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

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.