When I wanted to go from skinny fat to fit I wasn’t able to find a lot of information out there specifically for women compared to if I was a skinny fat man.
All my research into Facebook groups, fitness forums, and comments in article feeds has shown me that there isn’t a good article for women on how to decide whether they should lose bodyfat first or build muscle first AKA cut or bulk.
If women wanted to reduce their bodyfat and build lean muscle how do they figure out what to do first?!
I found that lots of women having these types of concerns and complaining that there isn’t information out there for them.
Most women who are skinny fat fit in between the two most common fitness goals, weight loss and muscle gain, because they want both at the same time.
I found that these women don’t need to be losing any more weight but they have high body fat and they either want to lose fat in certain areas like their stomachs or thigh areas but want to build muscle in other areas of their body.
How do you reach your goal when the solutions are complete opposites?
If you Google ‘should I bulk or cut? female skinny fat?’ you’ll bring up 3.5 million results that are mostly for men.
So in this article I wanted to address the questions and concerns for women who are trying to achieve both goals – lose bodyfat and put on lean muscle – and help them decide whether to bulk or cut so that they can have the body that they love.
Let’s get started…
Why Being Skinny Fat Is A Challenge For Women
In my college years back in the early 2000s I was skinny fat.
At 30% bodyfat I was considered an obese person by health standards stuck inside a skinny body. I had no muscle tone and no additional weight I needed to lose because I was already wearing a size 0 pants and an extra small in tops.
Losing extra weight at 116 lbs at 5’ 4” meant that I would become anorexic and disappear!
(click Play to see the clip)
I felt very stuck and confused because I want to lose fat which meant eating fewer calories but I wanted to build lean muscle at the same time which meant eating more calories.
I wanted the best of both worlds: to have a healthy bodyfat inside and gain some muscle with definition.
Was this even possible?
I asked myself,
How can I get the most out of my current skinny fat body?
Are you in the same situation asking yourself the same questions?
Maybe you’re also a size small with high bodyfat but don’t want to lose any more weight and cannot decide whether to bulk or cut first.
Or you’ve already lost a bunch of weight with weight lifting and you want to reduce fat. You’re asking is this the time I should cut but if I do will I lose my muscles too?
Women struggle because we don’t want to bulk up like men do but we also don’t want to be super lean and musclely with a six pack like a bikini or physique competitor.
Because we can hold fat in multiple places we have curves that men don’t.
We also have more body types like being pear shaped that comes with having stubborn fat in our hips and thighs but are leaner in our top half. We are also afraid to eat more than we do right now because worried we’ll get fatter but we know we need to eat more if we want to build muscles.
Most women just want leaner bodies with a slight muscle definition that looks healthy but not overly bulky.
How do we get there and what should we do first?
Cutting First Before Bulking – Positives And Negatives
So what does it mean when people ask if they should ‘take a cut’ or to ‘start cutting’?
In both definitions it means to be eating in a caloric deficit with the goal to lose bodyfat.
If you’ve been strength training for a while now, following the rules of lifting, eating in an appropriate surplus and haven’t seen any muscle definition then you’ve got too much bodyfat covering your lean muscles.
This where doing a cut will be appropriate and beneficial for you to see muscle definition.
Positives Of Cutting First
Being Lean Is Healthier
The primary health benefit that comes from cutting is losing bodyfat. Being skinny fat can be confusing because on one hand you get compliments from people saying you look great in clothes but on the other hand you’re at a higher risk for diseases that are associated with the overweight obese population even if you don’t look obese.
When you’re leaner you tend to be healthier, look better naked, have more energy, and surprisingly have fewer food cravings.
At the basic most primal level food is fuel for our bodies to keep us alive. Eating when you’re not hungry is emotional whether stress related, for a celebration, out of boredom, or anxiety we’re eating not for fuel but for other emotional reasons, for comfort and distraction. When you’ve been able to achieve a lean bodyfat % is means that you’ve been able to distinguish the difference between eating for survival versus eating for psychological reasons.
Being leaner also means you look and feel great! You become a more confident woman and having confidence can positively changes all aspects of our lives.
