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Top 3 Reasons To Lose Fat First Before Building Muscle

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017
If you are in the gym every day trying to build muscle, you may already have the body you envision, you just need to lose the fat.

If you’re like most guys, you wouldn’t mind packing on an extra 5 to 10 pounds of muscle to your body. Maybe you are contemplating starting a muscle building program, or even actively using one. Before you start pounding more protein shakes and pushing yourself with heavy weights, this article will help you seriously reevaluate your fitness goals.

If you are attempting to build muscle and you do not have a lean body (See: Ideal Body Fat Percentage Chart if you are unsure), I strongly recommend you focus on losing fat without losing muscle before attempting to add some bulk to your body. Keep in mind on average most guys substantially underestimate their body fat percentage by AT LEAST 5%.

Here are 3 compelling reasons why you should lose fat first before building muscle. If you are expecting to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, check out this article “Should I lose fat and build muscle at the same time?”

Reason #1: Gaining Any More Fat Is A Slippery Slope

Gaining muscle without gaining fat is very difficult, even if you count every calorie you eat meticulously. If you don’t count calories, then it’s highly improbable.

In order to gain muscle, our bodies need to be in an anabolic state, which is fed by an ample amount of protein, carbs, and calories. If you are attempting to build muscle, it is expected that you will add some fat. This is keenly understood by fitness models and bodybuilders who “bulk up” with both muscle and some fat during the off-season when attempting to build muscle.

Now let’s say you are 5’10” and 185lb with 15% body fat. You end up putting on 12 pounds of weight, with 6 pounds being muscle and 6 pounds being fat. Your new body fat is 18%, which is close to the 20% level you definitely don’t want. If you do get up to 20% body fat, you will need to lose around 20 pounds of pure fat without losing muscle to get down to a lean 10% body fat, which is when you’ll have the killer beach body.

I must disclose I have a bias against muscle building – I think most guys have more than enough natural muscle once they reach maturity and after putting in a few good years of quality lifting and eating. Following this line of thinking, most guys can have a seriously awesome physique if they just lose enough fat without losing muscle to get lean. Easier said than done of course, but it’s a lot easier than building muscle and a much faster way to get a beach body.

If you are above 15% body fat, I highly recommend focusing on losing fat first.

Reason #2: You Look Bigger When You Are Lean

If you are not lean, then you have body fat that is hiding your hard earned muscle mass. Even more importantly, the fat is hiding the shape of your muscles.

For example, your shoulder muscle is a round, teardrop shaped muscle that is involved in all pulling and pushing movements. If you have body fat over your shoulders, they will appear flat with little roundness.

The more round your shoulders and the leaner they are, the more striking the shape will be. When you can see the actual muscle and it’s shape, it creates an illusion that they are bigger than they actually are. A chiseled physique generally will look bigger, fuller, and more impressive than a soft physique of a similar size.

In the photo of me to your right taken a few years ago, I have 155 pounds of lean body mass and I weighed around 167 pounds. When I went to the gym, people thought I was 190 to 200 pounds. Interestingly, I have the same amount of muscle as a guy who is 200 pounds with 22% body fat.

Why is this important if you are trying to build muscle? Well you may find when you lean out that you already have the muscle mass you want, you just couldn’t see it before.

Reason #3: You Will Know How Much Bigger You Want To Get

Let’s say you want to add 10 to 15 pounds of muscle to your frame, do you know how much volume 10 to 15 pounds of muscle has? Do you really have any idea of what those 10 to 15 will look like on you assuming you answered “yes” to the previous question?

I’m not a big fan of using weight when it comes to building a certain amount of muscle. It’s useless unless you are an athlete and your sport such as football demands it.

The better way is to measure your body parts to see if there are any major areas of improvement. You may find for example that most of your body parts are at a solid level for your height, the only issue is that your chest measurement is a measly 38 inches. Now you know for sure that you can seriously improve your chest and back thickness. Trying to trust the mirror, or even photos is notoriously difficult.

You may learn after doing some body measurements that you can definitely get your thighs and calves an inch bigger. That change in muscle may only translate into a few pounds max. The idea is that you may not need to put on nearly as much muscle weight as you think you do.

I hope after reading this article the choice is very clear as to whether you should lose fat first, or build muscle. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.


  • yasir says:

    At which body fat level should i stop losing body fat and start gaining muscle?

    • Kristin says:

      Great question! I recommend checking out this ideal body fat percentage chart to figure out what level of body fat you want to achieve. Once you reach your ideal level, then start to build muscle. Does that make sense? Hope that helps!

      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Jeff Craft says:

    I'm at about 12-13% (52y.o,. 5'9", 171) but I'll never see abs like the pictures :). Dropped from 350 to where I am now in the space of 2-2.5 years and the skin isn't going to bounce back.I wear it like a badge of honor (that and insurance won't cover the surgery.

