Reader’s Request: Building muscle while burning fat

Hi friends! Hope you’re having a wonderful day. Latest post up on the Family page is here. 

It’s time for a reader’s request! I love getting post requests, because they’re often topics that we’ve all wondered about at one point or another. Here’s one that I recently received about building muscle and burning fat at the same time:

I’m a long-time reader of your blog, and I’m struggling with finding the right balance of eating enough to fuel my workouts (I do crossfit, lighter-weight circuit training classes, and corepower yoga), while also leaning out.  I have read your book and your post from years back about how you damaged your metabolism, and I may have incurred the same thing.

Based on my research, it’s quite difficult to build muscle and lose fat at the same time.  Do you believe that is the case?  Any insight you have on accomplishing both goals simultaneously, if at all possible, would be wonderful!

I certainly think it’s possible to build muscle and burn fat simultaneously, but it can be a little tricky to find the balance. In the fitness world, a popular concept is “Build, then Shred,” where dietary and fitness considerations comprise a muscle-building phase (high weight, low reps, little cardio, higher cal/carb/protein intake) followed by a fat-burning phase to show off the new muscle (moderate weight, circuit training, intervals and increased cardio time, lower cal/carb/fat). You can do a mix of these two strategies concurrently, but it involves a bit of strategic planning.

Can you build muscle and burn fat at the same time

Here are some of my tips for building muscle and burning fat at the same time:

1) Watch the cardio. Too much cardio can cause the muscles to catabolize, which is a bummer if you’re trying to build lean muscle. Avoid too many long steady state days. Instead, add in a mix of interval-style training, short tempo workouts, and one (maybe two) longer cardio days. On the long cardio days, don’t go longer than one hour unless you’re training for an event. 

2) Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights. In order to initiate muscle growth and change, your weights/resistance should feel challenging. This means that you are working hard to finish the last couple of reps in each set. If you could easily finish a set, it’s time to up the weights. (Also, don’t sacrifice form for a heavier weight. Even if it’s more challenging, you should be able to safely move through the range of motion for the exercise. If anything, move a little more slowly and take deep breaths. If you find your form is failing, go back down. It’s not worth injuring yourself.)

3) Change up your strength training split regularly, and experiment with different modes. I noticed the biggest difference in my lean muscle definition when I was combing strength training methods within my weekly strength plan: BODYPUMP (endurance training with lower weights and high reps), Orangetheory (interval cardio with heavy weights and strength circuits), and barre workouts (very low weight, high reps, working to fatigue). Make sure that you’re not doing the same thing week after week -every 4-6 weeks is an ideal time to change up your plan- and that you include a mix of endurance training, circuits, and heavy strength work. Also, experiment with different tools: barbells, dumbbells, TRX, kettlebells, medicine balls, etc. 

4) REST. Results occur during rest. It’s SO easy to get sucked into the “more is more” mentality and skimp on rest days. Don’t let this happen! Muscles cannot repair themselves if we’ve consistently breaking them down. Give your body time to recover and repair: at least 1-2 full days off each week. 

5) Get nutrition in check. Nutrition has a significant impact on how you feel, how your body performs, and its capacity to build muscle and burn fat. If you suspect that you may have damaged your metabolism (as I did, way back in the day), I highly recommend meeting with a Registered Dietitian to safely increase your intake back to a healthy range for your fitness level, age, body composition, etc. For me, I found that gradually increasing my calorie intake helped dramatically, as well as focusing on clean, whole foods (protein and produce in every meal).

Here’s a sample weekly plan if you’re looking to build muscle and burn fat at the same time:

(As always, check with a doctor before making any fitness changes)

Sunday: Long steady state (45-60 minutes)

Monday: Heavy strength workout (total body; or do upper today and lower on Wednesday)

Tuesday: Short cardio, moderate intensity (30 minutes)

Wednesday: Endurance strength workout (like BODYPUMP or Barre)

Thursday: OFF

Friday: HIIT workout (max 20 minutes)

Saturday: Total body circuit (moderate reps, 10-12, and moderate weights), no cardio

I hope this helps a little!

What fitness goal(s) are you working towards this fall??




What’s the difference between endurance training and traditional strength training?

How to add barre into your routine

Weights 101

Portion control and sizes

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  1. Jennifer on October 1, 2015 at 1:12 pm

    Great advice!! Are you sending out an October workout calendar today?