Look Great When You Start Building Muscle
No one wants to put on fat when they are building muscle but if you’re not watching your diet gaining fat is too easy.
Once you start the bulking phase of building more muscle you will have to be eating more calories and when your workouts don’t keep up with the extra calories or you’re eating in too much of an excess you start putting on bodyfat.
Even just putting on 5% bodyfat at the very end of your bulking phase can make a huge difference in how you look. See below of an example of how your torso can change with a few extra percentage in bodyfat.
If you lose bodyfat before you start bulking then you stay pretty lean during your muscle gain phase and a few percentage points in bodyfat won’t impact your appearance as much.
Carrying around too much subcutaneous fat means you won’t be able to see the muscle definition you want and you never get to see if your workout and diet is really working or not. When this happens you will inevitably feel frustrated, you panic on what to do next, you start to lose hope that you’ll ever change and just stop all together blaming your genetics.
Also, having too much fat on your body can rob you of the satisfaction and rewards of seeing your muscle gains in the mirror every morning. This is probably the biggest benefit to cutting first before bulking because you can see yourself making progress which drives continual motivation to keep going.
Starting at a lower bodyfat means you can visibly measure and see results of your hard work in the gym once you switch over to the muscle building phase!
Build Muscle Faster And Easier
The leaner you are the easier it is to build muscles because you are more insulin and leptin sensitive. Increased insulin sensitivity means that your body handles carbs and nutrients better and uses them more efficiently to maximize muscle growth.
Insulin is an important hormone secreted by your pancreas to deliver the nutrients necessary from your bloodstream to your cells that need it.
Whether it’s energy for fat cells or muscle cells insulin doesn’t discriminate. Its job is to keep a steady state of glucose in your bloodstream between 80 – 100 mg/dl.
When your blood glucose is outside of the range insulin causes your body to either release more glucose from your storage reservoirs because you’re low on glucose or stores it away because you ate a big carb meal.
It also promotes cell growth and division, increases muscle synthesis, and decreases the rate of protein breakdown in muscles along with a host of other important functions1.
Without insulin your body and your muscles are not getting the nutrients it needs to grow and promote muscle growth.
When you’re insulin sensitive you require less insulin to lower your blood sugar and bring it back down to normal levels. Because your body is using energy more efficiently you also store more of your calories in your muscles as glycogen storage as oppose to storing them in fat.
If you’re insulin insensitive your pancreases needs to secrete more insulin to control your blood sugar. Being insulin insensitive is a sign that your body isn’t metabolizing glucose well and it can lead to future health complications like type diabetes and associated diseases that come with it.
Negatives Of Cutting First
You Eat Fewer Calories
Sometimes losing bodyfat first is not an option because your BMR (basal metabolic rate) is low or your BMI (body mass index) is considered underweight.
In these cases eating fewer calories will just cause your metabolism to slow down even more and you will have to keep cutting calories to under 1200 calories to keep making progress. With a low TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) and high bodyfat you cannot eat any less and still be sane everyday.
In other cases if you have a decent BMR and TDEE it’s easier to make a cut because you have more calories to spare. Either way doing a cut first means you need to eat fewer calories.
You Will Shrink In Size
Because you are losing bodyfat doing a cut will make you smaller and if you don’t have a sufficient amount of muscle on you to begin with it means you will be left with a have a gangly look at the end of your cut.
In college I was sporting the gangly look - long limbs with no muscle tissue just like human Gumby or like Twiggy the supermodel in the 60s. I thought being skinny was in until I realized that I was fat on the inside and that was my wake up call.
A cut done improperly will also cause you to lose muscle mass.
If you approach fat loss like most woman approach weight loss by doing a drastic cut or a 6-week fad diet then it’s guaranteed you’ll lose muscle mass. Losing muscles defeats the purpose and thwarts your goal to look fit so you want to hold on to as much lean muscle mass as possible during your cut.
Maximum muscle retention while losing bodyfat means you need to follow a proper plan to achieve both outcomes.
Bulking First Before Cutting – Positives And Negatives
To bulk is to purposely put on weight. Whether the extra weight is going to be fat or muscle depends on following the right plan for your goals.
