How to turn fat into muscle

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Amelia Willson 

Reviewed by Yael Cooperman, MD, Ro, 

Written by Amelia Willson 

last updated: Sep 11, 2023

4 min read

Key takeaways

  • There’s no way to turn fat directly into muscle but there are ways to burn fat and boost muscle growth at the same time. Weight training, resistance exercises, and sticking to a long-term diet plan that includes increased protein intake will all help.

Many weight loss and fitness programs claim to help you turn fat into muscle, but is that really possible? Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. However, you can burn fat while building muscle. Confused? Read on as we explain. 

Can fat turn into muscle? 

We’re sorry to disappoint, but no, fat cannot turn into muscle. Fat and muscle are two completely different things, and your body can’t turn one into the other. You can lose fat and gain muscle (or gain fat and lose muscle), but one does not magically transform into the other. Rather, they are two separate processes that may or may not take place at the same time.

Weight loss

Fad diets stop here

If appropriate, get effective weight loss treatment prescribed for your body.

Fad diets stop here
Fad diets stop here

Does building muscle burn fat? 

No, building muscle does not burn fat. But, having more muscle does help you burn more calories, boosting your metabolism and helping your body use stored fat for energy. That’s because muscle is more metabolically active than fat. So, a person with more muscle will naturally burn more calories than a person with less muscle mass.

Can you build muscle in a calorie deficit? 

Yes, it is possible to build muscle in a calorie deficit. A caloric deficit occurs when you eat fewer calories than your body needs, you increase your physical activity, or you do both. You can build muscle during a calorie deficit as long as you are performing physical activities that contribute to muscle growth, such as strength training. 

At the same time, you want to avoid experiencing too large of a calorie deficit. Here’s why. During a moderate calorie deficit, your body will burn fat and use it as fuel. This leads to weight loss. During a large calorie deficit, however, your body will also start to burn muscle as fuel. To avoid losing muscle during your calorie deficit, you want to strike the right balance between fewer calories and regular physical activity. Often, increasing your protein intake can help you avoid too large of a calorie deficit.

Strategies to burn fat and lose weight

The best way to lose fat is by increasing your physical activity while also lowering your caloric intake. To enjoy muscle gain at the same time, follow these tips.

Eat slightly less than you’re used to

Reduce your daily calorie intake. A good rule of thumb is to eat 500 to 750 fewer calories per day. Depending on your current body weight, this should reliably lead to weight loss of about one pound per week. And while that seems like simple math, controlling your caloric intake alone isn’t actually the most reliable way to lose weight and keep it off in the long term. That’s because our bodies respond to lower caloric intake by reducing our metabolism. It’s a sort of “survival feature” called starvation mode where our systems sense fewer resources so they aim to preserve what they’ve got, even if you have overweight. That’s why it’s so important to combine diet with exercise. 

Increase physical activity

With regular exercise, your body burns more calories and when you’re less physically active, your resting metabolic rate (or how many calories your body burns when you’re not exerting yourself) goes down, too. Aim to work out several days per week. A mix of cardiovascular and strength training is ideal. Try weightlifting, Pilates, yoga, dance, walking, running, or biking. Resistance training in particular has been shown to increase resting metabolic rate.

Practice strength training

Strength training can promote muscle-building and fat-burning at the same time. Strength training increases your resting metabolic rate, which increases the amount of calories you burn. At the same time, it helps you build more muscle mass, which boosts your metabolism

Some studies show that the metabolism-boosting effects of strength training last for up to two days after your workout. Add strength training to your exercise routine two or three times per week. Some health experts recommend taking a rest day or two in between to allow your body to build muscle, but the evidence is mixed.

Follow a high-protein diet

Lastly, you’ll want to ensure you’re eating enough protein. Eating foods rich in protein can stave off muscle loss when you’re eating fewer calories. And when you pair it with resistance training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), a high-protein diet can contribute to fat loss. Finally, protein helps you build muscle. When you eat protein, your body breaks protein down into the amino acids that build muscle tissue.

How much protein do you need? Aim for 0.6 to 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight, or about 20 to 40 grams for a post-workout protein shake. 

What should you eat? Opt for lean proteins like those found in lean meats, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, nuts, seeds, and legumes. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t worry. High protein does not necessarily mean high meat. There are plenty of vegan protein sources out there, from peanuts to protein powder. In fact, plant proteins make up the world’s leading source of protein.

When you’re not stocking up on protein, fill your diet with whole foods high in fiber and healthy fats. Avoid overly processed foods. To increase feelings of fullness, reduce the amount of saturated fats you eat (they often come from animal products) and increase fiber intake by eating whole fruits and vegetables. 

Weight loss

Get access to GLP-1 medication (if prescribed) and 1:1 support to meet your weight goals

Consider adding medical treatment

If your BMI falls in the obese range, it’s possible that a hormonal imbalance is preventing you from shedding extra pounds no matter how much you restrict your caloric intake or exercise. Doctors and scientists are finding that people with obesity can benefit immensely from a class of medications known as GLP-1 agonists. These drugs were originally designed to treat type 2 diabetes (a condition that can go hand-in-hand with excess weight). But doctors have seen over the past decade how these medications help patients both regulate their blood sugar and shed extra pounds, all while reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke.

While there are different medications, semaglutide, prescribed under the brand names Wegovy and Ozempic, can be a good option for weight loss. The medication isn’t for everyone, but when combined with diet and exercise, studies have shown that semaglutide can help people shed an average of about 10-15% of their body weight over about 68 weeks. If you are interested in learning more about these medications, speak with a healthcare professional.

The tips above can help you burn fat and lose weight while gaining muscle. But remember, this is a process that takes time. Be patient, stick with it, and have faith that you’ll start to see the changes. A realistic goal is to lose 5% to 10% of your body weight within six months. Chances are, you’ll be feeling great anyway, from all the exercise and good eats!

Wegovy Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.

Ozempic Important Safety Information: Read more about serious warnings and safety info.

DISCLAIMER

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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How we reviewed this article

Every article on Health Guide goes through rigorous fact-checking by our team of medical reviewers. Our reviewers are trained medical professionals who ensure each article contains the most up-to-date information, and that medical details have been correctly interpreted by the writer.

Current version

September 11, 2023

Written by

Amelia Willson

Fact checked by

Yael Cooperman, MD


About the medical reviewer

Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.

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