    • Fitnessista on October 1, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      not today. i’m hoping to get a weekly plan put together for next week!

      • Jennifer on October 1, 2015 at 3:05 pm

        You’re the best! Thanks!!

  2. Erin @ Her Heartland Soul on October 1, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for the great tips! I love that we’re entering the best season for outdoor workouts!

  3. Aubrey on October 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Great Tips, Thanks:)!

  4. melodie on October 1, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    I loved this topic. Thank you! I actually broke my radial bone 2 months ago on a dark early morning run. Then i had to have surgery and now I’m in pt as i can barely move the injured arm at his point. and I have been benched from any type of activity at this point. My arm was at a 90 degree angle for 6 weeks post surgery (and i couldnt rotate the forearm) so my muscles/tendons are constantly screaming at me even though the bones (and new metal in my arm) looks perfectly healed on the xray. Im signed up for a half marathon in march. I hate that I’ll be starting all over once im released to run again. And i also expect myself to be a little timid after all this mess. There is my sob story. 🙂 i love reading here even during this long break from rigurous exercise.

    • Tess on October 1, 2015 at 8:41 pm

      I’m so sorry! My husband broke both of his elbows last week! (On our honeymoon actually… Ugh). Only week two of his recovery and we are so scared about how the 90 degree casts are going to limit his arm movement, as well. My heart goes out to you. PT is no joke- the ultimate workout for sure. You and he are warriors- you can do it. 😀

      • melodie on October 1, 2015 at 8:49 pm

        Awe so sweet! Thank you. So so so sorry that happened…and on your honeymoon! Well let me encourage you by saying 2 weeks out and i can nearly straighten my arm! But rotating the forearm is a beast. And the wrist is barely moving. I don’t know how it will every be normal again. But two weeks ago i couldnt imagine straightening my arm…but now im really close!

  5. Megan @ Skinny Fitalicious on October 1, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    This is actually very similar to how I work out now. I actually used to be a cardio junkie. Thank goodness I came to my senses!

  6. Lindsey @ Simply Lindsey on October 1, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    These tips are SO helpful! My fitness goals this fall are just to continue going on walks and doing lighter weight lifting since we’re expecting our little boy in January! I definitely miss my old intense workouts. 😉

  7. Alexandra on October 1, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    Great tips! Have often wondered about this myself! 5 months postpartum and on finally ready to get serious about getting my fitness and muscle back

  8. Jodie on October 1, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Great post

  9. Ashley @ A Lady Goes West on October 1, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Over cardio-ing is so common! I like these tips, Gina. Good stuff. Variety is key, that’s for sure, as well as rest and recovery.

  10. LJ on October 1, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    Thanks for these tips! They include everything I need to remember when I get back to my fitness routines. It is so easy to ignore the need of rest on the crazy schedule I am sure we all are suffering from (in one form or another). I have noticed significant health benefits from adding an hour of sleep to my everyday schedule (upping my average from six to seven) last year. The healthy eating is a bit of a struggle still, but I am working on it. Especially now that I am healing from the toe surgery and the temptation to feel sorry for everything I can’t do is running strong. But I keep telling myself my body NEEDS the healthy building blocks right now. Not sugar to feed any inflammation, but protein and vitamins. Real food. And I am happy to say I have been doing well. Yes, I have had an occasional cookie, but that is just fine. Eating the entire batch just because I am bored isn’t. (Thanks for the healing wishes on my previous comment on my toe. Despite of what I tend to blurt out in frustration, I am glad I got it fixed.)

    Oh and you might want to re-phrase the “build fat and burn muscle” part. 🙂

  11. Markita @ SweshFit on October 1, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    Thanks for including a plan of what you might do in a week. I find it really difficult to switch it up during the week like that – I like the idea but it sort of kills my momentum. But I totally agree that the variety really drives results.

  12. Chelsa on October 2, 2015 at 8:36 am

    I’ve always had a really tough time with this exact thing. I was trying so hard to get lean with tons of cardio and wasn’t lifting weights that were challenging my body even though I thought I was. Then I got my NASM certification so that I could have a better understanding of fitness in general. I switched my routine up drastically. I was working out 5-6 days a week constantly changing the exercises that I did to “switch things up”. I was extremely frustrated with my body and I felt exhausted. I decided to try something completely new and a little bit scary. I only workout 3 days a week on non consecutive days but my workouts include cardio and full body strength training with challenging weight, so the next day every single muscle is sore. The days in between workouts are for active rest like cleaning and yard work. It’s the first time in the last 10 years of being a fitness fanatic that I have seen my body composition change. I don’t have as many cravings and I have so much more energy to workout. I learned that my body craves consistency and adequate rest . Sorry for the long comment, I just had to share because I know how scary it is to change your approach to fitness.

