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.
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.”
Much of the confusion about whether it’s possible to lose fat and gain muscle stems from the fact that some of the people you see online or on TV are taking drugs.
In this short clip from the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former fitness model Christian Boeving admits to using anabolic steroids since the age of 16.
Truth is, anabolics can make a massive difference to the length of time it takes to build muscle, as well as the maximum amount of muscle you’re able to build.
Here are some numbers from a study that looked at the impact of weekly testosterone injections (600 milligrams of testosterone enanthate) on muscle growth in a group of men aged 19 to 40. They weren’t untrained beginners, and had some experience with lifting weights, but weren’t bodybuilders or competitive athletes.
After ten weeks, the men gained around seven pounds of muscle. And that’s without doing any training.
A similar group of men who trained with weights three times a week, but who didn’t get the injections, gained a little over four pounds.
Think about that for a second.
Taking testosterone and doing nothing produced a faster rate of muscle growth than going to the gym three times a week.
It was the guys combining strength training and testosterone injections who saw the best results. On average, they gained over a pound of lean tissue each week, ending the study with an additional 13 pounds of muscle mass added to their frame.
In other words, the men who lifted weights and took testosterone gained muscle three times faster than those who lifted weights without any pharmaceutical assistance.
In hormone replacement therapy terms, 600 milligrams of testosterone per week is a lot, around six times higher than the dose usually given to men with low testosterone levels.
But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what some people are using. A study that looked at the doping practices of strength athletes and bodybuilders found that one guy was on a whopping 2000 milligrams of testosterone per week.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. He was also taking various other compounds, including deca-durabolin (600–800 milligrams per week), dianabol (50 milligrams per day), insulin (12 IU per day) and ephedrine (60 milligrams per day).
I couldn’t care less if you use drugs or not. There are already plenty of hand-wringing do-gooders out there telling you how to live your life, and I have no intention of becoming one of them
But I do think it’s important that you know what goes on “behind the scenes” so you can set goals for yourself that are both realistic and achievable. Otherwise you’re just going to end up feeling frustrated at the large gap between your expectations and your results.
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 that tells you exactly how to get rid of belly fat. To get a copy of the cheat sheet sent to you, please click or tap here to enter your email address.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChristian Finn is a former "trainer to the trainers" and fitness writer based in Northamptonshire, England. 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.
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