Should I focus on losing fat or building muscle?
In fitness-speak “bulking” is the process which someone goes through to gain muscle. It means you are eating a caloric surplus while lifting weights allowing your body to use the excess calories to build muscle.
“Cutting” is the process of trying to lose fat. It means you are eating in a caloric deficit which requires your body to use fat storages for fuel and energy.
Ideally when bulking you want to gain muscle while minimizing fat gain. With cutting the opposite is true – you want to lose fat without losing muscle.
Seems pretty straight forward, right?
Hold on a minute! I get emails all the time that go something like this, “Hi Amber! I have tried macro counting for a couple months but I’m not really making any progress. I really would like to lose fat and gain some muscle, can you help?”
Maybe you can relate to this conundrum. You want to add muscle AND lose fat, so, what should you do? Should you bulk? Should you cut? Should you do something entirely different? The answer, of course, depends on the person. Let’s walk through the process.
What is your current body fat percentage?
There are many ways to measure your body fat percentage and many of them aren’t as accurate as they claim. However, most will give you at least a general idea of your current body fat percentage. I like to use calipers because they are cheap and fairly accurate, but you can also rely on a body scale, Dexa scan, or handheld device. Even cheaper than any of those options is just a simple mirror. That’s right – you can actually get fairly close to determining your body fat percentage by just taking off your shirt and looking in the mirror and comparing yourself to this chart:
The higher your current body fat percentage is, the less you should be thinking about bulking. Going into a caloric surplus when you are above 25% body fat (for women, and around 15% for guys) is not smart. You will find that because you already have a surplus of fat your “gains” during a bulk will end up being a lot more fat for not a lot more muscle.
Because of this I don’t suggest starting a bulk until you are at least fairly lean – ideally around 20-23% BF for women and 10-13% BF for men.
If you are already at least fairly lean then you have more options and you should spend some time thinking which matters more to you right now. If your biggest long term goal is to build more muscle then my suggestion would be to set your calories in a 5% surplus and go for the bulk!
If, instead, getting leaner is really most important to you because you have a trip coming up or you have a goal of having visible abs or whatever, then set a concrete period of time to cut and then plan to bulk after the cut is over.
You can cycle bulking and cutting as many times as you need to in order to get the muscle mass that you desire.
There is a third option, and it’s called body recomposition which is a fancy phrase for adding muscle and losing fat simultaneously. Sounds like the perfect scenario, right? But before you think of this as the magical solution to achieving fat loss and muscle gains together, this process comes with a few caveats.
It works best for the inexperienced
If you take an untrained person and stick them in a gym lifting weights they are going to add muscle regardless of what program they are doing or what they are eating. The body responds very well to adding the first amount of muscle to it’s frame. For those who are inexperienced in the gym, many can get away with eating around maintenance and losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously. During this process there likely won't be huge changes in the scale over time but they will notice their clothes getting loser as they are adding muscle and losing fat. Unfortunately, our bodies adapt fairly quickly and if you have been weight training for over 6-12 months you are no longer a beginner and likely won’t be able to milk the recomposition process. That being said it's not a bad idea to at least try eating at maintenance for a couple months to see how your body responds before going into a bulk.
It takes time
I’ve worked with hundreds of clients, and one thing I have learned about human psychology is that if something is hard and it’s not making a difference, most people have a hard time sticking with it. Body recomposition takes a long time. And specifically it takes a long time without much change on the scale. It can be hard for people to trust that changes are happening when they step on the scale day after day and it says the same thing. Your measurements will probably go down and your clothes will likely be looser, but many people lack motivation if the scale isn’t changing. So yes, recomposition is cool, but it’s not fast and you have to be patient over a period of months to see the changes
To focus on recomposition you would set your macros at maintenance levels and continue to lift weights. Over a 3-6 month period you should see changes in your measurements and the way clothes fit, although the scale may not change significantly because you are adding muscle simultaneously with fat loss. Hopefully you are clear on whether your personal goal should be to cut, bulk or recompose.
The next step is setting your macros appropriately. If you feel lost and just want someone knowledgeable to walk you through the entire cutting or bulking process and give you quicker results than messing with it yourself that's exactly what I do with custom coaching. You can sign up for that here.
Tracy Duncan says
I need help losing fat to actually see the muscle I’ve developed.
Hey Tracy – have you listened to any of my podcast episodes: Biceps After Babies Radio? (www.bicepsafterbabies.com/podcast)