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Lose, Maintain or Gain... What To Do?

May 12, 2023

This question seems like it should be a pretty simple one.  If you are overweight you should lose, if you are underweight then gain.  A lot of people I talk with add a lot of difficulty to this topic though. 

I hear things like; 

"I want to lose body fat but gain muscle."

"I'm happy with my weight but want more muscle definition or be more toned." 

I wanted to take a few minutes and share with you how I would approach changing your body composition depending on where you are starting.  Before we jump into that let's talk about a few definitions that I think will help you better understand the topic and what really matters. 

The main thing here is understanding the components that make up our total body weight.  Differentiating what kind of weight, you want to lose is important and understanding how the numbers move is important too.  Saying I want to "lose weight" is vague.  It would be like saying I want to increase my net worth.  Well do you want more cash in the bank, more $ invested, own more stuff, etc.  Let's breakdown where your body weight comes from;

The two main groups that you may hear people talk about is Fat Mass (FM) or Fat Free Mass (FFM).  These are broad groups of our body composition.  Fat Mass could potentially be broken down further but for purposes of body fat analysis they are usually left as one total.  

Fat Free Mass is the area that you will see broken down more frequently and where the nuance of weight loss comes into play more so.   FFM is also sometimes referred to as Lean Body Mass or LBM.  

Your overall body fat % keeps things very simple with the following equation.  

Body Fat % = Fat Mass / Total Body Weight

Most people that I have conversations with have a total body weight goal.  When I dig deeper with this individuals the number usually isn't as important as a look is to them.  Most are wanting to eliminate a little "fluff" and have more muscle definition.  To accomplish that the main number you are trying to move is your body fat %.  Below is a graphic that shows a range of body fat %'s.  For most men and women they will need to get into the low end of the "Fitness" range or into the "Athlete" range to start seeing muscle definition and potentially abs.  To understand how to measure body fat you can check out this post where I talk about the rate at which you should lose body fat.  If you don't have access to any of those methods, the next best thing would be to just do a google "pictures of (fe)male body fat percentage" and click on images then compare to what you look like.  

Now that we know where our body weight comes from and what range you need to get to in order to reach your goals, we can talk about what to focus on.

​To start let's just layout an hypothetical person and what their body weight and body fat % would be so you can understand things as numbers begin to move.  There is going to be a little math coming up but bear with me I'll keep it as simple as possible.  For this example, we are going to break things down into 3 categories, Fat Mass, Muscle Mass, Lean Body Mass.  Usually, LBM includes muscle mass but, in this instance, it is just going to be bone, organ and water.  

​If this woman wants to get to point of being more defined and potentially see some abs she would need to get down to that 20% range to get those results.  Here is where the math comes into play!  Realistically this person is likely going to lose a little bit of muscle mass as she loses weight, and she will also lose some LBM mostly from water.  A reasonable assumption here would be to drop muscle mass to roughly 50 pounds and lean mass to somewhere around 65 pounds.  So total LBM including Muscle Mass would be 115 pounds.  If 115 pounds would then make up 80% body weight, since her goal is 20% body fat, her total body weight would be 144 pounds.  

Looking at the example above you will see that she lost a majority of her weight from fat (25 pounds), LBM (7 pounds), and a little bit of muscle (4 pounds).  This person would likely have accomplished this by eating a in a moderate calorie deficit for probably 6-8 months and doing a decent amount of strength training with a little cardio.  

Who Should Focus On Losing Weight?

Now that you've seen some numbers we can dive into what strategy would work best for different groups of people.  The people that I believe should put a emphasis on losing overall weight, yeah some that will be from muscle but most from body fat, would be the following;

  • People that fall into the Average or above amount of body fat

This would be the female example I mentioned above and a majority of people that are trying to lose weight.  If you look at the example above that person didn't need to gain muscle.  If you focus on fat loss the muscle underneath will show up.  

What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?  

Nutrition is going to be the biggest driver for this group.  People in this group should be eating 20-25% under their maintenance level of calories with adequate protein intake, .7g-1g/pound of bodyweight.  Studies have shown that a focus on resistance training will help this group lose weight while maintaining as much muscle mass as possible.   Too much steady state cardio may encourage weight loss but will lead to a higher % of that weight coming from muscle mass then a resistance trained individual.  Go easy on the cardio and lift some weights.  


