If you’re new to strength training, and you want to build muscles you may be faced with a dilemma. Fat loss can energize you to take on harder workouts and build muscle. Conversely, muscle building can boost your metabolism to make you burn fat faster. So, should I lose weight before building muscle?
There is no correct answer to this question. Experts’ opinions differ, and it comes down to what your personal fitness goals are. If you’ve been wondering, “Should I lose weight before building muscle?” Here is everything you need to know to make a decision.
Pros Of Focusing On Fat Loss First
If you’re trying to build muscle, and you have a high body fat percentage focusing on burning fat first will have the following benefits:
When you focus on building muscle first, you might gain weight initially. Gaining weight while working out can be discouraging and might even make you want to quit your healthy eating and exercise plan.
When your body is using fat for fuel instead of dietary carbohydrates or glycogen you might feel like you have more energy (21). You will then be able to train harder without feeling tired.
Reduced Stress On The Joints
Being overweight or obese puts significant stress on your joints (14). This might change how frequently you train, or how hard you’re able to train. Losing weight first can make you more agile and capable to put in the effort at the gym and build muscle.
Faster Visible Results
Losing weight shows results faster than building muscle which tends to be a long process. When you lose fat, you reveal your muscles which you can focus on refining. Furthermore, quick results keep you motivated enough to continue the journey and sculpt your body.
Hormones play a crucial role in muscle building. Unfortunately, excess fat can result in hormonal imbalance (9). Achieving a healthy weight regulates your hormones and prepares your body for the muscle building process that will come after.
Pros Of Focusing On Muscle Building First
To build muscle, you have to create a calorie surplus (13). For people who are new to fitness, the idea of eating more may seem counterintuitive. The initial weight gain that comes with muscle-building may discourage some and make them give up on their journey to a better body. However, there are some benefits of focusing on muscle-building right off the bat.
Studies show that when you build muscle, you increase your resting metabolic rate (12). This basically means that even while you’re not training, your body is going to be burning more calories. Eventually, you’ll burn fat and have a better body composition
Prevents Muscle Catabolism
When a calorie deficit is created, especially for extended periods of time, the body needs to look elsewhere for fuel. It can start to break down muscle for amino acids and convert them into energy. However, this will slow your body’s ability to burn fat. Your body can also lose some of the enzymes responsible for breaking down carbohydrates if you don’t eat enough food or carbohydrate-rich foods.
Muscle catabolism is very common for people who use diet only to lose weight (16). It’s basically the wasting away of lean muscle and it can affect your overall strength and appearance. Therefore, adding a strength training routine to a diet can have beneficial outcomes.
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Can You Gain Muscle While Losing Fat?
The two aims of weight training and physical conditioning are to increase muscle mass while reducing body fat—a process known as body recomposition. Your body, on the other hand, fights performing both at the same time since they are conflicting physiological processes.
You must have a well-documented strategy in order to maintain or improve your muscle size and reduce fat at the same time. Here are some tips for success:
Keep Your Caloric Deficit Small
To gain muscle, you need a calorie surplus. To lose weight, you need a calorie deficit. To do both, you’ll have to find a middle ground between being in a deficit and being a surplus.
Research shows that you can build substantial muscle by keeping a very small caloric deficit (15). Aim to cut out only 500 calories a day, and reduce this deficit even further to make greater muscle gains.
Do Compound Strength Exercise Thrice A Week
Lifting heavy weights doesn’t just help you lose weight, it also helps you keep your weight off. If you lift heavy weights for 20 to 30 minutes every two or three days, major muscle groups will be recruited and toned to help you burn fat faster.
You won’t see a big change overnight, but as you get closer to your goal it will start to move slower. To build muscle and lose fat at the same time, be patient with your body.
Eat More Than 25 Grams of Protein Four Times a Day
In order for protein synthesis to occur—the process that builds muscle—your body requires more than just protein. Ingesting at least 25 grams of protein at each meal is essential for building muscle and strengthening bones (4). It’s also helpful to eat small portions five or six times a day in order to fuel your muscles throughout the day and prevent over-eating later on.
Use Cardio For Recovery
Although it’s the best way to lose body fat, cardio isn’t the most effective way to build (or maintain) muscle when you’re in a caloric deficit. However, it’s a great way to recover from strength training workouts and maintain your muscles. Cardio exercises like walking, cycling, or swimming increase blood flow through the body and supply your cells with blood and nutrients.
Be Aware Of Your Caloric Intake
You need to be aware of how many calories you’re consuming every day. Keep track of all the food you eat for a few days so you can get an idea of what exactly is going into your body and how it affects your weight loss goals (5). If needed, lower your caloric intake accordingly so that your goal is easier to accomplish. Usually, watching what you eat is the best way to burn fat.
