Many people get into fitness for different reasons. Some just want to shed a few extra pounds, while others are looking to get super ripped and muscular. However, there’s one question that always stands out — do you build muscle as you burn fat, or do you need to lose the fat first?
If you’ve been wondering, “should I lose weight before building muscle?” In this article, we will answer that question and give you tips to achieve that dream body you always wanted.
Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
This is a question with many nuances, as several factors determine whether you need to lose weight first before building muscle. Some of these factors include body fat composition/percentage, fitness goals, and diet.
Before you run off excited to change your fitness routine, you first need to consider these factors and weigh the impact they have on your body goals. That way, you can create an effective fitness plan that is tailored to your body type and needs.
Ultimately, there are three methods to building muscles and losing fat to choose from — bulk, cut, or recomposition.
Bulking describes the muscle-building process. It involves eating enough calories to cause a slight calorie surplus so your body falls into anabolism and there is a slight weight gain. During the bulking process, you gain muscle mass while keeping fat gain to a minimum.
People with a lower body fat percentage (less than 20%) should consider using this method to build muscle.
Cutting describes the fat loss process. It involves eating fewer calories to cause a calorie deficit, so your body burns fat, and weight loss occurs at a sustainable rate. During the cutting process, you lose body fat while keeping as much muscle mass as you can.
People with more body fat should consider using this method to build muscle.
Recomposition, also called recomp, describes the process of losing fat and building muscle simultaneously. It involves eating enough calories to maintain your weight (sometimes you might need to go on a calorie-deficit or calorie-surplus diet to ensure you maintain balance).
During the recomposition process, your body weight remains the same while your body composition changes from more fat/fewer muscles to less fat/more muscle over time.
You can either stick to the recomp method until you’ve reached your body goals and then switch to bulking or cutting as your body changes. It’s quite difficult to use the recomposition method to attain your body goals compared to others.
The recomp method is ideal for people who are beginners to strength training or have been away for a long time and have a slightly higher body fat percentage (13-20% for men and 21-28% for women).
Is Losing Weight the Same as Burning Fat?
Before we dive into the nuances that will help you decide if you need to lose weight before building muscles, we need to first explain what we mean by losing weight.
When most people talk about losing weight, they usually only pay attention to how much they can lose in the quickest way possible. While it’s great to see the results of your hard work by lowering your weight, it’s quite easy to hyper-fixate on the numbers alone and ignore everything else.
When your progress stalls or you don’t hit your weight target in the specified period, it can drive you to frustration or make you abandon your fitness goals altogether.
Sometimes, it even drives people towards choosing unhealthy methods for losing weight. Weight loss can be due to fat loss, muscle loss, or water weight reduction. Your daily weight check will not take these factors into consideration.
You could be losing weight, and all that’s really happening to your body is that you’re losing valuable muscle mass. Alternatively, you could also gain weight or appear to be stagnant when your body is actually burning fat and turning all of that into muscle.
Ultimately, calculating weight loss strictly based on the numbers that appear on your scale is not a completely effective method.
On the other hand, when you focus on fat loss, instead of a random number, you lose weight and improve your body composition. It also allows you to keep whatever lean muscle mass you already have.
Burning fat reduces the percentage of body fat you have. Sometimes, you may see a significant reduction in your weight, and at other times, you won’t.
If you work out to target fat loss, you might only see a difference of 1-3 pounds every time you weigh yourself. That doesn’t mean that your body fat percentage is not dropping. This is why people may go from having 35% body fat to 20%, and the scale will only reflect minimal changes.
When this happens, you notice your body measurements get smaller, and you lose several inches all around. So you’re losing weight, even though your scale is not reflecting it.
Now that we’ve clarified what we mean by losing weight let’s outline what role it plays in muscle building.
How Do I Know If I Should Lose Fat Before Building Muscle?
There are two instances where you should lose fat first before building muscle.
1. When You Have High Body Fat
If your body fat is more than 20%, you need to lose the extra body fat first before you can build muscle. During the bulking phase, you will inevitably gain some body fat.
Adding more body fat to an already high percentage puts you at risk for a lot of weight-related health issues. The ideal body fat percentage to target before building muscle should be between 12-14%.
However, this doesn’t mean that you need to avoid weights or resistance training if you have a higher body fat percentage.
In fact, you stand to benefit a lot from lifting weights, including a lower risk of diseases, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased metabolism. Even if your goal is to lose weight before bulking, you can continue to do strength training.
