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 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 and well-balanced strength training and nutrition plan that's based on actual scientific principles of building muscle mass (not bro science like you'll see practically everywhere you look online).
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 mainstream bodybuilding/fitness magazine, site, or forum (or asking your average run of the mill trainer at a local gym who is highly likely to be just repeating the same old ineffective, incomplete mainstream advice they learned in a classroom).
To truly build that strong, ripped, lean muscular body that you want - and to not just leave it to chance and hope/pray that you'll get results - your training and eating program needs to be solid. Otherwise, you'll be wasting a ton of time in the gym for little return, which is unfortunately what happens to most guys who start hitting the gym as they eventually start spinning their wheels and getting nowhere due to a lack of knowledge and awareness of what actually works most effectively.
So the question remains, how do you ensure you're implementing an effective bulking program that will 100% get you the results you seek? You basically have three paths to take here, so choose whichever fits your situation best.
Path A: Design Your Own Effective Bulking Program (Recommended for Some Beginners & Intermediates)
If you're the patient type who also likes to know how every little detail works, and are willing to spend the time and effort necessary to study the most effective muscle building training and nutrition strategies out there right now to strategically piece together the best information that you find from credible sources to sculpt your own custom bulking program, consider the DIY path of creating your own program from scratch.
However, if you're a beginner, or intermediate lifter who hasn't been getting the results you want, you'll want to make sure that you get your advice from sources and people who understand what it's like to gain muscle starting out as a skinny hardgainer, which is a different beast compared to building muscle as a more naturally bigger guy with more favourable genetics. You also ideally want someone more experienced to look over your program just in case, because there are various things you could miss or do wrong, such as creating an imbalanced program that will lead to posture issues, muscular imbalances, or worse (injuries).
Up for the challenge? To get started planning your own muscle building program from scratch check out our full introduction to building muscle mass as a hardgainer which covers some important basic principles, strategies, and tips.
Path B: Follow A Proven Time-Tested Bulking Program (Recommended for Most Beginners)
If instead of creating your own program from scratch you'd rather follow an already-made complete program that has been proven to work for others in your shoes (ie skinny hardgainers) this is the path for you. Spending the few bucks to get your hands on a well-crafted, respected program that's specifically been designed with hardgainers in mind can really save you time and effort having to design your own program, and it ensures you don't miss out on the various important details that makes a good program.
This is what I'd recommend if you're just starting out or quite inexperienced in the gym, as you'll get off on the right foot to kick-start great results. Although this is also a smart path for intermediates, because if you've been training for a while and not getting great results, getting your hands on a fresh new program created by a natural bodybuilding expert could be the game-changer you need to spark the best results of your life. Sean Nal's Body Transformation Blueprint Program is currently the most comprehensive, polished bulking program for beginners on the market, and is the program that actually helped me the most when I first started out as a newbie so I can't recommend it highly enough if you're new and wanting to all but guarantee great results over the next few months and beyond.
There are other good premade mass gain programs out there that were created specifically (and scientifically) for hardgainers, but there's also a lot of overpriced, overly-marketed and low-quality programs that you should avoid out there so be on your toes when looking for the right program to follow to avoid wasting your money. I've personally used a ton of different programs and I compiled the best, highest-quality ones that I can comfortably recommend in my list of the best comprehensive bulking programs for hardgainers here.
Path C: Find a (Good) In-Person Trainer
This isn't going to be for everyone 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 consider if you have any type of injury or health problem, or obviously if you have the money to burn and want someone to carefully monitor what you're doing in the gym and be able to give you specific feedback.
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)