When you’re trying to improve your physique, it can be frustrating to find that you’re gaining muscle but not losing fat.
Gaining muscle and not losing fat often comes down to diet. It’s possible that you’re eating too much and may need to decrease your calories slightly. You’ll also need to analyze your workouts and overall daily activity levels and consider adding in more calorie-burning activities to boost your fat loss efforts.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that gaining muscle and losing fat are two conflicting goals that are difficult to achieve at the same time. It’s possible to do both, but it can be a long process. You may be better off focusing on one goal at a time so you can maximize your results.
It’s also important to assess how you’re measuring your muscle gain and fat loss. You can be losing fat even if the method you’re using to check it may suggest otherwise. On the other hand, you may also be gaining fat even though you think it’s muscle.
In this article, I’ll go into more detail about what it means when you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat and discuss ways you can tell if this is the case. I’ll also provide a list of steps you should take if you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat.
Before we get started, be sure to check out the Fitbod app. It offers a personalized training program that’s tailored to your goals, available equipment, schedule, and muscle groups you want to focus on. Get your first three workouts for free when you download Fitbod today.
What It Means If You’re Gaining Muscle and Not Losing Fat
If you suspect that you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat, you’re likely noticing that your weight on the scale is going up when you’d rather see it go down — unless, as I describe below, you’re able to get your body fat percentage measured and have an accurate measure of how much body fat vs lean mass you have.
But before we continue, it’s important to define what losing fat means because many people conflate losing weight with losing fat even though they are different things.
Losing weight means trying to decrease your body weight, or how much you weigh according to the scale. This weight loss can come from both fat and muscle. Losing fat means decreasing the percentage of body fat you have, often while trying to prerserve as much lean mass as possible.
Fat loss isn’t always reflected in your weight on the scale, which means you can lose fat while staying at the same weight. So if the scale is the only tool you’ve been using to track your progress, you may not be getting an accurate reflection of the changes that are happening with your body. You could be losing fat, but the scale alone won’t tell you that.
It’s possible that you’re going through a process called recomping, which means gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time while eating at maintenace calories (the number of calories it takes for you to maintain your current body weight).
During a recomp, your weight on the scale may remain the same (aside from normal daily fluctuations), but you may be losing inches. This means you’re losing fat (i.e. the percentage of body fat you have is going down) while you’re building muscle (i.e. the percentage of lean mass you have is going up) simultaneously.
With that said, recomping is a process that’s usually much easier for beginners and more difficult for advanced individuals to achieve. It is possible to do, but it can take longer to get the results you want the more experienced you are with training and the longer you’ve been tracking calories and/or macros.
Related Article: Losing Inches, But Not Weight (Why This Happens & What To Do)
Another important thing to consider is if any weight gain you may be experiencing is truly from muscle and not fat.
This may sound harsh, but it’s true — you may think you’re gaining muscle if you’ve been eating a lot of food and working out consistently, but it’s possible that you’re actually gaining more fat than muscle if you haven’t been strategic with your diet and training. This is a common mistake that many people make when they’re gaining weight after embarking on a fitness journey.
Getting your body fat percentage measured will tell you how much of the weight you’re gaining is from muscle and how much is from fat. I’ll discuss ways you can do this below.
Gaining muscle but not losing fat most often means that your body weight is going up even though you’re training hard and watching what you eat.
However, not losing weight on the scale doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not losing fat. You could be recomping, or gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time.
On the other hand, you could be gaining more fat than you realize even if you think you’re gaining muscle. You would be able to confirm where the weight gain is coming from by getting your body fat percentage measured.
Related Article: Should I Lose Weight Before Building Muscle?
How To Tell If You’re Gaining Muscle and Not Losing Fat
Now that you have a better understanding of what it means to gain muscle and not lose fat, how can you confirm whether this is what’s truly going on with your body? There are several ways to check.
Get Your Body Fat Percentage Measured
As I mentioned above, the most accurate way to tell if you’re actually gaining muscle and not losing fat is by measuring your body fat percentage.
