Understanding Weight Loss, Body Fat, and Muscle Mass

When it comes to getting in shape, a lot of us are in the dark as to what we should be aiming for as far as health goals. As a nutritionist and trainer team when dealing with new clients the initial first statement my partner and I usually hear from them is “Can you help me lose weight?”
My next statement usually goes like “We can but we are not in the weight loss business. We are in the body fat reduction business.” Often the client will then look at us and  say “Okay but will that take 10 pounds off of me so I can lose some weight.” Sometimes we just chuckle and begin to explain the differances.

Weight vs. Body Fat

The first thing we try to explain to new clients is when it comes to  getting in shape, weight has a much smaller bearing than body fat.
Here is a simple question for you. Would you rather lose 10 pounds or would you rather have the body of your dreams but what you weigh does not matter. For the most part people tend to choose number two. So why do people put such an emphasis on weight loss? The problem is that it has been drilled in society’s head  (especially women)that to get in shape it’s all about weight loss. In actuality it’s really about body fat reduction to get in shape.
I personally cannot stress enough that all the scale is is a way to measure mass. If a person gets on a scale and weighs a certain amount and then I step on the scale with them, the scale number will obviously change but what changed about them. The answer is absolutely nothing.
Here is a picture of one of our old clients.


You can see a noticeable difference between the two pictures. Did you also notice there is only a difference of about a pound between the two pictures. The main reason she changed so much is a reduction in body fat. You can loose weight without loosing body fat but you won’t see much change. Most of the time the person looks exactly the same but smaller. To make noticeable changes a person must also lose some body fat. Focus more on body fat reduction rather than weight loss and you will achieve your health goals much quicker.

Body Fat vs. Muscle Mass

This subject is a little bit trickier and generally something we tend to deal with more with our competitors and more advanced clients. Let me start off by saying while body fat is a much better indicator of overall health than weight loss, it is not an exact science either. The good thing with body fat though, is it can tell a person how much of them is solid and how much is a little fluffy. Body fat measuring tells a person how much of their body is lean mass vs how much of their  body is fat. The leaner a person is the lower their overall  body fat will be. Depending on what method of measuring body fat an individual uses, it can vary by a few percentage points. It also can vary greatly by how much muscle a person carries. As a general rule of thumb if a body fat level is within 1-3 percentage points it’s pretty much the same range. So in actuality if someone was 13% body fat vs 14% body fat I’m pretty sure it would be almost impossible to tell the difference unless there was a big difference in muscle mass that the two individuals carried. Here is a good example of what I am talking about.


If you look at both women they look dramatically different. The amazing thing is they both have the same level of body fat on them. This is one of the reasons why we stress the importance of lifting heavy and training hard if they really want to change their bodies. This can not be emphasized enough with fitness competitors and athletes. Resistance training is one of the most important factors when it comes to changing a body structure. Muscle is what gives a body shape and structure so even someone with a very low body fat might not look so good if they do not have a good amount of muscle with that low body fat. They will look thin but will also appear stringy looking.
Here is a second example of what I’m talking about.


Muscle can make a difference in appearance even though someone can have low body fat. This is my partner in pictures of three different competition preps. What I want you to focus in on mainly is her legs in all three pictures. In the picture on the left she has a very low body fat of 13.75%. Look at her leg in that pic. The second picture we worked on her body some more and dropped her body fat even lower with some improvements in her legs. When she hit the stage there she was about 13.35% For that show we did a lot of things to really try and reduce her legs and body fat. You can see good improvement there, but wait… For the third show she really wanted to get the body fat even lower. I wanted to concentrate on building more muscle for a better on stage package. This time we placed more emphasis on building more muscle while keeping the body fat low. She is due to hit the stage in a little over a week but now notice one thing. Even though her body fat right now is a little higher (she should be in the mid to low 13’s by the time we hit the stage) look how much more detailed and improved her leg looks. So while getting the body fat low helps the display, it was the change in muscle that really brought things out. Having a low body fat will really help you display leanness but it’s the addition of muscle that will give it shape.

Weighing in on things

Almost daily people jump on scales to assess their health. In actuality people should focus on their body fat levels over how much they weigh as a gauge for their health goals. While low body fat levels are the key to a healthier person, if they really want to change their look they should also focus on building more muscle. Building muscle shapes the body in ways that that you can not get just by reducing body fat levels alone. For a healthier more fit person, focus not on the  scale but reducing body fat levels and building muscle.