Article last updated: April 2018 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
When you start your skinny-fat transformation, you have to decide whether you should bulk or cut. If you visit any bodybuilding forum, the majority of people will tell you to bulk first, because if you cut now you will end up looking skinny.
This advice is not only ineffective to achieve your fitness goals, but also potentially harmful for your health. In this article I will explain why you should ignore that advice, and get lean before bulking.
The Vicious Cycle of Bulking from a Skinny-Fat Base
When you’re skinny-fat, your hormonal balance is most likely whack, and with a poor hormonal balance it’s difficult to gain a significant amount of muscle. For us fitness people there are 2 key hormones that need to be optimal to gain muscle while staying at a low bodyfat:
- Testosterone: This is the key male hormone responsible for building muscle. You want this hormone to be at the high end of the range.
- Estrogen: This is the key “female hormone”, but men also need a bit of it to function. When your bodyfat percentage increases a lot, your estrogen levels also increase. You want this hormone to be at the low end of the range.
Unfortunately, during and after my bulk from 200 lbs to 235 lbs my estrogen levels were at the high end of the range while my testosterone levels were at the low end of the range. No wonder that I added a huge amount of fat rather than muscle during my bulk, despite adding 300 lbs to my deadlift and over 200 lbs to my squat.
This is typically what happens to skinny-fat guys that bulk from a skinny-fat base.
I like to call this The Vicious Cycle of Bulking:
I was caught in this vicious circle during my first 2 years of training, and that’s the main reason why I made so little progress. In September 2010 I started as a skinny-fat guy with fairly high estrogen levels and low testosterone levels.
To overcome my skinny-fatness I decided to gain muscle by following a strength training routine and bulking. As a result, my estrogen levels increased and I became fat in February 2011.
To make up for this I decided to do an extreme cut where I lost a lot of weight in one month. During this cut it’s fair to assume that my testosterone levels got lower since I lost the weight so fast. Low testosterone levels made it difficult to train hard, so I lost muscle mass and strength – I was back to being skinny-fat instead of fat.
Just take a look at how the pictures below fit the vicious circle perfectly:
Picture 1 (Sep 2010): skinny-fat
Picture 2 (Feb 2011): bulk > estrogen levels increase > become fat
Picture 3: (Mar 2011): extreme cut > lower testosterone levels > cannot train hard > loss of muscle mass > skinny-fat
I’m actually quite embarassed about wasting so much time in this vicious cycle, but I know that some people have been stuck in this vicious circle for much longer and eventually they gave up on changing their skinny-fat physique.
Optimize Your Hormones to Break the Vicious Circle of Bulking
To break this vicious circle I asked my endocrinologist about what I can do to solve my messed up hormones, and she answered something along the lines of: To increase your testosterone levels you should sleep as much as possible and eat a BALANCED diet. To reduce your estrogen levels you should lose weight.
So I asked myself 3 questions:
- Am I eating a balanced diet? No, I’m eating a high proten/high carb/LOW FAT diet.
- Am I sleeping as much as I need? No, I wake up because of an alarm, and not because I feel well rested.
- Why am I at a high bodyfat after 1.5 years of training? I never focused 100 % on fat loss because I wanted to gain more muscle.
After asking myself those 3 questions I knew what to do to optimize my hormones.
For a whole semester I didn’t attend lectures or classes (luckily you don’t get graded based on attendance in Denmark). Instead I slept as much as I needed – some days up to 12 hours.
Furthermore, instead of focusing on eating as much protein as possible everyday, I focused on eating more fat in my diet.
And here are the results…
Testosterone levels (reference range: 9-37 nmol/l)
- 24 Jan 2012: 11.66 nmol/l
- 02 May 2012: 24 nmol/l (+106 %)
Estrogen (E2) levels: (reference range: 41-170 pmol/l)
- 27 Jul 2012: 101 pmol/l
- 18 Sep 2012: 47 pmol/l (-53 %)
As you can see by looking at the numbers above, my testosterone levels increased with 106 % in a timespan of less than 5 months. A few months later my estrogen levels started improving greatly and eventually they decreased by 53 % in less than 2 months.
As soon as I got lean for the first time in my life, my hormonal balance improved and as a result I was able to train harder and eat more food without gaining any significant amount of fat. This is the secret benefit of getting lean before you bulk.
I finally broke the vicious cycle of bulking and cutting.
Therefore, if you have a significant amount of bodyfat, you should lose that before you even think about bulking. Don’t waste your first 2 years of training on being stuck in the vicious cycle like I did.
How Lean Should You Get to Optimize Hormones?
In terms of getting lean I want you to reach this sweet spot where you are lean enough to build a significant amount of muscle without being so lean that your testosterone levels have gone to whack. That’s right: when you get too lean, your testosterone levels decrease.
A recent study has shown that a competition ready bodybuilder that dieted down for competition experienced a huge decrease in testosterone. In other words, he looked good, but he felt like crap and he lifted significantly less at the gym. The reason why I’m sharing this study with you is that I want you to know that dieting down to extremely low bodyfat levels is NOT healthy.
In my experience the sweet spot is roughly at 10-12 % bodyfat depending on how you feel at each of those. Some of you may go as low as 10 % without any problems while I prefer 12 %. To show you how 10-12 % bodyfat looks like, I reached out to a reader of Skinny-Fat Transformation.
Picture 1: May 2013, 154 lbs of skinny-fatness
Picture 2: Oct 2013, 121 lbs of leanness (-33 lbs)
The body in picture 2 is the kind of “look” you should aim for if you’re a skinny-fat beginner: lean chest, arms, neck and slight ab definition.
Once you reach this level of leanness, you’re ready to bulk and gain some quality muscle mass.
Be proud but stay hungry,