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Get Lean before Bulking – Here's why

A great looking male body has two ingredients:

1. A Low Body Fat Percentage
2. Solid Muscle Development 

When you put these two ingredients together you get a physique like the guys in the photo above – slim waist, thick shoulders and upper back muscles, masculine square chest, well developed arms and athletic legs.

One ingredient without the other doesn’t cut it. If you’re lean but don’t have much muscle you just look skinny. On the other hand if you have a lot of muscle but it’s all covered up by fat, you look big but you’re not turning any heads.

So the key is to find a balance between muscle development and low body fat.

In this article you’ll discover why it’s best to get lean before focusing on gaining muscle and how to stay lean year round – even when you’re bulking.

Your goal physique comes one day at a time

A big mistake I see people make when starting out is focusing too much on the end goal. They ask me: How long it will take to get a lean and muscular body? 

Looking at their current physique I may say 2 years.

2 YEARS!?!  And I have to stick to my nutrition and training plan all that time?

Well… yes. That’s how you build a great body.

A lot of guys get discouraged when they hear that and I think they miss a VERY important point. You won’t go from your current physique right to your goal physique.

It won’t be like: fat & weak, fat & weak, fat & weak, and on the 730th day you’ll wake up looking awesome. No! You’ll gradually look better as you’re progressing towards you goal.

This is the reason why I believe we should focus on looking as good as possible everyday as we’re progressing towards our goal physique. To keep our motivation high and enjoy our fitness journey, we should start out looking good and end up looking great!

Looking good while building a lot of muscle

To achieve the Greek God or Superhero Physique you’re going to have to gain at least 25-30 lbs (11-13kg) of muscle. That’s a lot of weight to be gained so it’s going to take a long time.

Time is not the main problem however, fat gain is. To achieve the ideal rate of muscle gain, beginners and intermediates usually have to accept some fat gain as well.

So for example if you start a gaining phase at 15% body fat and you gain 10-15lbs of muscle, you’ll end up around 19-20% body fat at the end of your bulk. 15-19% body fat is not an impressive look. You don’t have any abdominal definition, your muscles look puffy, your face is bloated, and you look fat in clothes. Moreover, it will take you a long time to drop 9-10% body fat and achieve an impressive physique.

So this is not the way to build muscle AND look good all the time…

To look great while gaining weight, you must start out lean!

The Benefits of Getting Lean before Bulking

Getting lean first allows you to build muscle without getting excessively fat and ruining your look. Here’s why:

1. Staying lean is the key to aesthetics

We said it’s important to start your fitness journey looking good. Well, the fastest way to do that is to drop body fat. Even if you’ll be lighter and smaller overall, when you get lean you will look a lot better because of the increased definition.

Andrei

Look at the pictures above. In the first picture my brother Andrei was 6 kg (13.5 lbs) heavier than in the second picture! Doesn’t he look better when he’s leaner? The third picture was taken 4 months after he started a lean bulking phase. As you can see he gained almost no body fat so leaning down first was the right choice for him.

2. By getting lean first you set yourself up for a perfect bulking phase

Let’s take the same example with the guy starting at 15% body fat. If he takes the first 7-9 weeks to drop his body fat to 9-10% then he’ll be able to eat at a surplus for at least the next 6 or 7 months without going over 15% bf and losing definition.

So in order to gain 10-15lbs of muscle he would go from 10% to 14% instead of going from 15% to 19%. That is a BIG visual difference in aesthetics!

Not only that, but there is evidence that suggests you make better lean gains when you’re under 15% body fat.

3. You make better muscle gains when you’re in the 8-15% range

According to research and observations, when you’re lean, a larger proportion of the weight gained in a caloric surplus will be muscle mass compared to the same surplus when you’re fatter. The reason for this is because when you’re leaner, you’re more insulin sensitive (you can make better use of carbohydrates) and you have a better hormonal profile (testosterone levels are slightly higher).

As our body fat increases, insulin sensitivity goes down and that negatively affects nutrient partitioning making lean gains much more difficult. Moreover, testosterone also seems to go down when we get fat. Testosterone is the most important anabolic hormone involved in muscle growth so we wouldn’t want it to go down.

