There is one question that I get asked again, and again.
“Is it possible to burn fat and build muscle at the same time?”
Without a doubt, it’s a hot topic within the fitness industry and divides opinion within the fitness world.
Some will tell you that it’s impossible to achieve this.
That it’s a waste of time trying and that you should focus on burning body fat for a few weeks/months, then switching to an intense muscle building program.
Others will tell you that it’s totally possible and not to worry about how you construct your workouts – just to get on with and enjoy the journey.
So what’s the truth?
Is it possible to reduce your body fat percentage whilst also building muscle?
Well, yes it is.
However, as always, there is a little but more to it.
First, we need to understand a little more about how our bodies burn fat and build muscle.
Burning body fat
There is a bottom-line rule to losing weight.
It’s simple to understand, but many people struggle with making it happen.
The rule is that if we consume more calories than we burn, we will not lose weight. We will actually put weight on.
On the other hand, if we burn more than we consume, we’ll lose weight. Which is what most of us want.
But, it’s never quite that easy.
There’s a lot of factors that affect how many calories we burn. And not all calories are equal in quality.
Doing frequent exercise is obviously one way to burn calories. But other factors such as age and genetics affect how quickly and efficiently our body burns energy. It’s these other factors that mean there is no one-size-fits all answer to weight loss.
But one thing is true for everyone: this battle is won in the kitchen.
The easiest adjustments to make are to what we consume, rather than how much exercise we do.
Consuming fewer calories is so much easier than burning those calories using exercise.
So, if you’re hoping to lose weight, start by looking at your meal (and snacking) plan.
And because we all have different ages, height, gender, genetics, and circumstances, everyone’s meals plans will be slightly different.
But the bottom-line rule holds true, whoever we are and whatever our age or background: if we burn more calories than we consume, we lose weight.
Just to make things a little more complicated, we need to keep in mind that not all calories are created equal.
The emphasis in our diet should be on quality nutrition. This video helps to explain this point. Here, Dr. Jason Fung talks about the calorie and how quality is king.
So, that’s the basics of weight loss. But how about muscle building?
There are three key components to building muscle.
- Engage the muscles through resistance movement (i.e. move heavy things)
- Fuel muscle growth (eat good quality, nutritious food)
- Give the body enough rest to recover and grow
1. Engaging the muscles through resistance
It probably won’t come as a surprise that we need to be moving heavy weight to build muscle.
But this doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym.
Using the right type of bodyweight movements we can develop any muscle group in the body.
To achieve the fastest growth, we should be aiming for muscular failure – where the muscle is exhausted it can’t complete any more movements without sacrificing the form of the movement.
And we should be aiming for this failure below 15 repetitions or so.
Some people give up with bodyweight training because they struggle to make the movements more difficult.
But it just depends how resourceful we are.
There are several ways we can increase the difficulty of a bodyweight movement:
- Reduce rest periods. Cut the rest down, to turn the intensity up
- Rep range. Turn 10 reps into 20 reps to increase the volume
- Tempo. Changing the tempo to increase time under tension. Slow movements down, add a PAUSE. This is a great way to continue the strength gains
- Resistance. A no brainer if you have some equipment. A lot of bodyweight movements can be made more challenging with just a little resistance
- Add more sets to increase your work or bring in some other exercises to create supersets (without rest)
- Change the position. Foot placement, hand placement. Adjust your position to hit the muscles from different angles
This being said, we need to always remember that whatever we do with our workouts, we won’t see muscle growth without the right nutrition.
Fuel muscle growth
Just as with fat loss, nutrition plays a vital role in building muscle.
Put very simply, this is because the food we eat is the fuel that our bodies use to build muscle.
So, if we do not consume enough quality calories, we cannot build muscle.
[This is why there is much debate about whether you can lose weight and build muscle. We’ll come on to how we can achieve both further down in this post.]
By ‘quality calories’, we mean a balanced diet that has enough protein to build muscle.
Because protein forms the building block of muscle, without it, our bodies are not able to grow muscle cell-size.
