Weight Training and Extra Protein Build Muscle During Fat Loss


In a previous article I discussed how a group of overweight Boston Cops lost fat and gained muscle at the same time. Another study has done something similar and showed how to lose fat and gain muscle while on a low-calorie diet.  The upshot is that weight training and extra protein build muscle during fat loss.

Muscle loss while dieting

When on a weight-loss (low-calorie) diet, dieters normally lose muscle. Rule of thumb is one-fourth to one-third of the lost weight is muscle. That’s a bad thing, as muscle loss leads to lower metabolism and ultimately higher mortality.

Muscle loss probably accounts for associations between weight loss and mortality being not always what you’d expect. For instance, in old age, a higher BMI may be protective, because at that stage of life, weight loss often means muscle loss.

Lifting weights while dieting is a good idea, as that will largely prevent muscle loss on a low-calorie diet.

But can you actually add lean mass (muscle) while losing fat? Yes, and one of the keys is getting enough protein.

How young men lost fat and gained muscle

The participants in the study were randomized to two groups. Average age was 23, average BMI 29.7, just short of obese.

One group ate a low-calorie diet — a 40% calorie deficit, which is a lot. The other group ate the same diet but took whey protein several times a day. Not a low-carbohydrate diet either — both groups averaged around 300 grams of carbs daily.

The first group averaged 1.2 grams of protein per kg bodyweight, which is quite respectable.

The second group averaged double that amount, 2.4 g/kg.

Both groups did resistance training twice a week, a conventional 3-set each exercise circuit training routine. They also did high-intensity interval training twice a week. In my judgment, that combination at 4 times a week is a tough exercise routine. Results below.



The groups lost equal amounts of body mass, but the high protein group lost more fat, and actually gained about 1 kg of muscle. The lower protein group did not lose any muscle, however.

As before in the study of Boston cops, these young men were quite out of shape. Virtually anything they did in the way of diet and exercise was bound to get them in better shape.

If you’re already in good shape, your results would be not quite as good. You’ve reached the area of diminishing returns.

But if you’re overweight and not doing weight training, you should start.

Eat less, move more vs weight training and low carb

A few caveats about this study. One is that the men were provided all of their meals. At a 40% calorie deficit, this may be the only way to stick to such a diet for any length of time, especially a high-carb diet like this. I doubt I could do it.

Conventional low-calorie diets suffer from this defect, that overcoming hunger over more than a few days is difficult. Hunger always wins.

I think they should have cut the carbs way back. That would lead to better fat loss and less hunger.

This study is a modified test of “eat less, move more” method of weight loss. This certainly works in the short term, but appears to be ineffective in the long term. People have great difficulty in merely eating less. Changing what you eat is more important in my view.

The difference from “eat less move more” in which it’s superior is that the exercise was weight training, which builds muscle.

Aerobic exercise is ineffective for fat loss. Building muscle is effective, because metabolism goes up. You still need to change your diet though.


This study was an interesting proof of concept for the idea that adding extra protein as well as doing weight training, while dieting, leads to fat loss and muscle gain simultaneously.

Many trainers and coaches say that losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time cannot be done. Some of them even say that if you want to gain muscle, you can expect to gain a lot of fat too. This study shows that they’re wrong.

Some other studies have shown that gaining muscle doesn’t require nearly as much protein as in this study, with the amount of protein in the lower protein group, ~1.2 g/kg, being adequate. But that amount assumes a weight-maintenance diet, not a weight-loss diet.

Building muscle on a weight-loss diet requires more protein.

PS: For more, see my book Muscle Up.

PPS: You can support this site by purchasing through my Supplements Buying Guide for Men. No extra cost to you.



Leave a Comment:

ted says November 7, 2016

I’ve read an interesting thought from Dr Jason Fung, that if one is on a weight loss diet, it pays to reduce protein intake, otherwise one may end up with loose skin. Supposedly body breaks down excess skin into amino acids and uses them elsewhere, but if you ate more protein then the excess skin would not be broken down

Blixa Burzum says November 7, 2016

Can someone explain the logic of this no fat loss+muscle gain “bulking” dogma? Virtually everyone says it’s a fact, but it is self-evidently untrue. At the very least because I’ve easily done it, but even aside from that what logic or evidence is it based on?

If you lift weights you tear the muscle fibre and the body repairs and builds it in expectation of similar usage patterns. It does this with available or stored energy and protein. Why would it require surplus calories?

I mean your fat-losing body obviously found the energy to *lift* the excess weight, so why wouldn’t it be able to find the energy to repair it? (And what’s the alternative anyway? Not healing?) Is building the muscle even a separate process from repairing it, or are the two outcomes a linked process? Obviously the body does not lose the ability to heal in every other way when you are losing weight, so why are we, in effect, told the body doesn’t heal muscle? No one says you can’t grow your hair longer or build callouses, or increase bone density when you’re on a diet.

Blixa Burzum says November 7, 2016

Also, from a longevity standpoint, protein is a horrible macronutrient. The life extension and calorie restriction literature are fairly unanimous that protein is a big part of the problem. (and for the lifetime effort invested, and physiological benefits, weightlifters show pathetic life extension gains compared to other kinds of athletes.)

So I would also think there should be a lot more (and related) skepticism towards the protein+body building dogma. How much muscle can you build and maintain on an average or low protein diet? Scientific research needed, and lots of Seth Roberts-style self-experimentation needed.

Blixa Burzum says November 7, 2016

“weightlifters show pathetic life extension gains compared to other kinds of athletes.”

