Strategies for how to gain muscle and lose fat

Preserving lean muscle mass while losing weight isn’t always easy, but it’s important to overall health and wellness. Maintaining muscle can also help with weight loss efforts. Lean muscle is more metabolically active than fat, which means that it burns more calories. In turn, the more muscle you have, the higher your resting metabolic rate — or the number of calories your body burns while at rest — will be.

Muscle also provides better mobility, heart and metabolic health. But it can be challenging to maintain. “As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass, which can lead to decreased strength and function,” explains Dr. Todd Sontag, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida.

That challenge can be made more difficult when shedding excess weight and reducing body fat levels because cutting calories can claim some of your lean muscle mass, too. “When we lose weight, we tend to lose muscle tissues, which means we, unfortunately, burn fewer calories,” says Michal Mor, co-founder, head of science and chief of product at Lumen, a Tel Aviv-based company aiming to bring metabolic health products to the general public.

This effect can slow your basal metabolic rate — the number of calories your body needs to power its basic functions while at rest — and make it more difficult to lose weight.

[See: Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise.]

Weight Loss Basics

Generally speaking, to lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you’re taking in. For most people, that means cutting your overall intake of calories and boosting how much you move to create a caloric deficit that can lead to weight loss.

When you create a caloric deficit, you tell your body to break down fat, rather than build it, explains Marie A. Spano, an Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist.

This caloric deficit is mandatory for losing fat. But a caloric surplus — consuming more calories than you burn every day — is what tells your body to build more lean muscle. And therein lies the challenge of building muscle while losing fat.

[READ: Low-Calorie Snacks.]

Strategies for Building Muscle

Losing fat and gaining muscle can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. These expert-approved strategies can show you how to build muscle while losing fat:

— Get a baseline.

— Keep your caloric deficit small.

— Be patient.

— Eat protein four times per day.

— Consider trying intermittent fasting.

— Strength train frequently.

— Use cardio for recovery.

— Adjust your exercise program’s structure.

— Do HIIT sparingly.

— Prioritize rest.

Get a baseline

Chris Travis, a personal trainer and owner of Seattle Strength & Performance in Washington state, says knowledge is power when searching for the best way to lose fat and gain muscle. He recommends undergoing body composition testing using InBody or DEXA scan to determine how much of your current body mass is fat versus lean muscle and bone.

These diagnostic tests can also provide information about your basal metabolic rate. All of this data “will be important pieces to track as you move forward,” he says.

Monitoring your progress periodically as you go is also important, Sontag says. “Keep track of your progress by regularly measuring your body weight and body fat percentage, as well as tracking your strength training progress. This can help you to adjust your approach as needed.” If something isn’t working or you find you’ve stalled in your progress, shake up your routine.

[READ: How to Calculate Weight Loss Percentage.]

Keep your caloric deficit small

Travis says that “gaining muscle while losing fat simultaneously is definitely possible,” thanks to a process called “body recomposition,” but this process needs to be managed carefully — cut too many calories and you’ll stifle your muscle-gaining efforts. “Oftentimes, aggressive diet plans will put you in a big caloric deficit to lose weight,” he explains. And if you’re not strength training and consuming enough protein

at the same time, “you’ll most certainly lose weight, but it will be a combination of fat and muscle.”

However, keeping your caloric deficit smaller means you’ll break down less muscle as you lose weight. A smaller deficit — just enough to lead to about a half a kilogram or 1.1 pound per week — also increases your likelihood of being able to actively build muscle, explains Jim White, registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia.

White says your goal should be to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. While every person will need to cut calories and increase activity levels slightly differently to lose weight at this rate, reducing caloric intake by 500 calories per day is a good place to start. Over the course of seven days, those 500 calories add up to 3,500 calories, or 1 pound of body weight.

Be patient

Being patient might be the hardest tip of all because you may notice yourself making great gains to start with, but they naturally slow over time.

“It becomes progressively more difficult to increase muscle while losing fat as you become more trained and get leaner,” says Brad Schoenfeld, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and professor of exercise science at Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.

It’s just how the human body works: The more fat you have to lose, the easier it is to do. Likewise, the more muscle you have to gain, the easier it is to accomplish.

For some people, noticing these changes as a number on the scale might be slow initially, too. “As you change your body and gain muscle mass and lose body fat, your weight may not actually fluctuate that much,” Travis says. “That’s normal because muscle is denser than fat. This is why I encourage regular body composition scanning to ensure you understand what’s happening in your body — how much fat you’re losing and how much muscle you’re gaining.” But the shifts should show up in a change in appearance, how your clothes fit and how strong you feel.

As you get closer to your goal, expect to see more subtle changes in your fat and muscle levels. Remember not to get discouraged.

Eat protein four times per day

“We’ve all heard the cliché, ‘abs are made in the kitchen.’ It’s so true,” says Thomas Roe, a personal trainer, endurance athlete, founder of TRoe Fitness and owner of Local Moves Studio in San Antonio, Texas.

Following a strict nutrition plan that’s high in lean protein while doing the right kind of exercise can help maintain muscle. That’s because your muscles use the protein you eat to grow bigger or stronger. When cutting calories, your body’s muscles may be less sensitive to the protein you eat, Spano says.

Examples of healthy proteins include:

— Chicken and turkey breast.

— Fish.

— Tofu.

— Tempeh.

“In addition, this protein intake should be spaced out evenly throughout the day,” Spano says. This approach keeps your muscles fed with a steady stream of building blocks.

