For someone just starting out with Leangains and intermittent fasting, one of the most common questions asked is the following:
Should I “cut” or “recomp”?
Firstly, let’s define both of those terms.
Before we do that, it would be amiss if we didn’t be sure to mention the third option – bulking. But bulking is almost uniformly NOT someone’s first choice. 999 times out of a thousand, if someone is looking into fasting, they’re looking into it as a means of weight reduction, not weight gain.
So, that leads us back to the primary question — cut or recomp?
Let’s define those terms:
“Cutting” – Actively attempting to lose as much fat as possible while retaining all strength/musculature.
Eating at or below at all maintenance on all days is common.
Fat loss is goal #1. In general, people who are “cutting” have lots of weight to lose, at least initially.
“Re-comping” – Actively attempting to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously.
On training days, the individual eats OVER their maintenance in an attempt to gain muscle.
On rest days, the individual eats UNDER their maintenance in an attempt to lose fat.
These individuals have two goals – lose fat and gain muscle. And they want to accomplish both at the same time.
“Re-comping” individuals usually are relatively lean (<20%), or skinny fat. They want to lose weight, but get bigger, muscle-wise at the same time.
So, what’s my opinion? First, let’s take a look at a few things…………..
1. An analysis: The “+20%/-20%” Recomping Plan.
You often see someone refer to a recomposition plan as a “+20/-20” plan.
This is directly from Martin Berkhan himself. (More on that later….)
After Martin refined his bulks and cuts, he famously created his “recomp” protocol.
This was a means by which to remain lean, and gain a bit of strength and additional musculature over time.
But let’s take a close look at this plan.
Let’s take John, a fictional fella with a 2,000 calorie maintenance.
John’s goal for the year is to lose his final 15 pounds and put on as much muscle as possible.
John’s got 3 training days. 2,000 cals + 20% = 2,400 calories on training days.
John’s got 4 rest days. 2,000 cals – 20% = 1,600 calories on rest days.
John’s WEEKLY maintenance is 14,000 calories.
John’s WEEKLY consumption is 13,600 calories.
It would be nice if our bodies worked efficiently. And muscle growth was initiated with a simple “flip” of a switch.
But it doesn’t.
What our bodies are doing remains the sum of all its parts; not the function of one.
You can’t just “build muscle” on Monday, and “lose fat” on Tuesday.
**EDIT: You “can”, but not at an optimal rate.
Your body is going to look at what stresses are being placed on it (the training) and what calories it’s taking in (the nutrition) over the course of time, and act accordingly.
And John’s +20/-20 allows for a deficit of ~400 calories – IF (and that’s a BIIIIIIIG “IF”) he’s spot on. Hits every macro. No wiggle room there. He’s only 400 calories under his weekly maintenance.
So, take a close look………………... if you’re “recomping”, you’ve got 2 goals: fat loss and muscle gain.
A. You’re not eating enough to build muscle.
Muscle can’t just materialize out of nowhere. There needs to be solid, nutritionally dense food going into your pie hole after an intense training session.
Over the course of the week, around 1,500-2,000 calories OVER your maintenance need to be consumed before any substantial LBM can be gained.
Rest days are CRUCIAL for optimal protein synthesis. Your body is beaten up from the training the day before. It needs fuel. It needs recovery. Most importantly, it needs to be ready to go the following day.
And eating under maintenance does NOT allow this to happen.
B. Your deficit is too small to lose fat.
400 calories? Per week? If you’re PERFECT for a year, you’ll lose around 6 pounds of fat. (400 x 52 divided by 3,500). Total. And who’s “perfect” for a year?
So, under optimal conditions, John, our fictional fella, will lose around 5-6 pounds (NOT 15) of fat and gain a couple pounds (maybe) of muscle.
If he’s PERFECT.
For a year.
That is a terrible return on your investment……………..not to mention he didn’t even come close to reaching his personal goals.
2. An analysis: The “Cut First, Then Bulk” Plan.
With this, plan, John goes “all in”.
He decides to sacrifice significant muscle gains for optimizing fat loss, initially.
He sets himself up with an optimal fat loss rate (~1.25 pounds per week) for his body fat percentage.
He wants those abs. And he’s gonna get there as quickly as possible.
***He understands that
he’s going to look “small” and “scrawny” at first,
due to a lack of substantial muscle mass.
But it’ll be worth it long-term.***
John sets his weekly deficit at ~4,375 (1.25 x 3,500), correctly sets those macros for his workouts, and begins his plan.
Under optimal conditions, with this plan, after 12 weeks (15 pounds divided by 1.25 pounds per week), John has accomplished his fat-loss goal.
So, those abs are popping, John’s body is primed for gains, and he’s ready to start building muscle.
John eats at maintenance for 2 weeks to stabilize his metabolism. He’s used up 14 weeks of the calendar year. John’s got 38 weeks left.
Since he’s a noob, he’ll probably have an optimal rate of muscular gains around 0.5 pounds per week if he sets those bulking macros effectively.
He gives himself a surplus of 1,750 calories.
38 weeks left x 0.5 pounds of LBM gain per week = 19 pounds of muscular gains in that first year.
Now, John ain’t perfect. And he gained back 5 pounds of fat while bulking.
Hey, it happens.
But let’s closely monitor those scenarios:
The “Recomp” Plan:
Under optimal conditions,
John will lose 6 pounds of fat
and gain less than 5 pounds of muscle.
The “Bulk/Cut” Plan:
Under optimal conditions,
John will lose 10 pounds of fat
(gained back 5 while bulking, right?)
and gain 19 pounds of muscle.
So, go ahead. Take your pick.
3. True noobs will gain muscle pretty much regardless of their diet.
“Noob gains” are attained due to the completely untrained state of the individual.
They don’t last forever. They are fleeting. Enjoy them while you can.
But those muscle gains don’t require abnormal amounts of calories in order to achieve them.
An untrained individual will make advances in their lean body mass due to being so insanely far away from their genetic, muscular potential.
If someone starts training with 65 pounds on a back squat, and does 5 sets of 5 (via Starting Strength), do you really think additional calories will need to be incorporated in order to progress to 70 pounds the next workout?
No, of course not.
Strength will be gained, initially, and muscle will be built. Regardless.
So, focus on the fat loss. It’s always your first step.
4. Martin Berkhan can recomp. But YOU are not him, last time I checked.
There actually is one scenario where “recomping” makes sense:
You have pretty much maxed out all muscle gains and are as lean as you’d like.
Martin Berkhan is famous for using his recomp. But look at the timeline of his progress…….
-He was chubby first.
-He got skinny.
-He got strong.
-He shed the fat.
-Once satisfied with his lean body mass and his body fat percentage………….he began to recomp.
But the dude was pulling 600+ and squatting 400+ when he switched. He wasn’t a noob, that’s for sure.
And when you’re in the 3x body weight pull and 2x body weight squat territory………….you’re probably not going to gain much more muscle mass.
Maybe a few pounds per year.
And if that’s all that’s possible, then bulking will surely lead to unnecessary fat gain.
Are you at your genetic, maximum muscular potential? Are you as “shredded” as you’d like to be?
If the answer is “yes” to both of those questions, then go for it.
But if the answer is no, then go with traditional cycles.
Cut first. Then bulk.
While bulking, small 4-6 week cuts should be all that’s needed to keep substantial fat away.
Once satisfied with your size, then cut away that fat.
But if you’re not willing to sacrifice what you want in the future for what you want now, this whole “thing” will never work the way you intend it to.
One in the hand is worth two in the bush, my friend.
Happy Cutting and Bulking!