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How to lose fat and build muscle at the same time

Posted on | Last updated 10-07-2017

I hear this question a lot, but people seem to somewhat misunderstand what they are asking for. It sounds like an impossible task doesn’t it? To build muscle you have to be in an energy surplus and train for hypertrophy, which usually means that you will also gain a little extra body fat.

To lose fat you have to be in an energy deficit and train, ideally high volume to burn off extra calories. So, the two seem to be mutually exclusive. Can you really have the best of both worlds? Let’s explore this in a bit more detail.

What do you REALLY want?

You want to look physically better, you’re looking to ‘tone up’. So yes, you need to lose fat and build muscle, this is the only way to achieve that goal. We’ve all seem the memes comparing a picture of a skinny marathon runner versus and muscled physique athlete, right? Yeah, they piss me off because there’s nothing wrong with being a skinny marathon runner if you like running marathons, I mean Paula Radcliff does just fine. It simply wouldn’t serve her to look like Katrin Davidsdottr because their disciplines are at completely opposite ends of the scale. Marathon running is all about endurance and power to weight ratio, while CrossFit is a multi-sport discipline with a heavy strength and power bias.

This is why I feel it’s important to define your goals, your purpose and you (as Ben Coomber likes to say) ‘why’. Sure, you can get big and strong and still run marathons but if you want to run sub 3-hours you’ll find it a lot easier to be lean and skinny than you will being strong and bulky.

If you’re goal is merely aesthetic so that you can have the confidence to take your shirt off on the beach or to wear a crop top in the local discotheque then maybe marathon training is right for your goal.

In other words your training must be in resonance with your aim. Obviously to build muscle you have to lift weights, sure you can develop strength with bodyweight training and if you enjoy that then include some in your training but ultimately you’re going to have to pump iron to make your muscles grow, it’s the only way to stimulate the muscles into the correct adaptations.

If you want to know how to do this I wrote this blog recently.

You see, changing your body shape to get the trim triangular body shape most blokes want or the svelt but curvy look that most females desire requires muscle building, think of it body sculpting if you like, but you also need to lose body fat. The reason a female might have bulky thighs probably isn’t because she has massive quads and hamstrings, it’s more likely that she has more fat on her thighs than she would like. The reason a bloke doesn’t have a V-shaped back is because he carries too much fat around his waist. So, although you need to build muscle to change your shape you have to burn fat too.

I know what you’re thinking “c’mon Troy we said that at the start get to the point!” I’m getting there, I promise. So, can you do both? Yes and no…

Fat loss

This bit is easy, be in an energy deficit and you will lose weight, ideally fat, but, as most people know, if you are in an energy deficit you will also lose muscle so how do you burn fat and build muscle? There’s a few things to consider here.

  1. Energy balance (calorie deficit)
  2. Protein intake
  3. Training stimulus

Energy balance

Right, so if you purely want to lose weight you have to be in that previously mentioned energy deficit (there is no specific macro split for fat loss just that negative energy balance) and you have to do this consistently every week. If at the end of the week your calories in are less than your calories out you will probably have lost some fat, weight loss isn’t linear so sometimes you see fluctuations but the rules of thermodynamics definitely apply here. However, if you are in a large deficit you will lose weight quicker and this will also lead to catabolism, where your muscles start to shrink. Obviously, this is contrary to your goal of fat loss and muscle gain. So, you need to make sure that your deficit is no greater than 10% of your maintenance calories. The slower the weight loss the better your chances of maintaining muscle mass.

Protein intake

Right, so weight loss is macro agnostic and yes, you can lose weight without eating a lot of protein, just look at any skinny vegan for proof of that. But, protein intake is important for 3 reasons, muscle protein synthesis (MPS), nitrogen balance and amino acid oxidation (IAAO). MPS is stimulated by regular feedings of proteins that are high in the amino acid leucine, ideally 2.5-3g of leucine per feeding, or around 25-30g of leucine rich protein like chicken or whey. 