Protein consumption is about finding the balance, and consuming too much is pointless as we can’t store protein, but is also a bad idea as it can put unnecessary strain on our kidneys.
A good rule of thumb is for muscle building is about 1.8g of protein per 1kg of bodyweight, per day.
If you’re interested in learning more about protein, this fascinating video from Osmosis goes into more depth. It’s an 8-minute deep-dive into the building block of muscle.
Give the body enough rest
Rest is absolutely vital for muscle growth. If we don’t rest muscles properly and give them time to fully recover from a workout, they cannot reach their full potential.
So it becomes important to make sure our workout programs allow for rest after a muscle group has been targeted.
This includes both getting enough sleep and making sure our we are not ‘overtraining’ our muscles.
Everyone needs to take rest days each week and this should be a key factor in any workout program.
Burning fat while building muscle: finding the balance
To many, it can seem as though it should be impossible to both burn fat and lose muscle in the same workout program.
Fat loss requires a calorie deficit, while muscle building needs a calorie surplus.
Two different things, right?
Well, there’s a little trick that comes into play here; it comes down to finding a balance.
Firstly, we all have fat stores in our body. For many reading this, this will be something they’d like less of, and so burning stored fat is one of their main goals.
Secondly, muscles need calories (a calorie surplus) to grow.
They burn calories as part of the growing process: protein is used to expand muscle size and other calories (from carbohydrate and fat) is used to fuel the body throughout this process.
These calories will mostly come from what we eat, but if we carefully manage our intake of calories, some of the energy needed to build muscle can also come from stored calories, or fat.
Important: this doesn’t change the fact that we need to consume good quality protein at the right ratio to body weight.
And it doesn’t mean we are ‘turning fat into muscle’.
But it does mean that we can burn body fat while building muscle size… that is, if we are careful about how much we consume.
It’s about finding the balance and tweaking our intake of calories and our workouts to find what works most efficiently.
And, as I’ve said before, everyone is different.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach we can use for this.
Which why some people have asked for my help in building a lifestyle program to build muscle and burns fat. By enrolling in my personalized training package, I take away the trial and error. All you have to do is follow the program. Simple!
3 Key points to burn fat and build muscle
1. Resistance training
If you’re a sucker for paying huge subscriptions to gyms, then of course, you can achieve this through gym workouts.
But you can also achieve results through bodyweight training.
During my time as a military officer, I kept my team in incredible shape whilst overseas without access to gyms or equipment. All by using bodyweight workouts.
It’s totally possible to build muscle at home without equipment. Of course, the fitness industry don’t want you to know this – because they want your monthly subscriptions!
2. Create a calorie deficit
Reduce your intake of carbohydrates and fats so that you are using more energy than you consume.
For many this will be trial and error, as what works for you will depend on your age, weight, gender, genetics and height. Alternatively, I can work on this for you.
3. Consume enough protein
If you do not consume enough protein, your body will not grow muscle. Even worse, if you are in calorie deficit, then you will actually lose muscle mass without enough protein.
Remember, 1.8g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight is a good target. Avoid overconsumption of protein – don’t take one more than 2.0g per kilogram of bodyweight as your body won’t be able to process it.
Other ways to burn fat and build muscle
Another option all together is to split your goals into phases.
It takes a little more time, but is a different way to focus on the same results.
Using this method, you would prioritize one goal at a time and if you’re new to training, it can prove to be a more manageable option.
For example, for the first few weeks, you’d focus on burning body fat before changing your program to a muscle building one.
This is an old-school method that works, but can take more time to return the results you’re after.
- Understand the ‘belly-fat exercise’ myth that traps a lot of beginners: Stop Searching for Belly Fat Exercises
- Learn to build your own home workout training programs using my popular and affordable course
Reducing body fat and building muscle is absolutely achievable, in spite of a lot of content saying otherwise.
Achieving both has come to be known as the holy grail of workouts, because it takes effort, planning and careful management. But if we put our mind to it and commit to a program, it’s something we can all achieve.