Debunking the myth
Have you ever heard the saying, “Muscle weighs more than fat?” Perhaps at some point in your life you were working your ass off in the gym in an attempt to lose weight. During this time, you hopped onto the scale weekly, sometimes even daily. Some days were better than others. Sometimes the numbers on the scale decreased, but to your dismay, this wasn’t always the case. Some weigh-ins showed that the scale read higher than your starting weight. Other days the scale wouldn’t budge.
Depression and sadness slowly crept into your life causing you to want to quit working so hard. To soothe your worries and soften the blow of the scale, perhaps a family member, friend, personal trainer, or doctor told you that you shouldn’t freak out because the scale is showing that there has been a gain in muscle and that “muscle weighs more than fat.” Maybe you relaxed after hearing this. Maybe you were skeptical of this comment.
Muscle weighs more than fat: true or false?
In the fitness world, the statement, “muscle weighs more than fat” is habitually tossed back and forth. In the context of fitness and recording body weight numbers on scales, the statement “muscle weighs more than fat” does not hold much weight. It just does not make sense because one pound is one pound.
The truth is that when placed on a scale, one pound of fat is going to weigh the same as one pound of muscle – just like one pound of bricks is going to weigh the same as one pound of feathers. Where the confusion comes in is that muscle and fat differ in density (muscle is about 18% more dense than fat) and one pound of muscle occupies less space (volume) than one pound of fat.
So yes, muscle seems to weigh more because there is a difference in the volume between the two. When a cubic inch of muscle and a cubic inch of fat are measured, the cubic inch of muscle will weigh more. As you add compact muscle mass to the body, body weight may increase. However, pound for pound, muscle and fat weigh the same and when tracking progress of a fitness program, it is very important to look at all markers of improvement, and not just the numbers on the scale.
This visual may help you understand the different densities of fat and muscle:
Cross section across skeletal muscle = more dense
Cross section across fat tissue = less dense
Five pounds of muscle compared to five pounds of fat
By looking at the photo below, you can see that five pounds of muscle (pictured on right) is going to take up less space in the body and be a lot less “lumpy” under your skin and in between your organs than the same weight in fat (shown on left). In fact, the difference can be quite dramatic. I would much rather have five pounds of smooth, lean, dense muscle tissue inside of my body than five pounds of amorphous, bulky, gelatinous fat, and I am guessing you would too! Besides being more compact in the body, there are also many health advantages to increased muscle mass.
Having more muscle mass in your body will:
- Create a leaner physique
- Reduce your risk of injury
- Increase strength, stability, power and endurance
- Improve balance and mobility
- Improve confidence
- Increase energy and vitality
- Enhance athletic performance
- Create metabolic reserve in times of traumas such as (car accidents and burns)
- Increase your metabolic efficiency
- Improve insulin sensitivity and improve blood glucose control
These are just some of the many advantages of having more lean muscle mass. Let’s focus on the last two benefits listed:
- Increase your metabolic efficiency
- Improve insulin sensitivity and improve glucose control.
1. Increase your metabolic efficiency
Each pound of fat that your body stores represents 3,500 calories of unused energy. In order to lose one pound, you have to create a calorie deficit of 3,500 calories by either consuming 3,500 less calories over a period of time than your body needs or by doing 3,500 calories worth of exercise.
By increasing your lean muscle mass through resistance and body weight training, you will help your body burn more calories. One pound of muscle will burn slightly more calories at rest than one pound of fat tissue at rest.
Focus on all of the health benefits of having more muscle mass, not just on the calorie burning abilities of muscle
Health and fitness professionals across the world put a lot of emphasis on the “muscle is a high-octane calorie incinerator” concept and even exaggerate (sometimes unknowingly) the actual amount of calories muscles burn while at rest. Fitness magazines, health experts like Dr. Mehmet Oz, and personal trainers across the country happily report that one pound of muscle burns an extra 50-100 calories per day than fat.
