Is It Possible to Build Muscle and Lose Weight at the Same Time?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Your metabolism has two basic modes:
  • Anabolic, which means building up or adding, and
  • Catabolic, which means breaking down or eliminating. 
Losing fat occurs in catabolic mode (which includes maintaining a calorie deficit), while adding muscle requires that you be in anabolic mode (which includes maintaining a small calorie surplus). But these modes aren't mutually exclusive; over a short period of time (like one day), the hormones and enzymes that make you catabolic or anabolic will all be active to one degree or another. In effect, you will be anabolic part of the time, and catabolic the rest. 

This means you CAN design a diet and exercise program that will allow you to add some muscle and lose some fat. It will take a semi-fanatical attention to the details of planning and timing your nutrition and exercise in just the right way. It also means that you won't be able to lose fat or gain muscle as efficiently or quickly as you could if you focused on just one of these goals at a time. 

Since most people don't have the time, knowledge or patience to settle for the slower rate of progress of this program, we usually recommend to start by aiming to lose fat and preserve existing muscle, and then, once the fat is gone, switch the priority and aim to gain muscle (and weight) while minimizing fat regain. This makes the most sense simply because all weight loss does involve some loss of muscle mass (it can be very minimal), but weight and muscle gain do not have to involve fat gain. 

If you want to focus on losing fat, doing cardio AFTER strength training is not a bad idea. It does seem to increase the amount of fat burned during the workout itself—but just slightly. The most important thing is just to make sure you do cardio, regardless of when. Strength training, when done correctly, will help preserve existing muscle mass. Maintaining an overall calorie deficit forces your body to use your body fat to replace the energy used up by both forms of exercise. Higher intensity and longer duration workouts (cardio and strength) will use more energy.

Note: Neither form of exercise actually burns much fat during the exercise itself; it's the total amount of energy expended that determines how much fat you will burn. Limit your high-intensity cardio to no more than 45-60 minutes per day. More than that can increase the rate of muscle loss. Adding extra low intensity activity like walking is usually okay.

There are limits on the amount of exercise you should do. Too much may cause excessive stress and strain, and too large of a caloric deficit interferes with normal metabolic functioning and will accelerate muscle loss and decrease fat loss

Getting and staying well-hydrated is very important to enable your body to replace glycogen (energy stores in the muscles). It's also a good idea to eat a post-exercise meal (or snack) of about 300 calories, with a 4:1 ratio of complex carbs to protein. 

If you want to focus on building muscle mass, doing cardio after your strength workout is not a good idea. The hour or two immediately following a strength training session is the best time to be in anabolic mode, which means you will be better off doing some eating right away than doing the cardio. Ideally, try to do your cardio and strength workouts on different days, or at least later on the same day, if necessary. Aiming for three to four high-intensity cardio sessions per week (about 20-40 minutes each) is your best bet for avoiding fat regain while trying to add muscle. 

