As a beginner with exercise, should I gain or lose weight?
Do I worry about strength – or does that just get me fat? Should I focus on endurance and burning fat?
It can be bewildering.
These are not only some of the most confusing questions beginners to exercise have – but also some of the most common! It’s hard to get better when you’re not sure what goals to aim at – or what consequences they might have.
Today we’re going to break down the basics:
- What should you aim for when you start exercise?
- Should you be trying to gain or lose weight as a beginner?
- What personal factors, goals, and needs decide your route forwards?
By the end of this article, you’ll know where to aim yourself and what you can achieve. Let’s get started with the main question: what should your first, top priority be?
Do you have a specific goal?
Most people start considering health and fitness – diet and exercise – when they’ve got something they want to change. It usually comes from carrying unwanted weight or feeling too thin – and that can simplify things.
If you’re severely overweight or clinically underweight then your first goal should be self-evident. These are both problems to solve, rather than the confusing challenges of not being either under- or over-weight.
The problem for most beginners is ambiguity and being unsure of how to proceed. While overweight, obesity, and underweight are real issues, they don’t involve much confusion. They present problems to solve and a little clarity on how to approach fitness.
For those with an ‘unremarkable’ physique – where body fat isn’t super high, but muscle mass is low – it can be daunting to figure out which aspect to work on first. Our solution is simple – but might not be what you think…
What should you aim for when you start exercise?
As a beginner who is not over- or under-weight, the best way to approach your weight – if you don’t have a direct goal – is to not.
The best approach for most beginners is to dial in the small habits and quality-choices that matter in the long-term. As a beginner, you’re likely to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously simply by changing your activity levels and getting into structured exercise.
Initially, this is enough to change your life. Dieting and exercise should be directed towards making the habit stick. Don’t complicate things too much to start with – you’re only going to make it harder to stick with these new processes.
Focus on the quality habits that pay off in the long run:
- Food choices: start to focus on your quality of food to put more focus on whole foods, especially whole plant foods and lean protein sources.
- Exercise: exercise regularly and focus on the learning side of things – improving technique, building up familiarity, and staying active throughout the week.
- Sleep quality and quantity: improve your sleep habits to make sure you’re getting a good 8 hours of sleep per night in a cool, dark, quiet room.
- Stress-control: reduce stress factors and improve deliberate, mindful, relaxing time to help balance out your stress-recovery balance.
- Lifestyle: try to increase non-exercise activity wherever possible and engage in stimulating, physically active hobbies.
Focus on things like food choices, rather than worrying about exact amounts of protein or if you’re getting enough calories to bulk up. The idea for people who don’t have a clear problem to solve (like being underweight or excessive bodyfat) is to improve these behaviors without rushing towards a singular goal.
This is called recompositioning: your body composition is simply changing in response to the demands you’re putting on it. This is easier as a beginner and you can build muscle and lose fat simultaneously with a few simple changes:
Calories: find your TDEE and then eat around that much, on average, through the week. You can keep every day the same or have a slight deficit (100-200 calories a day) 6 days a week and ‘refeed’ (500-1000 over TDEE) once a week, by preference!
Protein: 1.2-2.2g per kg of bodyweight is the sweet spot for most beginners just looking to stay fit and healthy. More protein is usually better, however.
Carbs: roughly 4-6g per kg of bodyweight, adjusting up or down based on activity levels.
Fats: a minimum of 50g for hormonal health purposes, selecting for quality.
Where are you now? Where do you want to be?
The question of whether you should be gaining or losing weight is specific to where you’re at right now and where you want to be.
If you’re looking for health and fitness then it’s usually not a major concern. Activity levels and dietary choices will shape your physique and health over time without a deliberate focus. In simple terms: general goals can be achieved with general methods.
Any exercise and dietary change is going to make you healthier if you’re starting from a sedentary lifestyle and a thoughtless approach to your eating habits!
Dealing with specific fitness goals and problem-solving
I’m trying to gain muscle mass and weight
If you’re lacking in muscle mass and want to look better or improve strength, it’s worthwhile focusing on mass gain first.
A lot of skinny guys, especially, will cut down their bodyfat only to realise that they’ve not gained a sense of competence and strength they were looking for. Beginners who don’t have significant muscle mass will have a tough time cutting down with their slower metabolism and the demotivating challenge of starting exercise in a calorie deficit.
The combined changes of improved muscle tone, reduced water retention in fat stores, and improved competence in exercise will make you look better even while gaining weight.
Committing to deliberate weight gain helps improve strength while also providing the raw materials for joint and bone remodelling. These are crucial benefits that come from exercise – and require calories and protein.
I’m trying to lose weight
If you’re trying to cut down for a specific weight, a sport’s bodyweight category, or similar specific goal, you should work with a mild deficit.
Early on in your exercise journey, you’re going to struggle to accurately predict what changes in diet will feel like. It’s best to start with a mild deficit to improve your ability to adjust over time, keep energy levels high, and ensure that you stick with whatever lifestyle helps you toward your goal.
