Ah, the age old question – can you build muscle and burn fat at the same time?

can you lose fat and build muscle at the same time

Written by Russ Howe PTI, and most recently updated 1 day ago.

10 min read

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

They are wrong.

Anyone who has completed one of my workout programs has first-hand experience that you can overhaul your body with new lean muscle tissue and impressive fat loss results at the same time.

The process is called body recomposition, and I’m going to show you how it’s done in this article.

Table of Contents
best biceps exercises for muscle building

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

It all comes down to two simple lines of text:

  • You must be in a calorie deficit to lose weight.
  • You must be in a calorie surplus to gain weight.

Obviously you cannot be in a deficit and in a surplus simultaneously, so this is why they believe it’s impossible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

However, as with most things in life, things are not as black and white as they seem. To show you what I mean, let’s go back to those two lines of text. The first line is dead right when it claims that you must be in a calorie deficit in order to lose weight, but the second line is rather deceiving. That’s because your primary goal is not to gain weight, it’s to build muscle! Building muscle does not always require a calorie surplus, so providing you’re smart with your training, nutrition, and recovery, there’s actually an interesting grey area where you can build muscle and burn fat at the same time (at least to a certain extent). (1, 5)

I’ll show you how to do this below.



can you build muscle and burn fat at the same time

A first step to a successful body recomp is to set very clear goals.

In my 20+ years as a personal trainer, I noticed that the vast majority of people who are attempting to build muscle and burn fat at the same time struggle to do this, and it holds back their diet and their training program.

So allow me to clear away any doubt for you:

I know you want both things, but trust me dickhead.

Because while the muscle building aspect of your journey can be achieved with a few smart nutrition hacks and training tweaks, the fat burning element of your journey can only be achieved by getting into a calorie deficit.

In response to being placed in a calorie deficit, your body will begin to shovel your existing energy stores (i.e. body fat) into the fire to provide your muscles with the fuel they need each day, and over time you will lose weight. The body will burn through some of your existing muscle, too, but don’t panic. This is a perfectly normal response to dieting, and it’s definitely not the big scary thing which fitness magazines claim (trust me, you don’t need those intra-workout BCAAs!). (2, 3)

An added benefit of stripping away body fat is that it’s significantly easier to show off all of the hard-earned lean muscle which you are building in the gym, and it’s not unusual for people to look bigger after a successful body recomp despite weighing considerably less on the scales.

how to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time

There are two ways to create a calorie deficit.

  • You can reduce your calorie intake.
  • You an increase your 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”.)

Most people get this part dead wrong, because they believe they can out-train a bad diet in the gym by adding cardio or training a little bit harder.

Trust me, it’s MUCH EASIER to eat less than it is to burn more.

Reducing your daily calorie intake by 150-200 calories can be achieved by swapping out a couple of foods for lower calorie alternatives, whereas trying to burn an additional 150-200 calories in your workout comes with a) additional time and b) increased injury risk. That’s why I always recommend dialing in your nutrition as opposed to trying to train harder, plus it builds discipline and forces you to make healthier choices with the foods you eat.

People can get tempted to make much larger calorie cuts in an attempt to see instant results, but this usually ends in failure. Research shows us that the best diet is the one you can stick to, so I always recommend making small reductions (150-200 kcals) every time a plateau is reached. (4)

Now let’s talk muscle.

There are three things we must to in order to ensure you are building solid slabs of lean muscle while also seeing great fat loss results.

  • Train (hard) with weights.

A well-structured training program will have you pushing your muscles to failure on a regular basis. This will cause micro-tears in your muscle fibers, and your body will rebuild those fibers in the 24-36 hour period which follows. The human body is hard-wired to respond to physical stress by adapting, so if you repeat this process over time, you’ll become noticeably bigger and stronger. This process is called muscle protein synthesis. Your program should allow enough recovery time between sessions for this to be maximized. (12)

  • Pack plenty of protein into your daily calorie intake.

You must eat plenty of protein each day in order to make any of the above happen. You’d be surprised how many guys I’ve met in gyms over the years who unknowingly skimp on their protein intake, and it literally makes it impossible for them to build muscle!

The fact that you are in a calorie deficit is also another reason to boost your protein, because protein has a more satiating effect than either carbohydrates or fat, which will keep you feeling full. Aim for 1 gram per lb (target body weight) as a start point, and increase this to 1.2g per lb if you feel the need to. (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)

Use this table as a guide:

  • Drink lots of water to enhance performance and look lean as fuck.

Most guys don’t really drink water aside from their workout water bottle, but that needs to change.

I advise my clients to aim for 3-4 liters of water every single day. This is an important factor in why they see such great transformations, because doing so creates a knock-on effect which improves both fat loss and muscle growth!

Water is a great appetite suppressor, so it’s a valuable tool when you are in a calorie deficit because it makes it much easier to avoid over-eating and over-shooting your daily targets. (13)

It’s also an hassle-free way to boost in-gym performance. Your muscles themselves are made up of over 75% water, so just the simple act of drinking enough each day can be enough to make you look more built and defined. However, did you know a dehydrated muscle loses 20% of its contraction force? Yikes, you do now! Providing your muscles with superior hydration will ultimately lead to better workouts, and better workouts will lead to better results. Also, many of you will likely be using muscle building supplements on your fitness journey, and one of those supplements in particular (creatine) actually demands that you increase your water intake in order for it to be effective. You see, alongside the proven strength benefits it offers, creatine forces water into your musce cells, causing them to look fuller and harder. This is great for you, because you look amazing, but it’s important to remember that this water has been drawn away from the rest of your body, and therefore must be replaced.


You should now have a solid idea how body recomposition works.

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

References:

  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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I’m Russ. I’ve been a personal trainer since 2002, and I own russhowepti.com.

My job is to simplify fitness for my readers.

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