You’re not happy with where your physique is at currently, and know that the body you want requires some combination of losing fat and building muscle.
That said, you’re just not sure…
“Should I enter a building phase (focused on adding muscle tissue) first OR should I focus on shedding the fat first, and worry about adding more muscle later?”
The path you choose is important - this could be the difference between having the physique you want 12 months from now… or realizing that you spent months moving in the wrong direction.
So let’s get into how to know which direction to choose.
Really, you have three options here, you can either:
1. Enter a fat loss phase (a cut)
2. Enter a building phase (a bulk)
3. Enter a body recomposition phase (losing fat & building muscle simultaneously)
A building phase (what we prefer to call the “bulking phase” within our online coaching service) is a period of time focused on teaching you how to fuel your body for the absolute best training performance in the gym, and recovery from said training.
During this time, you also must be sure that you’re training in a manner that will actually stimulate muscle growth.
From what we’ve seen with new online clients, the building phase is most often where people need to spend more time, as most have avoided this in the past in favor of constant dieting.
Achieving a lean physique with plenty of muscle definition requires first having plenty of lean muscle tissue on your frame.
Most people who don’t have the body they want, despite the fact that they’ve been consistently working hard in the gym & keeping tabs on their nutrition for the last few years simply don’t have enough lean muscle.
Sound like you?
Here’s what you’ve failed to consider….
Unless you’re new to science-based training and nutrition practices like our online clients follow, building muscle is much harder when you’re underfeeding your body.
So while you probably noticed a dramatic transformation the first 6-12 months you got into training and nutrition… you’ve noticed your physique hasn’t changed much (if at all) over the last 1-2 years.
This is usually caused by constantly trying to diet and build lean muscle at the same time… but with where you are in your fitness journey, this is no longer feasible, for a few reasons:
1: Eating in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn) seems to reduce your baseline levels of muscle protein synthesis, as well as the degree to which your body increases muscle protein synthesis as a response to consuming protein. (1)(2)(3)
Being able to build muscle across any given time frame comes down to something called net protein balance.
Your muscles are essentially built from protein (or more specifically, the amino acids that you consume within protein).
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS): The process of your body repairing/adding to your current muscle protein.
After you consume protein, levels of MPS “spike” for the next 2-3 hours before returning to baseline. The size of the spike depends (to an extent) on the amount and quality of protein consumed.
Resistance training also spikes MPS.
But it’s not just as simple as eat protein, train, spike MPS, build muscle. Because there’s another sinister force at work here...
Muscle protein breakdown (MPB): The process of your body breaking down muscle protein.
Your muscle proteins are stuck in a constant battle between MPS and MPB. Sometimes the rate of MPS is greater than MPB, sometimes vice-versa.
To build muscle: You need positive net protein balance (More MPS have occurred than MPB) across any given timeframe.
To lose muscle: You need negative net protein balance (more MPB than MPS must have occurred) across any given timeframe.
So understanding this, it’ll clearly be much harder for your body to add lean muscle if you’re constantly under eating/dieting, and why eating more food in a building phase will put you as an online client in a much more advantageous position to add some physique-transforming lean muscle.
2: You ability to train hard will suffer if you’re under-eating
Calories are energy. So when you're eating in a calorie deficit for fat loss, you're literally in an "energy deficit", and thus have less energy to freely spend on things like pushing hard in your training.
Lifting challenging weights is the primary signal to your body that adding muscle is important.
So if training performance is suffering because you’re under-eating/dieting (which is very common), building muscle while losing fat is much less likely.
3: Calories are your body’s primary recovery resources
Building muscle is more than just training hard… to actually grow new lean muscle tissue from what you’re doing in the gym, your body needs to be able to fully recover from all of the fatigue you generated in a training session.
As you can see in the above, muscle growth doesn’t actually occur until after your body has recovered from all of the fatigue that a training session created.
One of the primary resources your body uses to help your recovery is food - especially the carbs and proteins that you’re eating.
The trap that many people fall into is constantly training hard… but not providing their body enough of the recovery resources/food and sleep needed to actually adapt and build new muscle.
Thus, you’re stuck in a place where your body can just barely recover back to it’s previous baseline before you train a muscle again… a.k.a. You’re always training hard, but never actually building muscle - your body is always stuck in the same place.