However, recent scientific research has proven this number to be inflated. One such study was led by Claude Bouchard, an obesity researcher from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, LA. His collected data over the years has revealed that one pound of muscle, at rest, burns about six calories a day while one pound of fat burns about two calories per day. Six is a lot different than the 50-100 calories that is often stated by others in the health and medical fields.
As a fitness professional, I do not like to over-emphasize the point that muscle tissue burns more calories than fat. I feel it is an important fact to know, and can be used as a motivator when getting started with a fitness program, but I do not think it should be the primary driving force behind gaining muscle mass. Yes, muscle is three times (not 50 times) more metabolically active at rest than fat, but the actual amount of calories that is burned is not a grand amount.
Granted, at the end of the day, any extra calories burned is a great thing, and when you eat healthfully (and mindfully) and engage in a proper resistance training program, you will increase the amount of muscle in your body.
The more muscle you have, the more calories you will burn while at rest and this is exciting. However, it is pertinent for individuals not to become too crazed (or comfortable) with the notion that their resting metabolisms (rate at which one burns calories while at rest) are going to skyrocket once they begin weight lifting and gaining muscle. I have seen that often, when an individual puts too much focus on the calorie burning capabilities of muscle, it becomes very easy for that person to become:
- Relaxed about what needs to be done to get the results wanted and in return, becomes sedentary and may even neglect sound nutritional habits by overeating. If muscle is burning calories at rest, then there is room for overconsumption and inactivity, right? …Wrong.
- Overly obsessed with calorie burning through long bouts of cardio, weight training sessions and starvation. The main focus becomes all about decreasing fat, increasing muscle, and expanding the amount of calories muscle will burn at rest. With this extreme approach, overtraining and poor health are often results. More is better, right? …Wrong.
The above behaviors are unhealthy, unbalanced, and unsustainable. I want people to get away from calorie obsession and start training with a balanced approach and with common sense. It is important to look at all of the health benefits of muscle mass, not just one.
In my opinion, knowing that muscle can help balance insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels within the body is of greater interest than one pound of muscle burning an extra four calories more than one pound of fat.
When the body’s endocrine system is working properly, it is much easier to maintain a healthy weight. When insulin sensitivity and glucose management is screwed up, weight management (and loss) becomes a very difficult task.
Combine healthy insulin and glucose control with an increased resting metabolic rate (RMR), and you have a win-win situation.
2. Improve insulin sensitivity and better glucose control
In 2011, researchers reported in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism that muscle mass strongly correlates with improved insulin sensitivity within the body. It has been noted that with a 10% increase in skeletal muscle index (a measure of how much muscle is on the body), HOMA-IR (a measure of insulin resistance) saw a relative reduction of 11%. People with a higher insulin sensitivity have better glucose control and ultimately, lower rates of diabetes. This is great stuff because when a person is insulin sensitive, he/she can handle glucose well, which means less dietary glucose will turn into body fat and less insulin is necessary to keep body systems operating optimally.
The result? A healthy functioning of the body’s systems. This will create balance within the body as well as long-term and even permanent results, especially when it comes to battling the bulge.
Are you setting yourself up for failure? Step away from the body weight scale
While participating in a “weight loss” program, solely depending on a standard body weight scale to track your progress can cause frustration and may even set you up for failure.
Although you have been busting your buns in the gym and eating healthy foods, the scale may still display your weight as being the same as when you started, even after a few weeks of exercising. This can create extreme disappointment and ultimately cause you to quit your program.
I can confidently assume that many of you reading this article know exactly what I am talking about. We all have been there at some point.
It is that all too familiar feeling of anticipation you experience while you are standing on top of the scale, looking down, waiting to see what the wonderful magical number will read, anxious for it to be lower than the last time you stood in the very same position. The number flashes in front of your eyes, it reads the same, as if the scale was frozen in time. You shake the scale, reset it, step on and do the whole process over, only to find the end result is the same. The number has not shifted, not even a fraction of a pound.
