Cut or Gain?
If you are like most serious gym rats you have this vision of the body you want to build. Lean, muscular, strong, sexaaaay! And when you look in the mirror you see that you’re anywhere close to it; you don’t have nearly enough muscle and you carry way too much fat to have the physique you want. You know you need to build muscle and get leaner.
If you are like most other trainees, you have likely spent a lot of your time trying to do both at the same time which left you with unsatisfactory progress at best. You see, while it is possible to build some muscle and lose some fat at the same time, it’s a very long process and you pretty much need to nail everything perfectly: training, recovery, nutrition. Being young and full of your natural anabolic hormones certainly helps too. But even those who are super disciplined and do everything right will find it to be a tedious process, fighting with everything they’ve got for every 0.5lbs of muscle. Let’s face it, unless you have great genetics for being lean and muscular or are using anabolic drugs, chasing both fat loss and muscle gain at the same time is a very inefficient way of doing things and will lead you to tons of frustration.
Then, you also have those who overdo the “eat big to get big” thing, believing that they can force their body to build muscle by overfeeding it. First, I want to say that YES, eating more (especially of the right foods) will make it a lot easier to build muscle. Not only does it provide your body with the nutrients it needs, but it also by activates several anabolic/muscle-building pathways like the activation of mTor and increase of IGF-1 levels. However, there is a limit to how much muscle a natural (not drug-enhanced) body can build at a given time, and once your body is building tissue at its fastest possible rate, eating more will not contribute to building any more muscle. It will make you heavier and even feel bigger but this will be due to an increase in fat storage (in fat cells but also in muscle) and water retention. Those who constantly eat big to get big (they often rely on a fair amount of junk food to get the calories in too) will simply gradually get fatter over time. They will also slowly decrease their insulin sensitivity and create systemic inflammation, two things that will make it more and more complicated to stimulate positive body composition changes. When they finally wake up one day and decide to shed off the fat, they are in for a titan’s task because instead of the 10-15lbs they think they need to lose they are likely looking at a 30-40lbs drop to look good.
And on the other end of the spectrum, you have those who are scared to death to lose their 6-pack (I will confess that I’m in that category). As such, they are always either consuming too little food to efficiently build new muscle tissue or doing too much volume (lifting or cardio) in hope of burning “more calories”, which ends up making them more catabolic and feeling like crap. Let me tell you this: “I’m gonna eat a low-calorie diet to get lean, eat (drink) a lot of protein and do tons of volume to build muscle” never works for a natural trainee. It will just mess up your body in the long run. By the way, combining a fat burner and a weight gainer supplement will not make you simultaneously make you lose fat and build muscle either!
The truth is that most of you will have to focus on both goals (losing fat and building muscle) individually by including both phases of muscle building and phases of fat loss. There are exceptions of course:
- Those who are genetically gifted for being lean and muscular
- Those who are using performance-enhancing drugs
- Those who have reached a muscularity level they are satisfied with and just want to slowly improve their look
The first two can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. While it is still not the best approach, they can progress fairly fast by trying to do both at the same time, unlike you.
The people in the third situation are very experienced trainees who have built a lot of muscle over the years and also got lean in the process. They are very close to their ideal physique and are simply looking to make small improvements. That is my case. These guys can try to get a little bit lean and build a little bit of muscle at the same time. They don’t need drastic changes, they simply want to look their best all the time.
THE QUESTION IS… SHOULD I CUT OR GAIN?
There are several factors to consider:
- What is your current body composition? If you have a high level of body fat you should likely focus on cutting. If you are already lean then muscle growth should be your focus. This is obvious to me. But there are two issues: A) most people grossly underestimate how much fat they carry. Ask the average gym rate what his body fat percentage is and the vast majority will answer anywhere between 10 and 15%. In truth, they are likely closer to 20%. If you have never been a true 10%, you have no idea how lean that is. At a true 10% you have full abs, very good muscle definition, some veins (depending on genetics) and no “jiggly” area. At 15%, you have some abdominal definition and under the proper lighting you even look fairly defined and you have a bit of definition mostly on the arms and shoulders. I will say that pretty much all gym rats who claim to be 10% are really 15%. If you can’t evaluate your physique properly, it’s difficult to make the right decision to cut or gain. B) if you are in the middle… like a true 12% (or even 15%) what do you do? Not lean enough to be 100% certain that you should gain and not fat enough to be 100% sure that you should cut.