If you feel like my former self where I was too skinny and gangly then bulking is going to be the goal you want.
I remember phone conversations with my mom when I told her I lifted weights. At the time I was going to the gym multiple times a week to pump iron as I called it and she was terrified that I would turn into a man because of muscles. She thought I was going to blow up like Arnold Schwarzenegger and start looking like a beefed up woman!
Well unfortunately women naturally do not have the testosterone capacity to blow up like a man does. No matter how hard we workout and how many supplements we take except for steroids we will not build half as much muscle as a man does.
Besides it’s not like you’re going to wake up overnight looking twice the size. That doesn’t happen except in movies! It takes years of consistent training for a woman to build a substantial amount of muscle.
I have personally been lifting weights for almost 20 years without any arm focused work, eaten a regular diet without intentionally going on a bulking phase or doing any type of contest prep and I have not even gotten close to the size Arnold’s guns.
If I wanted to bulk I could be bigger but I’m satisfied with my size and strength for my size right now.
It goes to show that as woman we can definitely put in the work to grow in size but size takes years to get there so don’t worry about bulking up like the hulk.
Positives Of Bulking First
You get to eat
Somehow every time I’m training a client the topic of food comes up. Either they’re talking about an upcoming food event, a dinner at a friend’s last week, what they’re cooking, or a favorite ice cream store they recently found out.
EVERYONE loves to eat and food is pleasure. If you want to do pleasure first and work later than bulking is the way to go.
There are 2 types of bulking I’m sure you’ve heard of – clean bulking and dirty bulking.
What’s the difference?
Clean bulking means that you’re eating relatively healthy and eating nutritious foods. Your diet consists of mainly lean protein, lots of fruits and vegetables, and healthy carbs with the occasion junk food.
Clean bulking happens when you’re following the 80/20 rule of eating, 80% of healthy nutritious calories and 20% unhealthy, favorite indulgences. After all how you feel is based on your diet. Eating healthy means feeling great and having lots of energy.
Dirty bulking is the complete opposite. This is where your diet consists mostly of whatever you want to eat and no one ever said that they’re craving a salad or an apple.
With a dirty bulk you get to fulfill every craving you have and indulge because you need to eat in excess to put on muscle.
For some people it’s like heaven and they go all out eating whatever they want. It’s like freedom eating with a purpose of gaining muscle. For others it can be a disaster for having so much freedom in what they want to eat.
In either case the goal is put on muscle but to do it in a way such that at the end of the bulking phase you’re healthy on the inside and your bloodwork is normal.
Looking Better Naked For Some Women
Depending on where you’re starting, height, weight, appearance, etc putting on more weight can make you look better. Bulking first can help you fill out certain areas of your body in which you thought was lacking.
When your strength training routine aligns with your diet you can see changes pretty fast if you’re an absolute beginner. If you’re more of the ectomorph side bulking first can help you see quicker changes spurring on initial motivation to keep going.
Negatives Of Bulking First
You Will Put On More Fat
Depending on what type of bulking you do you will be putting on fat. Adding more fat to your frame is inevitable when you keep eating in excess so that you can see enough progress to keep going.
It’s totally possible to do a slow bulk where you’re eating enough to minimize fat gain but most of us are impatient with progress so putting on more fat than absolutely necessary is part of the bulking phase. That’s why when you’re leaner not only will you have an easier time putting on lean muscle mass but when you’re finished with your bulk phase you will have lower bodyfat in the end.
You Probably Won’t Like What You See
Let’s face it no one likes to be fat. You feel soft, squishy, you have a muffin top, or you can pinch a substantial amount of belly fat. You see rolls in fitted clothes and you get spillage in pants. If you bulk first you can be certain those aspects will stay with you and they can even start to growing because you’re adding more calories to your diet.
As a result when you intended to put on muscle was not what you end up with because it’s hidden under the layers of fat.
You Can Create Unhealthy Eating Habits
Once you get into the habit of eating whatever you crave it becomes a vicious cycle because you’ve created a negative eating pattern and your cravings become stronger. Habits are hard to break especially eating habits. We develop a routine, our bodies know what to expect, and we are sensitized to triggers for specific foods all around us.
