Whether or not you should lose weight before building muscle is one of the most common questions in the fitness industry. People tend to either overcomplicate it or oversimplify it. It can be a straightforward question to answer, but there are also several nuances to consider before deciding which one is right for you.
So, should you lose weight before you build muscle? People with high body fat percentages or anyone who’s been bulking for 12-16 weeks should focus on losing fat before building muscle. People who are skinny fat, new to strength training, or those who want to prioritize their performance in the gym over their appearance should consider bulking before losing weight.
There’s a lot of advice online about whether it’s better to lose weight or build muscle first, but much of it is either incorrect or consists of blanket statements that don’t apply to everyone. To help break through the confusion, I’ll discuss the following in this article:
- The differences between losing weight and losing fat
- How to tell if you should lose weight before building muscle
- Reasons why you’d want to lose weight before building muscle
- Reasons why you’d want to build muscle before losing weight
- Whether or not you can lose weight and build muscle at the same time
Losing Weight vs. Losing Fat
Before we get into whether or not you should lose weight before building muscle, it’s important to understand what we actually mean when we say we want to lose weight.
When people say they want to lose weight, they’re typically referring to lowering their weight on the scale. For example, a 250lb person may say they want to lose weight if their goal is to get to 200lbs on the scale. He or she will then get fixated on that number and get frustrated if their progress stalls or they don’t reach their goal within a specified period of time.
This is problematic for several reasons. When you’re just focusing on what the scale says, you may not care where that weight loss comes from. It can come from a combination of water weight reduction, fat loss, and muscle loss.
But oftentimes, people who want to lose weight also want to keep whatever muscle they already have and improve their body composition. To do that, you need to retain your lean muscle mass and focus on fat loss instead of just aiming for an arbitrary number on the scale.
Fat loss refers to a reduction in the amount of body fat you currently have. You may see a respective drop in your weight on the scale while your body fat percentage also decreases, but that doesn’t always happen. Someone can go from having 30% body fat to 25% body fat but only lose 2-3lbs on the scale.
This is also what people mean when they say they are losing inches but not losing weight — their body measurements are getting smaller because their body fat percentage is decreasing even though the number on the scale might not reflect that.
So now you understand the difference between losing weight and losing fat. But what does that mean when it comes to deciding whether or not you should lose weight before building muscle? And what if you want to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time instead of prioritizing one or the other?
Let’s find out.
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How To Know If You Should Lose Fat Before Building Muscle (2 Criteria)
There’s nothing inherently wrong about trying to build muscle whenever you want, but there are certain times where you’d want to lose fat before building muscle — which, for the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to as bulking from here on out.
1. Your current body fat percentage is higher than 22% for females and 16-18% for males.
If you’re starting out with an already high body fat percentage, you’ll want to shed the excess body fat before you bulk. This is because some fat gain is inevitable during a bulking phase, and an excessively high body fat percentage comes with a host of health risks. It’ll also make it more difficult to succeed in a fat loss plan in the future since you’ll have much more to lose.
It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean people with higher body fat percentages should avoid lifting weights. Resistance training has many benefits, including an increased metabolism, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduced risk of disease. Anyone who’s overweight should continue to strength train even though you’ll want to focus on losing fat before you bulk.
2. You’re coming off an extended bulk.
The longer a bulking period goes on, the more likely you are to gain more fat than muscle. To put a stop to that excess fat gain, you should switch your focus to fat loss if you’ve already been bulking for 12-16 weeks.
However, you should also spend some time in a maintenance phase before you move to a fat loss phase so your body can get accustomed to its new weight.
Related Article: How Much Weight Can You Lose in 60 Days (The Healthy Way)
2 Reasons to Lose Weight Before Building Muscle
1. It can motivate you to stay consistent.
Earlier in this article, I spoke about some of the pitfalls of focusing too much on the number on the scale. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore your scale weight completely.
In fact, for people who are severely overweight, are just starting their fat loss journeys, or have a hard time staying motivated, seeing the number on the scale go down can boost your confidence and encourage you to stick with your plan.