When you enter a building phase, you’re finally giving your body all of the recovery resources it needs to actually fully recover and adapt to what you’re doing in the gym… so you’re able to build lean muscle at a much quicker rate than before.
4. Your body is more likely to use protein as a fuel source when you’re under-eating
When plenty of energy (calories) is available, your body prefers to use carbs and fats (as its fuel sources, as the process of converting protein to a usable energy source for your body) is very inefficient.
That said, when dieting and short on available energy, your body just doesn't have enough energy coming in (in the form of carbs and fats) to fuel itself, so it can potentially start breaking down more muscle protein as a fuel source.
It’s pretty obvious why this is suboptimal for building muscle.
So in a building phase, our online clients are focusing on properly fueling their bodies to be able to train hard, fully recover, and maximize lean muscle tissue growth.
A building phase will typically last anywhere for 4-9 months within online coaching. At the end of it, you’ll have a considerable amount more lean muscle than before, which will dramatically improve the way your body looks and feels.
Now that you have a great understanding of the benefits of a dedicated building phases, let’s weigh out the pros & cons to help you decide if you should bulk first.
PROS OF BULKING/BUILDING PHASES
→ You’ll add muscle tissue and see significant strength gains
→ Better training performance, and more energy throughout your day
→ You get to eat more food
We already covered the pros very thoroughly above, so let’s move into the potential cons....
CONS OF BULKING/BUILDING PHASES
→ You’ll likely gain some body fat
→ Seeing visual changes takes longer, as building muscle is a slower process than fat loss
During a building phase, we push most of our online clients to gain ~.5-1% of their body weight per month.
Now, seeing the scale go up in a building phase can be a scary thing (and is usually why people don’t have successful building phases without the guidance of a coach).
But as discussed, we don’t want you to be in a calorie deficit/losing fat here, as it’s much less optimal for muscle growth.
So if you’re not slowly seeing the scale increase, you’re probably just not building muscle.
With the weight gained during a building phase, you’ll inevitably gain a bit of body fat and feel “fluffier”... and that’s ok!
Building muscle is a very slow process - gaining 1-2 lbs of muscle per month is great progress.
But understand that fat loss happens much quicker, so you can easily lose 1-2 lbs of fat per week in a fat loss phase.
Any fluff gained here will be lost quickly in the subsequent fat loss phase.
When deciding if you should focus on bulk/build or cut first, it’s important to objectively weigh where your physique is currently at.
YOU SHOULD BULK/BUILD FIRST IF…
→ You don’t have much body fat on your frame… but still don’t have the body shape you want. You simply don’t look the way you want to because you don’t have enough muscle. Not because you need to get leaner.
→ You classify yourself as skinny-fat.
→ You recently lost a significant amount of body weight (10% or more of total body weight). This doesn’t have to mean building in the manner described above if you still want to get quite a bit leaner… but realize that you just significantly pushed your body from it’s previous body fat settling point.
This means that your hormones, energy levels, and metabolism will all be working against you if you enter a cut at this point.
For online clients in this scenario, we highly recommend a period of time focused on eating more food, adding lean muscle tissue, and improving hormones and biofeedback before pushing for fat loss.
ONLINE CLIENTS WHO FOCUSED ON BULKING/BUILDING
To wrap up the conversation around building, let’s talk through a few real world examples from our online client roster, and how we decided that they needed to focus on building.
CLIENT EXAMPLE 1: PAUL
This is my former online client Paul.
9 months before the “after” picture, Paul started coaching on a mission to look like a (better looking) Thor for a photoshoot.
From the start, we established that this was going to be a LONG GAME. ⠀
The end result he wanted required him getting shredded… but he first needed to add some muscle to actually look like an Avenger, and was already starting the process very lean. ⠀
The first 6 months of this process were spent in a building phase, where we pushed him to eat more food to optimize his training and recovery. ⠀
During this time, he added 20 lbs, and definitely got a bit fluffier. But he ALSO added a considerable amount of lean muscle to his frame. ⠀
The final 3 months, we pushed him into a fat loss phase to strip off the fat (while maintaining all of his new muscle). ⠀
Paul uncovered a dramatically different physique than he had 9 months ago, because he was willing to play the long game of entering a build first.