In fact, a 2018 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded that for optimal muscle growth, people should consume between about 0.2 and 0.25 grams of protein per pound of body weight four times per day. For a 180-pound adult, that equals four meals of 36 to 45 grams of protein each.

But, as Travis notes, “everyone is different, particularly as it relates to nutrition.” For this reason, he says, you’ll probably “need to do some experimentation to find what works best for you.” He recommends talking with a registered dietitian for personalized advice tailored to your goals and your current body composition situation.

Consider trying intermittent fasting

Mor recommends intermittent fasting as a strategy that has been shown to help people preserve and gain muscle mass while losing weight. Intermittent fasting can help support metabolic rate and metabolic flexibility, she says. Metabolic flexibility means your body is able to switch between burning both carbs and fat as fuel efficiently.

“This relates to muscle building and weight loss because if you’re able to burn through carbs efficiently during a workout, you can lose weight more efficiently since you’ll then be burning through fat stores,” she says.

Pairing weight training with intermittent fasting can help activate that process, Mor adds. “Combining strength training with intermittent fasting is a great way to burn through leftover carb stores overnight and increase your chances of waking up burning fat in the morning,” she says.

Strength train frequently

Sontag says that strength training is imperative to keeping muscle if you’re trying to lose weight. “When you put yourself in a calorie deficit to lose weight, oftentimes you will lose muscle as you lose body fat. This results in a diminished metabolic rate.”

A slowed rate means that “even though you continue to put yourself into a calorie deficit, your weight loss will also plateau. Muscle tone is the only thing you can control that can increase metabolism,” he explains, adding that this happens because muscle is more metabolically active than fat. “Without doing any strength training, it is almost impossible to get to your ideal body weight.”

White agrees that strength training is key. “You need to include at least two days of weight training a week to maintain existing muscle mass and three or more times a week to build muscle,” White says.

The most effective exercises for both fat loss and muscle gain are compound, meaning they work multiple muscle groups at once. Examples include squats, chest presses and rows. Focus on making these moves the top priority of your weekly workout routine, and then you can start to think about adding the right cardio workouts.

Use cardio for recovery

Cardio isn’t the most effective way to build or maintain muscle when you’re in a caloric deficit. However, it’s a great tool to help you recover from your strength-training workouts because it helps you maintain and build the most muscle possible.

Low-intensity cardio, such as walking, jogging, gentle cycling and swimming, increases blood flow throughout the body to get oxygen and other nutrients to your muscle cells, explains Dean Somerset, an Alberta, Canada-based kinesiologist.

Roe recommends adding 35 to 45 minutes of cardio a few times a week. Stick to low-intensity workouts, with your effort feeling no more difficult than a seven on a scale from 1 to 10.

He also encourages “drinking at least a gallon of water per day” to support your efforts for fat loss and muscle gain. However, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine say adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups daily for men and about 11.5 cups daily for women.

Adjust your exercise program’s structure

James Suchy, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, says that “the way in which an exercise program is structured can impact the outcome of your training.” In other words, adjusting the number of sets, repetitions or the amount of rest in between them can affect the type of physical gains you’ll see.

For example, to increase muscle size and definition, Suchy says you should “lift the maximum weight you can lift for six to 12 repetitions paired with a rest period of one to two minutes between sets. This is a good entry point for those new to weightlifting and will still provide significant strength and endurance gains.”

In contrast, if you’re looking to increase muscle strength, Suchy recommends lifting the maximum weight you can lift for one to six repetitions paired with a rest period of two to three minutes between sets. “This requires more experience with weightlifting to avoid injury from poor technique,” he cautions, so it’s best to work with a trainer or coach when you begin this type of training.

If your goal is to increase muscle endurance, “lift the maximum weight you can lift for 12 to 20 repetitions, paired with a rest period of 30 to 90 seconds between sets,” Suchy says. “This may be useful for someone who doesn’t want to increase muscle mass or size.”

Do HIIT sparingly

As a last add-in to your workout plan, try high-intensity interval exercises such as repeated sprints on the treadmill, elliptical or bike.

These workouts can help burn calories and reduce body fat while still building muscle, White says. However, you’re best served using them only on occasion, like once or twice per week. Strength training should still be your workout focus, and overdoing it on high-intensity cardio can overstress your muscles and make them much less likely to grow.

Perform HIIT on non-consecutive days and when you’re feeling well-rested.

Prioritize rest

“Building muscle in the gym starts with placing sufficiently challenging stress on muscle fibers during a workout,” Suchy says. But you can overdo it. “For muscle gains and fat loss to occur, adequate recovery is also essential.” Adequate recovery means that “getting restful, deep sleep every night is critical.”

For the average adult, seven to nine hours should be the goal, “with a preference toward the high end if you’re exercising on a regular basis,” he explains.

That’s not always easy, though. “High levels of stress at work and in your personal life can detrimentally impact your recovery and capacity to come back strong for your next workout,” Suchy says. But, he adds, “stress-relieving activities like deep breathing or meditation have been shown to help.”

The Bottom Line

Yes, you can gain muscle while losing weight. Focus on both fueling and training your muscles while keeping your caloric deficit small. Make sustainable changes that you can stick with over the long term — both fat loss and muscle gain take time.

“I can’t stress enough that we are what we eat,” Roe adds. “Wasted calories on high-sugar, processed foods, dairy and alcohol are a surefire way to derail your goals from putting on muscle mass and leaning out.”

More from U.S. News

Are Avocados Good for Weight Loss?

How to Lose Weight: the Best Foods for Weight Loss

Healthy Meals for Weight Loss

Strategies for How to Gain Muscle and Lose Fat originally appeared on

Update 01/13/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up