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Cut versus Bulk: Which Should You Do First for Best Muscle Growth?

Is your current body fat % slightly (or quite a bit more) higher than your ideal? If so, then you have to decide: cut versus bulk — which first?

Women with a red gym bag drinks water from a shaker in the gym. Before training, after training

If your current body fat percentage is slightly higher (or, TBH, way higher) than your ideal body fat %, you may have found yourself thinking:

“Cut versus bulk — which will give me better muscle growth results in the long term?”

See, it isn't an easy choice to make. Obviously. Because if it were, you wouldn't be struggling with this question. Let's start with the apparent downsides associated with each option:

  • Cut first: You may not have much muscle mass. As a result, you could end up looking "scrawny" and "small" post-cut, possibly the two descriptors you’d like to disassociate from most. Also, you could feel weak in the gym, causing a plummet in training volume.
  • Bulk first: You already have a higher-than-you’d-like body fat %. Pile more fat on top of that, and you may struggle to like what you see in the mirror. Plus, isn’t there talk about too much body fat hurting hypertrophy or something?

Cut versus bulk? It seems like you can't win either way, right? Well … while it may seem like we've found ourselves in a little bit of a Catch-22 situation, the good thing is that we can look toward some pretty recent research for clarity.

Will a higher body fat percentage hurt muscle growth?

So, first, let’s talk about the idea that having a higher body fat % would negatively impact muscle growth. Are the gym bros right?

From a theoretical perspective, excess body fat and hypertrophy don't seem to go together. That's because body fat is closely associated with the following:

🍬 Insulin resistance: Insulin is a hormone that helps your cells take up glucose (i.e., their fuel source) from the bloodstream. To that end, insulin resistance is a phenomenon where cells in your body, like those in your muscles, start resisting or ignoring insulin — and thus cannot use glucose from your blood for energy. And when this happens, it’s believed that your lifting performance will suffer, impacting hypertrophy.

💢 Systemic inflammation: Post-workout inflammation is good. It signals to your body, "Hey, look at these muscles. They're injured and need to be repaired!" But when we're looking at chronic inflammation? Yeah. Then it's a different thing altogether. As it turns out, chronic inflammation enhances muscle breakdown and lowers muscle synthesis. (Learn why in this article, “Chronic Inflammation: How It Hurts Muscle Growth”)

Real-life research calls BS

But theory is just that: theory. A hypothesis. What does the evidence say? Well, real-life calls BS.

More specifically, we can look at two longitudinal data, both published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, on American football players:

1️⃣ 2010 study: Examined training responses among American football players on the same team. Divided players into:

  • Skill group — Showed up with baseline body fat % of 6.95%; gained 3.2 kg of lean mass (total mass gain: 3.14 kg)
  • Big skill group — Showed up with baseline body fat % of 11.6%; gained 3.2 kg of lean mass (total mass gain: 2.5 kg)
  • Linemen — Showed up with baseline body fat of 21.1% body fat; gained 4.6 kg of lean mass (!) (total mass gain: 3.12 kg)

2️⃣ 2013 study: Reported longitudinal changes in linemen and skill players in their first year of collegiate American football:

  • Skill group — Showed up with baseline body fat % of 8.4%; gained 6 kg of fat-free mass and 0.1 kg of fat mass
  • Linemen — Showed up with baseline body fat % of 22.5% body fat; gained 6.5 kg of fat-free mass and lost 4 kg of fat mass

Note: many linemen were known to have obesity (>25% body fat) and insulin resistance. And … yet, they still gained relatively more lean mass than those with lower body fat percentages.

So … cut versus bulk: which should you do first?

Meaning? It appears that we can put the theory of a higher body fat percentage hurting hypertrophy down.

But does this mean you should always, always bulk first before cutting to your ideal body composition (i.e., to have a nice amount of muscle when you get to your target body fat %)?

As frustrating as this may be, the truth is that when it comes to cut versus bulk, you’ll have to decide which is most suitable for your situation.

Factors you should consider:

🤔 Are you OK with increasing your body fat %? Let’s say you decide to go with a bulk. Note that this will see you further increase your body fat %. How do you feel about that? Will you be OK with the aesthetics, or will it fuel (more) body dissatisfaction? Also, be mindful that this could impact your cardiometabolic health.

🤔 How much time do you have to work with? Don’t mind cutting first to get a sense of your current muscularity level? If you have lots of time to work with, you probably won’t need to be too aggressive with your calorie deficit — which means you won’t see a massive drop in your energy levels.

🤔 What’s your lifting experience? New to lifting? Then you might not even need to choose one over the other when it comes to cut versus bulk. There's a third option available to you, the body recomp. That's where you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. Interested in learning more? This article guides you through how to body recomp in a step-by-step process.

Navigating next steps

Cut versus bulk: regardless of which you’ve chosen, the way you’ll train remains the same. You’ll still have to hit your muscles with adequate training volume, a smart mix of exercise variations, and appropriate intensity (i.e., progressive overload when it’s time).

How do you get started, though? And how will you know when it’s time to push yourself harder?

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  • Training goals
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So all you need to do is show up and get closer to your dream physique every session.

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References

Ellulu, M. S., Patimah, I., Khaza’ai, H., Rahmat, A., & Abed, Y. (2017). Obesity and inflammation: The linking mechanism and the complications. Archives of Medical Science : AMS, 13(4), 851–863. https://doi.org/10.5114/aoms.2016.58928

Jacobson, B. H., Conchola, E. G., Glass, R. G., & Thompson, B. J. (2013). Longitudinal morphological and performance profiles for American, NCAA Division I football players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(9), 2347–2354. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31827fcc7d

Patel, P., & Abate, N. (2013). Body Fat Distribution and Insulin Resistance. Nutrients, 5(6), 2019–2027. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu5062019

Stodden, D. F., & Galitski, H. M. (2010). Longitudinal effects of a collegiate strength and conditioning program in American football. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(9), 2300–2308. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181dc4255