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, well-balanced and optmized training and nutrition plan for your specific goals (which if you're reading this is likely building muscle mass as a hardgainer/skinny guy).
To do that there's essentially 3 paths you can take, each with their pros and cons:
Path A: Design Your Own Mass Gain Program (cheapest)
Learn all the crucial basics, principles and over-arching strategies you need to know about planning the best well-balanced, science-based, all-natural mass building program for your specific goal and workout/diet preferences with our pillar 7-step comprehensive guide for beginner lifters and future heros. If you don't want to spend any money at all, this is how you do it, but be sure to thoroughly research all aspects of your DIY muscle gain program as an unbalanced/bro-science/straight-up-bad program can mean little to no gains at best, and bad posture, injuries and a whole lot of having to backtrack later at worst.
Path B: Follow A Proven Mass Gain Program ($)
To save time having to research and plan the best muscle building program for your specific goals as a hardgainer/skinny-guy/skinny-fat-dad-bod/whatever, there are indeed some excellent pre-made online programs out there that have stood the test of time in getting guys great results. It can give you a great head-on your transformation journey, and will make things simpler for you as it's simply a matter of executing a specific eating and workout program and not having to worry about getting all the little important details of your program on-point.
Sean Nal's hardgainer transformation program (you can see my full review and before/after pics using the program here) is the complete all-in-one online program I'd recommend to most people and especially beginners, and is the one I personally got the most out of when I first started.
Ignore any slick marketing, this guy's the real deal and easily one of the smartest hardgainers-turned-fitness-models I've come across online. Vince Delmonte's Mass Gain program comes in at a close second, who's another smart guy with the real-world results to back it up, who has another effective and proven step by step online program that's helped thousands of guys transform over a few months (rather than years).
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer ($$$)
The most expensive option to achieve your dream physique, but if you have the money to spend (1 on 1 coaching can quickly add up in costs) then ensure you pick a trainer who understands the science behind muscle gain, fat burning, supplementation, nutrition, etc, and most importantly choose one who practices what they preach and has similar results to what you want. If you're a hardgainer, ideally you'll want a trainer who has been in your shoes before and started out as a skinny hardgainer themselves and managed to build muscle successfully, otherwise they may not understand the best course of action for you and give you unhelpful generic advice.
Whichever path you choose - stick with it for long enough, don't give up, and your success in transforming your body, strength, health, posture, and confidence will simply be a matter of when, not if. I'd say good luck, but you understand that last sentence I said you won't need it ;)
Mad-Scientist of Hardgainer-to-Hero Transformations for 12+ Years
Last and Definitely Least: Certified Fitness Instructor (real-world experience > school)