You are here

Should You Bulk Or Cut?

The Skinny Fat Body Dilemma: Should You Bulk Or Cut First?

Average: 4.3 (13 votes)
4.3 5 13
The scale says skinny but the mirror says "lose weight." What should you do? This article helps skinny fat trainees explore the pros and cons of bulking and cutting cycles.

So you want to build the perfect body but you don't know where to start. You dream of adding insane amounts of muscle mass, but when you look in the mirror your current body fat levels haunt you.

All you see is flab, despite the scale telling you that you aren't overweight. The question haunts you: should I bulk or cut first? I will try to help answer that question for you the best I can in this article.

Let's take a look at a real world example of a skinny fat lifter, and see how the various bulking and cutting strategies impact the time it takes to reach your muscle building and fat loss goals.

The skinny fat dilemma

Note: This section will look at the example of a younger lifter who weighs 150 pounds. The weight itself is arbitrary. If you are thin but skinny fat, this entire article will apply to you.

Let's say you want to build muscle, but right now you look like a flabby 150 pounds. Should you cut the extra fat first, or add muscle then do a cutting diet? Here are some factors to consider.

First off, you have no history of building muscle. If you attempt to cut fat at such a low weight without knowing what it takes to achieve results in the gym, it is highly unlikely that you will look any better after your cutting diet is over. Let me explain...

When you know how to build muscle during a bulk, you will be capable of holding on to as much muscle tissue as possible during a cut. This will help improve your body composition and body fat levels. The bottom line is that you will look your best, maximizing the appearance of your existing level of muscularity.

With all this in mind, here are your 3 possible options:

  1. Cutting Diet. Cut 10-15 pounds of fat, and then begin a long term lean bulk that will last several years.
  2. Long Term Lean Bulk, Then Cut. Undergo a long term lean bulk that lasts several years, then attempt a cutting diet to get rid of any extra fat.
  3. Short Term Bulk, Then Cut. Bulk for several months, cut for several months, rinse and repeat.

Let's pretend that our hypothetical male lifter has 18% bodyfat. He's not fat by any means, but because his physique lacks any appreciable amount of muscle mass he looks fairly sloppy, soft and skinny fat. Here is what our lifter's current body composition numbers look like:

  • Weight - 150lbs
  • Bodyfat - 18%
  • Fat Mass - 27lbs
  • Lean Body Mass - 123lbs

Seated dumbbell press

Cutting Diet Scenario

In this scenario our lifter chooses to drop 15 pounds of fat before undertaking a long term bulk. He has no experience building muscle, and knows nothing about how to train to maintain muscle mass, so we will guess that while losing this fat he also loses 5 pounds of muscle mass. After his cut our lifter's stats are:

  • Weight - 130lbs
  • Bodyfat - 9.2%
  • Fat Mass - 12lbs
  • Lean Body Mass - 118lbs

He managed to cut his bodyfat in half, but his physique looks - well to be brutally honest - pathetic. There is little to no muscle mass on his body and he now appears sickly and extremely underweight in clothing. Not an impressive look at all.

Now reality kicks in. Our frail lifter must undertake a long term bulk and will likely gain the fat he lost back over the course of the next year. He panics at the thought, wondering why he just wasted 10 weeks losing weight, and if he will ever look good and reach his goals. Our lifter does not understand that the addition of muscle mass makes a physique look better even if it is at 18% bodyfat.

But what about the 150 pound skinny guy that knows how to maintain muscle mass during a cut? Well, he will still lose some muscle, perhaps only a couple pounds. After his cut is over that additional couple pounds of muscle really won't make much of a difference, with or without his shirt on. He will still look small, frail and unimpressive.

Bulking Diet Scenario

In our bulking scenario, our lifter decides to run a quality lean bulk over the course of the next 3 years. He sets up an eating plan that is based primarily around 80-90% clean food intake, and rarely eats more than 300-500 calories over maintenance levels on any given day.

He proceeds to gain 25 pounds of muscle and only 15 pounds of fat during this 3 year period. At the end of the bulking period his stats are:

  • Weight - 190lbs
  • Bodyfat - 22.1%
  • Fat Mass - 42lbs
  • Lean Body Mass - 148lbs

Despite an increase in bodyfat percentage, our lifter looks amazing. His body now has more surface area because of the dramatic increase in muscle size. He looks fit and strong, and his physique catches the eye of onlookers. Believe it or not, he will also generally look leaner than he did at a lower bodyfat percentage simply because of the extra muscle mass.

