How Building Muscle Boosts Fat Loss

by Cristina Goyanes
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How Building Muscle Boosts Fat Loss

You’ve long heard that intriguing rumor about how lifting weights and building muscle burns fat. It’s not just wishful thinking: Science supports this sweet-sounding promise. But still, it’s a bit tricky to fully understand exactly how pumping iron battles the bulge. Here’s our crack at explaining it — with the help of fitness experts, of course.


Warning: Math ahead. But don’t worry. The equations are pretty simple. In fact, there are just three numbers involved:

Total Calories Burned = Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) + Activity

Activity is what many fitness articles spend their time talking about: What exercises you should do, when you should them and so on. It also includes any movement that does not qualify as exercise, i.e. the energy you expel when you stroll to the mailbox, take the stairs at work or cook dinner for friends.

What we’re more concerned with here is your BMR, or the baseline number of calories your body burns just by being alive. Your brain, heart and organs require a constant stream of energy. Your muscles are also metabolically active tissues. Though you don’t hold a ton of influence over what your other major organs do, you do have a say in how much heat your muscles add to your metabolic fire.

“You can’t make your brain burn more calories, and you can’t make the organs in your torso burn more calories,” explains Mike Roussell, PhD and author of “The Meta Shred Diet.” “Muscle is the major determinant of calorie burn that you have power over.”

The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at its baseline as you rest. The rule also applies when you move: The more muscle you carry, the more calories get scorched when you’re active.

“When you have more muscle, you burn more calories during everyday tasks such as housework, gardening or even unpacking your groceries,” confirms Lee Bell, who holds a masters degree in exercise physiology and is a lecturer at The Muscle Mechanic UK.


So more muscle burns more calories. That much seems simple. Where things get more complex is the cascade of bodily responses that get set off when you do weight training.

“The things that you do to build muscle create a hormonal environment and stimulate your physiology in a way that makes fat loss better,” Roussell says.

For example, when you lift weights your body releases adiponectin, a hormone that enhances insulin sensitivity, meaning it makes your muscles more apt to take in sugar and carbohydrates, Roussell says.

“Lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles, increases nutrient delivery to your muscles and sensitizes your muscles to take up carbohydrates,” Roussell says. The positive effect here works like compounding interest. The more muscle and less body fat you have, the more insulin sensitive you’re going to be, Roussell explains.

Resistance training also improves something called “nutrient partitioning.” Basically this means that, after lifting, your body is more likely to use the food you eat for good (building and repairing muscle) rather than evil (turning it into fat).

“The more you’ve activated, the easier your body finds it to divert incoming calories into maintaining that muscle as opposed to storing it in fat cells,” Bell says.

To help you harness the fat-burning effects of weight training, Bell recommends two techniques. The first is called Escalating Density Training,” or EDT. In it, you simply pick two exercises that work opposing muscle groups — pushups (chest) and rows (back), for example. Next you set a stopwatch for a block of time, like 15 minutes. Then you alternate back and forth between those two exercises, performing no more than 5 reps per set and resting as needed. As the workout wears on and you start to fatigue, you may need to cut reps per set. That’s OK. The goal is to accumulate a large number of reps across the entire time period. Record the total number you’ve hit when the clock strikes zero, then try to beat it the next time you do the workout.


The second technique Bell recommends is “Peripheral Heart Action.” Though similar to EDT, there is one key difference. Rather than working opposing muscle groups, you alternate between an upper-body and lower-body exercise.

“Going from upper body to lower body and back again is a real challenge,” Bell says. “Focus your sessions on big, multi-muscle exercises such as squats, deadlifts, presses and pulls. These burn more calories and target more muscles in less exercises.”

As we’ve already explained, the more muscles you have working, the more calories — and fat — you’ll burn, and the better your body will perform after your workout.


  • Jeremiah Haremza

    This is the best article I’ve read on MyFitnessPal. There’s a lot of well reasoned information packed into a short space.

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    • Mick

      I agree. Best article I’ve seen on here. Lots of great, valuable and most importantly accurate information.

  • Tom Blackerby

    My goal is weight loss, but I have observed that lifting weights spurs my weight loss significantly. There are different lifting programs to focus on bulking or strength. My question is, in general terms, does muscle bulk burn more calories or do strong muscles burn more calories?