Do your body a favor when you’re doing a bulk. Make it clean one and follow the 80/20 rule so that when you’re doing a cut in the future it’s easier for your to dial back on your cravings and get used to eating fewer calories. Following the 80/20 eating rule means you’re not going on either extreme ends of extremely healthy or extremely healthy but eating in a balanced approach.
How To Decide What To Do First – Bulk Or Cut?
You Should Bulk First If…
If you want to maximize your muscle gain in a short period of time and you don’t mind if your bodyfat increases then do a bulk first. When you understand the drawbacks of bulking you’ll be more mentally prepared on what could happen during a bulk and be mindful about it.
And yes, it’s totally possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. But this mostly applies to beginner lifters who haven’t touched a barbell. This concept also applies if you have a pretty high bodyfat where you can eat in deficit with enough protein in your diet2,3,4 so that even in a deficit your body can still build muscle.
Your body is optimized to do a bulk when your bodyfat is at or less than 20%.
Remember that this bodyfat % is recommended for the following reasons,
- You will keep liking what you see in the mirror as your progress and add on bodyfat because adding bodyfat is an inevitable part of bulking.
- You will add on lean muscle mass faster because of insulin sensitivity.
- A leaner body is more resistant to fat stores again because of insulin sensitivity.
- You’re able to bulk longer and put on more muscle mass before stopping because of excess bodyfat and you stopped liking the way you look in the mirror.
You Should Cut First If…
You should cut first if you have the complete opposite reasons of bulking – you want to lose bodyfat, you’re not happy with the jiggle and you don’t like how you look soft in the mirror.
Getting lean and lowering your bodyfat is a healthy choice that comes with many benefits.
If you’re skinny fat and also have a couple of pounds to lose then do a cut first even if in the future you’ll want to gain muscle.
Lose fat first because gaining muscle comes with fat. Health wise it doesn’t make sense to keep increasing your own bodyfat when it’s already high to begin with. If you do decide to bulk first you’ll just have to put in more work to lose it in the end and your muscle gains won’t be as substantial compared to if you bulked when you were leaner in bodyfat.
You should do a cut if your bodyfat percent exceeds about 25% to optimize your gains.
Doing a cut when your bodyfat is greater than 25% is recommended for the following reasons,
- Increasing your insulin sensitivity so your body uses its calories more efficiently
- Looking good naked because after all this is the primary reason we’re on this journey isn’t it?
- Seeing and making faster progress with muscle gains which is super motivating and exciting!
The How-To Plan For Maximum Muscle Gain And Minimizing Fat Gain
For women the maximum muscle gain you can expect is around 0.12 lbs to 0.25 lbs of muscle per week. This is strictly muscles NOT scale weight which can be affected by water, glycogen storage in your muscles, and fat.
Under the best possible circumstances – consistent optimal diet, 7 to 8 hours of sleep, ideal workout program, consistent training, low to minimal stress levels, maximum recovery etc – you can expect to gain 0.12 lbs to 0.25 lbs per week.
Factors That Affect How Quickly You Can Build Muscle
When you’re a complete beginner to training you have about 6 months to maximize your muscle growth before the rate drops off. Your potential for muscle growth and skill growth is huge contributing to faster gains than if you’re a more experienced lifter. The rate at which you’re putting on lean muscle mass starts to decline the longer you’ve been lifting.
Once you’ve built a substantial amount of muscle you build muscle memory allowing you to regain the lost muscle mass faster than when you first started building. Muscle responds to the demand you put on it and even at age 80 you will still have the potential to build muscle so it’s never too late to start lifting weights5.
Unfortunately your maximum natural muscle growth is capped by your genetics. Muscle growth is limited by your hormone levels, the length of your muscle fibers, and your bone structure. All these factors influence your joint movements and how much weight you’re able to move and how quickly you’re able to recover from your workouts.
As women we’re at risk for age related sarcopenia where we experience muscle loss of 3 to 8% per year after 30 years old. When we’re between the age of 40 to 60 years old it becomes more difficult to build muscle due to loss of testosterone.
