March 3rd, 2010

How To Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time (The “Holy Grail” of Fitness Goals)

“How can I gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?” That’s right up there with “How do I get six pack abs” as one of the most frequently asked fitness questions of all time. The problem is, when you ask it, you get all kinds of conflicting answers – even from experts who are supposed to know these things. So what’s the deal? Is it really possible to lose fat and build muscle simultaneously?

Short answer: Yes it’s possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Long answer: It’s difficult and it’s complicated. Allow me to explain….

First we have the issue of whether you really lose fat and gain muscle at the “same time.”

Well, yes, if your definition of the “same time” is say, a month or 12 weeks. But in that case, you’re probably not gaining muscle at the “same time” literally speaking, as in, right now this very moment you are reading this, or 7 days a week, 24 hours a day for months in a row.

The best explanation for what’s really happening is that you alternate between periods of caloric surplus (anabolism) and caloric deficit (catabolism) and the net result is a gain in muscle and a loss in body fat.

You see, if you stay in a calorie surplus, it’s the body’s natural tendency for body fat and lean body mass to go up together. And if you stay in a calorie deficit, it’s your body’s natural tendency for body fat and lean body mass to go down together.

There may be exceptions, but the general rule is that it is very difficult to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time – the mechanisms are mostly antagonistic to one another. When it does happen, it’s almost always the result of “unusual conditions” – I call them X factors.

The 4 X-Factors

The first X-factor is “training age” . Ever hear of “newbie gains?” The less trained your body is and the further you are from your genetic potential, the easier it is to gain muscle. The reverse is also true – an advanced bodybuilder with 20 years experience would be thrilled just to gain a few pounds of solid dry muscle in a year!

The second x factor is muscle memory. It’s easier to regain muscle you’ve lost than it is to gain new muscle in the first place (ergo, the fat out of shape semi retired bodybuilder who starts training again and blows up and gets ripped “overnight”).

The third X factor is genetics (or somatotype). Ever heard of the “genetic freak?” That’s the dude who sprouts muscle like weeds even when he’s on the “50-50 diet” (50% McDonald’s and 50% pizza)… and he never gets fat. (That dude chose the right parents!)

The fourth X factor is drugs. It would stun (or sadden) you if you knew how many people take performance and physique-enhancing drugs. I’m not just talking about pro bodybuilders, I’m talking about “Joe six pack” in the gym – not to mention those fitness models you idolize in the magazines. How did they get large muscle gains with concurrent fat loss? Chemicals.

I’m not a gambling man, but I’ll place a wager on this any day: I’ll bet that in 99% of the cases of large muscle gains with concurrent large fat losses, one or more of these x factors were present.

That’s not all! There are actually 5 more X factors related to your body composition and diet status (the X2 factors). But I’ll have to talk about those later.

So you’re not a beginner, you don’t take roids, you’re not a genetic freak and you have no muscle memory to take advantage of. Are you S.O.L? Well, I do want you to be realistic about your goals, but…

There IS a way for the average person to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time.

The Secret: You have to change your “temporal perspective!”

Traditionally nutritionists and fitness pros have only looked at calorie balance in terms of 24 hour periods. At midnight, you could tally up the calories like a shopkeeper closing out his register, and if the balance were positive, you’d say you were in a surplus for the day. If the balance were negative, you’d say you were in a deficit for the day.

But it’s entirely possible that you might pass through periods of “within-day” surplus where you were in a highly anabolic state (for example, you eat the biggest, highest carb meal of the day after your workout), and you were in a deficit the rest of the day.

If you did intense weight training, and you timed your nutrient intake appropriately, Isn’t it possible that you could gain a small amount of muscle during those anabolic hours, while losing fat the rest of the day? Granted it might only be grams or ounces – but what if you kept that up for a week? A month? Three months?

As you pan out and look at the bigger picture, what if most days of the week you were in a deficit for the entire day, and on some days you were in a surplus? If so, then isn’t it possible that over the course of the week, you’d have a small net gain of muscle and loss of body fat as a result of the caloric fluctuation?

These within-day and within-week phases are called microcycles and mesocycles. If you also had a primary goal with a longer term focus of several months, say 12 weeks or 16 weeks, that would be a macrocycle.

What I’ve just described is nutritional periodization. Some people call it cyclical dieting. it’s where you manipulate your calories (primarily by fluctuating carbohydrate intake, hence “carb cycling”) in order to intentionally zig zag your way through periods of surplus and deficit and create specific hormonal responses.

The end result: muscle gain and fat loss during the same time period!

I know that someone out there is having a hissy fit because I’ve only talked about calories: deficits and surpluses. Rightfully so. Calories matter but there’s more to it than calories – most importantly, hormones and “nutrient partitioning.”

If you’re in a calorie deficit you are going to pull energy from your body.The question is: From WHERE? If your hormones are out of whack and you’re eating crap, you could lose more muscle than fat in a deficit and gain almost pure fat, not muscle, in a surplus!

But WHAT IF you could manipulate within day energy balance, use nutritional periodization AND control your hormones with food and lifestyle strategies?

NOW we are seeing how concurrent muscle gain and fat loss are starting to look possible!

Make no mistake – concurrent muscle gain and fat loss is a difficult goal to achieve. The good news: difficult does not mean impossible. Or as George Santayana said, “The difficult is that which can be done immediately, the impossible, that which takes a little longer.”

If you’d like to learn more about losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time, check out my newest ebook, “The Holy Grail Body Transformation System.”

In it, you’ll hear all the details about nutritional periodization, cyclical dieting, hormonal manipulation, within day energy balance, nutrient partitioning, AND the all the X factors, including the 5 “X2-Factors” – which are the keys to gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time.

You’ll also get my new “TNB” training system, as seen in Men’s Fitness magazine (the complete, expanded version that Men’s Fitness didn’t have room to print).