2. When You’ve Been on an Extended Bulk
As mentioned before, you also gain some fat when building muscle. The longer you’ve been on a bulk, the more likely it is that you’ve gained more fat than muscle. If you’ve been building muscle for over three months, you need to switch your focus to fat loss. This helps you to reduce the excess fat and stop your body from gaining more.
Pros of Losing Weight Before Building Muscle
1. Helps You Stay Consistent
When you visibly lose weight and drop inches, it boosts your confidence and helps you to remain consistent. This is particularly evident when you’ve just begun your fitness journey. You need all the motivation you can get to encourage you to remain consistent until you reach your goal.
2. Prevents Further Fat Gain
Even if you count every calorie you consume while building muscle, it’s quite impossible to gain muscle without some fat. You need your body to be in an anabolic state to build muscle. Unfortunately, this state is powered by calories, proteins, and carbs.
Losing fat before you build bulk will help your body maintain its fat composition and prevent excessive fat gain. This way, you don’t have to worry about your body fat reaching unhealthy levels, even if you gain fat while building muscle.
3. You Appear Bigger When You’re Lean
If you don’t burn fat before building muscle, it hides under your hard-earned bulk and affects the shape of your muscles. For instance, if you have fat hiding under your shoulder muscle, they appear round. However, with leaner muscles, your shoulders are cut and have a more striking shape.
The more definition of your muscle, the more it creates an illusion that you’re bigger. Generally, someone with a lean, chiseled figure will appear fuller and bigger than another similarly sized person with a softer figure.
4. It Helps You Picture how Much Muscle You Need to Put on
It’s easy to say you want to add 20-30 pounds of muscle to your frame. However, can you easily picture how much thickness 20-30 pounds of muscle will be?
That’s not easy to do when you already have a mass of body fat covering your frame. You don’t even know how those 20-30 pounds of muscle will distribute around your body.
The most effective method is to measure specific body parts to determine if you have any areas to improve on. For example, you might measure your body and see that even though your body frame is proportional to your height, you still need to add a few inches of muscle to your thighs or chest.
This helps you picture areas you need to build muscle around accurately. To get the best results, you must first remove the excess body fat, so you know that whatever you add will be lean muscle.
When Should You Not Lose Weight Before Muscle Building?
1. When You’re on a Low-Calorie Diet
If you’re already eating a minimal amount of calories, you don’t need to lose more weight before building muscle. Remember, you need calories, protein, and carbs to get into the anabolic state that builds muscles.
Instead, you should slowly increase your calorie intake to build muscle and increase your metabolism.
2. If Your Body is Lean
It can be quite tempting to remain at a calorie deficit and burn more fat because you’re not satisfied with the way you look. However, if your body fat drops below a certain percentage, it will throw your body functions off.
Additionally, your metabolism and energy levels can drop, and it can affect your focus. For women, it can also make your hormones go out of balance and affect your menstrual cycle.
If you’ve been cutting and your fat loss has stopped, you should increase your calories and switch your focus to building muscle mass instead.
3. If You’re Skinny
If you’re skinny and don’t have a lot of lean muscles, you don’t need to burn fat before building muscle. You may lose the little lean muscle you already have if you go into a fat-burning phase before muscle building.
Also, because skinny people typically don’t have much experience with strength training, they can benefit a lot from “newbie gains.” This will allow them to build muscle faster than people who have been strength training for a long time.
4. You Care More About Your Training Goals than How You Look
As mentioned before, leaner muscles appear more striking and bigger than muscles with fat underneath. However, if your training goal is just to get stronger and build resistance and you don’t care much about having defined muscles, you can jump right into muscle building without cutting.
Remember that a higher body fat percentage will have a negative impact on your health. Even if you don’t care about your appearance, you should still strive for a healthy body fat percentage.
If you’ve been asking, “should I lose weight before building muscle or do the reverse?” The best person to answer that question is you. What are your body goals? Do you want to lose weight, gain lean muscles, or increase your strength? What is your current body fat percentage?
The answers to these questions will help you determine what you need to do and in what order. Ideally, if you wish to build lean body mass, you should lose weight before building muscle. You should also lose weight before building muscle if you already have a high body fat percentage.
However, outside of these conditions, you can choose not to lose weight before building muscles, especially if your body fat is low and you’re on a low-calorie diet.