Building a Great Body 101

Ok, now let’s take everything we’ve learned and put it into practical terms.

1. If you’re over 14% body fat, lose some fat before you start bulking. Yes, you are going to look skinny in clothes but the benefits of starting with a cutting phase strongly outweigh the temporary loss in size. For leaning down I recommend the Warrior Shredding Program.

2. Keep cutting until you hit 9-11% body fat. When you get a complete 6 pack in good lighting you know you’re there. I wouldn’t recommend cutting below this point if your main goal is building muscle.

Not only will you look very skinny at 7-8% body fat (because you don’t have enough muscle mass yet) but you’ll probably gain fat very fast when you move into a moderate caloric surplus. In dieted down individuals, the body is primed to gain body fat at the expense of LBM to replenish what was lost during the diet.

You could go into a small surplus to avoid that but then you’d compromise the rate at which you can gain muscle.

3. Once you reach 9-10%bf increase your calories to maintenance for about 2 weeks. This will help reset some of the physiological adaptations to dieting and prevent rapid fat gain once you move into a surplus. After those 2 weeks start focusing on muscle growth by clean bulking.

To do this you’ll eat a slight calorie surplus (5-10% above maintenance) for long periods of time. As you’ll gain strength on the key movements you’ll also build muscle and size.

4. Once you’re up to 14-15% body fat it’s time to cut back to the 9-11% range. Ideally, as you’re gaining size you’ll never go above 15% body fat again. Your cut and bulk cycles will be kept in the range of 8-15% body fat. This way you’ll have a 6 pack all the time (or at least a 4 pack), your face will stay relatively chiseled, and you’ll have decent muscle definition and separation. You will look good all the time!

During your cuts you should be careful not to lose muscle and maintain your strength on the main lifts. 

5. Repeat this process until you’ve built enough size to not look small at 9-11% body fat. At that point you can get leaner and bring your cut-bulk range to 8-11%. So you’d bulk until you hit 11-12% and cut until you hit 8%.  

6. Repeat this process until you’re happy with your size at 8-9% and then maintain that condition.  

7. Enjoy life to the utmost!

Do you have any questions about this article? What’s your opinion about lean bulking? Let me know in the comments section below. I read and answer every comment.

Sources:

General Philosophies of Muscle Mass Gain
Initial Body Fat and Body Composition Changes
You Don’t Understand the Solid Base
The Best Way to gain Muscle Without Gaining Fat


daniel-craig-potrait

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30 Comments

  1. Gil Garza on July 8, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Radu but what about reverse dieting once you end your cutting phase? After finished your cutting phase ,do you go straight to maintenance or should you do reverse dieting for 6-8 weeks?
    Thanks for your great articles bro!
    Greetings from Mexico 🙂

    • Radu Antoniu on July 8, 2015 at 9:57 pm

      Hi Gil!
      Yes, I believe you should go right to maintenance. I don’t see the point of reverse dieting, it’s not like you’re going to start storing fat if you’re at maintenance or if you have a 100 kcal deficit…
      And also, there is no research (that I’m aware of at least) that proved you can build metabolic capacity through reverse dieting.

      Lyle McDonald pinned this post at the top of his facebook group:
      *Read if you want a detailed explanation.

