- The answer to should I bulk or cut is always what is pissing you off the most
- Recomping is only good if you are new or coming off a long absence
Ahh, the age old question…should you bulk or cut first?
Or to make things a little more confusing, should you try to recomp and get the best of both worlds?
It’s the Mexican Standoff of body transformations.
It can be confusing to know what you need in pursuit of what you want. This results in leading you down a path of losing months or years of time.
So in this article, I’m going to make it super easy for you to make the right decision on which way you should go for faster progress and ultimately a happier, more confident and sexier you.
Let’s get it.
What’s Needed To Build Muscle
Let’s break things down, super simple like.
When you are building muscle, you are actually building new muscle tissue.
The reps you do in the gym create little tears in your muscles making the calories and protein you eat come in to repair the muscle bigger and stronger to prevent it from happening again.
Over time your body gets strong enough where these tears don’t happen when lifting a certain weight. So in order to keep getting those tears so the muscle keeps building you need to keep adding weight aka Progressive Overload.
Think about if you had to rake leaves on multiple weekends. Odds are the first weekend you’ll be sore as shit, but as you do it more you aren’t as sore each time. Same idea here.
Now from that simplified look under the hood what can we deduce from that to help you grow big strong sexy muscles?
Calories for repair
A surplus of calories to feed the muscle repair as well as fueling your workouts (and of course all the other functions your body does) and progressive overload to make sure there is enough new stimulus on the muscle to create those muscle tears.
From the 30,000 ft view, this is how you build muscle.
Now with the basics out of the way, let’s look at the all important timelines because that is going to play a YUGE role in things.
Here’s a chart from the Alan Aragon Research Review that lays out the amount of lean muscle you can build depending on where you are in training experience.
*For beginners, the 1-1.5% is for the initial few months then as your body becomes more adapted to the training you upgrade into the Intermediate category.
If you aren’t sure where you fall, here’s some points to consider.
Beginner: If you are brand spankin’ new to lifting weights or if you’ve never followed a properly laid out workout program. If you start your workout with arms or aren’t sure how to progress a workout over months, this is you. If you look around the gym, this is about 50-60% of people.
Intermediate: You have built muscle in the past, but you maybe have been stagnant for a while. You know how to push yourself and pull back before injury, switch out exercises correctly and have average to above average strength in most exercises. This is about 30-40% of people in the gym right now.
Advanced: These are your bodybuilders, athletes and most coaches. They know how to structure a year or multiple years of workouts properly, they can push harder than most and they can articulate how workouts and nutrition go hand in hand. This is about 5-10% of people in your gym right now, unless you go to a Planet Fitness then it’s 1%.
I kid…OK, it’s prob closer to 0%
So for a 180 lb person in each stage, this is what you could see for if they focused on muscle growth per month:
Advanced: 0.45-0.9 lb
And this is per month with the assumption you’re eating enough to grow.
So in summary, to build muscle optimally you need to be eating enough so you can perform well in the gym and recover. Depending on where you are in training age, to build five pounds of muscle you need anywhere from 2 to 5 months.
What’s Needed For Fat Loss
Now fat loss on the other hand is even simpler in terms of what you need.
A calorie deficit.
Seriously, I helped my dad lose 30 lbs at the ripe old age of 60 without doing a single rep of exercise. It was all calorie deficit.
When you take in less calories than you need, your body has to supplement the energy gap between what you need and what you take in. That energy gap is filled by body fat.
So let’s talk about timelines now. The timeline for fat loss is considerably shorter than building muscle. In a calorie deficit, a good rate of loss is 0.5-1% of total bodyweight per week.
So a 180lb guy focusing on fat loss can look to lose 0.9-1.8lbs per week or roughly 3.6-7.2lbs per month.
These timelines are important to keep in mind for the next section.
What’s Needed To Recomp
Let’s define recomp for a second so we are both on the same page. Recomping is maintaining your current weight while building muscle and losing fat at the same time.
If you were to try this, it would require more calories on workout days and less calories on rest days. This way you can be in a surplus to fuel and recover while you workout and jump on that calorie deficit wagon while you rest.
Sound like a pain in the ass? It is.
You have to juggle different calorie amounts on different days and if you workout in the morning workouts are likely to suffer because you don’t have enough calories in your system for energy.
But that’s not even the best part…
Let’s talk about timelines. For this, I’ma use an analogy for people that aren’t in the Beginner muscle building phase. I’ll get those these people in a sec.
I live in Massachusetts.
And at some point I want to go back to California for vacation.
There’s a few ways I can get there.
For the sake of this analogy we’ll limit it to an airplane, car, and on foot.
So we can agree taking an airplane would be the fastest, a couple hours and I’m there.
Driving would be the second fastest at about a week and walking it Oregon Trail style would be by far the slowest taking a few months provided I didn’t die of dysentery first.
So we can agree it wouldn’t make much sense to walk, right?
In this analogy taking an airplane would be taking steroids, driving would be the equivalent of a slight calorie surplus and finally walking would be trying to recomp.
