Over this past week I have been meeting with potential clients at the coffee shop close to my place. It's a great spot to build relationships and have great conversations. During those conversations, I noticed a lot of questions were shared between the various people I was speaking with. One of the most common questions asked was: "If my goal is to build lean muscle tissue, should I try to build muscle first, or lose body fat first?"
My immediate answer is this: It depends. It depends on what your ideal body is, where you're starting, and whether you're male or female. Having said that, I am going to speak for the male readers out there. Don't worry ladies, all of this applies to you as well, just round up 7-8 percentage points when I'm speaking of body fat percentage.
Now, I want to take the time to explain how you can figure out what to do first on your fitness journey.
All of our starting points are different. We have different genetics, different body compositions, and different goals. So in order to properly assess the best initial goal, we need to first figure out where we're at with our body composition. Figuring out what goal to attack first is dependent on the individuals starting body fat percentage. For the sake of the topic, I'd like to use 15% body fat as a good place for middle ground. If I'm looking to gain lean muscle tissue, I must first accept that there will most likely be a little extra fat put on during that phase, although It is possible to burn fat and build muscle at the same time, especially when you are just starting an exercise program for the first time. But for those of us out there who have been training for a while, it is an extremely hard goal unless you are counting each and every calorie, which can be hard with busy schedules, kids, travel, "lack of time", etc.
Once we have accepted that some fat may be added to the pounds on the scale, we can now properly assess the direction we must take. If we start out at a lower body fat percentage (lower than 15%) I would strongly consider building muscle, since we won't get close to that 20% range which is what we want to avoid. Going off of that, we would aim to burn fat first if our body fat was 15% or higher because 20% body fat is not where we want to be if our goal is to be lean and healthy.
Ultimately, it comes down to knowing what body fat percentage we currently have. There's a question that still stands, though. Why do we need to avoid 20% body fat? Why can't we just get to 20-25% and work our way down? Let me explain.
As I stated before, 20% body fat is what we want to avoid because it is easier to let yourself go and not worry about the additional fat gained. It's harder to see that fat gain because there isn't any initial muscle tissue to look at anyway. You could be at 30% body fat before you know it.
LEAN DOESN'T MEAN SMALL OR SKINNY
When I started leaning out for the first time, I was absolutely terrified. I was at my biggest and strongest at that point. I had nearly 240 pounds on me and I felt great about it. I knew I had a decent amount of body fat at the time, but I wasn't concerned, really. As I got leaner and leaner, people kept saying that I was looking bigger, that my muscles looked fuller, and I was more vascular. People told me stories of others looking bigger as they leaned down and I thought it was complete garbage. How could I possibly look leaner if I was losing weight? Muscles. That's why. I began to see the muscles that I had developed over the years and they looked bigger without all of that fat around them. Now that I'm in a stage of maintenance with plenty of food and a lean composition, people are saying I look bigger and leaner than ever. I'm only 212-215 pounds on a 6'2" frame, which isn't anything jaw-dropping.
Additionally, it's extremely difficult to gauge what we want to gain because we can't actually see what our lean muscle mass actually looks like under all of that fat. If you have 25% body fat, you may want to gain 10 pounds of lean muscle, but I am willing to bet that if you see yourself at 10-15% body fat, you'll be pretty happy with what you're workin' with.
To conclude, burning fat first is always a good option, unless you're completely new to working out and your body can handle two things at once, or you body fat is low and you can visually see your lean muscle mass.
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Thanks for reading!