Can You Build Muscle While Losing Fat? Yes


Table of Contents

Welcome to the last segment of the fat loss myths series. As the adage says, “save the best for last”. The misconception of not being able to build muscle while losing fat has been drilled into our brains a long time ago. Most myths are easy to bust because they are often based on a misunderstanding of one element, however, things are a little different with recomping. The reason why most people won’t believe a recomp is possible even when presented with evidence is because the idea is constantly re-enforced by other individuals. 



What is a recomp?

Body recomposition, or, “recomp” is when someone builds muscle and loses fat simultaneously. Even though recomping is the human body’s natural rhythm, this concept has been majorly overshadowed with more “sophisticated” concepts like “bulking” and “cutting”. Before you assume I am attacking bulking and cutting phases, allow me to say – I am not! Bulking and cutting have their place and might be more suited for certain individuals but, recomping, in the long term, is more productive.

Surplus Vs. Deficit? What?!

As many of you know already, you have to consume a surplus of calories to build muscle effectively. And you must eat at a caloric deficit to lose fat. Right? Yes, but things are a bit more complicated than that. If you read my ‘diet plan designing guide’, you’ll see that I said the same thing. I also said that there would be an article explaining body recomposition at some point. 
Consuming a caloric surplus puts the body in a very anabolic state, which then translates into a higher rate of protein synthesis and accumulation of more muscle tissue. Since muscle building is an energy-demanding process, the body prefers to build muscle when it has an abundance of calories (energy) to “spend” on manufacturing new muscle tissue.
Eating at a deficit puts the body in a “catabolic” state – I am using the term loosely here – which then forces our bodies to tap into their energy stores – body fat – to compensate for the lack of incoming energy. And, given that you providing the right stimulus through weight lifting, your body will burn more fat than muscle tissue. Result? You lose fat and you become leaner.
Sounds neat, right? If so, the next possible logical question one might have is “How can one be in a surplus and a deficit at the same time? This defies laws of thermodynamics.”
While this is all true, the human body is a truly complex machine. Let’s have a logical walk-through.

1- You don’t just build muscle or lose fat

Photo Credits:

The first misconception that this myth is based on is the fact that fitness enthusiasts think you either store energy (gain muscle/fat) or lose energy (lose muscle/fat). Muscle tissue and fat tissue are two separate and distinctively different compartments. They both have different structures, different metabolic activities, and different demands. Thus, our bodies treat both compartments differently. Your body won’t treat muscle the same way it would treat body fat. 
At any given moment throughout the day, you are either storing or losing energy. Our bodies switch between each mode throughout the day. Therefore, for example, you might be storing energy from 4:00PM till 8:00PM but, losing energy from 8:00PM to 10:00PM. This is just an example to illustrate my point. So, even though you might be in a caloric surplus, your body will still shift between anabolic and catabolic periods throughout the day. So, if we can spend more time in an anabolic state where we maximize protein synthesis and, spend less or equal time in a catabolic state but maximize fat loss, the result will be more muscle tissue and less fat!  Remember postprandial and post-absorptive states explained in the “Carbs fallacy” article? Well, that’s how your body switches between both modes. 

2- You have plenty of energy already!

Since building muscle is an energy-expensive process, the body will not favor building muscle if it’s in a caloric deficit, correct? Yes, but the trick is that we have plenty of energy stored already. Body fat is merely energy that was stored by our bodies in case of a famine. If there is lack of food being consumed, the body will start releasing some of its pre-stored fat and converting it into energy. So, the key now is to force, or rather, convince your body to dip into its fat storage, convert it into energy, and use that energy to build muscle tissue. This will result in burned fat and newly-gained muscle tissue. Congratulations! You, my friend, have effectively recomped. So, technically, you can be in a “surplus” while consuming less calories than you expend! Confusing? Yes. Don’t worry, there will be an article about that.
Combine this point with the above one and we have the following concept: If we can utilize our stored body fat to fuel protein synthesis during anabolic “windows” or “modes”, we will gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
Thus, body recomposition is the net result of maximizing muscle growth and maximizing fat loss during different modes throughout the day.

