How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat

Many people think of getting in shape as either building muscle or losing fat. While the two may seem mutually exclusive goals, is it possible to accomplish both at the same time?

Muscular male bodybuilder lifting a barbell at the gym

(Getty Images)

Body recomposition, a term used to describe the process of increasing skeletal muscle mass and decreasing body fat at the same time, can be a tricky balance, but it’s not impossible.

“Gaining muscle while losing fat simultaneously is definitely possible,” says Chris Travis, a personal trainer and owner of Seattle Strength and Performance in Washington.

By fine-tuning your physical training and nutrition, you can transform your body into a lean, mean, fat-burning machine.

Rank Diet Overview
No. 1 WeightWatchers WeightWatchers is focused on inspiring healthy living and improving overall well-being. That includes taking a holistic approach to help members eat healthier and move more.
No. 2 Dash Diet DASH diet, which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension, is a flexible, balanced and heart-healthy eating plan promoted by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to stop (or prevent) high blood pressure.
No. 3
Mayo Clinic Diet Using evidence-based behavioral science, the Mayo Clinic diet is a 12-week program that is designed to establish healthy habits for life.
No. 3
TLC Diet The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet calls for eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, bread, cereals and lean meats. The guidelines are broad enough that you’ll have a lot of latitude with what you eat.
No. 5 Flexitarian Diet With a flexitarian diet, also known as a semi-vegetarian diet, you don’t have to completely eliminate meat to reap the health benefits associated with vegetarianism.

Health Benefits of Gaining Muscle and Losing Fat

Benefits of gaining muscle

Beyond providing you with a sculpted appearance, strength training to build muscle offers a variety of health benefits, such as:

  • Increased strength and endurance.
  • Improved mobility and function.
  • Increased metabolism.
  • Improved balance, which reduces the risk of injuries and falls.
  • Stronger bones.

Benefits of losing fat

Losing excess weight is also associated with several health benefits, including:

How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

While it may seem challenging, these expert-approved strategies can help you effectively build muscle while losing weight:

Undergoing body composition testing, such as the InBody analysis or dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan, can help you figure out your starting point. Not only do these body composition tests tell you what your basal metabolic rate is, they provide you with highly detailed information on the fat mass, lean muscle mass, total mass and body fat percentage of each region of your body. For example, it’ll show you a breakdown of how much fat and muscle you have in each of your arms, each of your legs and your trunk.

As you continue on your body recomposition journey, you’ll want to periodically monitor your progress with these tests to make sure your numbers are trending in the right direction.

“Keep track of your progress by regularly measuring your body weight and body fat percentage as well as tracking your strength training progress,” says Dr. Todd Sontag, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida. “This can help you to adjust your approach as needed.”

While modern body composition tests are highly accurate, bear in mind there is still a small margin of error, and certain factors – including the time of day you take the test, hydration levels, hormones and menstrual cycles – can affect the results.

You can exercise as much and as hard as you’d like, but no number of reps or hours in the gym will get you to where you want to be without proper nutrition.

“I can’t stress enough that we are what we eat,” says Thomas Roe, a personal trainer, endurance athlete, founder of TRoe Fitness and owner of Local Moves Studio in San Antonio, Texas. “Wasted calories on high-sugar, processed foods, dairy and alcohol are a surefire way to derail your goals from putting on muscle mass and leaning out.”

“In addition, this protein intake should be spaced out evenly throughout the day,” says Marie A. Spano, an Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist.

This approach keeps your muscles fed with a steady stream of building blocks to continue growing. A 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that people should consume between about 0.2 and 0.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight four times per day for optimal muscle growth. For a 180-pound adult, that equals four meals of 36 to 45 grams of protein each.

If you’re not consuming enough protein after strength training, your body won’t be able to develop as much lean muscle as you would like, and you may even end up losing more muscle mass. You may want to consider protein powders to supplement your intake.

However, bear in mind: Every person has different nutritional needs. What may work for one person may not work for you.

“Everyone is different, particularly as it relates to nutrition,” Spano says. “(You’ll) need to do some experimentation to find what works best for you.”

