Podcast Episode 67 Transcript – Should You Cut Before You Bulk?

Aidan (00:09):

Hello, and welcome to The Ideal Nutrition Podcast. My name is Aidan Muir, and I’m here with my co-host Leah Higl. And today we are talking about, should you cut before you bulk? And we’re going to look at it from the perspective of … or from a few perspectives. We’re going to be looking at it in terms of personal preference and also what would get you better results potentially. And also, whether or not being leaner is a better starting point for building muscle, building muscle more efficiently. So we’re going to look at that question, too.

I’m going to start with the easy one, I’m going to start off with personal preference. Because obviously personal preference probably matters far more than efficiency in terms of results. If somebody just wanted to be leaner year round and it may have slowed down their results or sped up their results, potentially. It probably doesn’t matter. The question just doesn’t matter if they just want to be lean year round. Maybe they just stay lean year around.

Vice versa, if somebody didn’t care about being lean and they just wanted to gain size, it probably doesn’t matter either. And what if somebody’s in a sport where size is really important? For example, in the NFL being a lineman, being larger, whether that is just muscle or if there’s some more body fat or whatever. It doesn’t really matter, just being bigger is useful. That person shouldn’t really care about the question of whether you should cut before you bulk, because they should just be bulking all the time.

Leah (01:25):

So outside of personal preference, there is a claim on the internet amongst health professionals even. That having a higher body fat percentage makes it harder to build muscle due to a higher level of insulin resistance. So this is quite the rabbit hole. You can go really, really deep down here. And I mean there’s arguments on both sides, but I just want to present what my findings have been.

Stronger by Science, they come up with this idea of the P ratio. And they’ll be able to go over it in way more detail than we will in this podcast. And if you want to check it out in more detail, definitely go check their stuff out. But the general idea of a P ratio. So it’s basically the change in fat free mass divided by the change in total body mass. So basically it’s an easy scoring system for how much body fat versus lean mass someone has put on in a weight gain or bulking phase. So a high P ratio means you’ve put on weight with minimal fat gain. So a lot of people would consider that as a win. That would be the goal. And then a low P ratio would be, you have put on weight, but with substantial fat gain. So the theory that it is that the kind of being leaner at the start of a bulk is going to produce a higher P ratio.

Aidan (02:53):

Yeah. Like a higher percentage of your body weight gain is just going to come from muscle mass.

Leah (02:58):

Yeah. Which like I said, is going to be ideal for most people. Most people aren’t looking to gain a ton of body fat during a bulking phase.

So where did this theory start? The Stronger by Science crew put it down to this one research or review that was released in 1987, so a good while ago, by Forbes. We’ll have that all linked in the show notes. But it was basically a review looking at the body composition changes of people who were in extended calorie surpluses. And then looking at their weight gain and the composition of that weight gain. The review basically said, “Look, like the people that were leaner to begin with, were able to have a better body composition in that weight gain.”

So with this review, there’s basically a lot of issues. So if we’re breaking down, when we’re looking at P ratios in the context of what we usually work in, which is athletes or people just looking for optimal body composition. We’re usually looking at people that do resistance training. Usually that’s the people-

Who care about this conversation. But this entire review, so all of the participants in the research articles that were included, none of them did resistance training. So, that automatically makes it … it just doesn’t cross over to the population we’re talking about. They also included several studies that were recovering anorexia patients. So again, a really different circumstance. Other data came from weight regained studies after starvation diet, an extreme rapid weight loss. Again, not something really within this context. So generally, this review is just not representative of this bulking and cutting conversation that we’re talking about. But it is brought up a lot to push this theory, that being leaner and cutting before you bulk ends up with a better body composition overall.

My counter arguments to that would be, who are the most muscular and strong people in the world? So if we look at strong man athletes, like top, top strong man athletes. Eddie Hall, all those guys. They’re not shredded or they at least weren’t when they’re at the top of their game. They spent a long time having what we’d call … I mean a pretty poor body composition, I guess, from what most people would consider a good physique. So they gained a lot of muscle mass, it didn’t impair their ability to gain muscle mass. So how could it be that … there would be some point if this theory was true, that you’d gain so much body fat, that it would be almost impossible to gain more muscle mass.