It is to your advantage to always be lifting weights so you never have gap years to give your body the opportunity to lose muscle mass. Start this habit of lifting early to accumulate the benefits as your grow older.
Now let’s get to the 3 main steps to maximize your muscle gain while minimizing fat gain,
- Eating in a slight caloric excess
- Doing a high protein and carb diet
- Full body strength training program
Step 1 - Eat in a slight caloric excess
In order to avoid gaining excess fat you must know your TDEE calories for maintenance which there are endless calculators online to help you do this.
None of them are 100% accurate because they are at best an estimation based on various equations. Only through trial and error, tracking and measuring will you be able to figure out your exact maintenance calories for your body and your activity. Calculators will give you a ball park idea of where to start.
Warning – Skip tracking and measuring will leave you either with gaining too much fat because you’re underestimating what you’re eating or no results at all because you’re eating too little. The worst part of it is that you won’t get consistent results. Get a good food tracking app and track your calories so you’ll be successful!
Once you figure out your maintenance calories you can add an extra 10 to 20% extra calories on top. This is called a surplus.
Start with the lower side of surplus to see how your body responds and to minimize putting on fat
Will My Muscles Grow Faster If I Eat More?
Eating more calories is not better because excess is excess and what does your body do with excess calories? Store them as fat! You cannot force your muscles to grow any faster than it already does unless you use steroids. Remember the maximum weekly muscle gain.
Be conservative with your calories to minimize any fat gain and stick with the 10 to 20% surplus recommendation.
How Much Weight Should I Be Gaining To Minimize Fat Gain?
It’s a good idea to do a DEXA scan before you start bulking and go back for scans on a regular basis to monitor your bodyfat to ensure that you’re making steady progress and you’re not putting on fat too quickly.
The ideal lean bulk gain where you’re putting on the least amount of fat possible is adding no more than 0.5 to 1.0 lbs per week. Any faster and you’re putting excess fat.
Remember you can be bulking for a few months before you’re happy with your physique and the ideal ratio of fat to muscle gain is 1:1. So for every pound of muscle you gain you don’t want to gain more than a pound of fat to go with it otherwise you will end up with more bodyfat than you’d like.
Step 2 – Eat A High Protein And Carb Diet
Protein is the building block for muscles. It’s also the main macro for muscle conservation, satiety, and responsible for a little boost in your metabolism during digestion because it’s highly thermogenic. Making sure you’re eating a sufficient amount of protein in your diet is the key to maximizing muscle gain.
Optimal muscle gain recommendation? 1 gram of protein/bodyweight(lb).
For most women this is a lot of protein to be adding to their diet. Start slow when adding more protein into your diet versus starting to reach your protein goals overnight. You can always work your way up to reaching those goals.
When I introduce my clients to a new eating or macros I like to set their expectations and say that it’ll take about 2 weeks to get into a rhythm and routine where they’re eating everything they’re suppose to.
I find that the greatest opportunity to increase protein in your diet is at breakfast where we’re mostly eating a bagel, toast, or just coffee. Again, give yourself 1 to 2 weeks to slowly get to your recommended protein requirements and to let your body adjust to it.
For carbs, a high carb diet during a bulk benefits your body in 2 ways,
- Carbs are your body’s primary energy resource and eating enough carbs will make sure that you have the energy to do your workouts and boosts your workout performance
- No other macro boosts your insulin levels like carbs do. Keeping your insulin levels high ensures that your body keeps shuttling the nutrients it needs to promote and support muscle growth. This is why on ‘cheat days’ it’s recommended to focus on eating carbs to keep your leptin levels high so you keep burning calories even while on a deficit.
Apply the 80/20 rule when it comes eating. Stick to eating mostly healthy, nutrient dense whole foods when bulking. You’re already going to gain some fat during this phase and if most of your calories come from junk then you’re not feeding your body what it needs to support muscle growth and you can become unhealthy.
Do a clean bulk as oppose to a dirty bulk.
Step 3 – Full Body Strength Training Program
To build muscle you need to break it down in the gym. The best exercises to do in the gym to maximize muscle growth are compound muscles that utilize multiple muscle groups and recruit the biggest muscle groups.
