Bulk or Cut: Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?


Have you ever asked yourself the following question:

What should I do first, should I build muscle or lose fat first?

Well, in this post, I’m going to show you why I think getting lean first is definitely the best choice.

Let’s get to it!

Bulk or Cut – Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?

First of all, whether you should bulk or cut first is a very valid question to ask.

Because here’s the thing:

If your goal is to get a similar physique to, let’s say, these fellas:


Then chances are high that you need to put on both muscle and lose fat, which most effectively is done by utilizing bulking and cutting cycles.

This is especially true if you start out with more of the skinny fat or fat physique.

Okay great, but what goal should I start with?

Well my short answer is that you should definitely get lean before you start bulking.

But let’s not settle with the short answer.

Instead, let me tell you the great benefits that comes with getting lean before bulking. And more importantly, how to stay patient once you start bulking!

But first, let’s look at some depressing facts that shows us black and white why most of us likely need to start with a cut:

The average body fat percentage of Americans are getting higher every year, even in younger population.

This chart displays the mean percentage body fat of Americans by age, group and sex:


These statistics are from 2004, but the numbers are believed to be even higher as we speak.

The average American teenager between the age of 16-19 has a body fat percentage of 22.9 % for males and 34.8 % for females and the mean goes up with age.

And these body fat percentages look something like this:


Also according to the American Council on Exercise, these body fat percentages is just at the brink of classifying as obese for males, and above the obese line for females. Already at 16-19 years old!

Now, as a reader of this blog it’s very likely that your body fat percentage isn’t this high. Simply because you’re into fitness and hence are probably watching your diet, and staying relatively active already.

But nonetheless, chances are high by looking at the statistics that you’re still above the preferred body fat percentage range for starting a bulk.

So, what is the preferred body fat percentage range?

Well, here’s the whole ideal bulking and cutting process that Radu outlined in this post:

Bulk or Cut 101

1. Get lean first – This is the foundation, which is very important. Having around 8-10 % body fat for males and 15-17 % for females is the best place to start at, both when it comes to maximizing muscle growth, and also for staying healthy. For leaning down I recommend the ShredSmart Program.

2. Once you’re lean – That’s when you start lean-bulking using a caloric surplus that’s as big as your rate of maximum muscular potential until you’ve reached 15 % body fat for males and 25 % body fat for females. This upper point is typically when you’ve lost definition of all your abs.

3. When you reach 15 % respective 25 % – Start cutting until you’re back down to 8-10 % respective 15-17 % again.

4. Repeat – Until you’re happy with your physique or reached your genetic potential.

Advanced trainees should just use a slight caloric surplus on training days. They’re close to their genetic potential, and can’t build muscle at a pace that’s worth bulking.

Now, as you can see, most people probably need to focus on getting lean before bulking, and here’s why:

Why You Should Cut Before You Bulk: The 4 Huge Benefits of Getting Lean First

There are four benefits that comes with getting lean before going on a bulk.

And these are:

  1. You’ll look great while building your physique
  2. Being lean allows for a sustained lean-bulk
  3. You’ll put on more muscle and less fat during your bulk
  4. Staying lean is healthy


Let’s look at these one by one:

1. Look Great While You’re Bulking

Here’s the truth:

If you’re fairly new to strength training, you probably need to add 30-40 lbs (15-20 kg) of lean muscle to your frame, in order to achieve the physique you’re after.

And this will take time.

But, here’s the thing:

Time is rarely the problem.

The problem is the unnecessary amount of fat you store by starting to bulk before you’re lean enough to do so.

Here’s an example of this:

Let’s say you’re a male, completely new to training and choose to start a bulk at 15 % body fat.

For 6 months, you add 10 lbs (4.5 kg) of muscle to your frame while simultaneously reaching 25 % body fat.

Well done!

Putting on 10 lbs of muscle in 6 months is great.

But truthfully, will you be happy with your look as you start to reach 20-25 % body fat?

15-25% body fat

As you can see in the picture, it’s at the point of 15 % body fat that any hint of aesthetics really starts fading away.

