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If I’m Getting Back in Shape, Should I Lose Weight Before Trying to Build Muscle?

Is cardio the only real way to burn fat, or can pumping enough iron do the trick, too?

When it’s been a minute — or many, many minutes — since you last really, truly worked out, it can be hard to know where to start. And the gym almost makes matters worse. There are so many machines and so many options that it can be overwhelming, especially if you’re carrying significantly more weight than before but would mostly like to strength train (or are most comfortable with strength training). 

In that case, it becomes a bit of a crossroads — do you exclusively (or at least extensively) focus on cardio and burn off the excess body fat before you hit the proverbial weight room? Or can the weight room both give you renewed muscle and help muscle away the extra poundage? 

Yeah, how important is it to lose weight before I start building muscle again?

There’s no overarching reason why you can’t lose body fat and build muscle at the same time. All this usually requires is remaining hypocaloric — meaning that you’re ingesting fewer calories than your body would require to maintain its current state — while consuming enough protein to create a positive nitrogen balance, which is your body’s preferred state for generating muscle. As long as the caloric deficit doesn’t become so great that your body also cannibalizes its muscle tissue, you should be able to simultaneously gain muscle and reduce body fat.

What if you absolutely had to choose one over the other?

I’ve always advocated in favor of accelerating weight loss to expedite your ability to perform the maximum number of strength-enhancing, calorie-burning motions — namely, push-ups, pull-ups and dips — in the least amount of time. These all became more difficult — and not necessarily in a good way — the larger you are.

On the flip side, is there a good argument for building muscle before you lose the weight?

For one thing, if you engage solely in resistance training, your body is going to repurpose some of the calories you’ve been consuming toward sustaining its new/renewed muscle mass. So even if you didn’t alter your daily diet at all, some of your body’s responses to the food you’re consuming would automatically change as your muscles began to grow.

Second, there’s absolutely no requirement that cardio needs to be performed at all in order for a person to lose weight — it can all be managed through an optimized nutrition plan. Essentially, this is what bodybuilders do every time they follow a bulking-and-cutting regimen. They spend months training and eating to maximize muscle mass while also gaining some undesirable body fat. Then they alter their diet to sacrifice the least amount of muscle mass while shedding as much of their body fat as possible (not exactly a healthy approach, I know). 

Finally, bodies with more muscle mass have higher metabolic rates at rest than those without it. This basically means that, with such a body, you’re increasing the rate at which you naturally burn calories throughout the day. 

All of which is to say, doing whatever you can to build muscle has a natural fat-burning and weight-loss component built into it.

But you’re still sticking with prioritizing fat loss?

I would prefer that you do both. But if we’re talking about maintaining your motivation and increasing the number of exercises you can engage in to improve your overall health, I’m absolutely going to prioritize weight loss over muscle gains. Strength is all well and good, but there’s some stuff — for example, cardiovascular disease — you’re never gonna be strong enough to overcome.