Building muscle or losing fat: what comes first?

There are a few basic concepts that go into the decision to build muscle or lose fat first. The process, known as “bulking” and “cutting,” is straightforward. The purpose of bulking is to build muscle, while the purpose of cutting is to burn fat.

Should you lose fat first before trying to build muscles?

Like with most things, a balanced approach is the best. When you are bulking, it’s critical to do so while keeping fat gains to a minimum. But when cutting, the goal is to focus on keeping muscle mass while burning only fat.

If done the wrong way, the end result will be adding fat while bulking or atrophying muscles instead of cutting fat. Successfully cycling between phases of bulking and cutting will lead to the desired lean, muscular physique.

That leaves one important question: which phase should I do first?


Building Muscle or Cutting Fat: What Comes First?

It should go without saying that this article is designed for readers that are looking to add some muscle definition as well as lose some fat.

Obviously, readers that prioritize losing weight can simply focus on cutting. In the alternative, readers with the goal of adding muscle can simply focus on bulking. But for anyone looking at both losing weight and bulking up, there are a few factors that matter.

However, one factor stands out above the others.


What is your percentage of body fat?

As previously discussed in the paragraphs above, the end result of improper bulking will be disappointing for anyone that is unable to bulk in a “smart” manner.

That means putting on serious muscle mass while avoiding gaining any weight through unneeded body fat at the same time. Any work that doesn’t improve a person’s muscle to fat ratio is ultimately a waste of time.

The obvious factors that go into building an optimal ratio of muscle gain to fat loss is diet and proper exercise. But there is more to it than just working out and eating right. Another factor plays a critical role in bulking and cutting: your body fat percentage.

That is because the higher a person’s body fat percentage, the worse that person’s calorie partitioning is. Poor calorie partitioning will lead to the body storing calories as fat as opposed to building muscle.

Another factor to consider is that a person with excess body fat will still be carrying that weight after they bulk up.

Not only does that leave a lot of work after bulking is completed, but it also means spending a large portion of the bulking and cutting process heavier than before the process started. Additionally, cutting after bulking is done can lead to muscle atrophy if done incorrectly. None of these things are ideal.

These are all reasons why beginning the bulking process before cutting is a mistake. This is especially true when you consider the effects of introducing the caloric surplus needed for bulking while already carrying a high body fat percentage.

The best place to start bulking is after cutting down a moderately lean state. While bulking is certainly possible with next to no body fat, having some fat is still perfectly fine.

The ideal body fat percentages for bulking are:

Between 10 and 13 percent body fat for men
Between 19 and 23 percent body fat for women

Body fat percentages higher than this aren’t a guarantee for failure, but they can make the process harder.


How do I know my exact body fat percentage?

Unfortunately, it can be exceedingly difficult for a person to pinpoint their exact body fat percentage. Most methods of determining body fat like online calculators or digital scares are not particularly accurate.

How do I know my exact body fat percentage?

This is especially true for novices attempting to determine if they in the right body fat zone for bulking.

The best way to proceed here is the most obvious. Anyone trying to determine their body fat percentage can start by stripping off their clothes and looking themselves over in the mirror.

From there, they should make an unbiased determination of whether they look like they could lose some weight or if they are just in need of some muscle mass. If the unbiased decision of that person is that they look like someone who should be focusing on losing weight instead of bulking up, it’s probably best to focus on cutting.

But if that person sees a somewhat lean figure in the mirror, it’s probably time to bulk up. Here are the steps to take for both situations.

Currently in a Fat State

For anyone that has more than a somewhat lean figure and could improve their ratio of muscle to fat substantially, the most important thing to start with is to cut that excess fat off. Once a somewhat lean state is reached, then it is best to move on to creating a caloric surplus and bulking up.

It is much easier to build muscle in at least a lean state. A critical thing to keep in mind during the cutting process is that weight lifting is still a priority. While the goal isn’t to build muscle, lifting weights will go a long way with fat loss.

More importantly, moderate weight lifting is the best way to maintain your muscle mass as you cut through the fat.

Currently in at Least A Least Somewhat Lean State

In this state, there are options on how to proceed. It is up to each person and their preference. While bulking up might be the obvious choice, additional cutting down to a leaner size could be preferable.

Consider the following example. A male athlete has a long-term goal of building muscle mass. But in the short term, an upcoming beach trip presents an opportunity for him to show off a lean figure.

For the athlete, it might be a better fit for him to cut first to reach the beach body of his dreams before focusing on muscle gain once he gets home. But if gaining muscle is far and away the most important thing, it will make more sense to jump into bulking right away. As long as the athlete maintains their muscle mass, cutting fat at the end to become extra lean is an option.

Choose, Stick With it, and Repeat

In summary, start by using your body fat percentage to decide on whether you want to bulk or cut in the beginning. If you aren’t confident on your exact body fat percentage, you can use your best judgment by just looking in the mirror.

No matter what order is chosen, dieting and lifting weights smartly will ensure that fat can be burned off while muscle is maintained or built. Once one phase is successful, switching to the other phase is the next step.

This process can continue until the person reaches their goals. Each phase can be repeated over and over again until the final results are realized. No matter the order, cutting and bulking the right way can lead to the type of body everyone dreams of.

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