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Should I lose fat or should I gain muscle?

 I've read your articles about having clear and concise goals in mind. My predicament is I can't decide which route to follow first: Fat loss or muscle growth. I'm 194 lbs. and fairly lean. I want the six pack abs but I don't want to lose muscle. I also want to gain muscle, but I definitely need to lose the flab around my waist or my abs won't show. Should I try to lose the fat first or just go straight to the muscle gain? I've been trying to follow your recommendations, but when I reduce my calories (still eating 6 meals a day) I seem to end up lowering my metabolism and losing muscle but the fat is still there around my waist. This is really frustrating so I end up going back to increasing my calories for weight gain. I'm confused and would like your advice about what is the correct approach to take.

Sounds like you're suffering from "flip flop syndrome" which is very common and quite deadly to fat loss and muscle growth goals. "Flip flop" syndrome is when you can't make up your mind whether you want to gain muscle or lose fat so you end up going back and forth between the two, not making any real headway in either direction. Here's the fix:

1. First, reframe your situation and change your attitude.

Instead of being frustrated and confused, how about being "fascinated" and "curious?"

FASCINATION (The "Mr. Spock" attitude)

"Hmmmm... my diet is darn near perfection, been bustin my ass in the gym for months, I'm not getting any fat loss at all and I'm actually losing muscle... fascinating."

CURIOSITY (The "I wonder" attitude)

I wonder what strategy, technique, trick or method I'll use next that will blast me through this plateau and launch me to the next level while increasing my knowledge and intuitive bodily wisdom at the same time?

2. Make a committed decision.

Once you're in the right mindset to tackle this issue in a positive way, then the real answer is simply to make a committed decision.

Committed decisions are when you cross a bridge and burn it behind you. Turning back is not even an option… (because you torched your escape route!) Only way out is through!

Every successful bodybuilder or fitness competitor I know reaches a point at least three to four months out from a show where they make a committed, point of no return decision to do the contest (strict fat loss diet and training). Once that decision is made, these champions NEVER look back.

On the other hand, I know people who say they want to compete for the first time, but they want to "start dieting and see how they look first," then they'll decide for sure. Sure enough, the minute the going gets tough or they think they're losing muscle or not getting lean fast enough, they bail. They're also the ones who have been talking about competing for years, but have never actually done it. Why? They never made a committed decision.

Quit straddling the fence! Don't begin an endeavor with a "maybe" attitude and a big question mark stamped on your forehead!

You have to take a "nothing is stopping me" attitude with a "no-quit clause" built in. If you don't understand and apply the "point of no return," "Committed decision" mindset, you will sabotage yourself forever.

3. Set goals only in terms of the positive.

"I don't want to lose muscle" is a bad goal. Don't give any energy to that idea.

Here's a good goal:

"I am easily maintaining my muscle while I drop my body fat level from 13% to 7% by June 1st to reveal my killer set of six pack of abs"

Always phrase your goals in the positive. Say what you want, not what you want to avoid. You always move in the direction you face.

4. Throw the "T Word" out of your vocabulary and JUST DO IT!

You shouldn't be the least bit surprised that you haven't seen any results yet if you've been "trying" to follow a plan.

Don't "try" to follow the plan, FOLLOW THE PLAN! Don't "try" to do it, DO IT!

Think about it: What is presupposed when you say that nasty "T" word? The word "try" carries with it the assumption that you are going to attempt, but you don't expect to succeed. Trying is no different than expecting failure. You must expect success. You always get what you expect.

5. Choose the goal that YOU want.

I can't choose your goal for you. I have nothing to do with it. Your friends have nothing to do with it. Your family has nothing to do with it. Your training partner has nothing to do with it. Your personal trainer has nothing to do with it.

Only YOU can decide. Don't ask for someone else's opinion. The right goal to choose is the one YOU want the most.

What do YOU really, really, really want? Decide, commit, then go after it with ferocious resolve and if anyone tells you can't or shouldn't do it, tell them to stick their opinion where the sun don't shine!

6. Get total clarity about your goal

It's not enough to make a committed decision or to set a goal. You must decide EXACTLY where you want to go and then zero in on it the way a guided missile locks onto its target. Go straight for the bullseye, not just in a general direction.

It's not enough to say, "My goal is to go West." You need clarity. Most of us simply think of having goals, but I like adding the term, "clarity" because vague goals can be your downfall.

"I want to lose weight" and "I want to gain muscle and lose fat" are certainly goals, but they're poor goals because they lack clarity. If you lack clarity of purpose, you will always be a victim of "flip flop syndrome."

Tips for Body Composition Goals

The decision about where you want to go next is up to you, but I will offer three suggestions for making intelligent decisions about body composition goals:

1) You didn't mention your body fat percentage, but you did say you are "lean." Get your body fat measured. If you are above average in body fat, then I almost always recommend that you lose the fat and get yourself down to at least an "average" or better body fat level first. Then, you simply pick whatever is most important to you: (A) You can hold your current level of body fat and work on gaining lean body mass, or (B) you can work on getting even leaner (going from "average" to "good" or "good" to "great").

2) Many people go for muscle growth during the winter season (conveniently, when they will be covered up most of the time), then as warm weather approaches they shift into fat loss (swimsuit time!) That's not a bad plan. Most people are more motivated to go from "good" to "great" in time for summer, and training in cycles and pushing to a peak at least once a year is a smart strategy, psychologically and physiologically.

3) Staggering or rotating your caloric intake is a great way to lose fat while maintaining your lean body mass. Stay focused on fat loss, just increase your calories every few days to your maintenance level or just slightly above maintenance. Don't stay on low calories all the time. For muscle growth without fat accumulation, reduce your calories at regular intervals from surplus level to maintenance or slightly below maintenance.

I could go into a much more detailed discussion of metabolism, hormonal control, macronutrient manipulation and (especially) staggering caloric intake to help you maintain your lean mass while you drop fat or maintain a low body fat while you gain muscle…

However, the most common cause of "flip flop syndrome," frustration and discouragement is not nutrition or training related, it's the lack of proper goals, attitude and mental approach. My suggestions aren't just semantics or positive thinking. Your mind works in amazing ways. Work with it, not against it.