The million dollar question!

Should you drop fat or build muscle first?

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The first question to ask is, how lean are you currently? 

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The second question, how lean are you willing to get without “feeling” too small. 

The most common reason people don’t want to drop body fat is because they are scared of losing “perceived size”. 

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The fact of the matter is, you’ve only got as much lean muscle as you’ve currently got, and if you’re holding too much fat mass, you’ve got to deal with the fact that you may lose some “perceived size”. (Most people don’t actually lose size, it’s just how they feel)

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However, if you do it properly, you’ll be losing fat, not muscle and you’ll be revealing whatever muscle mass you do have. (Your previous history of strength training will determine this) 

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Ideally getting around the 10-12% body fat (or showing abs) is the priority as it will reveal your muscle mass and actually make you look a little more muscular than you actually are, as well as set your body into the best state to perform optimally. 

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(In saying that, if you are really against getting into the ideal range and you’re happy with your current fat mass, then by all means you can go the other way and bulk first, shred second). 

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You’ve got to decide which is more of a priority. Some people can’t bear the thought of getting any smaller, so will unconsciously jeopardise their fat loss goals and be stuck in “limbo”. 

In saying that, you “can” have an increase in lean muscle mass whilst in a caloric deficit if you’re training volume is on point, however, generally speaking it’s not ideal to build muscle whilst in a calorie deficit

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Whilst no one wants to put on body fat, more often than not there will be some increase in fat mass when increasing muscle mass. This will depend on how quickly you ramp up the calorie intake. 

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Long answer short: 

Create a calorie deficit whilst keeping protein levels as high as possible until you’re happy with your fat mass / BF% situation. 

(remember that there are actually two sides to the calorie deficit formula. 1 side = calories in, the other = calories out) 

You could maintain your “baseline” calorie targets and increase your NEAT or even training volume (ideally bodybuilding).

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Once you’re happy with your body fat % and want to increase lean muscle mass, I would start by increasing your calories by 200-300 per day or a (10-20% calorie surplus depending on how aggressive you want to bulk up, taking into consideration how fast your body is likely to build muscle vs store fat). 

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Key points: 

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1. Be consistent with the net caloric targets: remember that blowing out or under eating on a particular day can ruin your weekly targets 

2. Increasing bodybuilding style training: specifically targeting the areas in which you want to grow most. Sometimes 3-4 sessions of pure isolation is what is needed to grow muscle. 

3. Be in it for the long haul. Muscle doesn’t grow quickly, despite what the skinny-me-tea, HIIT loving bimbos will tell you. If it did, I would have won Mr. Olympia by now

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