A common thought when people first embark on an exercise program is that they’re going to lose weight and get really muscley. However the truth is it’s extremely difficult to do both of these simultaneously. Even professional bodybuilders focus on each goal separately.
You may of course notice people who were once overweight, looking stronger and leaner. However the most likely scenario is that they simply lost fat, so their muscle became more visually prominent. They may have seen minor improvements in strength if they were absolute beginners (these are often called beginner’s gains), but unless they focus on one area specifically they will not have significant results in either.
So why is it so difficult to lose weight and build muscle at the same time?
Because the internal processes are the complete opposite.
In order to efficiently and effectively lose weight, your body needs to be in a calorie deficit. This means you need to burn more calories through exercise and day to day activities than you consume through eating.
In order to efficiently and effectively build muscle, your body needs a surplus of calories to grow. This means you need to take in more calories (albeit through healthy and protein rich food) than you burn during your workouts.
As you can imagine you can’t be in a calorie deficit and surplus at the same time.
This may confuse some overweight people, because when they go to the gym and hit the weights they lose fat.
However remember that whenever you do physical activities you’re burning calories. So whether you’re lifting weights or running on a treadmill, you’re still going to be losing weight if you’re not replacing those calories.
Though you may see some functional improvements in strength this way, muscle mass is not going to increase significantly. That is unless you increase your food intake, which means fat loss will not be significant. In this case your body shape may change due to the increase in muscle, but you won’t be lean (toned).
Which Should You Do First?
Deciding whether to lose weight or build muscle first is entirely dependent on your goals. If you are an overweight person, unhappy with your body and generally unhealthy, it would probably be a good idea to lose the bulk of the weight first. To do this efficiently you should stick to cardiovascular exercises like walking or running, intensive yoga, biking, swimming etc. While using weights will also burn calories, there’s no need to overly stress the muscles in this way. Not only will you not lose as much weight as doing cardio, but if you overdo it you could also actually lose muscle because the calories won’t be there to recover after workouts.
If you are not particularly fat, but just out of shape, you may choose to build muscle right away. As your muscles grow you will look more toned and the fat will seem more evenly distributed. Some light cardio won’t hurt, as improving breathing and blood flow will aid you further when lifting weights.
The way most professional bodybuilders approach this conundrum is by splitting their year in to building and cutting phases. You may for example spend the winter months piling on the muscle, and then during the summer you maintain most of the mass, while cutting (losing fat). The end goal is to be big and lean.
While cutting, some people may experience a slight reduction in muscle mass, and likewise while loading most people will increase the fat. If you stay focussed this should not be a major issue either way. To reduce this effect be sure to consume enough lean protein during cutting, and limit fat intake during loading.