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Categories: General Health

Can You Lose Fat and Build Muscle At The Same Time?

By Marc Perry / September 25, 2017

The vast majority of men I meet (and some woman too) want to get more muscular while also achieving a leaner body. In other words, they want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

There are tons of “fitness experts” online who promise the holy grail of getting bigger and leaner by following their workout or nutrition program. Should you believe them?

This article will break down 3 primary questions to help you make the best decision for your own body and what approach to follow.

1. Is it scientifically possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

It depends on on the meaning of “same time”. Could be yes, could be no.

Physiologically speaking, it’s not possible to lose fat and build muscle at the same exact moment in time because one process is catabolic (losing fat) and the other is anabolic (building muscle).

It is possible, however, to gain muscle and lose fat over let’s say the course of two months, or even over the course of a day.

2. Is it worth trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

I think the answer is a resounding “No”.

I give you this answer after one of my private clients gained 10lb of muscle and lost 10lb of fat in only a month. While he certainly is an aberration, the key point is that we were not trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. We were focusing on fat loss without muscle loss by lifting heavy weights – which certainly had a positive impact on his hormones – and taking advantage of his anabolic window, which I will discuss in a second.

There is not one top fitness model, or natural bodybuilder who tries to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. For people whose livelihood depends on their ability to transform their bodies, they focus on a muscle building phase of 6-9 months, then fat loss phase of 2-3 months. I think that should tell you everything you need to know.

Losing fat and building muscle at the same time sounds extremely desirable, but it’s NOT an intelligent approach to maximize your results despite all the marketing you see that tells you otherwise.

Building muscle is anabolic, which requires you create a calorie surplus, while losing fat is catabolic and requires that you create a calorie deficit. Why attempt to do both at the same time for only mediocre results at best?

For over 5 years of my life, I spun my wheels trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time. That’s a LONG time to spend 3-5 days in the gym for little to no results. I don’t want you to experience the same disappointment.

3. How do you lose fat and build muscle at the same time?

The short answer is “nutrient timing” can help you lose fat and build muscle over the course of a few months, but I still STRONGLY recommend having the primary goal of either losing fat, or building muscle NOT both equally. I also want to emphasize that pursuing a fat loss phase, or a muscle building phase is far superior to maximize your results.

Nutrient timing is determined by (1) when you eat, (2) how much you eat, and (3) what you eat that together affect how your body responds. There are different schools of thought regarding nutrient timing and some nutrient timing plans can get so tedious and complicated that you would have to quit your day job to follow them.

So which approach should you focus on? Building muscle or losing fat?

If you have more than 15% body fat (25% body fat for woman), I would strongly recommend focusing on fat loss, with potentially some muscle gain if you’re lucky. The reverse is true for attempting to build muscle with some moderate fat loss. Here are 5 Ways to Measure Your Body Fat if you don’t know where to start and 3 Reasons to Lose Fat First Before Building Muscle.

One very easy to implement nutrient timing strategy for primarily fat loss is to reduce calorie intake for most of the week. Around your strength training workouts you can eat a high protein/moderate carb snack (let’s say 30g of protein, 30g of carbs) both 30 minutes before and after your workout to maximize the anabolic window when your muscles are most sensitive to sucking in protein.

I generally do not recommend this strategy for people looking to lose fat without losing muscle because it can slow down progress, but I have seen it work well.

In terms of your workout routine, workouts don’t need to be that much different for muscle building and fat loss. In fact, many people have lost fat and gained muscle using the 12-week BuiltLean Program. I think regardless of whether your primary goal is losing fat, or building muscle, I would lift weights that are heavy for you to handle. The light weight, high rep strategy is just not as effective.

I know I covered a lot of questions in this one article that I get ALL the time, but let me know if you have any other questions by leaving a comment below. I hope this article was informative for you!

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91 Comments

  • Liza says:

    HI Marc, I LOVE your website and share it on Facebook and via email regularly. Thank you for your great, important work.

    My question is about OVERTRAINING. It's mentioned in some articles, but I think it's worthy of its own article. Specifically, I'd like to know:

    What are the signs of overtraining?
    Example: I do the run/walk interval you recommend and now my pulse doesn't get as high as it did originally? Should I just go faster or do interval training another way (run up stairs, walk down; or bike)?

