Whether you are starting a new training program for the first time in years, or you’ve been training for 10 years it can sometimes be hard to decide whether you should cut or bulk.
Now for many people this is obvious, if you are 400lbs and have trouble breathing when you get to the top of a flight of stairs then you should probably avoid a bulking plan.
But if you are somewhere in the middle, particularly if you suffer from that (unfortunately named) body shape known as skinny-fat, it can be really difficult to decide.
You want to have big enough muscles that people notice, but you also don’t want to hold on to any of that nasty excess body fat that has started to creep up on you.
Paralysis By Analysis
If you are caught between the two desires (six pack or biceps) it can be surprisingly stressful.
You go to the gym and you can’t decide what to do, you don’t know what diet to follow so tend to avoid thinking about it properly.
Or worse, you keep flip flopping between the two. One day you’re eating enough to fill two regular people, the next you’re on broth and carrot sticks.
This over-thinking can lead to what is sometimes known as paralysis by analysis. You’re so confused by the situation that you become scared to make a decision. This leads you to treading water, which is the worst of all outcomes.
It’s not just training that can be affected by analysis paralysis, it can be work life, romantic life, and many other things. But training tends to lead to the most obvious results.
If you’ve ever seen someone go to the gym religiously for months on end but never change their physique, it could well be because they are too afraid to make a decision. Which is such a shame, because anyone who trains regularly deserves good results.
Luckily we’re here to help you poor souls to pick a side and finally get the results that you’ve always wanted.
Different Body Shapes
This is a complex issue, and first we need to create some scenarios so that you can find the one that best suits your goals. We’ll have the following guys as examples:
- The Skinny-Fat guy = Someone who has very skinny arms and legs, a small chest, but a build up of body fat around the stomach.
- The Formerly Overweight Guy = Someone who used to be very overweight but is now almost lean. They still have a bit to go, but are starting to get seduced by the idea of getting bigger.
- The Bulky Guy = Someone who is overweight but likes the idea of building a world’s strongest man physique.
- The Fitness Model = Someone who already has a six pack and decent muscle, but isn’t sure which way to go from here.
Yes there are many people who might not fit into any of these categories, but if we did one for everyone this article would be thousands of pages long … and nobody would read it.
These are just some scenarios that you can look at to give you an idea of the logic behind our methods.
The Skinny Fat Guy
This body shape is very common, and it is also one of the most ridiculed body shapes in the fitness world (because people are terrible).
Thin arms, thin legs, tiny chest, and the beginnings of a beer gut. The skinny fat guy tends to be quite weak and quite new to the gym.
Skinny fat physiques are the hardest to make a decision on, because they are right in the middle. Bulk up and you become the “fat guy” or cut and you become the “skinny guy”.
If you’re brand new to the gym then you’re in luck. You are actually able to do both, this is known as Newbie gains and it is incredible.
That doesn’t mean that your job will be easy though, it just means that you have a simple decision to make.
The first thing that you want to do is assess your current situation. If you are physically weak and you are fat then something is clearly not going right with your diet or your training.
Take measurements of your weight, body fat, circumference (chest, legs, arms, waist, stomach) and a before photo. Then track your calories for a week, while also tracking activity (step count and gym sessions).
Make sure that this week is representative of your normal life, not your ideal one!
Once you have all of this information your next step should be obvious.
Find out the recommended calorie intake for your size, and follow that. Make sure that your protein intake is high, and that you are getting enough sleep. Get into the gym 3-4 times per week, and follow a simple strength building program. Increase your step count on the days when you aren’t in the gym.
Soon you will find that you are losing fat from your midsection, and building muscle mass. Keep this up for six months and regularly track your progress.
At this point you can decide which way to go, if you feel that your body fat level is drastically reduced you could look at slowly increasing your calories. This will lead to bigger muscles and should be followed by a cut.
If instead of that you would prefer to drop your body fat even more (and worry about muscle gain at a later date) then just slowly reduce your calories by 50 per week until you are pleased with your results.
The Formerly Overweight Guy
So you’ve lost quite a bit of weight since you’ve started and now you’re starting to eye up the competition.
You’re in a gym where guys your size are squatting twice the weight that you are, and they look better doing it.
You’re probably tempted to bulk now, so that you can start to build bigger muscles. Well stop thinking that at once.
You’ve come a long way, but you have not got there yet. You’re still overweight, you still have stubborn body fat that you want to shift, and this is the most important thing to do.
Instead of giving up on your diet, you should be doubling down. You may never see your abs, but you could definitely feel leaner.
Drop calories slowly on a week by week basis (while maintaining protein levels) until you finally reach a level of leanness that you’re happy with. Only then can you think about bulking.
The Bulky Guy
You can understand the temptation, it’s like a rebranding “I’m not overweight, I’m bulky. I’m a unit” etc … Nope you’re overweight. Bulky is another word for being fat.
Now if you really want to get into powerlifting or strong man training that’s great! But it is much more difficult than you are probably expecting, and it will involve a LOT of time spent in the gym.
If you have hours to spare every week then you can consider it, but if you are working a regular job, have a family, and a social life, then maybe it would be a good idea to drop that body fat instead? It really is up to you, but please be realistic in your reasoning.
The Fitness Model
You’ve been training for years, your physique is impressive, but now you’re not sure what to do. You can see your abs, but feel that if you wanted to you could get even leaner. Your muscles are big, but you could definitely increase their size, but you’re afraid of losing your six pack. So you’re basically stuck. Scared to go one way and neglect the other.
What you need to do is make a long term plan, you basically want to be leaner and stronger/bigger. Well this is possible (particularly for someone as dedicated as you) but it will take time.
It’s not a question of whether to bulk or cut, it’s which order you want to do it in. You could cut first, get as lean as possible and then start bulking, before returning to a cut afterwards. But the more obvious option would be to bulk first and then to lose the fat.
It’s not a physical block that’s stopping you, it’s a mental one. Once you start looking more long term the answer becomes obvious.
If you’ve built yourself a good physique then you probably know how to manipulate calorie targets to reach your goals, so just do that with a long term plan in mind. Pick a date that you want to bulk until, and then pick a date that you want to be lean for, and go from there.
Some of you may have been a little irritated by the tone of this article, there aren’t many articles out there that call their readers fat or skinny etc … But hopefully you will forgive us, because we’ve all been there before.
It’s about tough love, it’s about being honest with yourself about where you are.
If you are in amazing shape you can decide whatever is best for you. Hopefully this article is the kick up the ass that you needed.