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

Young woman lifting weights
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Burning fat and building muscles aren't necessarily mutually exclusive goals. However, this entirely depends on where you are starting from (in terms of your weight and overall fitness) and where you hope to finish. The answer for weightlifters, for example, is very different than for an average person simply looking to improve their overall body composition.

Fat Loss vs. 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'll find this challenging, because those goals often conflict with one another.

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.

However, 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.

One study found that young women who followed a combined cardio and strength program for 12 weeks lost an average of 10 percent body fat while also increasing their muscle mass by almost 9 percent. 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.

Tips for Losing Fat While Lifting Weights

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.

Have a Two-Pronged Approach to Training

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 Training According to Your Goal

Even though you will include both 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 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 progress you're making.

Don't Forget Your Diet

Exercise matters, but fat loss happens primarily in the kitchen. Seek 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 an eating plan that allows you to eat foods you love, but still get the nutrition you need to lose fat while weight training.

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Article Sources

  1. Wood PS, Krüger PE, Grant CC. DEXA-assessed regional body composition changes in young female military soldiers following 12-weeks of periodised training. Ergonomics. 2010;53(4):537-47. doi:10.1080/00140130903528160

  2. Lee BA, Oh DJ. Effect of regular swimming exercise on the physical composition, strength, and blood lipid of middle-aged women. J Exerc Rehabil. 2015;11(5):266-71. doi:10.12965/jer.150242

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