Is it better to cut fat and then build muscle or vice versa?
September 12, 2012 3:34 AM   Subscribe

What should I concentrate on first, losing the fat or building muscle?

I'm about to start my last (finally) year of grad school, and I have two big goals I'd like to accomplish over the next nine months.

1. Not fail grad school.

2. Get in the best shape of my life by the time I graduate.

I'm almost 31 years old, 6 feet tall, weigh about 160 pounds and have a fairly slim build. The problem is, over the last couple of years, even though I'm by no means fat, I've put on a rather unsightly amount of baby fat around my belly. It's not something you can see when I have my shirt on but very easily noticeable when my shirt is off. I want to get rid of it. I plan on doing this through lots of cardio and a cleaner diet. I would also like to put on some muscle though, especially in my upper body. Ideally I'd like to put on about 10-15 pounds of muscle over the next 9 months.

Given that I'm going to have to eat a lot to build muscle over the next nine months, does it make sense to try and bulk up first and then burn off the belly fat later or would I be better off burning off the fat that I have now and then trying to build bulk on top of a leaner body? Is it possible to build muscle while staying reasonably lean, and if so, do you have any pro tips on how to do that?

Also, I'm doing all of this on a budget. If you could recommend cheap, healthy foods that would be a good addition to my diet as I try to do this that would be great.

posted by tokaidanshi to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Put on the muscle first. You may (read: likely will) burn off some fat reserves doing this anyway and if nothing else the same amount of fat distributed across a more muscular frame will not be as noticeable to you.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:38 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Build muscle and supplement with protein to contribute to that (I like this kind) as well as to stave off bad diet choices ("I just worked out. Gimme two cheeseburgers!").

I've had two kids and my belly fat could probably bench press yours and read a magazine at the same time. After many years on-and-off WW and lifting weights--both in conjunction, sometimes staggered (not yo-yo'ing, just due to pregnancy and/or injury)--it's clear to me that my body produces more noticeable changes with strength training alone than diet alone. The two together, especially if the "diet" is really a lifestyle course-correction, is great but if you're going to put one in the forefront my choice would be strength training. Also strength training has many other positive up-sides like mood and posture, whereas losing weight solely can make you cranky and feeling loose instead of lighter.
posted by cocoagirl at 4:04 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you're 6'1" and 160, you're talking about a very small amount of fat. That amount will go away (or at least become much, much less noticeable) as you bulk up and improve your diet (i.e. switch calories from carbs to protein). You don't have to concentrate on one or the other. If you bulk up, it's buy one, get one free! Read the Reddit Fitness FAQ (awful website I know, but great FAQ).
posted by caek at 4:39 AM on September 12, 2012

I lost 50 pounds last year, went from 240 to 190. I noticed that doing massive amounts of cardio didn't help me nearly as much as lifting HEAVY at least 4 days a week with some supplemental cardio. My recommendation is to have a weight lifting routine, lift heavy, and eat lots of protein.
posted by OuttaHere at 5:38 AM on September 12, 2012

If you're 6ft and 160lbs, I think you'll find you can concentrate on building muscle, and you'll probably lose the fat you need to along the way.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:06 AM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Muscle burns fat, so merely by building muscle, you get to burn fat. Cardio is good for you, but building muscle will make you happier, faster. You'll see results early on, and it's a measurable improvement, you'll lift heavier weights and you'll do more reps/sets.

I say this as an incredibly muscular, fat lady. Under my fat is a hell of a six-pack.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:09 AM on September 12, 2012

Hey, you're me. Gain muscle, and don't drink for awhile
posted by MangyCarface at 6:19 AM on September 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

lift heavy, at least three times a week. pick a program, and stick with it. i've made huge gains with stronglifts 5x5, and i have seen people have amazing results with Wendler 5/3/1.

do some short, intense conditioning 2-3 times a week. doesn't have to be fancy, doesn't have to take a lot of time. you might want to check out some crossfit workouts for inspiration. maybe you want to take up a high intensity sport for fun.

cut sugar, except for fruit. limit or cut wheat and grains. limit dairy. eat high-quality protein. try for lean ground anything if budget is a factor. whey protein shakes (the brand myofusion is the tastiest, imho!) and some carbs within 20mins of lifting.