- Have you ever dieted down to low body fat levels in the past? This is SO important. In fact, it is the one thing I look at the most when someone is in the grey area (12-15%). When you focus on gaining, you will add some fat to your body. Hopefully not too much, but in more cases than not, people end up gaining more fat than they expected to or wanted, again because they suck at evaluating their true body composition and want to believe that they are building more muscle than they are. If you already carry a significant amount of fat, do you really want to pile up even more when you have no idea if you have what it takes to diet it off? If someone has been able to get lean in the past, then he knows that he will have the discipline and know-how to diet it off. On the other hand, if you tried many times to get lean but could never stick with the process, went crazy and cheated on the diet or quit after a few weeks, then why do you believe that it will be different this time? YES, you can get it right the next time, but do you think it’s a good idea to see if you can get it right after adding 15lbs more? Isn’t it smarter to cut now when you have much less to lose?
- How much body fat are you comfortable with? Personally, as soon as my abs get blurry I freak out! I’m a former fat boy and I value leanness too much to let it get too far away. When I hold just a little bit too much fat I feel bad about myself and my motivation to train actually decreases. The better I look, the more I like to train and eat right. But not everybody is like that. Some people have no problems being 15-20% body fat, they like themselves that way. Hey, not everybody wants to be an anatomy chart! Some people, even though they’d like to be lean, are comfortable being thick and solid with a little extra fat.
- What’s your training experience level? Beginners should not go on a cut or a gaining phase, they should simply focus on doing everything better, like training harder, making overall better food choices, etc. Intermediates are those who will need to focus on gaining or cutting the most. If you have been training smart and hard (not just going to the gym and doing whatever) for less than one full year (even two), don’t ask me if you should cut or gain.
- What is your nemesis? If you have been training and eating to look better for a while, you likely know which one is harder for you: losing fat or building muscle. But you have to be realistic: If you “only” gained 10lbs of muscle in 3 months and think that you suck at building muscle, it’s because you have unrealistic expectations, not because you aren’t good at building muscle. For a non-beginner (more than 2 solid years of training), the most you can expect if everything is perfect is an average of about 1.5lbs of muscle per month, so around 15-20lbs in one year, and that would be an amazing year. I’ve RARELY seen it in natural non-beginners (unless it was regained muscle after a layoff). You can gain more weight, but 18-20lbs of muscle tissue in one year is really uncommon. How many people do you know gain 20lbs of muscle in one year (again not weight, muscle)? In most cases we are looking at 10lbs in one year (again in non-beginners). By the way, gaining 10lbs of muscle normally translates to a scale increase of 15lbs if you didn’t gain any fat at all, and 20-25lbs if you only added a little bit of fat.
- What is your primary goal? Is the main reason you are training aesthetics (looking better) or performance (being stronger)? YES, you can get both, but which one is your priority? If your goal is looking better, then you probably want to focus on getting really lean and then trying to maintain a level close to that leanness while you are working on building muscle. If strength is your priority, you would probably be better off carrying a little more fat year round (better leverage), but not to the point of being sloppy.
If looking better is your main objective and you have a good foundation of muscle mass (not necessarily big, but you have built some tissue over the years), I believe that starting from a lean baseline is best. What I mean by that is start by getting to the degree of leanness you want to be at the end of the year, take pics, and every time you “diet down”, go back to that level. Basically, you build up from lean.
This has several advantages:
- You get to know if you are capable of dieting and getting lean. If you are not capable of doing what is necessary to get lean, and you bulk up expecting to diet the fat off afterwards, you will be in trouble.