    • W Witherspoon

      Tom, if your focus is on weight loss, forget the bulking. That requires a calorie surplus. Aim for a moderate daily calorie deficit and incorporate progressively heavier core building compound weight training (squats, bench press, deadlifts, etc.) You’ll get stronger while replacing fat with muscle. Some HIIT cardio a few times a week works wonders also.

  • Ed Smith

    ‘Bulking’ vs ‘strength’ is a bit of a myth when it comes to lifting. The goal is to work your muscle groups to fatigue so they have to rebuild. Your muscles when they repair will come back both stronger and gradually larger (assuming you continue to increase weight or reps to work the muscle to fatigue). The only way to truly bulk big (like a body builder) is to follow a strict eating plan designed to build mass (this will NOT be reducing your calories, just controlling type of calories and actually increasing total caloric intake) and spending multiple hours lifting extremely heavy weights. There are also short cuts using pharmaceuticals, but of course not the healthiest route and you still have to spend many hours lifting extreme weight.

    The point is the last few reps of your lifting routine for each muscle group should be very difficult as in I don’t think I can do 2 more, but pushing yourself to do them anyway. As long as you rotate the major muscle groups,you will be happy with the results and it will be easier to maintain your weight when you get to your goal.

  • Jgunz9191

    im on that perma bulk

  • Randy Rising

    I just turned 51. I’ve been in law enforcement for 24 years. I walk a lot and climb a lot of stairs. I gain weight very easy. Due to the military and LE my knees aren’t that good nor is my ankles. I’ve tried all kinds of ways to lose weight and shed fat. NOTHING! I’ve tried veggies, baked chicken or fish. Smoothies and starving. No matter what happens you must burn more calories than you take in. I seem to gain weight by thinking of eating. I’ve ran out of ideas. I’ve done the 100 small meals a day. (just kidding about the 100)
    I’ve went and has all kinds of blood work. Done T shots, Vitamin D liquid, CLA, all kinds of supplements, but nothing seems to help.

    • W Witherspoon

      Randy, similar background and condition here. Started tracking calories with a daily moderate deficit along with weight training (Stronglifts 5×5) back in April. I’ve experienced a moderate but steady weight loss (12 lbs) to date and my physique is noticeably changing, along with energy level, and sleep habits. Highly recommend you try weights with your diet and monitor the macro nutrient levels. At our age, it’s important to get adequate protein in your meals.

    • Brian Murphy

      Take a look at Isagenix products. I would recommend trying the 30 day system. I admittedly am a corporate employee joined for the paycheck while being suspicious of the product. But have lost 30 pounds in last two months while semi using the products (a lot of cheating). Will be starting a 30 day after Memorial Day to take weight loss and fitness level up a notch as I have another 40 pounds to lose to get to my goal weight and want to achieve that by end of September. Seen it work for countless people.

    • Anonne

      Try swimming or water aerobics as your exercise, Randy, to take it easier on your joints.

    • Barbara Ferrusi

      I would recommend NutriSystem for Men. I tried the least expensive one for Women when I wrecked my knee & with my appetite, knew I’d be much heavier when healed. Well, that didn’t happen….lost 10 lbs. & got started eating healthier & less!
      No longer on it, but kept that weight off.

  • Randy Rising

    My fiancé said she has used it before but it was really strict. Some kind of wafer pills you eat. I put on 50 pounds from a PTSD medicine I was own. Have taken 20 off but need to lose about 65 more. I’m 6’0 and 260.

    Thanks and you have more information?

    • Jessica Riley

      Randy happy to speak with you more about nutritional cleanse rebalancing
      Please email me to set up a time to discuss your goals and how I maybe able to help

  • Thank you. NEAT is far more important than any exercise. Not that exercise isn’t important for health and fitness. We know it is. But to lose weight effectively you have to be active throughout the day.

    As for the calorie burning advantages of muscle, you could raise your metabolism enough to burn an extra hundred calories a day if you build muscle. That is less than the average donut. It is, in other words, over-hyped.

    Again, building muscle is very good for health and fitness. And who wouldn’t want to be stronger? But to lose weight and fat, you also need a calorie deficit and to be active throughout the day.

    • Conditioning Clinic

      …agree. Thanks, Karen!