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!

(NEW: If you want to ensure your “bulk” goes as well as it possibly can, I’d highly recommend checking out my new program, Superior Muscle Growth. It’s designed entirely for the purpose of maximizing lean muscle gains while minimizing body fat gains.)

Want to build muscle as fast and effectively as possible? It's time: Superior Muscle Growth

Subscribe To A Workout Routine

Subscribe today to get FREE tips, answers and updates
to help you build muscle, lose fat and improve your body!

296 Comments

  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?

    Thanks,
    Joanne

  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.

  4. Jason says

    Hey Man,

    Again, awesome site! In short, my BF is at 10%, i’m 147 lbs and 5.6 foot in height. I’m following the guidance given in both your diet and workout plan (full body beginner workout #2) with the goal of losing fat, only because I want to reveal my abs, as my 2nd goal is to build some muscle to have a more leaner look.

    Problem: I’m new to diets and working out and I have a few of things i’m unsure about. Your six pack guide mentions to lose more fat and perhaps train your abs, yet i’m on 10% BF and still cant see much. Do I now go down to 8%? (Is this healthy? will this affect my performance when working out?) The article above recommends to start bulking rather. Yes my end goal is to build more muscle eventually but I really want those abs as well.

    What would you recommend I do? This is really the last thing that’s bugging me.

    Thanks

      • Jason says

        Well that’s what the Biokineticist told me when I went for my yearly fitness assessment, If i recall she used one of those calipers to measure it. Measuring my back near the shoulder and the side of my stomach, near my right hip.

        I bought one of these, but I just cant get the hang of it.

        http://www.accumeasurefitness.com/

        • says

          I ask because at 10% most guys will see some abs + most people claim their body fat is much lower than it actually is as a result of just inaccurate measurements. Not saying that is your problem here, but if you are a legit 10%, odds are you’d see some abs. And in most cases when a person claims to be that lean but CAN’T see their abs much if at all, odds are they are just not quite as lean as they think. Without seeing what you look like I couldn’t say for sure, though.

  5. bhavya says

    Hello,
    Nice article but still a little confused.

    I am guy . I am 5’9″ and I weigh 71 kgs. I used to weigh a little over 105 kgs last year during the same month. Now my upper abs do show but I still have love handles. What should I do ? My primary goal with my body is to be fit and athletic, beach body kind of .

    Cheers

  6. Sam says

    Great article! Still confused. I’m really starting to try and take fitness serious now and really want a decent set of starting tips. I’m 16 years old (male). I am 6″2 and I’m bouncing around 195lbs. I want to get bigger (as in muscle mass) but i want to barely have a thin layer of fat over that muscle. I don’t want to look like an offensive lineman (more toned and chiseled). Am I going to have to gain more weight and almost look fat to get the results I’m looking for. I’m new to this, but really want to get as fit as I can. I do not know my BFI. Is there any tips? Thanks

  7. D says

    Thanks for the great article! I am basically a newbie to weight lifting, and just started 14 weeks ago (with one week of rest). This entire time (other than the week of rest), I’ve been lifting heavy 5x per week, and on a 20% calorie deficit. I want to get big and muscular, but knew I had to cut fat first. I’m about 5’11” and 173lbs. I am making progress almost every week I go to the gym on my lifts, so I know I am getting stronger. Visibly, I am less fat than when I started, and a little more shapely (muscular).

    Fourteen weeks is about three months, and though I have been cutting this entire time, my weight is exactly the same as when I started. Granted, the whole reason I am cutting while lifting is because I have read that newbies can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, which you mention in another article. This is clearly happening with me; however, I am a bit confused as to why my weight is the exact same as three months ago. From what I’ve read, losing weight comes much faster than gaining muscle, so since my weight is stable despite the “recomposition,” am I really gaining muscle faster than most people do, or am I not losing as much fat as I should be? For example, maybe my TDEE estimate is off, and I should be eating less calories and losing fat faster. Any opinions?

