How can you tell if you’re gaining muscle and not fat? Here’s a good comment I got the other day:
“The one thing I want to do now is gain muscle mass but not necessarily gain weight. So I am not sure if I need to just focus on losing more weight first and then start adding it back or what. And I don’t know how I’ll know if the weight I’m gaining is muscle or fat.”
Tons of guys and gals want to gain muscle without getting fatter.
They think they need to increase their calories to do this. So they increase their calories, and their weight goes up a couple of pounds over the month. And they make some minor progress lifting weights in the gym.
At the end of 12 weeks, they’re 6-8 pounds heavier but don’t look any more muscular, and they really only gained a gut. This sucks, and it happens every day to people who are really trying to put the effort in.
Unfortunately, if they knew what to pay attention to, this could have been entirely preventable.
How to know if you’re gaining muscle
There are a couple of great ways to know if you’re getting more muscular or if you’re just getting fatter.
Get lean-ish first
It’s really hard to tell if you’re gaining muscle when you’re 25%+ body fat because it’s hard to see the changes. First, get down to a healthy body fat level (10-20%), and it’ll be a lot easier to see those minor muscle visual changes. I personally like coaching people down to about 15% body fat and then determining if they still need to gain more lean muscle mass or not before taking them to down to abs.
Use a caliper
I was shocked when I found out that calipers were actually quite good at measuring body fat level changes. For just $20 (what I use), you can get comparable results right away compared to something like DEXA—and without all the radiation. A caliper will show you much more objectively if you’re putting on fat or burning it. (The only real downside of calipers is that they can underestimate your fat level, especially if you have a lot of bad visceral belly fat that’s around your organs.)
Measure your muscle size. You’re gaining weight—okay—but are your arms measuring the exact same size? Chances are that you’re mainly getting fatter. You want to see the “good” measurements go up—things like your shoulder girdle and flexed biceps (for women, it’d be your hips). And you want to see your waist measurement go down—indicating fat loss and that your belly is shrinking (from losing bad visceral fat.)
Take quick progress photos
Nothing fancy, just use your phone and your bathroom mirror. Photos can help us objectively compare and see if we’re actually looking noticeably different or not. Sometimes we lose 10 pounds of fat and gain 10 pounds of muscle, and technically we’re the same weight but look radically different. Don’t trust the mirror—trust photos.
Less reliable but good to pay attention to:
Aside from objective measurements, there are some other “good” signs worth paying attention to:
Are you getting sore from your workouts?
Soreness doesn’t guarantee muscle growth because a great diet needs to be there to support recovery. But soreness is definitely a sign that you’ve reached sufficient stimulus in your workouts for your body needing to adapt. If you’re doing hypertrophy (size) workouts with enough volume and get some soreness, there could be great things in store for you.
Are you able to do more in the gym week after week?
Are you able to do the exact same workout—same volume and same rest—but now with a slightly heavier dumbbell or barbell? That’s a great sign that you’re adapting. Heavy low-rep strength benchmarks are trickier in terms of gaining mass, I’ve found, because you can make neurological gains through practice and even strength gains through increased tendon stiffness—both of which have nothing to do with muscle size. But even gaining low-rep strength is another metric worth considering when it comes to progress.
The gold standard, of course, is to see your weight increase while your waist measurement goes down and your shoulder measurements go up. (Or if you’re a woman, your hip measurements go up.)
This would show lean muscle mass gains and burning off fat at the same time. When I first started testing the principles in our True Gains program, that is what happened to me (and my clients experience this all the time.) In one month, I lost an inch off my waist while gaining four pounds. (Although this pace will eventually slow down.)
The old way is to track daily calories, track weight gain, etc. and just hope that you’re gaining muscle. Years ago, I did this for a while when I was more focused on hitting 180 pounds on the scale (50 pounds heavier than when I started). I was working out and challenging myself, so I thought I didn’t need to track size gains. Big mistake as I ended up just getting fatter.
The new way is to measure muscle size, use a caliper for knowing your fat levels, and track your workouts diligently and try and increase the weight slightly after a few weeks on the workout. Use workouts designed to gain muscle size. And be sure that your workouts drive your weight change through adaptation—not just overfeeding and stuffing yourself. Focus on “building,” and not “bulking.”
Don’t hope, and don’t skip measuring like I used to. Start tracking today, and if you do not see results, that means something needs to change.