Who Should Focus On Maintaining Weight

Weight maintenance can be a fun place to hang out especially if you are coming off of and extended period of eating in a deficit.  With maintenance comes more food and who doesn't enjoy eating more food!  People trying to accomplish what is called Body Recompostion would fall into this category too.  Body Recomposition is when you are simultaneously losing body fat while increasing muscle mass.  It's the 4 leaf clover of dieting.  Doing this is tricky to down right impossible for some.  I share my thoughts about this in a video I did in my Facebook Group

The people that should be in this group can be pretty varied but I'll mention a few;

  • People that are in the Athlete or high end of the Fitness zone that just generally want to look good in be in good health
  • People that are on the high end Fitness range that have future goals of gaining muscle and potentially competing in fitness competitions
  • People in the Athlete range that still actively compete in a sport and it would be detrimental to weigh more
  • A person that would be considered Skinny Fat.  This person is at an ideal body weight for their height but doesn't show a lot of muscle definition.  

Let me explain this just a little bit so you can maybe better understand if you fall into one of these categories.  The first one hopefully makes sense, they are content with their weight and health and want to stay put.  The person in the second category would have a decent base of muscle but has some fat covering up that muscle.  They have a goal of eventually trying to add muscle so they don't want to sacrifice any losses in the short term.  People in the third category is a very small % of the population and if you are in this minority, you will know it and likely already be working with a coach but if not reach out and we can chat.  The fourth group is an interesting one.  People in this group would fall into healthy ranges when looking at a BMI chart but when looking at photos they look like more like people in the average to obese range of body fat.  Common themes I see in this last group are people that do very little exercise or solely focus on cardio based workouts and people that eat a lower protein diet. 

What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?  

It's going to vary a little bit based on which group you fall into but for the most part this group should focus their exercise around resistance based training.   A person will need to eat at a maintenance level of calories on average.  Those trying to recomp will likely need to add in some variability to calorie intake daily but when looking at weekly average still fall around maintenance.  That's why this strategy is tricky, there are a lot of moving parts.  Protein intake will be slightly higher then the person solely trying to lose weight.  



Who Should Focus On Gaining Weight?

In population where nearly 60% of the population is overweight, gaining weight, is a foreign concept to even think about as a goal.  The following groups would likely benefit from gaining weight;

  • Most people that fall into the underweight categories of on the BMI chart
  • Bodybuilders and fitness competitors
  • Athletes that would directly benefit from being larger and stronger

Yeah I know the BMI chart is somewhat garbage but when it comes to being underweight it isn't that far off and pretty accurate.  The one group that would be excluded here would be athletes that compete at a weight class or directly benefit from being lighter like jockeys or endurance athletes.  Bodybuilders and fitness athletes aka people on the gainz train!  Insert all the gym memes and bro stuff here but adding size and muscle is important for this group not only social stigmas and to be accepted in the gym but to compete at a higher level.  If you are in "bulking" season 24/7 though you may want to look at your program and reassess your goals and why you have them.  Lastly athletes like football players and heavyweight wrestlers/boxers/fighters often see benefit from being larger and stronger, go ahead guys eat all the food!

What kind of training and nutrition protocols work best for this group?  

Like everything there is some variability with this depending on individual circumstances.  The main thing is you will need to eat in a calorie surplus.  Typically this level of calories is going to be anywhere from 17-20 times a person's bodyweight in pounds depending on their training and activity.  You will want to be consuming roughly 1g-1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight if your main goal is increase muscle mass.  Carbohydrates tend to be more anabolic then fat so a majority of calories should likely come from that group.  

In terms of training if goals are to increase muscle mass, then your training will almost solely focus on resistance style training with minimal cardio.  If all you are looking to do is increase body weight then minimal training would be fine ensuring it is easier to eat in a surplus. 


Hopefully this has you understand weight loss.  If you have questions about what strategy you should pick drop a comment below.  If you have been at it for awhile and still not seeing progress towards your goals I would love to chat with you about your process and what might need to change!


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