There are plenty of good strength training programs online and if you’re trying to figure out which one is right for you take a look at the following guidelines to make sure program hits all the check marks,
- It matches your skill level. The quickest way to build muscle and get strong in the gym is to not the perfect diet or the perfect training but the goal to not get hurt. You must be confident about the exercises you’re doing in the gym be confident about increasing the weights every week. If you’re not comfortable with the exercises then find another program to do and master it or hire a trainer to provide guidance.
- Its compound exercise focused and the training program hits all your entire body. The best programs that meet this requirement are focused on the 5 fundamental movement patterns: hinge, squat, upper pull, upper push, and a loaded carry. If you're not familiar with these terms or not sure what kind of exercises fall into this category read The Best Compound Exercises For Beginner Lifters where I cover this in more detail.
- It’s challenging. One of the first questions I always ask my clients after they are finished with an exercise is if it was challenging enough. Your body will grow based on the demands you put on it. If you’re not making progress every week and being challenged you’re not building more muscle mass. Period.
- The program is designed around free weights. There are more limitations and drawbacks then benefits with machines. If you're curious on why you should stay away from machines then read my story My #1 Mistake That Stopped From Seeing Results In The Gym and find a workout centered around free weights. The uphill climb with learning free weights is steeper compared to machines but the benefits greatly outweigh the extra time you spend learning free weights.
When Should I Stop Bulking?
The simple answer is when you like the way you look in the mirror and you’re satisfied with the amount of muscle you have gained.
Otherwise it’s best advised to stop bulking when you’ve reached about 25% bodyfat because after that point you won’t have a lean look with muscle definition. If by 25% bodyfat you’re not satisfied with your gains then start doing a cut back down to 20% and repeat the bulking cycling.
Bulking and cutting is something that happens in phases and may need to be repeated multiple times before you’re satisfied with the results. As long as you’re following the guidelines in this article you can be sure that you’re maximizing your muscle retention while losing bodyfat to reach your ideal appearance.
The How-To Plan For Maximum Fat Loss Gain And Muscle Retention
Fat loss is simple but not easy.
We want measurables and want to know every week that we’re making progress but unless you’re spending $100 doing a DEXA scan every week fat loss is going to be hard to measure.
The rule of thumb when it comes with fat loss is the more fat you have to lose the faster it can happen just like losing weight.
Initial progress can happen fast when you align diet, exercise, and rest optimally. As you get leaner and leaner it will start slowing down because your body’s preservation system kicks in and it becomes more challenging to preserve muscles.
Here’s what people forget when they want to lose fat – your body’s goal is to keep you alive!
Your body is designed to help you stay alive and hold on to its reserves. It doesn’t know you want to lose fat so you have to interrupt its metabolic processes enough to kickstart change before it gets to equilibrium again where you see no changes. This is why initial change is always fast until your body catches on.
How Much Fat Can I Lose During a Cut To Retain Muscle?
Most experts say that it’s safe to lose up to 1% of bodyfat per month. However, this number can vary from 1% up to 6% a month depending on a lot of different factors. See the chart below on what changes you can expect to see based on your current bodyfat percentage,
Unless you’ve been through multiple rounds of fat loss before and you’re working with an experienced coach always aim for a slower rate of fat loss to conserve muscle tissue. Losing muscle tissue will lower your basal metabolic rate so that your body just burns fewer calories in general.
How Can I Retain As Much Muscle As Possible During A Cut?
Start with a conservative calorie deficit
Most people who are starting a cut are eager to get results as fast as possible so they randomly cut back on calories thinking more is better. They become impatient and instead of following a well thought out plan they starve themselves and do a severe calorie restriction hurting their body composition.
Yes, you will definitely lose fat faster with a severe calorie restriction but you will also lose muscle mass hurting your goal. You’ll feel more tired, have less energy, feel hungrier, and have more cravings.
When you start losing muscle mass you will gain more fat once you’re off your fat loss diet and create more fat cells which make it harder to lose fat the second time around.
This is a frustration women experience when they’ve been lifelong dieters and they go through multiple weight fluctuations their weight gets harder and harder to lose the next time around and it comes back twice as fast because they lose muscle mass in the process.
