How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time

Learn how to lose fat and build muscle at the same time and get a sample workout to do just that.

Ben Greenfield,
February 14, 2011
Episode #039

Get-Fit Guy Ben Greenfield on How to Burn the Most Fat

Just admit it. It would be pretty nice if you could walk into a gym and a do a workout that burns fat and builds muscle at the same time. There’s nothing like the best of both worlds! But is it really possible to lose that extra flab around your waistline, and get firm, toned muscles at the same time? And if so, how do you do it without defying the laws of physics? In this article, you’ll learn whether it is possible to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, and if so, how?

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

Technically, it seems impossible to build muscle and lose fat. Here is why: Your body needs about 2,500 calories to build one pound of muscle. So if you wanted to make one pound of muscle in seven days, you could eat an extra 350 calories every day. Assuming you are weight training, those extra calories can easily be converted into muscle. But you also need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose one pound of fat. So if you wanted to lose one pound of fat in seven days, each day you would need to eat 500 fewer calories than you were burning so that your body would use your storage fat for energy instead of the calories you were eating. Unless you have a very cool, physics-defying trick up your sleeve, it’s impossible to eat an extra 350 calories a day to build muscle and also eat 500 fewer calories a day to lose fat! So at first glance, it should be impossible to both build muscle and lose fat.

What Do Fat Burning and Muscle Building Studies Tell Us?

In a situation like this, the best place to turn is science, which can tell us whether something that seems to be impossible may actually be possible.

One study from California State University tracked a group of healthy men for eight weeks. The men ate a lot of food--over 4000 calories a day--and did weight training four days a week for 60-90 minutes. The men gained an average of six pounds of muscle, but also gained ½ pound of fat. In another study, men also trained with weights several times a week, but this time, they ate just a little over 2000 calories a day. This group gained 2.5 pounds of muscle and lost over 7 pounds of fat!

What About Fat Burning and Muscle Building Studies with Women?

How to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle At the Same Time

A similar set of studies were done on women. Women who performed weight training workouts for eight weeks, but didn’t diet, added 2.4 pounds of muscle, but didn’t lose much fat. In the same study, a group of women who dieted added a pound of muscle over the same time frame, but lost a significant amount of fat.

So far, we’ve learned that you can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but you need to be willing to gain muscle at a significantly lower rate than you would if you weren’t trying to lose fat at the same time.

The Most Interesting Finding

But perhaps most interesting is a study of fourteen women who were on a significantly small, 800 calorie, high protein diet. Seven of the women lifted weights for 30-40 minutes three days a week, and the other seven women dieted but did not weigh train. Both groups of women lost 33 pounds, but the group that weight lifted actually increased their lean muscle mass by 6 percent, whereas the women that did not lift weights lost muscle along with the fat.

So now we’ve learned that if you want to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you can even do it when you’re dieting, but you have to lift weights!

How Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time

Now, there is one missing key that will make if far easier to lose fat and build muscle at the same time...

...Rather than simply going on a low-calorie, high-protein diet and lifting weights, you can get much better results if you cycle your caloric intake.

No, this does not mean that you eat while you’re on a bicycle. What it means is that you fluctuate (or cycle) between a period of low caloric intake and weight lifting, and a period of high caloric intake and weight lifting. Although you can lose a significant amount of fat with this strategy, it will allow you to build muscle more quickly than simply dieting.

So how do you use this muscle-building, fat-burning strategy? There are two options. The first option is to eat a low calorie diet, 500-1000 calories lower than your metabolic rate, and make sure you’re consuming adequate protein (read more about how much protein to eat in the article Do Muscle Building Supplements Really Work?) Do this 5-6 days a week. Then 1-2 days a week, eat a higher amount of calories, preferably 500-1000 calories more than what you’re burning. That is called a re-feed day, and you can learn more about it in the Get-Fit Guy newsletter.

The second option, which can be much tougher to adhere to, is to eat the same low calorie diet while weight lifting for 3-5 weeks, then spend 1-2 weeks incorporating a higher calorie intake. I can tell you from personal experience that spending 3-5 weeks on a low calorie diet can be mentally and physically challenging!

A Sample Workout to Lose Fat and Gain Muscle

Of course, none of the calorie cycling or re-feeding methods outlined above will work unless you’re weight training. So what is the best workout to lose fat and build muscle? The key is to not over-do it, since you’ll already be at a slight caloric deficit. For example, three days per week, you can lift weights for 30-40 minutes, and then on a fourth, re-feeding day, you can exercise harder, and lift weights for 60-90 minutes. If you’re adopting the weekly protocol instead, you can go 3-5 weeks lifting weights for 30-40 minutes every other day, and then during your higher calorie intake weeks, lift weights longer and harder, such as 60-90 minutes every other day.

Here is a sample program for the 30-40 minute weight lifting session and the 60-90 minute weight lifting session.

30-40 minute session:

Complete the following as a circuit, 3-4x through, with 10-12 repetitions for each exercise. Read How To Start Weight Training if you’re unsure of these movements or instructions, and use this website to see exercise videos.

  1. Dumbbell Chest Press

  2. Pull-Up or Pull-Down

  3. Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  4. Seated Row or One Arm Row

  5. Squat

  6. Deadlift

  7. Incline Crunch

60-90 minute session:

Do the same circuit above, but complete the exercises one-by-one, performing 4-5 sets of 8-10 repetitions before moving on to the next exercise.

You’ll get good aerobic benefit out of your weight training, but if you want to include cardio, just perform a brief, intense 10 minute cardio bout before each weight training session. If you are at a calorie deficit, doing much more aerobic training than that may actually inhibit muscle gain.

Finally, remember that the only way to truly know if you’re losing fat and building muscle is to take your body fat percentage. I’ll be explaining more about that in next week’s article.

In the meantime, I’m curious how much muscle you’ve gained and weight you’ve lost in your program, so head over to the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page and share your experiences!

Woman with Dumbells image from Shutterstock