If you are experiencing this type of despair, I suggest that you step far away from the scale (put the scale out of sight) and shake off the dissatisfaction you are feeling and think for a minute. Assess all that you have been doing and consider all of the other methods you have used and should be using to track your weight loss journey and progress.
Have you used other markers to track your progress?
The scale DOES NOT represent everything that is happening within the body
When the number on the scale does not budge, it is important to remind yourself that the scale only shows you a snippet of what is happening. It is only expressing your total body weight – which includes fat, muscle, bones, organs, skin, etc. and not the composition of that weight within your body.
Your total body weight represented on the scale may be the same as when you started your weight loss program, BUT if you are building muscle mass and losing fat tissue, your body composition will be much different.
When you have more muscle and less fat, you become more firm and will lose inches from places such as your waist, hips, buttocks, thighs, etc. Seeing the same number on the scale is not always negative. Again, we need to set our minds on other indicators of health and wellness.
Cross section of a skeletal muscle (200x) showing the muscle fibers (red) and the fat cells (white)
Focus less on the body weight scale readings and use other methods to track progress
When you become less obsessed with scale readings and more focused on what truly matters with your program, success will follow.
This is why it is important to use more than one method to track your progress. Some of these methods include:
- Body composition testing
- Circumference/girth measurements
- The old-fashioned “how-do-your-clothes-fit-and-feel method”
- Before and after photos
When you put all of these assessments together, you will create an accurate picture of what is truly happening within the body. By using this data, you will be able to distinguish whether or not you are on the right track with your health and fitness training programs.
Body composition testing is a great assessment tool to use when embarking on a fitness program.
What is body composition?
Body composition is the term used to describe the different components that, when taken together, make up a person’s body weight. The human body is composed of a variety of different tissue types including lean tissues (muscle, bone, and organs) that are metabolically active, and fat (adipose) tissue that is not.
When you determine your overall body fat percentage (through hydrostatic weighing, skinfold caliper measurements and/or bioelectrical impedance), you will get an accurate sense of how much of your body is made up of fat and how much is made up of lean muscle mass.
When the body has a greater percentage of fat compared to lean muscle mass, the body will appear heavier than when that number is lower. High body fat percentages mean heightened risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure.
Visual representation of what various body fat percentages look like
As you can see from the diagram above, if we put a physically active 160 pound woman with a 25% body fat next to another 160 pound woman who is inactive and has a 45% body fat, we will visually see differences. The woman with the 25% body fat will most likely look more fit and have more muscle tissue, and because of this, will need more calories to keep all of the systems in her body running efficiently.
The more muscle mass will cause her to burn a tad more calories than her 45% body fat counterpart, even while she is at rest. The leaner woman may even be able to eat slightly more calories a day and still maintain her body weight as compared to the woman with more fat tissue, while the woman with the higher body fat percentage would gain weight if she consumes more calories.
Take away body fat and add muscle
Just think about it – if your weight stayed exactly the same (according to a standard body weight scale) and we theoretically took off 5 pounds of fat from you and replaced it with five pounds of muscle, you will weigh exactly the same, but because muscle is more dense than fat, the five pounds of muscle will take up less volume and you will appear slightly leaner, thinner, and/or more toned.
Although the number on the scale did not lower, you are certainly more healthy, fit, and are on the right track with your “weight loss” program. Sometimes it helps to see a visual of this concept. Below, I provide you with just that, a visual representation of how one body can stay the same weight, but look noticeably different.
Let us compare
Below are visual examples of how the same person can look different even when she (or he) weighs the same amount. The two before and after photos are of different people who have changed their physiques by working out and eating healthfully. By increasing muscle and lowering their total body fat percentages, they both have been able to alter the way their figures look and feel. Their weights stayed the same.
See for yourself by looking at these before and after photos:
- This woman stayed the same scale weight (160 lb.), but noticeably altered her physique by lowering her percent body fat:
- This woman stayed the same scale weight (160 lb.), but noticeably altered her physique by lowering her percent body fat and losing 4.5 inches from her body.
