Build muscle then lose fat
Those numbers don’t look true to me but it’s to illustrate visually how you’d like to look for perspective. The lower you go in body fat and the higher you go in muscle to coincide with low body fat, the much more difficult your life will be. If you want to be 8% body fat and 200 lbs, it’s exponentially harder than being 12% and 180 lbs. Depending on your body structure and starting point.
For instance, probably my max weight at my current body fat percentage (around 10%ish) is probably about 220 lbs. I’ve never been that heavy, it’s never been practical for me given the amount of other activity I do but that’s not the point. Without drugs that’s probably about the max weight I could hit while being that lean. If I want to be leaner, that number drops and the muscle I can build along with it. If I’m OK with being more average (the average male is about 18% body fat), then that number is significantly bigger.
All the while my actual muscle mass (even though body fat percentage is higher) would still also be higher in each of those scenarios. I’d probably have more muscle at 240 with a higher body fat percentage, than I would at 200 with a lower body fat percentage. That’s part of the reason heavier olympic lifters/powerlifting can lift more (they have more muscle). That’s why where you are, and where you’d like to be matters.
The fact of the matter is, you have muscle already and you have fat. When people gain ‘weight’ it isn’t exclusively one or the other. When we gain a bunch of weight without training to try an off-set what tissues we build, researchers typically estimate that we gain about 75% fat (it is more efficient) and still about 25% lean tissues (muscle/bone/etc…) and even still a lot of it is all water (fat tissue is 15% or so water, muscle is like 65% water).
When you gain weight deliberately via weight training in an attempt to gain muscle, it’s impossible to solely gain muscle too but some people suggest thinking about it in reverse (25% fat to 75% muscle).
Note: It’s important to understand that these are generalizations.
So basically this ended up in the ‘bulking’ (trying to build muscle) and ‘cutting’ (trying to lose fat) bodybuilding terms you’ve probably heard of but don’t fully understand at the moment. Hence this question…
You’re confused in large part because as a beginner/novice you probably don’t need to concern yourself with them. Bulking and cutting don’t really matter for you, unless you have a really specific goal in a very short time frame. Lift weights, eat close to maintenance calories for someone not training (even though you will be), get enough protein (around 1.8–2.4 g per kg of bodyweight) and you’ll maintain existing muscle, build some muscle and burn some fat. You’ll start to look better, you’ll build fitness, build muscle, lose fat and generally move towards an intermediate level of ability in terms of fitness and drop yourself below average in terms of body fat (less than 18% if your male, less than 25% if you’re female).
This is much much easier for you as a beginner actually. All the research showing you can build muscle and burn fat at the same time comes from people in your situation. You don’t see it happen in elite bodybuilders — the population these techniques were developed for. Most people can do this pretty casually right down to sub-15% for men, and sub 21% for women, but that’s where it starts to get tricky.
Keep in mind that A LOT of people would be pretty happy with those levels and damn well should be. It’s a perfectly healthy place to be and the opposite sex will still no doubt find you attractive, unless they are shallow pricks, in which case, you don’t want to date them anyway…
That’s why bulking and cutting exist actually, because once you become an intermediate/advanced trainee with a below average body fat level, gaining muscle and burning more fat gets harder and harder. It’s at this point where you might concern yourself with the nuances of ‘bulking’ and ‘cutting.’ At that point, it’s time to start asking this question.
Basically because it’s very slow and difficult (you have to use low calorie surpluses) process to build muscle without gaining much fat, bodybuilders observed that at this point (sub 15% for men and sub-21% for women, give or take) it is generally easier to eat a big surplus, accept the fact that you’re going to gain some fat with the muscle you build while you ‘bulk’ and build as much muscle as you can over several weeks/months. Then to remove that extra flab that came with the muscle, you eat a really high protein diet, lift weights to preserve muscle tissue, and use a calorie deficit to try and shed as much fat as you can over several weeks/months (usually shorter than bulking).
Depending on who you talk to it’s usually advised that you end your bulk, when your body fat exceeds that 15% for men and 21% for women, but it depends on who you talk to. You’d be encouraged to pick some number anyway, so that you don’t make the cutting phase too hard on yourself. Basically when you’ve gained too much fat to lose with any kind of speed, you need to stop bulking and bring body fat back down. It usually happens in several cycles leading into competitions. If you’re not competing, I don’t see any reason to get neurotic about these cycles.
Keep in mind, these techniques were developed for competing in the sport of bodybuilding and not for looking good naked all day every day. Bodybuilding requires looking great for one day. A lot of people assume they apply to the latter, they don’t.
Being really lean and muscular all the time is usually a pipe dream. It’s incredibly difficult to maintain and most people you see at low body fat and large amounts of muscle are only there for a few days while they dehydrate themselves or they are on steroids. Being lean for a photo shoot is easy when you can be twice as fat the rest of the year (12% instead of 6%).