We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.
If you’re relatively new to the pursuit of a leaner and stronger physique, you may be asking yourself: “Should I cut or bulk?”
Indeed, it’s a question I get a lot during clients’ initial consultations.
To start, let’s get our terms straight. A “cut” is a fat loss phase, focused on body fat reduction. A “bulk” is a muscle-building phase, focused on an increase in muscle mass.
So, which one should you do first?
My answer to these newbie clients is: Neither.
If you’ve never done a properly structured bulk or cut, you may not have the skills to get the most from either just yet. Imagine if your primary school teacher asked you to write a novel before you learnt the alphabet. Would you have been able to do it?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
All aspects of training and nutrition require knowledge and skill, so you need practice.
That’s why, before you cut or bulk, you need the Kickstart Phase, an initial stage that I guide all of my newbie clients through in order to boost their future results.
In this article, I’ll take you through the answers to these questions:
Let’s kick things off with:
Who needs the Kickstart Phase?
A Kickstart Phase will be very beneficial for you if:
Why does it help?
The Kickstart Phase is all about learning the skills you need to get the best possible results from either a cut or a bulk.
These skills include:
This may sound like a lot of work, but the main purpose of the Kickstart Phase is to enable you to achieve your goals in a sustainable way.
All of my clients work anywhere from 40 to 60 hours per week and often look after their family on top of that, but they still ace their Kickstart Phase and their future phases. So you can do it, too!
The trick to avoid overwhelm is in the setup, which has its own separate section at the end of this article.
What results can you expect?
Although the Kickstart Phase is more focused on skill acquisition and habit formation than on strength or muscle gains, that doesn’t mean you won’t get any results! In fact, it’s often the opposite.
The unique advantage that you have if you’ve never trained before, or if you haven’t for a long time, is that you can expect to gain strength and muscle much faster when you start (or re-start if you’re coming back after a layoff) than you will when you become a more advanced lifter.
For this reason, it’s not uncommon to be able to lift heavier or to do more reps almost every workout, and to experience a measure of simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, tracked via progress pictures and measurements, even if your bodyweight stays roughly the same.
This process of losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time is called body recomposition (recomp for friends) and it’s much less likely to occur as you acquire more and more training experience. That’s why most people past the newbie gains stage go through phases of cutting and bulking, in which they focus on either muscle gain or fat loss respectively, instead of trying to accomplish both with a recomp all year round.
From a nutritional and general wellbeing standpoint, as you progress through the Kickstart Phase, you can expect the following positive changes, based on my clients’ feedback:
How long does it last?
I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer because it completely depends on who you are.
A client who’s completely new to fitness, may need up to twelve weeks in a Kickstart Phase, depending on how confident they are with the skill acquisition and habit formation process from the get-go.
On the other hand, someone who used to be quite fit, but has been out of the fitness game for some time, may only need four to six weeks to sharpen their pre-existing skills.
Instead of giving yourself a specific deadline, track your progress every week and rate your confidence from zero to 10. When you reach an 8 or 9 level of confidence with both the nutrition- and the training-related skills, then you can start planning your first bulk or cut.
Be honest with yourself.
Your physique goals will always be there. If you need more time, take it.
On the other hand, there will never be a “best time” to begin a bulk or cut. So, if you know you’re loitering for no better reason than because you’re a bit of a perfectionist (I’m guilty as charged, by the way), give yourself a kick in the pants and get to work.
How do you set it up?
Step 1. Find a well-structured training program that teaches you the basic compound exercises you’ll need to target the major muscle groups: chest, shoulders, back, hamstrings, quads, and core.
You can get away with a free cookie-cutter program from Google, but, if you’re serious enough about this journey to be reading this article, then you’ll get the best bang for your buck working with a coach that not only writes you a personalised program, but also offers feedback on exercise execution.
Technique is the foundation of muscle growth.
A well-structured program is the framework for continued, long-term physique improvements.
Don’t leave either to chance.
Step 2. Week to week, aim to become consistent with your program. Don’t skip sessions and do your best to plan them for roughly the same time on the same days whenever possible. If your workouts are all over the place, then it’ll be hard to turn training into a long-term habit.
Obviously, there are exceptions, like sickness or a holiday, but you don’t need to be perfect to succeed. You only need to be good enough.
Start with one session per week and add one every week until you work up to a number that’s easy for you to stick to most days. For most of my clients, this looks like three to six sessions every week.
Quantity doesn’t matter as much as quality. A half-assed six-day program won’t give you the same results as a well-executed three-day one.
Step 3. Session to session, work on improving your technique first and foremost.