Do HIIT In Moderation
High-intensity interval training can be a great way to lose weight and build muscle (11). However, it’s important to do cardio in moderation because if you perform too much of it, you could end up losing lean muscle mass; this will severely affect your ability to burn fat and keep the weight off.
Meal Plan For Weight Loss And Muscle Gain
Losing weight and gaining muscle doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive because both are necessary for long-term weight loss and lifelong health and fitness. You may achieve both goals simultaneously by following a fitness and nutrition plan that is suited for you. Here are the foods you should include in your diet for muscle gain, and some you should avoid.
There are several reasons why a high-protein diet is essential for body recomposition. When you eat enough protein throughout the day, your body is able to maintain muscle mass by naturally suppressing appetite and regulating metabolism. Furthermore, protein contributes to greater satiety and helps you feel full longer (20).
Some ideal proteins to include in your body recomposition diet are:
- Lean red meat and poultry
- Tuna or other fish
Carbohydrate is the body’s main source of energy (2). When you work out, your muscles rely heavily on carbohydrates for fuel. Without these carbohydrates, your body will be depleted of energy and less likely to build muscle mass.
A healthy balance of carbohydrates helps optimize fat loss and prevents a calorie deficit from turning into muscle loss. Some ideal sources of whole carbohydrates include:
- Brown rice
Fats have gotten a bad reputation as being harmful to heart health and increasing cholesterol levels. However, healthy fats are essential to a balanced diet not only for their nutrients but also for regulating hormones that play a significant role in weight management, such as insulin.
Some healthy fats are anti-inflammatory, meaning they reduce inflammation in the body, thereby reducing risk of certain chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and autoimmune disease. Healthy fats also provide essential fatty acids that help regulate that affect fat storage in the body (1).
Good sources of healthy fats include:
- Olive oil
- Nuts & nut butter
- Fish oils
Foods To Avoid To Lose Weight And Build Muscle
To achieve your body recomposition goals, you’ll have to eliminate these foods from your diet:
Refined carbohydrates (including white bread and pasta) can actually prevent weight loss and muscle gain. Refined carbs spike blood sugar levels, which leads to increased insulin production (2).
Insulin regulates fat storage in the body by telling your cells that they’re not experiencing a calorie deficit and therefore don’t need to burn energy sources such as fat.
Simple sugars such as those found in refined carbs do not provide any nutrients necessary for building muscle mass or losing fat. Plus, you’ll feel hungry shortly after eating them because foods high in simple sugars make you quickly lose blood sugar, leaving you ravenous shortly after meals.
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Especially if part of an effort to cut calories, artificial sweeteners are not the answer to weight loss. Artificial sweeteners are so chemically engineered that the body doesn’t recognize them, possibly causing sugar cravings and unhealthy metabolic changes.
Artificial sweeteners may cause you to crave more sweets during the day while actually increasing your appetite for other foods. Some of them may even affect insulin secretion, which over time could lead to an increase in visceral fat (belly fat) and slowed metabolism (19).
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Like refined carbohydrates, high-fructose corn syrup is often used to cut calories while maintaining flavor. However, like artificial sweeteners, fructose causes blood sugar levels to spike rapidly before dropping significantly – which can lead to food cravings throughout the day and increases your risk of chronic disease. Additionally, excess fructose promotes insulin resistance and visceral fat (3).
Though it’s naturally in some foods, the majority of saturated fat comes from hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils in processed foods. Unlike healthy fats that help regulate hormones and metabolism, saturated fat in excess is harmful to your health (17).
This bubbly beverage is often used as a substitute for regular soda, but it can actually do more harm than good when consumed frequently over time. Diet soda has no calories – a fact that may lead you to believe it’s a better choice than regular soda.
However, diet soda is primarily made of chemicals and artificial sweeteners that may actually lead to weight gain and increased risk of chronic disease (18).
Diet soda has been shown to increase your risk for obesity as well as type 2 diabetes. In fact, those who drink two or more diet sodas per day have a greater chance of developing metabolic syndrome than those who consume less, according to one study (6).
Additionally, research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that daily consumption of artificially-sweetened beverages is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart attack compared with people who drank them weekly or not at all (7).
While alcohol does provide calories (7 kcal/gram), drinking too much can actually interfere with your workout. Heavy alcohol consumption affects testosterone production, which is crucial for maintaining muscle mass and building lean tissue (8). Additionally, alcoholic beverages are high in empty calories that do not provide necessary nutrients to build or maintain muscle or burn fat.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to choose between building muscle and losing weight. If you focus on less cardio, eat more protein, do compound strength exercises, and take a break from your diet every once in a while, you’ll build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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- Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans (2009, jci.org)
- Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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