During your weight loss journey, you’ll likely experience a variety of emotions. While watching the number on the scale drop can be exhilarating, don’t feel discouraged if you experience a weight loss plateau — or even gain a pound or two — especially if you’ve just started working out. As you lose weight and start exercising, you burn fat and increase your muscle mass, which has long-term health and weight loss benefits. While these changes might stall your weight loss initially, they can transform your body composition (think better-fitting jeans). Read on as we explain the differences between fat and muscle to help you understand how they may affect the scale and your weight loss efforts.
Fat vs. muscle: Understanding the key differences
Two things can weigh exactly the same and be much different in size. But is muscle heavier than fat? Consider a pound of marshmallow compared to a pound of steel. Marshmallow would take up far more space than the heavy, compact metal. This is similar to a pound of fat vs. a pound of muscle — they weigh the same (a pound) but how much space they take up differs. A pound of fat is bulky and pillowy, like a marshmallow, so it takes up more space. On the other hand, muscle is compact and tight and takes up less space in the body.
Muscle and fat work in different ways. Fat has two main purposes, according to WebMD.1 First, fat stores excess calories in your body so it can be used as energy later. Second, fat releases hormones to help control your metabolism.1 There are two types of fat: brown fat and white fat. Brown fat helps to maintain our body temperature by burning energy to create heat.2 White fat, on the other hand, stores excess calories in the body.2 White fat is the most common kind of fat, and having too much of it leads to obesity, according to the National Institutes of Health.3
In contrast, muscle can help with weight loss by boosting your metabolic rate.4 You burn calories during physical activity, such as walking or yoga, but you also burn calories sitting or even sleeping. Your resting metabolism is how many calories you burn when you’re completely at rest. Increasing your muscle mass helps your resting metabolism burn more calories all day, which can support your weight loss efforts when you’re also following a reduced-calorie diet.5
Benefits of losing fat and building muscle
Being overweight and having a high percentage of body fat can increase certain health risks such as:6
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancer
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Kidney disease
By losing weight and building muscle, you may be able to counteract these health risks and lower your body fat percentage.6 Contrary to popular belief, you cannot turn fat into muscle because they are two separate tissues.7 However, you can reduce your fat stores and build muscle tissue, which can lead to a variety of health benefits. Muscle-building exercises may:8
- Improve your balance
- Reduce your risk of osteoporosis
- Lower your blood sugar levels
- Improve your mental health
What’s more, when you build muscle and lose fat, you may notice that your clothes start to fit differently (in a good way!).
Photo by g-stockstudio on iStock
New to strength training? You don’t need a personal trainer to get started — we’ve got you covered. Check out our tips to start a strength training routine.
How to start losing fat and building muscle
When it comes to losing weight, your diet matters most (see the 80/20 rule for weight loss). But integrating exercise into your routine is a great way to support your weight loss efforts and start building muscle. Here are a few tips to get started.
Schedule cardio activity.
Cardio activity can burn a large number of calories depending on your duration and effort. When your body doesn’t have any glucose (sugar) to burn immediately, it starts to burn stored fat. Cardiovascular exercise paired with strengthening exercises can help you lose fat and build muscle faster. Cardio doesn’t have to be complicated or boring; activities such as dancing, biking, swimming or taking a stroll around the neighborhood all are great options!
Just getting started? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Exercise.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels
Keep it simple and manageable.
If you don’t enjoy lifting weights or going to the gym, that’s OK! Keep things simple and use your bodyweight to build muscle with activities like sit-ups, lunges or push-ups. Start small: Try completing a few push-ups or crunches in the morning. Modifying exercises is a great way to begin. For example, start on your knees to complete a push-up. Over time, you’ll become stronger and can gradually increase your repetitions.
Select the right frequency.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults complete strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.9
If you’re just starting, pick 1-2 days to complete strength training exercises that are spread throughout the week. For example, you might choose to do cardio-focused workouts on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Then, you could do strength training exercises on Tuesday and Thursday. Don’t forget to integrate an active rest day as well.
Also, don’t rule out recreational activities as part of your weight loss plan. Starting a new hobby such as rock climbing or yoga is a good, low-key way to meet your goal by getting your heart pumping and having fun.
The bottom line
So, “Does muscle weigh more than fat?” — the short answer is no. A pound is a pound, no matter if it’s muscle or fat. Ounce for ounce, muscle weighs the same as fat, but it’s more compact. But remember: Not all pounds are created equal. Gaining a pound of muscle is much different from gaining a pound of fat. At the onset, it might feel discouraging and make you question the process, but keep your goals in mind. Although the number on the scale might stall, that pound of muscle is going to help you burn more calories and support your weight loss efforts.
Do you want to lose fat and gain muscle? Jenny Craig can help! With balanced, delicious meals and personalized support, our plans are created with your goals in mind. View our new meal plans starting at just $12.99 a day. View plans.
Elisa is a content marketing manager for Jenny Craig with over ten years of experience working in the health and fitness industry. She loves sharing her passion for living a balanced and healthy lifestyle. An endurance sports enthusiast, she is usually swimming in the pool, biking along the coast highway or running by the beach in her free time. Elisa holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Chico.
Favorite healthy snack: mozzarella string cheese with a Pink Lady apple
Monica Ropar, Nutritionist
Monica has over 15 years of experience with Jenny Craig, as an expert nutrition and program resource. She develops content, training, tools and strategies for the program to support clients throughout their weight loss journey, and offers inspiration, weight loss tips, lifestyle strategies and motivation. Monica holds a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in Dietetics and Exercise, Fitness & Health from Purdue University and continues to stay current on weight management research, consumer trends and healthcare developments.
Favorite healthy snack: raw veggie sticks with homemade hummus
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
This article contains trusted sources. All references are hyperlinked at the end of the article to take readers directly to the source.
Edited by Elisa - Jenny Craig