    • Kristin says:

      That's awesome, Jeff! Congrats on your transformation! It sounds to me like you have a pretty inspiring story, and that you have a great perspective and attitude as well. Keep up the good work!
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

      • Jeff Craft says:

        I try but sometimes it gets really frustrating. I'm a stress eater and if I have rough days I have binged. Granola/trail mix is like kryptonite to me. Then I have to fight the urge to punish myself and overcompensate (try to out work the binge). I don't think you can out-train a consistently bad diet but I think consistent training can soften the blow of the occasional slip-up.

  • Mahdi says:

    Hi Marc,

    I really enjoy reading your article, thank you for sharing some tips. i’m really looking forward to read more of your articles related to weight loss please help me i really need.

    • Kristin says:

      Glad to hear you're enjoying BuiltLean's articles, Mahdi! We definitely have a lot of new articles and videos on fat loss coming in the near future. In the meantime, if you're interested in following a workout and nutrition program that tells you exactly what to eat and how to exercise to lose fat and get lean, I highly recommend checking out the newest BuiltLean Transformation Program. This program is designed using the latest strategies in effective and efficient fat loss. Definitely check that out if you want to get lean and strong.
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Robertt says:

    I have been following you for awhile now and appreciate your valuable information and guidance. My question relates to age. For older men (60+), what adjustments, if any, should be made to your recommendations regarding nutrition and exercise regimen

  • Dean says:

    My journey started at 58 after getting a Fitbit and losing 40 pounds in 3 months. Unfortunately, I lost quite a bit of muscle along the way. Not that I have ever sported that much muscle to begin with. I began weight training for the first time in my life and for 5 months kept it up both with a personal trainer and on my own. Although I have added some definition and some marginal gains, I still have some fat around the midsection. That last bit is simply is not going away I have come to the conclusion after 6 months that I need to reverse my diet and eat a hundred or so calories above maintenance level in order to put on muscle. My thinking is that I need much more muscle to before cutting again so I will have a bigger engine if you will to burn calories. I'm about a month into that process and have added about 7 pounds and I am seeing muscle gains as well. This year when I cut I will continue to lift weights and workout and hopefully push to those lower body fat levels without looking like a skeleton. Am I wrong?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Dean - I don't think it's wrong necessarily, but it is important for you to understand how many calories 1 pound of muscle burns per day - which is around 6 to 10 calories. So adding 5 pounds of muscle is an extra 50 calories per day, or 350 a week, or about 1/10 of a pound of fat. You can learn more in this article => How Many Calories Does 1 Pound of Muscle Burn?. While building muscle can be helpful, ultimately, it's the combination of regular resistance training and eating a calorie deficit that allows you to lose fat without losing muscle. Congrats on your weight loss and hope this is helpful!

  • Dean says:

    Thank you Marc,
    Excellent information. I should have mentioned that before starting resistance training in June I was down to 152 and I'm 6 feet tall. After 5 months of training 3 and later 4 days a week and I was only at 155 lbs. I was running caloric deficits of 500 a day and I was also mountain biking 4-5 days a week. Plus 30 minute morning walks daily. So, I was not giving my body a chance to grow stronger. But also was not losing that last bit of fat. Anyway, I'm at 162 lbs now and I am going to try bulking a little and see what happens.

    Thanks again for the feedback. I really enjoy your website and emails.

  • Mahdi Ghaforian says:

    Thank you Marc !
    actually i am from Afghanistan is it possible for me to use from your appreciable
    program thank you again Marc.

    • Kristin says:

      Glad you're enjoying the site, M! Yes, you can use the BuiltLean Program anywhere in the world. The entire Transformation program is available online, and includes workout & nutrition PDFs so that you can print them out for your reference. Hope that answers your question! If you're wondering about anything else, definitely let me know.
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Mahdi says:

    I hope you are had a wonderful day!
    fist of all i would like to congratulate the coming new year to Marc, Kristin and all our friends which are enjoying the appreciable site and also i would like to thanks you for the help and accompany i have got the answer thank very much again Marc and Kristin

    • Kristin says:

      More than happy to help, Mahdi! Happy Holidays, and I hope you have a great start to the New Year.
      -Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor

  • Amit says:

    Hi Marc. I have one question. Is it possible to lose fat without losing any muscle with no lifting? I am a 26 year male with 173 cm height and 70 Kg weight with 25 % body fat. Is it possible for me to lose fat without muscle loss with solely concentrating on my diet. I used to lift (reduced my bf from 40 to 27 through lifting and diet), but I have had a injury a short while ago and won't be able to lift for 3 to 4 months. So I am wondering that is it possible to lose fat without muscle without any lifting?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Amit, most likely you will lose some muscle if you don't to any exercise. If you don't use it, you lose it. How much is hard to say, but I do think losing body fat and focusing on foods and let's say doing a walking program is a great start. You can always build back up some muscle. Good luck!

  • Dan S says:

    I am nineteen in college and I'm confused on exactly what to do with exercise and diet now, I do have muscle, and I'm very strong, but my stomach has some fat and I'm unsure if I should go into a clean bulk while I'm somewhat "big" for lack of a better term, or if I should lose that completely and head into a bulk after for muscle gain, what should I do Marc?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Dan, if your goal is to look lean and muscular, I would follow the advice of the article, which is lose fat without losing muscle, keep your strength, then you can build more muscle after that.