My philosophy for building a great physique is that you should first lean down to around 9-10% body fat then gain size slowly until you hit 14-15% body fat. You cycle your cuts and bulks in this body fat range until you reach the level of muscle development you’re happy with.
Sounds great right? It is.
But what if you are too slim to diet and too fat to bulk? I get this all the time. People tell me that they don’t want to lose weight because then they’ll look like they don’t even lift and they don’t want to gain weight either because they are already pretty fat and don’t want to get fatter.
So what should you do in this situation?
Well, you may not like it but the best decision is to accept looking worse for a while in order to reap the benefits in the future.
Avoid the Purgatory
The Purgatory is the point where a person is equally unhappy with their muscle development and level of definition and cannot decide which goal to pursue. They are afraid of eating too much because that can lead to fat gain and are also afraid of losing weight because that will make them look too small. Therefore they end up eating around maintenance in an effort to achieve simultaneous muscle growth and fat loss but actually make very little progress or none at all for months on end.
Their biggest mistake is changing their workout routine and calorie intake very often. Even if some of the workouts and nutrition plans they follow are productive, they do not stick to them long enough to see results.
You cannot achieve your goal physique doing this.
If you now realize that you’re in this purgatory situation, I strongly suggest you get out of it. You must make a definite decision: lose fat or gain more size. It doesn’t matter what you choose, the important thing is to make a decision and stick with it for at least 2 or 3 months.
If you’re somewhere between 13 and 17% body fat I suggest you choose fat loss first.
Body Recomposition at the Beginner and Intermediate level
*I talk about body recomposition in great detail in the article: How To Lose Fat And Gain Muscle At The Same Time
If you’ve been training for less than two years I believe that at any given time you should either be losing weight or gaining weight. Meaning you should either be cutting or gaining. There is almost no way you can’t make progress doing this.
I believe that body recomposition is not a good option for most beginners because it is very slow. Just to talk numbers, if the average guy that bulks in his first year can gain 15 pounds of muscle, someone doing a recomp could only gain maybe half that.
So in the end it would take them longer to get to their goal physique.
Now the good news is that usually beginners can gain muscle while losing weight.
Almost all out-of-shape beginners can do this without much effort. When working with beginner clients I actually believe this to be normal. Even some intermediates can gain muscle and strength while cutting if they start from a higher body fat percentage.
Fat is basically stored energy so even in the case of a caloric deficit, a high body fat percentage ensures pretty good energy availability. That means the energy obtained from body fat may actually support muscle growth in the first few weeks or months of training.
Lyle McDonald explained this phenomenon very well. Because of the insulin resistance that develops with fat gain, nutrients from food are actually pushed away from cells in order to prevent further fat gain. If you combine that with regular exercise which improves insulin sensitivity in muscle cells you get a situation where nutrients are pushed away from fat cells which are very insulin resistant and are absorbed by muscle cells which are depleted after training.
This is the reason beginners (especially those above 13% body fat) can gain muscle and strength just fine even in a caloric deficit.
Now, as you get leaner or you build more muscle, the rate of fat loss and muscle gain starts to decrease. At some point the body will start to fight against fat loss and muscle growth slows down as you get closer and closer to the genetic ceiling. That’s why we no longer see amazing transformations at the intermediate or advanced level.
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