Some questions are as old as time.
What came first?
The chicken or the egg?
Seinfeld or Friends?
If a bear shits in the woods, does it smell?
Why did Nelly wear a BandAid on his face in the 2000’s?
The world may never know.
But if there’s one question that stirs the crowd more than them all, it’s….Can you cut (lose weight) and gain muscle at the same time?
The world of fitness is about as divisive as you can get. Much of the practices are preference, and the science behind much of the fitness industry is spread thin.
Unfortunately, in order to get real, reliable results from fitness scientific studies, they would need to go on for years to get a clear picture of the outcome. Sure, your body can do a lot in the short term, but what will happen years down the line?
We don’t really know.
Therefore, the fitness industry is very quick to jump to conclusions and be steadfast in their thinking, because there’s no way to dispute or verify their claims.
That’s why you can have so many people that are so PRO vegan, and some adamantly PRO keto.
There are studies to confirm and refute either side of that argument.
It’s a whole weird thing.
That being said, if there’s one thing that we can say is as close to fact as possible, is that calories matter.
Studies have shown that calories are the driving factors in terms of weight management, and not necessarily WHAT you eat. (Although this is obviously extremely important as well but you’ll get the gist of this later on in the article.)
Your body burns a certain amount of calories a day, and if you consume less than that amount, you’ll lose weight, and conversely gain weight if you eat more than that amount.
*Now, this is where a whole spiel can be made about the merits of CICO (calories in, calories out) and how effective it can be, but I’ll save that for another article.*
For the sake of this article, we’ll operate under the umbrella of CICO, and I’ll discuss the nuances of CICO in the future.
So now that we got all that mumbo jumbo science jargon stuff out of the way, let’s dive into the real stuff.
Fat loss occurs when your body is in a caloric deficit.
Muscle building occurs when you’re in a caloric surplus paired with proper training.
So what gives?
Obviously, you can’t do both of these things at the same exact time.
They’re polar opposite things.
So….if you’ve listened to episode 5 of the Made To Excel Fitness podcast, here is where I say “if I wanted to make this episode extremely short, the answer would be no, you can’t lose weight and build muscle at the same time, since you can’t be in a deficit and surplus at the same time, but let’s hold off on that thought and dig a little deeper”
And I reiterate that sentiment here, I think there’s still more to this story that has yet to be told.
If you’re on a quest to lose weight and build muscle at the same time, objective #1 is to get your nutrition/diet in check.
Without proper nutrition and diet, the wheels fall off the train.
And, if you’re a true beginner reading this, or you listened to the podcast, you’ll maybe start to see the trend that this process is very front loaded. AKA there’s a lot of work to be done up front, but once you hammer it down, it’ll get simpler and less time consuming once you hammer out the details.
It’s like traveling. The act of literally traveling sucks for most people. Nobody likes to fly. Nobody likes to drive hours and hours end. But once, you finally get to your destination, your traveling woes fade into the background and you’re finally able to enjoy your time.
Step 1 - Finding Your Caloric Needs
At the top of this article, I wrote about caloric deficits, and caloric surpluses.
But, these numbers mean nothing to you, if you don’t know how many calories your body needs.
That being said, there’s no sure fire scientific fact, or mathematical equation that’ll give you an 100% accurate number for your caloric needs. So consider the numbers you find to be an estimation.
Now all you have to do is fire up the old Google machine, and search for “calorie counter”.
Depending on what calorie counter you end up clicking on, they’ll give you one of two different numbers.
BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) - Essentially this number will be the approximate amount of calories that your body burns at rest. This number is more or less your metabolism.
TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure) - Now this number BMR, but also taking into account the approximate amount of calories you burn through exercise.
Some calorie calculators will be easily labeled as one or the other, otherwise, if the calculator asks for activity level, you can assume that they’re giving you the TDEE number.
BMR calculators will ask for Age, Height, Weight, and Sex.
TDEE calculators will ask for all of those same things plus activity level.
For example, for myself at 180 lbs....
BMR = 1,881 calories
TDEE = 2,398 calories
If you’re relatively consistent with your exercise on a week to week basis, you can bank on the TDEE number being relatively reliable, since it is approximating how many calories you're burning through exercise on a given day/week.
Although, if your exercise is more on the erratic side, you can use BMR and add calories burned through exercise onto that number (if it is a significant enough number).
Once again, when you’re going through and finding these numbers, they’re simply an estimate. I went to 5 different calorie calculators (all TDEE numbers) and got the following numbers.
Calculator 1: 2,442 Calories
Calculator 2: 2,500 Calories
Calculator 3: 2,901 Calories
Calculator 4: 2,338 Calories
Calculator 5: 2,398 Calories
3 of the 5 calculators resulted in numbers around 2,400 calories, with 2,901 calories being the outlier. Depending on your experience level, you could look at all these numbers and have a pretty good idea where you land.
If not, this is the fun part where you crank up the old My Fitness Pal app, count your calories for an extended period of time (give yourself 3-4 weeks), consuming some of the numbers you get from the calculator, and see what your body does.
Gain weight? Drop the number a little bit.
Lose weight. Increase the number by a little bit.
In due time, you’ll know exactly how many calories your body needs.
Step 2 - Setting Your Deficit or Surplus
Now that you know your caloric needs, we need to know how to manipulate that number to get you the best results.
If I determine that my daily caloric needs are 2,400ish calories per day, any number below that is considered a deficit, and conversely, any number above is considered a surplus.
So if weight loss is your primary goal, do you want to set that number at 1,200 calories?
The more aggressive of a deficit you decide to pursue, the less amount of calories you’re allowing yourself to eat in a day.
Of course, that means you will lose weight relatively quickly. But, is that something you can maintain and be consistent with for a long period of time. Weeks. Months. Years. Lifetimes.
That’s completely up to you and situational.
If your caloric needs are 2,400 calories and you’re trying to consume 1,200 calories per day, you’re never going to make it.
That’s FAR too aggressive of a deficit to be safe, or maintainable in the long run.
1,500? Probably still entirely too low.
1,900? This is the point where you have to ask yourself, do I have 500 calories per day that I can sacrifice for my diet? If you have a short term goal (making weight for a specific event or date), then maybe this is something you can achieve and deal with in the short term, but if your goal is a permanent goal (weight loss with the intent on keeping it off), then possibly this is still too aggressive of a deficit.
2,399? You’ll be trying to lose weight forever.
The real sweet spot lies between the last two numbers for most people. Usually cutting 200-300 calories per day is maintainable and easy on the sanity.
Not to mention the fact that the slower you lose weight, the odds of you retaining muscle skyrockets.
When losing weight, your body will pull from your body fat, and muscle alike.
The less calories you eat, the more muscle you’ll sacrifice.
Therefore, the more conservative you are with your weight loss journey, the better results you’ll likely have.
Plus, your stomach will thank you.
And on the flip side, if your intention is to gain weight, the more calories you consume, the faster you’ll gain, but along with the new muscle you’re hopefully forming, so will come extra body fat.
Just like back in college I gained 20 lbs just slamming Taco Bell almost every night.
Did I gain muscle? I hope so. But this boy was sure thiccccc cause of it.
So a slower amount of weight gain will also likely result in minimization of fat gain when trying to build muscle.
*All numbers above are based on my statistics. Your numbers will most likely be different*
Step 3 - Protein Consumption
PROTEIN IS THE BUILDING BLOCK OF MUSCLE.
BUY MY PROTEIN WITH THE AFFILIATE LINK BELOW.
You’ve likely heard of the importance of protein before.
I’m not going to bore you with the semantics of the science behind it all. Frankly, some of it goes over my head as well, and you didn’t come here to be Bill Nye’d.
The fact of the matter is, protein is an important factor when it comes to muscle.
How much protein you consume is going to change depending on who you ask.
On bro science websites, I was told that you should be consuming 1 gram per lb of Bodyweight. So if you weigh 180 lbs, you should consume 180 grams of protein.
In college, I learned that you should consume 1.4 g per kg of body weight. So if you weigh 180 lbs, that equates to 115 ish grams of protein.
Those are vastly different numbers.
Which one you choose to believe/follow is completely up to you.
Science suggests that if you’re serious about building muscle, the bro science websites are actually pretty spot on.
1 gram per gram of bodyweight is pretty spot on for building muscle.
There might be a bit of an advantage to consuming an even higher amount of protein than that, but the amount of increased gains you can get is more than likely not worth eating extra chicken breasts for.
Unless you’re super dedicated to your craft. High level bodybuilders and such.
But the point is, the closer you are to 1gram per gram of Bodyweight, the better your results.
If you choose to not consume those amounts of protein, no harm no foul. It’s not like you’re putting your health at risk doing so. You just might have to work a little harder to build muscle.
But if that trade off allows you to be happier in your life, it’s a trade off worth making.
Step 4 - Dirty Bulk/Clean Bulk (or cut)
“You merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it.”
Dark Knight Rises Bane was great. Couldn’t understand shit he said, but still great.
Tom Hardy gained 30ish lbs to play Bane.
Clearly, he was a big, intimidating dude.
But, it’s not like he was shredded with a six pack.
That’s what we would consider a dirty bulk.
Odds are, he had a relatively short amount of time to get ready for his role as Bane. In turn, he was forced to go into a really aggressive surplus (like discussed in part 1 of this nutrition section), and to achieve that amount of calories was probably eating everything and anything under the sun.
Pizza, brownies, ice cream, burgers, fries.
Sounds like a lot of fun actually.
