I have found time and again over the years that many people struggle with this question. Many find it difficult to decide which goal to tackle first. Sometimes you read, first burn body fat and then build muscle. The opposite is found elsewhere. A straight answer? Nothing.
And so it happens that many people actually do not make a final decision on a training goal and then sit between the chairs: On the one hand, they want to build muscle, i.e. eat a lot, on the other hand, burn body fat, i.e. in a calorie deficit be.
Ultimately, nothing half and nothing whole. The end of the story: Neither of the two goals is achieved, progress stagnates in every respect. It’s actually not that complicated! To make it easier for you to set the right priorities in the future, I have prepared some crucial insights and clear answers for you in this article. By the end of this article, you will definitely know which training goal should be given priority for you . So we will discuss the question for different starting situations and framework conditions in order to find an individually suitable answer.
Let’s start with what beginners should orientate themselves on. And that already has it all: Training beginners should aim neither for muscle building nor fat loss.
If you have read books like Sustainable Slim, you will know this, but for many it should come as a surprise. But there are solid reasons! And I’ll explain this to you in detail below.
Why beginners shouldn’t train to build muscle
Muscle building is nothing more than an adaptation of the body: It adapts to the training stimuli. Because challenging training causes tiny injuries to muscles that need to be repaired. So strengthening the muscle tissue is a self-protection measure. The body makes itself stronger to protect itself.
That is the basis of progressive training. But as smart athletes know: The body does not only get stronger by building muscle mass, but also by improving muscle coordination.
And that is the key mistake beginners make: They want to build muscle through heavy training, but have poor coordination throughout.
This not only increases the risk of injuries. Rather, they do not achieve their goal either. Because the more potential the body has in optimizing coordination, the less muscle mass it builds.
Why? Quite simply: building muscle costs tons of energy. The build-up itself, but also the continuous operation of the built-up muscle mass. It is no longer a secret that muscles consume a lot of energy even at rest (by the way, an interesting connection that we will come back to later).
On the other hand: improving coordination saves energy. Sure, the more efficiently you perform a movement, the less energy you use.
And in case of doubt, the body always opts for the energetically more favorable variant – this is how it simply functions according to evolution. By the way, that’s why many people find it so difficult to burn body fat.
Why beginners shouldn’t train for fat loss
It often happens that a bit of fat is burned when you start training – a direct result of the changed living conditions and usually also an initial dietary adjustment.
But what is really important for really effective and targeted fat loss training? Mainly on two things:
- The use of heavy training weights to protect the muscles – a health hazard for beginners and hardly possible due to a lack of coordination.
- The integration of high-intensity training units to create the greatest possible afterburn effect – also impossible for beginners with (still!) inadequate fitness.
The bottom line is: A training beginner is not at all able to do effective fat-burning training!
The necessary basic fitness (strength, endurance, regeneration ability, etc.) is missing. The mere attempt to do effective fat-burning training as a beginner, in turn, has two undesirable effects:
- The risk of injury increases significantly, shorter training breaks of a few days are even the rule.
- The development of the aforementioned basic fitness is hindered by the calorie deficit, but also by the long (necessary) regeneration breaks after an intensive training session (due to poor regeneration ability).
Bottom line: Beginners shouldn’t train directly for fat loss.
What should you do instead if neither muscle building nor fat loss are a smart option?
The best training target for beginners
After the previous sections, it will already be clear to you: Beginners should first improve their basic fitness and gradually get their body used to the unusual strain.
- Learn the technique of the most important strength exercises, progressively get into weight training and build up considerable basic strength. If you can’t bend 50 kg yet, you don’t even need to think about building muscle and losing fat! It would be inefficient and short-sighted.
- Also train your endurance in order to last longer, train more intensively and regenerate faster. That’s right, endurance training has a significant influence on your ability to regenerate. If you can’t jog easily for 20 minutes at a time, you don’t need to deal with HIIT!
- Have fun exercising! Maybe a bit surprising, but this is also an important training goal for beginners. It’s nice to be dreaming of the fitness model cover body, but first of all you should make sure that you stick with it in the long term. Because that is essential. If you want a beautiful and fit body, you need staying power. No even the most sophisticated marketing strategy can change that (at best keep quiet …).
That’s what it’s all about for beginners. It may not be what you want to hear. It’s not what will be on the cover of a magazine. But these are immovable facts. It is what works. After more than 10 years of experience, I can tell you in no uncertain terms: Anyone who tries to abbreviate these basic principles in any way to bypass them fails.
And if you are completely honest with yourself, you know that too. You have certainly seen it enough yourself. Each of us has friends who have dared to do their “dream body project”. Almost all of them have chosen this route (training directly for muscle / fat loss) and almost all of them have failed. The ones who have made it are the ones who stuck with it for years and patiently progressed .