CLIENT EXAMPLE 2: KATHY
On the left, Kathy had just wrapped up a photoshoot prep and gotten very lean. ⠀
After this, we spent months focused purely on eating more and maximizing performance in the gym, with a special emphasis on glute gains. ⠀
After months dedicated to building, we dropped her into a fat loss phase to prep for another photoshoot, bringing us to the picture on the right.
In both pictures, her body weight is very similar, but as you can see, her body composition is much different, with more muscle and less fat on the right.
During this phase the primary result we’re pushing your body for is fat loss.
New trainees with a decent amount of body fat or those that are detrained (used to train but have fallen off of the wagon) will still be able to add a notable amount of muscle during this time (a.k.a body recomposition).
But as you understand from our discussion on the building phase, you won’t be putting your body in nearly as optimal a position to build muscle.
This means that those of you who have been taking a smart approach to your training and nutrition for a decent amount of time will likely just maintain your current muscle mass in the fat loss phase instead of actually being able to build.
Many online clients will start coaching with our team complaining that, despite training in a smart manner for a long period of time and being relatively strong, they still don’t “look like they lift”.
For these clients, the reality is they often do have a well above-average amount of muscle mass… it’s just currently covered by body fat. (Usually they’ve been very consistent with their training, but less so with their nutrition.)
In this case, a fat loss phase will completely change said client’s physique, and leave them looking much leaner and more muscular.
This change isn’t because they’ve added significant muscle during the fat loss phase, but rather because they’ve uncovered/made more visible all of the muscle they already had.
On the other hand, some new online clients will start coaching in a position where their body fat is too high to enter a building phase (usually above 15-20% for men, 30-35% for women), and we need to get them leaner for improved health - after a fat loss phase, their improved health will allow their bodies to prioritize adding lean muscle tissue.
At the end of a fat loss phase, your physique will look lean and tight - whatever muscle you have on your frame will be much more visible than it was before. Many men and women end this phase with visible abs.
PROS OF STARTING WITH A FAT LOSS PHASE FIRST
→ You’ll look leaner. For most people, achieving the look they want ends with the fat loss phase.
Most of you want a physique that entails more muscle and less fat - so after a building phase, we take you through a fat loss phase to uncover a lean, muscular physique. A fat loss phase is what leads to the lean look that most people want.
→ If you’re at a higher body fat, it can improve your health and put you in a more advantageous position to build/bulk after.
CONS OF STARTING WITH A FAT LOSS PHASE FIRST
→ Most will struggle to build muscle during this time.
→ If you don’t have a decent amount of muscle going into the fat loss phase, you’ll likely just look “skinny” at the end.
→ Training performance and recovery suffer.
→ You don’t get to eat as much food.
Again, it’s important to look at where your physique is at objectively here.
You should probably start by cutting first if:
→ You’re at a higher body fat percentage (~15-20%+ for men, 30-35%+ for women). Even if you do want to add more lean muscle to your frame, if your body fat is relatively high, it’s a good idea to start the process with a fat loss phase.
With higher levels of body fat comes reduced levels of health - things like your insulin sensitivity and cellular function can suffer, in turn meaning it’s harder for your body to add muscle tissue vs. if you were a bit leaner.
→ You already have a decent amount of muscle mass. As mentioned before, if you already have a good amount of lean muscle & strength, but feel like you still don’t “look the part”, you just need a fat loss phase to make all of the muscle you’ve already built much more visible.
→ You haven’t lost a large amount of weight recently. If you’ve recently dieted and lost a significant amount of weight, it’s not a good idea to jump immediately into another diet, as your hormones & metabolism just need time away from dieting to return to a healthy homeostasis.
That said, if you haven’t dieted in the last 9+ months, you’re likely in a good position to start a fat loss phase.
ONLINE CLIENTS WHO FOCUSED ON CUTTING/FAT LOSS
To help you make your cutting vs. bulking decision, a few examples from our online client roster...
CLIENT EXAMPLE 1: JULIE
Julie had spent a good amount of time focusing on eating plenty of food and making sure she was doing everything needed to maximize muscle growth leading into the picture on the left.
