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Don’t worry; you can’t feel it.
Does Muscle Weigh More Than Fat? It’s Complicated.
FYI: The number on the scale isn’t always an indicator of overall health.
Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer with more than seven years of experience covering a wide range of topics. She writes for top brands and publications like Nike, Runner’s World, Men’s Health, and Everyday Health.
Updated on February 6, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Suzanne Fisher, RD, is the founding owner of Fisher Nutrition Systems.
Does fat weigh more than muscle, or does muscle weigh more than fat? While it seems common knowledge that muscle weighs more, that’s not quite right. The answer depends more on the volume of each.
Consider the trick question: “What weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of bricks?” The answer, of course, is neither. A pound is a pound, regardless of the material. However, that pound of feathers will look bigger and fluffier than a compact pound of bricks.
So, while we’re talking about the weight of muscle and fat, the root of the question is really body size and body composition. While it should be said, first and foremost, that body size or weight is not necessarily an indication of health, there is some truth behind the saying that muscle weighs more than fat.
You can be slimmer at a heavier weight than someone lighter, depending on how much non-fat mass (muscle, bones, and organs) you have in proportion to fat mass. Here’s what you need to know.
Does Muscle Actually Weigh More Than Fat?
The short answer: Yes, muscle does weigh more than fat—by volume. The muscle will weigh more if you take a bowl of fat and compare it to a same-sized bowl of muscle.
That’s the simple answer. But much more goes into that question, mainly how your body responds to these two tissues.
Muscle weighs more than fat because it’s denser, said Joel Seedman, Ph.D., neuromuscular physiologist and owner of Advanced Human Performance in Suwanee, Ga. If you hold a fistful of muscle, it will weigh more than a fistful of fat because you technically have more compact tissue in your hand.
The catch: That number on the scale shouldn’t matter here because the benefits of having more muscle tissue in the body outweigh having more fat tissue.
Getty Images – Animation: Alex Sandoval
How Having More Muscle Affects Your Health
Muscle is a star player in keeping your body happy and healthy long-term for several reasons.
For starters, lean muscle mass can help manage blood sugar, keeping Type 2 diabetes at bay. A 2017 study published in PLoS One found a negative association between muscle mass and Type 2 diabetes—specifically, higher muscle mass meant a lower chance of developing the condition.
“The number one consumer of blood sugar in the human body is skeletal muscle,” explained Tim Church, MD, MPH, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. So, the more muscle you have, the greater your potential to stabilize your blood sugar.
As a bonus, the blood sugar-regulating effect is instant and lasts after exercise. So if you do a workout today, your muscles will utilize blood sugar better over the next 72 hours, Church said.
Also, as you age, you’ll want a healthy amount of muscle rather than fat.
“Muscle is a commonly overlooked marker of healthy aging,” Church said. You start losing muscle mass around age 40 or 45. This age-related decline in muscle is known as sarcopenia, one of the biggest reasons many older adults can have trouble doing simple tasks without help.
“You can’t put your jacket on, push yourself off the toilet, and get yourself off the ground after you fall,” Church said. “It all comes down to strength and muscle mass.”
Even better news is that muscle can help you maintain a healthy weight by raising your basal metabolic rate or the number of calories you burn at rest. Exactly how many extra calories you’ll burn by adding muscle is unclear.
“That number has been widely discussed and argued over the years,” said Seedman. “But we know the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism.”
Lastly—and least importantly, in terms of health—the muscle density might cause it to weigh more, which also means it takes up less space in the body. “If someone gains 10 pounds of muscle, a lot of times they’ll barely notice that on their body,” Seedman said, “whereas, if you gain five or 10 pounds of fat, you definitely notice that.”
How Having Too Much Fat Affects You
While it’s easy to see fat as an enemy, you need body fat to survive and thrive. Fat tissue plays a few critical roles, from regulating body temperature and producing hormones to supporting brain health and insulating organs, said Church.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), healthy body fat percentages for women range from 10%-31%. For men, it’s 2%-24%. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 25% as the maximum for men older than 60. However, it’s important to note that the lower recommended body fat percentages often indicate a trained athlete and may not be realistic, sustainable, or healthy for the average individual.
“People think fat is just excess energy storage, but it’s really the number one driver of inflammatory markers in your blood,” Church said. Chronic, or long-term, inflammation can contribute to various conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity.
A high body fat percentage has also been linked to heart problems. “There’s a strong correlation between higher levels of body fat and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and a number of other health issues,” Seedman said.
How To Get Body Fat and Lean Muscle Mass Percentages
There are a few ways to get an idea of your tissue percentages. Read on to find the best one for you.