      In the last year or two, the above idea, taking a fairly extended period to return from dieting to maintenance has been called “reverse dieting” at least in the physique community. Basically in the same way that calories are often decreased over time while dieting, the idea is to gradually increase them when the diet is over. And while this is conceptually reasonable for the reasons I outlined above, some of the recommended durations are absurd and pointless to me.
      Stories of dieters adding 5-10 grams of carbohydrate per week (which is actually almost unmeasurable in the first place) and spending weeks and weeks in a continued caloric deficit are common and taking weeks or months to raise calories is often recommended. Since this approach is often recommended to deal with the metabolic adaptations that occur with dieting, I fail to see how maintaining a low-calorie intake for 6 weeks to 3 months longer somehow solves the problem. And I see this as both pointless and ultimately self-destructive.
      Invariably, the idea is held up either as a way to slowly rebuild metabolism, which it doesn’t do since all of the adaptation to dieting will more or less stay in place so long as calories are still below maintenance, or to avoid big water weight spikes. Certainly this second factor is a real issue.
      But I have to really question why the types of folks this approach is aimed at, typically post-contest physique athletes, can’t get their head around the differences in bodyweight changes (from water and food in the GI) tract and actual body composition changes. Then again, telling a neurotically obsessed physique athletes not to be neurotic is like telling a cat not to cat.
      Regardless, from a physiological point of view, so long as you understand that any rapid weight gains are simply water and food in the GI tract, and that the water will be lost once the body get back into water balance, I see no point in taking more than two weeks to get from the dieting caloric intake to maintenance levels. Calories, both from carbohydrates and fats can be raised gradually day to do until the newly established maintenance level is reached.
      The same would go for the non-extreme dieter, adding food gradually over a two week period, maintaining the original dietary approach but with additions (in the form of pieces of fruit or even controlled amounts of carbohydrates and fats) gives the optimal balance between avoiding food problems and starting to reverse the metabolic adaptations that occur during dieting.
      For those who want more specific values, let’s assume that the dieter is going to add 400-500 calories over this two week span. Divided daily that works out to 28-35 calories per day but since that’s an amount of food that really isn’t measurable, a plan of adding 100 calories every three days (this is about one piece of fruit or one cooked cup of rice or pasta) would fit into this scheme.
      Related to the idea of reverse dieting is that of “building metabolic capacity”. The idea here is that by gradually raising calories at the end of the diet, metabolic rate will increase and allow people to eat more without getting fat. Invariably the self-reports of people using this strategy report that they are “maintaining their bodyfat on much higher calories” but when you look at the actual numbers they are reporting, they are still in a dietary deficit relative to even their predicted adjusted maintenance.
      Basically, despite “eating more” these folks are still dieting and still prolonging the return of any sort of hormonal normalcy which, once again, will only occur once some bodyfat has been regained and they are at a near maintenance calorie level. Adding calories in a small amount in this way is simply delaying the process of any sort of metabolic or hormonal recovery towards even normal levels.
      So why do these people maintain that they are maintaining their fat on “so many more calories”? First and foremost, while they may be eating more calories relative to the extremely low diet levels, they are still in in a deficit at the end of the day. The simple fact is that RMR only adjusts itself slightly (by perhaps 10%) over normal to increasing calories and only then when the body is being overfed above normal maintenance. And it takes fairly large scale overfeeding to even make that occur. RMR relative to bodyweight simply doesn’t adapt that significantly in the first place (and any gain will be lost immediately when the next diet starts). Frequently they are also gaining weight fat/slightly and that alone is part of the supposed “building metabolic capacity” that is being reported.
      This is compounded by the fact that the increased food intake is allowing these individuals to train more and harder. There is also the potential increase in NEAT since they aren’t so exhausted from being on low-calories. They aren’t gaining bodyfat not due to some magic building of metabolic capacity but because the energy out side of the equation is increasing as they are able to train more effectively.
      The above terms, reverse dieting and building metabolic capacity are also used to describe a situation where, after reaching maintenance, individuals gradually increase calories over maintenance (once again at some drastically slow rate); effectively, in the same way that physique athletes often gradually decrease calories on the way down, they do the same on the way up. In premise this is supposed to raise the metabolic rate relative to current bodyweight with reports, once again, being of people “maintaining their bodyfat at much higher caloric intakes than before dieting.” in hopes that during the next fat loss diet, calories won’t have to go so low.
      But once again, research doesn’t really support the idea. BMR only adjusts itself minimally with overfeeding and the impact on TEF is also minor. But when this slight increase is coupled with an increased amount of training and/or increases in NEAT, that alone can explain the supposed “new higher maintenance level”.
      As well, when you consider how slowly true fat gain tends to be (even a 200 cal/day surplus is only predicted to increase bodyfat by maybe one pound every 3 weeks), it’s easy to see how people can convince themselves that this is happening. There is often a slight weight gain during this time and that alone will serve to increase metabolic rate and the calories expended during activity.
      All of which adds up to an increase in the energy out side of the equation but most of it is from factors that will disappear fairly quickly once the next dieting phase starts. Certainly starting with more muscle mass will have an effect but any increase in BMR relative to weight will go away, any effect from TEF will go away as soon as calories are restricted. It’s currently unknown how quickly NEAT moves up or down but eventually it too will decrease as the body senses the energy deficit. So any of the so-called “metabolic capacity” which has been built will also disappear.