    I would consider myself somewhat lean at this point, and while I am more lean than I have ever been in my life, and definitely improved over three months ago, I am not as lean as I want to be. I have no clue what my real body fat percentage is, but I definitely want to have less belly fat than I do now, so I have decided to continue cutting until all abs are visible before I bulk. Does this seem like a good idea, or am I “wasting precious newbie gain time” in terms of eating a caloric surplus and lifting?

    Thanks a lot for the help!

    • says

      If you look leaner for sure and can tell fat loss has clearly happened (measurements would be a good way to tell, especially stomach), then it’s possible there is a recomp happening. If you’re happy with that, awesome. Keep doing what you’re doing until it stops.

      However, if you’d much rather be losing fat as fast as you could be, there should certainly be some degree of net weight loss happening even if you are building muscle at the same time. Like you mentioned, fat loss can happen waaaaay faster than muscle growth can. So if they are in fact happening at an equal rate, it would mean fat loss is happening quite slow (not extra fast growth).

      • D says

        That makes a ton of sense. Thanks! I do have body fat calipers, and though I don’t trust them to give me an accurate reading, the relative number it provides has been going down over the past three months ago. I also have pictures from Day 1, and there is at least a small difference compared to now.

        If I want to lose fat faster, I should just lower calories further, right? The problem is 20% deficit is basically already my BMR, so lowering calories further would theoretically put my daily intake below my BMR. Do you think that’s an issue to consider? Then again, since I’m not losing fat very fast at all, maybe my BMR is actually lower than the calculators tell me?

        Thanks again!

  8. VC says

    Hey,

    I’m 5’11 male and weight 163 lbs. I’m at around 11% body fat(got it measured at my gym). I’ve been working out 6 days a week for about 8 months now. I can barely see my top 4 abs. My goal is to get to get down to 8% bf and also put on 5 more lbs of muscle. Can I do those simultaneously, or does it have to happen separately? Thanks for your help.

  9. Austin says

    Hey great article man it really cleared things up! I’ve decided I need to lose fat first before working on building substantial muscle. Im not even close to being considered fat but I’ve got a beer gut you could say like I can’t wear the same tight shirts I wore 2 years ago cuz it would look gross lol. What I’m wondering is what kind of routine to do. Like should I continue to lift heavy weights 4 times a week and just incorporate more cardio and a better diet? And if I go into a caloric deficit will I lose strength and be unable to maintain my current muscle mass? Thanks

  10. Lamar says

    Love the Article. I’m 6’4 and weight around 175-179 pounds also 22 going on 23 years old soon, I’m at this point skinny but is soft around the edges in the belly area just a little bit. I think I’m at 20% body fat or 18% maybe If i took a guess in a mirror. I was told different paths i should take and not sure which one should i go first. I’m planning on buying a Gym membership soon and is trying to work on a good diet plan. I have in place a diet plan where i take in about 2300-2500 calories a day with high protein so i may gain muscle as I lose fat when I’m on the workout routine 5 days a week. I was told to bulk as I get lean but I’m scared i will get fat or chubby. Should I work on Leaning out first? Then bulk up after I see enough muscle and possible visible abs showing? I am completely new at this and also do you have anytips on workout routines I should follow for a guy who has little muscle?

    • says

      If you are truly 20%, then you should focus on fat loss first. But at 6’4 175lbs, I dunno if you’re actually 20%.

      But regardless, assuming you’re a beginner you’ll be able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Details here.

      • Lamar says

        Thank you So much for the quick reply! Nice article you linked. I found out I’m actually 16% in-between 17% body fat. Should my main focus still be to lose fat? I’m not sure if i fall into the fat beginner category in the article.

        • says

          If you’re 16-17%, then yes. You should ideally get down to 12% or less before going into a surplus.

          But as a beginner, if you combine the beginner routine (and a focus on consistent progression) with a diet designed for fat loss (a small deficit, sufficient protein, etc.), you’ll build some muscle while you lose that fat.

