Working to Build Muscle and Lose Fat: Why You’re Spinning Your Wheels - IIFYM - IIFYM

Working to Build Muscle and Lose Fat: Why You’re Spinning Your Wheels


“I want to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.”

This is a phrase that is all too common in the fitness industry. If you ask most people what their goals are when they start training, this is usually the first phrase that comes up. It’s one of the most common concepts our IIFYM coaches hear from clients as well.

Unfortunately, and ironically, this situation does not truly occur nearly as prevalent as it is said. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to focus on either the goal of gaining muscle or losing fat at a given time (pick your overall goal and begin today with the IIFYM calculator). Trying to simultaneously build muscle and lose fat usually, results in spinning your wheels.

Normally showing little to no real progress actually transpire. There are some select and rare scenarios where this feat is indeed possible, however, these are more of an exception to the rule rather than the rule itself. I’ll go into detail on those specific scenarios later, but for now, let’s take a look at it why this lofty goal is usually not recommended.

Calories In, Calories Out

To put this as simple as possible… You need to be in a caloric surplus to gain muscle and you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat. Every person has their own caloric set point that will allow them to maintain their weight; eating above this intake will make that person gain weight while eating below this point will make them lose weight.

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Using random numbers as examples with a hypothetical person, let’s say that someone needs to eat 2500 calories to maintain their current weight. Excluding rare situations, they would need to be eating more than 2500 calories if they wanted to gain muscle, whereas they would need to be eating less than 2500 calories in order to lose fat. I don’t think it takes a nuclear physicist to see that eating above and below 2500 calories simultaneously is an impossible feat.



One Process At a Time

That person could eat right at 2500 calories a day in an attempt to both build muscle and lose fat, and if they were just beginning a new training program and/or IIFYM plan after not doing so for years it’s possible they would be successfully in doing so for a little bit. Yet, over time their body would soon adapt to the training stimulus and this magical phenomenon of accomplishing both of these goals simultaneously would soon come to an end.

This miraculous process is known as newbie gains or ‘noob gains’. However, this process does not last forever.

For the vast majority of people, and especially for people who already have months of training under their belt, it is advised to not attempt to build muscle and lose fat at the same time. Focusing all of your efforts on a single goal at a time instead will truly help you optimize the results since you’re doing all that you can to work towards a specific outcome. Our coaches here at have always gotten the best transformations for our clients whenever we commit to one process at a time rather than trying to both build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Have you ever seen those 2 in 1 shower products that claim to contain both shampoo and conditioner properties? While the thought of saving extra time may excite some, I’ve always viewed it with skepticism. Since the process of shampooing and conditioning are so different, how could one product effectively do them both to their best ability? I would think that a product whose sole purpose was one or the other could do a much better job with those individual aspects since it can focus all of its efforts on that specific goal.

It seems by trying to accomplish two different processes simultaneously that require different mechanisms, you’re not reaching the full potential of either goal. A jack of all trades if you will. Since the process of shampooing and conditioning are so different, how could one product effectively do them both to their best ability?

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I would think that a product whose sole purpose was one or the other could do a much better job with those individual aspects since it can focus all of its efforts on that specific goal.It seems by trying to accomplish two different processes simultaneously that require different mechanisms, you’re not reaching the full potential of either goal. A jack of all trades if you will.

It’s not quite a direct analogy, but the same concept sort of applies when you try to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously. While trying to build muscle and lose fat at the same time may be possible for a short duration of time in select scenarios, you would have much better results towards either one of those goals if you focused completely on one of them at a given time rather than both.


jack of all trades


Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin

Do you think the fastest sprinter in the world got that way by training for both cross country and sprints? And vice versa? Or in a non-fitness example, did the best guitarist in the world get that way by practicing both the guitar and drums equally trying to be great at both? In both of these examples…

Most likely not. Once again these aren’t the best comparisons out there, but they prove the point that if you want to achieve the best results possible in regards to a specific goal in the shortest and most efficient time possible, then you need to solely focus on that and not try to accomplish two different things that require different approaches in order to maximize their given potential.

Eating At Maintenance

Now I will say that if someone is happy with the amount of muscle development they already have or if they are an athlete training for performance, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with eating at your caloric maintenance in your IIFYM plan.

The prominent take home piece of advice is simple; focus on one overarching body composition process at a time and commit fully to it.

However for people who are trying to make major visual changes to their physique, then you are compromising your overall results if you try to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.

Spinning Your Wheels = No Results = No Motivation

I’ve known a lot of people that have attempted the task of trying to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously; they experience a little success in doing it at first and then think it’s something that can always be done. In result, they just end up spinning their wheels most of the year without truly gaining much muscle or losing much fat. It can really be discouraging to many people because they are working hard in the gym and feel like they’re eating right, yet the visible results are not reflecting that.


binge eating


Break The Cycle

This is kind of similar to the situations of people who always seem to be dieting year round; they eat incredibly strict during most of the week then binge so bad on the weekend that it basically negates everything they did in the days before. They end up suffering from all of the negative consequences of dieting, but none of the great ones. It’s a vicious cycle. Years go by and no progress is really being made despite still working hard in the gym and ‘trying’ to diet most of the time.

