Can I Lose Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?

Two multi-ethnic young women exercising together. They are looking at each other, smiling, as they climb a staircase holding hand weights.

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Sometimes when people lose weight, they lose muscle too. This is called weight-loss–induced muscle loss and can put you at risk of developing sarcopenia, a condition that is associated with low amounts of muscle and reduced muscle function.

If you take action to preserve your lean muscle mass while dropping your excess pounds, this creates a different set of challenges. Namely, it can be harder to track your progress because the numbers on the scale won't necessarily change, even if your body shape does.

Fat Loss vs. Muscle Gain

One study found that young women who followed a combined cardio and strength program for 12 weeks lost an average of 10% body fat while also increasing their muscle mass by almost 9%. A smaller study of older women also found a decrease in body fat and an increase in physical strength after a 12-week swimming program.

Research shows that beginners respond quickly and efficiently to both strength training and cardio. There's a similar effect if you've previously built muscle but have lost it. It's easier for you to re-build that muscle because your muscles "remember" what it was like to be larger.

If you are an average exerciser who wants to improve your balance of fat and muscle, you can lose fat while strengthening your lean body tissue over time. In fact, if you're a beginning exerciser, you are likely to get the greatest benefits of both fat loss and muscle gain.

If you're an advanced exerciser or bodybuilder looking to gain large amounts of muscle while also losing large amounts of fat, you may find this challenging because those goals often conflict with one another. Why?

Simply put, building muscle requires eating more calories than you burn. Losing fat requires eating fewer calories than you burn. When you're at a calorie deficit so you can lose fat, your muscles aren't getting the fuel they need to grow larger.

Tips to Trade Fat for Muscle

If your goal is to strike a balance between fat loss and muscle gain, there are a few tips that can help you get there.

Do Cardio and Strength Train

The key is to incorporate both cardio and strength training into your exercise routine, whether you're a beginner or a more experienced exerciser.

Cardio with no strength training can compromise your muscle mass (shrinking your muscles instead of building them). But strength training without cardio can compromise your fat loss. So do both.

Prioritize Exercise Based on Your Goals

Even though you will include cardio and strength elements in your training, you don't need to prioritize both. If you're a marathoner, focus on cardiovascular endurance. If you're a bodybuilder, focus on muscle growth.

For the beginning exerciser or average exerciser, having a balance between the two is the best way to maximize fat loss while preserving muscle mass. Also, remember that you might lose fat without losing weight, so your scale may not be a good indicator of the progress you're making.

Don't Forget Your Diet

Exercise matters, but fat loss happens primarily in the kitchen. The USDA recommends eating a diet that includes lean proteins, vegetables, fruit, beans and lentils, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy, and oils (vegetable oils and oils found in nuts and seafood) when your goal is to maintain a healthy weight.

You may also benefit from seeking the guidance of a qualified nutritionist to help you come up with an eating plan to meet your goals. In most cases, the nutrition professional can help you devise a menu that allows you to eat foods you love but still get the nutrition you need to lose fat while weight training.

Adjust Your Recovery Times

While overtraining, or not giving your body enough time to recover between workouts, may not cause you to lose muscle, it can impact your muscle's strength and endurance. It can also increase your risk of injuries, making it harder to exercise for weight loss.

Overtraining can occur to both beginning exercisers and athletes alike. If you notice that your workout performance is declining or that you feel fatigued, take a day or two off. Allow your muscles to fully heal so that you don't do any major damage.

You may also benefit from adjusting the recovery times between your exercise sets. The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends these rest periods based on your exercise training goals:

  • Increase muscle size - rest no longer than 90 seconds between sets
  • Increase muscle endurance - rest no longer than 60 seconds between sets
  • Increase muscle strength - rest 3–5 minutes between sets
  • Increase muscle power - rest 3–5 minutes between sets

How to Burn Fat Without Losing Muscle

Maybe you're not necessarily looking to build muscle while losing weight, but you also don't want to lose the muscle that you currently have. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to get rid of your fat while preserving your muscle mass.

Eat More Protein

One study of 39 adults found that eating a high-protein diet can help protect muscle when cutting calories in an attempt to lose weight. Although all participants lost weight by lowering their calorie intake, those who consumed more protein lost less of their lean muscle mass. A study of 20 obese patients found similar results.

Healthy protein sources include lean meats, seafood, eggs, and dairy. If you follow a plant-based diet, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all non-animal foods that are also high in protein.

If you have a medical condition, consult with your doctor before starting a high-protein diet. This eating strategy can potentially impact kidney function, making this a consideration if you have a kidney-related disease.

Get the Right Nutrients

Research suggests that consuming certain nutrients may help preserve muscle mass while losing weight. For example, a study of 80 obese older adults noted that taking a supplement containing leucine and vitamin D (along with whey protein) helped protect their muscles when on a low-calorie diet.

Again, it is important to talk with your doctor before beginning any supplemental regimen. They can also help you decide how much of each supplement to take given your health and medical conditions.

Exercise Regularly

It's fairly well-known that exercise helps you burn calories and build muscle. However, what is less discussed is that if you don't make exercise a regular habit, you're more likely to lose the muscle that you currently have.

How long do you have between exercise sessions before your muscle starts to decline? According to one study, even a five-day break is enough to start to see lean muscle mass reduce in size. So, aim to exercise regularly to burn calories and protect the muscle you have.

A Word From Verywell

While it is possible to lose some muscle mass while trying to lose weight, it's important to keep your overall health in mind when it comes to diet and exercise. As long as you eat healthy foods and don't underdo or overdo it in the gym (or at home), the amount of muscle you lose will likely be minimal.

It's also helpful to assess your progress by methods other than the scale. You can lose inches without losing weight if you build muscle and lose fat at the same time. (Don't rely on feeling sore to tell you that you've had a good workout either as this is a strength-training myth.) Instead, pay attention to your body size and how good you feel.

11 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."