3 Myths About Building Muscle and Burning Fat at the Same Time – Plus How to Do it Right
The question “how do I build muscle and lose fat at the same time?” is like asking “how do I make more money and save more money at the same time?” In fact, the similarity is striking.
In a way, building muscle and losing fat are directly related; but in another way they aren’t. In other words, you can build muscle and not lose fat. In fact, you can build muscle and gain fat. Likewise, just because you make more money doesn’t mean you’ll save more money. However, if you make more money, it stands to reason you can save more money … depending on your spending habits.
But, and here’s the analogical kicker – what if instead of saving your extra income (i.e. more muscle), you invest that money to earn more? You not only have dollar-for-dollar savings, but you get a return.
Well, the earn more, save more and invest analogy is the answer to the building muscle and losing fat conundrum.
The 2 seemingly contradictory tenets of building muscle and burning fat at the same time are:
- Building muscle requires lifting weight, consuming sufficient nutrients to grow muscle, and getting enough rest (time in between workouts AND sleep).
- Burning or losing fat requires consuming fewer calories AND/OR increasing calories burned.
I say seemingly contradictory, because as you’ll read below, it is possible to build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
Side-note: Burning Fat vs. Losing Weight – There’s a Difference
There’s an important difference between losing fat and losing weight. You can lose fat without losing weight (to a point) … and the difference is if you include resistance training, you’ll add some muscle which offsets the lost fat. That said, if you’re 25 or more pounds overweight, you’ll lose weight because there’s no way you’ll can that much muscle weight as fast as you can lose it by consistently working out and eating well.
Of course the primary issue is how to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Is this possible?
Answer: yes, it is possible.
Before I get into how you build muscle and burn fat at the same time, I examine some of the illogical beliefs and myths surrounding this issue.
MYTH 1. Adding muscle burns a lot more calories (i.e. increase metabolic rate) = MYTH
The fact more muscle burns more calories doesn’t necessarily follow that you will lose fat. If you eat more than the additional muscle burns, you won’t burn fat. Besides, as the following illustrates, the theory (myth in my view) that adding a few pounds of muscle results in burning hundreds of calories simply isn’t true.
For every pound of muscle you add to your body, you burn more calories … but not much. The belief 1 pound of muscle burns hordes of calories every day at rest is, in my view and researching the subject (and based on my substantial muscle gain over the years), a myth.
How many calories does one pound of muscle burn?
Some studies suggest 30 to 35 calories per day . Yet, a recent claim is that 1 pound of muscle burns approximately 6 calories per day . This is more like it.
Certainly this issue will continue being debated. However, I tend to favor the reasoning behind the 6 calories per day conclusion. The reason is it’s based on the percentage of calories muscles burn compared to other parts of the anatomy (brain, heart, liver, etc.). At the end of the day, muscle accounts for 20 to 25% of calories burned. By adding 20% more muscle, the result is an increase of 4 to 5% calories burned, which is 6 calories per pound of muscle. This is all explained in this easy-to-read article.
MYTH 2. Muscle burns more calories than fat so I’ll just pack on muscle and I’m all set?
It’s true muscle burns more calories than fat. Even the L.A. Times article “The myth of ripped muscles and calories burned” states that “muscle is three times more metabolically active at rest than fat.” If 1 pound of muscle burns 6 calories per day (at rest), fat burns 2 calories per day at rest.
I say, “so what?’ Is that really going to make any serious difference? Nope. The difference is 4 calories per day per pound of muscle. Even if you achieve an astonishing 25 pounds of pure muscle gain, you’ll burn an extra 100 calories a day. Sure it’s something, but it’s not reasoning to count on when building muscle and losing fat simultaneously.
MYTH 3. You burn tons of calories lifting weights
Using this calories-burned calculator, a 220 pound person lifting weights rigorously for 45 minutes burns 455 calories. A 30 minute weightlifting session for the same weight burns 303 calories.
Compare that to running for 45 minutes (633 calories burned) and running for 30 minutes (282 calories burned).
I do a 4-day split. My weightlifting sessions last for 30 to 45 minutes. Let’s be conservative and use 30 minutes. Over the course of a week, I burn 1,212 calories lifting weights.
Therefore, simply by lifting weights (which builds muscle), you burn calories (which can lose fat).
This is somewhat important as it ties in to the true method of building muscle/losing fat at the same time, but it’s complementary at best.
The REAL Reason and Method for Building Muscle and Burning Fat at the Same Time
What comes next is the MAIN reason you can build muscle and burn fat at the same time. It makes sense as well. In other words it’s perfectly logical. Sure, you won’t build tons of mass, BUT, you can build solid muscle and burn fat at the same time. In fact, this is the exciting bit of this hotly debated issue.
During a caloric deficit, you burn fat because your body maintains itself by pulling needed calories from fat cells before taking calories from muscle cells. That’s the key. It boils down to the priority of energy sources during a caloric deficit. The body, in its infinite wisdom pulls needed energy from fat cells BEFORE muscle cells. The EXCEPTION is if the body needs amino acids, in which case they pull from the muscle if not available from current digestion.
Therefore, the answer is to consume sufficient protein during a caloric deficit so that any energy the body needs will be pulled from fat cells instead of muscle cells. That’s it … eat more protein.
Obviously, you must monitor your protein intake carefully as you consume a caloric deficit. It’s very easy to mismanage the process and end up having energy taken from your muscles.
I don’t mean to make this sound easy, because it’s not. If you’re training hard, there’s nutritional timing involved in order to get it right. It’s very easy to mismanage and end up slowing or stopping muscle growth despite hard training. The key is that it’s possible, and the above is the basic concept behind it. You can learn more about this here.
You MUST Add Muscle THEN Burn Fat = MYTH
I’ve read that you must add muscle before burning fat in order to get both results as often as I’ve read about 1 pound of muscle burning 50 calories a day.
The fact is you can do both at the same time with proper nutrition. It’s based on the fact that your body pulls needed energy during caloric defecit from fat cells first unless protein is needed. As long as you supply your body sufficient protein, you ensure energy is pulled from fat cells. In other words, you BUILD MUSCLE while BURNING FAT.
ONE EXCEPTION to the Theory You Can Build Muscle and Burn Fat at the Same Time
There is one exception to theory that diet and training can build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, and that is if you want to get huge. I’m talking King Meathead by massively bulked up. You simply must have a caloric surplus with tons of protein intake in order to achieve this. It’s also good to lift in higher rep-ranges (10 to 12 reps) to get massively huge.
BUT, if you want to build lean, denser muscle while burning fat, it’s possible. I’ve merely touched the tip of the iceberg on this subject given there’s complex nutritional timing issues in play.
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 Waehner, P. How Many Calories Does Muscle Really Burn? About.com. October 6, 2010.
 Fell, J. The myth of ripped muscles and calorie burns. Los Angeles Times. May 16, 2011.