• Joshua Li

Can i still build muscle in a fat loss phase?



The debate about “calories in versus calories out” has been going on for many years, already started back five years ago or so, it was a common topic of discussion amongst online fitness trainers or regular gym goers whether or not the foods you consumed matter or not as long as the calories matched.


On one end of the spectrum you had ‘hard dieters’ that proclaimed that counting ‘macros’, proteins, carbohydrates and fats mattered the most for fat loss. Whereas on the other end you had ‘clean eaters’ that argued counting macros don’t matter as long as you are eating a clean diet.


In this present day we can all agree that neither side was right or wrong or had it perfectly right as an efficient nutrition program cannot be compressed into a single soundbite. Obviously macros and calories are important for body composition but there is a whole lot more that matters as-well.



Understanding ‘energy balance’ and nutrition will give you a solid foundation to build upon for body composition. The relationship between calories going into the body (via food consumption) and calories out (exercising, digesting, heart beating etc) is energy balance. If one is in a ‘positive’ energy balance’ that means they are consuming/storing more than they are burning. This means they are in a calorie surplus and weight should go up. On the other hand if you are in a negative energy balance, you are burning more than you store you will be in a deficit which means you should hypothetically be dropping weight.


However there is a whole lot more to it than just ‘calories in v.s calories out’ as the body is such a complex organism that has many metabolic reactions going on at all times. To simplify things, if your goal is to purely loss weight then focus on eating less calories and burning more. If you want to take a multidirectional approach and try to lose fat and gain muscle the same time, whilst seeing better results, then we must take things further and not sell yourselves short by only focusing on calories.


Most people will think that while trying to build muscle in a “bulking phase”, it is impossible to lose fat. But this is not the case as muscle tissue and fat tissue are two separate systems, therefore it is quite possible to lose body fat from a ‘caloric deficit’, whilst building new muscle by applying the progress overload training principle and consuming sufficient protein. There is also no hard evidence in the ‘energy balance equation’ to suggest that you can’t do both at the same time, as both fat and muscle tissue have different energy densities. With muscle mostly formulated of water it has far less stored energy than fat. E.g. 1kg (2.2 pounds) of muscle = 1,800 calories, 1kg of fat has around 9,400 calories. Run this through an equation using the example above, if one was to lose 20 pounds of fat while at the same time trying to building 5 pounds of muscle over the course of a year;


20 pounds of fat lost = 85,540 calories lost

5 pounds of muscle gained = 4,140 calories gained

Net energy balance = energy gained - energy expended = -81,400 calories.


Break this down even more, you will need to be in a caloric deficit of 81,400 over the course of the year, which means 81,400/365 days = 223 calorie deficit per day. Therefore despite being in a caloric deficit over the year you can still gain muscle if everything is done properly.



It is very common to hear in the fitness industry that “well trained individuals” cannot lose fat and build muscle at the same time, or beginners/steroid users build far more muscle than obese individuals. This is not the case as Maltais et al., (2016) did a study on men who are 60 years + and put them through a resistance training protocol + increased protein intake showed that on average, participants lost 2.4 pounds of fat whilst gaining 3.7 pounds of lean muscle. In another study with elite female volleyball players, body recomposition was definitely possible with one group losing 6 pounds of fat whilst gaining 6 pounds of lean mass over 7 weeks. Of course this was done following a progressive training stimulus paired with an evidence based nutritional approach (consuming 0.81 grams of protein/pound of body weight). To further show that recomposition can occur in highly trained people or experienced lifters, a study by Nippard et al., (2017) states that a group of 17 highly trained males gained 8 pounds of lean mass while losing 4 pounds of fat mass over a 9 week training plan, following intense training protocols and specific nutrition plans (1.8 grams per kg of body weight per day).


To finalise, body recomposition is absolutely possible in all sort of individuals as long as a training protocol is well designed and followed precisely, paired with a sound nutritional approach. Therefore it is important to focus on your own journey and not believe everything you read or hear on the web as long as you have the right mindset.


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