While possible, losing fat while gaining muscle simultaneously is a delicate dance. Unlike many people still believe, fat tissue cannot become muscle tissue and vice versa. So how do the tango and waltz synchronize?
This article answers the most burning questions about fat loss and muscle gain including does gaining muscle burn fat and can you gain muscle in a caloric deficit?
Muscle Versus Fat Tissue
To fully elucidate how to lose weight and gain muscle simultaneously, one must understand the major differences between fat and muscle tissue.
While people still say that muscle weighs more than fat, this is actually false. Muscle tissue is denser than fat meaning, pound per pound, muscle takes up less space. In reality, this makes sense, because people with more muscle tissue comparative to fat look leaner. They might weigh the exact same as someone who has more fat tissue and less muscle, but they will likely appear smaller and more toned.
This concept can cause frustration for those who step on the scale after exercising consistently and see the same number or potentially an even higher one. Thus, many trainers and health coaches recommend using pictures and physical measurements (circumferences) to gauge progress rather than the scale.
Even more important than the appearance of the tissue, muscle tissue is significantly more metabolic than fat. This not only translates into burning more calories at rest, but it also caters to better health, vitality, and longevity. Nonetheless, whether the added muscle tissue directly burns fat depends on the body's stores of carbohydrates and fat.
How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle
Losing fat while gaining muscle, aka recomping the body, is a difficult feat that requires consistency with proper nutrition and exercise. In short, it is a delicate dance between eating enough high-quality foods to spur muscle growth while doing enough physical activity to trigger metabolic adaptations that incur fat loss.
When pursuing this goal, protein is by far the most important macronutrient to optimize because muscle tissue is the primary organ that consumes amino acids, the building blocks of protein. These amino acids then help build skeletal muscle. Protein intake goals will differ for each individual, but to facilitate muscle growth, somewhere between 1 to 2 grams per kilogram of body weight is a good starting point.
Carbohydrates are the next most important macronutrient. They are not only fueling higher functioning organs, they directly supply muscles with fuel to work hard in the gym. Similar to protein, carbs will differ based on the individual and exercise regimen, but generally 3 to 6 grams per kilogram of body weight is needed to build significant muscle tissue.
Fat is the least important, but consuming high-quality sources will certainly aid this overall pursuit. Aim to eat foods like avocado, unrefined olive and avocado oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish to reduce general inflammation, promote hormonal balance and allow metabolic adaptations to occur sooner rather than later.
Calorie recommendations for building muscle is another dizzying dance, as one must be in a calorie surplus to build muscle is commonly believed. However, it is also believed that one needs to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat. These opposing guidelines can therefore make it difficult to determine a smart calorie goal.
Nonetheless, these beliefs underscore the abilities of the human body. The physiological reactions of the human body do not function like a machine and thus, building muscle while also losing weight is not black and white. Many find that they achieve this goal by increasing their caloric intake (especially protein calories) through quality foods. In essence, the salubrious nutrients help evoke metabolic adaptations that cause fat loss despite an increase in calories.
In short, gaining significant muscle mass in a caloric deficit is difficult. So, eating enough calories, consistently hit protein goals, and focus on high quality, nutrient-dense carbs and fats to gain muscle while also losing fat is prudent.
Proper exercise is key to building and strengthening muscle and also helps facilitate fat loss. And the type of exercise matters in this case.
If protein takes the crown from a nutritional perspective, strength and weight training earn the exercise trophy. While strength training does not burn as many obvious calories as cardio, it directly initiates muscle growth. Muscle tissue burns more calories well after the workout ends and, in the long run, this can lead to more overall calories burned and thus, fat loss.
Now, applying strength training in a targeted way is vital. The concept of progressive overload, or gradually increasing the weight, number of repetitions, and/or taking less rest time in between active sets, is necessary. Muscle tissue is very efficient and adapts quickly, meaning it frequently needs new and harder stimuli to transform. To apply this technique correctly, record weights used in each session and the number of repetitions to monitor and evaluate progress over time.
But, what about cardio? While cardiovascular and aerobic exercise poses many health benefits (well beyond physical), it is much less important in terms of achieving this specific goal. Cardio burns plenty of calories while being performed, but the burn quickly ends once stopped. Plus, too much or too intense cardio can stress the body out, lead to hormone imbalances, cause water retention, and more. This can interfere with fat loss.
Many trainers simply recommend adding one to two HIIT sessions per week to maintain cardiovascular benefits of exercise and help ensure that one is physically active enough overall to cause weight loss.
The Bottom Line
One really can lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously, but it certainly requires targeted nutrition and smart training. Prioritizing protein, consuming just enough carbohydrates and eating quality fat sources best achieves this goal while strength training and applying progressive overload does so as well.
Plus, a healthy amount of muscle tissue not only helps burn more calories at rest, it improves vitality and increases longevity!
Capritto A. What Really It Takes to Lower Your Body Fat Percentage. CNET. Published April 21, 2021. www.cnet.com/health/fitness/body-recomposition-how-to-lose-fat-and-gain-muscle-at-the-same-time/.
Hosie R. I Want to Lose Fat, but I Also Want to Build Muscle. How Should I Eat and Work out to Achieve Both Goals at the Same Time? Insider. Published June 8, 2020. www.insider.com/how-to-lose-fat-build-muscle-simultaneously-weight-loss-tips-2020-6.