It’s no surprise people lose motivation and fall off altogether whenever this happens. Our coaches at IIFYM always set up our clients for optimal success by giving them an IIFYM plan that has a clear goal in mind and is specifically designed to make that happen as efficiently as possible.

Build Muscle and Lose Fat? How?

In this article, I’ve mentioned a few times about some of the rare situations where you actually can build muscle and lose fat at the same time. But what exactly ARE these specific circumstances, though?

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As previously mentioned, if someone is new to beginning a workout program and/or IIFYM plan after not engaging in exercise for either years or their whole life, then it is definitely possible that they can indeed build muscle and lose fat at the same time for a little bit.

Newbie Gains

This miraculous process is known as newbie gains or ‘noob gains’. However, this process does not last forever. The exact duration that this can occur may vary for people based on their exercise background and other confounding factors, but regardless it isn’t something you should always expect to happen.

Using my own previous experience and IIFYM clients who I have worked with as examples, I would say on average this period where you can both build muscle and lose fat could last anywhere from ~1-4 months. If someone has literally never gone to the gym in their entire life or played many sports growing up in combination with starting up an IIFYM plan, then their ‘noob gaining’ period will be extended compared to someone who used to work out, but just hasn’t in a few years or so.


sports injury


Coming Off An Injury

Besides people who haven’t regularly exercised in years, our coaches have noticed that the only other situation where someone can build muscle and lose fat at the same time is when someone is forced to take extended time off from the gym.

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Whether this is due to injury, surgery, illness, etc. even if they were a consistent exerciser in the past. When they first get back into the gym, and especially if they are eating a balanced diet whether it’s IIFYM or not, it’s not uncommon at all to experience another period of ‘noob gains’ for a little while where they can both build muscle and lose fat, though it usually won’t last nearly as long as it did the first time when they were truly brand new to training.

…And That’s It

These are basically the only times (excluding performance enhancing drugs) where you can both build muscle and lose fat at the same time, so unless you fall into one of the above categories, you would achieve much better results if you focused your efforts on one or the other at a given time.

In Conclusion…

Hopefully, now you can understand why working to build muscle and lose fat at the same time isn’t the most efficient path to achieving the results you desire. The biggest take home piece of advice is simple; focus on one thing at a time and commit fully to it. If you are trying to gain muscle, consistently eat in a caloric surplus for an extended period of time until you are happy with the amount of muscle you have put on, then cut.

If you are trying to lose fat, consistently eat in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time until you are happy with the amount of fat you have lost, then build. By concentrating on one thing at a time you can optimize the results for that specific goal, then set your sights on optimizing the results of the other goal after that. This in combination with a solid IIFYM plan will lead to the best overall results in the long term and the most noticeable visual changes.


about the author

Corbin Pierson

Corbin Pierson is an IFPA Professional Bodybuilder, a Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN) and an ACE Personal Trainer. He graduated from the University of Kansas with a BS in Exercise Science. He works as a nutritionist and contest prep coach through Team Pierson Fitness. Corbin has been competing in natural bodybuilding contests since 2010 and has been a follower of IIFYM for about 5 years, he recently won his pro card while utilizing IIFYM and flexible dieting.

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  • Angelical

    Great article. Thanks. So, while loosing fat, as a woman (if that makes any difference), is it recommended to keep on lifting weights, or there is no point. Better to diet, and then start lifting?

    • Kara

      My interpretation of the article is simple, cut or bulk. Everyone’s process looks different. You have to find what exercises work best for you. If you are cutting then sure, lift weights but more reps less weight. Regardless if you are a woman or man the process is the same. Like Pierson’s article states, pick one and stick to it. Do your research and you’ll find the answer.

    • Grace

      Keep lifting, you don’t want to lose muscle and fat, just the fat. So keep lifting but don’t expect your weights to go up and don’t push too hard, it’s best not to strain the muscle too badly when you have limited nutrients going around your body.
      Regarding the response from Kara, yes do your research yourself and look at multiple sources, but I would not recommend more reps and less wieght, that strengthens the muscle in a different way, working on endurance, and you can still over stress it. If I were you I would do maintenance training, stick to your weights and regular workouts, and don’t strain yourself more than usual. Quick disclaimer I’m not a professional, I have only studied this in highschool, and it would be best to talk to your gp/doctor about it, you can go I to a lot more detail with them than anyone on the internet. Hope that helps!

      • Jaime

        So, we keep lifting but up the cardio? Would that help in losing the fat faster. Like adding 30minites cardio everyday and continue to lift but not push it. I have exactly the situation that is explained in this article I have been working out thing to gain muscle and lose fat to no avail. And it is very discouraging

  • Matt Schuberg

    I’m a little confused from this article. Couldn’t you build muscle a few days a week and burn fat on the other days? I’ve been following this concept and it’s been working pretty well for me. I’m on the 5:2 diet and so 2 days a week I only eat around 600 calories. On those days, I’m obviously at a large calorie deficit and burning fat. On the other days, I’m at a calorie surplus and lifting to build muscle. Is this not a viable way to build muscle while burning fat?

