Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?

Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?

When you first get started on your fitness journey, it can be hard to know where to start.

This is especially true when you have more than one goal to reach. You may want to lose body fat and build muscle too.

You also don't want to just spin your wheels, and I can understand that. That’s why I’m here to help!

Now, it’s time to address the million dollar question ... “Should I lose weight before building muscle?”

This dilemma has confused people for as long as I’ve been in the fitness industry. Seriously, I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times.

To answer it, I really need to understand your goals more in depth. So would any personal trainer that knows what they’re doing.

A lot of times when people ask me this, they think there is a one size fits all answer. I promise you it’s not that simple.

It depends on where your starting point is, and truly what your end goal is. What type of look are you going for?

What body fat percentage would you like to get down to? Do you want to actually increase how much muscle you hold? Or, do you just want your muscles to show more after losing body fat? 

On one hand, some argue that losing body fat is the better approach. It can make it easier to see muscle definition and improve overall health. 

On the other hand, some argue that building lean muscle first is the way to go. Having more muscle can improve metabolism and help with long-term fat loss.

It can be helpful to focus on one objective at a time, but you aren’t alone if you want to try and do both at the same time.

Throughout this article I’m going to cover all the bases for you. You'll leave here and know exactly what you need to do to earn the results you're looking for!

Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between losing weight and losing body fat?

Losing Fat vs Losing Weight

First, let’s clarify the difference between weight loss and body fat loss since they are not the same thing. 

Losing weight only refers to achieving a lower weight on the scale. Where that weight comes from is less often paid attention to.

This means the weight lost could come from muscle, water, bone, or body fat.

While weight loss can have health benefits, it doesn't guarantee better body composition. It also doesn’t guarantee you'll end up looking how you want.

The goal of losing body fat is a bit different. Unlike weight loss, a fat loss goal specifically targets excess body fat.

When you focus on losing body fat, that implies the intention to maintain lean muscle mass. When your focus is also on preserving muscle, your fat loss results will likely be better too.

You see, fat loss is geared towards achieving a better body composition. This generally can result in a leaner, more toned appearance. 

So if this is your goal, there’s more to it than just cutting calories. With a pure weight loss goal, cutting calories is really all that matters. Doing so does put you at risk of losing lean tissue like muscle though.

So, if you want to build muscle too, then I wouldn’t just focus on weight loss. In that case, I would follow a strategy targeting body fat loss specifically.

Can You Lose Weight and Build Muscle at The Same Time?

Losing body fat while building muscle is often referred to as "body recomposition". It is indeed possible, but not without its own set of challenges.

It’s definitely not the easiest goal to reach, and it may not be the most efficient approach either. It could also leave you teeter-tottering back and forth between both goals.

This is because these two processes have conflicting caloric requirements.

To lose fat, you typically need to be in a caloric deficit. This means you have to consume fewer calories than you burn. You can do this by eating less and burning more calories through exercise.

On the other hand, building muscle often requires a caloric surplus, which is the opposite. A calorie surplus is only possible when you consume more calories than you burn. 

You also have to resistance train to build muscle because it’s the only way to signal your body to grow new muscle. If you don’t hit the weights, a surplus of calories will ultimately lead to additional body fat. I don't think that's what any of us want!

So, there is a definite possibility that your efforts may conflict with each other. That’s not to say that you can’t build muscle and lose body fat at the same time though.

In fact, many studies have shown you can build muscle and lose body fat at the same time. However, training status and current body composition play a role in how much is gained or lost (2).

So, when it comes to body recomposition, results may vary a bit. Not everyone will achieve the same outcome.

In my experience, losing body fat while gaining muscle can be slow. It may happen faster for people new to resistance training though. It also seems to happen quicker for those with higher body fat percentages. 

For instance, untrained people may be able to build more muscle than people with experience (1). Not forever, but in the short term for sure.

This is likely due to how the body learns to adapt to training. After all, isn’t that what results really are? Results in fitness are adaptations your body makes to adjust to your new style of training.

When you haven't lifted weights before, your body isn’t prepared to handle them at all. So your body responds by getting stronger and building muscle. 

If you’ve been training for a while, your body is already used to it. In order to gain more muscle, you'd have to keep pushing your body to new limits. That means overloading your body beyond what it's used to.

After the untrained person has trained for long enough, the pace at which they build muscle will eventually slow down too.

When it comes to those with higher body fat percentages, the reason is a bit different. The extra energy needed to build muscle could come from their body fat. 

You see, being in a calorie surplus is advisable in order to maximize results in muscle growth for a reason. It requires energy to add muscle tissue. 

That energy usually comes from the extra calories you consume. In people with a high body fat percentage, they may be able to eat in a deficit and still build muscle. This could be possible because of the extra calories taken from body fat. 

So, building muscle and losing body fat at the same time may be a little more feasible to do for them. But again, this is more my speculation than science. The reality is, we still don't know the exact reason for this.

Now, please allow me to clarify something. When I say body recomposition may be easier or happen faster for some, that comes with a rule.

