Ahh, the eternal question. But before I answer it, let me point out that yes, I used the word bulk, because that’s probably what you Googled. But actually, “bulk” should be removed from your vocabulary. The term implies rapid weight gain likely to put on unnecessary body fat, leaving you frustrated and forcing you to cut your gaining phase short. Thus, from here on out, I’ll use the terminology “gaining”.
However, before considering rates of weight gain (or loss for that matter), you might be thinking, “Hold on, I don’t know if I should be trying to gain muscle or lose fat in the first place!” In this, you are not alone. If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Should I bulk or cut?”…well, let’s just say I’d need an additional room in my home just for piggy banks.
The answer to this question depends on more than just your current body composition. It’s not quite as simple as saying: cut if you are high in body fat, gain if you are not. There is also an interaction with training experience.
I wouldn’t advise someone with obesity who is just starting a weight training program to purposely start tracking and weighing to achieve a targeted amount of energy restriction (although there is nothing wrong with simply adopting healthier eating habits such as consuming more fruits, vegetables, protein, and water). Just becoming more active alone can give someone who was previously sedentary more finely tuned hunger signals 1, and body-fat percentage will go down even if muscle is gained without fat mass losses. Also, metabolic health will improve purely from resistance training without dieting. In this case, I’d only advise you to institute a caloric deficit once the initial “magic” of newbie gains end, and if at that point you still had a goal of lowering your body fat (which as I said, may happen anyway just from lifting regularly).
In the case of someone who is generally not very muscular, but is also higher in body fat than average (often referred to as “skinny fat”; I’m not a fan of the term, but it hopefully helps you understand what I’m referring to), I also don’t recommend cutting. However, I also don’t really recommend gaining at the rates I recommend later in this chapter for novices either.
In this case, once again, just let the magic of partaking in serious progressive resistance exercise (for specifics, check out our Muscle and Strength Training book—sample programs also free on this site here) do its thing for 6 months, without focusing on instituting a significant deficit or surplus. With a low starting level of muscle mass, you’re ripe for putting on muscle regardless of your nutrition (outside of it being totally off base). After letting this initial phase occur, you will probably have a much better foundation to work from.
The times the answer to this question are cut and dry, is when you aren’t a novice. If you have a few years under your belt of training, and you fit into the “intermediate” or “advanced” categories (defined later in this chapter of the book), gaining or cutting does pretty much just come down to your body fat level.
However, the answer to this question is also not as critically important as you might believe. There is a common notion that if you aren’t reasonably lean, efforts at gaining will produce a disproportionate amount of fat and little in the way of muscle. This concept is called your ‘P-ratio’, which is simply defined as the proportion of fat to muscle you put on when gaining weight. Indeed, there is research showing that very lean people—who are naturally lean, not who dieted—gain more lean body mass during periods of overfeeding, and people with obesity gain more body fat during periods of overfeeding 2.
However, what two things that are frequently misunderstood are: 1) putting on more lean body mass when overfeeding occurs in naturally lean people who walk around lean. If you dieted to get really lean, your body if anything, is actually a bit more primed for fat storage. Also; 2) that this relationship is based on observations of individuals who aren’t resistance training.
If you start lifting weights this drastically changes the game. Nutrient partitioning in your now highly active skeletal muscle is much more favorable for muscle gain as you are providing a stimulus for growth and regularly depleting your muscle of energy and pushing them to become energy efficient and adapt.
If it was true that individuals with a high body fat couldn’t gain muscle mass effectively, sumo wrestlers wouldn’t have the highest recorded lean body masses of any athlete…but they do 3. Likewise, super heavyweight powerlifters would be weaker than weight classes below them, but they aren’t.
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a license to go on a dreamer permabulk! But rather, I’m saying don’t be the guy who is afraid to enter a surplus because they aren’t 8% body fat (or the gal who is afraid because they aren’t 16%).
The Difference in Body Fat for Men and Women
Men and women have different ‘essential body fat’ levels—the body fat essential to life and physiological function (largely not subcutaneous body fat). Meaning, even in shredded, stage condition, a female competitor will be at a higher body-fat percentage than a male. While individual differences do come into play, on average this value is around 2-4% for men and 8-12% for women. Thus, I often present examples of bodybuilding contest condition in this text as around 4% body fat for men, and 12% body fat for women (actually, measuring body fat accurately is another story, which we’ll cover in the Making Adjustments and Measuring Progress section). Likewise, when I present body fat examples of men and women they will be ~8% apart and should be seen as equivalent.
There probably should be some limit to how high your body fat is before you decide it would be better to cut versus bulk, but it’s for logistical reasons, not “anabolic resistance”.
Essentially, you don’t want to only get a month or two out of your gaining phase before you have to diet. If you are a powerlifter you don’t want to be too far above your weight class, and for bodybuilders, you don’t want to be too far off your stage weight. In either case, the inevitable diet to come will be unnecessarily hard or long if you are.
Likewise, for recreational lifters, you probably don’t want to be so high in body fat at the start of a gaining phase that you aren’t happy with your body shortly after starting it. Essentially, in each case, you want enough of a runway to be able to spend at least a few months in a surplus.
My rough guidelines are a maximum of ~15% body fat for men and ~23% body fat for women for beginning a gaining phase. After starting, allow your body fat to climb ~3–5% in the course of a gaining phase before you do a brief ‘mini cut’ (I’ll bring this concept up throughout the text, but for a full description see the end of The Recovery Diet section) to clean things up a tad before you rinse and repeat.
But remember, this is The Muscle and Strength Pyramid, not the constantly-cutting-to-be-aesthetic (but not actually succeeding) pyramid. A general recommendation (for those who aren’t starting with a high body fat level) is to have a minimum of a 4:1 ratio of the time spent in a gaining phase vs a cutting phase. Thus, if you spent four months in a surplus putting on muscle, you earned yourself no more than one month to do a mini cut.
Now, the tough part is actually assessing your body fat level (see the ‘Making Adjustments and Measuring Progress’ section of the book—also covered on this site here, here, and here). Everyone stores body fat differently. Also, having more or less muscle mass can make a given body fat level look better or worse. So in the end, just make your best guess as to whether you are below or above the cut-off. If you are somewhere in the range where either a cutting or gaining phase could be appropriate and you can’t tell where you fall and what you should do, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter which you choose to do. You hopefully realized that though, now that you are no longer under the false impression that your gaining phase will be sabotaged if you don’t start it lean enough.
I (meaning Andy) have recorded a quick video guide using coaching client photos as examples to help you estimate your body fat percentage here:
Note that it’s common for people to over-estimate how much muscle mass they have. So, after identifying someone who you believe fits your body type, click through to see what their lifting stats were. If they were a lot stronger than you, they probably carry more muscle mass than you, which means you won’t look as good as them when you have finished your cut. There’s nothing you can do about that but it’s something you need to be aware of to avoid disappointment.
If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from our Muscle and Strength Nutrition Pyramid book. The second edition, along with the Training companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.
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Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.
– Eric, Andy, and Andrea