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

I’ve previously covered the basics of bulking and cutting the right way and the wrong way. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap…

  • A person would “bulk” when their primary goal is to build muscle.
  • A person would “cut” when their primary goal is to lose fat.
  • To do this the right way and get the best results possible, the true goal while bulking is to build muscle while keeping fat gains to an absolute minimum. When cutting, the true goal is to lose fat while maintaining all of the muscle you’ve built. If you do it the wrong way like so many people do, you’d gain too much excess body fat while bulking and/or lose too much lean muscle while cutting and basically spin your wheels and get nowhere.
  • A person would then alternate between phases of bulking and cutting until they’re as lean and muscular as they desire.

Now after hearing all of this, there are always three questions that come to mind.

  1. Which phase should I start with? Should I bulk or cut first?
  2. How long should each phase last before switching to the other?
  3. The hell with these stupid phases, why don’t we all just lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

Now those last two questions are really good and I get asked both all the time. The thing is, their answers are a little complicated and will take an entire article of their own to properly explain. As it turns out, I’ve recently answered #3 over here: How To Lose Fat And Build Muscle At The Same Time. But right here and now, it’s the first question that I want to focus on and answer.

Should I Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?

If you’re asking this question, then there’s one safe assumption I can make about you… you currently have body fat you’d like to lose AND muscle you’d like to gain. Obvious, right?

But I mention it to make sure we understand that if you’re just fat and don’t really care much about building muscle, you wouldn’t be asking this question. You’d just lose fat first because that’s the primary (or only) goal you care about. The same goes for if you’re already pretty lean/skinny. In that case, you don’t care about losing any more fat… you just want to build muscle.

But if you’re asking this question, then you obviously want or need to do both. You just can’t figure out which to do first.

And in that case, while there are a few factors to consider when making this decision, there’s one that matters more than all of them…

What Is Your Current Body Fat Percentage?

As I mentioned before, the key to doing a “smart” bulk and ending up with something good to show for it in the end is to avoid gaining excess body fat while you build muscle.

Your diet and weight training routine are the key factors in optimizing this muscle:fat gain ratio, but there’s actually something else in your control that plays a significant role in this area: your current body fat percentage. Why? Because…

The fatter you are and the higher your body fat percentage gets, the worse your calorie partitioning gets and the more likely your body is to start storing excess calories as fat instead of muscle.

Not to mention, the fatter you are when you start to bulk, the fatter you’re going to be when you end it. Aside from just giving yourself a longer “clean up” job to do when you finally cut (which only increases the potential for muscle loss), this also means you’re going to spend a nice amount of time during the year unnecessarily looking like crap.

Wow, fun!

For these reasons (and others), starting a bulk (and therefore creating the caloric surplus required for building muscle) when in an already-fat state is just a recipe for disaster.

Instead, the ideal starting point for a muscle building phase is when you are at least somewhat lean. How lean exactly? Well, you don’t have to be super ripped with an 8 pack or anything like that (although you certainly can). But, to a certain point, the leaner the better.

  • For men, this typically means 10-13% body fat (or less).
  • For women, 19-23% body fat (or less).

Starting higher than that can work of course, it’s just probably going to yield sub-optimal results.

But No One Actually Knows Their Body Fat Percentage

However, since most people have no idea what their body fat levels truly are and the typical methods for finding it (online calculators and digital body fat scales) mostly suck, the average person won’t really know for sure if they are indeed at this “at least somewhat lean” status.

So, here’s my advice. Take off some clothes and look in the mirror. Or, take some pictures. Do you look like someone whose #1 goal right now should be losing fat or building muscle?

Use your best unbiased judgment here. Would you consider yourself “at least somewhat lean” and ready to start building some muscle, or would you consider yourself in too much of an already fat state to create a caloric surplus and gain the small amount of fat that will almost always accompany even the smartest of smart bulks?

Then, find your answer below….

I’m In An Already Fat State

If you do indeed consider yourself as being in too much of an already fat state, then the very best thing you can do now is cut first and lose that fat.

Once you’ve lost enough fat and reach “at least somewhat lean” status, that’s when you should start a full muscle building “bulk” phase and create the caloric surplus you need to build that new muscle. Your results will be WAY better this way, trust me.

