In order to answer this one, we need to begin with the big problem that causes people to ask it so often in the first place.
Two Little Facts… One Big Problem
If you’re a regular reader of mine, then you already know what I’m about to tell you. But if you’re not, please allow me to bring the following two facts to your attention…
- FACT 1: Losing fat requires a caloric deficit, which means consuming LESS calories than your body needs so that stored body fat is used for energy instead.
- FACT 2: Building muscle requires a caloric surplus, which means consuming MORE calories than your body needs so that new muscle tissue can be created.
Once you put these two facts side-by-side, you come to a very obvious and confusing problem: losing fat and building muscle require the complete opposite of each other in terms of calorie intake.
And it’s this realization that leads those of us who want to build muscle AND lose fat (ideally at the exact same time) to wonder just how in the hell we’re supposed to make it happen?
In fact, it leads us to wonder if it’s actually possible for it to happen at all? Can it even be done?
Well, let’s clear it up once and for all, starting with whether it’s actually possible…
Can It Be Done?
The answer is: YES!
Yup, seriously. It is indeed possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. In fact, I’ve even done it before myself. Anyone who says it can’t be done is 100% wrong.
That’s the good news.
The bad news however is that it’s not exactly something that everyone will be able to make it happen. Meaning, some people can do it… but most people can’t.
Let’s start with those lucky bastards who can…
Who CAN Do Both At The Same Time?
There are primarily 4 groups of people who can do it. In no specific order, they are:
- Fat Beginners
- People Regaining Lost Muscle
- Genetic Freaks
- Steroid/Drug Users
Now I’m sure #3 and #4 aren’t all that surprising. I mean, we all have an equal amount of jealousy and hate towards the people with amazing genetics for a reason, don’t we? They can do stuff we can’t do, and the stuff we can do they just do better, faster and easier.
And, as I’ve covered before, steroids and various drugs completely change everything.
So let’s ignore those two groups and look at the only two groups most of us will ever have a possibly of falling into: fat beginners and people regaining lost muscle.
1. Fat Beginners
The untrained state beginners are in when they start working out makes them primed for rapid improvements in virtually every area, especially strength and muscle. Noob gains are just awesome like that.
Now, if you combine this borderline superpower that beginner’s possess with an abundance of body fat, you end up with a magical calorie partitioning scenario that gives fatter beginners a short term ability to take calories stored on their body as fat and use them to build new muscle.
Basically, your body burns fat as a fuel source for muscle growth, essentially using your own body fat as your “surplus calories.” Like I said, it’s pretty damn magical.
Now how “fat” of a “fat beginner” do you need to be exactly to pull this off? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that the fatter you are, the more capable you’ll be of doing it… and the better and more significant your results will be. The leaner you are, the less likely you’ll be to actually make it happen and the worse/less significant your results will be.
So, if you have just a few pounds of fat to lose, don’t get your hopes up too high. But if you have quite a bit of fat on you to lose, you’ll most likely have a short term ability to both build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
To do this, create a moderate caloric deficit, get the rest of your diet right (sufficient protein intake, etc.) and use an intelligently designed beginner routine focused on progressive overload (and work your ass off to make it happen).
While you definitely won’t be building muscle at the same rate you’ll be losing fat (not even close), you’ll still be able to make some decent strength and muscle gains while in a deficit.
But keep in mind, this is only a temporary thing. As time passes and you become less fat and less of an untrained beginner (and more muscular, too), you’ll lose this superpower and become human again just like the rest of us. Enjoy it while it lasts.
2. People Regaining Lost Muscle
Similar to the fat beginner, there is another group of people who will be able to pull off a similar type of magic. In this case, the magic in question is largely due to the fact that muscle memory is very much real, and very much spectacular.
I’ve had the unfortunate luck of actually experiencing it first hand, as I once stopped training for about 3-4 months due to injury. I lost a bunch of muscle, AND I gained a little bit of fat along the way. As you can imagine, it sucked.
If there was one “positive” thing that came out of it however, it was getting to see what it’s like to return to lifting after a significant break and try to A) lose that fat, B) rebuild the muscle that I had previously built but now lost, and C) do both as fast as F-ing possible.
I don’t have the details in front of me, so I don’t remember exactly what happened or exactly how it happened. But, without a doubt, I was temporarily losing fat AND building muscle.
Each week certain measurements would consistently go up (like my arms) while other measurements went down (like my stomach). Strength came back at beginner speeds, if not faster (and my guess is faster). My weight was all over the place. Some weeks I’d lose, some weeks I’d gain, some weeks I’d maintain.
But in the end, there was less fat and more muscle on my body. And during the early stages, it was clearly happening simultaneously within the same period of time. I expected progress to go well, but it exceeded my expectations.
One of these days I’ll do a full breakdown of exactly what happened and what I did to make it happen, along with a complete week-by-week recap of how it all played out. It was pretty interesting, at least to me.
But the point I’m getting at here is that if you’ve built a decent amount of muscle, but then stopped training for a significant period of time during which some/most/all of that muscle was lost and body fat was gained, you’ll be able to rebuild that muscle WHILE losing that fat, at least for a little while. Just like with fat beginners though, this is only a temporary thing. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Who CAN’T Do Both At The Same Time?
For the most part… everyone else.
Certainly not at anything even remotely close to an acceptable rate, if any rate at all. I know it sucks to hear that, but it’s the truth.
Unless you happen to fall into one of the four groups mentioned above, the likelihood of you being able to build muscle and lose fat at the same time falls somewhere between slim and none. Or, to narrow it down even further, none and none.
But wait, what’s that you say? What about those who claim it can be done? What about those who claim they’ve done it themselves? What about those who claim it’s totally possible as long as you do it a certain way?