This is true when it comes to exercise calorie-expense, too. It’s easy to over-think diet when you’re also taking up exercise – but you need to account for the calorie cost of regular exercise. A small deficit allows you to adjust around this new calorie spend without feeling drained and fatigued all the time.
As above, dietary focuses in the early days should be around food choices and quality. Changes to calorie intake and macronutrients should be taken with a pinch of salt, since beginners can get a lot of change with wider ‘tolerances’ than more-experienced trainees.
To oversimplify: calories should match your goals (more for weight gain, fewer for weight loss), protein and veg should be your priorities in your meals, and carbs should be proportionate to activity levels. Fats are always important and should be focused on quality (like Omega-3 fats from seafood).
Choosing your personal goals
This is the key to every decision you make in your health and fitness: does it bring you closer to your goals?
The hard part of telling you what to do is that people have so many different starting points, goals, and levels of investment in the process! We don’t know you personally, so it can be hard to provide dedicated advice that answers every question perfectly.
However, you know yourself – and that’s why you make the decisions. You don’t need to fixate on a specific goal if you’re aiming at health, as long as you’re progressing patiently and focusing on better choices a little at a time.
Be real with yourself about whether gaining or losing weight is going to be easier to stick with and give yourself a rough time to commit to it. Both weight gain and loss are slow processes and it’s important to remember that your time-expectations will change how you think about your goals.
You need to weigh up the competing feelings: is it going to be harder to lose weight more slowly, or to deal with a harder calorie deficit and the fatigue and hunger? Where have you failed diets in the past? Where do you see yourself tripping up?
The foresight to ask these questions lets you decide which route is best for you and is a huge part of individualising your lifestyle, health, and fitness decisions.
Making a Weight-Change Diet Work
Whether you’re looking to gain or lose weight, you should know how to make that happen. We have bad relationships with diets because so many of us don’t know how they work and it can feel disempowering and put space between you and your body in some unpleasant ways.
As with Recomping diets, both weight gain and loss are related to calories, proteins, carbs, fats, and then into veg and micronutrient-specific foods.
How many calories should I eat?
Calories are a measure of the energy in a food. They’re not bad for you – as we’ve talked about before – and you just need to make sure the balance of intake from food and output from activity match your goals.
Weight gain: eat around 300-800 calories over your TDEE and adjust based on weight-change.
Weight loss: eat around 250-500 under your TDEE and adjust based on change and feeling.
How much protein do I need?
Protein is the building block of muscles, bones, and tendons – making it a clear priority in a good diet. This drives recovery and progress but also helps you maintain a normal digestive speed, supports metabolism, and keeps you fuller for longer compared to many other nutrients.
For both weight gain and loss: priorities protein and aim to eat more. A minimum intake of around 1.2g per kg of bodyweight is advised and every bit extra contributes to better results: building or sparing muscle, tendon, and bone strength.
How do I figure out my carb intake?
Carbs are the short-term energy source for your body. They take up the most change between weight-gain and weight-loss diets since proteins and fats are directly tied to tissues and hormones respectively. Carbs are all about energy and reducing energy intake to lose weight means bringing down your carb habits.
Carbs always need to be adjusted up or down to meet your activity levels, so take these recommendations as a starting point.
Weight gain: aim for around 5g of carbohydrates per kg of bodyweight, but be willing to adjust to take up the slack from proteins.
Weight loss: 3-4g of carbs per kg of bodyweight is a good goal, but needs to be adjusted to your activity levels.
How do I approach dietary fats?
Dietary fats don’t scale with your activity levels quite as closely as carbs, proteins, or calories. They’re more absolute; you have a set of fat requirements for hormonal health and then the rest are likely put into storage.
For both weight gain and loss: priorities quality and aim for 0.5g per kg of bodyweight. If you’re getting the right sources, this is plenty for the average, normal (i.e. not low-carb) diet.
Focus on fats from things like coconut and MCT oils, olives, avocado, seafood, high-quality dairy, nuts, seeds, and high-quality animal foods.
As you might be able to tell, most of the staples of getting fitter and healthier are important regardless of goals. Protein, carbs, and fats operate pretty similarly whatever your goals – changing within a set range, which is why we priorities habits and quality, no matter the goal.
We change things like calories and adjust within these ranges, but the things that make a great diet and lifestyle don’t depend on whether you’re gaining or losing weight.
Beginners who don’t have a clear sense of where to start should recomp. This is a simple process for beginners of eating better, moving with purpose, and being patient to see the results roll in. It’s for anyone who isn’t problem-solving (addressing existing conditions or excess) to start with!
For beginners looking to deliberately gain or lose weight, applying those same high-quality habits across a higher or lower calorie intake are still crucial. All that changes is how much.
Medically reviewed by Sian Baker, Dip ION mBANT mCNHC – Written by Beth Giddings (BSc)