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Build Muscle & Lose Fat At The Same Time

Positive Nitrogen Balance Explained!

Posted by Scott_Herman - March 23rd, 2018

This topic has been getting under my skin for a while now. Misinformation and clickbait titles are the keys to YOUR DOWNFALL and I do not want to see that happen. But it seems like all that’s required to trick most people is a muscled-up picture and a cute title, and because people want to BELIEVE things so badly, common sense goes out the window. Especially when it comes to the topic of building muscle AND losing fat at the same time.

I can understand why.  It’s a LOADED question that highly depends on many factors such as:

  • How much bodyfat you have
  • How long you’ve been training
  • Are you manipulating your calories daily with things like carb cycling or added cardio?
  • And my favorite…are you cycling low dosages of steroids, but claiming natty while making unnatural gains?

And I know that’s going to rub a lot of you the wrong way. But I’m not here to lie to you and give you false expectations about what’s achievable. But for today, we are going to stick to the topic of how a positive nitrogen balance can impact your muscle gaining potential.

Now, a lot of you are convinced that as long as you remain in a positive nitrogen balance, you can build muscle and lose fat at the same time regardless of where you are in your fitness journey. But how can you forget the fundamentals of fitness?  To lose weight you need to be in a caloric deficit!  To gain muscle, you need to be in a caloric surplus. They are literally opposing actions! So to clear things up, let’s first talk about what a positive nitrogen balance is.

What Is Positive & Negative Nitrogen Balance?

I’m not going to go all scientific on you, but here are the basics you need to know. There are two processes that are going on in your body 24/7, 365 days a year and they are protein synthesis and protein breakdown. In general, when protein is synthesized, more nitrogen is accumulated because protein is comprised of amino acids which are rich in nitrogen. On the other hand, when protein is broken down, you end up with nitrogen loss, because nitrogen escapes from the muscles.

Here’s the kicker though. Your muscle building potential is the result of the following equation: Muscle growth = protein synthesis – protein breakdown.

So what that means is that when this number is positive you have what is called a POSITIVE NITROGEN BALANCE and when it’s negative you have what is called a NEGATIVE NITROGEN BALANCE.  So it should go without saying that you CAN’T build muscle without being in a positive nitrogen balance and this is where people get their logic screwed up.

Therefore, they think that this is the ONLY requirement for building muscle and they will try to convince you that even if you’re in a caloric DEFICIT, as long as you are still able to have a POSITIVE NITROGEN BALANCE, you can keep on building muscle WHILE losing fat. If we dive deeper into this logic, these people support the premise that you can positively affect your nitrogen balance by doing specific things like:

  • Having more dietary protein (such as whole foods + supplements)
  • Sleeping more to help maximize recovery
  • Avoiding overtraining
  • Avoiding stress & anxiety
  • Hydrating properly
  • And supplementing with recovery-aiding supplements (like creatine, beta-alanine, BCAA’s, etc.)

And of course, by NOT doing all these things properly, you will be negatively affecting your nitrogen balance, favoring protein BREAKDOWN instead of SYNTHESIS and end up NOT BUILDING muscle mass or possibly even LOSING muscle mass.

Cutting & Bulking – The Truth!

Now all these points are true, but with all these things in mind, CAN you build muscle and lose fat at the same time? Or do you have to go on a bulking phase to see muscle growth, then cut for muscle definition? The answer will surprise you and it’s NO to both!

The problem with the theory of positive nitrogen balance is that it’s simply not realistic nor factual. The truth is that you CANNOT and I will repeat, you CANNOT build muscle if you are not in a CALORIE SURPLUS as a NATURAL LIFTER. Your body just cannot synthesize new tissue if it’s busy trying to retain what it already has, or is in the process of BURNING it. It doesn’t have to be an extreme surplus where you end up gaining or storing more fat than muscle. As you know I’m an advocate of LEAN GAINS, and all you need is a slight 250 - 500 calorie surplus to build muscle and keep the fat gain minimal. Never assume gaining more fat = gaining more muscle.

But what if you’re relatively slim but still retain a lot of body fat, or are “skinny fat”? Do you need to go on a cutting phase first, lose all that fat and THEN begin your muscle building phase? Absolutely not! What nobody will tell you is that you CANNOT build muscle and lose fat at the same time. But you don’t have to do that anyway. And here’s why.

Let’s say you’re 150lbs now, at 20% body fat. That’s pretty skinny if you ask me, but at the same time you do have a lot of body fat on you. How much fat? Well 20% of 150lbs is exactly 30lbs of fat. So here’s what you do. You go on a strict, lean-bulk phase…INDEFINITELY! You won’t ever need to cut, because after a year or so, you will have hopefully built 20 - 25lbs of muscle, which is to be expected for a natural lifter in their first year of training (assuming everything in terms of diet and training is done correctly).

Therefore, after a year, you will be 170lbs and hopefully if you stuck to your meal plan, you won’t have put on much or any additional fat. So, you’ll still have 30lbs of fat on you, but if you crunch those numbers, you’ll discover that you’re now automatically at 17.5% body fat. It’s not magic, it’s just math. You don’t ACTUALLY lose fat but you appear as if you have lost fat because you have gained more muscle and with all this new muscle on your frame, the fat you had SEEMS less and you look more proportionate and aesthetic. And that’s just your first year of training. Now, if you keep doing that for 3 or 4 years, you’ll eventually be at 190lbs and 15% body fat without ever going on a cut!

The NATURAL Exception To The Rule

There is, however, an exception to this rule. If you’re a complete beginner, you can theoretically build muscle and lose fat at the same time because your body has never been trained before. This is called “newbie gains” and is a term tossed around quite often in the fitness industry.  In fact, this is why a lot of you who hit a plateau in your training can’t seem to figure out what the problem is. What I mean is that no matter what training program you use, good or bad, you WILL see those newbie gains. But if the program is trash, you will gain 10 – 20lbs of  “newbie muscle”, but then plateau very quickly.  

All that happens is that because a new stimulus was introduced to your body, and that stimulus is a powerful one, your body has no choice but to lose some fat and build muscle at the same time to adapt to the new stimulus, your training. But after a few months this effect with eventually start to fade simply because the stimulus isn’t intense enough anymore and your body’s sensitivity to it has gradually decreased. That’s when you’ll have to switch things into high gear and start eating more protein and calories in general in order to facilitate new growth.


I know many of you are going to ask about some of the major transformations you might see on Facebook or Instragram, where someone loses a lot of weight and looks ripped and huge. Did they lose fat and built muscle at the same time? Well, again, it’s just a mirage. If someone is very big, let’s say 35% fat, and they end up losing 15% of that fat without building any more muscle, they will appear as though they have built muscle because their frame will be much tighter and proportionate with all that lost fat. OR, they jumped on a cycle of steroids which unfortunately happens a lot, and builds false expectations.

You just need to use your head! The information about positive nitrogen balance is clear, so just have a quick think whenever you see any of these drastic transformations about what’s really going on!

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Sadly, most of those transformations you seen on social media are "enhanced". 

Scott_Herman  Edit  Delete  Close

@uther9 sad but true. We need more natural transformations!


Nice article!