Let’s say you’ve mastered the basics and created the right conditions. You now want to both build some muscle mass and burn body fat. Which comes first?
This is the point at which there can really only be one individual answer. Because here we have to weigh between these three aspects:
- The rational argument: Why ‘muscle building first’ usually makes more sense from a theoretical point of view.
- The emotional argument: Why many people should still burn body fat first.
- The rational argument part 2: Why ‘fat loss first’ can in some cases also make more sense from a theoretical point of view.
You see: It really depends entirely on YOU. Let’s go through the three aspects step by step to find a tailor-made solution with the right prioritization.
Argument # 1: Building muscle is the perfect basis for fat loss
I have already announced that I will come back to this: Muscles consume a lot of energy even when you are resting. To burn body fat, you need a calorie deficit. But calorie reduction alone is one way that cannot be used permanently and quickly leads to the yo-yo effect. Instead, it makes sense to increase the energy consumption. Both temporarily through intensive training and permanently through one increased energy consumption.
This is exactly what is guaranteed by building muscle mass. This is the reason why the most successful coaches usually advise first to build muscle mass. You want to get your metabolism going first before you burn big fat. Because the lower your daily calorie intake, the more your body tries to protect its fat deposits. That is the basis that humans could survive – a simple consequence of evolution.
Therefore, from a theoretical point of view, it is initially better to build up a little more muscle mass. It is the key to rapid as well as sustainable fat loss – by the way, also evident in the fact that the The yo-yo effect is mostly a result of muscle loss.
Argument # 2: Mental barriers are poison for muscle building
However, you cannot argue purely rationally about the training goal if there is a strong emotional drive behind it. It therefore depends first of all on what you really want. If getting leaner is more important to you, building muscle is not the right step.
Incidentally, this is a dichotomy for many of the athletes I coach. On the one hand the rational side, according to which muscle building would be more useful. On the other hand, this mental barrier that they have because they are mainly dissatisfied with the excess body fat.
And that’s a huge problem, when, on the one hand, you have to eat more to effectively gain muscle mass , and on the other hand, you’re afraid of getting bigger. This usually leads to half-hearted attempts that neither reduce body fat nor increase muscle mass.
If you also have such a mental barrier, in my experience it is better to burn body fat first.
Building muscle requires a certain amount of dedication, a certain determination. You have to hang in on your workout, you have to eat the right foods in sufficient quantities. If you are not fully behind it, if you are not fully convinced, you have no chance.
Therefore it is important to question what is really most important to you.
If you are ashamed of your stomach, reluctant or do not want to show yourself on the beach because of your love handles, then the only right goal for you is to burn body fat first.
Because then it is currently the only goal that you are able to tackle with determination.
Argument # 3: Too much body fat is problematic in every way
But there is one more rational argument in favor of losing body fat first. If you are one of those people who put on body fat quickly, and also have a relatively high percentage of body fat, then it would be a mistake to start with a muscle building phase (excess calories). Because you always add a little body fat and a very high body fat percentage can have a number of negative consequences:
- Potential overload of the musculoskeletal system (bones, joints, etc.), as a result of which movement increasingly causes pain. A big obstacle when you want to lose weight again.
- Disturbance of the hormone level, including testosterone, but also the hunger regulating hormone leptin, which makes it much more difficult to lose weight afterwards.
- Increasing sluggishness. Due to the high body weight, movement becomes more arduous and comfort increases almost automatically. This also makes it difficult to lose weight afterwards.
Of course, there are other negative consequences of a very high body fat percentage, especially with regard to health. But the tenor is clear: In the initial situation described (relatively high body fat percentage + easy build-up of body fat), first go to muscle building, would make the subsequent weight loss much more difficult due to the parallel increase in body fat and at the same time have harmful consequences for health.
You can see which training goal makes the most sense for you, which one you should tackle first depends on you and your initial situation. So there are no general answers, but there are fundamental relationships that only require a little basic understanding of the functioning and development of our body and can lead you in the right direction. We have worked through them step by step and I am sure that you can now classify yourself very well and set corresponding priorities.
Just one last word about the mental barriers: Be honest with yourself and then act accordingly. Admitting to yourself that you have such a barrier is the first step. But it is even more difficult to really listen to your own wishes. Because nothing else is behind it: Such a barrier only shows you what is really most important to you.
I have often seen athletes try to fight against it and take the theoretically more sensible path. However, I’ve never seen that really work out. You cannot win such a fight against yourself. You can only fight for what you really believe in, what you are really convinced of. And if your subconscious is convinced that it would be better to lose body fat first, then cool logic will not do.