There are a lot of reasons to work out, including improving health, burning fat, gaining muscle, and just simply feeling better. Many of us have multiple goals at once, and luckily, a lot of these logically go hand-in-hand. Losing fat and gaining muscle, however, seem to be a little conflicting.
When you’re trying to lose fat, you’re trying to get rid of some of your body’s mass; when you’re gaining muscle, you’re looking to do the opposite and build up your body. So it makes sense to wonder, can you really add muscle mass at the same time? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
In fact, working on both goals at the same time will maximise your results—many of the same exercises that are good for burning fat are also great for building up muscles. And it’s kind of a domino effect: When you have more muscle mass, your body requires more energy at rest (that is, burns more calories when you’re not even moving).
But nailing fat loss and muscle gains in one fell swoop requires a strategic approach. Here’s why: If you want to lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you consume. But when you restrict your calories, your body has to pull from existing energy stores in your body—fat, carbohydrate, and even protein—in order to function. As a result, you wind up losing fat, but unfortunately, you also lose muscle mass.
In fact, up to a whopping 25 percent of the weight that you lose from a low-calorie diet is in the form of hard-earned muscle, Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., assistant kinesiology professor at the University of Waterloo, tells SELF.
Yet, multiple studies and experts say that losing fat and gaining muscle simultaneously is totally doable. “It’s difficult, but possible,” Stephen Ball, Ph.D., associate professor of nutritional science and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri, tells SELF.
To achieve both goals at once, you need to focus on two main things: protein and weightlifting.
First, let’s talk about cutting calories. If you’re trying to cut calories to lose weight, there are a few things you need to know to do it safely.
You need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight—that is, you need to consume fewer calories than the energy you burn at rest and during your workout. But that’s only when you want to lose weight. If you’re looking to lose fat and gain muscle, your number on the scale might not budge—or might even go up!—even though your physique is changing dramatically. In fact, you might even notice that you look slimmer or more toned even though you haven’t lost weight. That’s simply because you’re gaining muscle and losing fat.
We’re not suggesting that you should cut calories, but if that’s something you want to do, you’ll need to keep a few things in mind. For one, if you cut too much at once you’ll only sabotage your efforts. Restricting calories too severely leaves you with limited energy to complete a workout, and ultimately slows your metabolism. “Drastic changes in calories make your body compensate metabolically to defend your initial body weight. “Therefore, your body will decrease the amount of energy burned to conserve calories and prevent weight loss,” says Kristen F. Gradney, R.D.N., director of nutrition and metabolic services at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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In addition, skimping on calories—protein in particular—can leave next to nothing for your muscles to feed on after your workout. “Resistance exercise is typically considered anabolic, meaning it breaks down muscle,” Gradney tells SELF. “If you’re not consuming adequate calories and protein, muscle may not recover and rebuild appropriately.”
You don’t have to count calories in order to achieve your body composition goals. Many women find that eating mindfully and choosing filling, nutritious foods can keep calories in check without having to track every bite. And if you have a history of eating disorders, always talk with a professional before changing your dietary habits.
If you do want to track your calories, however, here’s some general advice. Keep in mind that these are just general guidelines, and it’s very likely that your particular calorie needs may be lower or higher than what these formulas say. To figure out how many calories you need per day to lose weight safely, you first have to find out how many calories you require just to maintain your current weight. You can do that by finding out your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how many calories your body burns at rest. There are some useful formulas to get an approximate estimate, but it’s tough to get a specific, accurate number unless you go get a test done by your doctor (here are a few formulas you can try if you want). The easiest way to get a rough estimate of how many calories you need to maintain your current weight is by using this handy interactive calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture, which takes both your estimated BMR and activity level into consideration.
Once you find your rough daily calorie need, subtract no more than 300 calories, Liz Applegate, Ph.D., senior lecturer in the department of nutrition and director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis, tells SELF. “Let’s say you need 2,000 calories,” Applegate says. “If I prescribed 1,700, you can lose fat and build lean mass.”
As this calculation is only an estimate, you may want to log your food for several days (try a free app like MyFitnessPal) to see how much you normally eat and adjust your intake if needed. “It’s important to listen to your body and eat when you feel physical signs of hunger,” Gradney says.
Because you’ll have fewer calories to fuel your body, you’ll want to get the most bang for your buck by opting for whole foods whenever possible. “Whole foods provide calories along with lots of important nutrients, including protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals,” Alissa Rumsey, M.D., R.D., C.S.C.S., owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, tells SELF.
And remember: losing fat and gaining muscle does not require cutting calories.