“To Bulk First or Cut First, That Is the Question” – Shakespeare
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If you’re looking for an example of someone who cut before ever bulking, look no further than Canada’s prodigal daughter, Justin Bieber. Sure, he has what many people would call a sixpack – but I own pencils with more muscle mass, and every single person at my gym, regardless of their sex, could pick him up, twirl him above their head, and launch him back into Canada.
In short, a six pack without any muscle mass is cheating, and staggeringly unimpressive. Working out is about improving your health and fitness, and sculpting a body that’s the product of solid nutrition, dedicated exercise and a positive attitude – and a six pack isn’t particularly desirable without any of the other beneficial traits associated with working out.
The process of cutting is also pretty severe, and even the most gradual and measured cut is going to cost you a little bit of hard-earned muscle mass – so if you didn’t have all that much to begin with, cutting prematurely could leave you looking more like Skeletor than He-Man (or She-Woman).
Lastly, cutting requires a calorie deficit, something which makes the process of gaining muscle a whole lot harder. If you’re starting out on a calorie deficit, you should be thankful for simply maintaining your strength, and gaining any solid amount of muscle during a proper cut is nothing short of miraculous.
We’ve established that cutting requires some degree of muscle mass to make it really worthwhile, and cutting prematurely will do nothing but eradicate any hard-earned gains you’ve begun to make – so our title question is answered, right? We should immediately begin making ice-cream and peanut butter protein shakes, and replace every vegetable in our diet with a Snickers bar.
Well, it’s certainly true that the body’s anabolic, or muscle-building, mechanisms are at their most productive during a calorie surplus – the body doesn’t have to worry about the threat of potential starvation, and more readily allocates calories to the process of building muscle – but a serious calorie surplus is also liable to create some serious body fat. There’s a limit to the amount of muscle the body can naturally create, and drastically exceeding your calorie requirements through the Ben and Jerry’s diet will only improve your muscle mass so far – and the rest will end up as fat.
Remember what we said earlier? About a desirable body requiring both muscle mass and lean definition? In the same way that cutting without any muscle mass will fail to chisel you a body worthy of a Grecian statue, perma-bulking without any attempts to control and reduce body fat will leave you looking more like the Blob instead of Dr. Manhattan. Sure, you’ll be as strong as you could be, and you’ll have lots of muscle – but it’ll be hidden away beneath rolls of gelatinous, sweating fat. Sexy! Eating like this simply isn’t healthy, and being strong and fat is probably just as undesirable as being skinny and lean – so, although we need to bulk up a bit before we cut, we can’t go all-out and end up a round, muscular boulder. If only there was some middle ground we could aim for…
Lean Gaining – The Ultimate Objective
Welcome to the middle ground, young bro. If you’re serious about getting into shape in an achievable, sustainable and aesthetic way, you should make lean gaining your ultimate objective. The overall objective of this style of dieting is to control your bulking, never gaining more than a few pounds of unwanted body fat – so that you’re capable of gaining muscle mass and strength, but when summer comes around and you’re itching to bust out your abs, it only takes a few weeks of sustained cutting to achieve.
This process also eliminates the peaks and troughs of conventional cutting and bulking, avoiding the unhealthy binges on fatty foods that characterize a lot of bulking sessions, and equally avoiding the prolonged and soul-destroying periods of dieting necessary to undo the fatty damage.
Loosely speaking, lean gaining aims for a relatively small calorific surplus for the majority of the year, achieved by eating a relatively lean and healthy diet of carbs, proteins and fats. It’s crucial to avoid the hardcore bulking philosophy of ‘anything goes’, and your calorific surplus should be controlled, high in protein and comparatively low in sugars and fats. This will allow you to gain significant muscle mass, without the associated fluctuations of body fat you’d get from other types of bulking.
As a result, the cutting period becomes much smaller and easier to achieve, and you can even gain muscle mass year round, whilst maintaining a shredded, ab-revealing 8-10% body fat percentage. It’s true that you might not build as much muscle mass as a serious bulk would allow, but you also won’t lose as much through the process of drastically cutting pound after pound of fat – so if you’re overall goal is health, fitness and aesthetic appeal, lean-gaining is the way to go.
If I was backed into a corner and forced to make a choice between bulking and cutting, I would definitely lean toward cutting first. Reason being- excess fat produces estrogen and will make it harder for you to gain muscle. Also, being at a low body fat percentage makes it much easier to both see and measure your gains.
See you next week, bros,
Alex Nerney – Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Nutrition Specialist, Lord of Broscience
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