GOAL SETTING: PRIORITIZING MUSCLE GAIN OR FAT LOSS. AKA: BULK OR CUT?
In the previous part I explained why having an understanding of the energy balance and the laws of thermodynamics are very important, and why you have to get your required energy balance right. If you happen to give a damn about making long term body recomposition gains (read: gain muscle, lose fat), that is. But, before moving on and setting your energy balance right for your goals – through estimating your needed calorie intake to make gains happen – you need to make sure you have a clear goal to begin with!
It is with a clear goal in mind that we can optimize our diet, after all. We know that you will gain weight in a positive energy balance: aka an energy/caloric surplus, where excess energy will be stored and converted to bodily tissue. We also know that you will lose weight in a negative energy balance: aka an energy/calorie deficit, where your body has to oxidize/”burn” bodily tissue to get enough energy to function. If we optimize this with proper lifestyle interventions (such as a good training program and an effective nutrition protocol), we can optimize muscle gain and fat loss in those 2 scenario’s (energy surplus vs. deficit).
That is why it’s important to have a clear goal. Time to ask yourself: what is yours? Do you want to prioritize muscle gain or fat loss the coming time? GOTTA FOCUS, remember!
What is your goal?
I recommend setting a clear short-term goal. Focusing too much on a distant end-result (a long term goal, such as your ideal physique) can work against you. Instead of focusing too much on the future, I suggest focusing on the now and the time period in front of you.
Choose your destiny:
- Do you want to prioritize losing bodyfat, and preserve lean muscle mass (and possibly build some in the process)? -> You will require a calorie deficit. No way around that.
- Do you want to focus on gaining muscle, and minimize fat gain in the process? –> You will require a calorie surplus. Well, technically you do not need a calorie surplus to build muscle – and definitely not an excessive one (unless you would like impressive fat gains). You can build muscle in an energy deficit (study 1, study 2). If you are into the body recomposition game for a bit longer however, being in a calorie surplus will help you maximize gains -(provided you get your training, diet and lifestyle right).
Do you want to do both – lose fat and gain muscle – simultaneously? This is not impossible, but realize that his approach may result in slow as hell results – especially if you don’t have a clear-cut plan where you are accurately monitoring calorie intake and aiming for a weekly deficit/surplus.
So: I don’t recommend trying to focus on both at the same time. Focus on a set weekly deficit (for fat loss) or surplus (for muscle gain) instead. Stick to bulking and cutting oriented body recomposition phases – and alternate between the two over time. Spend the necessary amount of time in each distinct phase so that you can make excellent gains. Make sure you get progressively bigger and better over time.
The minimum amount of time to spend in each phase? That is hard to answer. “It depends”.
Whatever you decide to do though: do not alternate back and forth between very short bulking and cutting phases all the time. Example: 1 week of cutting > “crap I’m losing muscle” > back to bulking > “oh god I’m getting fat” > back to cutting. That sucks, and you will probably end up spinning your wheels and not making any gains.
Ideally, you want to spend most of your training career making lean gains. Make sure you stay within healthy bodyfat levels (will discuss this further ahead), and then the “bulk or cut?” question becomes a practical and psychological one.
My Recommendations for choosing your goal, based on your current bodyframe
Scenario #1: Moderate to High bodyfat, or simply unhappy with current amount of bodyfat you carry around? > CUT!
Cut and get lean when you are at a moderate-to-high bodyfat. Obtain a solid lean base to build muscle on.
Dammit Choji, start your dang cut already – this bulk is clearly not working for you. Your nutrient partitioning sucks. (Yes, I’m both a DBZ and Naruto fanboy.)
What is a high bodyfat percentage? This is somewhat subjective to the eye, but we have “healthy” ranges of bodyfat to stay in – and that is what I will recommend here.
For men, I encourage to stay below 15% bodyfat – and spend most of your training career sub 15% bf in order to maximize gains (more on that later). Forwomen, 25% can be considered the “outer” bodyfat % target. Stay below these ranges to “optimize” health and gains.
Happyfatface. This is me at about 15% ISH body fat: the end of a mass gaining phase. I personally feel this is as “far” I want to go, body-fat wise. From here I cut back to a leaner frame (10-12%). Rinse and repeat. Add muscle over time and get bigger!
Scenario #2: Lean as hell? Or skinny, not-fat and not carrying much muscle? > Do a lean bulk / slow gaining phase
If you have a lean frame and a low bodyfat percentage (<12% bodyfat, often characterized by having some ab definition and a decent amount of vascularity – although both are a bit genetic as well), focus on gaining muscle and strength. Do a lean bulk / slow gaining phase.
What does “lean gaining” or “slow bulking” that mean? Basically: not dirty bulking (= being in an excessive calorie surplus) – but using a modest calorie surplus that befits your training status and bodyfat level. What is your training status? Have some patience – I will get back to that in the next article, when discussing setting calories.
Lean. And skinny. Time to focus on putting on some muscle, twig.