A DEXA scan or hydrostatic weighing (sitting on a scale while being submerged underwater) are some of the most accurate methods for measuring your body fat percentage. Either one will give you a good idea of how much fat mass and lean mass you’re carrying.
You can also use a body weight scale that also measures body fat percentage, though the number you’ll see likely won’t be very accurate. Still, you can use it to keep track of trends over time. If the percentage goes down, you’re probably gaining muscle and losing fat. But if it goes up, you’re probably gaining too much fat and not building as much muscle mass as you think you are.
Measure your chest, waist, hips, quads, and biceps with a soft measuring tape and keep track of those numbers over time. If you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat, your measurements will increase.
I recommend measuring yourself at least once a month, but you can do it twice a month or once a week if you enjoy collecting a lot of data about your body.
Check How Your Clothes Fit
Another tell-tale sign that you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat is that your clothes no longer fit. You may not be able to get your favorite pair of jeans over your thighs or button a work shirt that once used to be loose on you.
Check Your Weight
I mentioned before that you shouldn’t rely solely on your weight on the scale to determine whether or not you’re losing fat. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it completely. You’ll just have to remember to not always take that number at face value.
It’s important to look at weekly averages because there will be daily fluctuations based on what you’re eating and drinking, how much sweat you’re losing in your workouts, your menstrual cycle (if you’re a female or menstruating individual), and other factors.
For example, if you eat two slices of pizza for dinner and then notice that your weight is up by 3lbs the next morning, it’s highly unlikely that you gained 3lbs of fat. That increase is more likely due to excess sodium and a higher number of carbs than you’d typically eat for dinner.
As such, seeing a spike on the scale for just one day doesn’t mean that you’re not losing fat. It just means that you’re temporarily retaining some extra water weight.
But if your weight is consistently going up week over week, I’d suggest getting a body fat measurement done as I described above so you can confirm how much of that weight gain is from muscle and how much is from fat.
Consider How You Look in the Mirror
Taking a good look at yourself in the mirror can be difficult, especially if you’re the type of person who tends to overanalyze your flaws.
But if you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat, you’ll look noticeably bigger. You may feel soft and while you may have some muscle definition, you may not notice it unless you’re flexing.
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6 Things To Do If You’re Gaining Muscle and Not Losing Fat
Six things to do if you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat are:
- Reassess your goals
- Adjust your diet
- Adjust your training
- Increase your NEAT
- Be patient
- Track your progress in the gym
1. Reassess Your Goals
Think back to when you started on your current diet and/or fitness routine. Did you want to get stronger and build muscle?
If so, realize that these goals often necessitate eating at least at maintenance or at a surplus (the number of calories you need to gain weight). And you can’t expect to lose a lot of fat unless you’re eating in a calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you need to maintain your current weight).
As such, you may need to reflect on your goals. If you do want to continue getting stronger and gaining more muscle, it may be worth it to keep doing what you’re doing until you’re satisfied with your strength levels.
It’s also important to note that a small amount of fat gain is inevitable when you’re trying to build muscle. If you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat, but you’re not gaining a huge amount of fat either, this is actually a good thing. This means that you’re gaining weight and building muscle at a reasonable and sustainable pace.
Related Article: How To Get Lean Muscle: 19 Tips That Actually Work
2. Adjust Your Diet
If you’ve decided that you want to shift your priorities so you can start losing fat, the first thing to do is to adjust your diet.
As I mentioned above, losing fat requires you to be in a caloric deficit. This would generally be 10-20% below your maintenance calories, which you can find by using an online calculator to determine your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).
If you want to optimize your fat loss goals, you can also take it a step further and track your macros (protein, carbs, and fat) in addition to overall calories. Eating the right amounts of protein, carbs, and fat every day can help prevent too much muscle loss while providing enough fuel for your workouts.
