The best form of exercise is always going to depend on the individual; we all have different goals and different bodies. However, most fitness goals can be sorted into one of two categories: fat loss or muscle gain, which require slightly different strategies.

So what’s the difference between the two, and which is better? Well, like many things in the fitness world, that answer depends on who’s asking. With that said, here are a few key points to help you gain a better understanding of which form may be right for you.

fat loss vs. muscle gain: how to know which to prioritize (and how to do it)

fat loss

At its simplest, fat loss is a matter of calories in versus calories out: We lose fat when we expend more energy than we take in and vice versa. In other words, if you’re burning more calories than you’re eating/drinking—whether through activities of daily living, structured exercise, or basic physiological functions such as breathing, regulating body temperature, or pumping blood—you’ll lose fat.

Basic fat loss can be achieved in two ways: increasing energy expenditure or reducing caloric intake. Upping energy expenditure is straightforward: simply make more time to move throughout the week than you currently are.

Reducing caloric intake, on the other hand, is slightly more complicated. There are two main ways to practically reduce caloric intake: tracking calories to find your predicted maintenance and calculating a specific deficit or by using a food log to better understand your weekly diet and adjusting accordingly.

Generally speaking, a reasonable caloric deficit is around 250 calories per day below your maintenance intake. A deficit of 500 calories or more is considered aggressive and often difficult to maintain. Whether you’re counting calories or not, it’s useful to understand the approximate caloric density of your food to better understand what your body needs.

For an intensive approach, increased energy expenditure and caloric deficit can be combined. However, this tactic is not advisable for everyone. Unless you are an experienced trainee or under the guidance of an experienced trainer, increasing your activity level while simultaneously reducing fuel can lead to fatigue, mood swings, and even hormonal imbalance.

muscle gain

Things get even more tricky when it comes to muscle gain. Your muscles need to experience progressive overload (a gradual increase of physical challenge over time) in order to adapt to the applied stress and become stronger.

If you’re serious about putting on lean mass, it’s most efficient to develop and stick to a periodized (cycle-style) exercise program that focuses on resistance training.

It’s also important to ensure you’re eating a sufficient amount of protein (and calories in general) to promote muscle-protein synthesis: the process your body needs in order to build new muscle tissue. This approach is often called bulking.

which is right for you?

So which of these areas of focus—fat loss or muscle gain—is right for you? Well, if you’re only looking to lose some excess body fat, a basic fat loss approach could work. However, any real change in the shape, tone, or definition of your body can only be achieved through resistance training. Achieving fat loss and muscle gain at the same time (often called cutting) is possible as well, though it requires careful training and nutrition.

No matter your area of focus, we at Nielsen Fitness (and the guidelines by Health Canada) encourage resistance training activities a minimum of twice a week for the maintenance of bone density, joint health, and essential muscle mass. 

If you’re unsure of where to start, our team is here to help! We’ll assess your current fitness level, match you with the best trainer possible, and then work together to design a fitness program that suits your specific needs. Connect with us today! Your first workout is always free.