Why I nearly always recommend losing fat before gaining muscle

Posted on April 9, 2018

(Last Updated On: April 9, 2018)

What’s likely to occur to begin with

This mainly applies to males. Females aren’t as likely to say “I want to build some muscle.” It’s much more “I want to look toned.” Males should have more of this mindset, but they’re more often along the lines of “I want to lose 26 lbs of fat and gain 32.5 lbs of muscle. Do you think it can be done in 10 weeks? It’s almost beach season.”

While there is evidence showing humans can build muscle and lose fat at the same time, it’s irrelevant to everyday people. This research has again and again shown -we’re talking trained people here, not beginners- the muscle gain can be something like 1 or 2 lbs. Yes, even for intermittent fasting. (And even that study is likely just calorie differences opposed to timing.) Nobody but a lunatic gives an eff about a pound of muscle.

So whenever somebody besides a brand new trainee asks me “Do you think I should try to gain muscle? Or do you think I should try and lean up first?” They’re really asking “Do you think I should gain muscle AND fat? Or do you think I should lose fat and maintain my muscle?”

If somebody is 170 lbs, 10% body fat, if they want to gain any meaningful amount muscle they are GOING to gain fat.

170 lbs; 10% body fat = 17 lbs of fat

170 lbs to 190 lbs of only muscle means 20 lbs of muscle were gained, but then body fat % would have to have gone down.

17 lbs of previous fat / 190 lbs new weight = 9% body fat

Gaining weight while losing body fat percentage? That just doesn’t happen on any type of regular basis. We’re talking brand new trainees, like teenagers, or those incredibly genetically gifted, and or drugs. The rest of us are hoping to gain on a one to one basis- get more muscle but not get relatively fatter. Where we gain weight but keep our body fat percentage the same. (And even that isn’t common.)

Furthermore, we’re assuming people are DIALED in. Diet is superb, training 3-4 times a week and hard, no injuries.

So this is the first reason I recommend people start with cutting. Most who want to gain some muscle don’t want to gain any body fat percentage, but the reality is they will gain fat, and very possibly some percentage. The idea of gaining weight while seeing more of their abs isn’t going to happen, but there is a real chance they’ll see less of their abs.

Lose weight to look bigger?

There is a phenomenon I refer to as butting- bulking through cutting. It’s routine to see people who are either skinny fat, or thick, go through a cutting phase yet look bigger / more muscular. Here is an example of a client of mine. Calvin lost ~20 lbs, yet

he looks more muscular.

Here’s another client of mine. On the left is 200 lbs; on the right is 180 lbs.

This is a famous internet example:

That’s Dave Gulledge. On the left he’s at something like 312 pounds. On the right he’s about fifty pounds lighter.

(Notice I used a wide array of body types and sizes above. All the way from the mid 100s to over 300 lbs.)

The NFL and bodybuilding have given a grave distortion of how much men need to weigh to have a muscular look. We see these guys on stage / television, and hear how they’re all 250 pound + monsters. So the average 190lb male is thinking they need to first gain 60 pounds to look the way they want. They don’t. They could go down to ~175 lbs and look more muscular.

Overwhelmingly I’ve found once guys lose some fat -but keep their muscle- they’re almost always happy with how they look.

Plus, a lot of these bodybuilding / NFL weights aren’t attainable at low body fat percentages, without drugs. Where we have to consider other health effects.

General health / longterm effects

There is an incorrect notion in the fitness world that body mass index is irrelevant / wrong so long as the reason a person has a high BMI is muscle. However, there is something to be said for how heavy one is, period.

The reality is nearly 71% of America is overweight or obese. Couple that with the fact I’m a personal trainer and the odds someone is coming to me who isn’t already overweight, or teetering on being so, are small. If I recommend that person gain muscle, which means I’m likely recommending that person gain weight, then I may very well push that person from overweight to more overweight, obese to more obese, or potentially healthy weight to overweight. That would appear to defeat the purpose of working in healthcare…

When I played small time division I football, many of us needed to rapidly put on weight. It’s common to recruit guys who can “grow into” their position. Tall linemen who have room to put on pounds. Safeties move to linebackers. Linebackers move to defensive ends. The linemen are obviously where this weight gain is the most prevalent.

I routinely ate with the linemen to help myself gain weight. It was a minimum of every month I heard from these teammates “I can’t wait to lose this weight. I feel so terrible.” Thanks to Facebook I can confirm not one of these guys did so #TheCameraDoesn’tAddFiftyPounds.

There is this implicit assumption losing the weight will be no problem. Habits aren’t that easily changed. If one is asking about gaining muscle, then it’s likely going to be work to gain it. Potentially years worth. A change in diet, eating more than comfort dictates, eating more of certain foods than you otherwise would, exercising hard, these are changes in habits, and habits don’t always automatically revert. Particularly when it comes to overeating. One can get awfully comfortable eating dessert after every dinner because “I’m bulking brah.” I once went on a nice vacation in Italy. Immediately upon getting home it hit about mid-day and I’m thinking “Who’s ready for their second round of caffeine, along with some pasta, wine and sugar? THIS GUY!”

I’ve had plenty of guys in their teens and 20s talk to me about gaining muscle / weight. I’ve had one person in their 30s ask me the same thing. The older crowd knows how hard losing it is! (That one person never lost the weight either.) For the majority of your life, you are drastically more likely to be concerned with weighing too much rather than not weighing enough.


Get help like those clients did so you can look more muscular too


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Posted in: Losing Weight