      The only situation where I see reverse dieting as useful is after a physique show. Those guys are usually so stressed and so hungry that they binge like crazy after the competition. Reverse dieting helps prevent that.

  2. Gil Garza on July 9, 2015 at 2:34 am

    Thanks you so much for that great information Brother.

    Thank god! I want to eat more, i finish my cutting face in 2 weeks ,then im going straight to maintenance for 2 weeks then 200 cals more.

    Thanks again bro!

    • Radu Antoniu on July 9, 2015 at 9:35 am

      You’re welcome man!

      Make sure to find your exact maintenance though. This will take some experimentation. In may actually be useful to bring your calories up gradually to do this, but not as slowly as some people recommend.

  3. Jason on July 18, 2015 at 4:54 pm

    Hi Radu,
    I was about to ask you how to determine your accurate BF percentage without a calliper. Then I stumbled upon this website, which determines it based on your height, waist and neck circumference. Accordingly I’m at 11% BF, I’ll try to lean down to 8/9% and then do a lean bulk! Check it out: http://www.chaosreigns.com/gym/waistfromfat.html

    • Radu Antoniu on July 18, 2015 at 9:39 pm

      Hey Jason!

      Wait 1-2 more days, I’m now currently working on a video and article about determining body fat percentages. It will be very helpful.

  4. Nils on July 29, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Really Interesting Article. And even if dont have this much Knowledge i totally agree with cutting first 🙂

  5. Nikhil Jois on September 11, 2015 at 6:20 am

    Hey Radu, great video.Love your new content. One small query: I’m surely skinny fat. Weigh 69 KGS and am 181 cms tall. I’ve been lifting for 4 months now…so, have a little bit of muscle and not too much. Waist:height ratio is about 48 percent. So, do I cut till I can see some signs of abs. If so, at how many calories to start with?

  6. Ellis on September 13, 2015 at 3:30 am

    On the “Building a Great Body 101” #3 you talked about after reaching 9-10% bf, you increase your calories to maintenance. Do you mean the maintenance calories before you started cutting? or like do you mean maintaining the calories your eating when you reach 9-10% bf? For instance, say my maintenance BEFORE cutting down to a low body fat was 2000 kcals a day, would I go back to 2000 kcals again?

    Sorry, I’m just a bit confused because I actually am losing some weight at the moment, and I would feel discouraged if I gained all the weight back because I misunderstood the text.

    • Radu Antoniu on September 15, 2015 at 10:53 am

      Hey Ellis!

      Good question.

      No, you recalculate your maintenance. At a lower body weight, your maintenance will also be lower.

      After reaching the level of leanness you’re happy with, to move back into maintenance get 14-15 calories per pound of your new body weight.

  7. Vio on January 26, 2016 at 10:23 am

    Salut Radu! Ai picat la tzanc cu articolul acesta…felicitari! Ne poti oferi ceva despre setarea macronutrientilor pt casrogarea in masa musculara cu minim de grasime???? Multumesc

    • Radu Antoniu on January 28, 2016 at 9:24 pm

      Salut Vio! Ma bucur ca te-a ajutat

      Macronutrientii nu afecteaza prea mult cata grasime iei in surplus. Poti urmari doar caloriile si proteinele.

  8. rodrigo livianu on March 8, 2016 at 1:49 am

    hey Radu,
    I am 182 cm , 99kgs and about 19-20% bf. I wanna drop to 12-13%. how much do you think i will weight after cutting to that point?

