Last Updated: Feb 9, 2018
So you're looking to build muscle AND burn fat at the same time.
Is this fact, or fiction? Reality, or straight-up bro-science BS?
Let's cut to the chase.
If you've had any amount of fitness experience or you've done some researching on the subject before, you should already understand (or know in your gut) that achieving these two goals at the same time is near impossible without either freak-ish genetics or "unnatural help".
In this article I'll explain why burning fat and muscle building are, and should remain, separate fitness goals that you should focus on at any one time.
Plus, we'll explain how to go about achieving both bulking up and cutting over the long haul in an effective way - without spinning your wheels which is what 99.9% of people are doing if they're naively attempting to achieve both with the same working and nutrition program.
Trying to chase muscle gains and a lower bodyfat percentage will leave you frustrated and will dramatically reduce the results you get for either.
What's that saying? Try to catch 2 rabbits at once and you'll catch none?
In order to stimulate new muscle growth you need to eat MORE calories than you need to maintain your current weight.
To lose body fat, you're required to eat LESS calories than you need for maintenance.
So if you're in a caloric surplus to bulk up, there's no way you can also burn fat. And if you're in a caloric deficit to cut, there's no physical way your body can build new muscle mass.
If you're bulking up and aiming for muscle gain, then the fact of the matter is you've got to accept a little bit of fat gain too, or if you do it really carefully remaining at roughly the same bodyfat level.
You can and absolutely should minimize fat gains when building muscle by eating strategically, but there's very little you can do to avoid at least a little bit of a bodyfat increase.
You can always lose that excess body fat that you have gained afterwards of course, and plus, losing fat that you have just recently gained is easier.
So now you understand that you can't build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, let's take a look at how you can prevent yourself from gaining too much body fat whilst increasing your muscle mass.
There are two main approaches you can take to gain muscle mass:
The first approach of eating as much as you can is heavily flawed. It may work out well for some people, but for most it will result in too much excess fat. Your body can only assimilate so much muscle mass at a time and any excess calories are only going to be stored as fat.
The second approach of only eating as many calories as you need to build mass is a much more logical way to do it if you want to minimize your body fat gains. What you need to do is work out how many calories you should be eating every day according to your body weight, and then add on some extra calories to support muscle growth.
Doing it this way will reduce the amount of fat you gain along with all the muscle. So when it comes to your cutting phase you won't have much fat to burn off for you to become ripped. This is as close as you can get to build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
You may be wondering how much muscle can you realistically expect to gain, and how many calories you should be eating? These are good questions my friend.
You should generally expect 0.5 to 1 pound of muscle gain a week. That's assuming you're training and dieting properly.
This may be more or less depending on a few factors such as your genetics, how well you're eating, and how hard you're hitting the weights. But 1/2 to 1 pound per week seems like a reasonable goal to me.
As for how many calories you should be eating, as a general rule you should eat 300-500 calories more than you need to maintain your current weight. But first let's figure out how many calories you need for maintaining your weight.
In general it is thought that you need a daily intake of approximately 15X your bodyweight to maintain your weight. As an example, if you weigh 160 pounds then your maintenance caloric intake would be 2400 (160 x 15 = 2400).
To gain muscular weight you obviously need to increase the amount of calories you eat a day. Aiming for 18-20 times your bodyweight is common to bodybuilders.
The more you eat, the more chance you have of putting on more fat. So make sure to limit yourself to 300-500 calories over your maintenance level.
So using our above example, if you weight 160 pounds your maintenance caloric intake is 2400. If you add 300-500 calories on top of that to support muscle gain, then you would be aiming to eat between 2700 and 2900 calories every day.
Limiting yourself like this will ensure that you don't gain too much body fat along with your lean muscle gains. We all know how annoying the "cutting" phase is (burning excess fat to become ripped), so by limiting your bodyfat gains now you're doing yourself a favour because you won't have to lose as much fat later down the track.
As you are trying to bulk up you may notice you're gaining too much fat. You will either see this by measuring your body fat every now and then, or you will plain see it in the mirror.
If this happens, you should consider altering your muscle diet. Decrease your daily calories by 100-200 calories and see how that goes for a while. If you still think you're gaining too much fat, adjust your calorie count again by a couple hundred or so.
The more patient you are with your bulking phase by taking it slow and only eating enough calories to trigger muscle growth, then the less time you will have to spend burning that excess fat later on.
Hopefully this article has helped, but always remember to never get stuck in research land. Information is great, but what's infinitely more important and the only thing that actually matters to get results and change your life is to be hitting the gym week in week out, with a properly-structured, intelligently-crafted (based on science-backed principles) and overall well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan to effetcively build muscle as a skinny guy (AKA a lifting hardgainer). When you have a great program used by other successful hardgainers that have gone before you, you can't go wrong if you simply stick with it.
But here's the thing:
You don't just randomly stumble upon a highly-effective program that's designed specifically for hardgainers by simply browsing a popular fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill personal trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in the classroom). No, instead, to create the best weight training and nutrition program for maximum results, you must be a little more selective in the program you choose to follow.
So, here are the 3 different paths you can take to guarantee you follow a finely-tuned, effective program that will leave nothing to chance and give you the best muscle building and strength gains of your life (again, if you simply execute and don't quit after a mere week 'cause you don't notice a change...).
See our flagship 7-step introductory guide to building muscle for beginners which covers all the basics you need to know, and guides you through designing and creating an effective program for muscle gain without getting fat. If you don't want to spend any money buying a pre-made program or finding a (good) personal trainer, and/or you're the DIY type who enjoys researching every little detail and knowing about how everything works and fits together, this is probably the path for you if you have the patience.
If you don't want to take the time to plan your own natural bodybuilding plan from scratch, following an already made, high-quality, credible program from a true expert in this field can save you a ton of time.
It can give you a great head start on your transformation journey and makes things a whole lot simpler as it's simply a matter of understanding what the program involves, how to do perform all the exercises, how to execute on the included meal plans (taking into account your own perferences as you'll want to tweak any pre-made diet plan for your own needs), and then simply executing week in and week out.
Sean Nal's popular hardgainer program is the one I currently recommend most, as it's the most complete, easy to follow program for beginners that I've seen (and I've experimented with many over the years). It's also the exact program that initially changed everything for me and I owe a fair part of my overall hardgainer success (going from 132lbs/60kg to 220lbs/100kg - mostly muscle) to being fortunate enough to having stumbled upon this program when I was struggling with gaining weight and building muscle. See my full review of Sean Nal's program here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't for everyone though as a quality trainer who knows what they're doing, and most importantly has got great results themselves (ideally starting out in similar shoes to you) can be quite costly. This is the path you should probably really consider if you have any type of serious injury though.
Whichever path you choose, never forget the single most important thing: never give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and self-confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but if you really understand that last sentence, you're not gonna need it, friend. I wish you nothing but success.
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)