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Should I Gain Weight Before Building Muscle?

I typically do not recommend individuals gain weight prior to building muscle. Instead of exceeding their caloric needs, I prefer that they simply meet them. Let me explain.

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 655 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

The Set Point Theory

There’s a theory with regards to weight management called the “Set Point” theory. It goes like this:

Imagine your body has its own internal thermostat. Instead of this thermostat controlling your body temperature, it controls your body weight.

Now this body weight thermostat has a special built-in mechanism. Once you have set the thermostat to a certain body weight, you can never go back and set it for less than that.

For example, let’s say you have a goal weight of 200 lbs. The Set Point theory would say:

“Ok, once you reach that body weight, you won’t be able to move the thermostat setting any lower. It can go up, but you can never go less than 200 lbs.”

Now imagine you get to your goal weight of 200 lbs. But you begin training and want to cut your weight down a bit. The Set Point theory would say:

“Uh, oh – we can’t set the body weight thermostat any lower! We’re set at 200 lbs!”

If you go under 200 lbs., your body will always try to fight to get back to 200 lbs. That’s the body’s new set point.

I realize that this is just a theory. And in the words of the great Joey Tribbiani from the television show Friends:

“Whoah, whoah… that was just a theory. A lot of theories didn’t pan out. Lone gunman. Communism. Geometry…”

Fat Cells

There’s another side to this story. In our example, imagine you started gaining weight and noticed a bigger belly. We can safely assume this weight gain around the abdomen is not the beginnings of a muscular six pack, but rather mostly fat. In order to grow a belly, your body had to create more fat cells.

What’s interesting about fat cells is that once we have them, we can never really get rid of them. They can get smaller, but we can never really reduce the actual number of fat cells in the body. This relates to the Set Point theory I just mentioned.

In all likelihood, your body created more fat cells around the abdomen AND they grew in size, which led to the visible increase collection of fat around your belly. When it comes time to try and cut your weight and reduce body fat through exercise, you will never be able to get rid of those fat cells that have been accumulating. You will only be able to shrink them. That means they still exist and may just lay in waiting for the next time you consume too many calories… starving and eager to gather up those calories so they can plump up again.


Here’s what I recommend you do instead:

Stop trying to consume all of these potentially unnecessary calories. Instead, focus on consuming nutrient-rich, whole foods. These would include vegetables like:

  • leafy greens
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • beans and lentils
  • lean proteins like poultry and fish
  • heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fats from the aforementioned nuts, seeds, and fish as well as avocado and olive oil

When you feel hungry, eat. When you don't, there’s no need to force it.

If you force yourself to eat and continue this behavior for long enough, you may unintentionally develop a new, not-so-desirable habit: eating when you don’t really need to.

Oh, and be sure to stay hydrated. Water is the best; you don’t need any fancy protein shakes. This is because as your muscles grow, your body’s demand for water will increase. After all, muscles are made of quite a bit of water.

Lastly, if you really want to maximize your muscle gains through diet, consuming 20 grams of leucine-rich protein within 30 minutes of finishing a resistance training session may help. Leucine-rich proteins would include any animal-based protein (fish, chicken, turkey, yogurt) along with beans and lentils.

I wish you lots of success and hope you reach your goals!

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 655 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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