Don’t Cut For More Than 3-4 Months At A Time
Depending on your current starting point and where you want to go you might not get there with just one fat loss phase and it could take a number of fat loss cycles to reach your ideal bodyfat.
Fat loss is not just about exercise and eating in a caloric deficit but it’s also a psychological journey too.
Imagine in the middle of your fat loss diet and thinking about never being able to eat your favorite foods again because of your calorie restriction!
Or you’re on a fat loss diet and you never get to go out with your friends and do normal people activities because you cannot count your calories.
Or you’re the only awkward person who is not having a drink at your work’s happy hour and no one else understands why you’re trying to lose fat because you look fine in clothes.
This is why it’s not advised to be in a cutting phase for more than 4 months at a time. You need to give your brain a break and eat like a normal person again before getting back on another cut cycle. Cutting for longer than that can negatively impact your relationship with food and make you OCD about counting and calories.
Factors That Affect How Quickly You Can Lose Bodyfat
There are many variables that impact how quickly you lose fat and most are within your control.
Unless you’re entering a bikini competition or trying to achieve 16% bodyfat an absolute perfect plan is not necessary when losing fat. Get within 90% of the important variables and you’ll be on your way.
So what important variables are we talking about?
In the order of importance,
- Being In A Caloric Deficit
- Minimum Protein Intake
- Routine Strength Training
Let’s go into more details and talk more about them…
Being In A Caloric Deficit
This is the most important rule for fat loss.
Get everything else right but this wrong and you won’t be losing fat because the primary principle of fat loss is being in an energy deficit. You must be burning more than you’re eating for your body to tap into its own fat stores. When you’re eating back the same amount of calories you’ve burned your bodyfat will not budge.
During your entire ‘cut’ phase you must be in a caloric deficit and I will cover more on how to calculate the appropriate caloric deficit for you later in this article.
Minimum Protein Intake
Protein is the king of macros for anything related to muscles but especially when you’re cutting. Some important roles that protein plays,
- Maintaining satiety after a meal and contributing to the feeling of satisfaction
- Providing important building blocks for building and retaining muscles
- Increasing your caloric burn during digestion
- Growth and maintenance of healthy tissues and cell functions
Your goal during a cut phase is mainly twofold – lose bodyfat and retain as much muscle mass as possible. Eating a sufficient amount of protein in your diet will help you achieve both.
As you get leaner your protein requirements will increase because as your caloric intake drop you will get hungrier and your muscles are more vulnerable to degradation which is why strength training is a must have when you’re on fat loss plan.
Routine Strength Training
The most frustrating part of fat loss is not understanding that your body is built to survive and to be as efficient as possible without spending extra energy. Your body’s systems and metabolic reactions are optimized for energy expenditure and its multiple energy systems are adapted for maximum efficiency.
In other words your body operates on a use it or lose it mode especially when you’re eating fewer calories.
If you’re not strength training while on a caloric deficit one of the first areas that your body will start tapping into to make up for the deficit will be your muscle tissue. Muscles are metabolically expensive and if you’re not using them then there is no reason to keep them around. Skipping strength training on a fat loss diet will cause you to become fatter in the end.
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis which means the calories you’re burning outside of anything outside of sleep and exercise related. In individuals who are highly active the N.E.A.T. can account for up to 50% your daily calories burned6.
If you’re asking yourself how you could be burning more calories outside of the gym then that be let’s do the numbers together.
Weight lifting burns anywhere between 180 to 266 calories per hour depending on your age, height, weight, and lean muscle mass. That’s only one hour of exercise related calorie burn out of the other 16 hours that you’re awake (assuming you sleep 7 hours a day).
That leaves you with 16 hours in which you can keep burning calories the rest of the day outside the gym. Activities such as walking instead of taking the elevator, standing instead of sitting, gardening, doing a walk for your lunch break and bicycling can add up to extra calories burned outside of just intentional exercise.
The problem with cardio is that you stop burning calories the moment you stop doing it. That’s why building muscle makes a much bigger impact in your overall caloric burn in the future.
