Is It Possible to Build Muscle and Burn Fat at the Same Time?

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

For years there has been much debate on whether or not you can build muscle and burn fat simultaneously. The thought process behind this argument has come down to two sides of the discussion, both of which have their own merits.

  1. To build muscle, you must be in a caloric surplus
  2. To burn fat, you must be in a caloric deficit

Neither of the above is technically wrong. However, many different factors can come into play that would allow you to yield BOTH results. What is this sorcery I speak of? Let’s take a deeper dive into things.

Build Muscle and Burn Fat: It’s a Recomp

No longer is there a line drawn in the sand where to the left of the line people are bulking and to the right of the line people are cutting. Now, we can kick up the sand and blur that line by what is called body recomposition. Essentially, this is just a fancy way of saying you’re focusing on losing body fat while gaining lean muscle mass (at the same time).

While this is not impossible, there are some things you need to pay close attention to in order to achieve the results you’re looking for. Below, you will find the main areas of focus you need to nail down in order to effectively build muscle and burn fat simultaneously.

1.     Put Yourself in a Daily Caloric Deficit

In order to lose weight, you need to put yourself in a caloric deficit. That means you either need to eat fewer calories throughout the day to put you below your maintenance, or you need to exercise and burn calories that will cause you to fall below your maintenance. The direction you go is a matter of personal preference.

If your maintenance is 2,000 calories per day, try consuming 1,750 and weigh yourself after a week. Even better, check your body fat with calipers to see if any weight you lost came from body fat or lean muscle tissue. When you stop seeing your body fat or weight going down, lower your calories some more.

2.     Make Sure You’re Consuming Enough Protein

Some people think this means overeating on protein, which will put you into a caloric surplus — not so. You’ll need to play with your macros and calories to focus on your protein intake. Strive for around 1g of protein per pound of body weight.

If you aren’t consuming enough protein to help build lean mass, you can actually risk losing muscle mass, which could also slow down your metabolism since having lean muscle tissue requires energy throughout the day (causing you to burn more calories, even while at rest).

To better illustrate this, if you are 180 pounds, consume 180g of protein per day. Even while you’re in a caloric deficit, prioritizing protein can still help you add some size.

3.     Leverage HIIT Cardio

HIIT cardio has been shown to be extremely effective at allowing you to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously. Here’s a visual to help further get this point across. Look at a sprinter and look at a long-distance runner. Who has more lean muscle mass? The sprinter, right? The long-distance runner may look lean, but they generally do not possess near the amount of muscle when compared to a sprinter.

A HIIT session could be something as simple as sprinting for 30 seconds and then walking for 60 seconds (on a treadmill or outdoors). You could do 10 rounds of this and fit in a killer cardio workout in a matter of 15 minutes. If you’re a well-trained individual, push yourself and double it to 20 rounds for a total of 30 minutes.

4.     Lift Heavy

When you are looking to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, it’s an absolute must for you to lift heavy in the gym. Resistance training and lifting heavy is what’s going to help you not only build lean muscle but also maintain it.

Far too many people are caught up in the mindset that to burn fat, they need to lighten the weight and push more reps. This isn’t the case. Even while you’re in a caloric deficit, you want to be pushing the heavy weights around and breaking down those muscle fibers so that your protein intake (circling back to #2) can help you rebuild those torn down fibers and allow them to come back bigger and stronger.

5.     Optimize Your Testosterone Levels

The last section of this article is something not many people focus on, and you may have never heard it come up when discussing how to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously. But let’s face it, if you have low testosterone levels, building any sort of muscle (or even maintaining lean muscle mass) is going to be difficult. In addition, those who suffer from low testosterone often find they hold onto and store body fat more easily (not a good thing).

Here are some ways to help naturally boost your testosterone levels:

  • Lift heavy weights
  • Reduce your body fat
  • Increasing your protein intake
  • Focus on minimizing stress levels
  • Keep cortisol levels in check
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Utilize supplements that can boost natural testosterone