Like a lot of people, you might think that muscle weighs more than fat.
“When I hear this statement, I always think of the old riddle: Which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?” says Laura Stusek, MS, fitness coordinator for Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. “A pound is a pound!”
Muscle vs. Fat: Clearing Up the Misconception
Common sense tells us a pound of muscle and a pound of fat have to weigh the same, but they do differ in density. This means if you look at five pounds of muscle and five pounds of fat side by side, the fat takes up more volume, or space, than the muscle. That’s important when you’re on adiet and part of your goal is the lean look of muscle, not the flabby look of fat.
So why do people say muscle weighs more than fat?
“I find people make this statement when they put on weight,” says Stusek. “One person will say, ‘I gained three pounds and I’ve been working out.’ The good-friend response is, ‘It’s all muscle.’ And while this is a very comforting thing to hear, it’s just impossible to gain three pounds of muscle in a week. It is common for exercisers to lose fat and gain muscle without a change in body weight, so I understand why people often get frustrated."
Muscle vs. Fat: The Truth
The first step in a successful diet and exercise program is to banish the idea that muscle weighs more and is therefore bad. In fact, Stusek recommends tossing out the scale altogether.
“I try to get people to think about how they are feeling, how their clothes are fitting, and how their body has changed,” Stusek advises. “It’s a hard thing to do sometimes. The focus should not just be the number on the scale. If we only did things to make ourselves weigh less, we wouldn’t necessarily be healthier.”
Muscle vs. Fat: The Benefits of Muscle
In fact, not only should dieters stop thinking of muscle as the enemy, they should embrace it as their friend.
Muscle boosts a person’s metabolism, so a pound of muscle will burn more calories at rest than a pound of fat. What does this mean? Even when you’re not exercising — you could be sitting on the couch watching TV — you will be burning more calories just by having more muscle.
Muscle has other benefits, too. It’s critical in improving bone density and helps prevent the loss of muscle mass that occurs with aging, allowing people to stay active as they get older.
There’s no doubt cardio workouts such as jogging, cycling, and walking are important for calorie burning and good health. But strength training is vital, too. “Of course, we always think of lifting weights to put on muscle, and many fear they will become ‘bulky,’” says Stusek. “Women need to stop worrying about this.”
There are plenty of options to build muscle, ranging from free weights to resistance bands and even plain old soup cans. Stusek recommends enlisting the help of a personal trainer to design a balanced, full-body workout for the best results. “Or if you want to bulk up, lift heavy weights and do low repetitions,” she says. And two or three times a week, with at least one day off in between for muscle recovery, is sufficient.
Ultimately, building muscle mass is a good thing. So find some enjoyable exercises and get lifting.