To Cut Or Not To Cut. To Bulk Or Not To Bulk? That Is The Skinny Fat Question.
Like the Prince (or Princess) Hamlet of Fitness this is a question you’ve pondered for some time. Do you lose the excess body fat first, or dive straight into building muscle? Well it's time to wonder no more. Here’s your complete guide to whether you should cut or bulk.
As with most questions, the answer to the cut or bulk conundrum starts with two important, yet equally annoying words. ‘It depends’… You see, there’s no definitive answer for everyone. It’s not like a one size fits all poncho from Universal Studios. There’s nuances and circumstances unique to you. Meaning what’s right for you, may be wildly different to the next person.
But that doesn’t really help, does it?
So when deciding whether to cut or bulk, you need some guidelines. A framework. Like the plans to the Death Star.
And I’m going to give you those plans. Trust me, after reading this article sculpting a badass body will feel easier than shooting Womp Rats in your T-16 back home.
Now, these guidelines aren’t just something I threw together in 5 minutes. This is the EXACT process I use with all my clients. And it's how I determine if it’s first stop fat loss or all aboard the gain train (woo woo).
So wherever you are on your journey to building a lean, strong, healthy, sexy AF body, by the end of this article you’ll know whether it’s time to cut or bulk.
Think of me as your Leia. Thawing you from your cut or bulk carbonite-like paralysis.
So on that basis, let’s start with the basics my young Padawan.
Cut or Bulk? What Does It Actually Mean?
Rightly or wrongly, I’m going to assume you’re relatively new to this whole fitness thing. After all, if you’re a seasoned pro and already achieved Jedi status in the gym, you probably don’t need me to tell you when it’s time to cut or bulk. So with that in mind, we need to start by deciphering the bro code.
What the hell does ‘cut or bulk’ actually mean? Because already the terminology might be quite off putting.
Cutting conjures up images of self-harm (which is a half-decent analogy for some diets) or a scene from a horror movie.
And bulking isn’t much better. It creates a mental picture of you just getting as fat as possible. Like Orca fat!
I mean, what woman wants to "bulk" in that sense of the word? Not many, right?
Now, I'll tell you upfront, I’m not the biggest fan of the word cut or bulk in this context. They feel antiquated and steeped in bro science. But sadly, ‘cut or bulk’ is a phrase you can’t get away from. Quite frankly, it’s why you’re reading this. No doubt it’s what you Google’d to get here. So for now we'll use them, even if it is through gritted teeth.
The Definition of Bulking
Bulking means building muscle. Back in the day it kind of meant just eat what the hell you want, train all day, and watch the gains come. Balls to the fact you might turn into a bit of a blimp at the same time. It’s all about bulking season and your efforts to be The Incredible Bulk.
The Definition of Cutting
Cutting is pretty much the reverse of that. And it’s got nothing to do with self-harm.
It’s all about losing body fat. So when you hear someone say they’re cutting, what they actually mean is they’re in the process of losing a bit of body fat. Not as scary as you previously thought. And actually, it sounds like exactly what you want to do.
So, in summary the decision between cut or bulk is a decision between building muscle (bulking) or losing body fat (cutting).
Simple concepts made confusing. Well done fitness industry, you’ve done it again!
Cut or Bulk? The Skinny Fat Dilemma
So now we know what we’re talking about, how do you know what to do? Good question. And it’s at this point you get introduced to another phrase, “skinny fat”.
What is Skinny Fat?
The term Skinny Fat refers to someone who doesn't look particularly overweight, but lacks muscle.
Basically, for a dude, it's the Dad Bod scenario. With a t-shirt on you don't look fat. There's definitely no huge beer belly. And you're not waddling your way around town like an obese penguin.
But whip that t-shirt off and there's a bit of a flabby belly, no chest muscles to speak of. And arms akin to an anorexic twiglet.
For the ladies it’s a similar story. You’re thin but lack muscle. Your body doesn’t have the shapely, strong curves you want. And you feel everything just needs a little... tightening up. Know what I mean?
This is Skinny Fat. But why mention it?
Well, think of it this way. If you’re very overweight, it’s pretty obvious you should prioritise shedding a few pounds. Conversely, if you’re super skinny, then building muscle is an even more obvious decision. Both are are an easier decision than whether or not to sell your speeder to fund the trip to Alderaan.
