What does it mean to get in shape?

Despite a widespread focus on weight loss, there’s so much more to true fitness than dropping pounds. A fit physique means getting stronger — which means building muscle.

Both losing weight and building muscle are key steps in the process of achieving real fitness. Professional bodybuilders and wrestlers oscillate between these two phases. If they can’t seem to do both at once, how can the average Joe (or Jane) ever hope to do it?

Losing weight and building muscle are always placed at odds with each other, and for good reason. But it is possible to adjust your workout routine and diet to help you get stronger and leaner. Let our in-depth, easy-to-understand guide inspire your fitness efforts.

Losing Weight, Losing Mass, and Losing Fat

People talk a lot about losing weight. But what does that actually mean?

Losing weight literally means decreasing the measurement of your body in pounds or kilograms. Losing mass, on the other hand, is what happens when you drop dress sizes or pants sizes.

Scientifically, when you lose mass, you decrease the amount of space your body takes up. But when you lose weight, you’re decreasing the product of your mass times the force of gravity.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but it can change how you plan for your fitness goals. Losing mass may mean you lose weight, but you can also lose mass and get healthier even if your weight stays the same or, if you gain a lot of muscle mass, increases.

It’s also possible to lose weight and mass, but end up weaker and less fit than when you started because you lost muscle, not fat.

The only way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories than you burn. A calorie deficit signals to your body that food is not plentiful. In response, your body treats building muscle as a lower priority. This could equate to losing muscle, especially if you skimp on protein consumption to cut calories.

You need protein to maintain the muscles you already have. If you don’t eat enough of it, it’s your muscles — rather than fat — that waste away.

An article from Harvard Health Publishing explains that losing muscle mass makes you weaker, lowers your mobility, and raises your risk of injuries. The healthiest weight loss involves losing fat, not muscle.

When you finally manage to melt off the pounds, where do they go? According to Live Science, fat leaves the body primarily in the form of carbon dioxide that is exhaled through the lungs as part of a biochemical process called oxidation.

Building Muscle

Building muscle requires a surplus of calories. A calorie surplus equips your body with the nutrients needed to construct new muscle tissue.

Building muscle requires a surplus of calories. The photo shows a variety of healthy, protein-rich foods.

According to researchers at the University of New Mexico, muscles grow through a complex cellular process. Working out damages the fibers of your muscles, which your body works to repair through a process called protein synthesis. For your body to build muscle, protein synthesis must occur faster than muscle breakdown caused by damage.

In addition to the quantity of calories you consume as you try to build muscle, the type of calories also matters. Not everything you eat is pure muscle-building fuel. If you aren’t careful, it’s easy to unintentionally put on a little (or lot of) extra weight while you work toward increasing muscle mass.

Scientists have learned that exercise doesn’t aid in weight loss as much as many people think. If you want to build lean muscle without gaining fat, you should consume the protein needed for building muscles without the extra fats, added sugars, and simple starches that contribute to fat gain.

How Can You Lose Weight and Build Muscle Simultaneously?

Building muscle while losing weight requires you to balance a high protein intake with a reduction in overall caloric consumption. Cut your calories too drastically, and you won’t have enough protein to build muscles. Eat too much with the intent to bulk up, and you’ll find that the energy required to build muscle often builds bellies, too.

The ideal answer to the question of how to lose weight and build muscle is culking – “clean bulking” or “cutting and bulking.” One method of culking is by strategically alternating between protein-rich calorie surpluses and calorie deficits.

A man drinks a post-workout supplement to encourage muscle growth.

You can use various programs promoted by fitness trainers to accomplish this — though none have been proven — or you can simply follow these three basic tenets of clean bulking:

  • Eat more protein. Experts recommend eating between 0.7 grams and slightly over 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight if you want to gain muscle. (Want to know more? We take an in-depth look in our article, “How Much Protein Do I Need?”)
  • Lift weights. Include strength training, or weight training, in your workouts. Resistance training is particularly important for the production of growth hormones, which not only increases muscle growth but also improves fat metabolism.
  • Stick to HIIT cardio. A special type of cardio exercise called high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can help you maintain your lean muscle mass while you burn fat, according to Men’s Health. Pre-workout supplements can give you the energy needed to push through tough HIIT workouts.

Losing Weight and Building Muscle as a Female

For women, who naturally have less testosterone than men, building muscle while losing weight can be particularly challenging. Testosterone aids in muscle protein synthesis and tissue growth. Women’s bodies have more of a tendency to hang onto fat and more difficulty building muscle than men’s bodies typically do.

Women may be tempted to focus on weight loss at the expense of strength, but this is a big mistake. While losing muscle mass may result in a smaller dress size, it leaves you with a weaker frame and none of the health benefits of adding muscle.

A woman lifts weights at the gym.

To answer the question of how to lose weight and build muscle, women should embrace strength training. According to Boston University, women benefit just as much from weightlifting as men do, even though they may take longer to see results in building muscle mass.