That doesn’t mean you should hold off on (or stop) weight training until you reach that point of leanness. You should definitely still weight train the entire time. It will help a bit with the fat loss, and even more importantly, it’s the ONLY WAY you will maintain the muscle and strength you currently have.

I’m At Least Somewhat Lean

In this case, while bulking might be the obvious decision, you can technically start off with whichever phase you want based on what’s most important to you right now.

For example, you might want to build more muscle. That might be your #1 long term goal. But if you have some good reason or preference in the short term for getting even leaner than you currently are (some kind of event coming up, curious to see what a six pack looks like, want to start your bulk as lean as possible, etc.), then hey… go for it and then start to bulk right after that.

But if you’re lean enough to start bulking and all you really care about is just building more muscle already, then let the bulk begin!

You can focus on getting extra lean later on when you actually have some muscle mass to uncover.

Start Right, Do It Smartly, Switch, Repeat

So, here’s how it works. Use your current body fat percentage to help you determine if you should bulk or cut first.

Whichever it is, make sure your diet and workout are designed as intelligently as possible so you don’t gain excess body fat while you bulk, and you don’t lose any muscle mass while you cut. This step is key.

Then, after you’ve put in enough time, effort and consistency for progress to be made, switch on over to the other phase and do the same. Depending on exactly what your goals are and exactly how much muscle you want to build and how much fat you want/need to lose, you can repeat this process as many times as needed.

When you end up with your ideal “dream” body… you win!

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  1. Joanne says

    Hi I love your article but I’m still a little confused and don’t want to do the wrong thing.

    I am 5 foot tall 20yr old female and I have just lost weight by eating 1200 kcals a day while doing weight training and cardio. I went from 160lb to 107lb which is my current weight it has taken a year an a half. According to my bodyfat scales i am 22% body fat.

    Basically I want to get away from eating this little a day as I know my weight training will not progress with this little food. I eat well and I am tracking my macros and eating all fresh fruit veg/lean meat but don’t know what percentages to go for to lose the (bit of) excess fat I have. I know there is no magic formula but can you give a starting point as I keep doubting my decisions?

    It is a mental challenge to get away from eating 1200-1400 kcal a day as I have been doing it for so long and seem to be maintaining at this level :( I love my food and this is upsetting haha. The only way I know how to lose weight is by a kcal deficit but if i seem to be maintaining at 1200 something is surely wrong. I just don’t want to undo all of the hard work I have done by doing this wrong. I have been looking at weight lifting women and they eat ALOT a day. I want to be them.

    My overall aim is to be ripped and improve my strength and to generally be lean and drop this body fat percentage down as much as possible.

    Any advise you can give would be amazing where do I start?


  2. Katz says

    Hi! I’m a 16 year old teen girl with my height being 5’1. I weigh 104 and have a BMI of 19.7%. I used to have a BMI of 25% but after HIIT and walking almost everyday I was able to lose over 5% BF. I want to build muscle and gain strength on my whole lower body,arms and waist. But the only problem I have is my stomach sticks out a little but when I measure my waist it comes out 26 inches. But looking at my stomach in the mirror I can see slight definition. Is that fat or my abs starting to develop?

  3. G says

    Hi thank you for this wonderful site. I have been struggling with losing body fat for the last 5 years ( maybe even 10 years) since I always thought of losing “weight” instead of fat prior to that.
    So i’m 30 years and i weigh 130 pounds and 5 feet 5 inches tall. While my “weight” is not bad, I have excessive body fat at 33% and it only shows in my midsection – i have a very weak core and back and good strong and toned legs. I used to only do cardio for the longest time and hence while i did lose both fat and muscle and drop dress sizes, I easily gained the fat back. As per the diagnostic sheet, I need to gain about 12 pounds of muscle and lose about 15 pounds of fat. I did try only a calorie deficient diet but to my horror, I only lost muscle mass! Should I focus on first gaining the muscle ( since I am deficient and not even at normal levels of muscle mass ) or go into a calorie deficient diet with weight training?

    Thanks for your help on this

    • says

      If you are a legit 33% body fat, you should be in a small/moderate deficit to cause fat loss. And since you sound like you are probably a beginner to weight training, that deficit should be combined with a sufficient protein intake and an intelligent beginner program focused on progression. Doing this, you’ll have the ability to build some muscle while losing fat.

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