    What's the difference (if any) between overtraining and hitting a plateau? I believe we're supposed to 'switch up' our workouts every 4-6 weeks to keep our bodies (and minds!) from getting complacent; correct?

    Thanks, again!
    Liza

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Liza - Thanks for sharing my website! I really appreciate it.

      Our contributor Stephen Bergeron should be writing an article this month about overtraining, so we'll likely publish it late this month, or early next month.

      Here are the answers to your questions:

      What are the signs of overtraining?
      Example: I do the run/walk interval you recommend and now my pulse doesn’t get as high as it did originally? Should I just go faster or do interval training another way (run up stairs, walk down; or bike)?

      As you get in better shape, it's harder to keep your heart rate higher as you exercise, which is a good thing - so the heart rate is lower for a given exercise intensity. At the same time, a decreased heart rate can be a sign of overtraining, but you'll know it (see answer to next question). You can increase the intensity of the intervals if you like, but it's up to you. To increase intensity, you can do more intervals (wouldn't go much above 10), and/or increase the intensity (length, time, or speed) of the "work" part of the interval, or decrease the rest of the interval. There are a lot of variables you can adjust to make it harder if you want. Just don't burn yourself out!

      What’s the difference (if any) between overtraining and hitting a plateau? I believe we’re supposed to ‘switch up’ our workouts every 4-6 weeks to keep our bodies (and minds!) from getting complacent; correct?
      Hitting a plateau means your strength/cardio/performance levels are not improving, whereas overtraining is an entirely different phenomenon. Some signs of overtraining are - unable to sleep, overly fatigued, sluggish, your joints/bones/limbs hurt. It's very unpleasant and happens if you are lifting and exercising very intensely every day. It's not easy to overtrain unless you are working out A LOT (2 hours per day+) and very intensely.

      Hope this helps and thanks again for sharing the site!

  • Jordan says:

    Hey Marc, I just got done with my twelve week bulking phase. During that time I was consuming around 4412 calories, 508 grams of carbs, 379 grams of protein, 105 grams of fat, 64 grams of fiber, and 122 oz. of water per day, all consumed within six meals. I am now on to my cutting phase and have a great workout, but I need some direction on how to change my diet. I want to make sure I am comsuming the proper amount so I can get max. results, as i have come to find out the nutritional side of building a better body is key to your success. Any advice?

    Things you might need to know:
    -Before 12 week bulking phase I was 180 pounds.
    -After 12 weeks I gained 10 pounds, making me 190 pounds.
    -Height is 6'3''
    -Ectomorphic build

    Thanks,

    Jordan

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Jordan - Congrats on your success during your bulking phase. Bulking is way harder than cutting, that's for sure. I did a Q&A with Men's fitness the other day and someone asked me about how not to lose muscle when doing cardio. Check it out:

      Question: At what point am I potentially in jeopardy of losing muscle instead of body fat?

      Answer: "The answer depends on a number of factors including your (1) macronutrient intake - amount of protein, carbs, and fat, (2) total calorie intake, (3) total calorie burn, and (4) your genetics. From my experience, I've never had a client lose muscle as long as he ate roughly 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass, created less than a 35% calorie deficit of his estimated calorie burn, did not eat under 100 grams of carbs and strength trained. If any of those four conditions are not met, there is a possibility you will lose muscle. It's tough to find specific research because genetics play an important role. For example, some people can do very well on low carb diets, whereas others may lose hard-earned muscle. Regarding the total calorie burn level, ideally use the Katch & McArdle method, or the shorthand method of 14 x your body weight, which assumes you are exercising moderately 3x per week and you have a sedentary job."

      I think if you follow the advice in the preceding paragraph, you'll get to where you want to be without losing any muscle. If you want an entire nutrition program, you can check out my BuiltLean Program which has tons of meal and snack ideas and pre-made menus.

  • Eric says:

    Marc, I never did see a response to my comment from back on May 3rd. I was curious if you had a chance to look it over?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Hey Eric, just answered your question, thanks for the follow up.

  • asurfturf says:

    Thanks Marc I read the post you put up so I will give it a try and let you know how it goes. Thanks again.

  • rajan pathania says:

    i am 78 kg of body weight and 5feet 6 inches of hight ... I have great body structure and good legs also but little bit fats on my abdominal ... So please sugest me how can i loose lower midle body fat by maintaining my muscle maff as usual...?