Water balance and weight fluctuations
Another important thing to factor when tracking weight loss is that the human body can naturally change several pounds a day in scale weight from water balance alone. This is not fat or muscle weight. If you choose to micro-manage your weight by weighing yourself frequently (several times per week), you may see fluctuations that have nothing to do with changes in fat and/or muscle.
Weigh yourself before going to bed, and then weigh yourself in the morning when you wake up. You may see a 2-5 pound difference and this is completely normal.
Always use several assessment tools to track your progress
I cannot stress this enough. The most accurate way to assess your health and fitness progress is to use a wide variety of body measurements and health markers. The more, the better. It is silly to only rely on a body weight scale.
The number on a scale conceals the truth of what is happening within the body. To get a correct picture of your progress, you must use several different methods of collecting health and fitness data.
Before beginning your program, gather as much information as possible
Before you get started with a program, gather as much baseline information as possible. This includes:
- Circumference and percent body fat measurements
- Strength and flexibility assessments
- Blood pressure
- Body weight scale reading
- Recent health data (blood lipid profile) from your physician
- Before photos
Don’t forget to take a before photo
- One of the best things you can do is to take a picture of yourself. This may be one of the hardest things to accomplish before starting a weight loss program, but it can be one of the most rewarding (down the road, of course).
- Be sure to take photos of your body from all angles. This will allow you to see your transformation and results clearly.
Write it all down
Create a journal to record your journey.
- Before you begin, take notes on how you feel emotionally and physically. Write down how your clothes feel and fit.
- As the weeks pass by, write down anything else that comes to mind. Write about your stress levels, your sleep patterns, etc.
- Use it as a fitness resource to record your workouts and use it nutritionally as a food log.
Enjoy the process – do not perform assessments daily or weekly
It is important not to repeat assessments on a daily or weekly basis. While your program is underway, let yourself walk away from the dizziness of comparative measurements. Look at your new program as a chance to be mindful of what you are actually doing.
When we obsess over measurements and numbers, our vision can become cloudy and muddled by criticism, disappointment, expectation, etc. As humans, we are very competitive and tough on ourselves. Often, the emotional challenge of getting through a fitness and lifestyle program is the most difficult. Why put extra pressure on yourself by measuring, weighing, and negatively critiquing your progress?
Enjoy the process as much as possible, and do not sabotage yourself by hopping on a scale every day or every week. This will take a lot of willpower, but once you are able to step away from constant measurements, you will free yourself from the number game, and this will allow you to experience that the program you are doing is about a lot more than just weight loss.
Make it a lifestyle plan and change
Your program may start off labeled as a “weight loss” plan, but for it to be successful in the long-term, it needs to become a “lifestyle” plan, one where you adopt healthy and realistic habits that will stay with you long after you reach your initial fitness and wellness goals. Instead of focusing on the scale number, during the program, direct your attention to:
- Your energy levels
- How your clothes are fitting
- Your sleep patterns
- How you look
Check-in with round 2 of assessments
Perform a second round of assessments and measurements 6-8 weeks after your first recordings. Compare these results with the benchmarks recorded on day one.
If you are patient and diligent with your new program, your results will show you that all of your hard work is paying off. Seeing changes in your measurements for the better is very encouraging and may be just what you need to propel you through to the next phase of your lifestyle program.
Want to increase muscle mass?
To increase muscle mass and succeed in a wellness program you need to:
- Eat whole, clean foods
- Train smartly and efficiently (ditch the chronic cardio)
- Keep cortisol levels low
- Sleep and rest when needed
- Practice improving natural movement skills
- Be diligent about working on your flexibility/mobility
- Lift heavy things
Proper nutrition and mindful lifestyle habits are huge components to gaining muscle mass. Resistance training is also a potent stimulant of testosterone production, an important factor that favorably effects protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy within the body. Lift heavy things every now and again to promote the production of this hormone.