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MUSICNUT 8/31/2019
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
JAMER123 8/6/2019
Thank you for sharing Report
SHOAPIE 8/6/2019
Great ideas Report
RENEEWL1 8/6/2019
Some good points. Report
AZROSEZ 8/5/2019
Thank you Report
RO2BENT 6/20/2019
I don’t think it’s quite as difficult as the article portrays Report
KHALIA2 6/18/2019
Great info! Thanks for sharing! Report
ELRIDDICK 4/11/2019
Thanks for sharing Report
LIDDY09 3/29/2019
Thank You Report
BONNIE1552 2/2/2019
Very helpful info. Thanks. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thank you for this great info! Report
Good information. Report
Very good article. That is where I've been stuck at, the fine balance between fat and muscle Report
You were born to stand out, stop trying to fit in. ~ 3/19/18 Report
Good article and to the point. Report
Good to read a one page article that gets to the point. Report
A sensible article on a controversial subject Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Boy, do I miss Dean's wisdom and expertise on a variety of subjects. Always articulate and informative. I never find myself trying to decide if some so-called expert is using fuzzy research to further a personal agenda. It's easy to tell that Dean knows the science. Report
I like this! There is just enough information here to get me started on a search to refine my own plan! Thanks, Dean! I had not really thought about this issue, and my goal is to gain or preserve muscle mass while losing fat. I'm going to have to be more organized, I think! I very much appreciate the spotlight on this dilemma, which I believe is shared by many Sparkers. Report
Good ideas here, and maybe it's geared towards building muscle bulk rather than muscle? But I found I managed to build arms, core and leg strength significantly while losing the 75 pounds I needed to without it being that difficult.
Make sure what you do eat is nutritional (no empty cals), do regular weight or weight bearing exercise and eat a little more on high exercise days. Lean and strong! Report
Having done this myself, it isn't easy, does require some patience & willingness to research techniques, general fitness having the willingness to push beyond general fitness & getting solid nutrition, not 'it fits in my allotted calories'...that 'I have room for a 'insert junk food here' will do nothing but hinder have slow the process down..Set your goals wisely, have realistic expectations(this is where research is very handy) & stick to it. Better food fuels better bodies, no matter the health/fitness goal. Report
Awesome tips Report
This is very informative. Thanks for the good information. Report
Thank you Dean for sharing this article. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Great article. Thanks. Report
Thanks for sharing Report
The dilemma I have is me and my boyfriend work out together, but we have completely different goals. I'm trying to lose weight and he's trying to bulk up, but we're both mainly focused on general fitness. We do the same workout and I'm wondering if it's hindering our progress. Report
I have been doing 60 -70 min of cardio, and later in the day I have such a big appetite. and find myself eating more ,I need help
@Metamorph2010, there is a difference between gaining strength/endurance and actually gaining muscle mass. It's actually quite easy to make strength and endurance gains while also losing weight, especially if one is starting from having not exercised. Adding actual muscle mass is what Dean is speaking of in the article. Report
There's some good information here, Dean, some of it borne out by my own experience, so I appreciate that. However, this post could be confusing for some people who are unclear on their goals. Since I grappled extensively to understand my own goals, I will add my comments for a reader who might be like me.
Having always been very healthy, I embraced my pillow-y grandma figure. I was frankly shocked when my overweight, inactive body reacted like every other human's - pain and loss of strength & stamina. Just walking short distances was difficult in the beginning, but fortunately the diet (modified South Beach) was not. I quickly dropped 20 pounds and my walking distance increased daily. At the same time, it was obvious that my weak and shortened muscles were a significant source of my pain. Plus, I needed to get my heart rate up and there was no way I could run or do the high impact aerobics I did 25 years ago. So I added the minitrampoline, Tai Chi & yoga.
Having upped my exercise expenditure, I got less strict with my diet - I am in this for the long haul and have to remain enthusiastic!
So my goal turned out to be: STOP THE PAIN!
My weight loss, strengthening, conditioning and appearance are, of course, important but frankly none of those goals induced me to commit to exercise and better nutrition.
I was truly shocked to finally grasp an inescapable truth: if you don't consciously work at maintaining your health, you will lose it. Maybe younger people or body builders can afford to be concerned with the question of weight loss vs building muscle mass, but for some of us, it's not a question. We have to do both.
"God Bless us, every one!"

I'm sitting here shaking my head. I imagine Dean knows more than I do, and I'm in no mood for reading scientific studies tonight, so what can I say? In my experience you *can* gain muscle and lose weight; perhaps this only applies to the very obese. But the bottom line for me is my health, not my weight, and for me strength training is a very important part of my exercise routine. I don't care if it means I'm *only* losing 2 pounds/week instead of the 5 or so I might be losing on my reduced carb diet. It's good enough for me, and I'm feeling so much stronger and healthier. Report
I just read Matt Ftizgerald's "Racing Weight." It's specifically designed to help people engaged in endurance activities lose body fat while building muscle. One big problem he cites: people who eat too little to support their activity level. If you're eating 1100-1200 calories, you're not eating enough. (Unless you only weigh less than 100 pounds and you're not very active.)

And don't think you have to be an uber-fit athlete to follow this program. I'm a pudgy, middle-aged triathlete, not some wispy insect-like fitness model. Report