Not only is simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle likely the most commonly requested body transformation of all time, it also appears physiologically impossible at first glance.
It nearly defies the laws of physics. Fat loss requires overall weight loss and muscle gain typically requires overall weight gain, so how exactly can you lose weight and gain weight at the same time?
Alas, it is possible. Sort of. Trying to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously can be difficult to achieve, and it's not always well understood by those looking to achieve this unicorn of fitness goals.
How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time
Muscle Gain vs. Fat Loss Mechanics
First, you must understand the differences between traditional muscle gain and fat loss.
How Fat Loss Meal Plans Work
- ⬇️ calories for weight loss
- ⬆️ exercise to burn more calories
- ⬆️ protein to protect muscle
How Muscle Gain Meal Plans Work
- ⬆️ calories for weight gain
- ⬇️ cardio to minimize calorie burn
- ⬆️ strength training for muscle hypertrophy
- ⬆️ protein to build muscle
There is only really one way to lose fat: reducing calories or creating a calorie deficit to promote overall weight loss. But there is more than one way to build muscle mass. Unfortunately, building muscle and losing fat at the same time is more challenging than people realize.
Muscle is an incredible tissue that can grow stronger and bigger just from daily use and proper fueling. And in the same sense, it can wither away if you stop using it through muscular atrophy.
Traditional muscle gain meal plans — or bulking diets — allow you to build muscle through a healthy weight gain meal plan and strength training. However, this also means some inevitable body fat gains in addition to increasing muscle.
You can also gain muscle if you are strength training in a calorie deficit, especially if you are a less experienced weight lifter. Research suggests that novice lifters may be able to gain muscle much more quickly and efficiently than advanced lifters who already have a lot of lean mass from the start.
Disclaimer: The amount of muscle you can gain in a cut is typically significantly less than what you would achieve through a weight gain approach.
Can You Turn Fat Into Muscle?
People will often claim that they want to gain muscle, but they don't actually want to gain weight overall. So, what they really mean is that they want to build lean muscle by changing their body composition.
Changing your body composition is any measure that involves losing body fat and/or increasing lean body mass without major changes in body weight. However, sometimes body weight will decrease if large amounts of fat are lost. The ultimate goal is to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
Because body weight can remain fairly stable during a change in composition, some confuse this phenomenon with turning body fat into muscle. (This is not possible.) Fat is made up of different components than muscle, thus breaking down fat in the body doesn't supply all of the necessary pieces to form muscle tissue.
How this works: Fat loss is achieved through decreasing calories and muscle maintenance/gain is achieved through training and nutrition.
How to Improve Your Body Composition
To understand this better, let's take a look at how your body uses and stores energy.
Your body gets energy from food and stores this energy in your body in your muscle or fat. If you take in less energy than your body needs, your body will take some of its stores to fill in the gaps (primarily fat), resulting in weight loss. If you eat more, it will store more, leading to weight gain.
As simple as this sounds, your body is in constant need of energy, which means that you are almost always simultaneously breaking down tissue (body fat or muscle) and storing tissue. Weight loss or gain results from the overall energy balance over time.
This also means that your body is technically primed to lose fat and increase muscle mass if you can find the sweet spot of tailoring your nutrition and training proportionately.
To get this balance right you'll need to focus on ALL of the following:
1. Calorie Control
Fat loss cannot occur without burning more calories than you consume. The first step in decreasing your body fat percentage is calorie control.
Figure out how many calories you need a day to lose weight and aim to eat this amount or less consistently.
On a calorie deficit of 15-20%, most people can expect to lose about 0.5-1% of their body weight per week, which is one to two pounds per week for a 200-pound adult.
It is not recommended to cut calories too drastically (more than a 25% cut) or too quickly, as being too restrictive can make your meal plan feel impossible to stick to, mess with your ability to strength train, can impair your metabolism, not to mention destroy your relationship with food.
If you are new to calorie control, start with a 10% cut and gradually decrease your calories every few weeks as you get used to cutting. You may also want to limit your cut to 12 weeks at a time, followed by a break to prevent burnout.
2. Eat More Protein
If you want to come anywhere close to making this total body transformation a reality for you, you'll need to up your protein intake!
Higher protein intakes are crucial for maintaining existing muscle while cutting calories. In fact, some research suggests that protein needs may be as high as 1.4 grams per pound of body weight to maintain existing mass.
Protein intake is also critical for muscle gain since muscle is made up of protein, so it's no surprise that your ability to build muscle while losing weight is heavily impacted by how much protein you eat in a day.
In one study, participants who ate twice as much protein (~1.1 grams per pound of body weight compared to 0.5 grams per pound) on a 40% calorie deficit gained an average of 2.5 pounds of muscle in four weeks, while the lower-protein group did not.
Even more interestingly, the high-protein group lost slightly more body fat overall.
Bottom line: Eat at least one gram of protein per pound of body weight to promote muscle gains while losing body fat.
3. Lift Weights
The other critical piece to recomposing your body is strength training. You cannot maintain lean mass or increase muscle size if you don't use your muscles regularly.
Surprisingly, there is no perfect muscle building program to strive for, as the best approach can vary depending on the person.
Less trained individuals may find that they can add a significant amount of muscle through bodyweight training alone. While others may require a more strategic approach to lifting. As long as you are challenging yourself and increasing the weight as needed, you will see results.
As for the frequency, research suggests that lifting two to three times a week is enough to see an increase in strength and support growth. And unlike bulking plans, where cardio can make achieving a calorie surplus challenging, including cardio or high-intensity training can support your overall fat loss goals.
Bottom line: Include strength training as part of your program three days a week, increasing the weight over time to keep it challenging.
What to Eat to Build Muscle and Lose Fat Simultaneously
Calories and protein aside, your overall nutrition plan can also play a major role in supporting your health and fitness goals by adequately fueling your performance, and keeping your energy, mood, and appetite in check.
This means including more nutrient-dense, whole foods and balancing your macros accordingly.
If you're looking for a meal plan that helps you cut calories, get more protein, and takes care of your overall nutrition in one shot, check out the macro-balanced meal plans that have been getting thousands of Trifecta customers, Spartans, and professional athletes shredded for years.
This article was originally published on TrifectaNutrition.com.