“When you put yourself in a calorie deficit to lose weight, oftentimes you will lose muscle as you lose body fat,” Sontag explains.

That’s because muscle is metabolically active tissue, meaning it needs energy in order to maintain. If you don’t consume enough calories, you’ll lower your metabolic rate, which often leads the body to use muscle for energy before burning fat. Not only will this hinder your muscle gains, but it’ll also cause your weight loss to plateau.

Instead, keep your caloric deficit smaller to make sure that you’re still nourishing your muscles well enough to grow them without taking in extra calories.

“If your goal is to gain muscle but lose fat, you want to diet on the most calories possible while still creating a caloric deficit,” Spano explains. “You want to cut calories just enough but not in an extreme amount because that’ll make it more difficult to put on muscle.”

While every person will need to cut calories and increase physical activity levels slightly differently to lose weight at this rate, reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day is a good place to start. Over the course of seven days, those 500 calories add up to 3,500 calories, which is 1 pound of body weight.

Some health experts recommend intermittent fasting, a dieting approach that consists of periods of time when you don’t eat, as a strategy to help preserve and gain muscle mass while losing weight. Intermittent fasting can help support metabolic rate and flexibility, which is a term used to describe your body’s ability to switch between burning both carbs and fat as fuel efficiently.

In a 2020 systematic review published in Nutrients, researchers noted that resistance training paired with intermittent fasting tends to maintain lean body mass and can promote fat loss. Another study, published in 2016 in the Journal of Translational Medicine, suggests that intermittent fasting, when coupled with resistance training, could decrease fat mass and maintain muscle mass in resistance-trained men. These study participants limited their eating to an eight-hour window.

“Combining strength training with intermittent fasting is a great way to burn through leftover carb stores overnight and increase your chances of waking up burning fat in the morning,” says Michal Mor, the co-founder and head of science fort Lumen, a Tel Aviv based company aiming to bring metabolic health products to the general public.

While Spano agrees that intermittent fasting is a viable option, “it’s no better than counting your calories and protein intake,” she says.

“If someone really wants to try a time-restricted approach, make your window as large as possible,” she adds. “It might be that you start eating at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. and stop eating at 6 p.m. or 8 p.m., so you have a longer window.”

Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition. Your lifestyle, schedule, personal preferences and habits are major factors of a successful diet.

“It depends on your lifestyle – when you eat, where you eat, how you eat,” Spano says. “Do you go out to eat? Are you a snacker? Can you get by on two meals a day? The more things you change, the more difficult it is.”

She recommends talking with a registered dietitian who can help you develop a meal plan tailored to your goals and your current body composition.

“If you want to gain muscle mass, you need to lift heavy things and do it regularly,” says Debbie Dy, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with Fusion Wellness PT in Los Angeles.

To maintain muscle, you need to do at least two days of weight training a week. But if you want to see bigger gains and build more muscle, you’ll need to increase the frequency to three or more times a week.

“Muscle tone is the only thing you can control that can increase metabolism,” Sontag explains. “Without doing any strength training, it is almost impossible to get to your ideal body weight.”

The most effective exercises for muscle gain and fat loss are compound movements, meaning they work out multiple muscle groups at once. Squats, for instance, are an excellent compound exercise that works your quads, glutes, calves and core. For an added challenge, you can combine two compound exercises, such as a squat with an overhead press with dumbbells, to maximize your workout. Focus on making these moves the top priority of your weekly workout routine, and then you can start to think about adding the right cardio workouts.

Because compound movements are more advanced techniques, you may want to consider working with a personal trainer or a physical therapist to help you learn the basics and proper form if you’re not familiar with them. Plus, they can help you safely increase the weight to make it more challenging for you as you progress.

“(They) can show you how to safely track progressive overload, which will cause the essential tearing and breakdown of muscles for gains in muscle mass,” Dy says. “Heavy resistance training stimulates your body to initiate the muscle repair process.”

Doing that while keeping your caloric deficit small and gradual will allow for these changes to be more sustainable over time, she adds.