At this point our lifter could undertake a short 12-15 week cutting diet, lose 20 pounds of fat, and look great. Since it's much easier to maintain muscle mass and scale weight, our trainee could simply adopt a reasonable lifestyle and enjoy the fruits of his hard work.

After this cutting diet, and assuming he loses about 3 pounds of muscle during this weight loss period, our trainee's stats look like this:

  • Weight - 167lbs
  • Bodyfat - 13.2%
  • Fat Mass - 22lbs
  • Lean Body Mass - 145lbs

At this point a lifter could either undergo a long, very lean bulk to try and add 5-10 more pounds of muscle mass, or just focus on keeping the status quo. Since this would be a lean bulk, it is unlikely this trainee would gain any appreciable amount of body fat. Even if he did, a short one month cutting diet would likely bring him back to his goal bodyfat percentage or leanness.

Dumbbell curls

Short Term Bulk Scenario

This is a very common practice. You will see trainees engage in endless (relatively) short cycles of bulking and cutting. They never give themselves an extended period of time to build muscle, and typically pinball back and forth between a few pounds of muscle gain and then losing it again during a cut.

Let's pretend that our trainee spends 6 months bulking and gains 16 pounds during this time. Part of this weight is simply additional water gain caused by eating more food, and it can be easily lost, but our trainee panics. He has seen some muscle gains, but the extra couple of pounds of fat he has gained, along with the additional water weight, sends him head first into a cutting diet.

Here is the likely breakdown of the 16 pound weight gain:

  • Muscle Gain - 8 pounds
  • Fat Gain - 4 pounds
  • Water Gain - 4 pounds

His current states look like this:

  • Weight - 166lbs
  • Bodyfat - 21.1%
  • Lean Body Mass - 131lbs

Because this lifter is still on the thin side, the 8 pounds of fat and water weight gained look noticeable despite the additional muscle mass. Given another 12-18 months on a lean bulk, and the addition of another 12-15 pounds of muscle, these small fat gains would look less and less bothersome.

So the cutting process begins. Our example trainee decides to try a cutting diet. He loses 12 pounds of fat, 4 pounds of muscle and the 4 pounds of water he gained during a bulk. The result is the following:

  • Weight - 146lbs
  • Bodyfat - 13.1%
  • Lean Body Mass - 127lbs

He is now 4 pounds lighter than when he started building muscle, and does have 4 more pounds of muscle mass, but it took him 9 months to get to this point. (6 month bulk, 3 month cut)

This is certainly progress in the right direction. There is no doubt about it. But it is slow - very slow - progress, given our trainee's goals of adding as much muscle mass as possible.

If our trainee continues to stay in bulk-cut-bulk-cut mode, it will take him longer to build muscle during each additional bulk because he now has to take time to regain muscle lost during each cut. Though this muscle mass typically comes back rather quickly, it's still 6-8 weeks of time lost on each bulk.

The next 6 month bulking period will result in another 4 pounds of fat gain, a return of the 4 pounds of water lost during the cut, and a 8 pound muscle gain. Keep in mind that half of this muscle mass is simply the regaining of muscle lost during the cutting period.

So after the trainee's second bulk, he has the following stats:

  • Weight - 162lbs
  • Bodyfat - 16.7%
  • Lean Body Mass - 135lbs

15 months into his muscle building journey, our trainee has made the following body composition changes:

  • Weight Gain: +12 pounds
  • Muscle Gain: + 8 pounds
  • Fat Gain: +4 pounds
  • Bodyfat Percentage: -1.3%

Shredded physique

So is this good progress? No. It is "ok" progress, but at his rate it will take our trainee a much longer period of time to reach his muscle mass goals. If he continues to engage in cycles of bulking and cutting, net muscle gains will likely remain around 4 pounds every 9 months.

It should be noted that this rate will not last forever. Gains slow over time. So the longer this natural lifter engages in short term bulking and cutting cycles, the less muscle he will gain during each bulking period. 

A straight lean bulk would have landed our lifter about an 18-20 pound muscle gain during this 15 month time, and perhaps a 9-10 pound fat gain. How long will it take our "bulking and cutting cycle guy" to gain 18-20 total pounds of muscle mass? My best guess is about 36 to 42 months.

So the verdict is?

You came here to answer the question: should I bulk or cut? Given that everyone's situation and goals are different, you can understand that this is a hard question to answer.

Ultimately the route you go is up to you. With that said, here are the facts you should consider.

Cutting diet first. Cutting fat before you have experience building muscle is a slippery slope. You are likely to lose even more muscle, and there's a good chance that when the cutting diet is done you will still look skinny fat.

