How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat

Losing weight while preserving lean muscle mass can be a tricky – but worthwhile – prospect, particularly for overall health and wellness.

Muscular male bodybuilder lifting a barbell at the gym

(Getty Images)

Lean muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means that it burns more calories. In turn, the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate – or the number of calories your body burns while at rest – will be. Muscle also provides better mobility, as well as heart and metabolic health, but it can be challenging to preserve.

Our bodies will typically use muscle tissue for energy before breaking down fat. Using fat for energy involves a more complicated process and thus the body typically will opt for the easy energy stores in muscle.

“As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass, which can lead to decreased strength and function,” explains Dr. Todd Sontag, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida.

That challenge can be made more difficult when shedding excess weight and reducing body fat levels because cutting calories can claim some of your lean muscle mass too.

“When we lose weight, we tend to lose muscle tissues, which means we, unfortunately, burn fewer calories,” says Michal Mor, co-founder and head of product science at Lumen, a Tel Aviv-based company aiming to bring metabolic health products to the general public.

This effect, simultaneously losing weight and muscle, can slow your basal metabolic rate – the number of calories your body needs to power its basic functions while at rest – and make it more difficult to lose weight.

Weight Loss Basics

When you create a caloric deficit, you tell your body to break down fat, rather than build it, adds Marie A. Spano, an Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist. This caloric deficit is mandatory for losing fat. But a caloric surplus – consuming more calories than you burn every day – is what tells your body to build more lean muscle.

And therein lies the challenge of building muscle while losing fat.

Strategies for Building Muscle

Losing fat and gaining muscle can be challenging, but it’s not impossible and it’s an important aim for overall health and longevity. “Losing muscle will cause you to lose strength and stamina,” says Debbie Dy, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist with Fusion Wellness PT in Los Angeles. “When you have larger muscles, your (resting) metabolic rate increases. This means that you burn more calories when you are at rest, which can be helpful to maintain a healthy weight.”

These expert-approved strategies can show you how to build muscle during weight loss:

Chris Travis, a personal trainer and owner of Seattle Strength and Performance in Washington, says knowledge is power when searching for the best way to lose fat and gain muscle. He recommends undergoing body composition testing – such as the InBody analysis or DEXA scan – to determine how much of your current body mass is fat versus lean muscle and bone.

Not only will these body composition tests analyze your muscle mass, body fat percentage and water weight, but these diagnostic tests can also provide information about your basal metabolic rate, as well.

Monitoring your progress periodically as you go is also important.

“Keep track of your progress by regularly measuring your body weight and body fat percentage as well as tracking your strength training progress,” Sontag says. “This can help you to adjust your approach as needed.”

If something isn’t working or you find you’ve stalled in your progress, shake up your routine.

Travis says that “gaining muscle while losing fat simultaneously is definitely possible,” thanks to a process called “body recomposition.” This process, however, needs to be managed carefully. If you cut too many calories, you’ll stifle your muscle-gaining efforts.

“Oftentimes, aggressive diet plans will put you in a big caloric deficit to lose weight,” he explains. And if you’re not strength training and consuming enough protein at the same time, “you’ll most certainly lose weight, but it will be a combination of fat and muscle.”

However, keeping your caloric deficit smaller means you’ll break down less muscle as you lose weight. A smaller deficit – just enough to lead to about half a kilogram, or 1.1 pounds, per week – also increases your likelihood of being able to actively build muscle, explains Jim White, registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia.

White says your goal should be to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. While every person will need to cut calories and increase activity levels slightly differently to lose weight at this rate, reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day is a good place to start. Over the course of seven days, those 500 calories add up to 3,500 calories, or 1 pound of body weight.

Dy also recommends cutting by 500 calories or fewer per day to keep muscle while losing fat. “Drastic diet changes or fad dieting can often make it difficult to maintain weight loss efforts in the long term,” Dy says.

“It becomes progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat as you become more trained and get leaner,” says Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.

It’s just how the human body works: The more fat you have to lose, the easier it is to do. Likewise, the more muscle you have to gain, the easier it is to accomplish.

For some people, noticing these changes as a number on the scale might be slow initially too. Keep in mind, muscle weighs about 20% more than fat, so you may actually be losing fat but not losing weight.

“As you change your body and gain muscle mass and lose body fat, your weight may not actually fluctuate that much,” Travis says. “That’s normal because muscle is denser than fat. This is why I encourage regular body composition scanning to ensure you understand what’s happening in your body – how much fat you’re losing and how much muscle you’re gaining.” But the shifts should show up in a change in appearance, how your clothes fit and how strong you feel.

As you get closer to your goal, expect to see more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels. Remember not to get discouraged.

“We’ve all heard the cliché, ‘abs are made in the kitchen,’” says Thomas Roe, a personal trainer, endurance athlete, founder of TRoe Fitness and owner of Local Moves Studio in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s so true.”

Following a strict nutrition plan that’s high in lean protein while doing the right kind of exercise can help maintain muscle. That’s because your muscles use the protein you eat to grow bigger or stronger. When cutting calories, your body’s muscles may be less sensitive to the protein you eat, Spano says.

  • Chicken and turkey breast.
  • Fish.
  • Tofu.
  • Tempeh.

“In addition, this protein intake should be spaced out evenly throughout the day,” Spano says.

This approach keeps your muscles fed with a steady stream of building blocks. In fact, a 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that for optimal muscle growth, people should consume between about 0.2 and 0.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight four times per day. For a 180-pound adult, that equals four meals of 36 to 45 grams of protein each.

However, every person is unique.

“Everyone is different, particularly as it relates to nutrition,” Spano says. “(You’ll) need to do some experimentation to find what works best for you.” She recommends talking with a registered dietitian for personalized advice tailored to your goals and your current body composition situation.

Mor recommends intermittent fasting as a strategy to help preserve and gain muscle mass while losing weight. Intermittent fasting, or periods of time (from a few hours to an entire day) when you don’t eat, can help support metabolic rate and metabolic flexibility. Metabolic flexibility means your body is able to switch between burning both carbs and fat as fuel efficiently.

“This relates to muscle building and weight loss because if you’re able to burn through carbs efficiently during a workout, you can lose weight more efficiently since you’ll then be burning through fat stores,” More says.

In a 2020 systematic review published in Nutrients, researchers noted that resistance training paired with intermittent fasting tends to maintain lean body mass and can promote fat loss. Another study, published in 2016 in the Journal of Translational Medicine, suggests that intermittent fasting, when coupled with resistance training, could decrease fat mass and maintain muscle mass in resistance-trained men. These study participants limited their eating to an eight-hour window.

“Combining strength training with intermittent fasting is a great way to burn through leftover carb stores overnight and increase your chances of waking up burning fat in the morning,” Mor adds.

“If you want to gain muscle mass, you need to lift heavy things and do it regularly,” Dy says. Quite simply, strength training is imperative to keeping muscle if you’re trying to lose weight.

Sontag adds, “When you put yourself in a calorie deficit to lose weight, oftentimes you will lose muscle as you lose body fat. This results in a diminished metabolic rate.” The body will often use muscle for energy before burning fat for energy.

A slowed rate means that “even though you continue to put yourself into a calorie deficit, your weight loss will also plateau. Muscle tone is the only thing you can control that can increase metabolism,” he explains, adding that this happens because muscle is more metabolically active than fat. “Without doing any strength training, it is almost impossible to get to your ideal body weight.”

Other fitness experts and medical specialists agree that strength training is key.

“You need to include at least two days of weight training a week to maintain existing muscle mass and three or more times a week to build muscle,” White says.

The most effective exercises for both fat loss and muscle gain are compound movements, meaning they work out multiple muscle groups at once. Squats, for instance, are an excellent compound exercise that works your quads, glutes, calves and core. For an added challenge, you can combine two compound exercises, such as a squat with a press, to maximize your workout. Focus on making these moves the top priority of your weekly workout routine, and then you can start to think about adding the right cardio workouts.

Dy recommends working with a trainer or a physical therapist. “(They) can show you how to safely track progressive overload, which will cause the essential tearing and breakdown of muscles for gains in muscle mass,” she says. “Heavy resistance training stimulates your body to initiate the muscle repair process.”

Doing that while keeping your caloric deficit small and gradual will allow for these changes to be more sustainable over time, Dy adds.

Cardiovascular exercise burns calories and can help you shed excess fat, but isn’t the most effective way to build or maintain muscle when you’re in a caloric deficit because excessive levels of cardio can lead to muscle breakdown over time, as shown in one 2018 review study of ultra-marathon runners. Still, cardio should be part of your overall workout plan, and it serves as a great tool to help you recover from your strength-training workouts.

For instance, low-intensity cardio, such as walking, jogging, gentle cycling and swimming, increases blood flow throughout the body to get oxygen and other nutrients to your muscle cells, explains Dean Somerset, an Alberta, Canada-based kinesiologist.

Roe recommends adding 35 to 45 minutes of cardio a few times a week. Stick to low-intensity workouts, with your effort feeling no more difficult than a seven on a scale from 1 to 10.

He also encourages staying hydrated during your body’s remodeling process to support your efforts for fat loss and muscle gain. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine say adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups daily for men and about 11.5 cups daily for women.

James Suchy, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says that “the way in which an exercise program is structured can impact the outcome of your training.” In other words, adjusting the number of sets, repetitions or the amount of rest in between them can affect the type of physical gains you’ll see.

For example, to increase muscle size and definition, you should lift the maximum weight you can lift for six to 12 repetitions paired with a rest period of one to two minutes between sets, Suchy says.

“This is a good entry point for those new to weightlifting and will still provide significant strength and endurance gains,” he adds.

In contrast, if you’re looking to increase muscle strength, Suchy recommends lifting the maximum weight you can lift for one to six repetitions paired with a rest period of two to three minutes between sets.

“This requires more experience with weightlifting to avoid injury from poor technique,” he cautions, so it’s best to work with a trainer or coach when you begin this type of training.

If your goal is to increase muscle endurance, lift the maximum weight you can lift for 12 to 20 repetitions, paired with a rest period of 30 to 90 seconds between sets. “This may be useful for someone who doesn’t want to increase muscle mass or size,” Suchy says.

These short-burst, sprinting-type workouts can help burn calories and reduce body fat while still building muscle, White says. The explosive nature of high-intensity, short periods of activity can stimulate muscle growth. However, when trying to preserve as much muscle mass as possible, you’re best served using HIIT workouts occasionally, like once or twice per week. Strength training should still be your workout focus, and overdoing it on high-intensity cardio can overstress your muscles and make them much less likely to grow.

Perform HIIT on non-consecutive days and when you’re feeling rested.

For muscle gains and fat loss to occur, adequate recovery is also essential. Building muscle in the gym starts with placing sufficiently challenging stress on muscle fibers during a workout, but it’s when our bodies rest that our muscles are able to repair and grow.

For the average adult, seven to nine hours should be the goal, “with a preference toward the high end if you’re exercising on a regular basis,” he explains.

That’s not always easy, though.

“High levels of stress at work and in your personal life can detrimentally impact your recovery and capacity to come back strong for your next workout,” Suchy says. But, he adds, “stress-relieving activities like deep breathing or meditation have been shown to help.”

The Bottom Line

Yes, you can gain muscle while losing weight. Focus on both fueling and training your muscles while keeping your caloric deficit small. Make sustainable changes that you can stick with over the long term – both fat loss and muscle gain take time.

“I can’t stress enough that we are what we eat,” Roe adds. “Wasted calories on high-sugar, processed foods, dairy and alcohol are a surefire way to derail your goals from putting on muscle mass and leaning out.”

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