woman hanging from pull up bar in gym

You’ve probably come across diets or training plans touting an exciting idea:

“Turn your fat into muscle.”

It sounds great at first glance. After all, who wouldn’t want to replace five kilos of fat with the same amount of muscle?

Unfortunately, things might not work exactly as we would like. 

Let’s find out why.

Turning Fat Into Muscle: The Logical Thing To Do Or Another Fitness Myth?
Wouldn’t it be great to grab all that fat from the belly and lower back and turn it into muscle for the shoulders, arms, back, and chest? It’s every trainee’s dream.

Sadly, the human body doesn’t work that way. There is no combination of internal processes by which your body could break down fat and use the building blocks to produce muscle. Or, better yet, to simply convert fat cells into muscle.

A good way to understand this would be to compare oranges with apples. While both are sweet fruits that make for a great snack, they are inherently different. Just as you can’t turn an apple into an orange, you also can’t turn fat into muscle.

Don’t Let This Discourage You
While there is no direct link between fat loss and muscle growth, nothing suggests that we can’t work toward both goals and gradually improve the way we look.

One popular method that works well for beginners, de-trained lifters, and people taking performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) is the body recomposition. With this approach, the person maintains a slight calorie deficit, eats plenty of protein, and focuses on progressive tension overload. Doing so allows for slight muscle gains while losing fat, which often creates the illusion of turning fat into muscle. In reality, two separate processes occur side by side.

The other popular approach - and the one that works for most other people - is to dedicate specific periods to muscle gain and fat loss. For example, you would spend six to twelve months in a slight calorie surplus, build up muscle, and gain some fat in the process. You would then drop your calorie intake for two to four months, shed the fat, and maintain as much muscle as possible. With each gaining-dieting cycle, you would hopefully be a bit more muscular.

What Does It Take to Look Good?
Though most people fixate on fat loss to improve how they look, we could argue that building more muscle is what truly matters.

You see, adding more muscle to your frame adds shape to your body. For example, if you build up your chest, upper back, shoulders, and arms, your torso will look more muscular, even at a higher body fat percentage. More importantly, a built upper body will make your waist look smaller in comparison, contributing to the classic bodybuilder’s physique most people aspire to achieve.

In contrast, constantly focusing on fat loss rarely brings lasting results. For one, dieting all the time and being careful with every bite you take is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Second, even if you shed significant amounts of fat and get lean, you won’t have much muscle to show. You’ll simply look skinny, especially with clothes on.

Plus, every person has their unique body fat set point - the body fat percentage where they feel good, perform well, and aren’t food-obsessed. Some folks are naturally lean and can rock a six-pack year-round, but most aren’t. Trying to be lean all the time is rarely pleasurable or sustainable. But everyone can add muscle to their frame, improve their proportions, and look much better, even at a slightly higher body fat percentage.

September 06, 2021 — Daniel Felstein

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