You’ll lose out on the definition of the muscles you build, you’ll look puffy, have a swollen face and you won’t fit too well in clothes.

By staying between 10-15 % body fat while bulking, you won’t think as much about the time required to build muscle.

This is because your time in the gym will be a lot more enjoyable. You can rock your favorite tank top and flex your “bulking pumps” in the gym with leanness to also show for it!

2. Being Lean Allows For a Sustained Lean Bulk

In the example above, you started bulking at 15 % body fat.

Let’s look at a much better way to do it:

If you, instead of bulking, start with a well set up fat loss diet, you can go from 15 % body fat down to 8-10 % in 6-8 week.

This is exactly what I did as well, I started out skinny fat and here’s a before and after picture of my first cut:

fat loss transformation

As you can see, I even built some muscle during this time, which is very common in the early stages of training.

By doing it this way, you will, after you’re done with your cut be able to lean-bulk for a good 6-8 months before you reach 15 % body fat, where an aesthetic physique starts to disappear.

During these months of bulking, you might add 10-15 lbs (5-7 kg) of muscle as a beginner or perhaps 6-10 lbs (3-5 kg) as an intermediate if training is set up correctly.

Which by the way is a lot of muscle in such a short time!

And because you chose to start with a cut, you’ll now go from 10 to 15 % body fat instead of 15 to 20 % during your bulk, which is a HUGE difference aesthetically:


3. You’ll Put On More Muscle And Less Fat During Your Bulks

As a beginner I used to believe that the most effective way to build muscle was through dirty bulking.

The more you stuff your piehole, the more you’ll grow, right?!

Well, that’s completely false!

As a matter of fact, research shows that you’ll achieve something that’s called better nutrient partitioning, or in scientific terms p-ratio (more muscle and less fat) when you’re lean:

This means that, if you keep your bulking phases within a fairly lean range, between 8-15 % body fat for males and 17-25 % for women, more of your caloric surplus will go towards muscle growth rather than fat storage:


The reason why your nutrient partitioning improves is because your body maintains a better hormonal balance when you’re lean.

For example, a lower body fat percentage makes you more insulin sensitive (you handle nutrients, specifically carbs more effectively).

You’ll also have better testosterone-cortisol ratios levels in your blood, creating a more anabolic environment in your body which promotes muscle growth.

So, the higher body fat percentage you accumulate during a bulk, the more fat versus muscle you’ll put on with additional calories.

That’s a good reason if any to never rush a bulk, as well as staying below 15, max 17 % body fat for men and 25, max 27 % for women.

4. Staying Lean Is Healthy

Improved hormonal environment in the body is not only associated with better muscle growth, it’s also associated with better health.

In fact, bulking in and of itself is a bit unhealthy even within the “healthy range” of 8-15 %  respective 17-25 %

But, it’s A LOT unhealthier to bulk above these ranges.

Lastly, science shows that the fatter you’ve once gotten, the harder you will have to maintain a low body fat percentage after your future cuts, or when the time comes to stay lean for good.

That sounds terrible!

The mistake of not starting out lean is one of the biggest reasons a lot of people struggle getting and keeping a lean physique in the long-term.

Okay, so now you might wonder:

Why Not Build Muscle and Lose Fat Simultaneously?

One very common question that I get is this:

Why can’t I just eat at maintenance while consistently improving in the gym over time. Won’t that turn my fat into muscles?

Well, here’s the answer:

As a beginner to early intermediate to training, you can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously, as long as the protein intake is high enough and your training is on point. This is especially true if you’re starting out with a higher body fat percentage as well.

But, here’s where this approach gets troublesome:

In order to lose fat you must be in a caloric deficit. Since fat loss applies to the law of thermodynamics there’s no way around this.

And even though it’s possible to build muscle in a caloric deficit, once you’ve passed the newbie stages and gotten leaner, “body recomposition” as this phenomenon is called, becomes extremely slow.

