Can you turn fat into muscle?
The short answer is:
But the truth is actually a bit more complicated than that.
Your body can either gain/lose fat or gain/lose muscle.
The technical transformation from one to the other is impossible. You are better off trying to transform lead into gold.
Why Can’t I Turn Fat into Muscle?
Fat is made up of chains of fatty acids.
These chains of fatty acids primarily consist of oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen1.
Muscle tissue is made up of chains of amino acids2.
These chains of amino acids primarily consist of nitrogen.
It is therefore impossible to turn flab into muscle because fat doesn’t contain any nitrogen.
In saying so, here is what weight lifting can do:
- Increase lean muscle mass
- Decrease fat mass
Increasing Muscle Mass
Lifting weights damages your muscles.
Your body then sends signals to drive protein and amino acids into the muscle for repair.
After rest and with proper nourishment, your muscle comes back stronger.
For a more in-depth understanding of what it really takes to build muscle check out my post on the simple science of muscle growth.
Decreasing Fat Mass
Lifting weights can decrease fat mass in two ways:
- Using fat for fuel in the muscle building process.
- Using fat for fuel during exercise.
What To Do?
Ultimately you should aim to:
- Get rid of fat
- Grow your muscles
- In order to gain muscle you have to be in a caloric surplus.
- In order to lose fat you have to be in a caloric deficit.
The truth is:
If you want to lose fat you do have to be in a state of caloric deficit.
However, if you want to gain muscle you do not have to be in a state of caloric surplus.
In order to gain muscle you have to be in a positive nitrogen balance3.
A study done in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism can further elaborate this point4.
They divided people into 3 groups.
The study was performed over a 12 week period.
The first group (10 people) was put on a caloric deficit.
The second group (14 people) was put on a caloric deficit, plus resistance exercise, plus an increased protein intake using casein protein supplementation.
The third group (14 people) was put on an identical schedule as the second group. However, they supplemented with whey protein instead of casein.
The results showed that all three groups dropped body fat.
When observing lean mass gains, however, the first group experienced none.
The second group had lean mass gains of about 2.5kg.
The third group had lean mass gains of about 2kg.
This study answers the question once and for all:
Is it possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time?
Points To Consider
What does it take to maintain a positive nitrogen balance?
Remember that your muscles grow outside the gym.
The two best practices to maintain a positive nitrogen balance are:
- Getting enough sleep
- Increased protein intake
If you choose to go through the traditional “bulking” cycle, it is likely that you will put on lean mass quicker.
However, it is also very likely that you will put on a lot of fat.
This then becomes a never ending cycle of “bulking” and “cutting”.
For practical guidelines on how to reach your maintenance level of calories check out my post on the reverse taper diet.
Can you turn fat into muscle?
No. But what you can do is use fat for fuel in the muscle building process.
Get leaner and more muscular simultaneously.
- Du, M, Yin J, Zhu MJ Cellular signaling pathways regulating the initial stage of adipogenesis and marbling of skeletal muscle . Meat Sci. (2010)
- Frayn KN Fat as a fuel: emerging understanding of the adipose tissue-skeletal muscle axis . Acta Physiol (Oxf). (2010)
- Goldner F Jr A review of the transamination reaction and its relationship to acute myocardial infarction . Am Pract Dig Treat. (1957)
- Demling, RH. Effect of a hypocaloric diet, increased protein intake and resistance training on lean mass gains and fat mass loss in overweight police officers. Ann Nutr Metlab (2000)