Gaining muscle and burning fat at the same time is pretty much everyone's fitness goal. How awesome would it be to get stronger, watch your muscles grow and reduce your body fat percentage all at the same time? Unfortunately, these two goals aren't compatible with each other.
Weight Balance 101
Weight balance (gaining, losing or maintaining weight) is a function of the difference between how many calories you burn and eat. If you burn more than you eat, you will lose weight. If you eat more than you burn, you will gain weight.
Changing your weight is as easy as adjusting your calorie intake (food) and expenditure (exercise). Unfortunately, gaining muscle requires you to eat more while burning fat requires you to eat less. Let's look at these two goals (gaining muscle and burning fat) a bit closer so you can understand why accomplishing them at the same time is impossible.
Though many people differentiate between burning fat and losing weight, the two goals can be used interchangeably. Burning fat and losing weight require the same exact steps. Excess fat is stored in the body when we eat too much. Eating more than you burn gives the body a surplus of energy which it stores as fat for later use. A calorie surplus is a state in which you eat more than you burn. A calorie surplus can only cause weight gain. If you eat 3,000 calories but only burn 2,500, that surplus of energy (500 calories) is stored as fat causing weight gain and unsightly body fat.
The only way to get rid of excess body fat is to turn a calorie surplus into a calorie deficit. A calorie deficit is the opposite of a surplus; a state in which you burn more than you eat. When you burn more than you eat, you create a deficit of energy. If you burn 3,000 calories but only eat 2,500, your body is forced to look for that deficit of 500 calories in non-food sources such as body fat and even muscle tissue. This is the only way to burn excess body fat. Over time, a calorie deficit will lead to a lower body fat percentage and a more toned appearance.
A calorie surplus causes weight gain. There are two types of weight you can gain: fat and muscle. A calorie surplus combined with physical inactivity (eating more and watching TV) will lead to fat gain while a surplus combined with strength training (eating more and lifting weights) will lead to muscle gains.
When you eat more than you burn, your body has to deal with a surplus of energy. Without exercise, a calorie surplus is diverted to fat storage for later use. If you want to gain muscle and get stronger, you need to combine more calories with exercise.
Exercise causes tiny tears (damage) to your muscle tissue. With an adequate amount of nutrients, your body will fix the damage making your muscles bigger and stronger. The repair process is very energy intensive and requires a calorie surplus. If you're eating more, the calorie surplus will be used to fix muscle damage. This will cause weight gain in the form of muscle rather than fat.
Is it possible to gain muscle and burn fat at the same time?
The problem with burning fat and building muscle at the same time is that the two goals require the opposite steps. Burning fat requires a calorie deficit while building muscle requires a surplus. There is no way you can satisfy both requirements at the same time. Even though it is not possible to do them both at the same time, there are still steps you can take to improve your appearance.
The Key to Burning Fat or Building Muscle
The key to both burning fat and building muscle is keeping track of a few pieces of key data: body weight, calorie intake, body fat percentage and exercise numbers. These pieces of data will help you adjust your diet and workout routine allowing you to better control how much fat you burn or muscle you gain.
If you want to gain weight and get stronger, you can generally do so while keeping your body fat relatively stable. The reason why some people gain fat when they are "bulking" is because they eat too much. Your body stores fat when it has too much energy. Gaining muscle requires a calorie surplus however, too big of a calorie surplus will cause some fat buildup on top of any muscle gain.
Careful meal planning that includes counting calories is the best way to keep the fat off while gaining weight. First, use the calorie calculator to figure out how many calories your body needs to gain weight. Based on your age, size, gender and physical activity level, the calculator will estimate how many calories you need to eat to gain weight. Start eating that amount on a consistent basis and carefully keep track of how much you eat (you can use MyFitnessPal for help).
The key to gaining muscle without fat is tracking and adjusting. You need to track your weight, body fat percentage, calorie intake and strength gains at the gym. When you put these four pieces of data together, you can figure out if you're gaining muscle, if you're gaining fat and how much you need to eat to avoid fat buildup.
Your weight will tell you how much total mass (fat + muscle) you are putting on. Track your weight every day at the same exact time. Weighing yourself at the same time is very important because it will remove fluctuations caused by water and food weight giving you a more accurate number.
Your body fat percentage will tell you if you are gaining fat. Your goal is to gain weight without increasing your body fat percentage. There are a few ways to measure your body fat. The easiest and cheapest method is a body fat analyzer that uses bioelectrical impedance to measure body fat. Other methods include a skin fold caliper or bod pod.
If your body fat percentage is increasing week to week, cut 200 calories out of your daily intake and keep taking these measurements. You can also increase the amount of cardiovascular exercise (running, biking, swimming) you are doing to burn more calories. Repeat this process until you are gaining weight without increasing your body fat percentage.
A workout journal will help you keep track of you strength gains at the gym. You should keep track of the number of sets, amount of weight and repetitions you complete to see if you are gaining strength from one month to the next. Increased strength generally means increased muscle mass. If you are gaining weight without increasing your strength, consider changing your workout routine.
Generally, the faster you lose weight, the more muscle you will go along with body fat. The solution to this is to lose weight at a slower pace. Instead of drastically cutting your calorie intake or doubling the amount of exercise you do, consider making smaller changes.
Similarly to gaining muscle, the key to burning fat is tracking your calorie intake, body fat percentage, weight and strength (read above section on gaining muscle). First, visit the calorie calculator to figure how much you need to eat. The calculator will estimate how much you need to eat each day to lose weight. Next, count your calories and eat that much on a consistent basis. Use MyFitnessPal to easily keep track of your daily intake.
Your goal (when burning fat) should be to lose weight and decrease your body fat percentage while keeping your strength numbers intact. You can measure your strength by keeping track of your training numbers (sets, weights and repetitions at the gym) in a workout journal. If your strength numbers start to dip substantially, you are probably losing muscle. You will lose some strength because a calorie deficit means less energy available for strenuous exercise. If your strength decreases substantially, increase your calorie intake by 200 calories per day and keep monitoring your strength numbers.
The Bottom Line
There's no way to satisfy the requirements of burning fat and building muscle at the same time. You can however do one without impacting the other (too much). By gaining weight at a slower pace, you can build muscle without gaining too much fat. You can also burn fat without losing muscle if you keep your weight loss to a slow pace. Slow change is the key to accomplishing your goals successfully.