Muscle vs Fat Metabolism: why that scale is a filthy liar.

Imagine the following: you’re killing it at the gym and your nutrition has been bang on for the past two months (save a few meals here and there).  You step on the scale one morning still slightly wobbly, from hitting legs for a few hours the night before, and your eyes go wide.  You’ve gained weight over the past 3 months?!? But before you drop to your knees and let out a violent blood curdling scream while ripping your newly purchased sleep wear, let’s explain why this weight thing is just part and parcel, albeit a smaller part, to proper health metrics.

If you’re working out hard, let’s say H.I.I.T. workouts or the classic 3 times a week of cardio, 2 times a week of strength you’re burning calories and building muscle! So give me the pleasure of going on a slight nerdy science tangent here with a picture and a few numbers…

Here’s a side by side comparison between 5 pounds of fat and 5 pounds of muscle.  Muscle doesn’t weight more than fat does… it’s just more dense than fat.



So when we workout we break muscle fibres down and rebuild new ones the muscle itself becomes more dense.  By the way, most of us don’t have the genetic capacity to build large bodybuilder muscles nor are we exercising and eating in a way that would build massive muscle, so don’t worry about looking bulky.  So if you’ve just started working out, you’re challenging your body in a different way with a new exercise style, or you’re smashing it in the nutrition category, congratulations!!! You’re building muscle and gaining weight!

Yes those $700 pair of skinny jeans that you bought might not fit anymore because you’re quads have become larger, but welcome to actually BEING healthy and not just looking skinny.  Yes it might not be reflecting on the scale but look at all the other awesome benefits of getting healthier:



Also remember the benefits of reducing the chances of chronic illness, and the benefits of proper nutrition and exercise in mental health.

AND on top of all of this let’s get UBER nerdy and throw some numbers at you:

All that exercise might expend calories but what’s also important is what is called basal metabolic rate (BMR), or the amount of calories your body requires while resting.  Here’s the trick:

  • every pound of fat burns 2 calories at resting
  • every pound of muscle burns 6 calories at resting

SO! more muscle means a higher BMR.  A greater BMR means your body will burn fuel (food) and fat more efficiently.  So exercising and building muscle in turn causes decreased waistlines because of an increased BMR.  All this in mind, gaining weight is a good thing if it’s muscle and a good kind of weight.  We need to learn to appreciate our bodies, not striving for an ideal weight or an ideal look, for it’s plasticity and it’s awesome ability to adapt to challenge.  If we become healthier by changing our lifestyle and our quality of life improves then that’s the ultimate win.

About Chris Tse

I’m a scientist turned owner of Blitz Conditioning, a Fitness Columnist at CBC Radio on Thursdays at 8:20 am, and owner of Tse Social Strategy. Follow me on Twitter or Read my full bio.

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