Can you build muscle and lose fat at the same time?
This may be one of the most commonly asked fitness questions, and as always, it has a somewhat layered answer. I’ll say right off the top that while it may be possible for some people, I don’t believe it’s practical or ideal for most of us to attempt both goals at the same time. There’s a better, and more efficient way to reach your body composition goals, and it is possible to focus on one part of the equation at a time without sacrificing the other. If you want more explanation, read on.
First, here are some examples of people who may be best suited to build muscle and lose fat at the same time:
- A beginner who is just starting their muscle building journey, and who has a fair bit (or a lot) of body fat to lose. In this case, your initial muscle gains can come quite quickly, and increased activity and muscle growth will help you lose fat without having to cut down caloric intake too much. This phase, of course, doesn’t last forever.
- A professional bodybuilder/athlete whose main priority is body composition, who has professional help with high-level training, nutrition, and supplement protocols, and who generally is taking performance-enhancing drugs to boost their recovery, fat loss, and muscle-building potential to a level that cannot be reached without said drugs.
So, what about the rest of us?
People don’t like to be told that it can’t be done, because naturally we want to get to our ideal end-state as quickly as possible. It makes sense that trying to achieve both goals (build that functional, healthy, sexy muscle, and lose enough body fat that you can see it) at the same time would get you where you want to be the quickest, but generally speaking, this doesn’t hold true. It’s like trying to check your emails at a dinner party: you’re not fully engaged in either activity, and you’re certainly not going to enjoy the experience as much.
I’m here to tell you that for most of us, it’s actually MORE efficient to focus on one aspect of this equation at a time – generally, the muscle-building part first, and then make some lifestyle tweaks (usually involving diet) to focus on the fat-lose equation later. This makes sense, because the act of building muscle will help you lose fat, and will give you the healthy, fit look you’re going for once you’ve lost some body fat.
Here’s the deal: muscle-building relies heavily on diet and HARD work in the gym. It requires you to eat enough to work hard and support new tissue growth, and for many people (especially women) this means eating more than they’re used to, and eating in a caloric surplus. Now, calories aren’t the total equation when we’re talking body composition, but they are important, and I challenge you to find anyone who will honestly say they lost body fat while eating in a caloric surplus. It’s just not how our bodies work.
Fat loss, on the other hand, relies almost entirely on our diet – exercise can help up to a point, but ultimately it’s the quality and amount of food we eat that will move the scale, literally. This can mean changing up your diet significantly (again, for women this often translates to less carbs and more protein, which can be a tough transition) and it generally means, if you’re doing it safely and sustainably, a small caloric deficit. A small deficit shouldn’t drastically impact your ability to crush it in the gym, but it’s not exactly the ideal set-up for building new muscle.
Because the internet likes to polarize things, you may have been told that in order to put on any amount of muscle, you have to eat A TON of food and gain a bunch of fat, which is a daunting and unpleasant prospect to most of us. This is not true. You may gain some fat, depending on your body fat level to begin with, but most of us shouldn’t have to worry about unhealthy or in any way significant amounts of fat gain in order to build muscle. It just means that for most of us, we can’t expect to add pounds of muscle while still maintaining the leanest versions of ourselves.
On the flip side, we’ve told women for decades that in order to lose fat, you have to starve and do hours of cardio a day to lose weight, which is a terribly unpleasant, unhealthy way to do it. By focusing on supporting and stimulating your muscle growth (eating lots of protein, lifting lots of weight), you can achieve a leaner body composition. I think some people just have it ingrained in their heads that they have to suffer to lose fat, when really you just have to respect your body and be patient and consistent. Simple, but not easy.
(Notice in this article I’m referencing fat loss, not weight loss, which is an important distinction – many women especially become disheartened after months of weight training, feeling and looking better than they ever have, then stepping on a scale to see that it hasn’t budged much, if at all. The reason is that your body composition is changing – fat isn’t turning into muscle, that’s not a thing, but you’re growing muscle tissue as your body fat is decreasing, and that dense muscle tissue has weight. It’s why you may be surprised to know the body weights of some of the fit women you follow on the internet; their lean physiques may have you thinking they’re barely over 100 pounds and fitting into a size 00 when in reality, they’re a lot heavier than that. It’s why the scale is often a pointless, and sometimes harmful, measure of progress for many people. But I digress.)
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the science and theory around body composition, but I hope it helps explain why, for most of us, it’s better to prioritize one over the other for efficiency and health. As the fictional voice of our generation Ron Swanson once said – “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.”
In summary: building muscle will help you lose fat. And yes, you can still work hard on gains while in a small caloric deficit. But for most of us mere mortals, whose number one priority isn’t our body composition because we have full-time jobs, families, and other hobbies, it’s much more sustainable, healthy, and efficient to focus on one goal at a time – perhaps by working through one or two 12-week hypertrophy cycles followed by a 12-week, intelligently designed fat-loss cycle.
Want to learn more? Follow me @themusclemaven, check out my podcast Muscle Maven Radio, and if you’re ready to really dive in, sign up for the next round of my Muscle Science For Women program!