It’s the holy grail of fitness. The thing everybody wants to accomplish. And then keep doing over and over: Lose fat and build muscle simultaneously.
But very few people can easily do this. And a lot of experts say it can’t be done at all.
So what’s the deal? How do people lift weights, eat right, gain size and get ripped all at the same time?
Why most people can’t do it
The process of losing fat and building muscle at the same time is called body recomposition.
Here’s the truth: You can’t lose fat and gain muscle at the exact same time. It’s physiologically impossible. At any moment, your body is either:
- anabolic (building/storing)
- catabolic (burning/breaking down)
- in a state of equilibrium (this seldom happens)
But you CAN alternate between fat loss and building muscle days within the week.
Body recomposition requires an intense training program and a detailed nutrition plan. But a lot of people don’t put in the effort to calculate their macros, track them every day, and train consistently at a high intensity.
If you follow the right guidelines, losing fat while building muscle is a straightforward process.
But it's worth noting: If you are trying to gain significant muscle mass, you will do better with distinct mass gain and fat loss cycles throughout the year. Body recomp is too slow for someone who wants huge mass gains.
Some people will have an easier time than others
Here’s who will have it the easiest when trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time:
- Beginners. If you are just starting out and have a lot of room for mass gain, your gains should come pretty easy at first. And fat loss efforts aren’t as likely to break down muscle mass. The younger you are, the more this holds true.
- People with a lot of fat to lose. You will respond especially well to body recomposition. This is better than a traditional diet approach, because a long, unbroken caloric deficit can slow your metabolism and eventually halt your fat loss. Alternating fat loss days with muscle building days ensures long-term success.
- Coming out of a fitness layoff. If you used to be in better shape, but you got fat (or skinny fat) you’ll get back into prime shape faster than you did the first time.
If you are not in one of these categories, don’t fret. You will still get excellent results if you follow the guidelines.
The totally jacked elephant in the room
There’s one thing that doesn’t get mentioned in fitness magazines and most websites: anabolic steroids.
If you’re on the juice, you can throw away all the rules of fat loss and muscle physiology, and get totally jacked and totally shredded. Fast.
I’m not advising you to do this. But you should be aware that a lot of lean, muscular people take physique drugs to look the way they do. More than you realize.
And waaaaaaaayyyyy more than are willing to admit it. (“All natural, bro!”)
How to eat for concurrent fat loss and muscle gain
You’re going to eat more on the days you lift weights. More calories and more carbohydrate. Those are your muscle building days.
On rest days (any non-weightlifting day) you will be in a caloric deficit. That’s when the fat burning takes place.
Figure your maintenance calories
Multiply your body weight (BW) by the one of these numbers, depending on your current physique:
- fairly lean/almost to your fat loss goals: BW x 15
- average/soft in the middle/skinny fat: BW x 13-14
- significant amount of fat to lose: BW x 12-13
- obese: BW x 12, and talk to your doctor first
Workout day calories and macronutrients
On the days you lift weights, add 100 calories to maintenance levels. Macronutrient breakdown goes like this:
- protein: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight (g/lb)
- fat: 25-30% of total calories
- carbohydrate: the remaining calories, so you reach your 100 calorie surplus
Non-workout day calories and macronutrients
You will be in a 500-calorie deficit. Remember, this is any day you don’t lift weights. So even if you do cardio or sprints or some other workout, use these numbers:
- protein: 1.25 g/lb
- fat: 25-30% of total calories
- carbohydrate: the remaining calories, so you achieve your 500 calorie deficit
Running the numbers
Let’s see what this looks like in practice.
We’ll take a 175 lb man with 18% body fat. He’s soft in the middle, but you wouldn’t call him fat.
Figuring the maintenance calories
- 175 lb x 14 (average/soft physique) = 2450 calories
Figuring the workout day calories/macros
- Calories: 2550 (2450 + 100)
- Protein: 175 x1 = 175 g x4 (protein has 4 calories/gram) = 700 calories
- Fat: 30% of 2550 calories = 765 calories /9 (fat has 9 calories/gram) = 85 g
- Carbs: 1,085 remaining calories /4 (carbs have 4 calories/gram) = ~270 g
Figuring the non-workout day calories/macros
- Calories: 1950 (2450 – 500)
- Protein: 175 x1.25 = 218.75 g x4 = 875 calories
- Fat: 25% of 1950 calories = 487.5 calories /9 = 54 g
- Carbs: 587.5 remaining calories /4 = ~150g
A few important details:
- You’ll need to lift weights 3-4 days per week. Find a program and start lifting. 3 days is the minimum to gain size. More than 4, and you will have too many caloric surplus days.
- You will probably need to experiment and tweak the numbers. As with any calorie formula, these numbers are a starting point.
- If tracking calories and macros seems daunting, you can use a macronutrient app on your phone to make it easier.
- You absolutely need to get enough sleep — 7-9 hours per night. Sleep deprivation stunts fat burning.
Training styles and advanced techniques that will get you ripped
This phrase gets thrown around the fitnessphere so much, it’s almost lost its meaning.
Metabolic conditioning (aka MetCon) can be defined as circuit-based weightlifting where exercises are done back to back, with little/no rest in between. This type of training gets brutal. Your metabolism will spike and fat burning kicks into high gear — sometimes for days following a single workout.
CrossFit is a form of metabolic conditioning. Which is why, despite all of its flaws, it is brutally effective for fat loss — usually without losing muscle mass.
For a great guide on the science and practice of MetCon — with a ton of workouts — check out Cardio Strength Training by Robert dos Remedios.
Sprints and HIIT
Sprint work and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are well-known to torch fat while sparing muscle. They are basically a form of metabolic conditioning done with less external resistance (i.e. not done with free weights/kettlebells).
Treadmill sprints, hill sprints, prowlers, sleds, spin bikes, fan bikes, etc. They all make excellent workout finishers. Or you can do them as separate workouts.
Even the elliptical — as lame as it is — can give you a good sprint workout if you work hard enough.
Intermittent fasting (IF) is the practice of confining all of your meals to a certain window of time, typically 8 hours later in the day. You still follow the calorie guidelines above, but you will go long stretches of the day without eating.
So you might only eat between 1PM and 9PM, and fast for the remaining 16 hours. During the fasting hours of the day, your body’s fat burning is elevated. If you hit your calorie/macro targets each day, you will not burn muscle mass during the fasting period.
There are many ways to divide up the day. You can also practice IF on fat loss days, and eat normally on muscle building days (my favorite approach).
IF manipulates stress hormones to burn fat in a controlled way. So if you are a high-strung, high-stress person, your cortisol will likely skyrocket, and you could lose significant muscle mass. Probably not the best approach for you.
Before you try it, check out more of the details of intermittent fasting.
Body transformation is a long game
Yes, it’s possible to transform your physique in a few months. But the best bodies have taken years to develop. And tried different training and diet approaches to see what works best for them.
Experiment, be patient, crunch the numbers and do the work. That’s how you build the stronger, leaner body you want.