To Cut, Or To Gain. That Is The QuestionJul 27, 2021
To make improvements to your physique, we can either build muscle (gain) or lose fat (cut). We can, of course, try and do both at the same time. This is called ‘recomping’, but we’ll discuss why you may want to tackle one at a time later in this article.
Should we cut, or should we gain?
There’s no law saying you have to do one or the other (or either for that matter). But if you want to improve your muscularity or leanness, below are some considerations that might guide your decision on which to focus on.
But first, let’s get clear on what is meant by a cut and gain.
Cut: Here, I’m not referring to a weight cut solely for the purpose of “making weight” for a competition weigh-in. That weight can be any weight, including muscle, fat, glycogen, gut volume, or fluid. What I am referring to, is a reduction in weight from less body fat.
Gain: I am talking about scale weight gain, with training and nutrition set up in a way to encourage a significant portion of that weight gain to be muscle gain. Not just any old weight gain like fluid retention or just fat gain.
Often you hear people say that to have the most productive muscle gain phase, you should ensure a lean physique first because leaner people grow more muscle. This means, for those carrying substantial body fat, a cut before a gain is encouraged. But is it true that leaner people grow muscle faster? The short answer is no. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that is the case, however, subjects have only been tested up to about 50% body fat, so we can’t say for sure how rates of muscle growth stack up above this body fat. Unless you’re on the very heavy end of morbidly obese, knowing rates of muscle gain above 50% body fat won’t matter to you much anyhow, as 30% body fat is considered obese, and most people with such high body fat probably have good reason to choose body fat reduction (a cut) at this stage, not weight gain.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s get to some considerations for choosing a gain or a cut.
3 Reasons to engage in a gain phase:
1. If you’ve just come off an aggressive cut that you never intended to maintain (like bodybuilding comp prep)
Maintaining a stage lean physique for longer than you need to win a trophy may look good, but it’s damn hard to do, and comes with endless side effects, especially for the natural competitor (not taking performance-enhancing drugs). This may include impotence, chronic fatigue, mood swings, extreme levels of hunger & cravings, poor memory and concentration, increased risk of muscle loss, nutrient deficiencies, poor physical performance & recovery, and high levels of restriction to your social life… because maintaining this level of leanness doesn't allow for any event that involves food (dinners, weddings etc).
For this reason, we encourage competitors to engage with intentional weight gain via a ‘recovery diet’. The details of this is a can of worms for another day, but essentially, it helps the athlete gain weight at a controlled rate to alleviate symptoms of being so painfully lean.
2. If you’re new to resistance training.
Beginners enjoy what we call ‘beginner gains’. This refers to a period of time when expectations of hypertrophy (muscle growth) are accelerated. To take advantage of these beginner gains, or gains at any time for that matter, you’d be wise to eat at least at weight maintenance, or even better, in a controlled calorie surplus (more than you need to maintain weight).
3. If you are ‘under muscled.
Meaning, regardless of how long you’ve been training, you don’t have an adequate amount of muscle mass on your frame for the look or function you’re trying to achieve. ‘Adequate’ is largely subjective, so it's up to you to decide how much is enough.
Starting a ‘cut’ with inadequate muscle (according to your standards) will result in a leaner version of you, but you’ll still be stuck with cute little biceps that intimidate nobody.
Sticking with a gain phase for a while longer might be a better idea, then move into a cut later when the end result will be more pleasing to you.
3 Reasons to engage in a cut phase
1. A personal preference to be leaner
Outside of avoiding medical conditions & physical symptoms associated with high body fat percentages, you might have a personal preference to be leaner for *function or vanity. Unless you’re already very lean, and your **relationship with food and ***lifestyle support a weight loss phase, there’s no reason to delay.
*Some sports like certain positions on the rugby field and sumo wrestling, favour a higher body weight. While function for sports like marathon running or being a jockey, favour lighter body weights.
**Those with poor relationships with food such as orthorexia, emotional eating, binge eating, or a dichotomous good/bad view of food (which can all be triggered by ‘clean eating’ among other things) would benefit from improving how they relate to food before engaging in a cut, which may mask or accelerate the issue.
