Posted: 12th of August 2015 by Nicola Crawley

A snapshot of what happens to our body composition when we transform ourselves, whether that is building muscle and losing fat, or, the reverse, losing muscle and gaining fat.

First a giant age old myth that surrounds this topic.........  Is it true you can turn fat into muscle?

This myth has been around for many years and still amazes me that it can be taken seriously by so many people in this day and age with the resources and technology we have available to access the wealth of information throughout the world.

The simple answer to this question is... No, you cannot turn fat into muscle.

Why?   Fat is a fuel source which we take in through our diets and either; convert and use for energy once we have used up all our primary energy fuel source of carbohydrate stores, or, we store fat and it forms insulation and protection. Muscle is an active living tissue and it is made up of proteins which are chains of amino acids. These proteins come together to form our skeletal muscles and these burn energy constantly whether we are awake or asleep. Which you can relate to one of our earlier blogs on which form of exercise is better for burning fat? (Is weight Training or Cardiovascular Training Better for Weight Loss?)

Ask yourself this... if fat could be turned into muscle, why do we store it as fat and not store it as muscle?

If this has raised questions as to why then does it appear the opposite happens when we suffer an injury or when muscles are inactive we can lose muscle mass and gain fat, isn’t this the opposite effect, muscle turning into fat?

When we lose muscle mass (atrophy) it is in most cases due to inactivity of the muscle(s) whether that be through injury or immobilisation and not being placed under tension or stressed which force the fibres to tear and repair itself (protein synthesis) which enables us to maintain the mass or even grow (hypertrophy). The amount of muscle mass lost will differ dependant on the muscle group and the condition of that muscle prior to disuse. So what can you do to prevent muscle atrophy during a period of immobilisation? Studies have shown that if possible continuing to train the non injured or affected limb can reduce the muscle atrophy in the affected limb by considerable amounts of some studies shown to be 20%.

For example if you are a football or rugby player and suffer a broken leg/ankle, during your rehab period if you continued with some heavy strength training with the health leg such as single leg press, single leg squats, single leg Romanian deadlift etc. (Thereby using the biggest group of muscles) you can slow down the amount of atrophy in the injured immobilised limb. Again the atrophy percentages will differ and dependant of the severity of injury rates of recovery will differ.

So to address the second question raised why do we gain fat and lose muscle? Storing fat is our bodies way of saying we have no use for it at the present time usually we are not doing enough moving/exercise to burn the amount of fat that we intake and therefore this can snowball into not enough exercise can lead to a less efficient metabolism and therefore less able to burn the amounts of fat we would like versus the amount we are taking in.

In summary to minimise negative transformations during periods of immobilization of losing muscle and gaining fat we need to focus on maintaining healthy muscle mass through regular weight bearing activities and being aware of how much fat we are taking in (minimising the effects of muscles atrophy) and at the same time the negative impact gaining more body fat whilst being immobile and the reason behind when we start to gain muscle we don’t transform the fat into muscle, we grow and strengthen the muscle we already have and the more muscle mass we gain the more energy we can potentially burn as long as we put our muscles through enough physical, energy spending movements.

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