The Ultimate Guide to Losing Fat and Gaining Muscle (At the Exact Same Time)

There’s an argument in the fitness world that you can either choose to lose fat OR gain muscle.

That they just can’t be done simultaneously.

To this, I say, “Hogwash!”

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And that’s what we’ll cover in today’s guide!

We’ll do so by discussing:

Before we jump in…

You’ll read more about it below, but one of the secrets to losing fat is moving in a way you enjoy. Like walking!

As Coach Matt mentions in the video above, gaining muscle and losing fat simultaneously is called “body recomposition.”

So yes, the process is indeed possible, as long as you follow the right plan.

…but you don’t have to take my word for it.

However, as I mentioned in the intro, you’ll often hear that losing fat while gaining muscle is impossible. The argument goes that you should just focus on one or the other, because doing both at once is destined to fail.

Let’s explore this claim.

To understand why losing fat while gaining muscle can be problematic, we need to explore both processes.

Let’s consider the following points:

To gain muscle, your body needs to be in a caloric surplus. This surplus provides the energy your body requires to repair and build bigger muscles.

Given this, losing fat (caloric deficit) at the same time one is gaining muscle (caloric surplus) seems impossible.

However, if we go a few steps deeper into the science, it IS possible!

To appreciate the nuance here, let’s get into some specifics on losing fat and gaining muscle separately, and then we’ll combine them.

There is a simple answer and a slightly less simple answer when it comes to losing body fat.

The simple answer: “consume fewer calories than you expend or burn.”[1]

Eight words, and one or two of those could probably be thrown out.

When your body needs more calories than the amount you are eating, you are in a “caloric deficit.” Your body doesn’t have the calories it needs as fuel, so it’ll start breaking down parts of itself for its energy requirements.

The hope is that your body will mostly pull from fat stores, though depending on how you are training it will also break down muscle too.[2]

Said again: when you are eating a caloric deficit, your body will pull from both its fat stores AND existing muscle for energy.

Troubling indeed.

From a physique and health standpoint, obviously we’d prefer that your body doesn’t break down muscle when in a caloric deficit, and instead really focuses on using fat stores instead.[3]

I make this point for a reason: your goal in fitness shouldn’t only be “weight loss,” despite the common vernacular used.

Who cares what the scale says, right?

The goal instead is to reduce body fat while also keeping the muscle you have (or even building more muscle).

That leads to a better physique and a healthier body.

By reducing your total fat on your body, OR increasing muscle mass, you’ll end up with a lower body fat percentage (it’s just a simple ratio of fat to everything else).

And lower body fat percentages are where “toned arms” and “6-pack abs” hang out.

We’ll discuss tips on keeping and growing your muscle while in a calorie deficit later in this guide. For now, remember you need fewer calories “in” compared to calories “out” for weight loss to occur, from either fat stores or muscle.

You may be asking, “Steve, what’s easier to do? Burn more calories or consume less?”

Good question.

Numbers will help tell the story: though this is a gross oversimplification – let’s use the ‘widely accepted’ starting point of “3,500 calories equals roughly one pound of fat.”[4]

Your options to create this caloric deficit include:

Which is easier?

Here are both halves of that equation. 500 calories equals:

Yep.

When it comes to maintaining a caloric deficit, it really comes down to diet.

It’s significantly more effective and time-efficient to consume 500 fewer calories than it is to burn 500 additional calories.

This brings us to our slightly less simple answer on getting in shape:

Here’s another idea we focus on: EAT MOSTLY UNPROCESSED FOOD.[5]

Meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts are all great examples.

These foods are very nutrient-dense and often low in calories compared to their processed counterparts. Which means you get filled up without overeating.

Win-win-win.

200 calories of broccoli:

200 calories of a bagel:

That’s why REAL food is the answer to creating a sustainable caloric deficit.

Most people can eat an entire bagel, no problem. Plates of broccoli, with all of the fiber, are much tougher to overeat.