High-intensity interval training consists of short bursts of explosive anaerobic exercise, followed by a brief resting period. The explosive nature of HIIT workouts can help burn calories and reduce body fat, but it’s not the most effective type of exercise for building lean muscle mass.

However, that’s not to say you should avoid doing a HIIT workout or taking a class at Barry’s, F45 or Orangetheory altogether. When trying to maintain or grow muscle mass, strength training is the name of the game, so you’re best served doing HIIT workouts once or twice per week. Overdoing it on HIIT can overstress your muscles and inhibit growth. Perform HIIT on non-consecutive days and when you’re feeling rested.

Cardiovascular exercise burns calories fast, but – similar to HIIT workouts – it isn’t the best way to build or maintain muscle. Too much cardio can lead muscles to break down over time, as shown in one 2018 review study of ultra-marathon runners.

If you’re looking to add muscle mass, doing cardio should be reserved for your active recovery days when you’re not doing any strength-training workouts. Low-intensity cardio – such as walking, jogging, gentle cycling and swimming – is a great way to increase blood flow throughout the body to get oxygen and other nutrients to your muscle cells.

Roe recommends adding 35 to 45 minutes of cardio a few times a week.

Adjusting the number of sets, reps and minutes of rest in between can affect your physical gains.

“The way in which an exercise program is structured can impact the outcome of your training,” explains Dr. James Suchy, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California.

For example, to increase muscle size and definition, you should lift the maximum weight you can for six to 12 repetitions paired with a rest period of one to two minutes between sets. This is referred to as muscular hypertrophy.

“This is a good entry point for those new to weightlifting and will still provide significant strength and endurance gains,” Suchy adds.

In contrast, if you’re looking to increase muscle strength, Suchy recommends lifting the maximum weight you can for one to six reps, followed by two to three minutes of rest in between sets.

“This requires more experience with weightlifting to avoid injury from poor technique,” he cautions, so it’s best to work with a trainer or coach when you begin this type of training.

If your goal is to increase muscle endurance without necessarily adding too much muscle mass, you’ll want to go for more reps with a lighter – but still challenging – weight. Choose a weight that will allow you to do 12 to 20 repetitions, followed by 30 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.

Contrary to popular belief, muscles don’t grow in the gym. When you put physical strain on your muscles during a workout, you’re actually damaging muscle fibers, creating micro-tears that need to be repaired in order to grow. This can only occur with adequate rest and recovery.

While it may be easy to think that the more you work out the better, you can end up doing more harm than good by overtraining. Symptoms include:

Overtraining can also take a toll on your mental health, causing:

You’re not doing yourself – let alone your fitness goals – any favors by working out too much, so it’s important to build rest days into your weekly workout regimen. Depending on what your body needs, this can mean low-impact activities, such as light walking or yoga, or taking the day off from working out entirely.

Rest also means getting good, quality sleep. For the average adult, seven to nine hours of sleep should be the goal.

Being patient might be the hardest tip of all. You may notice yourself making great gains to start with but they naturally slow over time.

“It becomes progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat as you become more trained and get leaner,” says Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.

It’s just how the human body works: The more fat you have to lose, the easier it is to do. Likewise, the more muscle you have to gain, the easier it is to accomplish.

For some people, noticing these changes as a number on the scale might be slow initially too. Keep in mind, muscle weighs about 20% more than fat, so you may actually be losing fat but not losing overall weight.

“As you change your body and gain muscle mass and lose body fat, your weight may not actually fluctuate that much,” Travis says. “That’s normal because muscle is denser than fat. This is why I encourage regular body composition scanning to ensure you understand what’s happening in your body – how much fat you’re losing and how much muscle you’re gaining.”

But your progress should show in your appearance, how your clothes fit and how strong you feel.

As you get closer to your goal, expect to see more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels. Remember not to get discouraged.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, it’s absolutely possible to build muscle while losing weight. By focusing on proper nutrition, training and rest, you can get closer to achieving your goal of a leaner physique.

Just remember: Targeting muscle gain and fat loss at the same time takes time. You’re not going to see changes happen overnight, so it’s important to make sustainable changes that you can stick with over the long term.


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