So you want to have it all? Not only is simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle likely the most commonly requested body transformation of all time, it's also physiologically impossible at first glance.
It nearly defies the laws of physics. Fat loss requires weight loss and muscle gain typically requires weight gain - so how exactly can you lose weight and gain weight at the same time?
Alas, it is possible. Sort of. Trying to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously can be difficult to achieve and is not always well understood by those looking for this unicorn of fitness goals.
Muscle Gain vs. Fat Loss
First, you must understand the differences between traditional muscle gain and fat loss.
|How Fat Loss Diets Work
|How Muscle Gain Diets Work
There is only really one way to lose fat - reducing calories or creating a calorie deficit to promote weight loss. But there is more than one way to build muscle mass. Unfortunately, building muscle and losing fat at the same time is more challenging than people realize.
Your muscle is an incredible tissue that can grow stronger and bigger just from daily use and proper fueling. And in the same sense, it can wither away if you stop using it through muscular atrophy.
Traditional muscle gain diets, or bulking diets, allow you to build muscle through a healthy weight gain diet and strength training. However, this also means some inevitable body fat gains in addition to increasing muscle.
You can also gain muscle if you are strength training in a calorie deficit, especially if you are a less experienced weight lifter. Research suggests that novice lifters may be able to gain muscle much more quickly and efficiently than advanced lifters who already have a lot of lean mass from the start (1).
Disclaimer: the amount of muscle you can gain in a cut is typically significantly less than what you would achieve through a weight gain approach.
Can You Turn Fat Into Muscle?
A lot of times, people will claim they want to gain muscle but they don't actually want to gain weight overall. So what they really mean is that they want to get shredded by changing their body composition.
Changing your body composition is any measure that involves losing body fat and/or increasing lean body mass without major changes in body weight. However, sometimes body weight will decrease if large amounts of fat are lost. The ultimate goal is to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
Because body weight can remain fairly stable during a change in composition, some confuse this phenomenon with turning body fat into muscle - this is not possible. Fat is made up of different components than muscle, thus breaking down fat in the body doesn't supply all the necessary pieces to form muscle tissue.
How this works: fat loss is achieved through decreasing calories and muscle maintenance/gain is achieved through training and diet.
How to Improve Body Composition
To understand this better, let's take a look at how your body uses and stores energy.
Your body gets energy from food and stores this energy in your body in your muscle or fat. If you eat less energy than your body needs, your body will take some of its stores to fill in the gaps (primarily fat), resulting in weight loss. If you eat more, it will store more, leading to weight gain.
As simple as this sounds, your body is in constant need of energy - meaning you are almost always simultaneously breaking down tissue (body fat or muscle) and storing tissue. Weight loss or gain results from the overall energy balance over time.
This also means that your body is technically primed to lose fat and increase muscle mass if you can find the sweet spot of tailoring your diet and workouts proportionately.
To get this balance right you'll need to focus on ALL of the following:
Fat loss cannot occur without burning more calories than you can consume. So the first step in decreasing your body fat percentage must require calorie control.
Figure out how many calories you need a day to lose weight and aim to eat this amount or less consistently.
On a calorie deficit of 15 to 20%, most people can expect to lose about 0.5 to 1% of their body weight per week - which is 1 to 2 pounds per week for a 200 pound adult.
It is not recommended to cut calories too drastically (more than a 25% cut) or too quickly as being too restrictive can make your diet feel impossible to stick to, mess with your ability to strength train, can impair your metabolism, not to mention destroy your relationship with food.
If you are new to dieting, start with a 10% cut and gradually decrease your calories every few weeks as you get used to cutting.
You may also want to limit your cut to twelve weeks at a time followed by a diet break to prevent burnout.
Eat More Protein
If you want to come anywhere close to making this total body transformation a reality for you, you'll need to up your protein intake!
Higher protein intakes are crucial for maintaining existing muscle while cutting calories. In fact, some research suggests that protein needs may be as high as 1.4 grams per pound of body weight to maintain existing mass (2).
Protein intake is also critical for muscle gain since muscle is made up of protein. So it's no surprise that your ability to build muscle while losing weight is heavily impacted by how much protein you eat in a day.
In one study, participants who ate twice as much protein (~1.1 grams per pound of body weight compared to 0.5 grams per pound) on a 40% calorie deficit, gained an average of 2.5 pounds of muscle in four weeks, while the lower protein group did not (3).
Even more interestingly, the high protein group lost slightly more body fat overall.
Bottom line: Eat at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight to promote muscle gains while losing body fat.
The other critical piece to getting shredded is strength training - you cannot maintain lean mass or increase muscle size if you don't use your muscles regularly.
Surprisingly, there is no perfect muscle-building program to strive for, as the best approach can vary depending on the person.
Less-trained individuals may find that they can add a significant amount of muscle through bodyweight training alone. While others may require a more strategic approach to lifting. As long as you are challenging yourself and increasing the weight as needed, you will see results.
As for the frequency, research suggests lifting 2 to 3 times a week is enough to see an increase in strength and support growth (4,5). And unlike bulking plans, where cardio can make achieving a calorie surplus challenging, including cardio or high-intensity training can support your overall fat loss goals.
Bottom line: Include strength training as part of your program 3 days a week, increasing the weight over time to keep it challenging.
What to Eat to Build Muscle and Lose Fat Simultaneously
Calories and protein aside, your overall diet can also play a major role in supporting your health and fitness goals by adequately fueling your performance and keeping your energy, mood, and appetite in check.
Looking for a meal plan that helps you cut calories, get more protein, and take care of your overall nutrition in one shot? Check out our macro-balanced meal plans that have been getting thousands of Trifecta customers and professional athletes shredded for years.