Some people just want to build muscle (aka “bulk”). Others just want to lose fat (aka “cut”). In cases like these, knowing what to do first is pretty easy.
But what if you want to do both? Which goal are you supposed to start with?
In this article, we’ll determine whether you should bulk or cut first, and we’ll also figure out if losing fat and building muscle at the same time (aka doing a “recomp”) is something you should try instead.
Bulk vs Cut vs Recomp
If you want to build muscle and lose fat, there are 3 options for you to choose from:
Bulking is a term used to describe a muscle building phase. This entails eating an amount of calories that causes a small caloric surplus to exist so that a slow rate of weight gain occurs. The goal here is to gain muscle mass while keeping gains in body fat to a bare minimum.
Cutting is a term used to describe a fat loss phase. This entails eating an amount of calories that causes a caloric deficit to exist so that a moderate and sustainable rate of weight loss occurs. The goal during this time is to lose body fat while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.
Recomp, short for recomposition, is a term used to describe losing fat and building muscle at the same time. This entails eating at your maintenance level each day, or perhaps being in a deficit on certain days and a surplus on others so that you break even in the end. The goal here is to stay around the same body weight while making small changes to your body composition (more muscle, less fat) over time.
In the case of bulking and cutting, you’d typically alternate between phases of each until your long-term goal has been achieved (additional details here: A Guide To Bulking And Cutting).
In the case of a recomp, you’d either stick with that approach until your long-term goal has has been achieved, or until a short-term goal has been reached at which point you may switch to bulking or cutting instead.
The only question is, which option is best for you right now?
Should you bulk, cut, or recomp?
Let’s find out…
Who Should Bulk First?
The simple answer? Those who are “lean enough” to do so. Let me explain…
You see, bulking will almost always result in at least some body fat being gained along with the muscle you’re building. That’s just the nature of being in a caloric surplus.
It’s a normal part of the process.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between gaining a ton of excess body fat because you’re doing things incorrectly (like many people do when bulking), and gaining a small amount of body fat because you’ve adjusted your diet/workout to keep gains in body fat to a bare minimum.
(Note: my Superior Muscle Growth program is built entirely around making these adjustments.)
But even when doing everything perfectly, you should still expect to gain some fat along with the muscle.
You Need To Be “Lean Enough” To Bulk
For this reason, you don’t want to begin bulking until you are “lean enough” to do so, as attempting to bulk when you’re “too fat” means you’re just going to end up getting even fatter.
And no one wants that.
In addition to potentially being detrimental to your health and worsening your calorie partitioning (i.e. the ratio of how much muscle and fat you gain while in a surplus), it also means you’re going to look like crap throughout the entire muscle building process, because going from “fat” to “fatter” isn’t exactly a pretty transformation.
But when you’re “lean enough” before you start? Now you have some room to work with.
You can gain some body fat along with the muscle you’re building and still look fairly decent throughout the process because you never end up getting “too fat” along the way.
So the question is, how lean is “lean enough” to bulk? Here’s what I recommend.
Ideal Body Fat Range For Bulking
- Men who are 10-15% body fat (or less) can bulk first.
- Women who are 18-23% body fat (or less) can bulk first.
Exactly where you choose to start within these ranges mostly depends on your own personal preferences. For example…
Option 1: Start Lower, End Lower
I think it’s acceptable, realistic, and often ideal (in terms of maximizing muscle gains) to allow yourself to go up about 5% in body fat during a nice long, slow, successful bulk phase.
That means if a man starts bulking in the 10-12% range, he’d switch to a cut once he reaches the 15-17% range. And a woman who starts in the 18-20% range would switch to a cut once she reaches the 23-25% range.
In my experience, this is an excellent approach for most people to use, and it tends to be my default recommendation.
Option 2: Start Higher, End Higher
However, if you’re someone who doesn’t mind being in a slightly higher body fat range during the muscle building process, or you just want to focus on building muscle right away rather than spending any extra time getting leaner first, you can feel free to start bulking while you’re at the higher end of these ranges.
For example, if a guy starts bulking at 13-15% instead of 10-12%, he’d simply switch to a cut at 18-20% instead of 15-17%. And a woman who starts to bulk at 21-23% instead of 18-20% would switch to a cut at 26-28% instead of 23-25%.
So, the specifics mostly come down to your own preferences for how you want your body to look and what body fat percentage is acceptable and comfortable for you.
In the end, as long as you’re starting within these ranges and never going more than 5% higher than your starting point, you’ll be getting the best balance of muscle building results while still looking good (i.e. never getting “too fat”) in the process.
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Who Should Cut First?
Simply put, those who aren’t lean enough to bulk should cut first.
This would obviously include anyone who is overweight or obese, as well as anyone who is above the ideal range for bulking that we just discussed.
Ideal Body Fat Range For Cutting
- Men who are above 15% body fat should cut first.
- Women who are above 23% body fat should cut first.