The main problem for skinny fat trainees is that they simply need more muscle mass. Existing fat stores look horrible upon an unmuscular physique. When you add 20 pounds of muscle to this frame you will look much better at the same body fat percentage.

Too many skinny fat lifters think they can simply lose a few pounds, get six pack abs, and finally be happy with the way they look. This is rarely the case. Getting "ripped" is an art form. Most experienced bodybuilders and fitness models learned to master their body composition through years of trial and error.

A huge factor in this equation is learning to build and maintain muscle tissue. If you do cut first, understand that unless you are genetically lucky, it's unlikely that your appearance will look better.

  • Pros - You knock off a few pounds of fat, you learn a little bit about cutting which may help you down the road after you build muscle, and you enter your lean bulk not worrying about existing body fat levels.
  • Cons - Potential muscle tissue loss, physique may remain skinny fat, lost fat will come back after a cut.

Short Term Bulk & Cut Cycles. In my opinion this is a trainee's worst option. Because you are trying to master both muscle building and fat loss, and because you are constantly ping-ponging back and forth adding muscle tissue you've lost on cutting diets and losing water and fat gains you gained on bulk, it takes a much longer period of time to reach your end goals.

Remember that your end goal was to be as huge and lean as possible. There is a strong likelihood that you will extend the time needed to reach this goal two-fold if you don't commit to an extended lean bulk.

Far too many lifters use this bulking and cutting pattern. I've seen hundreds of men try to reach their goals this way over the years. To be frank, I've yet to see one develop a decent physique. It's not that they can't - anything is possible with time, obviously - it's more a case that they either quit lifting, lose motivation, or have never taken the time to master the muscle building process in the first place.

  • Pros - You gain experience learning how to cut, rarely let yourself get above 18-20% bodyfat, gain an opportunity to master your diet under any circumstances.
  • Cons - Takes much longer to get huge, constantly worrying if you are "too fat", spend too much time regaining muscle you lose from cuts.

Long Term Lean Bulk. This approach is a straight line path to a great body. You can spend 3 years building muscle, then embark on a 4 month cut and be done.

Your body will continue to look better and better with each additional pound of muscle gained. You will not have to deal with the frustration that comes from slow gains, and your body will look better overall at a higher bodyfat percentage.

You have the potential to build 25-30 pounds of muscle over the course of 3-4 years. The tradeoff is that you'll also likely accrue about 15 pounds of fat, give or take. 

Most successful bodybuilders or muscleheads I know followed this plan. They went after muscle gains voraciously, and then cut as needed once they had plenty of muscle size. They have learned that a long term lean bulk doesn't have to result in an unpleasant degree of fat gains.

  • Pros - Fast track to muscle mass goals, body looks better even with a little more body fat, once the building process is done you get to put everything into cruise control and enjoy the rewards of your hard work.
  • Cons - You will have to trust the process and go through that early beginner stage where you may feel like you are gaining too much fat.

A final note of body fat

Over the years I have been asked the following question probably a thousand times: "I have a little extra body fat. It's really bothering me. Should I cut?" My response is always the same:

If the extra fat bothers you, then cut first.

There is no sense trying to run a long term lean bulk if you are going to obsess about extra body fat each day. I've seen far too many trainees jump ship on a bulk because they simply are unsatisfied with the 20-30 extra pounds of fat they are carrying around.

My only concern is this...if you are underweight to begin with you shouldn't be trying to lose more weight. This isn't healthy. Build first, then lose. On the other hand, if you are a skinny fat 170-190 pounds and can't stop thinking about that extra 15-20 pounds of fat you are carrying around, go lose it.

Related Articles View all Muscle Building Articles

  • Share This Article
  • Rate & Share
    Average: 4.3 (13 votes)
  • About The Author
    Steve is a powerlifter who has also spent 20 years training in bodybuilding. He is a national level competitor training for an all-time over 50 raw world record.
Related Supplements View all Top Supplements
Redline Ultra Hardcore

Hardcore Sustained-Release Energy, Focus And Mental Acuity!

4.75
Average: 4.8 (2 votes)
American ISO

Superior Taste, Instant Solubility, and High Concentration of BCAAs!*

4.05
Average: 4.1 (71 votes)

Comments (23)

Add a comment

No Profile Pic
micky
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 06:00

Top article Steve. Long term lean bulk for me.

  • 28
  • 13
Steve's picture
Steve
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 10:07

Thank you.

  • 23
  • 15
No Profile Pic
Cutty
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 13:06

Once again, great article, Steve.