HIIT AKA high intensity interval training does burn a little more calories than the standard treadmill cardio but the sustainability of HIIT especially for beginners is very low. You do experience an after burn effect after HIIT workouts but they are minimal compared to being a daily caloric deficit which is why cardio has the least impact during a cut phase.
Now let’s get to the 3 main steps to maximize your fat loss while maximizing muscle retention,
- Eating in a slight caloric deficit
- Doing a high protein diet
- Full body strength training program
Step 1 - Eat in a slight caloric deficit
Again, just like bulking you must know how many calories to eat for a deficit and no single calculator is going to give you an accurate number. Your body is unique so while a calculator can give you a ballpark estimation you’ll have to figure out what works best for you through experimentation and tracking your calories closely.
Warning – Skip tracking and measuring will leave you frustrated if after a few weeks you’re not seeing results you want. There is no such thing as not losing fat if you’re in a caloric deficit. If you’re eating in a caloric deficit and nothing is changing then by definition you were not in a caloric deficit. Go back and re-do your calculations because you’re not a caloric deficit to begin with.
Once you figure out your maintenance calories subtract between 10 to 20% of calories.
This is called a caloric deficit.
If you’re not sure where to start always be more conservation so you preserve as much lean muscle mass as possible. If you have a high bodyfat percentage you can go a little more aggressive and not have to worry about muscle loss.
Step 2 - Eat a high protein diet
I covered the benefits of protein earlier in article but I want to emphasize that whenever you do a cut you will get hungry. You’ll find that even cutting back 100 calories a day at certain phases in your fat loss journey will leave you hungry and hunger makes people throw out their diet plans.
During your cut you’ll want to maximize the nutrition of every calorie you’re eating because you’re eating fewer of them.
Focus on eating whole, unprocessed nutrient foods and lots of lean protein.
Aim for 1 gram of protein per bodyweight (lb) and divide the rest of your calories to your choosing. If you’re not sure how to do this you can check out how to do macro ratios in my Skinny Fat To Fit article.
Will Eating Fewer Carbs Lead To Faster Fat Loss?
There has been a lot of scientific studies looking at how high carb/low fat diets compared with low carb/high fat diets impact the speed of fat loss when keeping the protein levels the same.
These studies have concluded that amount of fat lost on either diet wasn’t a big difference.
That’s why I adjust these fat and carb ratios based on my client’s preferences. Some people do better on high carb diets and others on low carbs. It’s up to you which one you prefer and which one you can stick with over the next several months.
Even if you believe that you’ll lose fat faster on low carb remember that carbs are your body’s primary energy source. Cut back on carbs too much and you won’t have the energy to perform in the gym to retain your muscle mass which has negative future consequences.
And remember to divide up your consumption of protein throughout the day so your body always has a source of protein to draw from around the clock.
Protein isn’t stored in your body the same way like fats and carbs are that’s why you want to eat protein at every meal as oppose to saving it for one big meal. Your stomach will be happier that way. I have yet to find a woman who can eat all of her day’s protein in one meal.
Step 3 – Full Body Strength Training Program
The principles of strength training when you’re bulking applies to when you’re cutting – lift heavy, focus on compound exercises, use good form, and use challenging weights. I covered what to look for in a basic strength training program in the Maximum Muscle Gain and Minimizing Fat Gain section of this article.
Strength training tells your body to grow and retain muscles. Without lifting weights during your cut you will start to lose muscle mass and not have the muscle definition you’re looking for when you’re finished.
Getting the body you want may take several rounds of proper cutting and bulking. Understanding and implementing these different phases is the only way to put on the amount of muscle you want but still be lean at the same time.
If you’re an absolute beginner and don’t know where to start when it comes to going from skinny fat to fit you should also read my Ultimate Guide To Go From Skinny Fat To Fit.
In this guide you'll learn,
- Why you're struggling to lose the stubborn fat no matter how much you exercise or diet
- What to do when you've hit a weight-loss plateau and 3 simple tips to start burning fat again
- Why eating healthy is not enough to lose fat plus answers to 10 other questions about going from skinny fat to fit
You can download the guide using the box below,