In fact, here’s a visual of what would happen doing either bulking and cutting cycles or body recomposition:


Graph is just an illustration of the difference between the cutting and bulking vs body recomposition strategies, and doesn’t take training experience into consideration

As you can see, the body recomposition strategy builds less muscle, and will require more time reaching the goal of getting shredded. While the bulking and cutting strategy, even though some muscle will be lost during cutting phases, will build muscle quicker and reach the goal sooner.

*Want to know roughly how long it’ll take you to get ripped depending on your starting point? Check out this post!

How to Transition From Cutting to Bulking

One very important thing to keep in mind is that, if you want the strategy of using bulking and cutting cycles to be faster than recomping then you must have a cutting to bulking transition plan set up. If not, chances are very high that you’ll regain a lot of fat once your cut is over, and this drastically increase the time it’ll take you to get ripped.

I recommend that you read this post to learn how to successfully transition from cutting to bulking.

Mindset: The Secret Behind Getting a Lean And Muscular Physique

Okay, so before finishing up this post, let’s look at one of the most common problems that arises when it comes to bulking and cutting:

Which is that many of us can’t seem to grasp that it just takes time to create an outstanding physique that’s not only lean, but muscular.

Trust me I’ve had my fair share of battling this:

I used to go on cuts, then jump straight to bulks, I mean binges and repeat the cycle again and again because I had zero patience for letting muscle growth occur.

Do you recognize this pattern?

If you do, don’t worry, let me show you the “secret” to stay lean while building a ripped physique in the long-term.

Change Your Focus!

A big mistake that people make when starting their fitness journey is focusing solely on the end goal.


Something I always hear is this:

“How long will it take me to build a muscular, ripped and fit physique?”

I usually start of my answer by asking what their dream physique is, while also looking at their current physique.

And my answer is usually:

“1 to 4 years or more.”

The reaction is often:

“WHAT? Are you kidding me!? Do I need to stick to my training and diet plans for so long?”

My answer is then:

“Of course! That’s how you build a great looking physique that’s both lean and muscular.”

But, don’t get discouraged by this, if you do, you miss one extremely crucial point, which is:

“You won’t go from your current physique to your dream physique overnight”

Neither will you have the same physique, same physique, same physique and suddenly “poof”, after 100 days you wake up with your dream physique.

No, the process of changing your body will happen gradually as you’re making progress towards your goals.

I know this can feel dull to hear, but it’s just the way it is.

For this reason it’s first and foremost important that your fitness plan is connected with your lifestyle. In fact, I wrote an entire guide on how to fix that here.

And secondly, it’s important that you:

Focus More On The Process Than On The Goal

Being more process oriented as opposed to goal oriented is VERY important if you want to be successful, and more importantly happy, in your pursuit of a lean and muscular physique.

Because as I’ve covered; it takes time to build an outstanding physique, especially if you’re after a lot of muscle mass naturally.

And on that note, there’s one thing you must stop and ask yourself, which is this:

Are you freaking sure you are/will enjoy the journey and the process that goes into building the physique?

Because, you only have one life, and what you do with the time you’re given on this planet should add value to your life and not the other way around.

Sure, I get it, looking great is awesome, and it’s a valuable goal to pursue. But, it’s very important that you don’t forget how the process towards the goal makes you feel.

For me, working on my physique goes a lot deeper than just the aesthetics. It gives me a deep feeling of purpose, where I’m constantly learning, growing and improving myself.

I also feel that it’s exciting and fun to see the difference in my physique as the years go on.

Furthermore, constantly improving my physique makes me feel extremely proud and confident in myself, and in my ability to go after the things I want in life.

Perhaps you get totally different feelings from the process. But no matter what they are, it’s important to take a step back and think about them every now and then.

Because when you acknowledge the feelings that drives you on a regular basis, it’s going to be a lot easier sticking to the plan you’ve laid out for yourself. Simply because you’re going to focus more on enjoying the process, rather than just being fixed to a goal in the future.

Conclusion – Should You Bulk or Cut First?

You should definitely get lean at ~10 % body fat for men and ~20 % for women before you start bulking. (You can find out your body fat percentage here.)