***If you find your family or social life revolves around drinking and/or calorie-dense foods, and you frequently eat for pleasure and convenience, the odds of your cut being a success are not stacked in your favour. Or perhaps you’re too busy to prepare food that aligns with your goals and get your training done. A successful cut is greatly assisted by a lifestyle that facilitates the necessary work getting done.
2. Live life closer to competition weight
For those competitive athletes who have to compete in weight categories (eg powerlifters, fighters etc), doing a big weight cut leading into a comp is not only psychologically difficult, but the reduced fuel (from food) can lead to poorer recovery & performance and injury, resulting in having to pull out of comp because of it. Or perhaps you succeed in your big weight cut without any fatal flaws but are so underfed (and maybe under-hydrated to make weight) that you’re not moving at your best and it costs you the win.
Living life in your offseason closer to your competition weight makes the cut for weigh-in not only easier, but supportive of your performance, and safer too (reduced risk of injury).
3. Medical reasons
As mentioned earlier in this article, leaner people haven’t proven to be better at growing muscle than people with some junk in their trunk, so even if you’re medically overweight, if your goal is muscle growth, a cut first likely won’t help you here. But there are some other reasons people with a high body fat percentage (close to or above 30%) might want to consider a cut.
People with a high body fat percentage typically have:
- Lower insulin sensitivity
- Increased risk of various diseases and disease states like cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks
- Increased systemic inflammation (25%+) can impact recovery & injury
- Health markers on blood work start to suffer
- Poor appetite regulation
- Poor work capacity (difficulty with short rest periods and compound movements)
- Potential blood pressure issues
- Neuromuscular fatigue and slower recovery
- Anabolic resistance to food (MPS [muscle protein synthesis] is not as favourable in obese individuals)
3.1 And then there are reasons of vanity to cut before you reach 30% +:
- Stretched skin (only surgery can fix) and stretch marks
- They are further away from ideal physique - making the cut harder later
Now let’s take a peek at why you probably want to choose to do just 1 at a time:
I feel a bit wanky using a Confusious quote, but the man makes a good point. Chasing 2 targets results in catching neither.
To facilitate fat loss (catabolism) you are required to eat in a negative energy balance or a calorie deficit. These are fancy ways of saying eating less than you need to maintain weight. There are endless ways to engage in a calorie deficit, from skipping meals, to swapping to lower-calorie foods, or restricting the times that you eat, or many more ways. But however you slice it, fat loss cannot occur outside of a negative energy balance.
Muscle growth (anabolism) on the other hand obviously requires adequate training stimulus and is greatly assisted with the appropriate fuel (i.e enough calories, especially calories from adequate protein, to grow). But given very specific environments, muscles can grow in a negative energy balance. You might be thinking ‘so I can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time’. Well, yes, ‘recomping’ is possible but before you get too excited…
Just because it’s possible, doesn't make it likely. Actually, you’ll probably have to work damn hard in the gym and on your recovery & protein intake to avoid muscle loss during a fat loss phase. Not losing muscle during fat loss is a hefty enough goal for most people.
Muscle growth during a fat loss phase is more likely if you fall into any of the following groups of people:
- The obese population
- Enhanced athletes (those taking PEDs [ performance-enhancing drugs])
- Beginners to resistance training
- Genetic freaks (probably not you)
- Your training and recovery is absolutely on point almost all the time (I mean, who's is on point almost all the time... not many people).
But even then, the rate of growth expected while eating to lose fat will be incredibly slow.
And that’s on top of considering how slow muscle growth is even when we are eating to support muscle growth… that is, a positive energy balance, or a calorie surplus (more than you need to maintain your weight).
It’s not ‘wrong’ to attempt both at once, it’s simply an inefficient way to achieve either (fat loss & muscle gain). Chase 1 rabbit at a time.
But what about the grey area in-between fat loss and muscle gain? One hugely overlooked phase of weight management is the maintenance phase.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in trying to look like Arnie, or trying to get lean, that we forget about the sensible middle.
