How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

    
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD
Emmie Satrazemis, RD, CSSD

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. But it 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
  • ⬇️ calories for weight loss
  • ⬆️ exercise to burn more calories 
  • ⬆️ protein to protect muscle
  • ⬆️ calories for weight gain
  • ⬇️ cardio to minimize calorie burn
  • ⬆️ strength training for muscle hypertrophy
  • ⬆️ protein to build muscle

 

There is only really one way to lose body fat - restricting calories to promote weight loss. But there is more than one way to build muscle mass

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 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 decreasing body fat percentage and/or increasing lean mass without major changes in body weight. However, sometimes body weight will decrease if large amounts of fat are lost.

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, lets 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:

Cut Calories

Fat loss cannot occur without cutting calories. 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 cut 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 typically 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 and messes with your ability to strength train. 

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. 

Lift Weights

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 body weight 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

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. 

This means including more nutrient dense, whole foods and balancing your macros accordingly. 

Looking for a meal plan that helps you cut calories, get more protein, and takes 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. 

SHOP MEAL PLANS

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