    • Ruwei Jiang

      Hi, I think you may want to consider that in general, on those caloric-deficit days, your body does not receive enough calories to maintain the muscles you’ve already have. Therefore, your body will not only burn fat from a caloric deficit but burning some muscle mass as well. In addition, considering building muscles and losing body fat need at least several weeks to see results, your body may confuse about what you really want to do as the periods are so short.
      However, this is only my opinion based on the knowledge I read and learned. Honestly, all diets, no matter how many criticisms they have received, have successful examples so I believe that really depends on individual though science gives us a general breakdown of how our body works~ Thus needless to say, you should try one kind of diet and training pattern for a couple of months to wait for seeing the result.

    • Leon Benjamin

      I don’t know much about the 5:2 diet myself but i think what the article was saying is that the method of trying to do both at the same time will only take you so far. Eating 600 calories for a whole day is a gigantic deficit as your BMR (calories burnt at rest) will be near 1000 or more depending on height, weight and age, let alone if you do any activity on those days. So you may come to a point using that method that your total weekly calories may be minimally in a surplus which will mean your muscle building progress will be extremely slow, or come to a complete stop and possibly even experience atrophy (muscle loss). But just as Ruwei said do whatever works for you, and once the progress stops perhaps look at focusing on just a deficit or surplus at a single time.

    • fmrleftchick

      Limiting yourself to only 600 calories on non-lift days will seriously impact your recovery, and therefore strength/muscle gains. It’s a good idea to carb/calorie cycle whereby you eat in a surplus on workout days (making sure you’re practicing progressive overload) and a high protein, moderate deficit on off days. Optimally, this is a method that is used to lose fat while maintaining muscle so long as your weekly caloric intake is moderately less than maintenance level.

      I think many people will choose to bulk during the colder months, then begin this method about this time of year to lean out for summer.

  • Dustin Burkhart

    I slightly disagree with this article and many others like it. Two years ago I was 5’10” 256 lbs.. in and out of the doctor… fatty liver, gerd, back pain.. you name it. I decided enough was enough. I joined a gym, picked the lose weight scenario and sure.. I lost a ton on weight.. fat and muscle. My macros were set correctly for optimal fat loss, while supposedly maintaining mass. My deficit wasn’t super agressive… but it worked. After about 8 months.. I found myself spinning my wheels. That’s when I decided to hire a personal trainer. He now has my macros at 50% protein, 35% fat, and 15% carbs. My body’s thermogenic response to the high protein and carried me further than any macro combination i had tried thus far. The low carb balance keeps me near ketosis which helps metabolise fat even further. Since late december, I have reduced my body fat % by nearly 10% and increased my LBM by 10 lbs. (I had been lifting for 1.5years prior.. I was no newbie) I am hitting PR goals every single week on every single set and have consistently since starting this macro ratio. I also use nutrient timing to my advantage. Thus, I am able to keep my body anabolic for periods long enough to actually build lean body mass. I also like to implement things like intermittent fasting and carb cycling to further manipulate what my body does. Thermogenic supplementation as well as the use of CLA has also made a huge difference. People also forget.. the higher your LBM, the higher yoir BMR becomes.. this further drives fat loss. Today I am 33 years old 195 lbs and 15% body fat and still progressing daily. Articles like this can be very discouraging, by promising fast, optimal results and saying that no other option exists, which is hog wash. everyone is different. You have to want it. You have to experiment and use different strategies to make your body do what you want. Is the process slow? sometimes.. but of you are someone who are coming from a 30 plus % bf ratio… like I was.. you want to take it slow. It’s only then can you develop the skills, knowledge, and habits to keep the results you are seeking.

    • IIFYM Admin

      How is this article discouraging? Because it points out that there isn’t an all-in-one process that’s an easy fix. How can it be discouraging and promoting an easy fix at the same time, when no where in the text we claim that this process is a quick scheme to fat loss and body re-composition. Please point out where we are putting down other strategies? Much of comment is contradictory since we are promoting splitting up cutting and bulking for better results, but also use counter-arguments to show that it’s possible to gain muscle while cutting it’s just not as efficient.

      You also are pointing out an anecdotal scenario about yourself to convey that it can be done (which we state, gaining muscle and losing fat is possible, but not typical). You weren’t a newbie but by no means did you have multiple years of heavy lifting under your belt so a change in intensity of lifting plus a macro split/caloric intake change was a change that benefited your body. Also, gaining 10 lbs. of muscle can shift your body fat down due to the change in fat-to-muscle ratio. This isn’t the same as someone who wants to lose 80 pounds at once and expecting to gain 15-20 pounds of muscle while cutting or someone who’s been weight training for a long time and wants to lose 10 pounds and fat while gaining 5 pounds of muscle. This is a matter of keeping expectations real. Also, we aren’t promoting lose weight (fat) faster. We promote losing fat in a sustainable fashion while sparing muscle as much as possible.

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