Can You Lose Body Fat and Gain Muscle Mass at the Same Time?

December 9, 2021 by
Photo Credit: Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (instagram.com/thorbjornsson)

One of the most common collections of goals among athletes and fitness enthusiasts is to lose body fat, gain muscle mass, and get stronger. Lofty goals, especially when the desire is to do them at the same time. 

When asked the question, can an athlete lose body fat, gain strength, and build muscle mass at the same time, the answer is typically a resounding no. The approach should be periodized with fat loss occurring by establishing a calorie deficit while strength gains and muscle mass occur in a calorie surplus. Bulk, cut, rinse, repeat. In fact, there are a number of nutrition programs that are built on this foundational principle. Buy a bulk program then come back 16 weeks later and buy a cut program.

This dilemma of this kind of progress can be a frustrating and daunting task, especially for new trainees who want to do it all. In the most recent MASS Research Review, Eric Trexler discusses a relatively new meta analysis and regression that sheds light on what may actually be feasible from a lean mass standpoint while in a calorie deficit. In two separate analyses, researchers found that a calorie deficit did lead to smaller gains in lean muscle mass but did not have a statistically significant impact on strength gains in individuals who were both dieting and following a hypertrophy program. Notably, participants in the included study did continue to gain lean mass in the calorie deficit, just not to the same extent as the control group, who were on an isocaloric diet. 

The researchers went one step further and ran a meta regression to understand if larger calorie deficits would have a greater negative impact on the ability to gain lean body mass. Not surprisingly, that was the case. With each 100 calorie decrease, lean body mass gains are reduced. At a 500 calorie per day deficit, the expected gain in lean body mass was zero. So in these studies, -500 calories was the inflection point where fat loss would continue to occur but no muscle mass would accumulate as a result of training.

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