Should I focus on muscle building or fat loss first?

This is a timeless topic. Before answering this question, I assume that readers know that when we talk about weight loss and weight gain, we actually mean fat loss and muscle gain. This means that when we want to lose weight, we only want the weight loss to come from fat, while maintaining lean body mass as much as possible. Similarly, when we want to gain weight, we want the weight gain to come from lean body mass, while avoiding fat gain as much as possible.

I believe that many people are unsure whether to focus on building muscle or losing fat when they first start training. The answer to this question not only depends on your current body composition, but also on your training experience.

Advice for the Obese Population

For obese individuals who are just starting strength training, I do not recommend intentionally tracking and weighing intake to achieve specific goals. Instead, adopt healthier eating habits, such as consuming more vegetables, fruits, and protein, and drinking more water. Simply becoming more active can provide more precise hunger signals for those who have been sedentary for a long time, and even if muscle growth occurs without fat loss, body fat percentage will still decrease. In addition, metabolic health can also be improved through resistance training. In this case, I recommend that you start in an energy deficit after the beginner phase.

Advice for “Skinny Fat” Individuals

If your muscle mass is not high, but your body fat percentage is higher than average, I also do not recommend losing fat. However, I also do not recommend building muscle at the rate of a beginner.

In this case, you can still do six months of serious resistance training (strictly following progressive overload) without paying too much attention to whether you are in an energy surplus or deficit. Due to the initial low amount of muscle mass, you can easily gain muscle. Completing this initial stage will lay a solid foundation for future training.

When to Make a Clear Decision

When you are no longer a beginner, you can decide whether to focus on losing fat or building muscle. However, the answer to the question is not as important as you think. Many people usually believe that if your body fat is not low enough, the rate of fat gain will be higher than muscle gain when building muscle. There is actually research showing that people with very low body fat (naturally thin people, not those who dieted to become thin) tend to gain more lean body mass when eating more, while obese individuals tend to gain more fat.

However, there are two commonly misunderstood viewpoints: 1. If you diet to become very thin, your body is more likely to store fat; 2. This is observed in people without resistance training experience.

If you start lifting weights, the situation may change. Nutrient allocation in the body will be more likely to build muscle because you have provided a stimulus for muscle growth. If individuals with higher body fat cannot effectively gain muscle, then sumo wrestlers would not have the highest lean body mass among athletes, but in fact they do. Similarly, heavy weightlifters are not weaker than lightweight weightlifters.

However, don’t misunderstand this as an excuse to eat whatever you want. I am telling you not to be afraid of being in an energy surplus just because your body fat is not low enough.

Before you decide to lose fat instead of building muscle, there is a limit to your body fat percentage level. In other words, for general fitness enthusiasts, your body fat should not be too high before building muscle, otherwise you will be dissatisfied with your body shape shortly after building muscle. I recommend that men’s body fat should not exceed 15% and women’s body fat should not exceed 23% before building muscle.

During the muscle building process, body fat percentage can increase by 3-5%.

Here, the concept of a mini-cut is introduced. Traditional fat loss usually takes 3-5 months to maximize lean body mass retention (depending on the base and initial body fat percentage). Such a long fat loss period is almost inevitable for lean body mass loss and metabolic adaptations, such as decreased NEAT, increased appetite, and decreased metabolism. Therefore, the mini-cut is a good way to fill this gap. Its maintenance time usually only takes 4-6 weeks, during which a certain degree of fat can be reduced, but it will not be too long to cause metabolic adaptations in the body. The main purpose of mini-cut is to control the increase in body fat during the muscle building period. The trend of the entire cycle can be seen clearly in the following figure:

Of course, the most difficult part is evaluating body fat percentage. Everyone stores body fat differently, and the amount of muscle also affects our judgment. Therefore, in the end, you can only make an estimate. If you are in the middle range (able to build muscle or lose fat), and you cannot determine which side you are on or what to do, don’t worry, you can choose either one.


● Do not lose too much before building muscle, otherwise you will be very hungry and gain weight quickly. In addition, when you control your diet to a very low body fat level, your body is more likely to store fat. Do not reduce your body fat to a level where you crave food or feel very hungry.

● If you are a beginner, have a higher body fat percentage, or are obese, train hard for six months, establish good eating habits, and then reassess. You will find that your body composition has improved significantly.

● For non-beginner men with a body fat percentage higher than 15% or non-beginner women with a body fat percentage higher than 23%, you can build muscle, but you will also gain some fat. If you do not want your body fat to be too high, you should prioritize fat loss.

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