You’ll probably have seen a headline somewhere along the lines of “Try This 10 Minute Workout to Turn All Your Fat into Muscle!” But surely if it was that easy, then everyone would be doing it. A 220lb person could turn from being obese to a stage-ready bodybuilder with just a few changes.
Unfortunately, the ability to turn fat into muscle isn’t something science has stumbled upon yet. There’s no way to directly transform the fat on your body into lean muscle tissue.
However, there are ways to lose fat and gain muscle at the same time; especially for beginners or those who are particularly overweight. This is why you can see such dramatic transformations in seemingly short periods of time. Scrolling through the transformation hashtag on Instagram will bring up pictures upon pictures where people have lost 100lbs of fat but look absolutely ripped or have curves in all the right places. At the first glance, it might look like these people have magically changed their fat into muscle, but in actuality they’ve lost fat and gained muscle – though, that’s probably what you’re looking for.
So, without further ado, let’s take a look at what you can be doing to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
What are fat and muscle anyway?
Fat is composed of something called triglycerides which are themselves composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
Muscle is made up of muscle tissue, water, and glycogen alongside some intra muscular fat (the amount of which will depend on your fat level). Muscle tissue is the main part and is composed of amino acid, the same things found in protein sources such as chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy. The nitrogen found in these amino acid chains is automatically stored as muscle within the body.
Now, as fat doesn’t contain any nitrogen, it’s impossible for it to turn into muscle directly, and unfortunately, there are no processes which could directly convert fat into muscle. This is why we have to focus on losing fat and building muscle.
Can everyone do it?
The leaner you are, the less likely you’ll be able to gain muscle and lost fat in the same time period. Otherwise there would be no such thing as a ‘bulking’ or ‘cutting’ cycle because you could get both jobs done at once.
Your body works around a set point. Each person’s body will have a preference to the amount of fat and muscle it wants to hold onto. The closer you get to this set point, the harder and harder it becomes to complete each goal. This is why you can’t just continually build muscle forever, and why it gets harder to lose fat the longer you’ve been dieting.
Those who are overweight or obese will be quite far away from their body’s preferential amount of fat storage and therefore, it’s going to respond well to going into a caloric deficit. However, those who are already lean will be much closer to their set point and so, will have to try a little harder to convince their body to drop weight.
If you’re untrained, meaning that you’ve never dedicated yourself to exercise for a prolonged period of time, then your body is going to be more primed to build muscle. However, if you’re already well versed in the art of the gym, then you’re out of that ‘newbie gains’ period and it becomes increasingly harder to build both muscle and strength.
Essentially, if you’ve not got a high level of muscle mass, don’t frequently hit the gym to build strength, and a fairly overweight, then you should be able to easily build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Leaner or muscular individuals should focus on one goal at a time i.e. bulking or cutting.
How Do I Lose Fat and Build Muscle at the Same Time?
Essentially, we need to find an activity that is conducive to both muscle building and weight loss. Normally, caloric deficits mean that you’ll lose muscle mass. However, if you’re already overweight, then you don’t need to worry about that as your body will prioritise losing the excessive levels of fat first.
What a lot of people don’t know is that the more muscle you have on your body, the higher your metabolism is. Unlike fat, muscle is metabolically active. This means that it requires calories in order to stay on the body. By building more muscle, you’ll have an easier time losing fat as your body will naturally be burning more calories even when you’re not exercising.
Now, there are two key components to any body composition goal:
So, for exercise, we need something that’s going to both burn a lot of calories as well as promote muscular growth.
Enter: resistance training.
Resistance training simply means putting your muscles under pressure against resistance so that they can become damaged, adapt, and grow larger and stronger.
The majority of your training should be focused around compound movements. These are movements which use multiple joints and multiple muscles so you’re effectively getting the most bang for your buck. The top 6 exercises to focus on are:
- Squat – Quads, Glutes
- Deadlift – Hamstrings, Glutes, Lower Back
- Row –Back, Biceps
- Pull-Up/Chin-Up – Back, Biceps
- Bench Press – Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
- Overhead Press – Shoulders, Triceps
The muscles listed aren’t the only muscles involved, but they’re the main focus of each movement. As you can see, these 6 exercises combined will train every single muscle in your body.
After this, you want to use some strategic assistance exercises to focus in on or bring up lagging body parts. This is where movements such as the bicep curl, lateral raise, tricep extension, and fly come in. For each session, pick 2 compound movements and three assistance exercises. You want to do the compound movements first so that you have the most energy as they’re going to give you the most results. They’ll also require the most mental effort, so you’ll want to be feeling as fresh and focused as possible.
When it comes to structuring your training, there are several approaches you can take. For beginners or intermediate lifters, jumping into a body-part split is not advised. This is because your muscles don’t need as much stimulus each session to grow, so it’s better to train them more frequently throughout the week opposed to more intensely on a certain day. Instead there are three main styles to choose from:
- Push/Pull/Legs – 6 days a week and allows for you to hit each body part a little harder. However, this requires more of a commitment and less time to rest and recover. This is perfect for gym enthusiasts, those who have more time to dedicate to the gym, and those who can recover well (good sleep, good diet, not a complete beginner).
- Upper/Lower – 4 days a week with less specificity than Push/Pull/Legs, but more specificity than Full Body training. Upper/lower is the perfect split for those don’t want to spend their life in the gym but still want to get good results.
- Full Body – 3 days a week of training the entire body each session. Works on the minimal effective dose to progress and can easily be fit into a busy schedule. If you can afford another day in the gym, then an upper/lower split is recommended even though full body will still get you results.
Here is an example session of each style of training:
- Push: bench press, overhead press, pec fly, tricep extension, lateral raise
- Pull: bent over row, lat pull-down, seated row, bicep curl, face-pull
- Legs: squat, deadlift, lunges, leg extension, leg curl
- Upper: bench press, bent over row, tricep extension, bicep curl, lateral raise
- Lower: squat, deadlift, lunges, leg extension, leg curl
- Full Body: bench press, squat, deadlift, face-pull, lateral raise
The overriding factor of any strength or size-related training is going to be progressive overload. Progressive overload simply means gradually making your workouts harder and harder to force your body to adapt.
For instance, in your first week you might be squatting 60kg for 3 sets of 10. Two weeks later, you’ll want to be aiming to do more than this. So, 65kg for 3 sets of 10, 60kg for 4 sets of 10 or 60kg for 3 sets of 12. Either the weight, sets, or reps need to change so that your body is doing more than it’s used to. This is the overriding factor behind muscular growth and strength. To place the focus slightly more on strength, then aim to increase the weight more often than the reps or sets. To place the focus more on size, then aim to increase the reps and sets to make for more volume.
When it comes to your diet, there are three main contributing macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein. Of these, the one that’s going to affect your body composition the most will be protein. In various studies looking at the effects of each macronutrient, when protein and overall calories are controlled, the ratio of fats to carbohydrates eaten doesn’t affect body composition.
For muscle building, the benefits of protein are obvious. It helps you recover after your workouts and adapt to stimulus your body has been put under. For fat loss, protein has four beneficial qualities:
- It’s low in calories: each macronutrient has its own caloric value per gram. Both carbohydrates and protein contain just 4 calories whilst fat contains over double that at 9 calories. Therefore, you can eat more grams of protein and carbohydrates than fat to equal the same amount of calories.
- It’s filling: out of the three macronutrients, protein has been proven to be the most satiating. When dieting, this is absolutely vital as it allows you to feel more full on a lower calorie diet. In turn, this reduces cravings, your chances of binging, and your chances of overeating whilst making the diet more enjoyable.
- It’s less likely to be stored as fat: the conversion rate of protein into fat is extremely inefficient. This means that even if your body did want to store protein as fat (which it most likely won’t), the amount of calories it would get out of it to store would be less than carbohydrates, and much, much less than fat.
