How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat…at the Same Time

If you want to know what it really takes to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, then you want to read this article.

Build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

It sounds so simple, right? Why shouldn’t we be able to do it?

Well, some people say it’s a fool’s errand. Others say you need to follow “special” forms of dieting and training. Others still say it takes steroids.

They’re all wrong.

Building muscle and losing fat simultaneously (or “body recomposition,” as it’s often called), isn’t beyond the power of us mere natties.

It’s doable, and it doesn’t require esoteric knowledge, fancy or newfangled methodologies, or drugs.

There’s a catch, though.

You may or may not be able to do it, depending on your body composition, training experience, and more.

So, in this article, I’m going to help you understand how body recomposition works and exactly what to do to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Why Losing Fat and Gaining Muscle is Tricky

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The reason why many people think building muscle and losing fat at the same time is a pipe dream has to do with something called “protein biosynthesis” or “protein synthesis.”

Every day, your cells undergo “maintenance work” whereby damaged, faulty, and degraded cells are eliminated and new cells are created to take their place.

Protein synthesis refers to the creation of new cells and protein degradation refers to the elimination of unwanted ones.

Under normal health and dietary circumstances, muscle tissue is fairly stable and the cycle of cellular regeneration remains balanced.  

That is, the average person doesn’t lose or gain muscle at an accelerated rate–his or her lean mass more or less remains level on a day-to-day basis. (If we don’t take actions to stop it, we actually slowly lose lean mass as we age, but you get the point.)

Now, when we train our muscles we damage the cells in the muscle fibers, and this signals the body to increase protein synthesis rates to repair the damage.

Our bodies are smart, too, and want to adapt to better deal with the activity that caused the muscle damage. To do this, they add cells to the muscle fibers, and this is how muscles get bigger and stronger (and why progressive overload is so important for building muscle and strength).

Thus, what we think of as just “muscle growth” is actually the result of protein synthesis rates exceeding protein breakdown rates over time.

In other words, when your body synthesizes (creates) more muscle proteins than it loses, you have gained muscle. If it creates fewer than it loses, you have lost muscle. If it creates more or less the same number as it loses, you have neither gained nor lost muscle.

This is why bodybuilders do everything they can to elevate protein synthesis rates and suppress protein degradation rates, including…

  • High-protein and high-carb dieting
  • Heavy compound weightlifting
  • Pre-workout and post-workout nutrition
  • Eating protein before bed
  • Limiting cardio
  • Supplementation
  • (And in many cases) steroids and other drugs

In short, they are doing everything they can to bolster protein synthesis and suppress protein degradation rates with the aim of gaining as much muscle as possible.

Now that we understand the basic physiology of muscle growth, let’s look at how it’s affected by fat loss.

In order to lose fat, you need to give your body less energy (food) than it burns over time.

This is known as creating a calorie or energy deficit, and it’s the most important factor in weight loss. Regardless what you eat, if you’re eating more energy than you’re burning, you will not get leaner. Period.

While necessary for losing fat, a calorie deficit causes the body to adapt in various ways. Two adaptations are particularly relevant to the subject at hand: a reduction in both anabolic hormone levels and protein synthesis rates.

As you can imagine, these changes directly interfere with your body’s ability to create new muscle proteins.

And to make matters worse, many people trying to lose weight also make diet and training mistakes that further impair muscle building and accelerate muscle loss.

This is why it’s generally thought that you can’t build muscle while in a calorie deficit to lose fat. When in a calorie deficit, protein synthesis rates may not be able to outpace protein degradation rates and hence, no muscle growth.

 

 Well, that’s true for some people, but not all…

Who Can Burn Fat and Build Muscle Effectively and Who Can’t

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You now know what your muscles are up against when you’re in a calorie deficit and why building muscle while losing fat is an uphill–and sometimes unwinnable–battle.

The good news, however, is that if you’re anxiously reading this article, you probably can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

I say that because you’re probably either new to weightlifting or new to properweightlifting–weightlifting that emphasizes heavy, compound training with the primary goal of getting stronger over time (progressive overload).

And when that’s the case, I can almost guarantee that you can add muscle and lose fat at the same time.

The people who can’t, or who can only gain an amount of muscle so small that it’s negligible, are experienced weightlifters who have several years of proper training under their belts (people like me).

Unfortunately, if you’ve already achieved a large portion of your genetic potential in terms of muscle growth, you’re not going to be able to “recomp” effectively.

Instead, you’re going to want to juggle “bulking” and “cutting” periods to add muscle and fat and lose fat and not muscle, respectively.

The reason for this dramatic difference between “newbies” and veteran lifters is people new to weightlifting or proper weightlifting can benefit greatly from “newbie gains.”

The long story short is when you first start weightlifting, or first start properly overloading your muscles, your body is hyper-responsive and can gain muscle at a very fast rate.

Most guys can gain up to 25 pounds of muscle in their first year of weightlifting (and most girls can gain up to half of that). Contrast that with the reality that someone with 3+ years of proper training under their belts is limited to 3 to 5 pounds of muscle gain per year, and you see the magnitude of these effects.

