Can You Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?

 

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this article right now, then your physique goals are probably pretty simple.

You want to add muscle to your frame, and display low levels of body fat.

Look jacked, but also shredded. The Holy Grail of fitness and physique goals.

And more than likely, you want to achieve your ultimate physique in the fastest time possible.

There’s no problem with this — but let’s make sure you choose the most efficient path…

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Building muscle and losing fat… at the same time?

It sounds great on paper…

But is it really doable?

Is it possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time?

The short answer is in fact, “yes”… but it depends.

Just like many other fitness related questions… things are rarely black and white.

And the unfortunate reality is, not a lot of people can accomplish these two goals simultaneously.

But first, lets look at those who can effectively lose body fat while also gaining muscle in the process, assuming they are combining a caloric deficit, sufficient protein intake, and a proper weight training program.

 

A Complete Beginner.

If you’ve never trained properly before, starting a new weight training routine will be a completely new stimulus for your body.

Combine a new resistance training program with a properly structured diet including adequate protein, and you can expect to pack on muscle, while also dropping body fat if you don’t overeat.

This is even more possible, the more body fat that you have to begin with.

You’ll be able to make gains at a rate that you’ll never be able to again.

So make the most of it, and enjoy it while you can.

Keep in mind this is only temporary. As you start to reduce body fat and become less of an untrained beginner, you will lose this superpower and return to the normal human state along with the rest of us.

Someone Coming Off of a Lay-Off.

If you stop training for a period of time, and then come back, you can effectively re-gain muscle mass that was previously present at an increased rate to what you would normally be able to put on muscle.

This is the concept of  ‘muscle memory’. After a lay-off, your body is no longer accustomed to the stress, and it adapts quickly by re-gaining strength and growing muscle.

In this case, your body can change rapidly.

 

Someone Using Performance Enhancing Drugs.

The use of performance enhancing drugs completely changes the playing field.

Without going into detail, just know that natural trainees have to abide by a different set of rules and expectations.

 

What About The Rest Of Us?

For the rest of us (the vast majority of people), trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time is actually going to be counter-productive.

This assumes:

1. You’ve been eating well.

  • adequate protein
  • appropriate caloric range
  • mostly whole foods
  • enough micronutrients (lots of veggies and some fruits)
  • drinking water

2. Training with a proper resistance training program.

 

If you’ve been doing these two things decent period of time, you simply won’t get very far trying to burn fat and gain muscle at the same time.

There’s a few reasons for this.

But at the very surface of it all, we have two simple laws…

To lose body fat, you need a caloric deficit, which means you need to take in LESS calories than your body needs each day so that stored body fat is used for energy.

On the other hand…

To build muscle, you need a caloric surplus, which means you need to take in MORE calories than your body needs, to support the building of new muscle tissue.

 

Looking at these two facts, it becomes obvious that they both directly contradict each other.

And you can probably already see why chasing in pursuit of both muscle growth and fat loss at the same time is going to be very difficult.

But let’s go deeper.

 

Requirements For Muscle Growth

Once you surpass the beginner stages of training, the stress you must provide your body in order to grow muscle increases exponentially.

You must be progressing with your workouts in the gym if you want to see any appreciable muscle growth.

The careless mindset of simply ‘eating big to get big’ is a thing of the past — unless you’re okay with putting on a lot of excess body fat.

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You build muscle as a response to training adaptation, not just more food.

You must subject the body to a stimulus that exceeds the stimulus the body receives on a regular basis — and to which it is accustomed to, in order to elicit favorable adaptations such as increased muscle size and strength.

This is known as the principle of progressive overload.

Ignore this principle, and you simply won’t build muscle.

Continuing with the same stimulus, means no further adaptation.

So ideally you’re going to get a little bit better every time that you step foot in the gym.

Common ways to use progressive overload include:

  • increasing load (weight)
  • using the same load for more repetitions
  • doing the same amount of work in less time
  • performing more sets with the same load
  • using the same load through an increase in range of motion

These are certainly not the only ways but some of the most common to ensure continued progress.

What’s the bottom line?

You must focus on progressing from week to week in your training in order to make continual gains.

This is the first requirement.

Now, in order to support recovery and growth of muscle tissue, you also need a consistent surplus of calories.

The surplus doesn’t need to be huge, but you will need sufficient calories to support productive training and support the building of new muscle tissue.

I like to use a 250 calorie surplus (roughly) as a starting point, when focusing on lean muscle gain.

Depending on your body type, you may need to go higher with calories. A bit of trail and error will be required to find your ideal intake.


Also Read: How Many Calories Per Day To Build Muscle


Eating unnecessarily high amounts of calories is rarely a good idea, since you can only grow muscle at a certain rate.

Remember, more is not always better.

The best thing you can do is focus on gradually adding muscle, while minimizing gains in body fat.

Your training experience will determine your potential for rate of muscle growth.

As a rough guideline you can expect to gain:

Beginner: 2-3 lbs per month

Intermediate: 1-2 lbs per month

Advanced: 0.5 lbs per month

 

 

Requirements For Fat Loss

In order to effectively lose fat, you need a caloric deficit.

You must expend more calories for energy than what you take in each day.

This is the single most important requirement for fat loss.

And while a caloric deficit is required for fat loss, it sucks for training.