How Did You Get Skinny Fat?
If you feel like the dictionary definition of Skinny Fat, you might be wondering how you got there. Allow me to fill you in.
More often than not, the look hasn't come from a lack of effort. Truth is, it's largely from incorrect training and nutrition over a number of years.
The 3 Reasons You're Skinny Fat
More than likely you're Skinny Fat because of these 3 reasons:
- Pounding cardio for hours and hours.
- A low-protein diet.
- Very low calorie intake.
Why Cardio Isn't The Route To Losing Body Fat
There's a popular misconception that cardio is the best way for you to lose body fat.
Now, cardio is certainly not bad for you. In fact, it can be very useful when used in the right way. But the issue comes when you use it to excess. Especially when you're in a calorie deficit and aiming to lose fat. Because hours and hours of exercise doesn't automatically lead you to a greater level of fat loss.
Studies show that a high frequency of endurance training can impair your strength and muscle development. So if your goal is to build a leaner and more muscular physique then endless amounts of cardio is not the way to go.
And if you look into the other studies on the subject there's even more evidence to back this theory up...
The bottom line is that too much cardio may negatively effect your desire to have a lean, badass body. And ultimately it’s part of the reason you have a skinny fat physique.
Why A Low-Protein Diet Is Working Against You
If you're in a calorie deficit, then you will lose weight. That's a given.
Well it's pretty simple. Keep protein intake high, keep training, and don't be excessive with your calorie deficit.
Cut Or Bulk? The Big Decision
So now you know what this cut or bulk business is all about, and you understand Skinny Fat. But what now?
You know you need to build some muscle, so do you go down that route? Or do you shed belly fat first and go all Bulk Hogan later?
The first place to start is how much body fat have. And, more importantly, how you feel about your current body image. Confused? Let me explain.
If you're not that happy with your current body fat percentage, ie it's too high, then bulking makes no sense. Because the process of building muscle is likely to see you gain a bit of body fat at the same time. It's just part of the process. So if you're already feeling fat and overweight, then bulking is only going to make that worse.
Also, if you're very overweight then losing body fat HAS to be the way forward. Getting down into a healthier body fat range should be of paramount importance. Adding more fat because you want to build muscle is not going to be a great idea for your long-term health. And besides, you can still build muscle while dieting, especially if you’re brand new to this.
But if you’re somewhere in the middle, ie Skinny Fat, then the decision isn't quite so clear cut, right? And that’s where the Golden Rule come in…
Cut or Bulk: The Golden Rule 2.0
At this point in time, I used to say it’s important to work out your body fat percentage. But in truth it’s not necessary.
Firstly, when you estimate it, you’ll be wrong.
Unless you have your body fat measured by DEXA scan, or you somebody cuts you open and specifically measures your body fat, that estimate will be inaccurate. And yes, that goes for the fancy bathroom scales you bought, the posh machine at the gym, or whatever other whacky device you’re using.
But it just doesn’t matter.
So now your cut or bulk decision just got that bit easier. Behold the Golden Rule 2.0:
- You have no visible abs and / or an excessive amount of body fat. The only caveat to this being women. As women can have a lean, healthy physique without lots of ab definition. So some sensible judgement will need to be used here.
- You have a visible set of abs and / or are very lean and comfortable putting on a little body fat.
- Now, I’ll say that when I use the term ‘visible abs’ I don’t mean you have to be shredded to the bone. No. I mean, you can see clear definition without tensing the fuck out of every muscle and sinew.
Cut Or Bulk? Why Follow The Golden Rule?
There's several reasons why you should follow the golden rule when deciding whether to cut or bulk. Here's just a few reasons why the rule works for the majority of people.
1. You're More Likely To Feel Good About The Process
Take a moment to project your thoughts forward for a second. If you haven’t got abs right now, and decide to bulk, are you going to be happy with a body fat increase?
As you start to build muscle and your body fat goes up, will you be comfortable with how you look in the mirror every morning. And that might sound a fairly trivial point, but it's practical and real.
Because liking what stares back at you in the mirror can be very motivating or demotivating. So if you're piling on the body fat and feeling unhappy about the process, then sticking to your diet is going to be a struggle. And at the end of the day, you don't want, or need, to put yourself through that.
