This is a common question, as most find themselves in a position where they both want to increase muscle mass and also lose body fat.
“I want gainz! and I want them all now!”
The confusion lies in which one of these should be your priority.
Context is crucial here, as no two people will find themselves in the exact same position. On that note, let’s look at the most important criteria.
1. Training experience
If you’re a beginner (less than 6 months consistent weight training), this includes those who are skinny fat who may have some endurance training experience. You basically have a 3rd and ideal option of losing body fat and gaining muscle at the same time. Eat around or just below maintenance calories, make sure you’re getting enough protein (1g per pound of lean mass) and be consistent with your training and recovery.
More experience trainees will be better served chasing one goal, either cutting or bulking and reading 2. below.
2. Current body fat %
A fact that has been known for a while and re-affirmed in a recent study (Oct - 2016), is that the leaner you are the more favourable your body responds hormonally to gaining muscle. In layman's terms the less body fat you have before starting bulking the better. Two of the key reasons is:
Additional body fat appears to diminish the protein synthesis response to food. Less protein synthesis equals less potential for muscle growth.
Calorie partitioning (how you store excess calories) is less favourable the more body fat you have. This means that excess calories are more likely to be stored as fat and less likely to go towards lean tissue growth.
As you can see there is a clear advantage to starting a bulking cycle as lean as possible, the lower the better. Not only will you build more muscle, but you’ll also accumulate less fat.
Only start a slow bulking cycle when you are ideally below 12% and do not go above (start % + 6)
Only start a slow bulking cycle when you are ideally below 20-21% and do not go above (start % + 6)
If you would like to see some examples of body fat percentages, or would like to work out your muscle building potential see my other article: