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How to Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time

illustration of man and women fitnessMany people want to lose weight, and a great majority of those people would also like to add some muscle too. Popular opinion says that you cannot both lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Instead, you have to focus on one goal at a time. This is far from being true, and I’m going to prove to you that it’s possible, and show you how it’s done.

The Proof

Before we get to the “secret” formula, let’s first make you a believer in the concept. Below are just a few studies that prove it’s possible

In our first study, we take take a look at the effects of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake, and resistance training on body composition. Over 12 weeks, the subjects had an average body fat loss of 8% while gaining 4kg of muscle [1].

In a study examining the effects of resistance training on postmenopausal women, 16 weeks of training increased fat-free mass and resting metabolic rate while decreasing body fat percentage [2].

In overweight young males, 12 weeks of high-intensity interval training resulted in significant reductions in total, abdominal, trunk, and visceral fat and significant increases in fat free mass [3].

In a randomized controlled trial of older adults with type 2 diabetes, high-intensity progressive resistance training resulted in increased lean mass and decreased trunk fat mass [4].

Active women over the age of 60 engaged in weight training. Compared to control groups, the weight trainers’ percent body fat decreased significantly, while lean tissue mass increased [5].

In a study examining the effects of resistance training on competitive, collegiate women tennis players, periodized training resulted in significant decreases in body fat and increases in fat-free mass after 4, 6, and 9 months of training [6].

As you can see, not only is it possible to build muscle and lose fat at the same time, but it’s possible for people across all age groups, health status, and athletic levels. That being said, it will likely be easier to accomplish this task if you’re a beginner strength trainer, and more difficult if you are an advanced weight lifter, but not impossible, if you follow the steps below.

Getting Your Calories Right

The biggest determining factor in your success is going to come from your calorie intake. Have it too high and you’ll gain muscle, but you’ll likely add body fat too. Set your calories too low and you’ll do a good job of reducing your body fat, but your lean body mass will unlikely increase at all.

The key to to building muscle while burning fat is to set your calories at or very near maintenance levels. Doing this means you will see less fluctuations in body weight, but a greater change in body composition.

You will need to monitor your progress other ways besides the scale, as your weight will move very little. Instead, focus on your progress in the gym, the way your clothes fit, the way you look in the mirror, and your body fat percentage changes.

Hitting Your Macros

Your macros, otherwise known as the amount of fat, carbs, and protein you eat will be the next most influential determinant in your success. Protein will be the most important, and should be set between .8-1g per pound of lean body weight. Studies have shown even higher levels to be preventative against muscle loss in a hypocaloric environment, but from my own experience and others’, this should be more than sufficient to accomplish your goals.

You will need to fill the remainder of your calories with healthy fats and carbohydrates. The amount of each will depend on the individual and their activity levels. The more active you are, the more carbohydrates you will eat. Many athletes eat upwards of 50% or more of their calories from carbohydrates, as they provide them with the necessary high-intensity fuel to support strength training and HIIT.

Engaging in the Right Kind of Exercise

As you likely already know, it’s next to impossible to build muscle if you don’t engage in some sort of strength training. Without the necessary stimulus to your muscles, they aren’t going to grow.

The studies listed at the beginning of this article show the most effective exercise protocols for losing fat and building muscle are resistance exercise and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Doing one or the other or both will provide your muscles with the stimulus to adapt and grow. Without these exercise protocols you can expect to lose lean body mass indefinitely. It’s one of the reasons why strength training is recommended as part of a fitness program regardless of your goals. Strength training compliments nearly any health, fitness, and performance goal.

There you have it – the formula for simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain. Implement all 3 core principles: proper calories, correct macronutrients, and stimulating exercise, and you’ll be well on your way to success.

  • Felicia Starks

    Ok, this is a good one. Another reason to implement HIIT workouts when looking to lose fat and build muscle. I’ll save this one for sure! Thanks for sharing!

    • Tony Schober

      Glad you liked it Felicia ;)

  • Rosey

    I don’t know how to figure out “.8-1g per pound of (my) lean body weight”. I’ve read your other articles and am always confused by it. How do I find out my lean body weight?

    • Tony Schober

      You have to measure your body fat percentage. Then if you’re 200lbs and 20% body fat, you have 40lbs of fat and 160lbs of muscle. I only use lean body mass because some people are very overweight, and eating upwards of 300 grams of protein for a 300lb person is way too much.
      You could also use .6-.8 grams per pound of body weight.

      • Paula V

        Yeah, the trick is getting an accurate measure of bf%. The accurate tools aren’t easily available to most.

  • Cooteronascooter

    I do crossfit 3-4 x week….good enough? I know I eat too little, but I had a thyroidectomy in April due to cancer and am scared to eat much more. Though, after having a week long cruise and eating way way more than usual, my scale stayed the same. My thyroid meds are totally optimized, so energy and weight gain are not an issue. My crossfit typically starts with a strength training portion, then our WOD, which is high intensity. I also wear a Fitbit and try to get at least 10K steps.

    I’ve been reading your stuff for a while and appreciate your straightforward approach. I have even given your site to my crossfit teacher to give to people who are new and really have no clue. It’s hard when you are new and researching and start reading about all the different diets, low carb, in carb, high fat, low fat, vegan, starch, no starch, etc….

    • Tony Schober

      I think crossfit a few times a week is plenty stimulus to build muscle. Your nutrition is then going to make the biggest difference in your musculature. I have noticed that many crossfitters eat way too little to support their exercise. The exercise you guys do burns a lot of calories, and you need to make sure you’re fueling that activity level. If you’re not eating at least 10-12 times your body weight in calories, you are likely not eating enough.
      I appreciate you sharing the site with your teacher!

  • Jay

    Doesn’t HIIT burn too much muscle? Wouldn’t it be better to try to stay in the 60% range of your MAX BPM to burn the most fat while conserving the most muscle?

    • Tony Schober

      HIIT doesn’t burn muscle. HIIT is anaerobic and builds muscle (think sprinters).
      The fat burning zone is a myth. While you might burn a higher percentage of fat DURING your workout, it’s total calories burned that matter most at the end of the day. HIIT burns more calories and builds more muscle.

  • Allie

    So how do I figure out my calories for the day and lean body weight for the amount of protein for the day? This is exactly what I need to cut fat and build muscle but my eating is what throws off my success.

    • Tony Schober

      Calories are tricky and are very individual. Generally speaking, I like to start people off at 12 times their body weight in calories. I will note though that if that person has been undereating for years, I’ll usually do a form of reverse dieting to slowly bring them up to that level and restore their metabolism.
      As for protein, you can eat .6-.8 grams per pound of body weight. Or eat around 25% of your calories from protein. They will usually be around the same number.

      • Paula V

        Only 25% in protein? That seems low.

        • Tony Schober

          For a 200lb person eating at 12 times their body weight in calories (2400 calories), 25% equates to 150 grams per day. That’s plenty.

          • Paula V

            I guess it depends on one’s goals. I aim for more like 40% and that is about 150g for the 1800 cal I consume. I’ve been told to eat 50% by a trainer.

            • Tony Schober

              There are plenty of theories, but I prefer to drop my protein down a little bit and instead eat carbs. Most of that extra protein gets converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis anyways, so my thinking is why not just skip the highly inefficient conversion process and eat carbs instead? Plus, it’s cheaper that way. But if you’re getting results, by all means keep it. I personally eat 150g of protein and I am increasing my lean body mass in a calorie restriction. So I know extra isn’t needed for me. Good luck!

      • Katherine Santoro

        Hi Coach! Quick question regarding reverse dieting … I have been dieting for the last several years and feel like I hit a brick wall. I would have to decrease my calorie consumption to dangerously low levels in order to lose any more body fat. Keep in mind I am currently 5’2″ and about 135 lbs. My lowest calorie consumption was about 1,000-1,200 calories/day. Over the summer, I tried reverse dieting but ended up gaining about 5 lbs of body fat (pants wouldn’t fit). I was increasing carbohydrates by 5 g/week and fat by 1 g/week. I got to about 1,850 calories/day and I was scared I would gain more weight and decreased my calories back down to my normal consumption level. I currently eat around 1,500 calories a day and workout about 4-5 times per week and am still not losing much weight at all. Any suggestions as to why I might have gained weight or any suggestions how I could more efficiently reverse diet again without gaining weight? Thanks in advance!

        • Tony Schober

          Hi Katherine, I’ll have to say that I’m a little shocked that you gained 5 pounds of fat only increasing your calories by 35 calories per week. That means you reverse dieted for about 20 weeks to bring your calories from 1200 to 1850. Ideally, that would have been the perfect reverse diet. Does that sound right to you? Did you really reverse diet for 20 weeks? At what calorie level did you start gaining fat?
          How are you tracking calories? How are you measuring your food? Are you measuring everything accurately? Once you reverse diet up to your maintenance calories, you want to just cut calories moderately. For you, cutting just 100 calories would have been a good starting point.
          Lots of questions, I know. But it’s hard to give a good answer without all the info.

          • Katherine Santoro

            Hi Coach!

            First of all, thanks for your quick reply! Upon re-reading my background I gave you, I realized it was a bit vague. I am going to just start from the beginning so you can have a better idea of where I’m coming from.

            In fall of 2009 I was at my heaviest (180 lbs) and began doing cardio 5x a week and counting my calories (1,000-1,200/day). I lost about 60 pounds by fall of 2010 (my lowest weight was 118). I fluctuated a little bit but stayed around 125 until fall of 2012. At this point I was eating around 1,350/day and maintaining. I still worked out around 4-5x/week. I still had fat in my upper arm and thighs so I began to lift weights along with my cardio, thinking that would burn more fat. After a few months of doing that, I decided to stop counting calories because I couldn’t stand living by the numbers and being so tedious. Soon enough I saw my weight increase to about 130 and my clothes were tighter fitting (this was probably around this April).I did gain a decent amount of muscle though, but because I had some “muffin top” and couldn’t fit into my same jeans I had been wearing, I can tell not all of my weight gain was muscle. I then began counting again, but macros also and was eating around 1,350 a day, with 135 of my calories being from carbs, 135 from protein and the rest fat. I didn’t lose much of this weight at all and then decided that the long period of dieting probably “damaged my metabolism” as people are saying, contributing to the cease of weight loss.

            I began reverse dieting in July of this year at a caloric level of 1,350. That’s when I began increasing my carbs 5g/week and fat 1g/week and therefore adding another 50 calories every week. I noticed the 5 lbs weight gain around probably around the 1,700-1,800 range, because I quickly stopped the reverse diet after that out of fear. That was in mid-September. I probably reverse dieted for 10 weeks total. I was not using a digital scale, but had a scale and was measuring everything I ate with that.

            Maybe I was going too high with my calories and carbs? I only got up to 185g of carbs before I bailed on the reverse diet. Everywhere I read, the purpose of the reverse diet is to get my metabolism to a level where I can eat the most amount of calories without gaining weight. I’ve read that eating 135 is barely enough and I shouldn’t “fear the fat or carbs”. I wanted to get to a caloric maintenance level high enough where I could cut down to a decent caloric level to lose weight yet not feel like I’m starving. I’m back to eating 1,500 again and thinking about going to 1,350 because I just can’t seem to lose the weight.

            • Tony Schober

              I think you win for longest comment ;)

              Here is what I would do if I were you. Increase your calories from the current 1500 level by 50 grams per day each week. Monitor your weight, but more importantly, monitor your body composition. You very well could add weight in the form of muscle glycogen. Keep your protein constant and just increase your carbs and fat. If you think a certain calorie level is causing you to gain weight, hold it there for at least 2 weeks to see if things settle. Many times there will be a quick bump in weight only to have it drop down to lower levels over time. Give your body a chance to adapt.

              Once you hit your maintenance calories, reduce calories in the opposite direction by 100 per day, BUT keep 2 days a week at the maintenance levels. You very well could have a highly adaptable metabolism that needs refeeds. So, for example, if you made it all the way up to 1800 calories, your daily calories would look like this.

              Week 1
              S – 1800
              M – 1800
              T – 1800
              W – 1800
              T – 1800
              F – 1800
              S – 1800

              Week 2
              S – 1800
              M – 1700
              T – 1700
              W – 1700
              T – 1800
              F – 1700
              S – 1700

              Week 3
              S – 1800
              M – 1600
              T – 1600
              W – 1600
              T – 1800
              F – 1600
              S – 1600

              As you can see the pattern, you are only dropping calories each week on 5 days of the week while holding calories at maintenance levels the other 2. This creates a built in refeed while still cutting calories each week. Good luck!

              • Katherine Santoro

                Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I will try this … and be patient. I appreciate your help!

  • Roz

    Hi Coach! Quick question: in some articles it says to focus complex carbs after your workout. In others, it says to avoid complex carbs after 3 pm or in the evening. I workout in the evening and am focused on fat loss. Recommendations? Thanks for a fantastically informative website.

    • Tony Schober

      Hi Roz, meal timing has some merit, but for most people it isn’t required. I eat complex carbs with all of my meals, even the one right before bed. As long as your calories are in check, it’s not going to make much of a difference. Choose an eating style that you’ll be able to stick with for the long haul.

  • maria

    This is a foreign language to me, is there a way to figure out the calorie intake? I have used several for example with and of Loseit App’s but it’s giving me very low calorie #’s 1200 -1300. I work out 3 times a week for now (busy schedule). I’m 5’6 and weigh 173lbs. I do have the calipers and it looks like Im at 30% body fat if I measure that correctly.

    • Tony Schober

      Hi Maria, give this calculator a try –
      Keep in mind that it’s just a recommendation and starting place. You’ll have to monitor and adjust to find your own individual calorie requirements.
      I also don’t like the loseit or myfitnesspal recommendation. I feel they recommend a calorie intake that is way too low and leaves no room to further cut calories once weight loss stalls.

      • maria

        thank you :)

  • RCS

    I have been trying to lose 20 pounds for a few months and all I do is go up and down a few pounds. I think it has to do with my calories. I am probably not eating enough. I have protein shake for breakfast with a banana and 1 cup of other fruit in it. 1oz of almonds for am snack, 1 cup of pasta or rice, 3oz of meat, salad (sometimes) or 1 cup of vegetables, an apple and a pear for pm snack and about the same lunch example for dinner. My current weight is 202 pounds and I am 5’9″. My composition is pretty muscular but I can see I need to lose more fat for definition.

    • Tony Schober

      I don’t know how many calories that is, but it looks less than 1500 for sure. At 200 pounds there is really no reason for you to be eating under 2000 calories.

  • Jen Hannen

    I found that very interesting and especially like the emphasis on strength training I used to shy away it terrified it would make me put on weight. However 2years on and by eating healthily I am not only strong and fit but I have maintained a healthy weight and am happy with my shape for the first time in my adult life (I’m 43). Thanx :)

    • Tony Schober

      Hey Jen, I’m glad you overcame your fear of strength training. :) Congrats on the lifestyle transformation!

  • Yolanda

    What if I want to lose a little weight in the process because I have put on a little over 20? Without the 20, I just looked skinny. I want to lose but add definition. Is there a formula for determining calorie total in my case?

    • Tony Schober

      The idea will be to eat just under maintenance levels. You’ll have to play around with your calorie intake to find this about.

      • Yolanda

        Ok. I’ve noticed my thighs are bulking up quickly but I hadn’t cleaned my diet up much. I am gaining on the scale as well. I just wasn’t sure how to not create a deficit that would negate the lifting. Thanks for your response!

  • Gracie

    Really helpful! These are no news, but necessary to be repeated :) Thanks!

  • jduff

    I am 5’10 and weigh 250, and my body fat is around 35%. I lift 3 days a week (all compound exercises with free weights) and just started gradually incorporating running as a form of cardio 3 days a week on the days I don’t lift about 6 weeks ago. Once I can run a 5k comfortably I plan on starting some HIIT work outs. I plan on lifting on day 1, HIIT on Day 2, Steady state run on Day3 and then taking a final restday before starting the cycle over. I also started cleaning up my diet and eliminating the processed junk and reducing the simple carbs when I started the cardio. I would like to weigh around 180 and keep my body fat below 15%. Actually I could care less about my weight as long as I continue to improve on my weights (with in reason of course) and overall fitness I am really just concerned with keeping my body fat down below 15%, or even lower if I can. I understand the concept of lean body mass and how to calculate, but I am confused about the macros, specifically protien. Am i supposed to eat .8-1g of protien per pound of my current body weight, or per pound of my goal weight?

    • Tony Schober

      At a lean mass of 162lbs, I’d set my protein intake to around 150 grams.

  • tulipgirl6

    So I weigh 190 pounds and I’m trying to get to around 130! How many calories per day do you recommend in my case, and can you break it down into fat / prot / carbs? I have already lost 22 pounds and I’m going for 1250 calories per day. When my weight loss stalled, I added some fats into my diet and that seemed to help . . ..

    • Tony Schober

      I would go to this calculator – and put your information in to get a starting calorie recommendation.

      • tulipgirl6

        Oh thanks! That’s a great tool! Also: can too much protein be stored as fat? And more importantly: I am pre-diabetic and seem to be insulin resistant; any advice or tips for that?

        • Tony Schober

          Too much of anything can be stored as fat. Protein is more difficult because of all the inefficient steps that have to occur to make that happen. As for being pre-diabetic, focus on eating whole foods with fiber, and you can also try to do some carb timing by eating the majority of them in your first meal and around your workout.

          • tulipgirl6

            Hey coach: how do I know how much fiber I’m actually eating? How do you measure / calculate fiber?

            • Tony Schober

              It’s either on the package nutrition facts label, or you can look it up with an app like loseit or myfitnesspal.

  • Sarah

    Hi, I was wondering if a person should be eating their calories burnt off from working out? I’m 5’4″ and 153 lbs. I’ve been slowly losing weight for 10 weeks now (8 lbs) by cutting down to between 1400-1600 calories a day and adding 5 workout days a week. On the days that I have higher calories burned (500-600) I add a couple hundred extra to my intake, but this seems like slow progress. How can I improve?
    Thanks :)

    • Tony Schober

      I don’t like the whole “eating back workout calories” method. Just eat between 10-12 times your body weight in calories and adjust by either subtracting 50-100 calories, or by adding in 1-2 cardio sessions each week as weight loss stalls. Also, I’m not sure what slow means to you, but at your size, expect to lose 1lb per week. Be patient. It all adds up.