How to ‘turn’ fat into muscle

Fat and muscle are very different from one another which is why we use the term ‘turn’ very loosely – it is not possible to take fat and directly convert it into muscle.

Fat is stored in your body when you consume more calories than you burn. For example if your daily recommended intake is 2000 calories and you consume 2500 calories, that equates to 3500 excess calories a week. Unless those extra calories are used up during the day (e.g. via exercise), they will be converted into fat and stored all around your body. Most of the fat is stored in your body as triglycerides. It is only when you consume fewer calories than your daily recommended allowance that you start to use stored fat as a source of energy. Otherwise it just sits there, accumulating and doing nothing.

Muscle on the other hand consists of muscle tissue, water and glycogen. Unlike fat, muscle is active and burns calories throughout the day. It is made up of thousands of tiny units known as muscle fibers, which are damaged and torn when you exercise. After you finish exercising, your body repairs these broken fibers, causing them to grow. This growth and repair makes use of amino acids which are obtained from protein in your diet. Unfortunately, fat that is stored in your body cannot be used to build muscle tissue.

However the good news is that it is possible to burn fat and build muscle, making it seem like you have essentially converted fat into muscle. You gain one and lose the other. Muscle is much more compact than fat which is why your waistline shrinks and becomes more taught as you burn fat and build muscle.

What is the best way to approach this?

There are two schools of thought when trying to lose fat and gain muscle. Some personal trainers and fitness experts will tell you that it is impossible to do both at the same time and that each one should be addressed individually. However others will tell you that it is possible.

The argument for the first case is that in order to build muscle, you require sufficient calories but in order to lose fat you need to be in a calorie deficit. Therefore you can only attempt one or the other. Many trainers recommend you build muscle first and then burn off the excess fat.

During the muscle building phase, you might put on a few extra pounds of fat due to the amount of food you will be eating, but as long as you eat a relatively ‘clean’ diet (no junk food, candy, soda and alcohol), the fat gain won’t be extreme. Once you are happy with the amount of muscle you have put on, you can start the fat loss phase by maintaining a calorie deficit. Eating protein rich foods and continuing to workout as you did before will result in minimal muscle loss.

This process is followed by many body building enthusiasts. You may have heard the terms ‘bulk’ and ‘cut’ before. During the bulk phase, a surplus of calories is consumed which leads to muscle growth and some fat storage. During the cut phase, a calorie deficit diet is followed, leading to fat loss. It is important to note however that calorie consumption is monitored carefully and very specific diets that contain only certain types of foods are eaten during the bulk.

The argument for the second case is that as long as you are eating sufficient protein and not too much carbohydrate, whilst staying in a calorie deficit, your body will use its fat stores as a source of energy.

Most experts tend to support the first school of thought in that you should approach each goal individually. Additionally, not everyone is the same, we all have different body shapes and sizes. One size does not fit all. For example, for someone who is extremely obese it would generally be recommended that they lose fat first and then build muscle. On the other hand, for someone who is only slightly overweight with a bit of a beer belly, it would be recommended that they build muscle first and then lose fat.

Your best option would be to speak to a qualified fitness instructor so that they can create a diet and exercise plan that is tailored specific to you. They will be able to advise you on how often you should be working out, how often you should be eating and how long it will take for you to get noticeable results.

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Some tips to help you build muscle

Here are some guidelines that will help you build muscle fast:

Exercise large muscle groups

The largest muscles in your body are found in your legs, chest and back. You should focus on compound exercises, which are the ones that work multiple muscle groups together. These include but are not limited to squats, deadlifts, bench presses and bent over rows.

Also make sure that you progressively increase the weight you use. Your muscles start to grow quickly initially but if you carry on using the same weights for various exercises, you reach a plateau and stop seeing progress. Continue to increase safe amounts of weight at regular intervals to see quicker results.

Finally, try keep your workouts sessions to an hour long at most. This is important due to the way muscle building and muscle destroying hormones work in your body.

Eat adequate amounts of high quality protein

As mentioned above, your muscles require amino acids to help them heal and grow. You can find our comprehensive list of protein rich foods here. However one thing to note is that not all protein food sources are created equal. Your body requires 9 amino acids, also known as the essential amino acids, which it cannot create by itself.

A food that contains all 9 amino acids is known as a complete protein whereas one that does not is known as an incomplete protein. Animal based protein sources such as meat, fish, eggs and milk are complete protein sources whereas plant based foods (with the exception of quinoa) are not. However, vegetarians can combine various foods to create a complete protein.

You can also use supplements such as whey protein and branched chain amino acids to easily increase your protein and amino acid intake, however high quality food should be your primary source.

It is also important to note that any protein that is not used by the body is stored as fat so excessive consumption should be avoided. Provided you are working out sufficiently, you should aim for around 2 g of protein per kg of body weight.

Get adequate rest

Your muscles do not grow when you workout, this is when they are damaged. Instead, they grow when you are resting. This is why it is crucial that you get sufficient high quality sleep. If you have problems sleeping, follow the tips listed here.

In addition to this, it is important that you do not work out the same muscle groups too often as they require a fair amount of time to heal. So you could work out your legs on Monday, back and shoulders on Wednesday, arms and chest on Friday and your core on Saturday. This will give each muscle group enough time to recover.

Some tips to help you lose fat

Eat enough protein and cut out junk food

Protein is not only important when building muscle, it is also important when trying to lose fat. Protein makes you feel full faster, meaning you end up eating less. This is important as it means you can consume fewer calories without going hungry.

It is also extremely important that you minimise junk and sugary foods. This includes things like pizza, ice cream, soda, candy and alcohol. Not only are these foods calorie dense, the sugar that they contain cause large rises and falls in insulin levels which in turn can leave you feeling hungry, making you eat more. The best thing you can drink when trying to shed fat is pure water. It has even been shown to help you lose weight.

Monitor calories carefully

Even though you might be eating healthier foods, not all foods are created equal. Using this tool you will notice that the number of calories in 100 g of different foods can vary greatly. For example 100 g of quinoa contains 368 calories whereas 100 g of asparagus contains only 20.

When you are just starting out, make it a point to measure out portions so that you know exactly how many calories you are consuming; hidden calories lie everywhere. It is recommended that if you want to start losing fat, you need to stay in a 500 calorie deficit or so. Over time your eyes will automatically become trained to know exactly how much of the different types of foods you should be eating, without having to measure them out.

Utilize HIIT

HIIT or high intensity interval training is a type of cardio that has been shown to be very effective at burning fat. It involves doing short bursts of intense exercise followed by a slower less intense period. For example, you run as fast as you can for 20 – 30 seconds and then jog at a comfortable pace for a minute or so. You then repeat this cycle for 15 – 20 minutes.

HIIT can be practiced with a wide variety of activities such as swimming, cycling, skipping and rowing. It can also be done using various types of home gym equipment.

The benefit is that HIIT can be completed in a fraction of the time that it would take to do regular cardio. However it is quite taxing on the body and it might take some time to build up your endurance.

Conclusion

It is impossible to directly convert fat into muscle, they have completely different structures. However, what you can do is gradually increase muscle mass whilst burning fat stores.

Speak to your personal trainer so that they can provide some advise on how best to approach this process. Changing the way your body looks can take time, but with patience and perseverance, you can achieve your goals.

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