Sure you could build muscle while trying to lose fat at the same time but it would take waayyyyy too freakin’ long and you’d likely die of dysentery (lack of motivation) before seeing any appreciable muscle mass or fat loss.
Muscle building is already a slow process and to do it halfway would elongate those timelines immensely.
For beginners on the other hand, they respond super well to workouts regardless of where calories are in the beginning. This is the raking leaves analogy we talked about earlier. Lots of new stimulus from lifting weights so the body works hard to fix the damage and make the body more resilient for the next time. After the newness wears off then the rate of gain slows down.
So unless you fall into the Beginner category, there’s no point in trying to recomp. You can accomplish a lot more by focusing on fat loss or building muscle individually and switching than trying to kill two birds with one slow ass stone.
It takes way too long to see any kind of results. Having helped guys build muscle and lose fat, I suggest you pick one and focus on that, get your results and try something else.
So…Should I Bulk Or Cut First Quiz
Here’s the quiz…
What pisses you off THE MOST right now?
What jumps out at you first when you look in the mirror?
The lack of strength?
The lack of definition?
The missing muscles?
Aggravation is a fantastic motivator and it really taps into what you need rather than what you want.
Here’s an example…
Let’s say you THINK you need to build muscle and lose fat at the same time because it will make you feel better. But when you look in the mirror you feel like a fat ass and lack confidence because your shirts keep getting tighter.
Is building muscle going to alleviate that aggravation? More than likely not, it’s only going to make things worse because you have to increase calories and get a little fluffy.
So if you’re feeling that way, fat loss is the right path until you like what you see in the mirror and then bulk up.
And the funny part about fat loss is you look more jacked the leaner you are. You are better able to see the muscles so you have the appearance of having more muscle.
As an example, here’s me at 188 and 173. I look like I have a lot more muscle the leaner I got.
My client Robert is in the same situation.
I’m willing to bet my son that you’re the same too.
If you are obese, then fat loss is gonna be the path to chose. Your body often can’t build optimally when you have too much body fat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum if you resemble Marilyn Manson in the late 90’s, fat loss prob isn’t the right path for you because you are already lean.
In that case, building muscle would be the right path for you.
And finally, if you’ve never worked out a day in your life, you can either go with recomping or building muscle. Your rate of muscle gain will be high regardless of calories so feel free to dip your toes in both pools…or just focus on muscle building because the initial gainz will be sick.
How Often to Bulk And Cut
Trying to decide when to go from bulking to cutting or vise versa can be confusing, so here’s the easiest way to tell…
When it comes to bulking the main things you should pay attention to are how you are performing in the gym and how you are recovering (sleeping, overall body feels).
If either of those suck, you aren’t going to be building muscle optimally.
Once you hit that point, take some time off to diet down and then start the process of bulking again.
On the other side of that coin, going from cutting to bulking, recovery (sleep and overall body feels) is going to be the main driver of when to switch or at very least take time just maintaining.
If recovery sucks, everything sucks. Time to switch.
So if I were to give you general timelines to follow, here’s what I tell my online coaching clients:
Fat Loss Focus:
3-4 months of fat loss then a 1 month break and assess where you want to go based on how you look. If you need to lose more, go until recovery sucks and reassess. If you want to start building, then go into the Muscle Gain path below.
The reason I suggest these timelines is because fat loss is fairly quick like we talked about earlier. In 3-4 months you can expect to lose 12-30lbs depend on how much you had to lose to start with. Also around 3-4 months is when people get tired of dieting and recovery starts to tank. This makes it a good time to reassess goals while we bring calories up for about a month.
Muscle Gain Focus:
4-6 months of building, 1.5 month of fat loss, 3-5 months of bulking, then reassess based on how you look. If you want to keep on bulking, take it in 3-6 month blocks depending on performance and recovery. If you want to drop fat go with the fat loss focus above.
Like we talked about before, building muscle is very slow so anything less than 4-6 months is a waste of time. At this point is usually when recovery gets to a point where you can’t push through anymore. Plus. you’re more than likely starting to feel a little too fluffy which is why you should go into a 6 week aggressive diet and back off the workouts a bit. This allows you to strip off a bunch of fat and allows your body to reduce stress so recovery is better. You don’t want to diet for too long because muscle building is the goal, so after those 6 weeks, get right back on the muscle building horse for another 3-5 months. This will give you at least 7 months of muscle building where you can put on a considerable amount of visual muscle.
Wrap it Up B
If I’d written this article last year I would have said fat loss is the way to go if you are above 15% body fat and muscle gain if you are less than 15%. This way you’re able to better utilize carbs for fuel and recovery.
Now, I don’t think there is a point where you need to be before you start bulking. This is due to the research Eric Trexler came out with earlier this year and based on mine and my online coaching client’s bulking.
The best way I’ve found to make life changing body transformations is to go with what pisses you off the most, fixing that, then changing strategies because once you have that problem solved something else is going to piss you off.
If you try to recomp the results are going to be so slow you’ll likely quit before you see any results in the mirror, again unless you are a noob in the gym. Pick one goal, go all in on it and watch your body change.