking phase). 

At the end of a cutting phase, your calories will typically be very low and you need to give yourself and your body time to ease back into eating—which is done during a maintenance phase. 

Another benefit of a post-diet maintenance phase is to give your body time to get back into physical and psychological homeostasis, which means adapting to your new bodyweight.

This post talks about how to set up your year to succeed.

Your Mind Matters More than Your Body: What It Takes to Build a Muscular Physique

One of the last things I want to touch on is that building a great body takes time. 

I’m talking about a body that’s both lean and muscular. 

It just doesn’t happen overnight. 

How long will it take to build an outstanding, crazy-looking physique? Years. 

Yep. There’s just no shortcut. 

I used to finish cuts and go straight to crazy bulks, then ended up gaining a bunch of fat. I would then try to repeat the cycle, without any plan or structure. 

And it just sucked. 

You need to be patient, and you need to learn how to think for the long term. 

That’s why you have to:

Change Your Focus

After I tell someone it’ll take them 1-4 years to build out their dream physique, the reaction is usually something like:

“WTF?! I need to do the diet and training thing for 4 years to have an amazing body?”

Yep. 

I never said it was easy to build a sick physique. If it were, everyone would be jacked, ripped, and strong. 

But almost no one is. 

Which leads to my point:

You will not go from your current body to your dream body overnight. 

It’s a process with small changes. It will gradually happen as you work towards your goals. 

For this reason, you need to make this a lifestyle, not a summer thing or a 4-week diet thing. 

If you don’t make this a lifestyle, you’ll struggle to achieve your goal. 

More importantly, you need to:

Enjoy The Process More than the Goal

If you decide to pursue the endeavor of building your dream physique, you need to become process-oriented as opposed to goal-oriented. 

Make sure that it makes you happy to pursue this goal. 

You only have one life, and whatever you choose to do should provide pleasure and should add value to your life, not the opposite. 

Answer this:

Are you 100% sure you’ll enjoy the process of building a physique?

Yeah, looking awesome is fantastic. 

But if the process towards looking awesome makes you unhappy and miserable, then you might want to rethink it. 

Personally, I love working on my physique, and it goes a level deeper than just the physical aspect.

Sure, I want to look as freakishly jacked as I can. 

But I truly enjoy being disciplined. It gives my life a sense of purpose, and it pushes me to learn and improve myself every single day. 

I also love to see what my body is capable of. 

What’s more? Looking awesome gives me a level of confidence I would not have otherwise. 

So, right now, take a step back and think about what you want in life. 

What drives you? What makes you tick? What do you want in life? If you uncover and acknowledge these feelings, sticking to a plan will be a lot easier for yourself. 

Learn to enjoy the process of working towards your fitness goals.

The bottom line? Should You Bulk or Cut?

It depends.

If you’re already lean (below 10% men and below 20% women) then start bulking asap. 

But if you’re like most people (+15% body fat men and +25% body fat women), you’ll have to do a cut first. 

Remember, getting lean first will set you up for long-term success. That means that you’ll finish your bulks leaner and with more definition. 

Best of all, you’ll only need a short period of cutting between every bulking period. And if you ever want to get really shredded, it’ll only take 6-12 weeks at the most. 

Also, your bulking periods will be a lot more fun, because you’ll be able to flex your growing muscles while training and the pumps you’ll get at the gym will be insane. 

Furthermore, staying lean is healthier for your body: your hormonal balance is better, your insulin sensitivity is better, and you’ll feel better overall. 

Next Steps

Awesome, so now your goal is to cut and get lean so that you can start a bulking period to add muscle mass to your frame. 

But…

How do you get started?

First things first. The number one step is to set up your diet correctly so that you can lose fat without losing muscle. Then you will also need a good training program that maximizes muscle growth. 

Then, you have to track how you’re progressing to make sure your plan works. And lastly, after you finish your cutting phase, you need to transition into maintenance and then bulking so you don’t gain all the fat back. 

Wheew. Reading that might feel a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re just getting started.

The best way to make things easier is to get help. 

An expert can save you years of mistakes and frustration. What’s more? He or she will help you build your dream body faster than you could ever do alone. 

Experts have years of experience, and most of them have made a shit ton of mistakes (which you will avoid by hiring one). 

The best advice I can give you? Hire a coach and you’ll shortcut your way to accomplishing your fitness goals. 

And if you want my help to accomplish your fitness goals and to set up your bulking and cutting plan correctly, you can apply to work with me here. 

 

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