Last updated:

25 July 2023

Ah, the age old question; Can you build muscle and burn fat at the same time? Because screw choosing… My 20yrs as a PT has shown me people want BOTH.

can you lose fat and build muscle at the same time

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13 min read

There are a lot of people in the fitness world who believe you cannot lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.

They’ll say things like:

“Oh you have to choose one or the other”… “Maybe you should do a bulk, and then a cut”… “Perhaps you should focus on losing weight first, then toning up”…

I’m here to tell you this is absolute bulls**t.

Not only is this something which I’ve done countless times with clients in the gym (and with the men & women who use my programs on, but it’s also been clearly demonstrated in the world of sports research.

Better still, ANYONE can do it.

The process of building muscle while burning fat is called body recomposition. Today I’m going to show you how it’s done, and explain where most people go dead wrong.

Let’s get stuck in…

best biceps exercises for muscle building


Let’s begin by seeing why most people believe you cannot do both at the same time.

It comes down to two simple lines of text:

  • In order to lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit.
  • In order to gain weight you must be in a calorie surplus.

Makes sense, right?

So when somebody says they want to be bigger, but smaller, it’s kinda like trying to breathe in and out at the same time.

Of course, as with most things in life, things are not as ‘black & white’ as they seem on the surface level. It turns out when it comes to burning fat and building muscle we have an interesting ‘grey area’ to play in, and that’s where we need to focus our attention.

You see, we know we must be in a calorie deficit in order to lose fat. It’s literally the only way we can do it. However, the second line of text isn’t giving you the full story. That’s because the seconday goal is not ‘weight gain’. You want to strip away body fat while retaining (and, if possible, building) as much lean muscle tissue as you can along the way. (1)

That does NOT require a calorie surplus. It simple requires you to be smart with your training, nutrition & recovery.

can you build muscle and burn fat at the same time


When you say you’d like to burn fat and gain muscle at the same time, make no mistake; your primary goal is FAT LOSS.

Heck, if you drop a layer of body fat right now you’ll instantly look more ripped and muscular. I GUARANTEE IT.

So in order to ensure you get the best results, we need to understand the fat loss process before anything else.

When we remain in a prolonged calorie deficit, our body responds by tapping into our existing fat stores to use for energy. Meaning if you are not eating enough food to handle your activity, your body will take what it needs from elsewhere. If it didn’t, you’d simple stop working, like a car on ‘E’. (2)

Most people don’t know this, but during a prolonged calorie deficit your body will ALSO burn some of your muscle stores. (3)

It’s a natural reaction, and it’s definitely not the big scary thing fitness magazines claim (they’re simply trying to sell you more useless BCAA’s). Providing you’re smart with your nutrition while you’re cutting, you won’t even notice these minimal changes. If anything, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten BIGGER, because your body fat percentage will be lower, resulting in a leaner and more toned physique when you look at yourself in the mirror.

Make sense? Good!

So how do we create a calorie deficit for maximum fat loss?

Well, we have two options:

  • Decrease calorie intake.
  • Increase calorie output.

I kinda hate the phrase “eat less, move more”, but in this case it’s correct.

(I hate it because it doesn’t take into consideration the numerous physiological challenges people face when trying to lose weight, such as understanding what causes them to binge eat, creating a healthier relationship with food, addressing underlying health issues, etc. It’s kinda like telling a drowning person to “sink less, swim more”.)

So which one is easier?

Well, most people will look at the two options above and say, “I’ll just work harder at the gym and eat what I want!”…


It’s much easier to eat less. Cutting 150-200 calories from your daily intake is more convenient than trying to burn an extra 200 calories on a treadmill. It’ll take WAY LESS time, builds discipline and force you to make healthier choices with your food, so this is a good place to start.

Also, notice I said 150-200 calories, not 1000.

That’s because you don’t need to do anything drastic to get the best results. In fact, research clearly shows that you’re better off NOT making drastic calorie cuts, because this usually leads to unsustainable targets, and ends up with you being back at square one every couple of weeks. (4)

Given that your secondary goal is to build muscle I have no doubt that you’ll also be training hard in the gym, which will help by increasing your calorie output, but the burn from training is nowhere near as high as most people believe and the harder you push the more likely it is that your recovery (another crucial component) will suffer, so DIET IS KING for sustainable fat loss results.

how to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time


This is where the importance of training comes into play.

