You’re on a mission to lose fat and build muscle, and you’re searching for a diet and training program that will let you do both.
But all you’ve found are a bunch of articles saying that it’s “impossible” to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
Actually, this is only partially true. Although there are lots of ifs, buts and maybes, it is possible to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously.
However, while you can do both at the same time, it’s extremely rare to do both at the same rate.
With very few exceptions, you won’t build muscle at anything like the same speed at which you lose fat. You can still build some muscle in a deficit. Just not as quickly as you would in a surplus.
There are numerous calorie cycling methods that claim to be able to get around this problem, but even then you’re not going to replace every pound of fat lost with one pound of muscle.
The best that most people can hope for is to generate a small muscle gain while losing a much larger amount of fat.
As I mentioned earlier, there are exceptions, the most notable of which are beginners. Take a group of people who have never lifted weights before and put them on a diet and training program that’s geared towards fat loss. Chances are you’ll see them make fairly substantial gains in muscle mass.
Even with a highly restrictive liquid diet containing less than 1000 calories a day, weight training still led to an increase in muscle size in a group of obese women .
In fact, researchers from the United States Sports Academy found that a group of overweight beginners lost over 16 pounds of fat and gained almost 10 pounds of muscle during a 14-week training program . I’ve covered this study in more detail here.
In other words, they gained a decent amount of muscle while also losing slightly more than one pound of fat per week.
Even in beginners who are not extremely overweight, it’s still possible to drop fat while gaining muscle.
A good example comes from a study carried in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which tracked changes in body composition in group of 30 men who were new to lifting weights .
The men were assigned to one of three groups. Group one spent three days a week running (25-40 minutes at 65-85% of their age-derived maximum heart rate), while a second group trained with weights. A combined group performed both routines on the same day of the week, always doing the weight training first.
The resistance-training program involved a combination of free weights and fixed resistance machines, and was divided into upper-body exercises (performed on Monday), lower-body exercises (performed on Wednesday), and both upper- and lower-body exercises (performed on Friday).
During the first two weeks of the program, subjects performed 10-15 repetitions per set, with three sets per exercise. During the final eight weeks, the resistance was set so that failure to lift the weight occurred at 10-12 repetitions on the first set, 8-10 repetitions on the second set, and 4-8 repetitions on the third set.
The runners lost a little over 4 pounds of fat, but they also lost a small amount of muscle. The men who lifted weights gained around 5 pounds of muscle while losing almost 2 pounds of fat.
But it was the combined group who saw the best results.
Despite the fact that they started out with an average body fat of just 12%, the men gained 7 pounds of muscle while losing almost 6 pounds of fat.
However, even though these individuals weren’t overweight, they were beginners in terms of strength training. It’s in the first few months of lifting weights that most people make their fastest gains, and the results aren’t going to apply to someone who’s been training properly for some time.
A bodybuilder, for example, who is closing in on the upper limits of his natural muscular potential will do very well just to hold on to the muscle he currently has when moving from 10% to 5% body fat in preparation for a contest.
For anyone in this type of condition, the main benefit of strength training during fat loss is to maintain rather than gain muscle mass.
What if you’re no longer a beginner?
There are studies where people who have moved past the beginner stages of training have managed to gain muscle while losing fat.
In one trial, for example, a group of men who’d been lifting weights for at least three years gained 4.6 pounds (2.1kg) of muscle while simultaneously losing 3.7 pounds (1.7kg) of fat over a 12-week period .
So there you have it – simultaneous fat loss and muscle growth in a group of trained individuals.
But there are some limitations.
The first is the slow rate of fat loss.
Taking 12 weeks to lose less than four pounds of fat, particularly in a group of guys who weren’t particularly lean to start with (they started the study with an average 20% body fat), is nothing to write home about.
With a more aggressive calorie deficit, you’d expect to lose fat a lot more quickly. This in turn makes it less likely that you’ll be able to gain a decent amount of muscle at the same time.
Second, we don’t know what type of training the subjects had been doing prior to taking part in the study.
If you take someone who’s been following a crappy training program for the last few years, and put them on an “optimal” one, they’re going to see better results than someone who’s been following a non-crappy program from day one.
In other words, the ability of a “trained” individual to gain muscle while losing fat will depend a lot on how you’re defining trained.
Three years of proper training is very different to three years of messing around in the gym jumping from one “celebrity workout” to the next.
Anyone who’s been in shape before will find it easier to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously when returning after a layoff.
When returning to pre-season training after the off-season break, a group of elite rugby union players lost 3 pounds (1.4kg) of fat, while simultaneously gaining 4.4 pounds (2kg) of muscle .
When a muscle is trained, detrained and retrained, there is a faster change in muscle size during retraining compared to the initial training period from an untrained state . This is a phenomenon that some refer to as muscle memory.
Of course, muscle tissue itself can’t actually “remember” anything. Rather, the number of nuclei (which play a crucial role in building new muscle) in muscle cells increases when you lift weights, even before the muscle cell itself starts to grow.
But those nuclei aren’t lost when you stop training and your muscles shrink. Instead, the extra nuclei form a type of muscle memory that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when you start training again.
Take a look at the cover of most fitness magazines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that building muscle while simultaneously losing fat is the easiest thing in the world.
You’ll see headlines about how to get a summer body in 7 days… lose fat without breaking sweat… 923 ways to make your life better now… get a 6-pack in 24 hours… torch flab in 20 minutes.
I’m not kidding. Those are genuine headlines from the covers of various magazines that I’ve seen in the last few days.
Everything is always “instant ways” to get this and “easy ways” to do that.
Well, here’s a quick dose of reality:
Getting in shape is not easy. Getting in shape is not instant. Truth of the matter is that it’s bloody hard work.
Most see the claims on magazine covers for what they are: the normal “puffery” commonly indulged in by companies trying to persuade you that their product is “the key” to solving all your problems.
But a lot of people do get confused when they see claims about how much muscle it’s possible to gain and how much fat it’s possible to lose over a 3-4 month period.
Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader who wanted my opinion on the training program of a guy who appeared on the cover of a popular fitness magazine.
The cover model in question claims to have gone from 216 pounds and 23.9% body fat to 202 pounds and 6.8% fat in just 15 weeks.
That means he lost 38 pounds of fat and gained 24 pounds of muscle in a little under four months.
But when I saw a few pictures of the guy in question, I’d say that he was almost certainly enjoying the benefits of a little “pharmaceutical assistance.”
If you try to duplicate his results without the same level of chemical enhancement, there’s a good chance you’re going to end up frustrated at the large gap between your expectations and what you actually see in the mirror.
To sum up, it is possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time.
But unless you’re an overweight beginner, returning to exercise after a layoff, very genetically gifted or using drugs, you’re not going to be able to do both at anything approaching the same rate.
In other words, it’s far more realistic to lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining a pound or two of muscle. Losing 10 pounds of fat at the same time as replacing it with 10 pounds of muscle is not an attainable goal for most people most of the time.
SEE ALSO: THE FLAT BELLY CHEAT SHEET
If you want less flab and more muscle when you look down at your abs (or where they should be), check out The Flat Belly Cheat Sheet.
It's a “cut the waffle and just tell me what to do” PDF, written in plain English, that tells you exactly how to get rid of belly fat. To download a free copy please click or tap here.
ABOUT CHRISTIAN FINNChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a former personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.
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