Everybody knows the classic broscience of “bulk up, then cut down”. Essentially, this isn’t an incorrect approach, however, it doesn’t account for several other crucial factors. The thing is that the starting point in fitness or bodybuilding is yourself and any strategy should be adjusted to you, and not the other way round. That said, if you’re about to embark on a strength training journey and are unsure whether you should be gaining or losing weight, keep on reading, I’ll help you choose the right path. 

Many people who decide to go to the gym, outside of some extreme cases, of course, where it’s obvious, are wondering whether they should start with a cut or a bulk. Since you carry some fat on you that you want to get rid of, you should eat less, but then you also want to build muscle, so you should be in a caloric surplus, right? 

Correct. Diet is fundamental to achieving results in any sport. A poor meal plan will be killing your workout efforts.

My strong suggestion is that before you start pumping iron, try and improve your eating habits for at least 2-3 months. Everyone will benefit from a proper relationship with food, and for you it will be a decent test and an opportunity to build discipline which you’ll need a whole lot of later on. 

After a month or so add in a couple of simple exercises you can perform at home using bodyweight and / or resistance bands, and in 3-6 months you’ll have a great mental and physical base for making the next step which is actually going to the gym. 

Traditional approach to building muscle mass 

If you want to increase strength, muscle mass, and improve your physique aesthetics, you can go one of two ways. First assumes a cycle of being in a caloric surplus along with progressive overload, followed by a period of going into a gradual caloric deficit while still training heavy. 

If you decide to follow the introductory stage I suggested earlier, you should be ready for an intelligent calorie boost and have an improved metabolism. 

At this point you should commence your first mass period, the duration of which is an individual issue, however, it usually lasts from 6 up to even 12 months. I spent 11 months massing and well… it was a ride of sorts. 

If you’re thinking “dope, I’ll be able to eat what I want for a year!” I’ve got some bad news for you. Constantly staying in a caloric surplus is an effort. A filling breakfast plus 4 dinners a day is no joke, been there, done that. Even the notorious dirty bulk based on fast food and sugary treats gets tedious. Especially when you start seeing some fat unavoidably accruing. Sure, your strength numbers go up, but you can say goodbye to deep cut ABS.

At some point, you simply can’t wait to cut. 🗡

When the day finally comes, you take a pic on the scale and embark on another mental battle. This time the challenge is to deal with a constant feeling of being underfed and drops of energy and strength. What gets you through this is the prospect of revealing the dry muscle mass you’ve been working to build for the past year or so.

Once you reach a satisfactory dryness of your physique, rinse and repeat. 

Body recomposition 

Another approach to building muscle mass is body recomposition. Keep in mind that the number on the scale doesn’t provide a full picture of the actual physique, and for many people sheer weight loss isn’t necessarily recommended. What’s way more important is improving tissue proportions – you want more muscle and less fat.

The preliminary stage I discussed earlier in the post can serve as a great introduction to body recomp. 

What is body recomposition? How do you do it?

Well, this method assumes a more linear instead of a sinusoidal development of physique. There are no interchanging long cycles of a surplus followed by caloric deficit. More emphasis is put on forming proper eating habits and becoming oriented for the long haul, as transforming your body takes a lot of time. 

The goal of body recomposition isn’t to lose weight per se but rather achieving more favorable proportions based on a satisfactory and sustainable lifestyle involving conscious eating and regular physical activity. 

Bulk & cut vs. recomp 

Back when I was starting my gym journey, I only had some rudimentary knowledge on nutrition and training. I kept learning on the go. At first, I came up short on patience to keep a clean diet and jumped on a dirty bulk which resulted in me gaining more fat than I wanted. The cut that came later proved to not be a terrible experience after all but I can’t help but wonder how much less time would I waste if I kept a proper diet and trained more efficiently from the getgo, aiming for body recomposition. 

Multiple bulk and cut cycles can get pretty extreme. They strain both body and mind. 

If you’re not a professional athlete getting ready for a competition, bulk & cut may not be the most optimal approach for you. The period of caloric surplus during which you’ll gain fat (yes, you’ll get muscle too but probably not as much as you think) can be a waste of time. You may get 200-300g of muscle tissue more than during the same time doing body recomposition but in the meantime the results will be hidden under fat anyway. You’ll then have to do a longer cut during which you won’t keep 100% of pure muscle gains.

Who’s this for? powerlifters, individuals planning to compete, advanced individuals on PEDs

The gym is largely a numbers game – reps, weights, sizes, body weight. It’s easy to get a bit lost in all of this. What you need to keep in mind though is that at the end of the day these numbers aren’t the only measure of success at the gym.

Body recomposition lets you focus on what’s really important. Its results may potentially be less extremely noticeable, since the change won’t be as rapid, but at the same time they’ll be easier and more pleasant to maintain.

In my experience, body recomp is better at tuning up your metabolism and once you achieve somewhat of your goal physique, you’ll be able to grant yourself more dietary leniency and perhaps even move on to the if it fits your macros (IIFYM) model. 

Who’s this for? most people wanting to improve their physique and feel good with their body in the long run 

Wrap-up

I can’t stress enough the fact that the speed at which you’ll see the results depends on where you’re starting from. In order to persevere in your weight loss or physique improvement efforts you need to have realistic expectations towards yourself.

Think of the numbers on the scale not only in purely quantitative but also qualitative terms. 

Personally, I appreciate the amount of work mass monsters put into developing their physiques but in terms of aesthetics, I’m not a huge fan of that look. On the other hand, a sixpack on a twig isn’t something to strive for either. Most people aim at the broad spectrum in between, and this leaves a lot of wiggle room.

It’s important to know what type of physique you’re trying to build, as this will affect your diet and training. If you’re interested in powerlifting, a major caloric surplus and some fat tissue development will be unavoidable (unless you’re on the Chinese national team). If you’re aiming to become stronger and have a more aesthetic shape, consider body recomposition involving developing proper and long-lasting eating and physical activity habits.


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