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Can You Burn Fat and Gain Muscle at the Same Time?

Trying to lose weight yet gain chiseled abs and muscles? Even though you’ve been watching what you eat, hitting the gym and lifting weights, the numbers on the scale are decreasing but that muscular physique you were going for just doesn’t seem to be happening.

Losing weight can be great, but what’s the deal? Is it possible to lose fat and weight and gain muscle at the same time?

“Essentially yes, people are capable of doing both, but it’s not a very easy thing to do,” said Briana Silvestri, a physician assistant with Banner – University Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute in Phoenix, AZ.

When it comes to weight loss and muscle gain—for the Average Joe it will take a lot of discipline, which can be difficult—even painful (think self-discipline kind of pain)—but it is possible to have the best of both worlds. Silvestri explained the science behind accomplishing this feat and tips for getting that body you always dreamed of.

Fat Loss vs. Muscle Gain

First two important concepts to understand: how you lose weight differs from how you gain muscle—these goals often conflict with one another.

In order to lose fat or weight, your body needs to be in a caloric deficit, meaning you are taking in less calories per day making it more difficult for your body to maintain its current weight.

What is difficult here is that in order to then gain muscle, your body needs to be at a caloric surplus. This surplus provides the energy your body requires to repair itself and then build muscle mass.

“Some people may think it’s impossible just based on pure science alone,” Silvestri said. “Because if you find yourself in a situation where you are constantly at a caloric deficit, your body then may start to break down other parts of itself for energy requirements. This can unfortunately put you in a situation where your body starts breaking down muscle instead of fat for energy.”

Ugh, say it isn’t so! How can you gain muscle while still losing weight when science is working against you?

Tips for Shedding Pounds While Building Muscle

1. Remember: You Are What You Eat

The first thing to remember is that exercise in of itself isn’t going to help you lose weight but then also gain muscle mass. It really comes down to what you are eating. Some say, “You are what you eat,” and when it comes to losing weight and gaining muscle this is especially true.

“It is important that certain individuals identify foods that will be low in caloric intake but also high in nutritional value to allow your body and cells to be fed appropriately but not swing you out of your caloric deficit,” Silvestri said. “It’s said that in weight loss food choices are roughly 80-90% of the equation and exercise is generally 10-20%.”

On any given day, you’ll consume a number of calories. Your body at that time has three choices for what to do with those calories: burn as fuel, rebuild muscle or store as fat. Our bodies need a regulated caloric intake for it to just operate. This is known as our basal metabolic rate.

If you don’t take in enough calories, it can mess with your metabolic rate. Your body thinks it’s starving and to help you survive, your metabolism shuts down. Not eating enough calories can also make your body cannibalize muscle and hold onto fat—not exactly what you’re hoping for!

A nutrition expert at Banner Health can help you calculate your metabolic rate and develop a meal plan that allows you to eat the foods you love while still getting the fuel your body needs to gain muscle and properly lose weight.

2. Prioritize Foods Rich in Protein

When it comes to getting foods low in caloric intake but high in nutritional value, you’ll need to make sure it includes enough protein. Doing so can pay dividends.

“Sustained caloric intake deficit while eating enough high protein will help your body burn more calories than you consume. It also provides your body with enough nutrients and energy to rebuild its muscles,” Silvestri said. “Protein-rich foods are a key component to both losing body fat and building muscle at the same time.”

3. Strength Train a Few Days a Week

For the body to truly build muscle mass, you’ll need to lift relatively heavy weights to a point where muscles actually reach a point of fatigue and failure—at that time your muscles will tear and break down. It is during this repair process where you will become stronger and more defined.

“What is important to note, however, is that while strength training, you’ll want to ensure you are consuming enough calories to help rebuild muscles and fuel the body,” Silvestri said. “If you don’t, then your body will break down muscles mass to fuel itself, which is actually the opposite of what you are trying to obtain.”

Depending on your fitness goals and general health, not every strength training program may be right for you. You’ll want to speak with a certified athletic trainer or fitness expert before kick-starting a new fitness regimen to reduce your risk for muscle injury or joint pain.

4. Remember the Tortoise, Not the Hare

In our world of instant gratification, patience is certainly a virtue, but it has many benefits, particularly when it comes to our long-term health. If you are hoping to build muscles and lose fat, remember, even Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t become a bodybuilder overnight.

While it may be tempting to drop weight as quickly as possible, you may lose fat and muscle. Instead focus on losing no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. And don’t get discouraged if suddenly the great gains you started with start to slow over time.

“As you get closer to your goal, it’ll become progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat but don’t get discouraged,” Silvestri said. “Gradual loss ensures that you're mostly losing fat instead of muscle. If done too quickly, it could be detrimental to your health goals and or muscle tissue.”

Takeaway

If you can sustain a lifting program and eat a caloric deficit, your body will be able to pull from its fat stores to both fuel itself and potentially build muscle mass. Prioritizing foods rich in protein is a key component to both losing body fat and building muscle at the same time. Remember, however, that transforming your body will not occur overnight. Be patient and you’ll reap the long-term benefits.

Do you have other questions about fitness and nutrition? Check out these other healthy tips, get expert advice and read stories about sports medicine on the Banner Health blog.

To find a Banner Health provider near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

Fitness Orthopedics Nutrition Weight Loss

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