Aidan (05:47):

There’s also other examples. I recall the Eric Trexler, that Stronger By Science Podcast, one of the podcasts and also in the articles. He pointed like a study of pre-season training for NFL players. And linemen have a really high body fat percentage and say a running back would be quite lean, typically. They just measured how much muscle they gained over a pre-season or an off season or something like that. And the linemen gained way more muscle, even though they had higher body fat percentage. And this opens another can of worms of just being, how much does genetics come into play? Are we looking at examples of some people just have better genetics for gaining muscle than others? It’s a massive topic, as well.

Leah (06:27):

Yeah, a hundred percent. But I also think if you’re trying to be leaner all of the time, does that take away from time that you could spend bulking? So, that also has to be considered.

Aidan (06:39):

A hundred percent.

Leah (06:40):

And there was actually more research done in sumo like athletes. So there was a paper published in 1999 that compared the body composition of sumo athletes across four different levels of competition. And what this research found was that the lower ranking competitive class had a similar body fat percentage to the highest ranking class. Even though the higher ranking class had, on average, more than … they were 50 kilos heavier on average.

Aidan (07:09):

Yeah, it’s crazy.

Leah (07:09):

So it kind of goes to show that if we were going to see this thing occur, in theory-

Aidan (07:17):

We should be seeing it now.

Leah (07:17):

Sumo athletes is where we would see it, right?

Aidan (07:18):

Yeah, yeah, exactly. Those people who have a lot of body fat, like why they’re not gaining muscle so much less efficiently than those who are leaner?

Leah (07:24):


Aidan (07:27):

Another argument though, from the other side of it, because originally where I came across this was on bodybuilding.com and other body building forums. They’d be talking about guys who were between 15% and 20% body fat being like, “You should cut before you bulk because you can resensitize insulin sensitivity, which might make it easy to build muscle.” That was one of the biggest argument that I saw. And obviously based on this stuff we’ve been looking at, that doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case based on what we’re kind of looking at.

But the other argument that I heard Menno Henselman say, like he was on another podcast going back against the Stronger by Science article, taking the other perspective. He talked about being … when you’re at a higher body fat percentage, your work capacity might be lower. If somebody was above, say, 20% body fat, definitely above 30% was the stance that I recall him taking. What happens if you’re doing a set of 20 on squats, for example? You end up very gas between sets and it’s like, does that make it harder to get that same quality of work in? But it’s like, that becomes a really interesting question of like, at what body fat percentage does that-

Leah (08:30):

Does that start to happen?

Aidan (08:32):

Come into play? And then the other thing is it’s like, there’s obviously a difference between men and women and that adds another variable insist being, I just use that 20% for men. But it’s like, well for women, 20% could be the equivalent of 12% for men. Which therefore changes the narrative on that, as well.

Leah (08:50):

Yeah. It’s definitely an interesting one. I think it’s going to matter at some point, but it depends on the athlete, the sport, the goals. And it goes back to, what’s your preference, probably matters way more-

Aidan (09:01):

Yeah. And they started getting up to the quite high body fat percentages where it’s like, well, even health outcomes are now going to be playing a role in this. What if you get sleep apnea and then that reduces your ability to train effectively? What if you … yeah.

Yeah. But that argument starts to get far away from the, should you cut before you bulk thing? Because firstly personal preference is going to, as you said, going to play a much larger role. And then it’s also people who are say 15% body fat probably don’t need to be worrying about those aspects.

So the next thing we would go through is the standard of advice, which this is kind of a separate topic. But the standard advice of people of ignoring is saying, if you are needle lifting, you should just bulk for a year and not even think about cutting. Have you seen that on Instagram or anything, anywhere?

Yeah. So it’s super common. I’m just going to like … well, I suppose we can both share our thoughts on that. I look at it being this advice comes from a good place and can make a lot of sense. When you are new to lifting, it is a lot easier to build muscle than when you’ve been lifting for a long period of time. So you could make the argument that’s like, well, if you’re new to lifting, you should just take advantage of that. You’re probably going to see the best muscle gains of your life anyway. Your P ratio is probably going to be the best of your life, as well, anyway. It’s easier to build more muscle versus it’s harder to gain fat comparatively.

The other really good thing about this is it encourages you to commit to a phase. That thing you touched on before about if you are in a calorie surplus for longer focusing on that you’re going to be building more muscle. A lot of people are guilty of chopping and changing, they’ll bulk for two or three weeks and they’re like, “All right. It’s time to cut.”

It’s like, you don’t really see the same level of progress. And anecdotally I also, if I look around, I’m like, I see people making way better progress when they commit to a phase than people who are chopping and changing. But how could that be bad advice?

