If you are overweight or obese, you might have your sights set on losing fat. On the other hand, if you are skinny and want to bulk up, your primary goal might be building muscle mass.
But what if you want to build muscle and lose fat?
Should you lose fat before gaining muscle, or should you build muscle and then lose fat? Is it easier to gain muscle when fat?
Knowing whether to burn fat or build muscle first is important when you are striving for body recomposition, and there’s a surprising amount of debate in the diet and fitness world about whether it is better to lose fat or build muscle first.
In this article, we will discuss losing fat vs building muscle first, aiming to answer the question: “Should I lose weight before building muscle, or should I build muscle before losing weight?
We will cover:
- Do You Gain Muscle Before Losing Fat or Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
- Should I Build Muscle Before Losing Weight?
- Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
Let’s get started!
Do You Gain Muscle Before Losing Fat or Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
Although some people are looking to only lose fat (referred to as “cutting”) and some people only want to build muscle (referred to as “bulking”), many people would like to address both arms simultaneously. This is known as body recomposition.
Let’s define each of these with a little more specificity before we delve into how to go about losing weight and building muscle at the same time.
Cutting, or getting “cut,” is a term used to describe the fat loss phase of bodybuilding.
When bodybuilders focus on cutting, the goal is to lose as much body fat as possible while maintaining muscle mass.
Cutting involves creating a caloric deficit, such that the body burns fat while still engaging in rigorous strength training and eating enough protein to support the maintenance of lean body mass or muscle tissue.
Depending on the severity of the caloric deficit you generate and your overall training, most people do lose some amount of body fat in the cutting phase.
The cutting phase of bodybuilding involves performing more cardio than the bulking phase in order to increase caloric expenditure.
Bulking, or bulking up, refers to building muscle. The goal is to gain as much muscle mass as possible while minimizing any amount of body fat gain.
Bulking is achieved by creating a moderate caloric surplus to support muscle growth and engaging in high-intensity hypertrophy workouts to stimulate muscle building while keeping fat gain to a minimum.
The key to successful bulking is to have just enough of a caloric surplus to help increase muscle growth and to perform enough strength training exercises to stimulate hypertrophy with a minimal amount of cardio to prevent excessive fat gain.
Body recomposition, or recomp for short, is a term that refers to losing fat and building muscle simultaneously.
Body recomp is a delicate balance of trying to generate just enough of a caloric deficit to lose fat without compromising muscle gains while performing specific workouts that help burn fat and build muscle at the same time.
Although body recomposition is possible, it is often difficult to achieve both goals of building muscle and losing fat at the same time, and progress on both sides of the equation can be slower than when focusing solely on building muscle or losing fat.
So, if you only need to really address losing fat or building muscle, the approach is rather obvious: you will engage in a cutting or bulking program, respectively, until your target body composition has been achieved.
But, if you want to lose weight and build muscle, should you lose weight first (cut), build muscle first (bulk), or try to do both at once (body recomposition)?
Let’s examine the different approaches and factors that help determine whether you should build muscle before losing weight or lose fat and then build muscle.
Should I Build Muscle Before Losing Weight?
Ultimately, there isn’t necessarily a universally agreed-upon “better“ approach to losing weight before or after building muscle.
Different fitness experts have varying opinions, but there are certain factors that may make it better to bulk before cutting or cut before bulking.
Essentially, if you are already relatively lean and do not have a significant amount of body fat to lose, you can get away with trying to build muscle before losing fat.
Even when your training and nutrition are dialed in quite precisely, bulking will still almost always result in some amount of fat gain because you are in a caloric surplus.
Therefore, if you are already significantly overweight, trying to build muscle first is likely going to increase the amount of fat you ultimately need to lose.
Some fitness professionals say you should build muscle before losing fat if you are “lean enough“ to do so, but what does “lean enough“ mean from a quantifiable standpoint?
Guidelines for lean body fat percentage ranges that can support building muscle or bulking before losing fat are as follows:
- Men who have a maximum of 10-15% body fat
- Women who have a maximum of 18-23% body fat
Of course, the lower you are at your starting point within these body fat percentage ranges, the easier the decision becomes to build muscle before losing fat.
No matter where your body fat percentage starts before you begin your bulking phase, you should aim to keep your total body fat increase as low as possible.
This is achieved by eating just enough calories to support muscle building and training intensely enough in your resistance training workouts (and to supplement with a minimal amount of cardio) to prevent excessive fat gain.
The general recommendation is to switch from bulking to cutting at or before your body fat has increased by a maximum of 5%.
For example, if you are a man who begins the bulking phase with 11 percent body fat, you should switch to fat loss (cutting) when your body fat percentage is no higher than 16%.
Note that depending on your body image and comfort with how you look, it can be disheartening to put on some fat during the bulking phase when you ultimately want to lose fat. In other words, if you already feel “bad“ when you start your bulking phase and will end up looking “fatter,“ it can be a bit of an emotionally challenging hurdle.
However, it is often easier to build muscle before losing fat (taking the bulking before cutting approach) if you are lean enough to do so and have the body confidence to handle a little bit of fat gain.
This is because increasing your lean body mass will increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which will mean that you will be burning more calories after building muscle.
Thus, losing weight will become easier after building muscle first.
Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
In general, if your starting body fat percentage is higher than the recommended ranges for building muscle before losing fat, you should cut before you bulk (lose weight, then build muscle).
Therefore, the following guidelines can be used to help inform if you should lose fat before building muscle:
- Men who are above 15 percent body fat
- Women who are above 23 percent body fat
There isn’t necessarily a stopping point that is set in stone at which you should switch from cutting to bulking, but it is often recommended that you first lose fat until you are within the recommended ranges for bulking (10-15% body fat for men and under 23% body fat for women), and then switch to building muscle.
For example, imagine a woman who starts at 30% body fat.
She would weaken her body recomposition by focusing on losing fat until she is down to at least 23% body fat, if not closer to 20 to 21%
Then, she could switch to a muscle-building-focused training and nutrition plan, building as much muscle as possible while minimizing any increase in body fat.
If she started her bulking phase at 21% body fat, she should switch back to cutting or trying to lose fat before building more muscle as soon as her body fat has increased to 25 to 26%.
Then, she would begin her cutting diet and workout program to lose as much fat as possible while still trying to maintain the muscle mass she built during her bulking phase.
She would continue this pattern until she has achieved her desired body fat percentage and body composition.
If your goal is body recomposition, evidence suggests that the most effective diet to follow when trying to build muscle in a caloric deficit (which is necessary during the cutting phase of bodybuilding) is to consume 2.3-3.1 g/kg of lean body mass per day of protein, 15-30% of your total calories from fat, and the remainder from carbohydrate.
So, burn fat or build muscle first? Measure your body fat percentage to decide what’s best for you: How To Measure Body Fat Percentage: 8 Accurate Techniques.