Weight maintenance phases aren’t for the complicit, the comfortable or the lazy.
Here are 3 reasons to engage in a weight maintenance phase:
1. You're physically and psychologically tired of the symptoms that come with cutting or gaining.
Cutting, depending on the length and severity of the calorie deficit, can result in hunger, lethargy, poor concentration and mood states, feelings of restriction, and unmanageable cravings. Gaining can result in feeling uncomfortably full all the time, lethargy and sore hips & feet from carrying around extra weight (for those on the very heavy end of the spectrum), and feeling uncomfortable in your skin from some fluff. Moving to a weight maintenance phase for a short or extended period of time can be a welcomed break from those symptoms, and enough to get you excited to bite off more of your goal when it’s time to get back to it.
This can be done in very short breaks like refeeds (not exactly a weight maintenance phase, but fits the bill of a short break). Example of a refeed here:
Or in the form of a diet break. Example of a 2-week diet break here:
Or even extended diet breaks for months or years at a time where you eat more or less to maintain body weight & composition.
2. Continuing to cut or gain is unrealistic for a period of time
Who wants to diet over Christmas, or during a holiday. Sure, it can be done, but most of us would agree that it probably will chip into a bit of your fun, spontaneity, sense of adventure, and feelings of freedom and unwinding. This isn’t to say that holidays should be a licence to binge or not look after your basic nutritional needs, but perhaps your idea of a holiday isn’t prepping salad in your hotel room.
Or perhaps your goal is weight gain and you’re the type of person who has to eat a lot to gain weight. You feel like you spend your life cooking food, and eating food, and before you know it, it’s time for your next meal again. It can be exhausting. We all have events in our life like caring for a friend or family member, a stressful or busy period at work, or a holiday, and sometimes we need to free up the time and mental resources for those things, not for our biceps.
Why not move from your cut or gain to a maintenance phase. You can always come back to it later after the holiday, busy work period, or whatever else life has in store for you.
3. Before a holiday
If you’re doing a weight cut, and the calorie deficit and duration has been harsh enough, you’ll be experiencing mental preoccupation with food, high levels of hunger, and strong cravings. The routine and habits you’ve built at home go a long way toward keeping you on track, and you can reduce temptations by keeping desserts out of sight in the pantry, or going for dog walks with friends instead of boozy lunches.
No point in our lives screams pleasure and a lack of routine like a holiday, with exciting new restaurants and bars everywhere you look. All of a sudden your routine is gone, and temptations to eat for pleasure & convenience alone have arrived.
Imagine how difficult it would be to maintain a balanced diet in the presence of these new and exciting temptations if you’ve persisted with a weight cut all the way until day 1 of your holiday. Hunger and cravings would be at their highest, probably also along with feelings of restriction and thoughts of “I deserve to treat myself after all that hard dieting.”
Finishing the final day of your cut at least 2 weeks before a holiday may prove helpful. It could help you alleviate feelings of restriction, hunger and cravings, and have you begin your holiday with a better outlook on your holiday nutrition. Sure, a sneaky arvo cocktail, picnic on the beach with cheese and dips, or late night dessert can still be in order. But you can enjoy these as occasional treats without the excess, instead of gorging yourself sick because you feel like you’ve just been ‘let off the leash'.
What you do with your body, including your body weight is in your hands, and there is no right or wrong. But this article was written as a guide if you’re feeling unsure, and I hope it’s provided some insight into how to make a decision on where to go next.
Of course, there’s a lot to know when engaging with successful cuts, gains, or maintenance phases such as:
How to support your health as well as weight goals
- How to set up your nutrition to align with your individual needs
- How quickly should you be losing weight so you don’t lose muscle
- How quickly should you be gaining weight to reduce fat gain
- How to go on diet breaks & refeeds
- How long should you be cutting or gaining for
- Hunger and cravings management
- How to track progress
- How do you eat different things on holidays (for example) without coming back 10kg different
- Hacks to staying on track in the presence of evolving temptations
If you think you could use some guidance and support, there are various ways we can offer that to you.
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