- The leaner you are, the more insulin sensitive you are. The more insulin sensitive you are the more slanted toward muscle growth your nutrients portioning will be. This means that for an equivalent diet you will build more muscle and less fat.
- You can more easily assess your physique while lean and it makes it easier to know what you need to focus on.
- You will stay leaner year-round. I will use percentages for illustration purposes even though I’m not a big fan of them.:
Let’s say that your starting point is 14%, take two hypothetical scenarios:
Scenario 1 Start by a “gain phase” (I hate the word bulking with a vengeance): you add some good muscle and around 3% body fat. You are now 17%
You decide to do a mini-cut and get back down to 14%
You then switch to another growth phase in which you add some more muscle but also add 2% body fat. You are now 16%.
Now if you want to get lean (10% or less), you have to drop 6%. In reality, it will be a lot more weight than the simple % calculation because with each pound of fat you lose you normally will drop 0.5lbs of water and other things. Not to mention the initial 3-5llbs drop which is water and glycogen. You will likely have to diet for 10-12 weeks to get into really good shape and you don’t even know if you have the discipline to do that.
Scenario 2 You decide to start with a solid cut and you diet down (and do cardio, energy system work) to get down to 8-9%. This should take you around 8-10 weeks if you know what you are doing (assuming the TRUE 14% starting point).
From there, you decide to increase calories, reduce cardio to build more muscle. You are successful at doing it but in the process, you also add 2% body fat (you will gain more “weight” because of more muscle and water retention). You are now 10%.
You go on a mini cut to get back to your ripped condition. It shouldn’t be long this time because you only have 2% to lose and your insulin sensitivity is good because of your leanness. You might only need 3-4 weeks to get there.
Then you decide to do another gain phase. You really want to put on the mass so you make that phase a little longer and have more calories. You indeed build more muscle but add 3% body fat. But you are still only 11%. Still looking pretty good.
Finally, you decide to get truly ripped (6-7%). From 11%, it’s not that hard. It should take you about 8 weeks, BUT you look lean pretty much all the time.
In the first option, you spend most of the year between 14-17% and when you decide to try to get ripped, you start from 16%.
In the second option, you spend most of the year between 8 and 11% (except for the initial phase, you look good year-round), and when you decide to get ripped you start from 11%
Which makes more sense?
If looking good is your main objective it should obviously be the second scenario. And in both, the amount of muscle tissue you will build is pretty much the same because in both cases the time spent dieting and gaining is about the same. But you might even gain more muscle in the second scenario because your insulin sensitivity will be better throughout the year, which favors nutrients partitioning toward muscle tissue instead of fat.
You can’t know how much muscle you truly have until you get really lean.
When you have a decent amount of muscle, if you carry an extra 20lbs of fat and 10lbs of water you still look solid in a tank top or t-shirt and it’s easy to overestimate how much muscle you have.
Many 200-210lbs guys (assuming 5’8″ – 5’11″) semi-lean walk like they are jacked (and they honestly believe that they are… believe me I was there once) but they’d be surprised that when truly lean, they would be around 165lbs. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you. 165-170lbs ripped on a 5’9″ frame looks really good; it’s not big but it looks good.
The moral of the story is that assuming that you have built decent muscle size over the years, I would always recommend starting by getting lean to establish a baseline, provided that your goal is aesthetics, of course. How lean your starting point will be depends on your end goal and how much fat you are comfortable carrying. I like to start no higher than 8% so that I can maintain 8-11% year-round. Some might start at 10% or even 12% because they like how they look that way and they are a little bit stronger. The principle is the same, the strategy might be a bit different.
It will also tell you that it is important to know if you are mentally and physically capable of dieting down to a lean/ripped state. While in theory everybody can get lean, in reality few actually can, even among true gym rats. Basing your plan on the assumption that you will be capable of dieting all the fat off to get lean before actually KNOWING (by doing it) that you can is a recipe for disaster.