Bioelectrical Impedance Scales
If you want to get a sense of how much body fat versus lean muscle mass you’re carrying, consider a bioelectric impedance scale (also called a bioimpedance scale). Many devices that use this technology look like ordinary bathroom scales, but they measure your body composition through electrical impulses.
Don’t worry; you can’t feel it.
The downside is that bioelectric impedance scales can be hard to calibrate for accuracy, as any change in water weight (say, if you’re dehydrated or have an illness) from one reading to the next may throw off the numbers. But they can give you a good general idea.
Body Fat Calipers
Body fat calipers, also known as skinfold calipers, often look like big sets of tweezers. They’re another inexpensive tool for measuring your body fat percentage. But Seedman suggested getting a fitness professional to take the reading because they’ll have more practice getting accurate measurements.
You can also try a calculator on the ACE site if you have a pair.
Measuring your waist circumference may also help you keep tabs on body fat and your risk for conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and heart attack.
A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for non-pregnant women and 40 inches for men may show a higher risk of developing obesity-related health conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidelines for taking accurate waist measurements. (Note, this doesn’t exactly tell you your body fat percentage, but it will provide a glimpse into your health.)
Body Mass Index (BMI)
The only reason you might want to know about Body Mass Index (BMI) is because it’s how some healthcare professionals still check to see if you are a healthy weight.
BMI is a biased and outdated metric that uses weight and height to make assumptions about body fat and, by extension, your health. This metric is flawed in many ways and does not factor in your body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. Yet, despite its flaws, the medical community still uses BMI because it’s an inexpensive and quick way to analyze health data.
There are also a lot of questions about whether it’s a true measure of health and if it accurately represents racial and ethnic minorities.
While the CDC offers an online calculator for figuring it out, it doesn’t consider your body fat percentage—a significant pitfall to BMI numbers. So, if you’ve packed on muscle through resistance training, your BMI score may give you an inaccurate view of your health status.
How To Lose Fat and Gain Muscle in a Healthy Way
Strength training is the smartest move for building muscle and cutting back on fat.
“If you only have a limited amount of time to work out, strength training is exponentially more powerful,” Seedman said and added that you could manipulate work and rest ratios to get more cardio benefits from your strength routine.
Seedman recommended doing a full-body strength routine at least twice a week. Try lifting to the point of near-failure in each set—that means those last one or two reps should feel nearly impossible to do without breaking form.
If you’re trying to shed fat while building muscle, keep the rest periods short between sets (30 to 60 seconds) to crank up the intensity of the sweat session. Choose five to six exercises (three lower-body, three upper-body) and shoot for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps per move.
A Quick Review
Muscle tissue weighs more than fat tissue if both take up the same amount of space. So, if you have a cup of muscle and one of fat, the muscle will weigh more. But don’t let the prospect of weighing more keep you from building muscle, which will help you improve your health, reduce your risk of chronic disease, and age better.
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Does Muscle Weigh More Than Fat? 5 Reasons to Ditch the Scale
You might have heard the common saying that muscle weighs more than fat, but this would defy the laws of physics, since one pound of anything still weighs a pound – a pound of muscle weighs the same as a pound of fat. Where this idea really comes from is the amount of volume muscle takes up compared to fat.
Muscle is much more dense and takes up less space – up to 18% less. Meaning you can weigh quite a bit more with a large amount of lean mass and not look as “large”. In addition, muscle tends to be more smooth than fat, helping you look more toned and lean overall.
So no, gaining muscle will not make you weigh less. Often it makes you weigh more than your starting weight. But your clothes may fit better, you will feel healthier, and the gym will start to become a little more enjoyable. So maybe it’s time to toss the scale and start measuring your success by something else, like your body fat percentage or progress photos to keep you motivated.
Here’s five reasons the scale is not the best way to measure your progress and what you should try instead.
1. The Scale Can’t Tell You Your Body Fat Percentage
Your body weight is only one data point, and a fairly broad measurement at that. You are made up of many things that contribute to the number you see on the scale including water, bone, tissue, fat, and muscle mass. And oftentimes, body fat only represents 10-30% of your total weight.
This matters because when you are looking to lose weight, you are hoping to lose body fat. If you are also strength training as part of your weight loss journey it is entirely possible you are going to see some changes in lean body mass at the same time. Not to mention the normal weight fluctuations from water weight.
If you are only relating on the scale, you might find yourself not losing weight (especially in the first few weeks) which can cause you to get frustrated and give up. But what’s really happening below the surface is meaningful changes in your body composition that you should be celebrating.
Yes, some scales will measure body composition, but they can be inaccurate and at the mercy of hard to control variables: like your hydration status, last time you ate, exercise schedule, etc. The typical margin of error for body fat scales is somewhere in the range of 3 to 8%, to as high as 22% compared to the gold standard test, a DEXA/DXA scan that falls with a 1.6% margin of error (1,2,3).