With all of this, we advise you to take it slow, so new habits of healthy eating become permanent.

Something you can do for the rest of your life.

Let me explain again: what you eat will be 80%-90% of the equation for losing body fat.

The other 10-20%? Exercise.

Of course it’s exercise.

That’s a pretty good segue into…

If you want to build muscle, you’ll have to lift heavy things and ensure that your body has enough calories and protein to adapt by building more muscle.

Let’s chat about each one quickly.

When your muscle rebuilds itself following the workout, it’ll be bigger and stronger than before. Then you do it again.

And again.

And again.

As long as you are eating enough to rebuild your muscle, you’ll get stronger!

Not sure where to start on a Strength Training practice? No problem! You can download our free guide Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know when you join the Rebellion (our free community) below:

Because your muscle needs to be rebuilt after exercise, the calories are gonna need to come from somewhere. I’ll talk a lot about proper diet in the next section (with a Harry Potter analogy), so I won’t spend too much time on it here.

Just know that eating the right quantity of foods will be a big part of gaining muscle.  

If you’re strength training and only getting 6 hours of sleep a night or less, you’re really doing yourself a disservice. Go to bed!

That’s the short gist of how to build strength: challenge your muscles, eat well, and get some rest.

Let’s narrow in on our second point, “Eat a diet based on your goals.” It’ll become very important when balancing both losing body fat and gaining muscle.

To do that properly, grab your owl, and let’s chat about Hogwarts.

To answer the question of losing body fat and gaining muscle at the same time, I’d like to introduce an analogy from the world of Harry Potter.

Recall the “Sorting Hat:” The Sorting Hat’s job was to determine which of the four houses kids will call their home.

It’s almost like a traffic director: “Harry, you will go to Gryffindor! Draco, you will go to Slytherin!”

Your body operates on a VERY similar operation: every day it receives new calories (when you eat), and it needs to decide what to do with them!

For example:

You eat a chicken parm sub with fries and a 20-ounce soda. Your body then has to know where to route all those calories.

To keep things simple, it has three choices. It’ll sort those calories into one of three houses:[6]

A. Burn for Fuel.

B. Rebuild Muscle.

C. Store as Fat.

Right now, when you eat food, your body sorts most of those calories into “Burn for Fuel.”

There’s a number of calories your body needs each day just existing: to keep your liver functioning, your heart pumping, your brain operating, to regulate your body temperature, and so on – it burns a good chunk of calories just keeping the lights on.

There’s also “B. Rebuild as Muscle” and “C. Store as Fat,” which I devoted entire sections to above.

This is where the problems arise: When you overeat calories and your body doesn’t need anymore to fuel itself, it takes those extra calories and stores them as fat.

However, our goal is the OPPOSITE of this.

We want to keep the muscle we have (or grow it) while getting rid of the fat!

So let’s imagine a scenario where we pull all this together by strength training heavy AND reducing our caloric intake:

Does your body just shut down?

NOPE!

This means your body can pull from “Store as Fat” to make sure all the work still gets done, including your daily functions as a human and rebuilding the muscle you tore apart.

Said another way:

If you have fat stores (and we all do), you do not need to be in a “caloric surplus” to rebuild muscle. The calories stored in your fat cells act as this required energy.

There is also evidence that muscle can even be grown while in a caloric deficit.[7]

Meaning bigger muscles with a lower belt size.[8]

However, if you want to skip all the experimentation and trial and error, you can have a Nerd Fitness Coach do all the heavy lifting for you (not really, you’ll still need to work out).

Let’s bring this all together and create some actionable steps to losing body fat and building muscle at the same time.

You can only lose fat if you’re in a calorie deficit.

Remember the Sorting Hat analogy:

If you’re eating too much, your excess calories are being sent to the “Store as Fat” house.

We want to pull from this house instead. So eat less than you burn consistently. 

To help here, I have 3 resources for you:

It is one of the best things you can do for your body.[9]   

To build muscle:

Lift lighter weights for lots of reps.

