Can You Turn Leg Fat Into Lean Muscle?

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Strength training is important to helping burn fat.
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Surgery isn't your only option when it comes to thigh fat removal. A calorie-restricted diet combined with regular exercise can help you burn fat and build lean mass. Over time, your legs will look leaner, firmer and stronger.

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Although it's impossible to turn leg fat into muscle, you can shape your legs through diet and exercise. Strength training and HIIT are particularly effective, helping you burn fat and preserve lean mass.

Can Fat Turn Into Muscle?

Ever wonder where the fat goes when you lose weight? Does it turn into muscle if you stick to your workouts? Sadly, it's physiologically impossible to turn fat into muscle. Likewise, muscle doesn't turn into fat if you stop working out. Muscle and fat are completely different tissues.

Adipose tissue, or body fat, is stored energy. When you create a calorie deficit through diet and exercise, your body turns to stored fat for fuel. This metabolic process generates waste products that leave your body through the skin, lungs or kidneys, explains the Cleveland Clinic.

As it turns out, most of the by-products of fat metabolism are excreted through the lungs, according to a review published in the BMJ in December 2014. When you lose 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of fat, 9.4 kilograms (20.7 pounds) are exhaled as carbon dioxide.

A balanced diet and regular exercise can help you become leaner overall. Although you can't turn leg fat into muscle, your legs may become leaner as you lose weight.

Read more: The 17 Most Effective Moves for Fat Loss — No Equipment Required!

According to the American Council on Exercise, you cannot spot-reduce fat. Doing hundreds of squats can increase the calorie burn and build lean mass, but it won't necessarily make your legs leaner. Fat loss occurs all over the body.

Leg Workout for Lean Muscle Gains

The key to fat loss is to create a calorie deficit, meaning that your energy expenditure should exceed your energy intake. Simply put, you need to burn more calories than you take in.

Nutrition and exercise are equally important. While it's true that you can lose weight through diet alone, regular exercise can speed things up and improve muscle definition in your legs. Strength training is particularly beneficial as it promotes hypertrophy, or muscle growth, and boosts your metabolism.

Lean mass accounts for about 20 percent of total daily energy expenditure, reports the University of New Mexico. Body fat, by comparison, accounts for only 5 percent. Strength training can help you build lean mass, which may increase your energy expenditure and facilitate fat loss.

Depending on your preferences and fitness level, you can also add cardio or HIIT to the mix. According to the Cleveland Clinic, your body starts to burn fat after 30 to 60 minutes of cardiovascular training. The more intense your workout is, the higher your energy expenditure. That's what makes HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, so effective.

Read more: Try This 35-Minute HIIT Workout That's Gentle on Achy Knees

A review featured in the_ Journal of Physiology_ in December 2016 points out that HIIT is a time-efficient alternative to steady-state cardio. In a small study, overweight and obese subjects who engaged in three HIIT sessions per week without dieting experienced greater improvements in body composition, blood lipids and overall fitness compared to the control group. These findings were published in the February 2018 issue of the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.

Considering these facts, it makes sense to use a mix of strength training and HIIT or traditional cardio to burn stubborn fat. A leg workout for lean muscle gains may include machine-based or body-weight exercises, running, jogging, swimming and other activities that torch fat and preserve lean mass. However, some exercises are more effective than others.

Best Exercises for Shapely Legs

Unfortunately, there are no exercises to lose thigh fat without gaining muscle. As discussed earlier, spot reduction is just a myth. Cardiovascular training, in general, doesn't build mass and can help you lose fat overall. However, building mass can speed up your metabolism and facilitate weight loss, so it makes sense to incorporate strength training into your workout.

The Cleveland Clinic states that resistance training helps build and preserve muscle, improve your balance and reduce body fat. Over time, it may help increase joint stability and range of motion. Ideally, aim for at least two strength-training sessions per week.

Some exercises are particularly effective at targeting the legs. Squats, for example, build lower body strength and may improve functional fitness, notes Harvard Health Publishing.

This compound movement engages all the major muscle groups, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves and hip flexors. Plus, you can change your stance, add weights or experiment with squat variations to recruit specific muscles. Depending on your preferences, you may use a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands or your own body weight.

Read more: 12 Essential Squat Variations to Try

Lunges, deadlifts and leg presses are all examples of compound leg exercises. As the American Council on Exercise points out, compound movements burn more calories than single-joint movements, such as leg curls. On top of that, they elevate your heart rate, leading to improved cardiovascular fitness.

Experiment with squat, deadlift or lunge variations to maximize your workout. For example, single-leg deadlifts, as described by ExRx.net, can shape your glutes and hamstrings. Barbell sumo deadlifts, on the other hand, target your back muscles along with other muscle groups, including your glutes, quads and adductors.

Eat for Your Goals

Your diet is just as important as your training routine. What you eat has a direct impact on body composition and physical performance. The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends consuming 1.6 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Athletes and individuals who engage in vigorous exercise should aim for 2.2 to 3.4 grams of protein per kilogram to get leaner.

This nutrient wards off hunger and preserves lean mass, making it easier to lose weight. Additionally, it's less likely to be stored as body fat compared to carbs or dietary fats, states the NASM. Fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, lean meat, poultry and legumes are good sources of protein. A single serving of roasted chicken breast (3 ounces), for instance, boasts over 26 grams of lean protein, according to the USDA.

Carbs are not necessarily harmful. Just make sure you choose good carbs, such as those found in whole grains, sweet potatoes, leafy greens and fresh fruits. Leafy greens are low in calories and high in water, filling you up quickly. Serve them with poultry, fish and other sources of protein to stay full for longer.

Nuts, seeds, olive oil and other foods rich in healthy fats are an integral part of a balanced diet. Almonds, walnuts and other nuts make a great snack between meals and have fewer calories than it was once thought, reports the USDA. Enjoy them in moderation to reap the benefits. Most important, avoid empty calories from soda, potato chips, frozen dinners, breakfast cereals and other processed foods.

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