By lifting weights on a regular basis, and allowing enough time for recovery between sessions, your body will gradually adapt and become bigger & stronger than before.

In order to do that, though, it’s gonna require the correct nutrients.

So how does this work?

Well, by pushing our muscles to failure (or at least near failure), muscle fibers will tear and break down. This forces our body to repair and rebuild in the 24-36 hour period after your workout. If you keep repeating this process over time, you will become noticably bigger because this is how we are hard-wired to adapt to repetitive physical stress.

The reason there are so many guys in gyms who are spinning their wheels is because, quite frankly, they are f**king this part of their diet up!

^^^ Read that again.

Because in order to make any of this happen, we need to eat enough protein. The fact that you are eating within a calorie deficit ensures that you will not be storing any food as fat, because the fuel is required for energy instead and the body will pull any additional fuel requirements from your existing fat stores as mentioned earlier.

So now we have a chance to MAXIMIZE our results. Heck, never mind just retaining lean muscle, there are studies showing you can actually BUILD MUSCLE in a calorie deficit when protein intake is properly controlled! (5)

Now if only there was a way we could figure out exactly how much protein we’d need each day in order to maximize our results while cutting body fat…


This is the type of stuff my website members pay me for. In 2018 a comprehensive meta-analysis on the protein requirements of athletes was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The researchers found that the “sweet spot” appears to be 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which will lead to greater muscle retention and new muscle growth. This falls in line with the majority of earlier research on the topic. (6, 7, 8, 9)

Interestingly, the researchers noted that going as low as 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight will be sufficient as far as muscle retention is concerned, while the hypertrophy (muscle building) benefits of protein appear to “max out” at 1.18 grams per pound. (10)

This means a 180 pound man would aim for 213 grams of protein per day in order to maximize muscle retention and hypertrophy during a cutting phase. There are 4 calories per gram of protein, so he’ll be “spending” 852 calories on protein each day, leaving the remainder of his calorie budget for fat and carbohydrates.

  • If you weigh 130lbs, aim for 153 grams.
  • If you weigh 140lbs, aim for 165 grams.
  • If you weigh 150lbs, aim for 177 grams.
  • If you weigh 160lbs, aim for 189 grams.
  • If you weigh 170lbs, aim for 200 grams.
  • If you weigh 180lbs, aim for 213 grams.
  • If you weigh 190lbs, aim for 224 grams.
  • If you weigh 200lbs, aim for 236 grams.

This will MAXIMIZE hypertrophy while in a calorie deficit.

That being said, if you do choose to go even higher than the recommendations above it certainly won’t harm you, and some research even suggests that protein’s satiating effect can lead to greater diet adherence (i.e. you feel full, so you don’t over-eat). (7)

how to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time


So how do we put all of this information together and turn you into a shredded motherf**ker?

I’m glad you asked…

Let’s put the pieces of the jigsaw together and develop a program that’ll get you LEAN AF in a hurry.

  • Stay within a calorie deficit and eat enough protein to maximize hypertrophy.

A calorie deficit ensures you will lose body fat, and sufficient protein intake ensures you will build lean muscle. To give yourself an accurate calorie deficit I recommend tracking your nutrition in real-time for a week (use My Fitness Pal) and then lower your daily average by 15%. In most cases this will be enough to get you moving in the right direction, but if not simply lower by another 15% and eventually the needle will move..

This is far superior to the old “just try to eat 1000 calories a day” bulls**t people often try, because it’s specific to you and it’ll lead to greater sustainability, which means MUCH BETTER RESULTS!

One you’ve got your new calorie target set in place you also know EXACTLY how much protein you should be eating per day to get the best results, so you can work that in. If you pre-diet tracking phase shows that you just generally don’t gravitate towards protein-based foods, I recommend starting by setting your target near the lower end of the protein spectrum (0.7g per lb) because this will lead to greater sustainability in the early stages of your adventure. You can gradually increase this over time towards the upper echelons (1.18g per lb) in order to maximize your results.