But obviously with the amount of muscle mass he put on, there was more than likely a lot of body fat that he ended up putting on too.
Had he consumed the same amount of calories but with majority fruits, veggies, and lean protein, he would’ve likely had a better result despite putting on size so quickly.
That’s what we would’ve called a clean bulk.
And the same applies to losing weight.
Sure, you may set your deficit, and can hit your deficit day in and day out, but the cleaner you do so, will provide optimal results.
As long as you’re balancing the cleanliness of your diet, with appropriate amounts of the food you enjoy to promote adherence. (Eat some ice cream every once in a while. You’ll be happier in the long run.)
Now that the nutrition part is out of the way, and you have that locked and loaded and ready to execute, training also plays a large factor.
If you’re just trying to lose weight, and your nutrition is up to par, you can absolutely make progress without training.
But we’re trying to get BIG out here (kidding unless you really do).
You can’t build muscle without training in some sort of capacity.
Just like it takes several years to become a Jedi Knight (completely disregarding the fact that Luke and Rey just did it in a few weeks apparently, completely destroying my point), it takes time, effort, and dedication to training to build muscle.
There’s a lot of factors that come with constructing a training program.
Way too many factors to try and stuff into this article.
But, the most important thing to remember is to always always always...have Progressive Overload.
The body is extremely smart.
If you have a training program where you do the same exercises, use the same amount of weight, for the same amount of sets and reps, your body is going to adapt to that very quickly.
Now I’m not saying try to achieve “muscle confusion”, because that’s just some bullshit marketing phrase to get you to buy some dumb product, but change it up every once in awhile.
If your squats have looked like this for several weeks…
3 sets of 12 - 135 lbs
3 sets of 12 - 140 lbs
4 sets of 8 - 155 lbs
You’re still squatting, but changing the weight, or the rep scheme could provide a new stimulus to your body that will allow you to make progress.
Getting stuck doing the same thing over and over again is one of the biggest contributing factors to plateauing.
So, if you feel like your training program is getting stagnant, and you’ve stopped making progress, odds are you’re not including enough progressive overload into your programming.
If you’re having trouble with the concept of Progressive Overload, or how to input it into your own program, get in contact with a Personal Training friend, or click here, and I’d be more than happy to help out.
If you’ve stuck with me thus far, you might be reaching genius status. Additionally, I really appreciate you.
But in all seriousness, there’s a lot of info and lots of concepts introduced in this article.
Hopefully, I’ve conveyed it in a manner that is simple enough to follow.
If not, feel free to DM me and ask any questions you may have.
But...now that you’re armed with all of this useful information, it’s time to adress what it means, and how to use it.
The majority of people on a fitness journey have the goal of weight loss.
I can assume that a lot of people on a weight loss journey would also like to add more muscle to their bodies as well.
But time and time again, trainers and doctors have told clients “It’s impossible! It can’t be done!”
So why did I spend all this time writing this article?
Most people will spend time exclusively trying to lose weight OR build muscle in one given moment in time, since they’ve been told that’s their only option.
Maybe you’re trying to lose 15 lbs.You say to yourself, “I’ll lose 15 lbs first, and then once I reach my goal weight, I’ll start to try and put on some muscle.”
Then you end up gaining some weight while you’re building muscle, and you have to try and lose weight again.
Rinse and repeat until you achieve your desired result.
But….what if you alternated between a weight loss and muscle building over a certain period instead of focusing exclusively on one.
Could look like this…
Monday - Calorie Deficit
Tuesday- Calorie Surplus
Wednesday - Calorie Deficit
Thursday- Calorie Deficit
Friday - Calorie Surplus
Saturday- Calorie Deficit
Sunday - Calorie Surplus
As long as the amount of the deficit is larger than the amount of the surplus, you should still be losing weight, but also allowing yourself three days during the week to train hard and build muscle.
More specifically, if my caloric needs for each day is 2,400 calories…
2,400 x 7 days = 16,800 calories for the week
So it could look something like this
Monday - 1,900 calories
Tuesday - 2,750 calories
Wednesday - 1,900 calories
Thursday - 1,900 calories
Friday - 2,750 calories
Saturday - 1,900 calories
Sunday - 2,750 calories
Weekly Calories = 15,850 calories
Using this approach, you’re in a deficit of almost 1,000 calories per week, allowing you to still lose weight, while simultaneously using your surplus days (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday in this example), to try and put yourself in a position to build muscle.
Of course, you could always change the orientation of the days, or the numbers of calories, but if you can figure out some similar combination of deficit and surplus days that works for you, you could POTENTIALLY gain muscle and lose weight at the same time.
How well will this actually work?
It’s up to you to give it a shot and see what kind of progress you can make.
Everybody is different and results will surely vary.
So, is it possible to lose weight and build muscle at the same time?
It's up to you to find out.