It’s the age-old bodybuilding conundrum…Should you bulk or cut first?
Should you focus on cutting fat and getting lean? Or should you focus on building muscle and getting big?
For every fitness “guru” who tells you that packing on mass should be your first step, you can find another who claims that shredding down is the better option. In this article, I will give you three undeniable reasons that you should start your fitness journey by getting lean before shifting your focus to building muscle and bulking up.
Reason #1: Optimized Hormone Levels
The first reason to start by getting lean is because it will optimize your hormone levels for building mass. Allow me to explain…
In other words, when you cut fat and get lean, you optimize your hormone levels. First off, you raise your testosterone levels. Testosterone’s crucial role in muscle protein synthesis has earned it the reputation of being the “muscle building” hormone. It’s also why it’s the most common anabolic steroid used by athletes and bodybuilders. You see, testosterone binds to the receptors of muscle cells inside your body. It then amplifies the biochemical signals that ultimately result in muscle protein synthesis. And muscle protein synthesis, in turn, leads to muscle growth. Higher testosterone also increases your levels of growth hormone. This is another key hormone that leads to higher rates of muscle protein synthesis.
Getting lean and reducing your body fat also increases your insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is a measure of how “receptive” your muscle cells are to the protein known as insulin. When insulin binds to the walls of a muscle cell, it essentially gets the cell to “open its gates.” This allows glucose, amino acids, and creatine to enter the muscle. Increased insulin sensitivity means that your muscle cells are better primed to bind with insulin, open up, and initiate the growth process. Between its effects on testosterone and insulin sensitivity, getting lean ultimately causes your body to become more efficient at building muscle. This means that for every pound you gain, a higher percentage of it will be muscle, and a lower percentage will be fat. You might as well take advantage of this fact and get lean before you focus on building size.
Reason #2: Look Better Sooner
Another big reason you should start by cutting down is that it allows you to look better sooner.
If you’re not satisfied with your muscle definition right now, and you start by bulking up, then you’re essentially delaying the gratification. You’ll put off the confidence boost that comes along with achieving a lean body.
If you start by cutting down, then you will reach a lower body fat percentage way sooner. This means you’re going to be more ripped and look better naked now, rather than having to put it off while you bulk up. On top of this, building muscle takes a lot longer than cutting fat. Our bodies are simply not naturally capable of packing on mass faster than about half a pound per week (at best!). However, you can cut fat as quickly as one pound per week without risking losing muscle mass. This means you can get lean a lot faster than it takes to get bigger. Once you’re lean, you can take the proper steps to ensure that you stay lean while you bulk up (more on that in a minute). This allows you to look good naked all year round… Yes, even while you’re gaining weight and packing on mass. So, again, why delay the gratification of looking good now? It just doesn’t make sense.
Reason #3: More Sustainable Lifestyle
There’s one final reason I want to cover here.
If you’re already chubbier than you want to be, and you start by bulking up, you’ll reach a point where you’ve gained too much fat. You’ll reach a point where you’re no longer comfortable with how you look.
This will inevitably lead you to cutting down. And you’ll probably do it at a rate faster than you should since you’re unhappy with your appearance. When you do this, you risk losing muscle in the process. Guess what happens next? You end up looking shockingly similar to how you looked when you got started. Sure, you built some mass as you bulked up. But you also gained fat (see reason #1). Then you got scared about how chubby you looked, and you started to rapidly cut weight. And this led you to sacrifice muscle mass (along with some fat). Now, by the time you reach the weight you started at, you will have only held onto a small amount of new muscle. And guess what usually happens next? You start to gorge yourself and stuff your face, desperately trying to get your gains back. This is a form of “yo-yo” dieting, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen guys fall for this trap. It’s really a shame. Not only does it lead to excruciatingly slow progress, it also often leads to body image issues and long-term eating disorders. The superior alternative is to get lean now, and then do a slow “lean bulk”. This way, you get to look good now. You’ll also have the patience to gain weight at a slow and controlled pace, making sure that you’re putting on muscle, and minimizing fat gain. You win now. And you get to make steady gains after that. Plus you maintain your sanity. Sounds like an awesome plan, right?
Ok, So How Do I Know When to Bulk and When to Cut?
I want to end this article by giving you some actionable steps to apply these ideas and make sure you make the fastest progress possible. In general, I advise you to start by cutting if you want to be leaner than you currently are.
Now, don’t get greedy here. If you ultimately want to gain size and get bigger, then don’t waste your time getting below 10% body fat. You see, when you gain weight, your body is inevitably going to gain some fat. And even though we discussed the hormonal benefits of getting lean above, those trends don’t continue at super low body fat percentages (i.e. your testosterone levels don’t continue to rise once you’re already relatively lean). In general, I recommend cutting down until you’re below 15% body fat. For most guys, this will allow you to look good naked, optimize your hormone levels, and put yourself in a good position to bulk up without getting fat. Don’t get anal here, but once you’re at the point where you can see your abs when you flex, I think you’re in a good position to stop cutting weight, switch gears, and focus on gaining size.
Ok Cool, and Then What?
So now, once your bulk is underway, I would advise you to cut back down only when your body fat exceeds about 15%.
This is not an exact science – and there’s nothing magical about 15% body fat – but for most guys, that’s when you’ll start to lose a lot of muscle definition. And – even though you’ve built more muscle with every pound you’ve gained – you’ll actually start to look smaller.
You see, the fat you’ve gained in the process will essentially “cover up” your muscle mass and give you a softer, chubbier look. This will probably negatively affect your self-confidence as well. Not to mention, if you keep gaining weight you’ll eventually sacrifice the increased testosterone and hormonal benefits we discussed at the beginning of the article. At that point, for every pound of bodyweight you gain, more and more of it will be fat, and less and less of it will be lean mass. Look – I’m not saying these things to scare you! If you gain weight slowly and use progressive overload in the gym, then most of your weight gain should be muscle. You won’t have to worry about cutting back down very often at all. In fact, most guys should be able to maintain a slow bulk over the course of one or two full years without ever needing to restrict calories and diet back down. That seems like a win-win situation if I’ve ever seen one. I hope that all makes sense. Let me know any questions you have in the comments below.
About the Author
David de las Morenas, CSCS, is a bestselling men's health author and the founder of How to Beast. You can get his free muscle building workout routine by clicking here.