  • Train hard. F**king hard.

There’s no point making all this effort to maximize hypertrophy if we don’t put in the work, right? That means you have to hit the gym on a regular basis and pick up heavy things.

The common misconception with training is that there is a “best” way to do it.

There is not.

Research shows us that you can build just as much muscle with high reps and lighter weights as low reps and heavy weights, just like we can burn fat with aerobic cardio, high intensity interval training, and even cardioacceleration. What’s most important is that you do SOMETHING, and you do it on a consistent basis. (12)

Of course, we can take good results and make them GREAT by applying proper structure to our routine. For instance, all of the programs on are periodized to allow you to hang around in particular training zone just long enough to reap all of the benefits it offers, then move on to the next phase before any adaptations occur.

Like this one.

  • Drink plenty of water.

Such is the importance we place on supplements, I can almost guarantee most readers weren’t expecting me to talk about boring WATER, but there are three reasons why we need to make H2Oa priority.

First, it’s a great appetite suppressor. Things like this come in very handy when you’re in a calorie deficit. (13)

Secondly, water leads to better performance in the gym. Did you know a dehydrated muscle loses 20% of its contraction force? You do now! And finally, water is especially important when you are trying to build muscle because you’re probably using creatine (if you’re not here’s why you should be). Alongside the strength training benefits of creatine, it also forces water into your muscle cells, causing them to look ‘fuller’ and ‘harder’, which is a great thing, but this water has been pulled away from the rest of your body in order to make that happen, so if you don’t drink plenty of water you run the risk of dehydration.

Aim for 3-4 liters per day. You will look more shredded, you will have better control of your diet, and you will have more energy throughout the day. Bosh!

And that’s how a successful body recomposition looks from the outset.

Obviously, you cannot recomp your way to the sheer size of The Rock or the latest Mr. Olympia, but then you probably already knew that (because this would require a calorie surplus rather than a deficit).

However, these steps are easily enough to get you to a low body fat percentage (guys below 10%, women below 16%), and at that stage you’d already be sufficiently lean. That’s when you’d need to decide whether you’d like to focus on getting even more diced, or switching to a calorie surplus to gain more muscle.

So there you have it! The next time somebody says you cannot lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, inform them that they are incorrect and pop them in the direction of this post. Now you have all the tools you need, I hope to see an excellent transformation from you in the weeks and months to come. Keep me updated, champ!

I’ll finish this article with a picture of me; practicing what I preach!

how to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time

Who Is Russ Howe PTI?


Russ has been a personal trainer in the UK since 2002, and provided both training advice and full programs on this website since 2011.

His work has been featured in Men’s Fitness magazine, and the content on this website led to him being voted one of the world’s top 50 fat loss coaches by HuffPost.

Russ spends his time coaching men and women inside the legendary Powerhouse Gym, South Shields, and writing training tips for the 114,301 members of his popular free training e-mail (join it below).


  1. Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab (2017).
  2. Strasser B., et al. Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Ann Nutr Metab (2007).
  3. Cava E., et al. Preserving Healthy Muscle during Weight Loss. Adv Nutr (2017).
  4. Stewart T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite (2002).
  5. Josse A. R., et al. Body composition and strength changes in women with milk and resistance exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2010).
  6. Thomas D. T., et al. American College of Sports Medicine Joint Position Statement. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2016).
  7. Jäger R., et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr (2017).
  8. Morton R. W., et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med (2018).
  9. Witard O. C., et al. Effect of increased dietary protein on tolerance to intensified training. Med Sci Sports Exerc (2011).
  10. Morton R. W., et al. A systematic review, meta-analysis and meta-regression of the effect of protein supplementation on resistance training-induced gains in muscle mass and strength in healthy adults. Br J Sports Med (2018).
  11. Leaf A., et al. The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. Int J Exerc Sci (2017).
  12. Mitchell C. J., et al. Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training-Mediated Hypertrophic Gains In Young Men. J Appl Physiol (2012).
  13. Dennis E. A., et al. Water Consumption Increases Weight Loss During a Hypocaloric Diet Intervention in Middle-aged and Older adults. Obesity (Silver Spring) (2011).

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