The newbie “jump start” is simply large enough to overpower the muscle-related disadvantages of a calorie deficit, which still slow down muscle growth but can’t halt it altogether.

When powered by newbie gains, you won’t gain as much muscle in a calorie deficit as you would in a calorie surplus, but you can gain enough to dramatically improve your physique.

So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to how to actually build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

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Just because your body can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously doesn’t mean it comes easily.

As I mentioned earlier, even when you do it right, muscle growth is slower while in a calorie deficit than a surplus.

It’s hard to say how much slower.

I haven’t come across any research worth citing, but I’ve worked with thousands of people and feel it’s safe to say that potential muscle gain in newbies is halved by a calorie deficit.

That is, if you could gain 10 pounds of muscle in your first 12 weeks of weightlifting if you were in a mild calorie surplus, you could expect to gain about 5 pounds if you’re in a deficit.

So be patient.

Wild claims on the Internet about losing double-digit amounts of body fat in a couple months and gaining the same in muscle are lies. What you’re usually looking at is a combination of muscle memory, drugs, and Photoshopping.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how to actually go about gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time.

Maintain a Moderate Calorie Deficit

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You may be able to build muscle in a calorie deficit but most definitely can’t lose fat unless you’re in a deficit, which is why a recomp requires being in a calorie deficit.

It’s important that you don’t put yourself in too large of a deficit, though, because it can lead to muscle loss, energy and mood crashes, and other problems.

How large of a deficit is too large, though? What’s optimal?

Well, we can thank researchers at the University of Jyväskylä for an answer.

They conducted a study with national- and international-level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or under 10%), who were separated into two groups:

  •  A daily calorie deficit of 300 calories (about 12% below their total daily energy expenditure)
  • A daily calorie deficit of 750 (about 25% less than TDEE)

Both groups ate a high-protein diet and, after 4 weeks, the athletes on a 300-calorie deficit lost very little fat and muscle while the group on a 750-calorie deficit lost, on average, about 4 pounds of fat and very little muscle.

These findings completely jive with my experience both with my body and the thousands of people I’ve worked with.

You can be aggressive (but not reckless) with your calorie restriction and dramatically increase fat loss without sacrificing muscle.

This is why I generally recommend a calorie deficit of 20 to 25% for losing fat.

Focus on Heavy Compound Weightlifting

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The oft-repeated advice to focus on high-rep workouts to really “shred up” is idiotic.

Getting that coveted “shredded” look is only a matter of having sufficient muscle and a low body fat percentage. One style of training will not inherently make you look “more shredded” than another.

 

 Thus, if you want to look as good as possible when you’re lean, you want to add muscle to your frame as quickly as possible.

And when that’s the goal, I can’t overstate the importance of emphasizing heavy, compound weightlifting in your workouts.

What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises involve multiple major muscle groups and require the most whole-body strength and effort.

Examples of compound exercises are the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press.

Isolation exercises involve one muscle group and require significantly less whole-body strength and effort.

Examples of isolation exercises are the biceps curl, cable flye, and side lateral raise.

The subject of compound versus isolation exercises deserves (and will get) its own article, but here’s the long story short:

If you want to build maximum muscle and strength, you want to focus on compound exercises in your workouts.

This has been known in bodybuilding and strength training circles for decades now, and you can find scientific evidence of it as well.

There’s a good reason why the most popular weightlifting programs in the worldrevolve around building strength on a handful of key, compound lifts.

It works.

How heavy is “heavy”?

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One of the first questions I had when I started lifting was how heavy I should be training.

That is, which rep range is best, and why?

Is the 10 to 12 range espoused by most fitness magazine workouts the way to go? Higher? Lower?

Well, I quickly learned that getting a simple answer to this question is far from simple. The amount of dissent among experts leaves you scratching your head, wondering whom to believe.

That was years ago, though, and I’ve done a lot of studying since and have worked with a few thousand people, and I feel I have an answer worth sharing.

And here’s what it boils down to:

If you want to maximize muscle growth, you want to train with heavy loads and a moderate volume.

That is, you want to emphasize heavy weights (80%+ of 1RM, or 4 to 6/5 to 7 rep range) and you want to do a moderate number of reps (60 to 80) per major muscle group each week.

As with the emphasis on compound movements, this is backed by decades of both anecdotal and scientific evidence.

For example, one well-designed study published earlier this year separated 33 physically active, resistance-trained men into two groups:

  1. A high-volume, moderate-intensity group that did 4 workouts per week consisting of 4 sets per exercise in the 10 to 12 rep range (70% of 1RM).
  2. A moderate-volume, high-intensity group that did 4 workouts per week consisting of 4 sets per exercise in the 3 to 5 rep range (90% of 1RM).

Both groups did the same exercises (which included the bench press, back squat, deadlift, and seated shoulder press), and both were instructed to maintain their normal eating habits (which was monitored with food diaries).

