Why “build muscle” should replace “lose weight”
Has your doctor ever told you or someone you know to lose weight?
These two words are so common. But we never pause to consider whether losing is the best approach.
Today let’s flip the script. I’ll make the case for why we should talk about building – not losing – for health, physique, and feeling great too.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH LOSING WEIGHT?
Browse any online discussion about health and fitness and you might see a post like this one:
“I have fatty liver grade 3 and my doctor has advised me to lose weight. What to eat before intense cardio (brisk walking/running/cycling) along with a little weight training. I was confused as to what I can have as a pre-workout food before my intense cardio so that I can have adequate energy and avoid muscle mass?”
Notice these words:
“Avoid muscle mass” (usually for fear of getting bigger)
But here’s the problem. It’s safe to say that a culture of losing has only led to increased rates of obesity over the past many decades.
Health professionals keep beating the drum of eating less and moving more to lose weight. But the World Obesity Federation predicts that 51% of the world will be obese or overweight within the next 12 years. That’s over 4 billion people! This will cost more than $4 trillion annually by 2035, or 3% of global GDP.
Clearly this rise isn’t individual – there are cultural shifts at play. But why is a “losing” approach flawed, when we really do need to eat less and move more to shed fat? It comes down to a number of factors that cause people to lose weight – and then regain it.
calorie deficits can’t last forever
Let’s start with how the culture of losing weight often leads to an unsustainable calorie deficit. Cutting calories and creating substantial deficits has become the norm. Let’s get that weight off quickly, they say.
Shows like The Biggest Loser perpetuate this notion by showing massive transformations. Cut huge amounts of calories and add endless exercise to the extreme.
You might think, “I’m not influenced by shows like that because I’m not morbidly obese.” However, in my experience, it is remarkable how much this culture of aggressive calorie deficits impacts a broad audience. People consistently try to cut out 500+ calories on a daily basis with no end in sight.
When we dramatically cut calories and focus on losing, our metabolism adapts. Things start to slow down. Our bodies burn “less hot” and we stop expending as much energy. If you eat less, eventually you are going to start moving less as a function of survival.
cardio alone won’t cut it
he culture of losing also promotes cardio as the movement of choice. Why? Because cardio burns energy and it doesn’t make you “bulky.” (More on that below.) But excess cardio, combined with calorie deficits that are short on protein, leads to muscle wasting.
When we lose muscle, we directly lower our metabolism. Muscle is our metabolic sink so to speak. Muscle is where calories go to be burned. If you have less muscle, you have fewer places for calories to go and get chewed up
muscle builds shape – and function
The culture of losing also don’t translate to a more functional life. You aren’t building the strength, muscle, and movement capabilities to get more out of your lighter weight/healthier years ahead of you.
Who wants to lose a bunch of weight to only be met with a body that is weak? Should our fitness program lead to us being incapable of engaging fully in life, and possibly riddled with injuries?
If you aren’t building functional muscle mass, your body SHAPE won’t change for the better. Sure, you can still lose weight. But if you lose muscle alongside body fat, you will simply look like a smaller version of your old self.
retaining muscle is vital for health
At some point past the age of 40, 50, or 60, your body will have a hard time holding onto muscle mass. There will be a new mission focus. That will be to retain as much muscle as you can for the rest of your life. As muscle decreases, the likelihood of injury goes up as we age.
So we must actively fight age-related muscle loss in order to stay healthy and vital. If we focus only on losing, we can weaken ourselves unnecessarily by losing muscle along with fat.
but if i build muscle, i’ll get bigger
Bear with me here. The single most important sport that every person should learn and participate in is bodybuilding.
No, I’m not talking about getting on stage and posing (although props to you if you compete or ever have). What I mean is learning how to build muscle like a bodybuilder.
Bodybuilders understand two important things. First, they know how to train to get their muscle to grow and become stronger. Second, they know how to manipulate food intake to either gain mass or lose body fat. (Steroids aside – there are plenty of natural bodybuilders who accomplish this).
Note that the training methods for bodybuilders don’t change. They always train with the intent to build muscle. How they manipulate diet leads to either growing bigger muscles, or melting fat off their bodies.
Why? When you know how to pull the most important lever in the metabolism game, you can control the size and shape of your body. That lever is building muscle.
In truth, a muscular body can be any size – from a gymnast to a strongman. It is not building muscle alone that makes a bigger body. It’s the relationship between muscle building and nutrition that makes the difference.
won’t building muscle add fat too?
Building muscle can happen without added body fat, or even increasing your bodyweight. This is called body recomposition. Or as I’ve covered before, “Maingaining” if you are further along in training.
Either way, it’s important to remember that BUILDING is a training mentality and approach. As we just covered, nutrition impacts body size and weight change. Building muscle through training and proper protein intake is still the best way to reduce body fat
Will i look bulky?
I’d like to ban the word bulky – but I understand the concern. No one wants to put energy and time into the gym and not look the way they like. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with building as much muscle as you please. No matter your gender, visible muscle is a sign of hard work, strength, and vitality. Unlike every other measure of status, it can’t be bought or given – only earned.
But for better or for worse, building visible muscle doesn’t happen overnight. You are likely many years, and a lot of hard work away from looking like a stage ready bodybuilder. Along the way, you have control over shaping your body. You may be shocked at how training to build muscle contributes to a pleasing shape. The word “toned” refers to muscle tone – how much your muscular structure is visible under your skin.
But the best way to test this is to see for yourself. Take progress photos while training with a muscle building focus. Nothing dramatic will happen overnight, but over time you’ll see the effects. And within a muscle building approach, you can emphasize certain parts more or less if you want to refine from there.
won’t i be healthy if i just walk and maintain a good weight?
Physical independence and your capacity to engage in a wide variety of activities depends greatly on your functional strength. And this is a direct product of how much muscle you have. Want to carry your groceries, get off the floor easily, and play with your kids or grandkids? Want to travel and explore foreign cities? Want to hike, bike, and play sports? Then you will need more than walking and a normal bodyweight to get you there.
change the message: build not lose
A massive portion of our fitness industry was built on a simple concept. If you impose physical demands on your muscles through lifting weights, you can build them up. In other words, bodybuilding is largely responsible for why gyms around the world exist.
Over the years I’ve been a fan and supporter of any fitness approach that gets people excited at this prospect. Incorporating more resistance training and muscle building is a plus in almost any form. Be it CrossFit, F45, Olympic Weightlifting, or the rise of bodybuilding influencers, it all helps get more people closer to those weights.
We still have our work cut out for us. I believe it is largely because we haven’t changed the narrative away from LOSING and towards BUILDING.
This is why Functional Bodybuilding exists. All of the methods and approaches we bring to our programs are designed to put resistance training, strength, and building muscle at the forefront.
We do this with a layer of aerobic capacity work and movement variety and fluency. The combination ensures that we all continue to pull the most important lever available to us in the body composition, health, and longevity game… MUSCLE!
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