3 Reasons You Can’t Lose Fat And Gain Muscle At The Same Time (And 3 Reasons You Can)
Pretty much every single person who has set foot in the weight room has done so in order to get bigger muscles. But with more and more of the population being a bit fat to start off with, it is inevitable that we see an ever increasing number of people who need to lose fat too. And because we are all inherently impatient creatures it doesn’t take too long for new trainees to ask “can I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?”. They don’t always like their answer.
The conventional wisdom in this matter is that gaining muscle and losing fat are two distinct and exclusive physiological states that should never meet. That hasn’t stopped a whole slew of authors dreaming up various ways to get around this uncomfortable situation. Let’s take a look at the 3 main reasons you can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the same time, then look at 3 situations where you can.
The 3 Reasons You Can’t Lose Fat And Gain Muscle At The Same Time
#1 - Muscles Grow Slower Than Fat Shrinks
This is probably the major issue. When you hear the question posed by a complete beginner they want to know “can I have a calorie deficit so a pound of fat is burned building me a pound of muscle?”
Whilst it may be physiologically possible to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously (see below), it is certainly impossible that one pound of muscle mass will be generated where previously you had one pound of fat. The main reason for this is that muscles grow more slowly than fat can be burned. A newbie might get away with a 1lb per week muscle mass gain, but after a few years of training we’d be lucky to get 1lb per month. In most cases fat can be lost more quickly than muscles can be gained – with even a slow and steady diet yielding 4lbs of fat loss per month. The two processes move along different timelines.
#2 – As You Lose Fat You Gain Insulin Sensitivity
When you get really fat, your body becomes insulin resistant. This is the reason being fat gives such a high risk of developing diabetes later in life. What does this mean in practice? It means that your fat and muscle cells no longer “listen to the message” that insulin sends to store calories (as glycogen or fat). It becomes increasingly hard to store more and more fat.
As you lose fat, this situation becomes reversed. Your muscle and fat cells become more sensitive to insulin, and readily add more calories when they are available in the bloodstream. Your fat cells also become less willing to hand over calories from fat in order to build new muscle (insulin sensitivity is one of the main reasons it is very difficult to diet down to very low body fat levels).
Most people trying to gain muscle whilst losing fat often end up just gaining both.
#3 – Losing Fat And Gaining Muscles Are Physiologically Different States
The fact is your body is either in a state where it is pulling calories out of tissues (catabolic) or where it is pushing calories into tissues. These two states are the opposite side of the same coin, and it is not possible to be pulling calories from your fat cells and then simultaneously pushing them into your muscles. Your body must do one or the other.
Whilst this would seemingly invalidate the possibility of ever losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, it doesn’t stop us from losing fat then sequentially gaining muscle. So let’s take a look at the 3 reasons you can lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
The 3 Reasons You Can Lose Fat And Gain Muscle At The Same Time
#1 – It Happens In Completely Untrained Individuals
Whilst the third point above would suggest you can never lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously, the fact is that it often happens in rank beginners. When you first start gaining muscles, you can do so very quickly. The rapid changes in gene expression and improved muscle cell insulin sensitivity from lifting weights allow simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain, even on a calorie deficit. In untrained individuals point #1 above is no longer valid – as they can build muscles very quickly (around a pound of lean body mass gained per week), and this does provide a sufficient “sink” for calories liberated from fat cells to fall into.
#2 – It Happens In Obese Trainees
When you are over 20% body fat, there is so much surplus energy stored in your fat cells that they are desperately keen to push calories away (due to insulin resistance). Losing fat as an obese beginner is simple, hence why the contestants on “The Biggest Loser” are able to drop 14-15lbs in their first week on the ranch. The fact that the body is awash with energy means that even though the fat cells are in a catabolic state, the muscles (assuming you give them proper stimulus) are still able to suck in calories to grow.
So what? It’s unlikely that you’re all completely untrained or massively overweight. Even if you were, the untrained effect goes away after a relatively short time (3-6 months of proper training) and most people interested in body composition are already below 20% body fat. So how do you make this applicable to you?
#3 – Cycling Nutrients And Calories Can Achieve The Same Effect
Normally people that try to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time just end up doing neither. Most people end up losing fat and losing muscle or they end up gaining both. The only effective way to get your body building muscle whilst losing fat is to force it to artificially replicate the hormonal situations described above for untrained or over weight individuals. Unfortunately this is a complex and delicate process that needs a lot of effort. Many people give up and stick to the usual bulking and cutting cycles, but once you understand the principles you can easily put this to use yourself.
