The question of whether it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time has been continuously debated for as long as I can remember. Opinions vary widely but the fact that it continues to be asked indicates the answer to this question is not entirely resolved.
The law of thermodynamics states that building new muscle cells (or fat) requires energy, and breaking them down releases energy. In order to lose fat you must be in calorie deficit. Conversely building muscle requires that you be in calorie surplus – so how can you gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?
In terms of human physiology, it should be impossible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time because one process is catabolic (fat reducing) and the other is anabolic (muscle building).
I remember when I was more in touch with “gym banter” decades ago there existed an old saying “you can’t get bigger and smaller at the same time”. Another favourite was “you have to eat big to get big.” – I believe both to be fairly accurate. A prerequisite of additional muscle is the ingestion of adequate protien alongside sufficient calorie intake to ensure optimal protein synthesis.
Bodybuilders would consequently bulk up by increasing their calorific intake whilst training to become as big as possible then at a fixed point in time prior to competition would start to reduce their calorific intake in order to lose bodyfat.
Whilst aware of the potential of chemical supplementation to enable individuals to possibly gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, I have always been convinced that the old sayings held true – certainly for natural trainees.
That being said, there are a number of supposed authorities who also claim that gaining muscle on a calorie deficit can occur, in natural athletes whilst maintaining a low level of bodyfat, provided that their protein intake and training is optimal. Some even suggest that additional muscle can be attained whilst undertaking a ketogenic diet. Whilst research on this assertion is scarce it seems highly unlikely.
In my experience the caloric restriction necessary to attain low bodyfat levels inevitably comes with an inescapable reduction in lean body mass, regardless of the quality of training or dietary intake. Even elite bodybuilders who are massively chemically enhanced show a reduction in lean mass when attaining the low levels of bodyfat required to effectively compete.
It is well known that overweight trainees however can maintain the same weight or even reduce weight whilst still increasing muscle mass. In addition elderly trainees commencing training have experienced a similar result. So in the case of these individuals they do actually gain muscle, and lose fat at the same time. I have observed this to be true in trainees who’s physical size and shape have altered dramatically over a period of a few months. These individuals however were beginners and at their most receptive for muscular adaptation. They also carried a high level of body fat to begin with.
The energy systems in the body apparently work separately during the processes of muscle gain and fat loss. Calories are aportioned towards muscle and fat mass independently in a process known as calorie partitioning. The main determinants of calorie partitioning are the hormones testosterone and cortisol.
Testosterone encourages the assimilation of more muscle and less fat whilst cortisol does the opposite. Fat burning is also governed by nervous system and thyroid activity, over which we have little or no control. Additionally our bodies sensitivity to the hormone insulin plays a significant role in body composition.
Hormone levels however are essentially genetically determined.
The only really effective way of manipulating hormone levels in order to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time is by means of drugs
The body is evidently an adaptive organism and it is able under certain conditions to use its fat stores to supply energy to create new lean mass. A prerequisite of this process would obviously be sufficient intake of nutrients responsible for lean tissue growth and the stimulus for this to occur. The end result being a simultaneous loss of fat and increased muscle mass.
However, whilst beginners with higher body fat levels appear able to effectively gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, advanced trainees closer to their genetic potential do not.
Given the difficulty in attaining increased muscle even under favourable conditions it is unsurprising that if you’ve already attained a significant proportion of your genetically determined potential you are unlikely to be able to further gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.
Availability of adipose tissue
Research indicates that the leaner an athlete gets the greater the risk of losing lean body mass. As the availability of adipose tissue declines the likelihood of muscle loss increases. So when the body’s fat percentage reaches a certain point, if it is in a calorific deficit it will also use skeletal muscle for energy, in addition to the fat stores. The leaner you are the more muscle you will lose.
Is it worth considering attempting to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?
Whilst this would be desirable in an ideal world unfortunately its not a viable consideration. Regardless of what the industries marketing bullshit tells us it doesent work. This is borne out by the fact that magazine cover models and natural bodybuilders do not utilise this aproach for body transformation. Instead they undertake a building phase for the majority of their training prior to a 2 to 3 month cutting phase.
Gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time is a marketing myth
In reality maintaining already low digit body fat levels and assimilating muscle mass whilst in a calorific deficit isn’t going to happen – at least not without chemical assistance. At best it seems the loss of lean mass can be mitigated by appropriate percentages of macro nutrients ingested, nutrient timing and effective supplements.
The competitors and magazine cover models with very low levels of body fat and extreme muscularity have all used drugs to attain their level of conditioning. They purport to be natural but aren’t. Photographs of these individuals are used by all the factions of the bodybuilding growth industry to market their products and fool the public into believing they can attain similar physiques naturally. Training articles state that you too can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. The industries’ marketing gurus would have you believe it’s possible to gain 14lb of muscle and lose 14lb of fat in a few months if you ingest the correct nutrients and have an optimal training program. This simply isn’t physiologically possible by natural means.
In reality natural athletes have to sacrifice way too much muscle in order for their level of conditioning to come anywhere close to that of an enhanced athlete.
Natural bodybuilders who are of remotely comparable size also carry higher levels of bodyfat than their chemically enhanced counterparts.
Unfortunately if you are a natural athlete and aspire to reach the levels of conditioning displayed by modern cover models whilst simultaneously achieving their level of muscularity it ain’t gonna happen.
This is not being a nay – sayer just the harsh reality