Building muscle is great for your health and your appearance. Not only does having more lean muscle mass make you look leaner, but it also helps your metabolism work more efficiently. But muscle weighs the same as fat, pound for pound. If you're gaining muscle at the same rate you're losing fat, that explains a stuck scale.
Typically muscle gains are quickest when you first start a strength-training program, or up the intensity of your old routine. After a few weeks you'll probably start seeing more fat loss on the scale as muscle gains even out. If you don't, it may be time to asses your diet and exercise program to make sure you're doing all you can to safely accelerate fat loss.
Benefits of Building Muscle
Building muscle, even if you're not actually losing weight according to your scale, benefits your health and puts you on track for long-term weight management. Your body expends energy building and maintaining muscle mass. In fact, according to Paige Kinucan and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., in an article on the University of New Mexico website, muscle maintenance accounts for 20 percent of your body's resting metabolic rate, or RMR -- the calories you burn when you're inactive.
Fat, in contrast, accounts for only around 5 percent of your RMR. The more muscle you have the more metabolically active your tissues are. This doesn't mean you can lie around eating cookies all day, but it does help with weight loss and maintenance.
Gaining muscle also improves your body composition, a term for the ratio of lean tissues, like muscle and bone, to the fat tissue in your body. Poor body composition — having a high body fat percentage — poses a health risk, increasing your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other obesity-related illnesses. Adding muscle to your frame reduces your body fat percentage -- even if you don't lose weight -- so it helps lower your disease risk.
The Effect of Beginner Gains
When you first start your fitness program, you'll see rapid muscle gains that could prevent you from losing weight. Those rapid "newbie gains" might mean that a man could build even 20 pounds of muscle in a relatively short time frame, writes bodybuilding expert Jason Ferruggia on his website.
As a result, you might not see any changes in your actual body weight if you're gaining 20 pounds of muscle as you simultaneously lose 20 pounds of fat, even though you've made a huge change to your physique. And while most women don't have the muscle-building capacity of the average man, women can still gain muscle relatively quickly on a new workout program.
Those newbie gains won't last forever, though. As you continue to train, your muscle gains will slow down, and you'll start to see your weight go down as you continue to lose body fat.
Adjusting Your Diet and Exercise Program
If you're concerned that you're not reducing your body weight, take a look at your diet. Even if you're hitting the gym five days a week, you could still be gaining or retaining fat if your diet is too high in calories.
Knowing how many calories you need to eat each day for weight loss is a complicated calculation based on many factors including your age, gender, activity level and even genetics. Your doctor or a nutritionist can help you get a pretty good idea of how many calories you need, so make an appointment.
Eating a healthy diet free of heavily processed junk foods, fried foods, fast foods, sweets and sugary beverages can also help you stay within your calorie budget each day. Stick to fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, legumes, whole grains and small amounts of healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado.
Keep your protein intake up to support muscle gain, but limit your portions of high-calorie foods, even if they're healthy. You need some carbohydrates for energy, but limit your intake of starchy carbs from potatoes and grains. Making these dietary changes should kickstart the fat loss you're looking for.
You may also need to increase the amount of cardiovascular exercise you're doing. Lifting weights is great for building muscle, but it's not the best way to burn fat. You don't burn very many calories lifting weights, but you do burn a lot of calories running on the treadmill for 30 minutes. Tryin increasing your cardio exercise a little each week and see if that helps.
Assess Your Fitness With Other Measurements
The number on the scale isn't the only insight into your health. As you gain muscle, you'll likely notice major differences in how you look and feel, even if the scale hasn't budged.
Measure your progress by judging how your clothes fit, or how many inches you shed from your midsection or lower body. For example, changing your body composition to reduce your waist size can mean you've made a big impact on your health, since a waist size larger than 35 or 40 inches for women and men, respectively, signals a higher risk of obesity-related diseases.
You can also boost your motivation by focusing on fitness-centric goals. Focusing on whether you can jump higher, run a faster mile or squat a heavier weight can keep you feeling energized at the gym, even if your weight doesn't change.