I can’t stress the importance of this enough: when you’re in full control of the weight from the start to the end of a repetition, and you complete each repetition with smooth efficiency, then you’re training your target muscles to the best of your ability.
If your technique isn’t high-quality, all you’re doing is moving a weight from A to B with any part of your body that’s available to use, not only the target muscles. You may still make some gains, but it clearly won’t happen with the same degree of efficiency.
Again, quality trumps quantity. Exciting as it might be to get stronger, it doesn’t matter how many reps you do or how much weight you lift. What matters is the execution of every single rep.
Step 1. Focus on tracking everything you eat and drink right now, without making any major changes just yet. Aim to be as consistent and accurate as you can.
Step 2. Assess your nutritional weaknesses:
Work your way to the bottom of the list one improvement at a time.
Step 3. After tracking your bodyweight and nutrition for a few weeks, you should be able to estimate your maintenance calories and set it as your current target until you start your bulk or cut. I explained this process in detail in this article.
Why maintenance instead of a surplus or a deficit?
At maintenance calories, your body is in its preferred state, which is called homeostasis, or balance. When you create a caloric deficit or surplus, forcing the body to lose fat or gain muscle, homeostasis is disrupted, causing some level of physical and psychological distress: for instance, in most cases you’ll feel hungrier than usual during a cut and fuller than usual during a bulk.
In other words, at maintenance you’re going to feel pretty damn good. You’ll have good digestion, good energy levels, and good training performance. This is the perfect “training ground” to develop the skills you’re going to need during your first cut or bulk and to gauge your readiness level. If you’re struggling to be consistent with training and nutrition at maintenance, you’re not ready to take on a bulk or a cut yet.
Lastly, if a client is experiencing signs of a recomp, a surplus or deficit is unnecessary at this stage.
There are exceptions, of course. For example, if a client has overweight or obesity, they may actually feel better by losing some body fat than maintaining, so I may decide to edge our bets towards that goal and to assign them a small caloric deficit even during the Kickstart Phase.
On the other hand, if a client is slightly underweight, they may feel better by gaining some, so a small caloric surplus may be a better approach for them.
However, if your body composition is average for your size, but you’re a little out of shape and don’t have a lot of muscle mass (a bit like the way I looked in the “skinny fat” picture on the left), then you may be able to achieve body recomposition by focusing on training, food quality, and maintenance calories, without the need for a deficit or a surplus just yet.
Step 4. When you’re comfortable hitting your calorie target consistently, add a daily protein target. Finally, when you’re nailing both of these like a pro, you may want to set yourself a target for carbs and fat, too, although this may not be necessary.
If you want to learn how to set these nutritional targets for yourself, you can read this blog post.
In my experience, a lot of people get training and nutrition somewhat right, even if they’ve never even heard of a Kickstart Phase, but they don’t track progress, so they have no idea what’s truly going on.
As a result, when they try a cut or a bulk, they may decrease or increase their calories too fast, thinking they’ve hit a plateau (even though they haven’t), or they may jump from one program to another because they think they’re not making any progress in their current sessions (even though they are).
These constant changes don’t actually effect any meaningful improvements most of the time. If anything, by tinkering with the process too often, you won’t know which tweak was beneficial, if any.
Even when you’re tracking data consistently, knowing what changes to make, if any, in order to continue seeing results, isn’t easy. If you’re making wild guesses, the chance of spinning your wheels is much higher.
So don’t underestimate the power of tracking.
Although I’m going to give you a few ideas of what data to track and how to do it below, you may want to read this three-part article for a deep dive into this topic.
You can use an app to track your daily caloric intake.
To see how much you’re eating over a long period of time, you also want to track your calorie average in a week and in a month. You may need a separate Excel or Google Sheets spreadsheet for this, as not many apps have this feature.
Log the exercises, sets, reps, weight lifted, and intensity of effort of every single workout, so you can track performance.
Film at least one set of at least the most technical exercises in your program on a regular basis, so that you or your coach can assess your execution.
All of my clients have a training log, answer training-specific questions in every check-in, and get the opportunity to send me videos every week for technique assessment.
Training is the one non-negotiable action you need in order to build muscle, so gathering data and reflecting on this on a frequent basis is of paramount importance to achieve the greatest physique changes you’re capable of.
For body composition:
Weigh yourself three to seven days per week.
Take measurements and progress pictures every two to four weeks.
Many of my clients also like to check how their clothes fit, so you can pick your favourite top and bottom to try on every two to four weeks to see if they’re loosening up around the waist and tightening up around your upper legs, butt, shoulders, and arms. These are signs that you’re losing body fat and putting on muscle.
Thanks for reading. May you make the best gains.
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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