3- Nutrition is only permissive 

Eric Helms, a well-respected fitness figure, put it best when he said “Nutrition is only permissive to muscle growth. But training is the root cause of muscle hypertrophy.” I couldn’t have said it any better! What Eric means is that while nutrition is important, the direct cause of muscle growth is the stimulus provided by training. An intelligently-designed training program that ensures progression will constantly provide the proper stimuli for muscle growth. It’ll stress your body and muscles and result in muscle hypertrophy
We can conclude another equally important concept from Eric’s quote: There is a limit on how much muscle one can build. In other words, consuming a surplus of 1000 calories will not result in more muscle than consuming a 500-calorie surplus! This is crucial because if you want to stay lean year-round and ‘recomp’ effectively, you should adopt a very slight surplus. Given that nutrition is only permissive for muscle growth and you already have tons of stored energy (body fat), you can be in a greater surplus without realizing.
Example: Your maintenance calories are 2500 calories per day. You apply a caloric surplus of 100 calories. So, you are now consuming 2600 calories per day. However, if your body uses some of its stored energy to fuel muscle growth and any other activities, you will be in a greater surplus than just 100 calories. There is no way to know how much body fat your body will decide to use though. In this scenario, the extra 100 calories consumed will merely convince your body that you are not in starvation mode. There is no famine and, you have access to plenty of “energy”. Thus, your body will happily spend some calories on manufacturing new muscle tissue at an optimal rate.
NOTE: Laws of thermodynamics still apply. If you eat 500 more calories than you expend, you will gain 1 pound over the course of a week, however, this will not necessarily yield building more muscle. Your rate of muscle growth will remain the same regardless of your surplus but, you will gain more fat. Why would anyone want to gain a lot of fat?! 
NOTE 2: Since laws of thermodynamics still apply, you will also lose one pound of “weight” per week if you consume 500 calories less than you expend every day. Contrary to popular belief, there is an ideal rate of fat loss as well. Once you are past that threshold, you will be losing muscle mass unnecessarily. Combine this with NOTE 1″ and you have a successful formula of spinning your wheels.

4- What are muscles made of?

muscle mass structure
As you can in the picture above, muscles are made of: Contractile protein, fats, vitamins and minerals, carbohydrates, and tons of water. This illustrative diagram should be enough to convince that recomping is possible. Based on that diagram, we can build muscle if we do the following:

  • Eat plenty of protein. This is easy. You can do so through your diet alone or your diet combined with a whey protein supplement.
  • Drink plenty of water. This isn’t hard either.
  • Consume vitamins and minerals through our diets.
  • Eat carbohydrates and dietary fat.

The last element required for muscle growth is energy, which as illustrated above, we can acquire through a slight caloric surplus or by using our stored body fat.

Muscle Growth = Energy + Macronutrients + Micronutrients + Water


5- Some evolutionary logic

Our ancestors did not have constant access to food. They spent their lives in a feast or famine. During periods of food abundance, they would intentionally fatten up to survive through winter and periods of famine. They also spent their daily lives being active. They would hunt preys, run from predators, cook, walk for miles, and carry their children for long distances. Thus, they burnt a lot of energy. They did not have access to refined grains or other highly-palatable and calorie-dense foods. Therefore, logically, they spent most of their days in a caloric deficit. Yet, they were healthy, athletic, lean and muscular. How so? They NEEDED muscle to perform their daily activities. They needed muscle to be able to run fast from predators and hunt preys. If recomping was not possible, they wouldn’t have survived since they would lack the necessary muscle mass to perform their daily activities. Also, they wouldn’t have survived because they would walk/run around carrying tons of extra weight in the form of body fat that would slow them down. A ‘recomp’ is only logical.

How do you recomp effectively?

  • Follow an intelligently-designed training program that implements progressive overload. This will provide sufficient powerful stimulus for muscle growth.
  • Nutrition depends largely on individual genetics, goals, personal preference, starting point, and lifestyle. But for the sake of providing general guidelines, eating at maintenance, or at a slight surplus will maximize muscle growth and allow fat loss. Eating at a slight caloric-deficit will allow you to build muscle and lose fat as well but, your muscle growth rate won’t be optimal and you will maximize fat loss. It is still an effective recomp strategy.
  • Time your meals properly to ensure you maximize nutrient partitioning. Furthermore, this will allow you to spend more time in an anabolic state than a catabolic state.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Eat plenty of protein.
  • Drink lots of water.



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