I had a feeling you’d bring that up.
But I’ve Seen Claims That It Can Be Done!
Yeah, I’ve seen those claims too. More often than not, it’s usually one of four things…
Do me a favor. The next time you see some fitness guru claim that “everyone else has it wrong… we can all build muscle and lose fat at the same time,” take a second and let me know what happens next.
I mean, as soon as they are done explaining why it’s possible or how it’s possible (or more often just hyping the fact that it’s supposedly possibly), do they just so happen to have some kind of program, book, supplement or product of some kind that you can buy to make it all happen?
Yeah, what a shocking coincidence.
This is probably the most common format you’ll see this claim made in… when it’s part of the sales pitch/marketing of some shitty product. Like most of the stuff you’ll see in the diet and fitness world… it’s just good old lies, deception and bullshit put out there to get you to buy something.
You know, just like how you can use this supplement to lose 20lbs of fat in 5 days, or use this program to build 25lbs of muscle in 3 weeks. Whatever it is you need to hear to get your credit card out, someone will gladly be there to claim it. This is no different.
Add in steroid use, muscle memory, or both, and they’ll even have the pictures to “prove” their claim. They’ll just accidentally forget to mention the steroid use and muscle memory part, of course.
Then we have people who aren’t really lying like group #1 is, at least not knowingly. Rather, these are the people who have somehow come to believe that this is a perfectly achievable goal for everyone (usually as a result of group #1) and are now out in the world spreading their own stupid misinformation.
Again, this is as common as it gets. I’d estimate that someone says something wrong and stupid about diet and fitness every second of every day while thinking what they’re saying is in fact right and smart. But it’s not. It’s just a nice example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
So the next time you see someone claim that we can all build muscle and lose fat at the same time as long as we just “eat clean,” or “eat 6 small meals a day to speed up our metabolism,” or “avoid carbs after 7PM,” or “get our post workout meal just right” or whatever else… ignore them.
Like the majority of the diet and fitness advice you’ll hear from the average person, it falls somewhere between “not quite accurate” and “dumb as hell.”
Sometimes the claim can actually be 100% legit depending on exactly what the phrase “at the same time” means to you.
Are we literally talking about doing one while simultaneously doing the other? Or, are we just talking about building muscle and losing fat within the same period of time (e.g. 6 weeks, 3 months, 1 year, etc.)?
This seems like a silly point, I know. But, I’ve seen programs sold that claim they will allow you to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, only to go on to tell you to spend 10 weeks building muscle, then spend 10 weeks losing fat… and taadaaa!
Over the span of those 20 weeks, you’ve built muscle and lost fat “at the same time.” Not quite what you had in mind, was it?
4. The “Recomp”
And last but not least, we have various “recomp” methods.
These recomp (short for recomposition) methods typically involve alternating days of surpluses and deficits over the course of the week. The surpluses are put on training days to support muscle growth, and the deficits are put on rest days to cause fat loss. The goal at the end of the week is to break even and be at maintenance while (supposedly) making small progress in both directions.
So while there will be no real immediate change to your weight or your body, you’ll (supposedly) be making slow/tiny improvements in body composition over time. Meaning, less fat and more muscle.
Can this kind of thing work? I lean towards some combination of “maybe, kinda, barely and sometimes.”
The problem however is that if it does work, it will work so painfully and unacceptably slow that it will serve as a huge waste of time and effort for most people looking to build muscle, lose fat or do both.
I mean, if you’re only looking to make super tiny changes to your body, and you’re in absolutely no rush whatsoever to do it, it can maybe be an option to consider trying.
But honestly, for the majority of the population, it’s not really something I’d recommend at all.
But Then… How Do You Reach Both Goals?
It’s pretty simple, actually. You focus on one goal at a time and then alternate between them in a way that doesn’t interfere with the other.
Confused? Here’s what that means in English…
- You spend some period of time losing fat and getting lean. During this time, you should most definitely still be weight training intelligently so you can, at the very least, maintain your current levels of muscle and strength while body fat is lost. More about that here: How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle and in my new program: Superior Fat Loss
- Then, once you’re as lean as you wanted to get (or at least lean enough to go into a surplus), you switch your focus over from fat loss to building muscle. During this time, you should most definitely still be paying close attention to your calorie intake and rate of weight gain, and really just be optimizing your diet and training in general so that you gain as much muscle as possible while keeping fat gains to an absolute minimum. (UPDATE: I just put out a new program designed entirely for this exact purpose. Check it out: Superior Muscle Growth)
- Then, depending on exactly what your goals are and exactly how much muscle you want to build and how much fat you want to lose, you’d just keep alternating between goals until you end up with the exact body you’re trying get.
So even though you’re technically only focusing on one goal at a time, you’re never really ignoring the other. Instead, you’re always going about that one goal in a way that puts you in an ideal position for reaching the other.
Or, to put it another way, you don’t “old school” bulk and cut like an idiot. You do it the right way.
And if you’re wondering which goal you should focus on first, the right answer for most people mostof the time is losing fat. More about that here: Should I Build Muscle or Lose Fat First?
Summing It Up
So, there you go. It is indeed possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, although there are only a small number of people who will be able to make it happen.
If you’re one of the few who can, be sure to take advantage of it and enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll be like the rest of us soon enough.
And for those who can’t, the worst thing you can do is attempt to anyway. Doing so will almost always result in a lot of wasted time and effort with little or nothing to show for it. Usually nothing.
The ideal solution is to simply attack one goal at a time as intelligently as possible, and then alternate to the other.
In the end, muscle will be built and fat will be lost… just not quite at the same time.