2. You’ll avoid additional fat gain.
People who go through bulking phases gain fat in addition to muscle. Losing fat before you build muscle will help prevent your body fat percentage from getting too high.
If you have goals to bulk in the future, it can also potentially give you a lower body fat percentage to start from so you won’t have to worry as much about it getting to unhealthy levels.
Related Article: What To Do If You’re Gaining Muscle and Not Losing Fat
4 Reasons Not To Lose Weight Before You Build Muscle
1. You struggle with body image issues.
I’m not going to sugarcoat this — building muscle almost always leads to weight gain, and that can be hard to cope with even if you’re able to disassociate your self-worth from the number on the scale.
If you have body image issues, I recommend working on your self-confidence first before going through a fat loss phase. Prioritizing eating nutritious foods, working out consistently, and not weighing yourself constantly can do wonders for your mental health and self-esteem.
2. You’re already lean.
Even if you’re starting out at a relatively low body fat percentage, it can be tempting to stay in a fat loss phase if you’re still not happy with how you look. But if your body fat percentage drops too low, your hormones can get out of whack, females can lose their menstrual cycles, your energy levels can drop, and it can affect your mental clarity.
Females with less than 16-20% body fat and males with less than 6% body fat should focus on bulking first. These are the body fat percentages that most professional bodybuilders are at when they step on stage, and they don’t maintain those percentages year-round. There’s no reason to keep dropping your body fat any further if you’re already that lean.
3. You’re skinny fat.
Being skinny fat refers to having a slim build but not having a lot of lean muscle mass. People who are skinny fat should prioritize building muscle because if you go straight to a fat loss phase, you may lose the small amount of lean muscle you already have.
Furthermore, people who are skinny fat typically don’t have a lot of strength training experience. You can benefit from the newbie gains and build muscle faster than someone with a lengthier training history.
4. Your training goals are more important than your appearance.
Sometimes, wanting to be stronger and adding more pounds or kilos to your lifts is more important than how you look. It’s certainly possible to continue getting stronger while you’re in a cutting phase, but more often than not, getting stronger in the gym will require you to keep your daily calories higher so you can give your body the energy it needs to lift heavy.
That said, as I mentioned earlier, having too high of a body fat percentage can have negative impacts on your health. You’ll still want to make sure you have a healthy body fat percentage even if you aren’t concerned with being super lean.
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Can You Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?
The process of losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time is called body recomposition. It is possible to do this, but it’s a complicated and often difficult process.
This is because trying to get bigger and smaller at the time are conflicting goals. One requires you to eat in a calorie deficit while the other requires you to eat in a calorie surplus.
For many people, body recomposition is a challenging goal to accomplish. They can spend years trying to recomp and still only lose a small percentage of body fat and gain a small amount of muscle mass.
People who tend to achieve the greatest results from a recomp include:
- Individuals with high body fat percentages
- Individuals who are new to strength training
- Individuals who are coming back after a long break from lifting weights
This is because their bodies either aren’t adapted to the stresses and stimuli of resistance training, or they’re starting with a higher body weight and burn more calories during exercise. The longer you keep strength training, the more efficient your body becomes.
As such, it becomes more difficult to change your body’s appearance as your training age increases and as you get leaner.
If you fall outside any of the above categories, you can still work towards a recomp. You’ll just have to understand that it requires a lot more hard work, consistency, and patience.
You can enhance your chances of success with a recomp by:
- Eating at maintenance every day or calorie cycling based on when you work out
- Prioritizing protein at every meal
- Following a strength training program
- Not doing an excessive amount of cardio
- Getting enough sleep
Following each of these protocols will allow you to give your body the proper amount of fuel for your activity levels, maintain the lean muscle mass you already have, and prevent unnecessary fat gains.
Overall, it’s easy to determine whether or not you should lose weight before you build muscle. If you have a high body fat percentage or if you’ve already been in a bulking phase for a long time, it’s better for you to lose fat first before trying to build muscle.
But if you’re skinny fat, new to strength training, struggling with body image issues, or you’re more concerned with your performance in the gym than your appearance, you’ll benefit from building muscle first before you attempt a fat loss phase.
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About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.