When you eat less food than what your body needs, workout performance, recovery, and work capacity will all inevitably drop as a result of decreased energy supply. This makes it a lot more difficult to train with high intensity and provide enough stress to grow muscle.

You simply won't be able to maintain the same workload and intensity in the gym, without recovery suffering.

When your recovery goes down because of the caloric deficit, training volume actually needs to be decreased to make up for the limited ability to recover.

And for this reason, you shouldn’t expect to gain much — if any muscle when you’re eating in a caloric deficit (unless of course you are a beginner lifter, or have never trained properly before).

Instead, the focus should be shifted to maintain as much strength as possible in order to retain lean mass.

If you do happen to make any gains in muscle size or strength while dieting (it is possible under specific circumstances listed above), think of them as a bonus.

 

What If You To Try To Accomplish Both Goals At The Same Time?

So we know that you need a caloric deficit for fat loss. And the deficit only makes training more difficult and hinders our ability to train with enough intensity to produce muscle growth.

One common practice is to try and 'recomp', in which calories are set somewhere around maintenance level on average. The hope is that you will be able to gain muscle mass, while also reducing body fat.

But the problem with this approach is it won’t allow you to get into a large enough deficit to create fat loss, and you probably won't maximize muscle gain either.

So it isn’t very beneficial for achieving either goal.

You'll end up spinning your wheels, and making minimal progress in either direction.

People who are successful in recomping generally have a lot of body fat to begin with and a beginner training status, which allows them to effectively gain lean muscle mass while dropping body fat in the early stages of their training.

 

If trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time isn't the most efficient approach...

What Should You Do Instead?

You’re better off focusing on one or the other -- muscle gain or fat loss.

Decide on your goal – and put all of your focus into that goal for a specific period of time.

Go All In On Muscle Gain.

Get yourself in a caloric surplus (with a proper macronutrient breakdown of protein, carbs and fats).

Take advantage of the extra calories to fuel your training and focus on progressing in your workouts.

Recover well.

Stay consistent.

 

OR...

Go All In On Fat Loss.

Get yourself in a caloric deficit.

Eat adequate protein.

Get a balance of carbs and fats.

Keep training intensity high – but don’t expect to gain muscle. And if you do... bonus!


Also Read: How To Lose Body Fat Without Losing Muscle


 

Should You Focus On Muscle Gain or Fat Loss First?

If you’re fairly skinny and just want to put on size, it’s probably pretty obvious that you are going to start with a muscle gaining phase.

If you’re a little softer and have some fat to lose, and you’re not overly concerned with adding a ton of muscle mass, then there’s no doubt that you’re going to be focusing on a fat loss phase first.

So if you are asking this question, it's likely because you have body fat that you’d like to lose, AND muscle that you’d like to gain.

In this case... what do you do?

There are two main factors which dictate where you should start:

 

1. Your Individual Goals.

How much muscle are you looking to gain?

How lean do you want to get?

Which goal is more important to you right now at this moment?

While one approach may be more 'optimal', at the end of the day, what you decide to pursue ultimately depends on your individual goals and preference.

 

2. Your Current Body Fat Percentage.

The best starting point for a muscle gaining phase is when you are already reasonably lean.

How lean is reasonable lean you ask?

12% or less is a good guide.

At 12 % you won't have a completely shredded six pack, but you'll still have a reasonable amount of muscle definition nonetheless.

body fat diagram

If your body fat is already relatively high (above 12%), then you would be better off doing a fat loss phase fist to get lean before focusing on adding muscle.

There's a couple of reasons for this.

Reason #1) 

Once you enter a muscle building phase, you should expect to accumulate a bit of body fat if you're eating in a consistent calorie surplus. While the focus should be on minimizing fat gain and maximizing lean gain, there's no way to divert 100% of the extra calories strictly to muscle growth.

If you begin a muscle gain phase with more body fat than you'd like to have, you’ll likely end up carrying an excessive amount of body fat as time progresses, since body fat will only increase from your starting point.

This will likely lead to you being unhappy with the way you look, feeling like shit, and having to cut shortly after anyways.

Reason #2)

When you are relatively lean, nutrients have a better likelihood of being stored in the muscle, as opposed to being stored as body fat.

This is know as the concept of nutrient partitioning.

As body fat gets higher, and you're consuming a surplus of calories, likelihood of them being stored as fat instead of muscle increases.

 

How Long Should a Muscle Gain or Fat Loss Phase Last?

Again, this ultimately depends on your individual goals, and progress.

On Muscle Gain

Stay in a muscle gain phase as long as you need to achieve a level of muscle development that you are happy with, OR you start to accumulate more body fat than you would like to be carrying and begin to feel uncomfortable with it.

A muscle gaining phase could last anywhere from 12 weeks, to 6 months, to multiple years.

 

On Fat Loss

Stay in a fat loss phase as long as you need to reach the desired level of leanness you are striving for, whether that is 10-12%, 8%, or 7% body fat.

Again, this will be different for everyone.

 

Wrapping Up

Losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time of course sounds extremely desirable.

However, the unfortunate reality is for the majority of trainees, trying to build muscle while losing fat is actually an ineffective approach in reaching your physique goals.

If you’re already close to approaching your genetic potential in terms of muscle growth, you’re not going to be able to effectively add muscle and lose fat at the same time.

There is no easy way – no quick fix.

It takes a proper plan – and it takes hard work.

 

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