(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’m trying to lose fat, but I seem to have reached a weight loss plateau. My weight has remained exactly the same for about 4 weeks straight even though I’m eating right and working out.
Is it possible that I’m still losing fat but just gaining equal amounts of muscle? I’ve heard muscle weighs more than fat, so I figured the muscle I’m building is replacing the fat I’m losing and it’s causing my weight to remain the same even though I’m still losing fat just fine? Is this what’s happening?
ANSWER: Boy do I love this question. It contains 2 elements that I love (a mostly silly idea and a meaningless saying), and this gives me a chance to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. Let the fun begin…
Weight Loss Plateau vs Fat Loss Plateau
Men and women experience weight loss and fat loss plateaus all the time (there’s actually a difference between the two), and it’s a subject I will definitely be writing a lot more about in the future. But right now I want to look at the specific cause this person referenced in their question.
They claim that despite eating right/working out with the intent to lose weight, they aren’t. In fact, it’s been 4 weeks since they’ve lost any weight at all, which means they have officially hit the dreaded weight loss plateau.
Now, since “weight” can be a few different things besides just fat, IT IS possible that they are losing fat, but that “fat weight” is being counterbalanced by the gain in some other form of weight. For example, weight loss and weight gain can happen as a result of:
- all of the above
So sure, there is a possibility that a pound of fat was successfully lost in the same period of time that a pound of something else was gained, thus making it appear as though you’ve hit a fat loss plateau even though some fat WAS actually lost (which means you’re just experiencing a weight loss plateau, and now you can see the difference between the two).
This is why it’s a good idea to monitor your progress using more than just your body weight (for example measurements, body fat percentage, pictures, mirror, etc.). Daily, weekly and even monthly (if you know what I mean, ladies) fluctuations in body weight as a result of some of the items on the list above can skew actual fat loss progress. No doubt about that.
But let’s get back to this person’s exact question…
Is it possible that this is what has been happening to this person for 4 weeks straight, AND that the weight they are gaining is muscle? Is it possible that they are losing fat but just gaining muscle at an equal rate?
Let’s see. Is it all possible? Technically, yeah. But is it all likely? Probably not.
You’re Not Gaining Muscle… You’re Just NOT Losing Fat
Fat can be, should be and virtually ALWAYS IS lost much easier, much quicker and much more consistently than muscle could ever be built.
Like I’ve explained before (How Much Muscle Can You Gain & How Fast Can You Build It?), muscle growth is an extremely slow and gradual process. Fat loss is too of course, but it absolutely destroys muscle growth in terms of the rate and quantity it commonly occurs at.
I mean, the average natural male who is past the beginners stage and doing everything right might gain 0.25lb of muscle per week under the best possible circumstances. The average female fitting the same description might gain half of that.
On the other hand, the average person with an average amount of fat to lose will typically lose it at a rate of 1-2lbs per week without a problem.
So the clear message here is that in most of the cases where you see NO weight loss for an extended period of time and think it’s because “muscle weighs more than fat” and you’re really losing fat but just simultaneously gaining an equal amount of muscle at an equal rate… you’re probably wrong. And by “probably,” I mean you’re wrong 99% of the time. (More here: Can You Lose Fat And Build Muscle At The Same Time?)
In reality, the reason why your weight isn’t decreasing is because you’re just failing to lose fat.
Simple as that.
What’s hilarious about this is that while both men and women are guilty of thinking this is happening, women tend to do it more often in my experience. And when you take into consideration that women are capable of building muscle at about HALF the speed of men, you’ll understand why it’s so extra funny.
And let’s also keep in mind that if you’re truly losing fat, it means you’re in a caloric deficit. And with the exception of fat beginners, steroid users and those who are regaining lost muscle, the majority of the population will not be building ANY muscle in a caloric deficit (let alone exceeding the best-case-scenario numbers and gaining muscle at the same rate fat is being lost at).
So yeah… if your primary goal is losing fat and you haven’t lost any weight in 4 weeks, chances are it’s not because you’re gaining lots of muscle and “muscle weighs more than fat.” Chances are it’s because you’re just not losing fat. (More here: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?)
Muscle Weighs More Than Fat? Um, No.
And please, for the love of God, can we all stop saying this nonsensical phrase? Seriously. Muscle weighs more than fat… WTF does that even mean?
Put 5 pounds of muscle on a scale and then put 5 pounds of fat on a scale. I got 20 bucks that says they will both weigh 5 pounds.
What’s that you say? “But the density and the volume and blah blah blah.” Correct, there is definitely logic to that. Problem is, as someone who has watched people use this phrase for 12+ years, I can tell you with absolute certainty that 99% of them are not referring to density, volume or anything remotely logical.
This is just some silly saying/excuse that people throw around to try to make sense of their weight loss plateau or really just their inability to do what’s needed for fat to be lost (sort of like “starvation mode“). Here’s an exaggerated case in point…
“What’s that Sally? You’ve been ‘eating healthy’ and ‘exercising’ but haven’t lost any weight in 12 years? You must be building muscle! You know what they say… muscle weighs more than fat. Keep up the good work!”
Sorry Sally, but you’re just failing to create the caloric deficit that is required for fat loss to take place. Eat less calories, burn more calories, or do a combination of both.
I got another 20 bucks that says you’ll magically bust right through your plateau.