    • Ian on June 2, 2016 at 2:13 am

      92kg

  9. Timmy on March 23, 2016 at 4:08 am

    Hi Radu

    I am currently in a calorie deficit trying to lose fat and maintaining as much muscle as i can. Im on 2500 calories and my maintenance is 2800. I do weights monday till friday and cardio after each session for about 20 minutes and burn about 350 calories from cardio each session. My question is once i finish dieting, i want to cut out the cardio and just focus on weights training. Should i lower my calories even more maybe to 2250 after the dieting. Cause the way i see it is if i cut out cardio i will still have the extra 350 calories in my body which is usually burnt off from the cardio. Or should slowly cut out cardio and dont just stop it all at once?

    • Radu Antoniu on March 29, 2016 at 5:13 pm

      Hey Timmy!

      That’s true. If you cut out cardio your maintenance will be lower. You’ll probably have to reduce your daily intake by around 200 calories.

  10. Alberto on April 27, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    Radu, youre amazing. Thank you for all the information. Greetings from México.

    • Radu Antoniu on April 30, 2016 at 5:42 pm

      Thank you Alberto!

  11. Meade on May 17, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    Simply being lean does not guarantee aesthetics. For example : 5’10 man @ 170 lbs and 8%bf. Vs 5’10 210 lbs and 15 % bf. Which one will have the more impressive physique ? More than likely the second one. Low body fat is not the same as composition.

  12. Brian on May 21, 2016 at 3:37 am

    Hey radu great videos recently have watched for about two to three weeks and they’re great .. I decided to take your advice on the IF and I have been doing it for about a week I don’t really know my body fat percentage and I thought back on why I couldn’t get that body definition so I decided to take your advice and see where IF takes me, what would you recommend? Hope you have time to answer this great videos again keep up the great work

  13. bu abid on May 21, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    sick of being skinny fat :$…height 169 cm weight 152 lbs training on and off idk need help bro few yrs back i used weight gainers n got tht shi* physique..wana ask should i bulk cuz thrs little or no muscle..thnx

  14. Iris on August 7, 2016 at 11:25 pm

    Hi Radu, I love Your posts. Keep ’em coming. Does Your theory apply on girls As well? Cheers! Iris

  15. Karthik on January 4, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Hey man.

    I needed your advice on something.

    I was considering to lean bulk after watching your video Average to Greek God Transformation.
    I weigh around 65Kg at height of 5’9 . MY BPI according to an app was around 21.2 and Body fat percentage (If I calculated correctly) is 18.9 %.

    When I set the diet for fat/weight loss in the app. It said that it was not advisable as i had BPI of 21.2 and shouldn’t go lower.

    What should I do then ? should i go with losing fat until 8 – 9% .If os can you recommend some high protein Vegan foods so that i dot fall unconscious 🙂

  16. Geoff on January 5, 2017 at 1:28 am

    Radu thanks so much! You mentioned a post you were going to make about accurately determining body fat, can you point me to that? Also, let’s say I’m at about 20% body fat. I know I need to cut first, but which is the better program – Warrior or ShredSmart?

  17. Yogesh on January 14, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Hey man,
    You are awesome. Now I need your advice. My height is 176 cms and I’m currently weighing 82kgs. My BMI is 25.8 and body fat is 29%. Should I start bulking right away or cut down till I come below 20% body fat and start bulking after that.

  18. Lee on January 20, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Hey Radu,

    I am 148 lbs and 18% BF. I surely do not have a lot of lean muscle mass but I was wondering, is it possible that I have too little muscle to cut effectively? WIll having more muscle to begin with make sure my TEE is higher and that my cuts will be more effective? thank you!

  19. Dave Dally on April 19, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    Though its hilarious that when I get in the gym people think Im strength training when doing just 5-8 reps. Though strong ripped muscles are the way forward and this plan hits that goal perfectly. No one wants to look blubbery

  20. David Hathaway on December 22, 2017 at 7:37 pm

    Thanks for the info. Any suggestions on subborn bodyfat that doesnt go away? Add cardio? Drop calories? Intermittent dieting?

  21. Serje on July 13, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    Hi… i have a question you saod to drop 10% hf before bulking? But can i ask how fo i drop to 10% bf before bulking? Many thanks

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