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

by Joseph Munoz

Almost everyone who works out has the goal of wanting to gain muscle and lose body fat to look leaner and more jacked. Most fitness enthusiasts dedicate specific periods of time throughout the year to focus on cutting to lose body fat, or bulking to gain muscle mass. However, the question we need to address is - can you lose fat and gain muscle at the same time?

In other words, do you need to do the traditional cutting and bulking cycles, or can you just do it all at once?

What is Body Recomposition?

Simultaneously losing fat and gaining muscle is what we call body recomposition, or just body recomp for short.

For example, if you lose 10lbs of body fat and gain 10lbs of muscle at the same time, you’d be the exact same body weight, but you’d look leaner and more muscular. Thus, your body composition has changed.

If you’ve been lifting for a while, you probably have noticed that this is much easier said than done.

Is Body Recomposition Possible?

In the online fitness community, there’s much debate around whether body recomp is possible for most people since the dietary methods required to achieve these goals, gaining muscle and losing fat, contradict each other.

Gaining muscle requires you to be in an energy surplus, where you eat more calories than your body burns so the excess calories can be used to build muscle.

On the other hand, losing weight requires you to be in an energy deficit, where you eat fewer calories than your body burns, and thus, your body taps into stored energy to make up for the deficit, which results in weight loss.

Since, by definition, it is impossible to be in an energy surplus and deficit at the exact same time, the consensus amongst the online fitness community is that you can’t gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, except for a few select populations.

Exceptions to the Rule

The select populations who can achieve body recomposition include individuals who are:

• completely new to training
• overweight/obese
• experienced lifters that are detrained

Each of these populations are in a unique situation where they are able to gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

New Lifters

For new lifters, resistance training is such a novel stimulus that simply lifting some weights will result in gaining muscle without the need for a calorie surplus. This is what we call “newbie gains.”

As we can see in the graph below, rates of muscle protein synthesis, which is one of the molecular processes by which we grow new muscle, is significantly elevated following resistance training in untrained individuals compared to trained individuals.[1]

Changes in MPS following exercise in Trained versus Untrained individuals. UT; Untrained.

Overweight Individuals

Overweight or obese individuals can achieve some degree of body recomp as well.

During weight loss, losing muscle only really becomes an issue when an individual is already pretty lean. The more fat mass that you have to lose, the less at risk you are of losing muscle mass as a result of weight loss. Since overweight or obese individuals have significant amounts of fat mass to lose, they can easily maintain or even slightly gain muscle depending on their training status while undergoing simultaneous fat loss.

Detrained Individuals

Lastly, individuals who have training experience but have not trained in quite some time are able to achieve some degree of body recomposition due to the phenomenon known as muscle memory.

Let’s quickly discuss how muscle memory works. There’s a theory called the myonuclear domain theory, which is thought to be at least one of the reasons muscle memory exists. Our muscles are made of different types of cells. One of them being satellite cells. Lifting weights results in muscle growth but it also results in an increased number of satellite cells. This increase in the number of satellite cells in muscle tissue following resistance training is a critical mechanism for muscle growth. Now, when we take several months off of training our muscle size shrinks but the number of satellite cells remains greater than it was compared to pre-training. So, when we come back to training after taking some time off, we gain muscle quicker than expected because we already have the required satellite cells present.

More to the Story?

Most fitness professionals agree that unless you fit into one of these three categories - you’re new to the gym, you’re overweight or obese, or you’re detrained - body recomp may not be possible for you. However, this argument doesn’t really paint the entire picture. There are numerous resistance training studies that demonstrate that body recomp can indeed occur even in individuals who have several years of training experience.

For example, a study by Antonio et al., compared the effects of a high protein diet versus a normal protein diet on changes in body composition following a 5x per week resistance training program for 8-weeks.[2] The subjects in this study had on average 3 to 5 years of training experience prior to enrolling in the study, so these participants were by no means newbies when it comes to lifting. The results showed that both groups increased lean body mass and decreased body fat % with the reduction in body fat being slightly more pronounced in the high protein group, which suggests that body recomp is indeed possible even in trained individuals.

As previously mentioned, this isn’t the only study. There are several other resistance training studies that have demonstrated that body recomp can occur in trained individuals.[3][4][5]

So, how did the participants in these studies achieve body recomp if they already have several years of training experience and they don’t fall into one of the three categories required for body recomp?

Let’s talk about this.

Are You Training Hard Enough?

There is no question that even individuals who have been training for several years can accomplish some degree of body recomposition. This is because there are 2 major exceptions in which individuals may still be able to achieve body recomp, even if they don’t fit into one of the three traditional categories required to achieve recomp.

First, just because someone’s been training for several years does not mean that they’re not a beginner.

You’ve probably seen plenty of people who have been lifting for more than 2-3 years consistently but don’t look all that different and aren’t really that strong. The amount of time you’ve been training doesn’t really determine whether you’re a beginner or not.

It’s hard to make substantial progress in the gym. You need to know how to execute exercises with good technique and through a full range of motion, you need to follow a well-structured training program, you need to focus on getting stronger on big compound movements over time, and most importantly you need to train really freaking hard.