The way it falls apart is it’s just a blanket statement. What if somebody already has a lot more body fat than they want to have? Bulking for a year is not going to help that. If anything, it takes them forever away from their goal. What if they play any sports that’s not lifting weights? So what if they play a team sport or something like that, where being lean may or may not be beneficial to them. And they hear that advice being like, “If you start lifting, you should bulk for a year.” It’s like once again, that might make them worse at their other sports or anything like that.

But then also the personal preference. Not everybody gets into lifting just to build as much muscle as possible. Some people have other goals outside of that. I don’t know. That’s where it falls apart where it’s like, you can look at that from so many angles being, as a blanket statement, probably not a great idea. But for some people it could be really useful advice.

Leah (11:33):

I think it definitely does come from a good place in that you do see a lot of people enter the gym with the goal of wanting to build muscle. But then you see them in a calorie deficit and you’re like, “Oh, you probably could be using this time a little bit differently if that’s your goal. If muscle building is your number one goal.” But yeah, it’s too much of a blanket statement for everyone to … because if you’re a really high body fat percentage and you go into the gym and you’re wanting to build muscle, you don’t necessarily need to be in a surplus to do that anyway. And it may be against your personal preference, but also just health wise may not be the best idea.

Aidan (12:08):

That’s the other thing, as well. It’s also an ethical kind of thing. If somebody’s already got health conditions where gaining body fat might not necessarily be a beneficial thing for them, that obviously has to factor in too.

Leah (12:17):

Yeah. So how lean should you be before you start a bulk? I mean, we kind of covered this in terms of it doesn’t really matter, it depends on preference. But in my opinion, you should be at a point where you’re comfortable and you have that buffer room. You’re going to probably put on body fat while you’re bulking, it’s probably going to be it. Even if you have a really good P ratio, there’s going to be some body fat gain while you’re in a calorie surplus. And if you’re already starting at a point where you’re already uncomfortable in your body and you’re already feeling like you want to be leaner, I think it’s quite hard to commit to that process. And in which case, you might want to get to a point where you’re like just leaner than where you want to sit and goal wise, so that you have that buffer room for when you do bulk.

Aidan (13:03):

Yeah. I definitely think about it in terms of, if you have a body fat percentage that is where you first start to feel quite comfortable or something like that, just going a few percent below that kind of makes sense, gives you that buffer range or whatever. And I think most people … you don’t actually need to know your body fat percentage. This is just an example, just being visually what you feel is going on.

But I think a lot of people would have a range they feel comfortable with. Like say, maybe a guy might be 12 to 15 or maybe it’s 15 to 18 or maybe … like it doesn’t really matter whatever somebody’s range is. But they might have a range, and using that 12 to 15 range as an example. If somebody cuts until they get to 14.9% body fat, and then they’re like, “Okay, I’m going to go into a calorie surplus now.” The moment they hit 15.1%, I know I’m being overly precise. But they start to feel uncomfortable, it’s like, well now they’ve got an entire bulking phase where even they feel uncomfortable or they’ve got a mental hand break of not wanting to actually commit to the phase because of it, as well.

Leah (13:54):

Yeah, yeah. Even personally, I know I have a range of aesthetically how I like my body to look. And even if I feel like I might get more out of a bulk, if I just keep going. There will be a point where I’m like, “Okay, I’m feeling uncomfortable. I need to lean out before I continue this.”

So I think everybody has that point with their own body.

Aidan (14:15):

Yeah, for sure.

Cool. Well that is a bit of a summary, I guess, of whether you should cut before you bulk. Basically summarizing, just going personal preference, obviously, comes into play above everything else. I don’t think that being leaner really is advantageous in terms of it making it far more efficient to build muscle. We see all of those. All that research showing that people at high body fat percentage can still gain muscle pretty effectively. But there is also, as I said, that little lingering question of being like, we can compare between people.

But the question people are really wondering is like me, as an individual, should I cut before I bulk? But we can never get a proper answer to that because that whole newbie gains kind of thing. When you first start lifting, it’s easy to make gains than when you’ve been lifting for a long period of time. So you can’t actually just run an experiment by yourself. Because you slowly get worse at being able to build muscle, which would skew the results. But based on looking at the research, I don’t think it really matters that much outside of extreme cases. And those extreme cases become mostly irrelevant because our personal preference is going to matter more than those extreme cases.

This has been episode 67 of The Ideal Nutrition Podcast. Thank you once again for listening. And as always, if you could please leave a rating and review, that would be greatly appreciated.