“I’ve been weightlifting for 6 months, but I have some excess fat that I want to get rid of. Should I rip first, or continue to bulk to make the most out of my beginner gains?”
The above is a prime example of what is usually asked by a lot of beginners. Are you kind of in the same boat? Then continue reading…
Here are five things you should keep in mind before making your decision.
1) Metabolism & hormones
Your metabolism determines how fast you will gain fat or if you’ll be able to gain mainly lean muscle during a bulk. Some people are able to eat tons and stay lean, whereas others can barely be in a surplus and gain only fat.
Your metabolism is greatly determined by your diet, thyroid, androgens, gut health, etc. If you’re struggling with excess fat, do blood tests for thyroid (TSH, T4, T3) and androgens (DHEA, testosterone, prolactin, estrone sulfate, DHT, cortisol) and a glucose tolerance test, to see how insulin sensitive you are. Some of them will be most likely not be where they should.
For example, if your thyroid hormones and androgens are low, cutting first might be mission impossible. Your body would rather break down muscle instead of fat if your metabolism is slow. Younger people might get away with cutting when not having an optimal metabolism (but will harm the metabolism further, creating a bigger negative health state to overcome afterward), but this becomes much more difficult and even detrimental when the person cannot rely on his youth anymore.
Test your hormones first, or if you suspect you have a slow metabolism, it won’t be a good idea to cut in such a state and will just add stress and further slow the metabolism. Fat loss will come to a stall and then all kind of symptoms, such as fatigue, low libido, brain fog, cold extremities, agitation, zero motivation, etc., will surface. First focus on optimizing diet and nutrition before considering cutting.
2) Beginner gains
A new weightlifter can gain the most amounts of muscle in the first few months of starting weight lifting and this is coined beginner gains. You can make muscle gains even while in a deficit if your protein intake is adequate and hormones and sleep are not too shabby.
Building muscle in a deficit or at maintenance calories will just take longer than when in a surplus. Only a smallish surplus is needed to build optimal amounts of muscle, but a bigger surplus can only help to lower stress, speed up recovery, increase anabolic hormones, etc, which will boost your ability to gain muscle and strength as fast as possible, while also improving your general well-being. As you increase your surplus, your metabolism will speed up as well, so it’s not like your maintenance is always going to be the same. Let’s say someone’s maintenance is 2500 calories, his maintenance can actually increase to 2800 or even 3000 calories as he increases his calories. Then he has to increase his calories even further to be in an actual surplus. I bet he’ll feel better physically and emotionally on 3000 calories than on 2500 calories. Higher calories (quality food only) are always better than lower calories (within boundaries of course).
Point being, you can gain muscle in a deficit, where you’ll lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, but somewhere along the journey, those benefits are going to stop because being in a deficit is stressful for the body and is not sustainable. Being in a deficit for too long will slow down the metabolism and then it might take a while to increase metabolism again if some serious damage hasn’t been done yet.
If your goal is to have lots of muscle and be shredded at the same time, building muscle first would be the best if you’re still a beginner. If you have like 3-4 years of solid training experience and gained good muscle and strength you can slowly reduce calories to drop fat.
If you specifically want to drop fat for the summer or so, a bigger deficit (no more than 500 calories) might work best, granted you have a good metabolism and hormonal state.
If your goal is just to be lean without the desire to have an abundance of muscle mass, you can cut calories right away, as you can still gain muscle even while in a caloric deficit, which depends on your protein intake, training status, metabolism, and hormonal status.
If you just want to drop weight for health reasons, I’d highly advise to fix the metabolism first and stick to maintenance calories or slightly higher with proper nutrition to restore the metabolism. Most of the time, as the metabolism picks up, the fat will come off too without the need for a caloric deficit.
This is very important. If you’re under a lot of stress, mentally, physically, emotionally, etc., adding extra stress with a deficit and exercise can be even more harmful and detrimental to your current state of health. This ties in closely with the metabolism point above, because stress is detrimental to the metabolism. How well you can tolerate stress depends on your health and the current state of your metabolism.
Signs of an already sluggish metabolism is cold extremities, feeling jittery, light-headed, overly fatigued, anxious, depressed, without motivation, sensitive joints, poor sleep, irritation and aggression, stubborn midsection fat, etc. Adding a caloric deficit and exercise on top of that will just make everything worse. Even if you are able to drop the fat with a sluggish metabolism through extra stress, just keep in mind that your metabolism will be so much worse off and that the results that you have gotten will not last. You want to stay lean all the time (not necessarily shredded, but with visible abs) and with a sluggish metabolism, this will not be possible or enjoyable at all. To achieve being lean all the time, you’ll need a good hormonal state, a good metabolism and low stress. If you’re under a lot of stress, don’t do a deficit.
Going into a caloric deficit while under lots of stress will tank your hormones and you’ll just add the fat right back and more after the deficit due to being chronically hungry, fatigued, cold, depressed, etc.
Just because I put diet last doesn’t mean it’s least important. It’s actually most important. If your diet isn’t on point to optimize your metabolism and hormones, you’ll have a difficult time gaining muscle as well as dropping fat.
Eating lots of junk food, peanut butter, pizza, french fries, McDonald’s, etc., will, in the long run, harm your metabolism and hormones and limit your gains.
Lots of young guys/men are able to get away with it because they still have high hormones, less stored toxins, faster metabolism than middle-aged men. But as they continue with the bad diet and lifestyle, the stress catches up, metabolism slows down and then they end up with stubborn fat, low hormones, low general well-being, etc, etc.
A good diet consists of no gut-irritating foods (endotoxins, some fibers, etc.), low in toxins (gluten, nightshade family, seeds, phytoestrogens, etc.), good quality protein (milk, eggs, red meat, gelatin (shouldn’t be consumed as a primary protein source), etc.), good quality carbs (sugar, fruits, milk, non-gut irritating starches) and as little toxic fats (polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs)) as possible. I have written quite a few articles on the negative side effects of PUFAs on the metabolism and steroidogenesis (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and that they are best avoided. Saturated fats are the opposite of PUFAs and should be the bulk of your fat intake. Beef, goat and lamb fat, dairy fat, coconut oil, MCT oil, cocoa powder and butter, are great sources of saturated fat.
Once you nailed the diet that is perfect for you and your metabolism, dieting will be much less of a stress. So optimize diet first before deciding to cut.
If you truly want to maximize muscle growth and strength, my Ultimate Strength, Size and Skill Program is for you.