    • Fitnessista on October 4, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      it definitely can be scary! but, when you finally start seeing some new results, it’s totally worth it.

  13. Jennifer on October 2, 2015 at 9:03 am

    I like this post. This is something I am dealing with right now – balance in my workouts. Thanks!

  14. Jules @ wandering around on October 2, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    I’ve recently hit a plateau with my workouts and it’s been really frustrating… thank you for this post!

    • Fitnessista on October 4, 2015 at 3:18 pm

      thank you! hope it helps a little

  15. Erin Motz on October 3, 2015 at 1:34 am

    Super helpful! I’m trying to find a fitness routine for myself here in France and this is a good guideline while I find my way 🙂

  16. Susan on October 3, 2015 at 8:02 am

    Can you perhaps adapt this for someone who is very overweight and an absolute beginner? Imagine someone for whom a 30 minute “beginner”/”moderate” workout is a killer and a 20 minute walk would be strenuous.

    • Fitnessista on October 4, 2015 at 2:39 pm

      for beginners, i recommend building up cardio first (30 minutes most days of the week). from here, i would add in very light weight (3-5 lb max) strength training, focus on stability and endurance training (higher reps).

      • Susan on October 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm

        Thanks! My plan was to do moderate cardio (walking and a stationary bike) 3-5 days a week and do some yoga here and there (although many poses are SO difficult). I’m able to work with 5-8 lbs free weights, but not doing too much. Sounds like this is a good plan 🙂 Thanks for the adapted recommendation.

        • Fitnessista on October 4, 2015 at 3:09 pm

          of course! let me know if you have any other questions 🙂 xoxo

  17. Maria on November 19, 2015 at 2:23 pm


    I love this plan, how do you incorporate yoga into it as well? I know you are a big yoga fan. What’s a good amount of yoga to add to this plan?
    Can you move some of the cardio to the strength days, or is the point to do them separately?



  18. Meagan on July 6, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    What would you count Insanity as? Is that HIIT, or cardio? I did the original program 3 years ago, and now do the workouts once or twice a week, along with running, swimming, and weights. This is such a helpful post!

  19. Wendy on June 16, 2023 at 2:52 pm

    I’ve been asking the same question about building muscle while losing fat. That, along with concern that I may be doing too much cardio, led me to your blog. At first, the idea of too much cardio struck me as ridiculous, not because I’m unaware that it’s “really a thing,” but because it seemed absurd for me, personally, as my primary activity is walking. Just walking couldn’t really cause loss of muscle, could it? Then I considered the actual reports from my Fitbit. Yeah, it’s just walking, alright, but I’m still averaging about 900-1,050 Zone minutes a week (way past that 150 thing!), and a good bit of it is, in fact in cardio, and sometimes peak. This is not strolling, my Luxe often mistakes my walks for time on an elliptical.

    Anyway, to the point. I think my entire approach needs an overhaul. I’m 5’1″ and 108 lbs., down from 152 last August. My original goal was to get down to about 100-103, but at this point, I think I might be better off ditching the weight loss and focusing on body composition. I wouldn’t say that I’m “skinny fat” at this point, but I do have very stubborn belly fat (it’s only apparent to me – fully clothed, I look slender everywhere), and measure about 28.5″ around the waist, over 5 inches more than when I weighed 103 at age 36. I have never had children, so I can’t blame that. I have not, at any point, tried to create a caloric deficit of more than 500/day, so hopefully I haven’t done too much damage to my metabolism, but at this point, just burning more calories is not helping me reach the hip/waist ratio I used to have. I’ve also noticed that my resting heart rate has begun creeping upward a bit, and if I understand correctly, that can be a sign of too much cardio. I also know I don’t sleep enough. That’s not a new problem for me, but I am concerned that it’s a contributing factor which I may be making worse with my workout habits.

    Help! Am I right that I need to dial it back a bit, and replace some of my cardio with strength training, or am I just copping out and/or hoping for the impossible?

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