- It’s a potent thermogenic: throughout the digestive process, a lot of the calories contained in protein are burned off as heat. This is why you might feel your temperature rising after eating a particularly high-protein meal. So, once again, there’s little calories left for your body to actually use and store.
Above and beyond your total macronutrients, you need to have your calories in check, too. In order to lose fat, you need to be in a caloric deficit. A common mistake among dieters is dropping their calories too low from the off. This means they end up hungry, lethargic, and giving into their cravings. What we want to do is create long lasting change, not a quick fix that only lasts a few weeks. This means that you first need to find out what your daily caloric expenditure is, and then start by taking off 200 calories from fats and carbohydrates. Track your weight change over two weeks and if the general trend is in favour of weight loss, then stick at this caloric level. However, if you’re not losing weight or even gaining weight, then reduce your calories by 100 every two weeks until you get into a weight loss phase. If the general trend is that you’re gaining weight, then reduce your caloric amount by 200 calories every two weeks.
To work out your daily caloric needs, you can use this simple calculation that gives an estimate that will work for the majority of the population. All you need to do is take your current weight in pounds and multiply it by 15. For instance, if you weigh 150lbs, then your daily caloric needs to maintain your current weight would be 2250kcal. If you weigh 175lbs, then your caloric requirement to maintain would be 2625kcal. Now, as this is just an estimate, you can get a more accurate amount using an online calculator. Though, this method will be a good, simple starting point for most people. Remember, after you’ve found your caloric value, you need to deduct 200 calories to promote weight loss. Meaning an 150lb individual would need 2050 calories and an 175lb individual would need 2425 calories.
Once you’ve got your caloric goals, the next amounts to work out is going to be your macronutrients:
Protein: 1 gram per pound of bodyweight
Fats: 25% of your total calories
Carbohydrates: Whatever’s left over
Let’s continue with our 150lb individual. So, looking at these guidelines, we’d start with 150 grams of protein. Protein has 4 calories per gram, so we would then multiply this amount by 4 to tell us how many calories protein will be contributing to our daily goals. This gives us 600 calories.
The next step is working out fat. We already know that we need 2050 calories to promote fat loss, so we need to work out what 25% of that is. 2050 x 0.25 equals 512.5 calories. Fat holds 9 calories per gram which means that we need to divide 512.5 calories by 9 to give us the total amount of fat in grams we’re targeting per day. This turns out to be 57 grams.
The final piece of the puzzle is carbohydrates. Adding together the calories from fat and protein we get 1112.5 (600 + 512.5). All we have to do next is minus that from our daily caloric target of 2050 to give us 937.5. Carbohydrates hold 4 calories per gram, so we need to divide this value by 4 to give us 234 grams and our final target.
To sum everything up, using our handy guidelines to gain muscle and lost fat, an 150lb person would need:
- 2050 calories
- 150 Grams of Protein
- 57 Grams of Fat
- 234 Grams of Carbohydrates
The protein promotes lean muscle tissue, the carbohydrates improve performance, the fat helps with hormonal and brain health, and the total calories promotes fat loss. Coupling this diet with an effective resistance training program will make for a sharp double-edged sword on your route towards a leaner, stronger version of you.
Does Weight Really Matter?
Muscle weighs more than fat. If you were to fill two boxes with pure muscle and pure fat, then the box filled with muscle would be tipping the scales. At the start, you’re going to be losing more fat than gaining muscle which means that you’ll be losing weight. However, there might come a point where the muscle you’re gaining equals out and you think that you’ve hit a plateau. Don’t panic and immediately cut your calories by 500 to try and get the scales to shift. Stay calm and remember that you’re trying to build as well as lose.
This is where the importance of progress pictures really comes in. You can use these pictures for comparison, analysing how your body is changing. Weight can come from anything, but how you look will tell you a lot more. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the number on the scale is. You’re not walking around with it plastered to your head or taped to your t-shirt; it’s how you look and how you feel that matters. Reminding yourself of this simple fact will make a world of difference when things get tricky.