Lift really heavy with fewer reps.

The important thing: pick a strategy and get started.

Here are 3 paths forward:

To recap: if you train heavy and eat a caloric deficit, your body will pull from its fat stores to both fuel itself and potentially also build muscle. This is a double whammy of AWESOME.

Protein is the number one nutrient for creating new tissue.[10]

So when you cut out calories to create a caloric deficit, don’t cut them from protein sources.

Studies have shown that participants can gain muscle, even while in a caloric deficit, as long as they eat enough protein.[11]

It’s important enough that I’ll say it again:

If you don’t want your body cannibalizing its muscles while you are in a caloric deficit, you need to eat plenty of protein.[12]

How much protein?

The gist: don’t skip out on protein. It should be on your plate for every meal (we’ll show you exactly how much in the next section).

If these generalized recommendations stress you out, and you want to know exactly what to do, we can help!

Remember, your eating strategy needs to include two points to lose fat while gaining muscle:

You may be thinking, “That’s all well and good Steve, but what’s that actually look like?” 

It looks like this!

The plate is composed of the following: 

By sticking to our Healthy Plate strategy above, you’ll focus on “REAL food,” which will help you maintain a caloric deficit over time.

Let’s hone in on protein for a moment, because it’s the critical piece for “building muscle.”

Protein can come from any number of sources, including:

A serving of protein is about the size and thickness of your palm.

*The 4 oz serving is for an uncooked piece of meat. Cooking reduces about 25% of the weight, bringing it down to about 3 oz.

If you’re curious, here’s how much protein is in a serving of food:

While all of the Healthy Plate above is important, I want you to pay extra attention to your protein intake since we are trying to build muscle. 

If you are NOT losing weight, it means you are still eating too many calories. Keep your protein intake high, and reduce your fat and carbohydrate intake. 

Which means you’ll have to eat more.

It’s debatable when this will actually occur, and we are all different. Reaching 8% body fat for men and 16% body fat for women is a good place to start.

Go check it out if you’ve been having trouble putting on muscle.

I want to stress that if you are lifting heavy, and not gaining muscle, diet is likely the culprit.

It was my problem for years, and I’ve seen it amongst countless readers of Nerd Fitness who have trouble gaining muscle.

If you’re trying to improve something, it’s important to track it. This also holds true of body composition.

Most people do this by jumping on the scale. This can be “okay,” but it’s only going to tell part of the story.

If you’re building muscle while losing fat, the scale might not go down. You might even weigh more!

Despite weighing more, you could potentially have a better physique.

That’s why in addition to jumping on the scale, I would also encourage you to take progress photos.

Take front and side photos in your mirror, wearing underwear or a bathing suit. Each week, take new photos, and record the number on the scale under the same scenario. Two forms of tracking here allow us to get the full picture.

The scale sometimes lies!

If you eat for a caloric deficit, strength train, and prioritize protein, see what happens.

You may find yourself losing some fat and gaining muscle.

If not, track each category:

Data can help tell the story.

…I was thinking of detailed notes.

But an android would be helpful too.

Oftentimes if you’re not seeing desired results, notes and record-keeping can help point us in the direction to make adjustments.

The tips outlined above will get you started losing fat while building muscle, but if you’re looking to go a bit further…

#2) If you want an exact blueprint for getting in shape, check out NF Journey. Our fun habit-building app helps you exercise more frequently, eat healthier, and level up your life (literally).

Try your free trial right here:

#3) Enlist in the Rebellion! We have a free email newsletter that we send out twice per week, full of tips and tricks to help you get healthy, get strong, and have fun doing so. 

I’ll also send you tons of free guides that you can use to start leveling up your life too:

Alright, I think that about does it for this guide.

Did I miss anything? Do you have any tips and tricks when it comes to shedding body fat and building muscle?

Share it with us!

-Steve,

PS: Make sure you read the rest of the articles in our “How to Lose Weight 101” Series!

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