  • 19
  • 14
Steve's picture
Steve
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 21:02

Thank you.

  • 21
  • 14
No Profile Pic
LR
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 13:54

I am 39 years old, 6'1, 194 lbs and 23% bf. Over and over I have done the short term scenario you mention. I am trying to make the decision of cutting vs bulking right now and after reading your article still dont know what to do. My plan was to get rid of my gut and then start a long term lean bulk but now I am not sure. I am heavier and higher bf than in your example. Advice?

  • 18
  • 12
Steve's picture
Steve
Posted Tue, 01/21/2014 - 21:09

I would drop 15-20 pounds over a 10-12 week cut, then do a year long lean bulk about 300 calories over maintenance for a year. Aim to gain about 12-15 pounds during that time and assess your physique from there.

  • 16
  • 12
No Profile Pic
Tom
Posted Wed, 01/22/2014 - 10:16

Hey Steve, i'm in the same boat. I've cut for the last 5 months or so and went from 250 down to 207 (so far). I know I've lost muscle as well as fat, and look flabby just like you predicted, at least in the belly. I have gone from a 42 waist down to 35. My arms and legs look decent because I've done a slight amount of lifting (yes, squatting). I'm 6-1, medium bone, and 41 yrs old. I'm torn between leaving what is familiar (cutting) and switching over to mostly lifting for bulk. I feel like I should, but then I remember that you usually say "seeing your abs is a function of diet". I still have a pesky ring around the waist that I know is fat. I think I'm answering my own question here but you are the pro. What would you do?
Thanks!
Tom

  • 16
  • 6
No Profile Pic
Bdub
Posted Thu, 01/23/2014 - 07:00

Great write up Steve!

  • 7
  • 4
Steve's picture
Steve
Posted Fri, 02/07/2014 - 12:41

Thanks!

  • 12
  • 14
No Profile Pic
Mo
Posted Fri, 03/07/2014 - 18:57

Great article! What would you advise for my situation? I'm 33 years old, 5,6" male and I cut for 8 months from a plump 170 to a lean, somewhat athletic 130. I have a 6 pack when flexed, 4 unflexed and I progressed well on my weights for 5-6 months before stalling. 1 rep maxes are: bench 155, squat 250 and dead 330.

I'm at 12% body fat at the moment. Should I continue a cut for another month or so to get to 8% body fat before starting a long lean bulk? Or start one anyway and cut later?

  • 5
  • 11
No Profile Pic
John
Posted Tue, 07/15/2014 - 11:27

Stop cutting. Lean Bulk then if you're happy go into maintenance. 12% body fat is perfectly healthy for a male at your age. Ideally, males should shoot for 10-15% BF. Anything below 10% is difficult to maintain and requires a special diet.

IMO this is a good article but strangely doesnt address the fact that the best route for skinny fat is what Steve mentioned previously in a previous comment - Cut properly first, then bulk. You can cut and maintain muscle if you resistance train and diet right with protein.

The reason why you want to cut first is because if you bulk, you will still look fat. Better to cut first, and then go on a long lean bulk. Assuming this is for newbies, you will also gain a little bit of muscle if you are brand new anyway. You'll look better after your cutting period, and its easier to bulk than cut.

Cutting is the hardest part of getting in shape, especially for newbies. If you can get past your initial cut, lean bulking will be a breeze as it requires a slight caloric surplus. Its easier to over-eat than under-eat.

  • 3
  • 2
No Profile Pic
Clyde
Posted Thu, 03/13/2014 - 13:12

I have lost 57 pounds from 340 to 287. I am 5'10" tall and 45 years old. I have recently joined a gym with the thoughts of gaining muscle but strength as well while loosing some fat. it seems to be working primarily because I have had a muscle base in the past so muscle memory seems to be there, I have not lifted in 15 years or more so the newbe benefits seem to be there. I can see the muscle growth and definition but I am loosing about a 1/2 pound a week. I suspect at some point, this progress will slow and I will have to choose cut or bulk. Any advice on my situation?

  • 8
  • 6
No Profile Pic
bob
Posted Fri, 04/04/2014 - 00:33

Bulking is wrong for A true skinny fat. I tried it. The problem with this article is it is using A conventional path that doesn't work for most skinny fats. IMO the Skinny fats need to lift moderately and cut to 10 percent body fat. It is at this point A careful bulking and weightlifting plan should be initiated. Skinny fats tend to gain in the belly quick and it's tough to lose.