And the result?

After 8 weeks of training, scientists found that the high-intensity group gained significantly more muscle and strength than the high-volume group.

It’s no surprise that the high-intensity group gained more strength, but many people wouldn’t have expected them to gain more muscle as well.

Researchers cite two main reasons for why the heavier training beat out the lighter:

1. Higher amounts of mechanical stress imposed on the muscles.

The high-volume training, on the other hand, caused higher amounts of metabolic stress.

2. Greater activation of muscle fibers.

And this, in turn, results in a greater adaptation across a larger percentage of the muscle tissue.

So, what can we learn from this study (and from others like it)?

1. We should focus on lifting heavy weights for fewer reps.

This is more important than maximizing cellular fatigue through high-rep sets, drop sets, giant sets, and so forth.

2. We should focus on progressive overload.

In the study outlined above, subjects increased weight on the bar after hitting their prescribed reps for two workouts.

The key here was an emphasis on overloading the muscle, not on increasing the number of reps performed.

Now, that isn’t to say that higher-rep training and isolation exercises have no place in a weightlifting program.

They just shouldn’t be the focus. 

Do HIIT Cardio

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You can lose fat without doing cardio, but if you want to lose it as quickly as possible, you want to include cardio in your routine.

And while you can accelerate fat loss with something as simple as walking, if you want to lose fat as rapidly as possible and don’t mind a challenge, then you want to do high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

In case you’re not familiar with it, HIIT is a style of exercising where you alternate between periods of (almost) all-out and low effort. Hence, the name.

The high-intensity intervals push your body toward its metabolic limits (basically as hard as you can go) and the low-intensity intervals allow it to recover (catching your breath).

This style of training is gaining more and more popularity these days because studies show it’s far better for burning fat and preserving muscle than the more traditional low-intensity steady-state cardio.

Let’s find out why.

HIIT burns more fat per minute than steady-state cardio. 

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This fact has been proven again, again, and again. It’s just indisputable at this point:

HIIT burns more fat over time than low-intensity cardio, and a study conducted by scientists at The University of Western Ontario gives us insight into how much more effective it really is.

Researchers had 10 men and 10 women train 3 times per week, with one group doing 4 to 6 30-second treadmill sprints (with 4 to 6 minutes of rest in between each), and the other group doing 30 to 60 minutes of steady-state cardio (running on the treadmill at about 65% of VO2 max).

After 6 weeks of training, the subjects doing the intervals had lost significantly more fat.

Yes, 4 to 6 30-second sprints burns more fat than 60 minutes of incline treadmill walking.

The exact mechanisms behind HIIT’s superiority aren’t fully understood yet, but scientists have isolated quite a few of the factors:

  • Increased resting metabolic rate for upward of 24 hours after exercise.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity in the muscles.
  • Higher levels of fat oxidation in the muscles.
  • Significant spikes in growth hormone levels (which aid in fat loss) and catecholamine levels (which are chemicals your body produces to mobilize fat stores for burning).
  • Post-exercise appetite suppression.
  • And more…

The science is clear: if your goal is to burn as much fat in as little time as possible, then HIIT is the way to go.

HIIT preserves more muscle than steady-state cardio.

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Studies have also shown that the longer your cardio sessions are, the more they impair strength and muscle growth.

That doesn’t mean that cardio directly impairs muscle growth, though. Because it doesn’t.

Too much cardio does.

The right amount of cardio, however, can actually accelerate muscle growth.

What is the right amount, then? Well, there are two factors to consider:

  1. The intensity and duration of the individual cardio sessions.
  2. The total amount of cardio done each week.

And when the goal is optimizing body composition (which requires progress in the weight room), you need to keep your individual cardio sessions short but intense enough to burn a significant amount of calories, and your total weekly duration relatively low.

Only HIIT allows you to fulfill these criteria and burn significant amounts of fat.

How to use HIIT to lose fat (and not muscle) faster.

When I’m cutting, I do about 1.5 to 2 hours of HIIT cardio per week (and no more than 25 to 30 minutes per session), and my favorite type is the recumbent or upright bike.

And yes, per week.

If that surprises you–if you were expecting to see an hour or more per day–I understand. I also used to think it took many hours of cardio to get extremely lean.

Well, I was wrong

Get Enough Sleep

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Inadequate sleep hurts both sides of your efforts to build muscle and lose fat.

Research shows that sleep deprivation causes hormonal disruptions that can cause muscle loss, which helps explain why it has been linked to muscular atrophy.

For example, one study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago found that when 10 healthy men reduced sleep for a week from about 9 hours per night to 5, their testosterone levels dropped by up to 14%.

Insufficient sleep also decreases growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-I (IGF-1) levels, which play important roles in maintaining and building muscle mass. Studies also show that sleep restriction raises free cortisol levels, which further impairs muscle gain.

And in terms of losing fat, sleeping too little can magnify your appetite, which makes you more likely to break your diet and overeat.

Sleep needs vary from individual to individual, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need an average of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to be well rested.