When I heard about a study supposedly showing 16 pounds of fat lost and 10 pounds of muscle gained — all at the same time — my BS detector started working overtime.
Either somebody was telling me “porkies” or they had just made an honest mistake.
But when I looked at the research myself, there was no mistake. A group of eight men had lost 16.3 pounds of fat and gained 9.5 pounds of lean mass in just 14 weeks.
Can You Build Muscle in a Calorie Deficit?
The results I’m talking about come from a United States Sports Academy study looking at the effects of strength training and aerobic exercise on body composition in a group of overweight (27% body fat) men.
The men were assigned to one of two groups and trained three days per week for 14 weeks.
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- An endurance-only group performed both cycling and walking (30 minutes each at 60-70% heart rate reserve for a total of 60 minutes).
- A cross-training group performed both cardiovascular and resistance exercise (8 exercises, 4 sets per exercise, 8-12 repetitions per set, 60 seconds of rest between sets) in a single session. Exercises included the bench press, lat pulldown, military press, barbell curl, triceps extension, leg press, leg curl, and calf raise.
The results are shown in the table below, which I scanned in from the research paper.
As you can see, the group that combined cardiovascular with resistance exercise were able to lose fat (7.4 kilograms or 16.3 pounds) while gaining muscle (4.3 kilograms or 9.5 pounds) at the same time.
That’s pretty impressive.
Truth is, losing 16 pounds of fat and gaining almost 10 pounds of muscle in 14 weeks is a result that most people would be very happy with.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a realistic goal for most people. Here’s why:
Fat Loss With Muscle Gain: Common in Overweight Beginners
Firstly, the men taking part in the study were beginners, who tend to make rapid gains in muscle mass when they start training with weights.
They were also overweight (bordering on obese) with a lot of fat to lose. Take someone who is untrained AND extremely overweight (which these men were) and they’ll often drop relatively large amounts of fat while gaining muscle at the same time.
Why do overweight beginners have such an easy time gaining muscle while losing fat?
People who are very overweight are usually insulin resistant to some degree. Insulin resistance tends to develop as you gain fat. It appears to represent an attempt by your body to stop you gaining more, or to help you lose fat once the excess calories are removed from your diet.
Insulin is primarily a storage hormone. It helps to drive nutrients, such as glucose, from your blood into the cells of your body. High levels of insulin also inhibit the rate at which stored fat is mobilized (i.e. broken down and prepared to be burned off).
But when fat cells are insulin resistant, insulin doesn’t have the same effect. Which means that even in the presence of high insulin levels, fat can still be mobilized for fuel. The overall effect is as though fat cells are “full up” and resisting further fat storage.
When an overweight beginner starts exercising and dieting, nutrients are diverted away from fat cells (which are still insulin resistant) and towards muscle, which has become more insulin sensitive as a result of the training. Because there’s less glucose available, muscle cells will burn more fat.
Measuring Body Fat Is Not an Exact Science
Second, the researchers used underwater weighing to measure changes in body composition.
Although underwater weighing is still considered by many as the “gold standard” when it comes to estimating body composition, there’s still a surprisingly large margin of error, which can skew the results.
As points out in his excellent series of articles on the subject, “body fat testing is not a measurement; rather, it is a prediction.”
The 4C model is an expensive method of measuring body composition that divides the body into four components (mineral, water, fat, and protein) and measures each one independently.
Short of killing someone, stripping off their fat and weighing it, the 4C model is currently the best method available to predict body composition.
The results, as James puts it, “aren’t pretty.”
For example, one person showed a 10% loss of body fat using something called the 4-compartment model. But underwater weighing showed a change that was near 0%.
Another person showed a loss of 10% body fat in the 4-compartment model, but a loss of nearly 20% body fat with underwater weighing.
“This means that underwater weighing could tell you that you had very little change in body fat, when you actually had a large change,” adds James.
“On the other hand, underwater weighing could tell you that you lost a huge amount of body fat, when in fact you didn’t lose much.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore the results of this study. But the accuracy of body fat testing is something to keep in mind when you see results that seem a little too good to be true.
Building Muscle in a Calorie Deficit: Summary
In summary, some people can and do build muscle while they’re in a calorie deficit.
But it’s a phenomenon that’s generally limited to people who are very overweight and have never lifted weights before, or those who are returning to exercise after a layoff, where muscle memory comes into play.
Once you’ve move past the “overweight beginner” stage, building a significant amount of muscle while losing fat is a goal that becomes progressively more difficult.
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 that tells you exactly how to lose your gut and get back in shape. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please enter your email address in the box below, and hit the “send it now” button.
About the Author
Christian Finn is an exercise scientist and former “trainer to the trainers” based in the UK. He holds a masters degree in exercise science, and has been featured in or contributed to major media on two continents, including the BBC and Sunday Times in the U.K. and Men’s Health and Men’s Fitness in the U.S.