Losing fat and gaining muscle are the goals of healthy body recomposition. While fat loss may happen more quickly, gaining muscle takes time.

The body needs to consume more calories than it burns on a regular basis to build muscle. To do this, a person should follow a diet rich in protein.

Weight Loss vs. Muscle Gain

Muscle growth is essential for healthy body recomposition, because muscle helps boost the basal metabolic rate, which is the number of calories your body burns at rest. Muscle mass also improves appearance, making the body look more lean and “toned,” especially in women. It also increases function, since large muscles are typically stronger than smaller ones and lead to improved insulin control in most people, explains registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist Ben Tzeel.

However, in order to build muscle, it’s important to have a caloric surplus, meaning you’re eating more calories than you’re burning each day. Restrict calories and you’ll likely lose muscle, as your body will break down fat for energy because that’s its primary source of fuel. It’s possible to gain some muscle while losing weight, but it takes a significant amount of effort and time to accomplish this goal.

If you’re seeing some progress in the gym and noticing that your clothes are looser, it’s likely you’re gaining muscle. This is because muscle weight occupies less space than fat and doesn’t weigh more. However, if you’re gaining weight and your clothes are getting tighter, that’s more of a sign that you’re losing fat and not gaining muscle.

The best way to know whether you’re gaining muscle or losing fat is by undergoing body composition testing. A DEXA scan can determine how much of your total body mass is fat versus muscle and bone. A healthy bulk is a necessary component of a fitness plan, but the rate at which you gain muscle and how big that muscle is depends on your starting point, genetics, training program and diet. Gaining muscle faster than fat loss requires a consistent training routine that includes high-intensity resistance training, adequate protein intake and recovery, and a caloric surplus.

Weight Gain vs. Weight Loss

As you shed water weight, it’s normal to see the scale fluctuate daily. Don’t let this discourage you, as long as your overall body composition is improving over time. Instead, focus on the trend and if you can, seek out ways to monitor your progress, such as using a DXA machine or weighing yourself less frequently. It’s also important to make sure to incorporate strength training into your workouts, as this helps to maintain and build lean muscle mass, which burns more calories at rest.

Muscle Gain vs. Weight Loss

Often, when people set out to lose weight or gain muscle, they’re ready to give it all they have. However, their expectations are frequently misaligned with what’s actually possible to achieve. As a result, many end up disappointed by what they believe to be poor or mediocre results. This is why it’s important to help clients, like Courtney and Jose, understand the tradeoffs of each option.

To lose body fat, you must be in a calorie deficit—consuming fewer calories than you’re burning on a regular basis. Since it takes about 3,500 calories to lose one pound of body fat, this typically means eating less and exercising more on a daily basis.

At the same time, to build muscle, you need to provide your body with a “stimulus” and the necessary resources. This usually means following a workout program that involves lifting relatively heavy weights with a focus on progressive overload. Additionally, you’ll want to avoid excessive cardio work, which can hinder your muscle growth and also make it more difficult to stay in a calorie deficit.

In addition, building muscle requires adequate rest and recovery, and a good night’s sleep to promote proper protein synthesis. For these reasons, it’s often difficult to build muscle without also gaining some fat. This is especially true if you’re an advanced exerciser or bodybuilder trying to bulk up for competitions.

It’s possible to simultaneously lose fat and build muscle—a process known as healthy body recomposition or recomp—but it can be challenging to do so effectively. This is because it’s hard to generate a large enough caloric deficit to support fat loss while also providing your body with the energy it needs to build muscle.

Another challenge is that, although a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat, it’s denser and more compact. As a result, you may not notice any changes on the scale when you’re losing fat and adding muscle mass. Instead, you should be able to see these shifts in how your clothes fit and feel.

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