Episode 91 – Can You Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?

Key Topics Covered

Why would you think we CAN’T do it? 

  • The body is made up of calories. So the logic would be that if we have a surplus, there are more calories left to be stored as muscle. BUT if we have a deficit, the body already has to be pulling from other stores and is then less likely to prioritise muscle growth.  
  • And if we were looking to optimise muscle building, logically a surplus would be the best option and vice versa for fat loss, a deficit would be the best option. So it seems that fat loss and muscle growth are competing goals and the body can’t optimise both at once.  
  • Whether or not it can be done though, is a different story  
  • A quick note on that before we look at the research – it is actually rare that people stay in a surplus or deficit 100% of the time. Our energy expenditure changes daily, so even if you are tracking, it is common for you to dip in and out of a surplus and deficit.  

Exploring the research 

  • In the research, it’s actually super common for both to occur at the same time.  
  • Instead of going through studies individually, we will mostly just talk about a 2020 review titled “Body Recomposition: Can Trained Individuals Build Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time?” 
  • Firstly, notice the emphasis on “trained individuals.” This is because it is super common for untrained individuals to be able to do it. 
  • In the second paragraph of the introduction, there are 8 well controlled RCTs cited where muscle gain and fat loss occur simultaneously in reportedly well-trained individuals.  
  • They also highlighted case studies identifying that bodybuilders typically don’t recomp during contest prep. But that is largely because they are very well trained and also getting very lean.  
  • In the studies where it is occurring, people usually have over 12 months resistance training experience, but are nowhere near the level most bodybuilders are at. 
  • Note: The research has found that recomp almost never happens in a calorie surplus. Even some of the studies that report it happening in a surplus, I question whether it was actually a surplus – for example Jose Antonio’s 4.4g/kg protein study where they were meant to be in a surplus, but they didn’t actually gain any weight. 

A note on why it happens so much in the research 

  • One reason it happens in research is that participants are literally training harder and more consistently than they previously trained. They are often usually newer to training (even if meeting the criteria of well trained) and far from their potential too.  
  • We have quite a lot of research indicating that we need to train near failure to optimise muscle growth. But do people really do that in the real world? *note that I’m not suggesting that we train to failure 
  • In research, people are often pushed to complete failure. They have people watching them and holding them to this. 
  • Their nutrition is often also monitored in some capacity in these studies too, which might play a role. 
  • I have heard some researchers in this space say that at the end of 6-12 week studies, most participants report wanting to take a break from training or a deload, or just reporting joint soreness in general.  
  • How many people in the real world either aren’t consistent OR training consistently for >12 weeks without feeling like they need a deload? 
  • I don’t think the way people train in these studies is anywhere near optimal. But based on the results, it is a bit of a sign that it gets better results for that kind of timeframe than what the average gym goer does.  

Explaining when it is more or less likely to happen 

It is more likely to happen if you fit the following criteria. The further you get from this, the less likely it is to happen: 

  • New to training OR detrained  
  • Good training protocol and execution 
  • Good protein intake and nutrition in general 
  • Not in a large deficit or in a surplus.  
  • Good genetics. 
  • Good sleep. 
  • Low stress. 

What do we actually recommend? 

  • Although this is talking about whether it is possible, it is rare for me to actually recommend recomping to somebody with this goal. 
  • It is far more efficient to prioritise one or the other. There is a reason that almost all bodybuilders do cutting and bulking phases. 
  • My favourite saying is that it is highly unlikely that you can recomp your way to significantly improved body composition – so it is best to optimise one and cycle through phases of both 

Relevant Links/Resources

Related Blog Posts

Studies Mentioned