This new body transformation program is available now at the Holy Grail Body Transformation webpage

Related Articles:

Brett’s Quintessential Body Recomposition


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10 Responses to “How To Gain Muscle and Lose Fat at the Same Time (The “Holy Grail” of Fitness Goals)”

  • Eddie Lee

    great article. So does this mean doing cardio on an empty stomach will achieve greater fat loss. and eating bigger meals before and after weight training will give you most muscle gain?

  • Anna

    This makes PERFECT sense! Although I need serious help in figuring out what to eat when. I workout twice a day. I rotate between: 1) Morning Cardio + Noon Resistance Training, and 2) Noon Cardio/Resistance Training and evening Spinning/Cardio. I usually eat Oatmeal with Flax, Agave and Soy for breakfast, a lunch comprised of veggies, cottage cheese or protein shake, and maybe a piece of fruit and/or yogurt with granola. For a snack I eat whole wheat crackers, a small bowl of multibran cereal with Soy, Edamame, Protein shake etc. For dinner I usually do a balance of protein and carbs with Egg whites, Brown & Wild Rice, Tofu and veggies (did I mention I was vegetarian?). I am a student and have a full time job, so after dinner at 8, I usually sit down to study until about 1-2am. I get hungry at around 11pm, at which time I have a small bowl of oatmeal with a half scoop of protein powder and a small piece of cheese, or 1/4 cup cottage cheese. I’ve heard that eating at night is bad if you’re goal is weight or fat loss, but I need the energy to study!! Am I completely messing up here, or does my meal plan show some sign of positivity? I should also mention that I find it hard to eat a lot of calories… all the food I mentioned about usually adds up to 1100 – 1300 calories. Only on a day where I indulge in Ice Cream or Pizza do I get about 1500 – 1800 intake. Am I eating too little? I’m 5’4, 120lbs, Female, Very active (workout 6 days a week, 2X a day) and have a Small-Medium frame, Waist 26″, Hips 37″, Bust 34″.Please help!! I’m so confused! Thanks : )

  • Eddie wrote:“great article. So does this mean doing cardio on an empty stomach will achieve greater fat loss. and eating bigger meals before and after weight training will give you most muscle gain?Doing cardio on an empty stomach will oxidize more fat during the workout, absolutely. The part that remains controversial is whether that matters over 24 hours (fat oxidation may decrease later in the day) and whether it actually results in greater losses of body fat tissue over days, weeks and months. What you burn for fuel during a workout and the change in body composition are two diferent things. There is probably a sweet spot in the intensity vs duration spectrum where oxidizing more fat during the workout indeed can help with body fat loss over time, and it is probably most relevant when you are already fairly lean, which is probably why bodybuilders still swear by fasted cardio to this eating larger meals after workouts – absolutely – thats exactly what I was talking about in the article and I elaborate on this in detail (post workout nutrition and daily nutrient timing) in my new ebookcheers!tom

  • Anna, your meal plan shows plenty of signs of positivity. eating at night only correlates to greater weight gain because most people snack inappropriately at night on top of their usual caloric intake. eating at night does NOT cause a slow down your fat loss, unless you eat it on top of what you were supposed to. Plan it into your daily caloric intake and stick with your plan. re: calories, at 120, you dont burn that much, but with your high activity level 1100- 1300 is on the low end. you have to eat appropriately to fuel your activity. bring the cals up slowly, little bit at a time and see how you fel and how your wt/body comp responds, cheers!

  • Christine

    Some information is just serendipitously there when you need it, like it was meant to be part of a pursuit or something! :))) I read your entire holy grail ebook and was fascinated. I’ll definitely be implementing it into my training regimen. Hopefully it will get me to my fitness competition goals a little more quickly! Thank you Tom!”

  • karen

    Comments: I just finished reading The Holy Grail. My first impression is that it will help me with the finish what I started when doing the BFFM Holiday Challenge. With what you have explained here, I can reset my goals, put these new actions into my workouts/nutrition plan and get the results I’m after. Thanks again for continuing to motivate, challenge and inspire us to be the best we can possibly be.

  • Great Article TomThis is an extremely common question that I get myself from clients and members at the gym and because of the complexities of it, such as the ones you covered, it’s always dificult to answer in a way that people can understand.You’ve done a real good job of explainning it hear while also asking similar questions about what’s possible and why, such as with the microcyles etc…Good stuff and great confirmation for much of what I teach my clients.Keep it coming my man.AdamGet a Free video course on fat loss and boosting metabolism at

  • Amir

    Hi Tom, great stuff as usual,I think I’ve done it, I’ve been working out six days a week, three resistance training and three cardio. During the weight days, I eat quite heartily , while on the cardio days, I reduce my calorie intake drastically especially cutting on carbs. The seventh day, I simply have a couple of small free meals. Bottom line, I’ve been constantly losing fat and adding up muscle mass. The muscle gains are not as impressive as the fat loss to be honest, but I’m definitely getting leaner and stronger. I have to admit though, I’ve been taking fat burners but definitely no roids.

  • Eric

    I think that I have achieved this as well, though I am a novice on this topic so I could be wrong.I have been on a heavy cardio routine (rotate every other day HIIT vs. Steady – but even my steady is pretty robust) 6 days per week, combined with 30 minute weight and ab routines 3-4 daysweek.Have lost 30 lbs over 5 months and muscles, especially in legs from cardio work on bike, are bigger and ripped. Chest and arms noticeable too.

  • Eric

    Just a little more info: I do not change my diet day to day. I take no supplements of any kind – I just eat food.During my weight loss I cut out all fast food, and almost all soda, but otherwise eat the same as I did before. I still loathe veggies but eat lots of fruit and protein and will not ever give up bread and pizza!

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