That rule is diet and exercise being on point. If you don’t eat and train the right way, you WILL NOT see the results you’re looking for.

I’m strictly talking about what is possible, and what expectations are realistic.

So, as a quick summary of what we just talked about...

Yes, you can build muscle and lose body fat at the same time. It will happen faster for some, and slower for others.

The real question now is: Should you aim for that, or pick one goal at a time?

Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?

Now, should you lose weight before building muscle? It could be the right move, but it also really depends.

As I said earlier, your starting body fat percentage matters. Your ultimate end goal matters too.

Do you really want your muscles to grow, or do you just want them to show more? Is losing body fat more important to you than building muscle?

Here are some of the factors you should consider:

Body Composition

If you have a higher body fat percentage, starting with weight loss may be a reasonable choice. Reducing excess body fat can lead to a leaner and more defined appearance.

This makes it easier to see the muscle definition you already have. As you build muscle from there, your results will likely be easier to see too. I say this because your body burns calories at rest. The more you weigh, the more calories your body burns at rest.

But remember, to build muscle, you need to consume more calories than you burn. So, by weighing less without the excess body fat, it could be easier to hit your calorie goal to gain new muscle. See what I mean?

Health Benefits

Losing weight, particularly if you are overweight or obese, can have significant health benefits. For one, it can reduce the risk of various health conditions. This includes reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, improvements in diabetes, and reducing joint problems (3, 4, 5).

Prioritizing weight loss when it's necessary for your health should be a primary concern. So again, I would say this goes back to your current body composition. If you do have a good amount of body fat to lose, it would likely be best to start there.

Motivation

Achieving weight loss goals can boost motivation and provide a sense of accomplishment. This motivation can carry over into your muscle-building efforts. More motivation makes it easier to stay committed to your fitness routine.

Now, this is also my opinion. However, I believe it's a lot easier to see body changes as you are losing fat. This could offer some much needed encouragement to stay the course and see your goals through to the end.

Optimizing Testosterone For Building Muscle (Men)

This is something that often gets missed by many. Higher body fat percentages are associated with lower levels of testosterone in men (6). Testosterone is a very important hormone and plays a major role in building muscle too (7). So, if you have more body fat now, losing weight first could potentially increase your testosterone levels (8).

This could put you in a better position to gain muscle later.

Why Losing Weight First May Not Be The Best Approach

It’s also possible that losing weight first may not be the best plan of action. If you don’t have much body fat to lose, there isn’t much need to lose body fat first.

Again, it really depends on what your ultimate goal is as well as your starting point. If your main goal is mostly tied to your muscle size, building muscle first may be your best bet.

These are some of the reasons a weight loss first approach may negatively impact your muscle building goals.

Potential Delays in Muscle Building

Focusing on fat loss before building muscle will likely delay progress in muscle growth. Notice I said delay, not prevent. When you're in a calorie deficit for weight loss, your body can still build muscle. It just won’t be maximal, and many times people lose muscle when losing weight. This can be frustrating if your primary goal is to gain muscle size and strength.

Low Body Fat Percentage

If you're already at a low body fat percentage, you may not benefit as much from losing weight first. You may put on a little body fat as you build muscle, but you can reverse course anytime.

If you focus on body fat loss first, you might risk losing more muscle before you even start building it. It’s okay to do that, but it might not be necessary in this case. 

Muscle Loss During Weight Loss

As I already mentioned, when it comes to weight loss, there's a risk of losing not only fat, but also muscle mass. This can be counterproductive if your goal is centered around building muscle.

You can always gain muscle back, but this is something to keep in mind. If building muscle is more important than fat loss to you, then go after that first.

Strength and Performance Goals

If your primary training goals are related to strength and athletic performance, prioritizing weight loss may hinder your progress. This is because being in a calorie deficit is an energy deficit. You must feed your body less energy, and in turn this may hurt performance. You can still gain strength and perform well, but with less fuel it may be more difficult to do.

Which Approach Is Best? Should I Lose Weight or Build Muscle First?

So, circling back to our original question: Should I lose weight before building muscle?

The best answer I can give is it depends.

As you navigate your fitness and muscle development goals, you may find that weight loss first is the perfect solution. On the other hand, you may want to zero in on muscle growth first, and wait to lose body fat. It all hinges on your current body composition and your ultimate goal.

You can also do your best to focus on both at the same time. As I said earlier, it's possible, and it could be a great approach.

If you’re in no rush to lose body fat, or build muscle, but want to work on both … You can do that as well. I personally have taken this approach for most of my life.

While doing this for years, and comparing it to focusing on one goal at a time, I noticed something.

Focusing on both goals allowed me to stay leaner while adding muscle. I've been able to stay around the same body fat percentage, which is nice. I did have a low body fat percentage to start with, though. If I had more body fat, I probably would have decided to lose weight first.

I should also say that this approach took WAY longer for me to add muscle than focusing on that goal alone. There were years I maybe added 3-5 pounds of muscle versus 10-12 pounds when I solely focused on muscle growth. 