For example, here’s data from Finnish Olympic athletes. Contrary to the advice on this website, endurance runners were at the top in life expectancy while weight lifters were at the bottom, and despite being top athletes did not even have longer life expectancy than average matched Finnish men. And note this is for the lifters *before* steroids entered the sport (1920-1965):

Mean life expectancy:

Endurance (best outcomes)
Cross-country skiing 76.8
Long-distance running 75.0

Team sports
Ice hockey 75.7
Soccer 72.5
Basketball 70.1

Power sports
Wrestling 72.3
Weight lifting 70.0
Boxing 69.8

Referents 69.9
(Controls matched men that were simply deemed fit for compulsory military service at age 20.)


Not encouraging results for the idea that weight lifting and life extension are obviously compatible.

    P. D. Mangan says November 8, 2016

    The problem with that data is that people are not randomized to become competitive athletes, much less randomized to different sports. Athletes live longer than non-athletes, but people who become competitive athletes are likely to have better health to begin with. Also, lots of weightlifters tend to be fat, although whether that’s true among these Finnish men at that time, who knows.

    As for weightlifting and longevity, muscle loss and sarcopenia are debilitating effects of old age, they lead to accidents, frailty, and in many cases death due to falling, breaking bones, hospitalization. Lifting weights can prevent all this, so while that may not extend maximum lifespan, it definitely will extend the median. Furthermore, lifting weights is powerful exercise, so if you think that exercise doesn’t extend lifespan and make people healthier, well, go ahead and think that.

    There’s a distinction to be made between weightlifting and bodybuilding. I rather doubt that the current crop of top-level pro bodybuilders are going to live to 100. When you get older men and women to lift weights, you’re not asking them to become bodybuilders. OTOH, someone like Sylvester Stallone, who has at times certainly been as big as some bodybuilders, and who’s used growth hormone (and possibly other drugs I don’t know about) seems to be doing fantastic in his early 70s. Granted, that’s not a ripe old age, but I suspect that many people would trade that for living to 100, and it may also show that the dangers of using growth hormone or other drugs has been blown out of proportion.

    Added: I see that the category of weightlifters in the study on athletes also includes boxing, wrestling, and throwers from field athletics. Boxers get hit in the head, throwers in track and field tend to be very big if not fat. Another thing is that all of these, including weightlifting, favor large body types (whether or not fat), and large men appear to have shorter lives.

      Blixa Burzum says November 8, 2016

      Weight lifting does counteract the debilitating muscle loss of aging and it is one form of exercise. But if you are consuming excess protein/calories as part of a weightlifting lifestyle then you are also doing something we know is associated with shortened life expectancy.

      So perhaps other kinds of exercise have better trade-offs vis a vis life extension, or perhaps some or most of the benefits of weightlifting can be still be had without the excess protein and calories that almost always go along with this style of exercise. This is important stuff to study and think about. I don’t have the answers.

      As for the linked study, no weightlifters were not lumped with boxers, which is why I listed separate life expectencies for both groups. Larger men DO appear to have shorter lives (whether or not fat), which is not an endogenous problem to the problem at hand.

      Light weight lifting to counteract the gradual muscle loss with age might be optimal, but weight lifting to get larger and change appearance might have long term consequences to health. To promote otherwise without reservation or qualification, given the evidence for a growth-longevity trade-off, seems irresponsible.

        P. D. Mangan says November 8, 2016

        “seems irresponsible” – code for I disagree with you, so shut up. If you can’t refrain from ad hominems, please don’t comment further here.

          Blixa Burzum says November 8, 2016

          “code for I disagree with you, so shut up.”

          ???? Um … no. I’m not even sure you disagree with what I said, but OK.

RT says November 15, 2016

Thanks for the article. What are your thoughts on deadlifts vs hex/trapbar deadlifts?
I heard on Joe Rogan’s podcast that the latter translates to athletic performance better (don’ recall if it was running speed/quickness/power…). Also the latter is supposedly safer in the long-term, less risk of injury.

    RT says November 15, 2016

    Another thing they mentioned was hanging therapy for any kind of shoulder pain, apparently makes surgery unnecessary in many cases. Here’s the video where they discuss hanging for shoulder pain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_5xZz78P7k

    P. D. Mangan says November 15, 2016

    Hi RT, I don’t have any personal experience with trapbar deadlifts, as my gym is a crusty old place with decades-old equipment. From what I know though, the trapbar may, as you say, be less prone to causing injury.

Joshua says December 1, 2016

Trap bar deadlifts tend to be more of a combination of a squat and deadlift than conventional deadlifts. (Hence T-Nation selling their version of a trap bar and calling it the dead-squat bar.) They place less emphasis on the posterior chain — that includes the lower back — and more on the quads, due to the more upright position that they require. They’re a fantastic exercise overall. If you have access to such a bar and feel inclined to use it, I’d say go for it.

Joshua says December 1, 2016

Regarding the whole “lose fat while building muscle” debate, the consensus seems to be that it’s definitely possible for rank beginners, especially those who have a lot of fat to lose. The more muscle you’ve already built, and the less fat you have to lose, the harder it becomes to diet without losing at least a small amount of muscle. A few trainers/bloggers have claimed to be able to do so even with in-shape clients, but at that point they’re paying attention to every minute detail (nutrient timing, nutrient partitioning, optimal volume, exact macronutrient ratios, etc.) in order to squeeze out those last few gainz. Getting a crap-ton of protein down while dieting definitely helps significantly, though, as I’ve discovered through trial and error.

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