So do you want to have it all? Not only is losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously probably the most requested body transformation of all time, but it’s also physiologically impossible on its face.
It almost defies the laws of physics. Fat loss requires weight loss and muscle gain usually requires weight gain, so how can you lose weight and gain weight at the same time?
Unfortunately, it is possible. Something like. Trying to simultaneously build muscle and lose fat can be difficult to achieve and is not always well understood by those seeking this unicorn of fitness goals.
Muscle Gain vs. Fat Loss
First, you need to understand the differences between traditional muscle gain and fat loss.
|How diets work to lose fat||How diets work to gain muscle|
|⬇️ calories to lose weight ⬆️ exercise to burn more calories ⬆️ protein to protect muscle||⬆️ calories to gain weight ⬇️ cardio to minimize calorie burning ⬆️ strength training for muscle hypertrophy ⬆️ protein to build muscle|
There really is only one way to lose fat: cut calories or create 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 incredible tissue that can grow bigger and stronger just with daily use and proper nutrition. And in the same sense, it can wither if it is stopped using it due to 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 gains in body fat in addition to increasing muscle mass.
You can also gain muscle if you are strength training in a calorie deficit, especially if you are a less experienced lifter. Research suggests that novice weightlifters can gain muscle much more quickly and efficiently than advanced weightlifters who already have a lot of lean mass to begin with. (1).
Disclaimer: The amount of muscle you can gain on a cut is typically significantly less than what you would achieve through a weight gain approach.
Can you turn fat into muscle?
Many times, people will say they want to gain muscle, but they don’t really want to gain weight in general. So what they really mean is that they want to be torn apart 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 drop 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 converting body fat to muscle; this is not possible. Fat is made up of different components than muscle, so breaking down fat in the body doesn’t provide all of the pieces needed to build muscle tissue.
How it works: Fat loss is achieved through calorie reduction 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 (mostly fat), resulting in weight loss. If you eat more, you will store more, leading to weight gain.
As simple as it sounds, your body constantly needs energy, which means it’s almost always breaking down tissue (body fat or muscle) and storing it simultaneously. Weight gain or loss results from the overall energy balance over time.
This also means that your body is technically ready to lose fat and gain muscle mass if you can find the sweet spot of tailoring your diet and workouts accordingly.
To achieve this balance, you will need to focus on EVERYBODY of the following:
Fat loss cannot occur without burning more calories than you can consume. Therefore, the first step in lowering your body fat percentage must require calorie control.
At a 15-20% calorie deficit, most people can expect to lose about 0.5-1% of their body weight per week, which is 1-2 pounds per week for a 200-pound adult.
Cutting calories too drastically (more than 25%) or too fast is not recommended, as being too restrictive can make your diet feel impossible to follow, impair your strength training ability, can affect your metabolism, not to mention destroy your relationship with food.
If you are new to dieting, start with a 10% reduction and gradually decrease your calories every few weeks as you get used to the reduction.
You may also want to limit your cut to twelve weeks in a row, followed by a diet break to avoid burnout.
eat more protein
If you want to get any closer to making this total body transformation a reality, you’re going to need to increase your protein intake!
Higher protein intake is crucial to maintaining existing muscle while cutting calories. In fact, some research suggests that protein needs can be as high as 1.4 grams per pound of body weight to maintain existing mass (two).
Protein intake is also critical to gaining muscle, since muscle is made up of protein. So it’s no surprise that your ability to build muscle while losing weight is strongly affected 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) at a 40% calorie deficit, gained an average of 2.5 pounds of muscle in four weeks, while the lowest protein group did not (3).
Even more interesting, 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 gain while losing body fat.
The other critical piece to get shredded is strength training: You can’t maintain lean mass or increase muscle size if you don’t use them regularly.
Surprisingly, there is no perfect muscle building program to strive for, as the best approach can vary from person to person.
Less fit 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 the survey. As long as you challenge yourself and increase weight as needed, you will see results.
As far as frequency, research suggests that lifting 2-3 times per 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 exercise 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 at the same time
Calories and protein aside, your overall diet can also play an important role in supporting your health and fitness goals by properly boosting 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 will help you cut calories, get more protein, and take care of your overall nutrition in one fell swoop? Take a look at our macrobalanced meal plans that have wreaked havoc for thousands of Trifecta customers and professional athletes over the years.