  • 8
  • 7
No Profile Pic
Dan
Posted Sat, 04/26/2014 - 20:58

Great article, helped answer a lot of questions I had.

  • 5
  • 4
No Profile Pic
John
Posted Mon, 04/28/2014 - 03:49

Hi Steve
I am 21 and I lost 120 pounds in weight due to being way to over weight at 18. I stook mainly to cardio and my midsection hasnt ever taken shape again. So im a skinny fat. I weight 180 at 5"8 but I truly am a skinny fat. I went bulking for a while and I really did bulk up but people commented said I was getting fat and I panicked and cut and im back where I started.
I jusy want to know should I drop from 180 a bit and then bulk up? Im happy enough with my weight but I just have to push away the nay sayers!!!!
Thanks
John

  • 4
  • 5
No Profile Pic
Aryan
Posted Mon, 04/28/2014 - 19:11

hye...im 22yrs old n im too skinny..So i just want to gain weight as well as bulk...so i have recently joined gym n was seeking for the suggestion that shall i take suppliments if yes then which one is the best...plzzz suggest some benefited things as well

thanlz

  • 4
  • 4
No Profile Pic
Greg
Posted Tue, 06/17/2014 - 18:31

Hi,

What would you recommend for 5-3 139 lbs 21per b/f?
Same as above? Bulk first?

Thanks.

  • 1
  • 1
No Profile Pic
Adam
Posted Fri, 08/01/2014 - 07:17

Hi Steve Great article I am still a bit lost with the cutting and bulking formats I currently weight 11st and have 17% percent bodyfat but not sure which format I should do to get a great physique I would like to gain weight but am worried about putting to much fat on and not much muscle which format would be best for someone of my stature.

  • 1
  • 1
No Profile Pic
mark boyle
Posted Sat, 08/02/2014 - 12:27

hi I'm a 5ft6inch male I'm currently 134 pounds with a body fat of around 12% my arms and face are skinny but my belly looks a bit flabby. should I continue to cut to try and flatten my stomach or bulk which is my final goal thanks. mark

  • 1
  • 1
No Profile Pic
Luke Dunscombe
Posted Tue, 08/05/2014 - 06:45

Hey Steve i was just wondering whether to bulk or cut first because currently i am 13 stone 2 pounds & i am a little overweight but i have been weightlifting now for 6-7 weeks but I'm still seeing little to no results, I feel stronger because I can lift more in the gym but my body looks roughly the same any advice & if i should cut what weight do you reckon I should get too before I bulk up?

  • 1
  • 1
No Profile Pic
Acdc
Posted Thu, 08/14/2014 - 06:01

Hey Steve great article right now i'm 80 kgs 18 - 19 % bf according to Tanita bf scales i'm 177 cm 19 years old been lifting for 2 - 3 years but i was mainly cutting or maintaining coz i used to be overweight and had some weight rebounds . i did minimal bulk cycles and gained some during this period. now i really want to make a change my bf distribution is really weird but i guess great as i hold minimal fat in my upper body all people and trainers give my upper body when i am at 18 - 19 % bf they say i look 12 - 14 % as i have blurry abs at this range when relaxed and visible when flexed clear pecs arms , back etc and when im at 15 % or under i look more like 9 - 10 % upper body wise but skinny muscluar of course i hold most of the fat on my quads , hams and ass lol i was planning on using this illusion and do a year clean bulk from 80 kg 18 - 19 % bf on a 200 - 300 surplus then cut down to 80 kg again and repeat till my body recomposition is great at 78 - 80 kg according to my stats and weird bf distribution is this a good plan or should i try something else ? thanks !

  • 1
  • 1
No Profile Pic
Bogdan
Posted Sun, 08/17/2014 - 15:29

Should i bulk or should i cut? I have 18 years old, 186cm and 78kg. I have 3+ years of weightlifting. Here is a picture with me http://i1369.photobucket.com/albums/ag216/obogdan23/_forumdownload_zpsa6...

  • 1
  • 0
No Profile Pic
Aaron
Posted Mon, 08/18/2014 - 16:41

I'm 16 yr old male and weight of 152lbs and height 5'8 or 5'9 I'm not really sure. My arms my legs looks skinny it's just my belly fat and man boobs that I want to lose. I really want to have a good beach body it's just that i don't know what to do. So steve do you think long term lean bulk would be good for me?? I'm currently going to the gym 6x a week and doing this program shortcut to shred by jim stoppani but I still don't know if wether I should continue this program or just lose my bady fat first and then go to long term lean bulk. Thank you

  • 0
  • 0

Add new comment