Nitrogen balance is the traditional measure and the reason why the current government guidelines for protein intake are set at a measly 0.8g per kg. However, new research (1) is now looking into IAAO as a more reliable reading and this would indicate that protein needs to be higher, maybe as high as 1g per lb of bodyweight or 2.2 g/kg for bodybuilders. You technically are body building if you are aiming to build muscle even if you aren’t that advanced or looking to step on stage in your smalls. But a range of 1.7-2.2 g/kg is where you ought to be when dieting down.

Training stimulus

Yeah, I’ve already said it, you must be lifting weights. But here’s the rub, if you are a beginner you don’t have to do loads of really high-volume training, simply doing 2 full body resistance sessions with a moderate level of intensity has been enough to maintain and even increase lean mass in overweight women in an energy deficit (2), in this case the subjects lost fat and gained muscle at almost a 1:1 ratio. But, you don’t have to just do weights you can include some aerobic exercise too as this will burn more calories and aid in losing fat (3). Besides that, cardio is great for cardiovascular health (funny that) and there’s no point in looking a million bucks if you can’t even climb a flight of stairs without wheezing like Darth Vader.

"I feel it’s important to define your goals".

How to build muscle and lose fat

So, as you can see it’s not quite as complicated as some might have you believe. I’m coming from the point of view here that you are novice to intermediate in terms of exercise experience and that you want to get a little leaner and look a little better rather than massive body composition changes. If you are very overweight just focus on fat loss which means defining your goals, focussing on the journey of change and learning to love the person in the mirror enough to ride it out when the waves get a bit choppy, once you have slimmed down THEN you can start to focus on body composition more.

But, if you want to ‘tone up’ these points should be noted. Or, maybe you want to lose a bit of weight and improve your strength or power for sporting reasons, which is a much more meaningful goal than simply wanting to look good for the beach. Either way here’s what to do.

Work out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) – do this by simply tracking a week’s worth of food, if you find maintenance intake, total up the week and divide by 7 to get your TDEE and then knock off 10% for your fat loss deficit. If you are already reasonably lean and just want a little more definition you can maybe go with maintenance or just 5% under.

Set your protein at around 2g per kg of lean mass. If you have a few pounds to lose just set protein based on target weight, if you are already quite lean then just go with your current weight.

Diet is important so make sure that you are eating enough healthy fats to support hormone function and enough carbs to fuel your anaerobic training efforts. But, fibre is also important as are micronutrients so get 5-7 portions of veg and 2-3 portions of fruit in as well.

Train accordingly. For a beginner, 2 full body resistance sessions per week are enough. For an intermediate 3-4 is plenty. They don’t have to be long around 45 minutes to an hour. Then simply add in a couple of cardio sessions of your choice. Usually 10-20 minutes of HIIT style work at the end of a strength session is good, but you could always go for a run, swim of bike ride on one or two days if you enjoy that sort of activity. I personally love mountain biking so that’s my main cardio.

Manage your lifestyle. High levels of stress, poor sleep quality and a negative mindset will all impact on your levels of motivation, your resolve when confronted by temping foods, your mood in general and your recovery from exercise. Not to mention food cravings, I know that I want to eat ALL the flapjacks if I get a bad night’s sleep for any reason.

Final thoughts

I mentioned sport earlier and I think this is important, if you really enjoy working out then fine, that’s your sport, job done. But if you train to improve at your sport, even if you’re not a competitive sportsman but just someone who enjoys doing a physical activity, it makes your efforts more purposeful. If having visible veins on your abdomen aren’t going to make you a better wake boarder, for example, then why bother dieting down to that level? Just be happy with the person you are on the inside, enjoy your sport, enjoy your food and your training and the results will follow.

If you are a recreational athlete, even if it’s more recreation than athlete and you have any questions or simply want a bit of banter with likeminded individuals you can join my private Facebook group here.


  2. Schmitz et al. Strength training for obesity prevention in midlife women. International Journal of Obesity (2003) 27, 326–333;. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0802198
  3. Willis LH, Slentz CA, Bateman LA, et al. Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults. Journal of Applied Physiology. 2012;113(12):1831-1837. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.01370.2011.

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