Our specialty is helping skinny guys bulk up, so no surprise, then, that one of the most common questions we get from skinny-fat guys is whether it’s okay to bulk or if they should cut down to a lower body-fat percentage first.
At first glance, neither bulking nor cutting sounds very appealing. Most skinny-fat guys have the awful experience of bulking up and seemingly just gaining fat or trying to lose weight and just winding up even skinnier.
To be fair, when you bulk, you’re probably building some muscle. It’s just you aren’t noticing it because it’s hidden by the fat. And when you cut, you probably aren’t losing that much muscle. It’s just that you’re getting smaller overall, your muscles aren’t as puffed full of glycogen, and you don’t have quite as much energy to train. Even if everything is going fine, it can seem like you’re losing muscle.
Either approach can help, as long as you do it correctly: bulk leanly and maintain your muscle mass while cutting. Mind you, that’s easier said than done.
Nutrition plays a role here, but most of the guys that we see who are struggling with this are doing cardio or p90x style programs when trying to lose fat. These are programs designed for your average person looking for weight loss. And weight loss is what they get. They lose some fat, they lose some muscle.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Cardio can be effective, but it should be combined with hypertrophy training—training designed to stimulate muscle growth. If you do some cardio alongside your lifting routine, then burning some extra calories and raising your metabolism a little higher can help with body recomposition. It can help skinny-fat guys build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. But the main driver of that body recomposition is hypertrophy training, not cardio, so emphasize the hypertrophy training.
The other option is to combine a bulking program with a fat-loss diet. Eat for fat loss while training for muscle size. Your diet will take care of the fat loss, and your training will ensure that you don’t lose muscle. In fact, you may even gain muscle while cutting.
Not everyone succeeds at losing fat and building muscle simultaneously, but skinny-fat guys often have success with it, especially if they’re relatively untrained or out of shape (study, study). For an example of that, here’s what happened in a study comparing weightlifting with aerobics when in a calorie deficit:
- The aerobics group lost seven pounds of fat while also losing six pounds of lean mass. (Thirteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man with 20% body fat, this would bring you down to 157 pounds with 17% bodyfat. You’d have lost a fair bit of muscle and still wouldn’t be anywhere close to having abs.
- The hypertrophy training group lost 22 pounds of fat and gained four pounds of lean mass. (Eighteen pounds lost overall.) If you were a 170-pound man, this would bring you down to 152 pounds with 8% body fat. You’d have fitness model abs, a few pounds more muscle, and could begin bulking leanly from there.
That’s the approach we take with our clients, doing a few weeks of cutting combined with hypertrophy training, and then doing a couple of months of lean bulking. After a few months of that, the transformations can be quite impressive:
Okay, I’ll end this one here. Here’s where to go next:
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