2. The Scale Can’t Estimate Your Minimum Calorie Needs
Calorie control is crucial to just about every health and fitness goal, so understanding your basic energy needs is key to supporting good health and getting results. Your body weight only gives you a rough estimate of your daily energy needs, but knowing your total lean body mass will allow you to get a much more accurate picture of your daily needs so you are able to fine tune your nutrition.
Muscle is more metabolic than fat and can help you burn more calories naturally. In fact, a huge chunk of your resting metabolic rate and metabolsim is determined by your body weight – mainly your lean muscle mass. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns, and the easier it becomes to maintain your weight.
3. The Scale Can’t Tell You Your Protein Goals
The amount of protein you need depends on the amount of muscle mass you have and your overall fitness goals – you should strive to get about one gram of protein per one pound of lean body mass. You can estimate this based on your body fat percentage, but the best way to determine your minimum protein goals is by knowing how many pounds of muscle mass you have.
Protein is not only important to help you build muscles and maintain your lean mass, but can also benefit your diet and health goals in unique ways – helping to improve body composition during weight loss and weight gain, control hunger, and reduce cravings.
4. The Scale Won’t Tell You Your Bone Density
Some forms of body composition testing, like DEXA/DXA scans, can also tell you your bone density. Because this form of body composition testing uses x-ray technology, it can pinpoint exactly where you carry body fat and muscle down to the pound, along with your overall bone health.
This is important because most people have no clue how strong their bones are and whether or not they are at risk of developing health conditions like osteoporosis later in life.
5. The Scale Isn’t the Best Measurement of Overall health
You probably have an idea of your ideal weight but how can you tell what is a healthy weight for your frame?
The scale alone won’t even tell you if you are overweight. At the very least, you’ll need to calculate your body mass index using your height and age to determine your weight status. This matters because being overweight, obese, or underweight, can increase your risk of various health complications.
Additionally, where you carry body fat can also play a key role in your health risks. If you tend to hold more visceral fat, the type of internal fat wrapped around your abdominal organs, you might be at higher risk for developing chronic health conditions like Heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and high cholesterol (4,5,6,7). DEXA/DXA scans can also tell you how much visceral and subcutaneous fat you have and where it is on your body.
Lastly, body weight is only one factor of a healthy lifestyle. You should also be paying attention to your nutrition, mental health, and total wellbeing to live the healthiest lifestyle for you.
Weight is only one part of the health equation and there is no reason to live and die by the scale. Instead of beating yourself up over a number, consider other ways to measure your health and progress, such as getting a body composition test done every few months, paying attention to how you feel and how your clothes are fitting, or taking progress photos.
Then focus on improving your health in meaningful ways.
- Lift weights or incorporate resistance training into your routine to build muscle, gain strength, and support good bone health.
- Eat more nutrient dense foods to provide your body the nutrition it needs to thrive.
- Focus on full body health by gaining a healthy mindset, social support, and a lot more self love.
Lose weight, gain muscle, and transform your health with nutritious, ready made meals delivered to your home. Our team of experts will cook and deliver a healthy menu each week so you can spend more time hitting the gym and crushing your goals.
Does Muscle Really Burn More Calories Than Fat?
If you’ve ever tried to change your physique, you’ve probably heard (or, more likely, read on the internet) that muscle weighs more than fat. It’s something a lot of us have accepted as fact, but is it actually true? And does muscle really burn more calories than flab?
Here, we explain the weight of the matter (pun intended!), including what muscle and fat do to your metabolism and physique, and how to easily swap extra inches for leanness.
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Fat vs. Muscle: The Basics
Comparing fat to muscle is like comparing apples to oranges. Yes, both are metabolically active and necessary in your body, but too much of one can be detrimental to your health while the other is very beneficial.
Body Fat 101
The fat contained in your fat cells exists in a form of triglycerides, which act as fuel. Body fat can be stored in different ways. One is subcutaneously, or just underneath the skin (the soft kind you can pinch), and according to Harvard Health Publishing, this type makes up 90 percent of your body fat. Subcutaneous fat acts as insulation and a source of energy. It also produces beneficial molecules that help regulate hunger and your weight. But you know what they say about too much of a good thing…
In most cases, if you have a lot of soft fat and have overweight, then you probably have a lot of visceral fat — the hard kind that’s deep down in your abdomen, wrapped around your organs and the more dangerous of the two. It produces a higher number of molecules linked with possible detrimental health effects like insulin resistance, high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Then we have skeletal muscle, the type of muscle around your bones that provides strength and stabilization. It’s the largest tissue in the body, constituting up to 40 percent of your body weight, per researchers at the University of New Mexico.