          • Lamar says

            Thank you so much! beginner routine and with a diet plan for fat loss with high protein.Got it! I’ll work my hardest! Thank you again for helping me point towards the right path. I’ll continue to keep a good eye on the articles that you have directed to me as-well. Thanks!

  11. James says

    Excellent article! I’m extremely glad to run across your site today. Starting tomorrow, I’ve decided to use your upper/lower split routines.

    I am skinny-fat currently 167lbs at 5′ 10″. My body fat percentage currently hovers around 20%-22% (2 years ago I was at 23.7%BF at 178lbs). My protruding belly and love handles bother me but I do want to gain muscle like a fitness model. Do you suggest I cut down to your suggested 10-13%BF before bulking? I’m thinking that’s what I want to do before beginning the lean muscle gaining phase. Thanks!

  12. Jerome says

    Hi, this forum is really insightful and I feel you’re the best person to ask, so here goes.
    So i am a 29yo male, (1m85 / 72kg) i decided to start weight training at home using a multi gym and thus started bulking to progress. Before i started i was ultra lean and skinny with a visible six pack that i was quite content with, and now i have gained muscle on my arms, shoulders and back. However i have also put on some fat and my six pack is no longer visible. After meals i feel like i have somewhat of a belly and worried i’ll never get my sixpack back!

    I might have been eating too much (whereas before i barely ate anything at all, and did a lot of cardio (track bike racing)) and skipped a few workouts here and there. So the fat gains which still aren’t too bad don’t come as a surprise and i do look much healthier overall, so my QUESTION IS: will it be hard to get my six pack back? And what can i do to get visible abs again without stopping the bulk and sacrificing all the work ive put in so far? I know i can go back to one meal a day and ride track again but i dont want to lose my muscle gains… Any suggestions? Maybe reduce my carb intake and keep up my protein intake? Or is this something i should worry about all together later on? I can send pics if it can help! Thanks in advance. Regards, J.

  13. Jenny says

    Hi Jay, fantastic and concise collection of information here. Thank you.

    For the overfat beginner (read: 40%bf female), what deficit is acceptable for still gaining muscle? I’ve been following a barbell-compound lift routine with built in progressive overload for six weeks and I’ve lost about 12 inches all over my body but not a single pound. I’m operating under a 20% deficit but I wonder if I would be better off with some form of appetite suppression and up to 50% deficit (maintaining my protein intake)? Note that I’m just starting to struggle with my weight progression – had my first failure yesterday. I’m fine with slowing down or even stopping my strength gains if it means shredding off the weight.

    I’d greatly appreciate your informed opinion.

    • says

      I’d say a 20% deficit is usually a good place for most people to be.

      But, if you really wanted to lose it a little faster, something in the 25-30% range can be a potential option. But the bigger the deficit, the harder it’s going to be for you to take advantage of your ability to build muscle during this time.

  14. Emil says

    Hi Jay, i wanna hear your advice on “bulk or cut” issue.
    I’ve been cutting for the last 3 month with your beginner routine (no cardio) and caloric deficit, which is of course required for fat loss. I lost 15 pounds in this period, and because i’m beginner, i’ve even gained decent amount of strength. For that, i’m really grateful to you :)
    Now, i’m on a state that really don’t know which way to go. I don’t know if i should continue my cutting, or begin to bulk. Can you please look at my photos and give a tip to brother about it? :)
    Love your work my friend.
    http://imgur.com/8WSuhjz
    http://imgur.com/5Kyd70N

  15. Sidney says

    What’s up Jay? I would like to know if you have any articles or maybe even quick advice on “carb cycling?” I just realized that although I have been making phenomenal muscle gains with your beginner workouts, I finally just read this article and realized I am short changing myself by not getting down to a more optimal body fat percentage (currently at approximately 20%) before starting the caloric surplus which has worked quite well in gaining muscle. I currently am following “flexible dieting” or IIFYM but the bulking phase. I do have a friend of mine who currently competes and she has been carb cycling with ridiculous results. Your input would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance brotha!

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *