This article is ~ 2900 words and around a 15-20ish min read.
The most important decision you can make to have a successful physique transformation, and not spin your wheels for years, is to work out whether you should be gaining muscle, losing fat or utilising a body recomposition.
Certainly, on the surface, it seems like a fairly obvious, if not frivolous question – if you’re fat you diet; if you’re skinny you gain muscle, no?
Sure. It would be if we didn’t have different starting points; different genetics; then factor in all the conflicting information on the interwebz and multiply that by the self-doubt that kicks in with the choice we made – ‘well, I mean, I am losing fat…but I’m also looking very skinny…where’s the muscle? Fuck this, back to bulking.’
One week later: ‘Now I’m looking all soft and shit – time to cut.’
So what starts off as a simple question coalesces into a complete mind-fuck; you jump from one goal to another and years go by without you having made any progress.
My goal with this article is to un-mind-fuck you – well, at the very least, have you leave a little less mind-fucked than when you arrived – and help you identify your own path on your physique journey.
The Three Stages of Physique Transformation
I’ve theorised that there are three stages everyone goes through during a physique transformation. It’s important that you fully understand these stages before we move on because these stages tie everything together.
Stage 1: Limbo
This is currently where you are: the awkward starting point where you’re either lacking sufficient muscle (skinny), carrying excessive fat, or, stuck somewhere between the two (Skinny-fat).
This is limbo. You’re stuck in no man’s land and need to get out.
Stage 2: The Base
The base is where you end up after escaping the physique purgatory that is limbo and what this article will help you with.
If you were skinny you’ll have reached your “base” of decent muscle mass.
If you were fat you’ll have reached your “base” of getting down to a decent level of body fat [10-12% for men, 15-20% for females].
The same holds true for the Skinny-fat beginner as the fat beginner [we’ll get into this in more detail in a bit].
Stage 3: The Build
Once you’ve troubleshooted your physique and reached your base. Now you enter the last stage where you “build” on that base.
While there is a bit of variance at this stage, these are the general guidelines:
The [former] skinny dude: The base will have left you with a good amount of muscle but also some excess body fat.
Your goal in the build stage is to strip the fat.
The FFB [former fat boy]: You’ve lost the excess fat, but you’re also lacking sufficient muscle mass.
Your goal in the build stage is to gain muscle and strength at a decent rate to minimise fat re-gain.
The [former] Skinny-fat dude: same goes for you as the FFB.
The build and base stages will loop ad infinitum. Meaning, you’ll build to a new base and then choose what your next build strategy will be.
For example, if you were a former skinny dude, you’ll have escaped limbo and achieved your new base by building muscle and then on completion of your build stage [stripping the excess fat] you’ll move on to another muscle gaining phase [a new build stage] and then strip fat again [new base].
The goal of you guys reading this article is to move from limbo to a new base. We’re not going to worry about the build stage just yet.
The Problem: A Discrepancy between Supply And Demand
The root problem of your physique woes at the ‘Limbo’ stage – or, the start of your physique transformation journey– boils down to a discrepancy in supply and demand.
Fat guys are supplying too much to the body [overeating] when the body doesn’t have a demand for it – resultantly, the body stores it away as fat.
This issue can be offset, to some degree, by simply giving the body ‘stimulation’ – in our case, strength training. Adding a stimulus helps the body deal with some of the excess supply issues, but it’s not enough.
Skinny guys have a discrepancy also, but in the reverse: Their body is demanding more supply but you’re not giving it the supply it needs [undereating].
For the skinny guys, throwing in stimulation exacerbates the problem.
With added stimulation comes increased demand. Your body is going to be demanding even more from you. And failing to provide it with enough supply, will result in you not only not making progress, but even worse – regressing.
So, what do we do?
We need to create harmony between supply and demand in the correct amounts.
The first step to creating this harmony is to determine whether you should Bulk, Diet or Recomp.
Should You Diet?
Firstly, let’s define what dieting is and what it isn’t.
If your goals are physique optimisation then Dieting is not ‘weight’ loss – it’s ‘fat’ loss. This is an important distinction: The goal is to retain [and even build] muscle while dropping excess body fat.
With this definition in mind, there are a few requisites to a physique focussed diet.
- Sufficient protein intake
- Engaging in strength training
- A reasonable calorie deficit
Who Should be Dieting?
If you’re over 15% bodyfat, then you have no reason to be ‘bulking’. Your only goal should be to drop the excess chub and bring your body fat levels down somewhere between the 8-12% mark before starting a muscle gaining phase.
There is one other group who should be dieting with the goal of fat loss – the Skinny-Fat beginner.
The ‘Skinny-fat beginner is lacking muscle mass, but also carrying an excessive amount of fat – typically around the belly.
Due to the amount of body fat this group is carrying, they’ll be best served to focus on dieting first.
Remember when I mentioned issues in Supply and Demand? Well, the fat beginner [and the skinny-fat beginner] has been oversupplying his body when there’s no demand. As a result, the excess supply [calories in our case] is being stored away as body fat.
Due to the excess body fat, they’ve created a signalling issue between where we want the food to go and where the food is actually going. The muscle cells are already teeming with nutrients; thus, any more food being supplied to the body is being stored away in fat stores.
This is also known as nutrient partitioning.
Nutrient Partitioning is where the food you eat gets stored.
Good partitioning means the majority of food you eat gets stored in your muscles; poor partitioning means the majority of the food you eat gets stored as body fat.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, good nutrient partitioning is the goal. How well you partition nutrients is influenced by a host of factors: mainly, genetics – which we, unfortunately, have no control over – fortunately, there are things we do have control over. Namely: a healthy diet, activity [strength training, mainly] and most importantly – a healthy body fat level.
So, the fat beginners first job is to fix this disconnect: you need to empty out the excess supply, so that it comes into harmony with the demand of the body, put laconically – you need to lose fat.
With fat loss comes:
- A better-looking physique, confidence and improved health.
- Improved nutrient partitioning – now that you’ve fixed your demand and supply issue, you’ve also fixed your issues with nutrient partitioning; so the food you eat will be directed to muscle cells first, resulting in less fat gained during your bulking phase.
- A solid base to build from – if you try to build muscle while carrying excessive body fat it becomes extremely difficult to discern whether you’re actually building muscle or just gaining more fat. This can be a mind-fuck and a major cause for dudes to give up. Stripping the excess body fat and starting your build from a leaner body, will set you up for a better muscle gaining phase both psychologically and hormonally.
But, What About Muscle?
What about it? Ok, I’m joking.
Understandably this is a valid concern, but not to fret – due to the Noob gain phenomenon, even in a calorie deficit, you’ll be able to build muscle while dropping fat – I know, I know. You have many questions on the how’s and the why’s of this, but, to tell you the truth – nobody really knows, so let’s just accept that it’s magic and move on, yes? – Of course, the caveat here being that you’re eating right and training, both, smart and hard.
Now, there are some people who are fans of utilising a body recomp [see later in the article for a full explanation of what a body recomp is] with fat beginners; I, however, am not one of these people due to issues with Motivation.
Dropping fat is a lot faster than gaining muscle and this builds momentum. When you see your body changing week to week it helps motivate you and keep you on track with your goals. This is huge – one of the main reasons people give up on their physique journey is due to a [seemingly] lack of noticeable results.
And a body recomposition just takes too long if you have a lot of fat to lose.
Inevitably with every physique type comes some form of dissatisfaction and can be the cause of anxiety. For the fat beginner, this is usually a confidence issue. Stripping the excess fat and bringing bodyfat levels down to the 10-12% range tends to help massively.
Also understand that once you strip the excess fat, you’re more than likely to be lacking sufficient muscle. Don’t worry about this, it’s part of the process. You’ve now arrived at your base and put yourself in an advantageous position, both physiologically and hormonally, to more effectively build muscle from.
Don’t fall victim to the ‘I’m looking too skinny, I’m going to bulk’ trap. See your diet through until the end. Yes, it’ll suck but it will also pay dividends when you do strip the fat transition to a bulk.
Should You Bulk?
To bulk is to intentionally gain weight with the goal of increasing muscle size while keeping fat gain to a minimum.
If you’re lacking sufficient muscle mass to start with – think your typical skinny dude – then you need to focus on gaining muscle.
Some skinny guys may already be holding a good amount of muscle definition, naturally, but still need to gain mass to ‘fill out’ and look even better.
I know being shredded is all the rage presently, but understand: ‘shredded’ or ‘ripped’ means that you’re holding a good amount of muscle mass and a low level of body fat.
If you’re missing the muscle mass part of the equation then you’re not ‘ripped’ or ‘shredded’, you’re just skinny – yes, this is harsh, but if I don’t tell you how it is you’re never going to make progress with your physique. So suck it up.
The biggest hang-up the skinny beginner has is that of being afraid to lose their abs or get fat. As a result, they either bulk for a week or two and then immediately want to diet, or, conversely, they try to lean gain so incrementally they end up with no gains.
If you’re a skinny beginner, you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that some fat gain – and yes, the loss of your abs for a while – is what you’re going to have to go through to achieve the physique you’re after.
Should You Recomp?
Generally speaking, a body recomposition, or simply ‘recomp’, is the process of reducing body fat and adding muscle mass.
Anytime someone has changed the look of their physique – whether that be losing fat, gaining muscle or both – they’ve engaged in a body recomposition. When I refer to a recomposition, however, not only in the scope of this article but generally, I’m referring to the process of burning body fat while simultaneously adding muscle.
For most beginners, the recomp isn’t necessary and I’d rather you either choose to straight diet or bulk.
However, there is one group who can benefit from the recomp – the Skinny-not-so-fat individual [yes, I couldn’t think of anything else to call this sub-group. SO, we are going to run with this, cool? Good.]
The Skinny-not-so-fat person, aside from carrying a bit of body fat around the abdomen, is fairly lean and you can see they are carrying small amounts of muscle. Going into a straight calorie deficit could put the person at risk for losing a bit too much muscle mass. A recomp approach will help with muscle retention and even growth while dropping the little bit of body fat they have.
The Skinny-fat beginner will struggle with the same hangups of the fat beginner – looking ‘too skinny’ and lacking sufficient muscle mass after their diet ends.
And just like the fat beginner you need to go through this period of ‘suck’ if you want to build an awesome physique down the line.
You need to recalibrate the signalling issues of your body both physiologically and hormonally by losing the excess fat first.
While I hate giving definitives – haha, it’s funny because this is a ‘definitive’ guide – as timeframes can vary person to person; here are some general guidelines.
Diet: 3-6 Months
On average, you shouldn’t need to diet longer than 6 months to reach your base. Of course, if you have a lot of fat to lose then this process could last a bit longer. In which case, I’d recommend following a Phasic approach to your fat loss.
How to tell when you should stop dieting?
Generally, you should be at a solid base of musculature and leanness: visible six pack, chest and delt definition.
There will be some fat beginners who are lacking sufficient muscle mass to look ‘ripped’ after their first fat loss diet. It will usually take these guys a few ‘cycles’ of muscle gain and fat loss to look how they want to look.
While each person’s physique will differ on the look – some guys may drop fat and be carrying enough muscle to look ‘ripped’ – there are some ‘tell-tale’ signs that you should stop dieting and start eating at maintenance or a small surplus.
- Constantly tired – even after a good night of sleep
- Hunger levels have gone from bearable to outright if- I- don’t- eat -right-away-I’m-going-straight-Godzilla-up-in-this-bitch.
- Moody and irritable
- Lack of energy and performance dropping at the gym
- Constantly thinking about food
- Loss of libido / sex drive
If you are experiencing any of the above and you’re physique isn’t looking how you’d envisioned it to – stop dieting. You’re going to need to switch to a muscle gaining [bulking] phase for a while before dieting down again. If you continue dieting you’re going to put your health – both mentally and physically – in jeopardy.
Bulk: 8-12 months
If you want to build muscle, you’re going to have to accept two irrevocable facts:
- It’s going to take a long time [as a natural]
- There will be some amount of fat gain.
Like the fat beginner, the skinny beginner has unrealistic expectations.
You aren’t going to look how you wish to look straight off your first bulk.
So you can either buckle down, tell yourself that building muscle is your goal and commit to it for the next 8-12 months, or, you can keep spinning your wheels chasing the six-pack-philosopher’s stone.
How to tell when you should stop stop Bulking?
As a beginner, you have the most potential for growth: 20-30lbs in your first year of training is not uncommon. And no, this won’t be 20-30lbs of LEAN muscle but a mix of muscle and fat.
I’d recommend aiming for at least 20-25 lbs/10-12 kg of weight gain from where you are currently before you decide to diet. This will ensure that you’ve packed on enough muscle mass to look good when you do finally strip any excess fat.
As long as you’re gaining around 1-3lbs a month, there should be minimal amounts of fat gain.
>> Please read this article where I explain how to build muscle while minimising fat gain.
Recomp: 6 – 12 Weeks
A body recomp shouldn’t take you as long as a diet or a bulk because you’re already fairly lean but just need to ‘tighten up’ a bit. 6-12 week’s is a good timeframe to accomplish this in.
How to tell when you should stop Recomping?
You’ll have stripped off the little bit of fat you were holding around the midsection.
>> Please read this article where I explain the Body Recomp in detail.
Hopefully, this post has given you some more clarity on what you, personally, should be doing and also given you some realistic expectations of what timeframe to expect results in.
The starting point of your physique journey is never pretty – but it’s also the most crucial part: identifying what you need to do, and getting to your base is going to shave off years of frustration and spinning your wheels.