Should I Lose Weight Before Gaining Muscle?

You want to pack on muscle, but you have a few pounds of extra belly fat that you’re trying to get rid of. You’re drawing up a workout plan (or finding one on the web) and wondering what you should aim for: weight loss or muscle gain. Should I lose weight before gaining muscle? Or should I work for muscle and then cut the fat later? What’s the answer?

One of the most popular misconceptions in the fitness industry is that losing fat and gaining muscle completely separate processes that cannot be completed at the same time. “But what about cutting and bulking?”, you may be wondering. Cutting and bulking aren’t really related to general weight-loss or lean muscle gain. “Bulking” is putting on mass in the hopes that it’s mostly muscle, but with the acceptance that some of the weight will be fat, and “cutting” is dropping off the excess fat while maintaining muscle mass. Losing weight and building muscle can be achieved at the same time, and many people do this with or without realizing it.

One of the important requirements for losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously is that you restrict your intake of carbohydrates. If you’re trying to drop weight, there’s a chance you’ve already cut some carbs. If not, lose the burgers and beers and see how much faster your body burns through fat. Dropping your carbohydrate intake causes the body to use fat for fuel. For what your goals are, this is good. Your body will burn more fat per workout to leave you shredded AND built.

How To Look At The Weight Loss/Muscle Gain Process

Another common misconception is that weightlifting is not an effective way of losing weight. Treadmills and ellipticals aren’t the only tools you have in the gym to lose weight; in fact, any exercise can help you lose weight. Weight is not lost through any certain activity, but by burning more calories than you are taking in. If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, look at exercising by its caloric expenditure.

Circuit Training

There are several exercises with high caloric expenditures and can be performed in quick succession to blast fat away. This principle is called circuit training, and is one of the most popular workout methods out there. In fact, circuit training is more effective than steady-state cardio in terms of calories burned and duration.

Another benefit of circuit training is that it is a very flexible type of training in which several exercises can be used – including muscle building exercises. Most fitness classes at gyms have some type of dumbbell, medicine ball or other resistance to add more difficulty and caloric expenditure to the circuits; but it’s not 100% dedicated to weight loss, increasing resistance is one of the key principles to building muscle.

Check out this great example of a calorie-burning circuit by fitness expert Tony Horton:

Adding a Split or Full Body Routine

If you aren’t too hip to the idea of circuit training, don’t worry. An easy way to switch up your weight loss workouts to pack on muscle is to add weight training to the beginning of your workout. Adding a simple full body workout or split workout to your exercise routine not only helps you put on muscle, but assists in weight loss by burning extra calories.

Full body workouts can vary greatly by both exercises and rep ranges. The general rules are 1-2 exercises per body part and 2-4 sets per exercise. Reps can be adjusted based on your goals. If mass gain and weight loss are your goals, you should aim for 10-12 reps per set.

If a full-body routine doesn’t fit in with your time allowance, or you’re doing cardio several times a week and you want to split your body parts up into smaller workouts, consider adding a split routine to your regimen.

A split routine basically works 1 or 2 muscle groups per day, and there are hundreds of split routines out there. Popular split routines include a push/pull (pushing movements such as bench press and military press one day and pulling movements like rows and deadlift on another) and different pairings of chest, shoulder, arm, leg and back exercises.

Since you’re cutting your caloric intake to keep the weight off, these methods of adding a full-body workout or split will not turn you into Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you will gain some muscle as long as you’re keeping your protein intake high.

Adding a Complex

If you’re an experienced lifter, but you want to focus on weight loss rather than muscle gain and are not sure how to go about it, adding a complex can be a great way to make gains in muscle and strength while still burning a large amount of calories.

Think of a complex as a more intense version of a circuit. Basically you’ll load up a barbell with a light weight (especially when you’re starting out) and you’ll do 3 or more exercises without putting that barbell down, i.e. 8 squats, 8 good mornings, 8 deadlifts and 8 hang cleans would be one set.

Here’s a perfect example of a complex built completely around a kettlebell:

If you’re not completely comfortable with all of the lifts of a complex, do NOT perform it. This is an intense workout and good form is paramount to performing it correctly and remaining injury-free. Start by completing sets of these individual exercises separately and work your way up to a complex.


Losing weight and gaining muscle are not as separate or exclusive as popular opinion dictates, and can be achieved at the same time with hard work and a little know how. Changing your body is all about changing your habits: cutting out the majority of your carbohydrates, switching up your cardio by adding circuit training to your workouts and adding complexes, splits or full-body workouts to your weekly regimen are all changes that may not be easy to implement on top of your busy schedule, but they will get your body where you want it. Be sure to get enough water, get enough protein and watch your form – the rest is all up to you and the choices you make inside and outside of your gym.

6 thoughts on “Should I Lose Weight Before Gaining Muscle?”

  1. Great read for an individual that is just learning or to educate a client. This helps with some of the misconceptions about weight training.

    • Thank you, Nancy! That was exactly my goal with this post. It’s a very controversial subject depending on who you ask, but I wanted to take ‘opinion’ completely out of the equation and just look at the hard facts to clarify the common misconceptions.

    • I agree, as it helped clear up somethings for me and reinforced some of the things I’m already doing so keep it coming.


  2. Hi Nancy – agree totally with the circuit training principles and complexes etc. One thing that needs to be mentioned in here (and extremely important in relation to improving body composition) is sleep/recovery/rest. Without a rested body, it is difficult for the body to adapt to the constant training stimuli applied to it. Many people hit a wall or plateau with their training or get burnt out because they train so hard but don’t get the 8 hours sleep a night they need. Key ingredient in the recipe for success 🙂

    • Very true, Michael! I don’t think enough people realize the importance of sleep during the weight loss and/or muscle gain process. It’s something I used to overlook when I was younger, but I can say from personal experience that once I actually committed to getting an adequate amount of R&R, it made a really noticeable difference for me.

  3. Couldn’t agree more Micheal. If we are not recovering whats the point? The body can only handle that for weeks and then here comes fatigue among other issues… Great point out.


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