I did put on more body fat focusing on muscle growth, but it wasn’t without its benefits. After focusing on muscle growth for a while, I turned around and switched gears.

By that, I mean I focused on maintaining muscle while losing body fat. At the end of that, I truly felt like I ended up with more muscle even after getting lean again.

I share my experience to give you an idea of what my journey has looked like. Yours may look completely different. But at the end of the day, here's what you need to know...

If you want to maximize muscle growth in a shorter amount of time, you'll want to focus on that. Then when it’s time to lose body fat, focus on maintaining muscle while you do it.

If you want to lose body fat more than you want to build muscle, focus on losing body fat first. You can switch to muscle building whenever you feel the time is right from there.

If you don’t care how quickly the results come, and don’t want to add much body fat, try doing both. You can slowly build muscle without changing your body fat percentage much. It may be slower, but you can still do it if you’re consistent.

How to Reach Your Goals

When it comes to reaching your goals, it can be confusing and frustrating. It’s not easy to know every step you should take on your own.

Plus, there are so many factors that contribute to your results. These are factors like your workouts, nutrition, recovery, sleep, and more. So, where do you start? What do you do?

Sure, you can always consult with a dietitian or fitness professional. That can be very expensive though depending on who you see. Not all of us have that luxury.

If you ask me, there’s a much better solution.

You see, at 1st Phorm, our mission is to help real people like you and me earn real and long-term results. That's why we developed the ultimate all-in-one tool to help you reach your goals. It's called the 1st Phorm App and it's designed to simplify the process of earning results!

When you download the app, you'll get connected with your own certified advisor. This is someone you can message privately, ask for help, and use for accountability. In fact, your advisor will be like a close friend who can program your nutrition and workouts to help you earn the best results possible.

Inside the app, you'll also get access to several helpful tools:

• A full library of workout programs catered for your goals

• A custom nutrition plan and an easy way to log your food to stay on track

• 5x per week live streams about nutrition, training, and supplementation

• Activity and step-counting software

• Progress tracking and body metrics to make sure you get the results you're after

Ready to get the results you've been looking for? Download the 1st Phorm App and take the first step now! We’ll do whatever we can to help you get real and long term results.

With that being said, if you have any questions ... Let us know! We have a full team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches right here in St. Louis, Missouri. Just give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 or send us an email at CustomerService@1stPhorm.com any day from 6 AM to 10 PM Central.

Download the 1st Phorm App

References:

(1) Lopez P, Radaelli R, Taaffe DR, Newton RU, Galvão DA, Trajano GS, Teodoro JL, Kraemer WJ, Häkkinen K, Pinto RS. Resistance Training Load Effects on Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain: Systematic Review and Network Meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Jun 1;53(6):1206-1216. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002585. Erratum in: Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Feb 1;54(2):370. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000002838. PMID: 33433148; PMCID: PMC8126497.

(2) Barakat, Christopher, et al. “Body recomposition: Can trained individuals build muscle and lose fat at the same time?” Strength & Conditioning Journal, vol. 42, no. 5, 29 July 2020, pp. 7–21, https://doi.org/10.1519/ssc.0000000000000584.

(3) Ryan DH, Yockey SR. Weight Loss and Improvement in Comorbidity: Differences at 5%, 10%, 15%, and Over. Curr Obes Rep. 2017 Jun;6(2):187-194. doi: 10.1007/s13679-017-0262-y. PMID: 28455679; PMCID: PMC5497590.

(4) Brown JD, Buscemi J, Milsom V, Malcolm R, O'Neil PM. Effects on cardiovascular risk factors of weight losses limited to 5-10. Transl Behav Med. 2016 Sep;6(3):339-46. doi: 10.1007/s13142-015-0353-9. PMID: 27528523; PMCID: PMC4987606.

(5) King LK, March L, Anandacoomarasamy A. Obesity & osteoarthritis. Indian J Med Res. 2013;138(2):185-93. PMID: 24056594; PMCID: PMC3788203.

(6) Ma H, Sun J, Wu X, Mao J, Han Q. Percent body fat was negatively correlated with Testosterone levels in male. PLoS One. 2024 Jan 3;19(1):e0294567. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0294567. PMID: 38170701; PMCID: PMC10763932.

(7) Vingren JL, Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA, Anderson JM, Volek JS, Maresh CM. Testosterone physiology in resistance exercise and training: the up-stream regulatory elements. Sports Med. 2010 Dec 1;40(12):1037-53. doi: 10.2165/11536910-000000000-00000. PMID: 21058750.

(8) Corona G, Rastrelli G, Monami M, Saad F, Luconi M, Lucchese M, Facchiano E, Sforza A, Forti G, Mannucci E, Maggi M. Body weight loss reverts obesity-associated hypogonadotropic hypogonadism: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Endocrinol. 2013 May 2;168(6):829-43. doi: 10.1530/EJE-12-0955. PMID: 23482592.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Other Popular Articles

View all