SLEEP. at LEAST 8 hours a night. cannot emphasize this enough. this will probably be the biggest challenge with grad school. if this fails, no gains will be made. i ignored this advice for months. BE YE NOT SO STUPID.

be realistic with your goals. it can take years to add 10-15 pounds of muscle. you will have the advantage of being new, so gains will come fast for the first year. enjoy it! :) if all conditions are perfect (workouts/nutrition/sleep), you *could* make it happen depending on your body type.

if you're interested in tracking your progress, measure everything NOW. get a dexa scan, if you want. your doc could prob help with a pinch test, which is way cheaper.

be committed and consistent, and YOU GOT THIS. good luck!
posted by crawfo at 6:22 AM on September 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

The two goals aren't mutually exclusive when you're just starting out. Don't wait to start lifting, and don't wait to start paying attention to your diet. Cardio is good for you but is of minor importance for fat loss. Almost everything you need to know is on this page.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:50 AM on September 12, 2012

There is already some great advice here. I'm a man about your age so perhaps my experience could be relevant. I've always done a lot of cycling and running but I started weight lifting this year and it's been the best.
I also want to stay "reasonable lean" and I do it by not eating too much. I still eat a lot- lots of vegetables and other foods to give me protein, but just don't eat like a bodybuilder. I've put on muscle and lost fat. I don't starve myself, I just don't force-feed myself. I am getting stronger and my muscle are growing, just not blowing up.

For cheap and healthy food, I eat black beans. I make a variation of this recipe all the time.
posted by beau jackson at 7:13 AM on September 12, 2012

The tag line on the front of the South Beach Diet book is "lose the belly fat first." At 160, I don't think you need to dive into a diet like that, but you may want to take a copy of the book out of the library and understand why that is. Basically, cut out all the unhealthy carbs from your diet (all the white stuff like pasta, bread, potatoes, starchy things in general) and get most of your calories from protein, vegetables (spinach is probably the best), and some fats. I wouldn't limit all the way down to SBD levels, but reading the book and looking at the meal plans and recipes may give you an idea about what foods contribute to/help you lose the paunch.
posted by Doohickie at 7:20 AM on September 12, 2012

If you do not normally strength train, then you do not need to choose between "losing fat" and "building muscle." During your first several months of healthy eating and strength training, you will do both. The muscle gains you make if you are not used to strength training will be relatively significant and you'll be able to get stronger and more muscular even if you're at a slight calorie deficit.

But, you will have to do two key things: strength train, with an emphasis on compound lifts that work your large muscle groups (ie, squats, deadlifts, pull ups, bench press, shoulder press) and make eating choices that support muscle growth and fat loss.

For the diet, the two easiest things you can do are to increase the amount of protein you get to about 200g/day and cutting out almost all flour, added sugar, white rice, pasta, etc. To fill yourself up and replace the starchy carbs, eat lots of raw and steamed vegetables, and some complex carbs like lentils, sweet potatoes, or beans.

Find a strength training program like Stronglifts or Starting Strength that people upthread have mentioned. After six weeks of consistent healthy eating and lifting you will see results. Your results will deviate significantly if you skip a lot of workouts or aren't rigorous about eating cleanly.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:24 AM on September 12, 2012

I would actually be careful about lifting heavy weights. You can cause all kinds of problems by doing that, including chronic tendinitis, even if you are diligent about warming up first. Unless you have a very specific reason you need to bulk up, I would go for lower weights and more repetition. That will tone you up and make you stronger than you are now.
posted by Dansaman at 11:58 AM on September 12, 2012

Unless you have a very specific reason you need to bulk up, I would go for lower weights and more repetition. That will tone you up and make you stronger than you are now.

Literally none of this is true.
posted by downing street memo at 4:19 PM on September 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

The Cutting and Bulking Myth
posted by wutangclan at 4:20 PM on September 12, 2012

I would actually be careful about lifting heavy weights. You can cause all kinds of problems by doing that, including chronic tendinitis, even if you are diligent about warming up first. Unless you have a very specific reason you need to bulk up, I would go for lower weights and more repetition. That will tone you up and make you stronger than you are now.

Step 1: Do the opposite of this.
posted by aesacus at 5:30 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you've got nine months, it doesn't really matter how you get in shape so long as you stick to a schedule and keep increasing your reps/miles/squats/whatever until you're happy with your results.

As far as food goes, LENTILS DUDE. Nothing else easier than simmering a bunch of lentils with broth, onions, and garlic. Tastes great, keeps well in the freezer, and literally a full half of its mass is made up of fiber and protein. Yogurt, eggs, chicken, and milk are your default go tos although red kidney beans are pretty cheap, gives you an excuse to make chili, and has a ton of protein and fiber. Chickpeas, too. Really any beans are good in this regard. Dried ones are cheaper but some do take a good soak before they're good to go.

I wouldn't use protein powders since it doesn't sound like you're obsessed with bulking up. Also they're not regulated by the FDA and Consumer Reports found some unhealthy levels of heavy metals in some of the protein drinks out on the market. As far as my personal experience goes, I was able to get pretty toned up in a few months without it and when I did try it, my body couldn't digest the recommended serving so most of it just got flushed down the toilet anyway. You'll be able to tell when you've eaten too much protein by the smell.

Good luck, dude!
posted by dubusadus at 12:30 AM on September 13, 2012

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