This sets you up for a long and sustainable lean bulk, where you’ll be able to maximize muscle growth for 6-8 months without losing too much muscular definition.

Doing this makes the bulking periods more fun, because you can flex the incredible pump you get in the gym with leanness to show for it.

Not only that, it’s also a lot healthier for the body to stay lean, and you’ll build more muscle because of it.

And best of all, you’ll only need 6-8 weeks of cutting in between the bulking periods.

Finally, adopt the mindset where the process is more important than the goal, and you’ll stay lean easier during your bulking phases.

So, are you going to avoid looking fat half of the year and just okay the other half?

And are you going to start looking good and end up looking great?!

What’s Next?

Okay, great your goal is to get lean first and then start adding muscle mass, awesome! But where do you start?

Well, there’s a lot to learn and keep in mind here. First you need to set up your diet to successfully lose body fat without losing muscle mass, which is done by setting up your nutrition correctly while also training with a well set up training program that ensures muscle growth.

Second, you need to track your progress to ensure that what you’re doing is actually working. Then once you’re done with that you got to ensure that you transition from cutting to bulking without just gaining all the body fat you lost back.

I understand if this might feel a bit overwhelming, especially if you’ve just gotten started. So, here’s what I recommend that you do to make all of this a LOT easier:

Get your hands on a high quality course! This is what I did in the beginning of my fitness journey and it’s the number one reason I was able to undergo my physique transformation sooner rather than later.

Having access to a step by step course and just following it to the T is the only real “shortcut” to building a ripped physique. You basically take what someone else learned over a time course of five to ten years and bring it down to a one, two or three year process depending on your goal and starting point.

Do yourself a favor and don’t wait ten years to build the physique of your dreams, get your hands on a guide and you’ll get there a LOT quicker. I use and recommend the Kinobody and Think Eat Lift courses, you can read more why I do so here!

Do you agree that you should get lean before bulking? Do you have anything to add or a question? Leave a comment below and I’ll answer as quickly as I can!

Niklas Lampi

My name is Niklas Lampi and I work as a fitness writer, nutritional consultant and personal trainer. My favourite exercise is the bench press and my favourite food is pizza!

6 thoughts on “Bulk or Cut: Should You Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?

  1. Hi Niklas,

    I was just wondering, in this article you say to cut first to get lean and then bulk. But in the skinny-fat article you say “If you’re mostly skinny but have some fat covering your belly, then you should focus on building muscle first. Don’t worry about getting a six-pack yet, you need to build muscle up in order to actually have a six-pack to reveal.”
    So which is better for someone already with a low body weight, but a flat stomach (no definition)?
    Thanks so much

    1. Hey Adam,

      Yea for skinny fat individuals there’s often not an exact clear answer to what to start with, basically because there are so many types of skinny fat. But in general I always recommend that people cut down to 10% body fat first (only exception is if someone has very little muscle mass but hold just a bit of fat around their waist and hips). So, for someone already with a low body weight, but a flat stomach with no definition then I recommend going on a lean-bulk first. Just make sure the bulk is very clean and you’re not gaining too much fat 🙂

  2. Hi, Thanks for a great explanation. Now I wonder, I’m a healthy man of 49 years of age and around 20% body fat (my average on my scale). I’ve been working out for 3 years now, changing routine every 3 or 4 weeks, watching my macros. I lost 4% of body fat and gained around 8 kilos of muscle. I wonder, your advice: “….Having around 8-10 % body fat for males … is the best place to start…” Is this true at every age? Or would you say it’s more realistic to start at 12-14% when you’re a middle aged man like I am?

    1. Hey Michel, great work so far! 🙂 Yes you are probably right, I guess it’s more realistic to start a bulk at a slightly higher body fat percentage if you’re middle aged simply because your body has been used to a higher body fat percentage for a longer time. It might be very unsustainable to directly go down to 8-10% body fat. So, absolutely aim for 12-15 % if you feel that it’s more appropriate for you! 🙂

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