One question is brought up at least 10 times a day on different fitness boards I read, “Can I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?” Another version I see all the time is “Can I get stronger while cutting weight?” Some will say “absolutely” while others will scream bloody murder at the very idea. Unfortunately, it isn’t a simple yes or no answer. Like many fitness questions, the answer “it depends” is the answer. There are no simple solutions in fitness because everybody’s body reacts differently, but the more you know, the better your chances of finding success in obtaining your goals.
Let me first address the “gain muscle / lose fat” conundrum. A quick search of the internet returns no less than 42 million results. Unless you have experience weaving through the magic of fitness advertising, you’d wholly believe that everybody can gain muscle and lose fat at the exact same time or that nobody can do it.
The internet makes the body seem capable of building muscle from the fat that is being burned. Some basic science tells us that our body needs a caloric deficit in order to lose weight and a caloric surplus in order to build muscle. In an ideal world, your body could use the stored fat as the energy source for building and maintaining muscle.
Unfortunately, the fat we burn is not that source and our body doesn’t work that way. Human Physiology tells us that when we eat below maintenance levels, our body does not focus on making muscle . The body will find energy, which can come from the fat we burn or the food we eat to maintain functions, but it does not make muscle from it. According to Dr. John Berardi, the body uses the energy from the days before for repair and growth and not the new nutrients with the exception of long duration exercise . Seems like I just gave some solid reasons why it isn’t possible, but there are a few times when it is possible.
Given the resounding “no” that came from above, there are several cases where the answer is a resounding “yes.” In order to figure out how possible it is, and if is it worth the extreme effort, there are several questions that I consider.
- What is the training age of the client?
- What type of training has the client been doing to this point?
- What is the body composition of the client trying to make the change?
- How much weight is the client giving me to manipulate?
- What is the client’s age?
As you can see, that simple “yes” or “no” just got more complicated. Each question and answer gives me an idea of the likelihood of success when trying to do accomplish two goals at the same time. The best chance of success comes from:
- A novice trainee
- Someone who was in a trained state and became detrained
- Someone with higher body fat or a lot of weight to lose
- Someone who is younger
There are many reasons these types of trainees are more likely to experience success, primarily it is the greater potential to build muscle. In contrast, more experienced trainees, trainees that are still in a trained state, people with lower body fat or weight, and older people have several factors against them. In my experience, if the elements are leading away from success, I would look for alternate routes.
If you fall into one of the magical categories, the answer is yes, it is possible and worth trying. One study found that a group of overweight novices lost 16+ pounds of fat and gained nearly 10 pounds of muscle during a 14-week training program . Another study took 30 newer lifters and divided them into three groups of 10. One group did cardio, one did weights, and one did both. Despite the fact that the third group started out with an average body fat of just 12%, the men gained 7 pounds of muscle while losing almost 6 pounds of fat . Finally, a study of trained then detrained and retrained individuals also showed promise that it is possible to lose fat and build muscle due to muscle memory . Does this mean it is possible for everybody? No, it doesn’t, and as I have said many times, what works for one person may not work for any other person.
If you aren’t in one of the special categories that typically means you have less body fat / weight to manipulate, have more years of experience training, or have reached a limiting factor based on age, training, or diet. Without the use of pharmaceutical assistance, it is tremendously hard to do both at the same time. At this point and in most cases it is the wiser choice to attack one goal and then the other. Along with many other trainers, my preferred pattern is to lose fat in the first phase and then gain muscle in the second phase. I’m not going to break down cutting and bulking here as they are topics unto themselves. By losing the fat first through maintaining a high protein, caloric deficit and utilizing proper training, you will be able to spare a lot of your current muscle. Following the fat loss, it will be possible to gradually increase caloric intake to maintenance levels and above to allow for the growth of muscle tissue while minimizing fat gain. While this process may seemingly take longer, it is more reliable and better than spinning your wheels making no progress. This two-phase method will allow for much more control and the ability to manipulate and adjust if things aren’t going as planned.
Still want to try and lose fat while gaining muscle? Here are a few essential elements that need to happen in my successful experiences:
- Train HARD.
- Not just heavy, or cardio, but a mix of both. Train low rep, high intensity two days per week. Train high intensity one day per week and long steady state one day per week. Every day needs a form of metabolic conditioning circuits.
- Increase protein intake and decrease the carbs.
- You’re trying to save and build muscle which needs protein. Approximately 1-1.2 g per pound should be good.
- Cycle your intakes on training and non-training days.
- This doesn’t mean splurge or starve, but eat slightly more or less based on the training style that day. Carb cycling is popular as is intermittent fasting and the paleo diet. Previous research also showed very low carb / high protein diets to be successful in muscle sparing as well. Be sure to research and fully understand this new eating style before diving in headfirst.
The “it’s possible” to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time verdict relies upon the right combination of circumstances, nutrition, and training protocols. The truth is that while possible under certain circumstances, it is not ideal or possible for most to easily achieve losing fat while gaining muscle and your time may be best spent tackling one goal at a time. If you are one of the few predictable cases where it is more likely and worth the time investment, I support pursuing fat loss while gaining muscle, however, for the many others where it is less than ideal, I urge you to consider all of the variables and options before making a decision. It is a choice you must make regarding the amount of effort and the time it will take to find what works best for you before finding success. From here, you have a starting point to continue educating yourself about your options or you can choose to reach out to a coach to help you accomplish your goals.
- Pasiakos SM, Vislocky LM, Carbone JW, Altieri N, Konopelski K, Freake HC, Anderson JM, Ferrando AA, Wolfe RR, Rodriguez NR. (2010). Acute energy deprivation affects skeletal muscle protein synthesis and associated intracellular signaling proteins in physically active adults. Journal of Nutrition, 140, 745-751
- Berardi J, Andrews R, (2014). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, 2nd ED, 71
- Wallace MB, Mills BD, Browning CL. (1997). Effects of cross training on markers of insulin resistance/hyperinsulinemia. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 29, 1170-1175
- Dolezal, B.A., & Potteiger, J.A. (1998). Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence basal metabolic rate in nondieting individuals. Journal of Applied Physiology, 85, 695-700
- Staron RS, Leonardi MJ, Karapondo DL, Malicky ES, Falkel JE, Hagerman FC, Hikida RS. (1991). Strength and skeletal muscle adaptations in heavy-resistance-trained women after detraining and retraining. Journal of Applied Physiology, 70, 631-640