Ultimately, it'll be much easier to make progress if you're happy. And there aren't many people that are happy getting unnecessarily fatter.
2. When You Cut It Won't Be A Long Drawn Out Misery.
Most people want to lose body fat in the shortest amount of time possible. Nobody on Planet Earth enjoys restricting calories. You want to get that shit out of the way ASAP, right? So the last thing you want to do is make the task harder than it needs to be.
If losing body fat should be your primary goal, according to the golden rule, then bulking is a bad move. Because eventually you're going to have quite a bit of fat to lose. And more often than not, that’s going to be a long drawn out process. And who the hell wants to spend more time away from Ben & Jerry than is necessary?
On the plus side, as you’re probably new to the process those newbie gains are a thing. It’s the only time where dropping body fat and building muscle is pretty easy. So why not take advantage of the fact? Have your cake and eat it. Although make sure you count the calories first, of course.
3. When You Bulk You'll Gain Muscle And Won't Look Like Jabba The Hut.
Just that heading alone should make you want to follow the golden rule.
If you're starting at a relatively high body fat percentage then getting fatter is going to be detrimental to building muscle. And here's why.
Studies indicate that the more body fat you have, the more your insulin sensitivity decreases. And this can lead to a greater tendency to gain fat. In addition to that, protein synthesis (an important factor in building muscle) is negatively affected.
Further to that, the greater your body fat levels, the lower your testosterone levels are likely to be. And this is crucially important if your goal is to build muscle. Because testosterone plays a pivotal role in the muscle building process.
So, with that in mind, you can see why trying to build muscle with a high body fat percentage is not ideal. Your ability to gain muscle will be hindered and you'll also get fatter than you wanted.
Cut or Bulk? The Final Word
Once you get past the slightly nonsensical terms, deciding whether to cut or bulk is actually pretty straight-forward. All you need to do is figure out if you’re carrying excess body fat, then apply the golden rule.
And once you've done that, follow the guidelines below so you know when to flip from cut to bulk and vice versa.
- No visible abs and / or an excessive amount of body fat (just remember the caveat for women)
- Keep protein intake high at around 1.8-2.7g/kg of body weight.
- Calculate a moderate to aggressive (but not reckless calorie deficit). 10-20% should be fine for most people.
- Follow a good weightlifting routine focused on progressive overload.
- Target 8-10k steps per day
- Supplement with cardio where necessary
- Ditch the fat burning supplements (they don’t work)
- Stop cutting when you start seeing the ab definition and / or you feel happy adding a little body fat.
- You have visible abs and / or you’re comfortable with a slight increase in body fat
- Keep protein intake high at around 1.8-2.7g/kg of body weight.
- Aim for 4-6 servings of protein during the day
- Calculate a small calorie surplus. 10% increase on maintenance is a good start point.
- Follow a good weightlifting routine focused on progressive overload.
- Don't bother with cardio unless you want to.
- Ditch the BCAAs, testosterone boosters and other useless supplements.
- Stop bulking when you don’t want your body fat to increase further
But bear in mind, these guidelines aren’t definitive. And there’ll certainly be situations where they’re not right. In fact, you might be that person. And that’s cool. These guidelines are written as a reflection of what works for most people.
So if you want to do something different, cool. Fill your Jedi boots.
But if you choose to follow the guidelines, I’m pretty confident you'll be well on the way to achieving the body you want. Just remember, it won't come overnight. So be consistent and patient. Trust the process and you'll reap the benefits.
Oh… And let’s stop using the phrase cut or bulk. It’s lose body fat and build muscle. Much more normal and a lot less bro.
A Handy Graphic
Here's a handy cut or bulk graphic if you're still unsure about what to do.
Do You Need Help Piecing Your Training And Nutrition Together… For Free?
Even with all the answers to those questions that have been bugging you, getting started can still feel a little overwhelming.
You’re never quite sure if you’ve got it quite right. So here’s the thing.
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Come Say Hi
And lastly, if you enjoyed this article, let me know. Come and find me on Instagram and slide up in the DM’s. Just go to iron_paradise_fitness
But for now all that’s left for me to say is keep living the Lean Life and I’ll see you soon.
I’m off to hit the gym and bulk… errr I mean build muscle.