She had actually been running her own building phase prior to starting coaching.
After many months focused on building, we uncovered a dramatically changed physique at the end of her fat loss phase.
CLIENT EXAMPLE 2: KASSIDY
Kassidy started online coaching wanting to lose body fat and build lean muscle.
That said, we knew at the onset that the #1 focus for improving her overall health was going to be fat loss.
This transformation is actually the product of several long fat loss phases, with shorter 1-2 month maintenance phases in between.
Body Recomposition: Building lean muscle, and losing fat at the same time.
A.K.A. what everyone wants, right?
Basically, you’re getting the benefits of the fat loss phase and the building phase at the same time.
Now, some people can catch this magic unicorn of losing fat & building muscle simultaneously… but it’s really not doable for everyone.
So if you don’t fit into the category of people who should take on a recomp, please don’t waste your time trying. You’re better off starting a dedicated fat loss or building phase.
PROS OF STARTING WITH A BODY RECOMPOSITION PHASE
→ For beginners and detrained individuals, it’s very exciting to see both strength increasing in the gym and your body losing fat so quickly.
→ Gives you “the best of both worlds”... fat loss and muscle growth.
CONS OF STARTING WITH A BODY RECOMPOSITION PHASE
→ For those who aren’t pure beginners or detrained, this will be a slower process. You want see the quick rate of fat loss you would in a dedicated cut or necessarily experience the quicker strength gains you’d get from a building phase.
→ Requires tightly controlling all of the variables. A body recomposition has you walking a very fine line, as you’re trying to both lose fat and build muscle at the same time - so unless your training, nutrition, sleep, stress management, and nutrient-timing are on point… you’ll struggle to see results (again, excluding the beginners and detrained individuals mention before).
Really, most of you reading this shouldn’t. I want to make sure that this is clear, as many people waste years always trying to recomp… and never actually seeing their bodies change, as they’re advanced enough that they need to choose to either cut or bulk.
That said, a few people who can successfully take on a body recomposition phase:
→ Those who are new to training in a smart manner. If you haven’t been in the gym much at all, or have been training with something like OrangeTheory or F45, and suddenly switch to following a smart, individualized training program for building muscle like our online clients follow, you’ll likely be able to see a significant body recomposition effect.
→ Those who used to train consistently/have built a solid amount of muscle in the past, but have “fallen off the wagon”. If you’ve previously built more muscle than your body currently has, getting said muscle back is much easier than the first time you built it (your body has “muscle memory”), so you’re able to regain your previous muscle tissue and lose fat simultaneously much easier than someone trying to build muscle for the first time.
→ Those who aren’t already very lean… but also don’t have a very large amount of body fat to lose. If you’re already super lean, your body will just need more fuel in order to actually prioritize muscle growth - individuals in this case are better off focused on building.
Individuals with a lot of fat to lose of course should still focus on building lean muscle in their training, but the primary target with nutrition should usually be quicker fat loss vs. the slower recomposition approach.
ONLINE CLIENTS WHO FOCUSED ON BODY RECOMPOSITION FIRST
Finally (to make sure this is applicable), a few examples from our roster of online clients who started the coaching process focused on body recomposition
CLIENT EXAMPLE 1: JENNA
This is my online client Jenna. She started coaching brand new to training in a manner focused on building muscle, and while not super lean at the start of the process, she also didn’t have a huge amount of body fat to lose.
This made her a great candidate for body recomposition.
CLIENT EXAMPLE 2: KENDALL
This is my online client Kendall.
As a former college athlete, Kendall had a good amount of lean muscle on her frame in the past, but was detrained.
This made her a great candidate to lose body fat and build lean muscle at the same time, as we could take advantage of muscle memory for a great recomposition effect.
And that’s how to know if you should cut, bulk, or body recomp first.
If you need expert guidance applying these principles to your physique transformation, click here now to apply for online coaching with our team.
We apply proven, science-backed nutrition & training methods through individualized coaching to help you get the body you want, and teach you on how to keep it for a lifetime.
I love simplifying the mysterious art and science of training and looking like it. I’ve been on my own journey, and I share what I’ve learned so you can get there faster, on my Podcast and on Instagram.
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