Scenario #3: Skinny Fat, dunno what to do lol > Flip a coin, but consider cutting first
Some people are skinny fat and are unsure whether to focus on cutting or bulking first. Example of skinny fat:
A google search of skinny fat made me realize what hell is like.
If you are skinny fat: carrying around little muscle, but still having some noticeable chub covering your abs – honestly, just flip a coin. No use in lingering about “what if’s” and switching back and forth between cutting and bulking.
In general however, I do recommend getting lean first. Focus on adding muscle mass on your leaner frame afterwards. Doing it the other way around (bulking at higher bodyfat percentage) has too many contra-indications for me to recommend it.
So get lean (calorie deficit) first, then make lean gains (calorie surplus) after!
Thus: Obtain a lean base. Maintain reasonable leanness. Forever.
This is what it essentially boils down to. Let’s simply define the “solid, lean base” as being “pretty damn lean” and/or “generally happy with your physique”. It pays off to be and stay reasonably lean, forever!
For one, your gaining phases will simply last you longer. Consider this: when lean, you’ll have an excellent, low-bodyfat starting frame to add quality muscle mass on for a long period of time – because you are far away from being at unhealthy bodyfat levels. If you don’t dirty bulk and thus cut your gaining phase short due to accumulating fat quickly (= the consequence of overeating), that is.
Starting a bulk at a higher bodyfat percentage pretty much means that your gaining phase will be of shorter duration than if you were to start a gaining phase when leaner. Starting to bulk at 13% bodyfat when you set 15% as the “limit” (as recommend above) is silly. Be reasonably lean before bulking, and use the right surplus so you don’t accumulate fat fast (note: fat gain during a calorie surplus cannot be ruled out completely, but it can be minimized if you do things right). More time to make gains = a good thing.
Another important benefit of gaining when reasonably lean: Nutrient partitioning improves. Basically, the higher your bodyfat%, the worse your nutrient partitioning becomes.
What does “good nutrition partitioning” mean? Put simply: your body will make better use of the nutrients you provide it. Excess nutrients will be more likely to contribute to muscle growth (provied you are training right and getting progressively stronger in your exercise selection over time)– and not just contribute to fat storage. Thus, building muscle when lean will be more efficient than building muscle when fat.
Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that insulin sensitivity and p-ratio also improve when lean. Improved insulin sensitivity basically means that most lean, active individuals can safely consume a higher carb, high protein diet without fear of becoming insulin resistant. Improved p-ratio boils down to a better muscle:fat gain ratio. These factors worsen if you carry around more bodyfat.
Healthy bodyfat levels: stick to them for most of your training career/life!
These ranges can be seen as the “optimal”, healthy bodyfat ranges to stay in:
- Men: 8-15% bodyfat
- Women: 15-25% bodyfat
Lower bodyfat percentages (Sub 8%) can be achieved if you want to get really shredded, diced or ripped – for whatever reason. Photo shoots, bodybuilding contest, tricking samplers, or just getting there once for the sake of experiencing it – these are all valid reasons to dive into the deep single digits. Please know that being very freaking lean has its downsides (such as a decreased anabolic hormone production).
Hovering in the 8-15% bodyfat range is a fine “gaining zone” for building strength and muscle for males (females: add 10% to these percentages). Testosterone levels tend to decline below and above this bodyfat %, and that sucks if your goal is to put on muscle. The more testosterone you have, the bigger and stronger you can become, after all! 5 6
Consider ~15% bodyfat to be the outer end marker of your bulking phase (women: ~25%). Go as high as you are comfortable with bodyfat wise. Just don’t allow yourself to get very fat, haha! You will hate your (lengthy) cutting phase afterwards if you do, and there’s plenty of “bad stuff” that will interfere with making proper gains as I explained. Once you reach the “outer target” bodyfat %, cut back to a lower bodyfat. Rinse and repeat. Forever.
If you want to maintain abs and stay semi-lean most of the time, consider narrowing “your” bodyfat-range-to-stay-in to 8-12% or so. Around 13-15% bodyfat is when most abs tend to get “soft” and slowly fade away (note that genetics play a huge role in “ab visibility”).
To summarize the article: have clear intent in what you wish to achieve. Apply focus: choose the cut or bulk emphasized body recomposition route, using a weekly calorie deficit or surplus respectively for each goal.
Make sure you stay within healthy bodyfat levels most of your life & training career. It will help your gains and health. Also, you will feel good about not being pudgy.
Whatever decision you end up making (cutting or bulking): stick to it for a period of time (a couple of weeks per phase = a minimum) > be consistent with your intervention > re-asses and evaluate the success of your intervention after you’ve made some gains. Only make quick changes to your plan if you realize you made a grave mistake, haha! Be honest when evaluating your gains, then make a decision whether to switch to the other phase, or to stick to what you were doing (and perhaps make some changes to your protocol if you appear to have stalled).
Alright, enough goal-setting talk. You know what your goal is. Time for some calorie math, and set caloric intake for that goal!