Like fat, it’s influenced by genetics, hormones, physical activity and diet. It also contains 50 to 75 percent of all proteins in your body, making it the main tissue that metabolizes amino acids, which is linked to muscle development and growth — and muscle development and growth are linked to a higher metabolic rate (yay for calorie burning!). But more on that in a minute.
Someone with a lower body fat percentage may appear more muscular.
Image Credit: Peathegee Inc/Tetra images/GettyImages
A Pound Is a Pound.
There’s that common myth: A pound of muscle weighs more than a pound of fat. But a pound is a pound — whether you’re talking about 16 ounces of bricks, pennies or feathers, they all weigh the same. What’s interesting is that while this holds true, muscle does take up less space than fat.
“People say this a lot, probably because you can have more muscle and actually appear smaller than someone who weighs the same and has more fat on their body,” says Amanda Mancini, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified fitness trainer, weight-loss specialist and corrective exercise specialist.
Wondering if your body fat percentage is in a healthy range? Use the LIVESTRONG.com Body Fat Calculator to easily find out.
. but It’s a Matter of Space
Sometimes the number on the scale isn’t the best gauge of your size or even your underlying health risks. Here’s why: Muscle is denser than fat, according to The Social & Health Research Center, which means it takes up less space (think about the difference between a pound of rocks vs. a pound of puffy marshmallows). In fact, muscle actually takes up around four-fifths as much space as fat.
OK, so the difference probably isn’t as big as you thought, but even so, two people may be the same height and weight, but the person with a higher percentage of body fat will wear a bigger clothing size and may have more inches to pinch compared to the smaller, tighter body of someone with more lean muscle, says Mancini. Muscle: 1, fat: 0.
But truth be told, since it is denser, muscle does actually weigh a tad bit more than fat in volume. On average, the density of fat is 0.9 g/mL, while the density of muscle is 1.1 g/mL.
Muscle is denser than fat, which means it weighs more.
Image Credit: Tetra Images/Tetra images/GettyImages
Muscle vs. Fat and Your Metabolism
Basal metabolic rate (BMR), per the American Council on Exercise, represents the minimum amount of energy (calories) needed to keep your body functioning. In other words, it’s an approximation of the number of calories you’d burn if you were to do nothing but rest for 24 hours. BMR makes up 60 to 75 percent of the total calories used each day.
Common gym lore says that 1 pound of resting muscle will burn 30 to 50 calories daily compared to fat, which burns no calories. The truth, according to the National Council on Strength and Fitness, is that muscle tissue — at rest — will burn approximately 6 calories daily per pound, while fat burns 2 to 3 calories daily per pound. Muscle: 2, fat: 0.
What’s also important to remember is that strengthening the muscle you already have is just as important as building new muscle. The bad news, according to the ACE, is that the amount of muscle mass you have declines as you age, especially if you don’t strength train, so you’ll end up with a fattier body composition.
But there’s good news: If you stick to a regular strength-training regimen, you might expect to gain approximately 2 to 4.5 pounds of muscle mass over the course of several months and to boost your resting metabolism by up to about 30 calories per day. Muscle: 3… OK, you get the point.
Of course, this depends on body composition, diet and frequency of training. “It’s very hard to actually measure this for the average person unless he was going to get a body fat measurement,” says Mancini. Regardless, the best way to benefit from the calorie-burning potential of your muscles is to actually use them.
Aim to get in at least two strength-training sessions per week.
Image Credit: vitapix/E+/GettyImages
Build Muscle, Lose Fat
Though swapping fat for muscle might not raise your basal metabolic rate as you much as you were hoping, it’s still a good idea to pick up those weights. A study published in April 2014 in the Journal of Sports Sciences that included 139 teens with obesity concluded that cardio plus resistance training had better results with regard to decreased body fat mass (both soft fat and hard belly fat) and increased body lean mass.
And remember — high body fat percentages are associated with an elevated risk for obesity-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, breathing problems, gallstones and cancer. But a review published in March 2012 in Obesity Reviews found that resistance training changes body fat distribution and may be a major help in reducing abdominal obesity and metabolic disease.
So, how often should you work your muscles? The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend training your major muscle groups at least twice a week to reap the healthy benefits. And indeed, a review published November 2016 in Sports Medicine found that this frequency was effective for building lean muscle mass.
If you’re new to strength training, the Mayo Clinic suggests starting off with one to two sets of 12 to 15 reps for all major muscle groups with weights that tire your muscles by the end of the reps. Just be patient, keep at it and you’ll eventually be able to increase the weight or resistance.