  • Deep says:

    Sir, i'm Deep i'm 18 years old my height is 5.7 inch my weight is 57 kg i want to gain my muscle and not want to gain fat please tell which protein will help me for that Amino acid supplement or Whey protein or any other protein and i want to grow my height i do workout daily. So please tell me your suggestions. Thanks

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Deep - Check out the 5th question/answer in this article, which I think summarizes well what muscle building is about. I do plan on writing a longer "how to build muscle" type of post soon. For whey protein, check out this article - whey protein.

  • Peter says:

    Hello Marc, so "normally" we cannot build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but can we "normally" 1) increase strength and lose fat at the same time? and 2) increase endurance and lose fat at the same time?

    A related question is that because metabolism is dependent on lean muscle mass, if we cannot build muscle and lose fat at the same time, so we cannot increase metabolism and lose fat at the same time, correct?

    I'm asking because I'm wondering whether I should actually try to build muscle before trying to lose fat (I've read your post about 3 reasons to lose fat before building muscle, I'm a grown up but I have almost never lifted any weight in my entire life, so I don't think I have many muscle). I think it might be more beneficial to have more muscle and more strength and endurance so I can have increased metabolism and can work harder in workouts so that they may be more efficient. By the way I am a Chinese, 5'7", 150lb, I'm waiting for my fat monitor to ship but I guess my body fat is about 20%

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Peter - you certainly can increase strength and lose fat at the same time, but that is much more likely to happen for someone who is a beginner. For someone more advanced, the goal is simply not to lose strength as you lose fat. You can also increase your aerobic capacity/endurance as you lose fat. Generally, your metabolism will decrease as you lose fat because your body mass is decreasing, but your total daily calorie burn from activity can increase if you are working our sufficiently.

      One you thing you can try is the calorie cycling concept while lifting weights for a couple months and see what happens to your weight/body composition.

  • Atiquah says:

    Hi Marc,

    I've been weight training for over 2 years now after 4 years of 'wasted' slow cardio. I am a 31 year old woman weighing at 115 pounds, 18% body fat and seems I have hit a plateau again. I've done HIIT in the past but since appointing a personal trainer I have not done so. I have read so much last few years and incorporated MRT recently but I just can

  • Atiquah says:

    Sorry...I clicked on wrong button... I just can't seem to get leaner and gain muscle. I have love handles that won't shift even though I am able to achieve a very toned stomach, it doesn't make sense. I don't have as much time as I used to have to workout anymore due to kids, university and work. What do you suggest I do? Also, I have lost the derrière region for some reason and even by pushing 120kg on the leg press or lifting 60kg squats, it just won't 'plump up'. I eat 5 small meals a day and a protein shake after workouts. Porridge for breakfast, veggie omelette and salad for lunch, chicken breast and veg for dinner and snack with fruits and nuts in between. I also have a cheat day once a week to control leptin levels and hormones etc...your website is so informative and helpful, I just had to ask. Thank you for your time and effort.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Atiquah - Thanks for the kind comment regarding my site. I'll try to rapid fire answers as you had a lot of questions. Body fat distribution in terms of your love handles and your lean stomach is genetic. We all have our "problem" areas and they differ from person to person. So the fact you have a toned stomach and love handles is not unusual. Side, forward, and reverse lunges are ideal for improving glute strength and getting the rear end bigger. Also, when you squat, make sure you to go parallel (see: how deep should i squat?). Sounds like you are on the right track, just keep up the good work. Also, I would strongly recommend focusing on losing fat, or building muscle, not both at the same time (see: Can You Lose Fat and Build Muscle At The Same Time?.

  • Barnett says:

    Personally I think the best way to lose weight and build muscle is to look at your goals. Are you trying to A) lose weight to have a more muscular look or are you trying to B) build lean muscle to add to your frame?

    If your goal is...
    A) Then you should focus on a weight loss diet and routine, for your body will naturally build muscle as you lose weight.
    B) Then you should embrace more quality protein in your diet and focus own resistant exercise training.

    Whatever your goal is I'm confident that the 'Get Lean Guide' will help you achieve your goals.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Barnett - Thanks for the Get Lean Guide reference. Also totally agree with your comment.

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