How Can You Implement Calorie and Nutrient Cycling for Yourself?
Firstly, let’s look at the untrained beginner. They can gain muscle easily because their muscles aren’t used to being sensitized to insulin though training. Yours are. Every time you hit the gym your muscles demand extra energy and nutrients for repair. In the post workout window they behave exactly like they did when you first started lifting weights, unfortunately for you this effect wears off quickly too.
Secondly, let’s look at the overweight person. They had so many excess calories available that it made no difference that they were in a calorie deficit – because their fat cells readily made up the balance by pushing out the unwanted fat. Unfortunately, once you get under 15% body fat this no longer happens. The fat cells become more sensitive to insulin once more and are more reluctant to make up the shortfall caused by your diet.
Taking these two things together means you need a calorie surplus when your muscles are maximally insulin sensitive, and a calorie deficit when they are not. A post workout calorie excess ensure your muscles are fed when they are ready to grow. When your muscles are resting you do the opposite, and a calorie deficit is used to pull out the remaining calories (fat) from your fat cells.
Don’t Forget That They Do So At A Different Rate
Remember that your muscles will be growing at a much slower rate than your fat can shrink – so make an honest appraisal of where you are in your training journey and eat accordingly. Some guidelines (please note; these are maximum drug free guidelines):
Novice: Can gain a pound of muscle per week. Training properly (heavy compound exercises, progressive overload) this rate can last for 3-6 months
Intermediate: Can gain a pound of muscle every other week. Training properly this rate of growth can last from 3 to 24 months
Advanced: Can gain a pound of muscle a month. Training properly this rate can last until 4 years of training
Beyond 4 Years: Most people who are training properly will have more-or-less maxed out their natural muscle building potential by now, and will have a pretty awesome physique to back it up. Those who haven’t been training optimally or haven’t been eating to gain may be able to keep these rates up for longer. After four years of solid proper training you’d be lucky to gain a pound of muscle every other month.
Do not be tempted to think you can grow more quickly than this. If you’re gaining weight more quickly than I’ve indicated above then you are likely adding fat as well as muscle.
Put It To The Test
With these figures in mind you can work out what you need to over-eat and when. On a rest day you won’t need excess calories, and you’ll want to get your fat cells to empty. Use a standard bodybuilders approach and take your daily calorie requirements, minus 20% (for fat loss) and eat those on your rest day. You can use the Cunningham Equation for this, or just estimate your needs based on a 13 calorie per lb of bodyweight requirement for women and a 14 calorie per lb of bodyweight requirement for men.
e.g. a 200lb man:
200x14 = 2,800 calories per day.
On a rest day, consume 20% less: =2,800 x0.8 = 2,240 calories per day
On your training days you need to slightly over eat. Take the amount of muscle gain that’s possible per week for your training level, divide by the number of training days, and multiply by 3,500 to get the number of calories you should aim to over-eat on a training day in order to gain muscle. Be sure to eat as many of these calories post workout as possible.
e.g. a 200lb man who can gain 1lb per week
200x14 = 2,800 calories per day
1lb per week gain, split across 3 training sessions per week = 1x3,500, divided by 3 (training days) = 1,167 calories per training day
Therefore on a training day consume 2,800 + 1,167 calories = 3,967 calories per training day
Don’t Forget To Cycle Nutrients Too!
Carbs and Fat have spent time being demonized by everyone, but the fact is they are both good sources of energy and nutrition if eaten at the right time. On this plan you should aim to eat low carb on the days you’re looking to lose fat (rest days), and high carb on the days you’re looking to gain muscle. The low carb environment is optimal for pulling fat from fat cells on rest days. The high carb consumption post workout supplies energy for building muscles at the exact time it’s required.
Whilst this method might seem complex, it is the only way to be sure you are optimally losing fat and gaining muscle. By timing the consumption of calories and nutrients you set up the ideal environment for fat loss and muscle gain at the right time, and enable the body to do both.
About the Author
Do you want more information on losing fat whilst gaining muscle? Neil created Lean Mass Gains Made Easy to make this concept accessible to everyone. Lean Mass Gains Made Easy is a straightforward package that does the hard work for you. The approach allows people to gain muscle whilst losing fat using calorie and nutrient cycling as well as flexible intermittent fasting. Get started today!