Once you’ve gotten lean enough, that’s when you’d make the switch from cutting to bulking.
And like I mentioned a minute ago, exactly how lean you get before making that switch depends on your personal preferences. Some will prefer cutting down to the lower end of the ideal bulking range, while the higher end may be “lean enough” for others.
But You Still Need To Weight Train!
One important thing I need to point out here is that you should definitely still be weight training while you’re cutting.
Some people seem to be under the impression that if they need to cut first, that means they should hold off on weight training or making any attempt at building muscle until it’s time for them to start bulking.
This is absolutely NOT the case at all.
For starters, weight training is extremely important during a fat loss phase, because it’s a requirement for maintaining muscle while you lose fat.
In addition, some people will be able to build muscle while cutting. No, this technically isn’t a recomp, because you’re in a caloric deficit (rather than at maintenance) and you’re losing weight (rather than maintaining it).
But even outside of a traditional recomp scenario, some people are capable of losing fat and building muscle at the same time (basically, the fatter and less experienced you are, the more likely it is to happen, and vice versa). So, an intelligent weight training program will be needed during this time to take advantage of that possibility.
(Note: my Superior Fat Loss program contains the diet and workout I recommend for this purpose.)
Who Should Recomp?
And finally, we have option #3.
Let me start this section off by saying that there is really only one group of people that I think a recomp is going to be ideal for. I’ll tell you who those people are in a second.
The Problem With Recomping
I don’t recommend recomps very often.
I know the idea of building muscle and losing fat at the same time sounds amazing, but people fail to understand that a traditional recomp approach – where you’re eating maintenance calories and hovering around the same body weight the entire time – is going to be an extremely slow process for most people.
We’re talking very minor improvements in body composition over very long periods of time.
Fat loss and (especially) muscle growth already happen slower than everyone wants them to, and with a recomp, they’re going to happen much slower than that.
So, for the majority of people looking to lose meaningful amounts fat and build meaningful amounts of muscle, a recomp will be a bad option for making that happen.
Instead, alternating between bulk and cut phases will be the best approach.
Now about that one group of people who a recomp will be ideal for…
Ideal Candidates For Recomping
- Men who are beginners to consistent, intelligent weight training (or are returning to it after a long layoff) that are between 13-20% body fat.
- Women who are beginners to consistent, intelligent weight training (or are returning to it after a long layoff) that are between 21-28% body fat.
Basically, a recomp is a great option for “skinny-fat” beginners.
To be clear, a “skinny-fat” intermediate or advanced trainee within these body fat ranges should still bulk or cut. A recomp would not be a good option for people fitting this description.
A skinny-fat beginner could actually do the same if they preferred to. It’s fine. However, this is the one group of people that I’d consider recomping to be an ideal option for, especially during their first few months of consistent, intelligent training.
Reason being, the untrained state (or detrained state in the case of those returning from a layoff) that these people are in primes them for rapid improvements in terms of muscle and strength gains.
And this, combined with the small amount of excess body fat they have, often leads to meaningful improvements in body composition during those initial months.
Once this recomp progress begins to stall, that would be the time to switch to bulking or cutting depending on what your body fat percentage and personal preferences are at that point.
What Is Your Body Fat Percentage?
Once you’ve seen that the decision to bulk, cut, or recomp is largely dependent on your current body fat percentage, you’d probably like to know how to determine what your body fat percentage actually is.
Well, the methods most people use tend to suck. For example…
- Scales And Calculators
Typical body fat scales (which use Bioelectrical Impedance) and various online calculators are quick and easy to use, and they do occasionally provide a decent body fat estimate. But, they’re also well-known for being off by quite a bit a lot of the time.
- Advanced Methods
Then there are more advanced methods that are a bit more accurate on average (sources here, here, and here) – such as a DEXA scan – but 1) you have to actually go somewhere and pay to have it done, and 2) it’s still not guaranteed to be perfectly accurate.
The Best Methods For Getting An Estimate
With all of this in mind, I’ve always found that the best method for most people is one of the following:
- Find Accurate Examples And Compare Yourself
Meaning, get an idea of what various body fat percentages legitimately look like (search around and you’ll find some examples, but be careful, as some are definitely more accurate than others), and then use the mirror/your own pictures to compare yourself and take your best unbiased guess as to where you stand.
- Get A Visual Estimate Directly From Me
I’ve been estimating people’s body fat percentages for over a decade, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it. In fact, it’s something I do exclusively for members of The Results Crew (my online coaching program) on a daily basis. All you have to do is join and send a couple of photos to me via a private support request, and I’ll give you an accurate estimate along with personalized guidance on how to proceed with your diet/workout to get the results you want. Full details here: The Results Crew
Summing It Up
It’s pretty simple.
If you’re lean enough to bulk (10-15% body fat or less for a man, or 18-23% or less for a woman), you should probably bulk first.
If you’re above these ranges, you should cut first.
And if you’re a beginner who’s somewhere in the middle, you should recomp.
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