We don’t have any hard data on this, but it's likely that most people don’t do half of these things consistently even if they’ve been going to the gym for a couple of years. If you look inside most commercial gyms, many people are on their phones or joking around with friends between sets, and often, it looks like they still have at least 5 reps left in the tank when they finish an exercise. In other words, although they’ve been going to the gym consistently for a couple of years, they aren’t training in a way that’s optimal for muscle growth.

One of the reasons why the participants in the Antonio study experienced body recomp even though they were “trained” lifters, is likely because they were in a setting where they were pushed to train really hard. If you’ve never been involved in a research study you probably don’t know this, but the researchers are constantly motivating and pushing the participants while they train to ensure that every participant trains equally hard. Therefore, the research lab itself creates an environment that is conducive to better gains. The participants in the study experienced such great gains over those 8 weeks, in part, because they were simply training harder and with more volume than they were used to due to the environment they were in.

So that’s the first exception to the three rules in which you may achieve body recomp. If your training has been suboptimal, you can probably achieve some degree of body recomp by simply focusing more on your training and increasing the volume and intensity of your workouts.

Are You Optimizing Recovery?

The second exception the three categories for body recomp has to do with recovery.

Training is by far the most important stimulus for muscle growth. However, recovery is a close second. We know that variables like sleep, stress, alcohol, protein intake, and other nutritional factors can influence how we recover and respond to resistance training. Many of the studies showing body recomp in trained athletes provide some sort of protein supplement, which increases the participants’ total daily protein intake, which may have contributed to their improvements in body composition if they were previously consuming suboptimal amounts of protein.

It doesn’t matter if you train really hard, and you follow an optimal training program. If your lifestyle and nutrition do not nurture and promote optimal recovery, then you’re not going to make the best gains possible. So, if you go from not eating enough protein, drinking too much on the weekends, and only sleeping 5 hours per night to eating sufficient protein, reducing your alcohol intake, and improving your sleep, you’re going to be able to lose some fat, gain some muscle, and experience somebody recomposition.

Putting it all Together

Ok, so the most important question we need to answer is can YOU achieve some body recomposition?

Well, if you’re completely new to lifting, you’re overweight or obese, or you’ve lifted before but it’s been months or years since you were consistent, you can definitely achieve some recomp. If you don’t fall perfectly into one of these three categories, you may still be able to lose fat and gain muscle simultaneously if your training has been suboptimal or you haven’t been prioritizing your recovery.

Although the consensus is that only a small percentage of the lifting community can achieve body recomp, we'd argue the opposite. Most people who have several years of training either don’t train hard enough or don’t optimize their recovery, which means that most people likely CAN experience some degree of body recomp.

The only individuals who likely cannot achieve any degree of body recomp are individuals who are already very lean, optimize every aspect of their training and recovery, and have been training consistently for many years already. In other words, professionals.

But most people are not professionals.

If there are areas of your training and recovery that can be improved, then your body composition will likely improve as well without having to cut or bulk if you simply focus on optimizing those variables.

Long Term Strategy

Now, keep in mind that trying to simultaneously lose fat and gain muscle is not a long-term strategy to get jacked. It’s simply a temporary goal to improve your current body composition at your current bodyweight. However, you can’t continue to simultaneously gain muscle and lose fat indefinitely.

If your long-term goal is to be as strong and muscular as possible, you definitely want to dedicate periods to focus on gaining muscle and dedicated periods to losing fat so that you can maximize and optimize your long-term progress.

One big issue is that often people just let themselves go when they bulk and gain too much weight too quickly and just end up getting fat. Gaining muscle is a very slow process, which means that when you bulk, you want to do it as slowly as possible so that you can be in a calorie surplus for a period of time long enough to gain substantial amounts of muscle. We recommend bulking for at least 6-9 months while gaining 1lb every 2-4 weeks. The more experienced you are, the slower you want to gain weight since gaining muscle becomes exponentially more difficult. Give yourself enough time to gain muscle and not gain so much fat that it’s hard to cut after.

After the 6-9 months, spend about 1-2 months losing a bit of the excess fat that you gained and then repeat the process all over again. This is a sustainable long-term strategy to consistently make progress in strength and muscle size without putting on substantial amounts of fat.

 

References

1. Damas, F., Phillips, S., Vechin, F.C. et al. A Review of Resistance Training-Induced Changes in Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Their Contribution to Hypertrophy. Sports Med 45, 801–807 (2015).

2. Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T. et al. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 12, 39 (2015).

3. Campbell BI, Aguilar D, Conlin L, Vargas A, Schoenfeld BJ, Corson A, Gai C, Best S, Galvan E, Couvillion K. Effects of High Versus Low Protein Intake on Body Composition and Maximal Strength in Aspiring Female Physique Athletes Engaging in an 8-Week Resistance Training Program. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2018 Nov 1;28(6):580-585.

4. Cribb PJ, Williams AD, Carey MF, Hayes A. The effect of whey isolate and resistance training on strength, body composition, and plasma glutamine. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2006 Oct;16(5):494-509.

5. Kreipke VC, Allman BR, Kinsey AW, Moffatt RJ, Hickner RC, Ormsbee MJ. Impact of Four Weeks of a Multi-Ingredient Performance Supplement on Muscular Strength, Body Composition, and Anabolic Hormones in Resistance-Trained Young Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Dec;29(12):3453-65.

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