Some general guidelines you can follow are:
- 30% of calories from protein
- 50% of calories from carbs
- 20% of calories from fat
If your calorie deficit required you to eat 2,000 calories per day, this would look like:
- 150g of protein
- 250g of carbs
- ~45g of fat
To get a more customized macro split, you can also use a calculator like this one from Precision Nutrition. It takes your current weight, workout difficulty, dietary preferences, and some lifestyle factors into consideration.
Note that this calculator and the TDEE one I linked above provide estimates only. You’ll need to track your intake for 2-3 weeks to see how your body responds and increase your calories by 10-20% if you’re losing weight too quickly (more than 1-2lbs per week) or decreasing your calories by 10-20% if you’re gaining or not losing weight.
Related Article: How To Lose Fat Without Losing Muscle (Science Backed)
3. Adjust Your Training
While calorie and macro intake are two of the most important elements of fat loss, training and physical activity aren’t far behind. Not losing fat is often a sign that you’re not as active as you think are.
I’m not trying to say that you should suddenly stop lifting weights and start doing hours of cardio every day instead. But you could try adding 15-20 minutes of cardio or HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts to the end of your lifting sessions a couple days a week or swapping one lifting day to a cardio-only day.
The Fitbod app is a great place to start if you’re looking to switch up your routine. You can create circuit training workouts that can help you burn more calories and get recommendations on how to incorporate cardio before or after your strength training workouts. Download the Fitbod app today and get your first three workouts for free.
Related Article: Cutting Without Cardio: Is It Possible? (Yes, Here’s 8 Tips)
4. Increase Your NEAT
NEAT stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This means all activities that don’t count as exercise but still help you burn calories. Examples of such activities include parking far away at work so you have to walk further to get to the building, cleaning the house, or running around with your kids.
Increasing your NEAT is an excellent way to boost the number of calories you burn each day without having to add a lot of extra physical activity that can impact your weight training.
5. Be Patient
It’s common to want to see results right away when you first start a diet and workout routine, but getting frustrated because you haven’t lost a significant amount of fat within just a couple of weeks won’t do you any good.
Don’t give up if you haven’t seen progress after a short time. Losing fat takes time, and how much time that is depends on many factors such as your workout history, how sedentary or active you are outside of the gym, your gender, and your current body fat percentage and weight.
Related Article: How Long Does It Take to Get Ripped + Tips to Make It Quicker
6. Track Your Progress in the Gym
I know this may sound a bit contradictory to some of the things I shared earlier about ways you can tell if you’re gaining muscle and not losing fat, but progress doesn’t always have to be visual. Sometimes it’s better to focus on what your body can do rather than what it looks like or how much you weigh.
I saw this being shared on social media a long time ago, and it’s something that really resonated with me.
I can emphathize with wanting to change your body and getting upset when things don’t go the way you want them to. But it doesn’t always have to be about losing weight or trying to fit into a pair of pants you haven’t been able to wear since college.
Being able to increase weight on your squat, bench press, or deadlift, shaving seconds off your one-mile run time, or being able to do 15 burpees in a minute when you previously were only able to do 10 are all markers of progress.
Of course, if you’re in a sport like bodybuilding where physique is everything, how much muscle mass and body fat you have are important. But for everyone else, shifting your mindset to improving your performance in the gym rather than trying to change your physical appearance can be quite freeing.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Gaining muscle and not losing fat is frustrating when you’re working hard in the gym and eating a nutritious diet. But muscle gain and fat loss are two conflicting goals, and it’s usually better to prioritize one goal over the other rather than stress yourself out by going through a difficult recomp process.
If you do want to boost your fat loss efforts, make sure you’re in a calorie deficit, add a reasonable amount of cardio workouts into your routine, and increase your non-exercise activity.
Above all, realize that improving your body composition takes time, and if you find yourself getting frustrated, try to (at least temporarily) shift your focus to your performance in the gym. Unless you’re a professional bodybuilder, getting stronger and faster can often be more satisfying than constantly trying to change your body’s appearance.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.