Strive for balance when it comes to implementing a new weight training and nutrition program. Enlist in the assistance of a fitness and nutrition professional whenever you have uncertainty on how to put a complete program together.
Do not be afraid to ask for help.
A great way to guarantee success is to find ways to stay motivated during your program. Motivation may come from:
- Working with a personal trainer
- Telling a friend about your goals
- Creating a fitness a nutrition vision board
It can help to stay visually motivated by having your very own “pet fat”. Yes, you read that correctly, you can buy your own one pound pet fat by clicking on the images below:
- This weighs 1 ounce, represents 220 calories, and can be kept at your desk, in your purse or magnetized to the refrigerator:
- This weighs 1 pound, represents 3500 calories, and can be kept at your desk, in the refrigerator, or anywhere else that may help motivate you.
- These jiggly replicas of fat have the power to keep you on track with your health and fitness goals. I have known people to put these little guys inside their refrigerator, in their pantry, on their desk, and in their purse. They can provide a constant reminder of what one ounce, 220 calories, and one pound, 3,500 calories, of unused energy looks like within your body.
- When a client comes to me disappointed that they have only lost one or two pounds of fat, I have them put the fat replica in their hand (same one as in the photo on the right) for a visual representation of what they just removed from their body.
- Seeing how much space one pound of fat takes up can be quite motivating. If adopting a pet fat is not an option for you right now, feel free to stop by my fitness studio to see my pet fat for a friendly reminder of how gross one pound of fat looks like.
- Remember, a pound is a pound. One pound of fat is going to weigh the same as one pound of muscle and one pound of muscle occupies less space (volume) within the body than one pound of fat.
- The several benefits of muscle mass (such as improved insulin sensitivity and increased metabolic efficiency) make it worth one’s while to implement a strength training program that will build muscle within the body (and lose fat).
- When participating in a program, do not set yourself up for failure by using a body weight scale as the only method to track your progress. Collect as much assessment data as possible and do not let yourself obsess over numbers, whether they be in the form of calories or body weight.
- Get help when needed, whether it be from a fitness/health professional, like myself, or a motivating friend.
- Proper nutrition and mindful lifestyle habits will be integral when it comes to gaining muscle mass and improving body composition.
Embrace your experience and learn from your accomplishments AND failures. Remember, to achieve long term results, it is important to approach a new program realistically and with a positive attitude. After all, you are making a lifestyle change, not just a “weight loss” change.
I want to hear from you
What are your thoughts on this subject? The scale numbers bring a lot of us down, sometimes to the point that it paralyzes us from moving forward with our fitness programs.
- What did you think of this article?
- How do you not let the readings on the scale stop you in your tracks?
- What helps you stay focused when it comes to a fitness regimen?
Please share your experiences and join the conversation by leaving a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!
Wishing you health and happiness,
- Hitt, Emma. “Muscle Mass Linked to Risk for Insulin Resistance.” Medscape Medical News. Web. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/747526 Aug 04, 2011
- Fell, James. “The Myth of Ripped Muscles and Calorie Burns.” Los Angeles Times. May 11, 2011. Web. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/16/health/la-he-fitness-muscle-myth-20110516
- Sisson, Mike. “How Many Calories Does Muscle Really Burn? (and Why It’s Not About Calories Anyway)”. Mark’s Daily Apple. The Blog Studio. Web. Aug. 10, 2012.
- Srikanthan P, Hevener AL, Karlamangla AS (2010) “Sarcopenia Exacerbates Obesity-Associated Insulin Resistance and Dysglycemia: Findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III.” PLoS ONE 5(5): e10805. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010805 http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0010805
- Srikanthan P, Hevener AL, Karlamangla AS. “Relative Muscle Mass Is Inversely Associated with Insulin Resistance and Prediabetes.” Findings from The Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey JCEM jc.2011-0435; doi:10.1210 Web 2011.