The Muscle-Calorie Burner Myth

Welcome to the first article that will look to break down the myths of the fitness industry.

Welcome to the first article that will look to break down the myths of the fitness industry.  Understanding the fallacies and knowing the truths is the first step in reaching your goal.  Believing the wrong things means that you are investing your precious time and energy in things that probably won't work.  And when something doesn't work, you get frustrated.  The goal here is to bring your awareness to new information, which will in turn allow you to change your behaviours.

Today's article will look at the myth that muscle burns a large amount of calories, even when you're vegging on the couch all day.

Muscle: The Fat Destroyer?

We seem to be living in the era of shortcuts and life hacks.  You know, anything that takes away the time , effort and energy commitment needed to see real change in your life.  And the fitness World is one of the biggest culprits of these sorts of (unrealistic) tips.

One such piece of information that is often spouted on the internet is something along the lines of 'each pound of muscle burns 50 calories per day'.​

So, you run the figures in your head.  All you need to do is gain (~10lb) of muscle ​and you will be a fat burning machine who can eat what you want, whilst being as ripped as Bruce Lee.

Sounds great, right?  

Unfortunately, ​as the intro may have already led you to believe, laying down slabs of new muscles isn't as beneficial in the calorie burning sense as you have been led believe.

Your Daily Calorie 'Burn'

Quickly, I want to quickly take you through the main components of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

​There are 4 different components that make up your total daily calorie expenditure;

  1. Resting Energy Expenditure (REE)
    Imagine you were stuck in bed all day with little to no movement.  The energy needed to just keep you alive and functioning is your REE.  
  2. Thermic Effect of Eating (TEF)
    The energy your body needs to break down and digest the food that you eat.  Certain foods require more energy to be processed than others i.e. whole foods vs processed foods.
  3. Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
    You're up out of your bed and getting on with your normal day.  The energy needed to move, think and carry out your normal daily routine is known as NEAT.
  4. Spontaneous/planned exercise activity
    I like to separate exercise and non-exercise activity.  Anything that has a more disturbing effect on your homeostasis, such as sports and working out can be grouped in here.  These types of activity are more tiring and need more energy to complete.
BMR breakdown

The Muscle Myth: Burned?

There was an interesting study carried out by (McClave and Snider, 2001) looking into the energy expenditure of a normal sized person.  They wanted to see which parts of the body (muscle vs. fat vs. organs vs. other) contributed the most to the REE.

They broke the body down into 4 categories;

  1. Adipose tissue: fat
  2. Skeletal muscle: the muscle you're interested in when you strike a pose in front of the mirror.
  3. Organs: major organs like your brain, heart, liver and kidney
  4. Other: skin, bones and any other organs not included above.
BMR Percentages

They found that:

  • Organs: although they only made up less than 6% of the persons body mass, they made up a whopping 58% of the REE.
  • Skeletal muscle: making up a large proportion of the body mass (40%) but contributing to 22% of REE.
  • Adipose tissue: making up 21% of body mass and contributing <5% of REE (yes, body fat does burn calories)
  • All other parts of the body made up 1/3 of the body mass and contributed to 16% of REE.

I've broken down each body part into total calories burned per day in the table below.  As you can see, the organs & other make up a large percentage of TDEE.  

Body Part

Cals/kg/day

Total Cals Per Day

Muscle

13

370

Fat

4.5

67

Organs

1240

940

Other

12

280

What Does it Mean?

Additional muscle at rest, will not create a massive calorie burning effect as is made out in the fitness community.  Gaining 10kg of pure muscle would account for an extra ~130 calories burned per day. Whilst this sort of expenditure could add up a year, it is unlikely to make a significant dent in a body transformation.

Which brings me onto the burning question......

Why Lift Weights?

You may be thinking; "Then why should I bother lifting weights then Matt?"

Yes, the calorie burning effects of muscle at rest seem to have been exaggerated.  Having more muscle and sitting on your backside all day is not going to 'stoke the metabolic fire'.  The key point here is "at rest".

The calories burned from trying to either build new muscle mass or maintain your current muscle mass are what you should be interested in.  The calories burned during exercise will contribute the most - not the calories burned after (as a result of EPOC or additional muscle mass).  

A stronger body normally means a better performing and more athletic looking body.  And if you are looking to further increase the calorie burning effects of your workouts, a stronger body will be able to perform at a higher intensity.  In short, lifting weights burns calories during your workouts, and leads to a better functioning your in multiple areas of your life.

Also, try to think of the benefits of exercise beyond just the calories burned.  This is one of my main training philosophies - to think about the non-calorie burning benefits of exercise.  Things like improved aesthetics, more confidence, better workouts, improved calorie partitioning, more mobility, improved sports performance and life function etc.

60 Second Take Away

  • ​It is said that gaining muscle mass will turbo charge your metabolism and turn you into a fat burning machine.
  • Your daily energy expenditure is made up of REE, TEF, NEAT and physical activity.  REE makes up most of your daily energy expenditure (~70%)
  • Your vital organs contribute the most to your TDEE.  Additional muscle mass will only add a small amount to your daily energy expenditure at rest.
  • Movement and exercise is the area of your energy expenditure that you can influence the most.  Look to get up on your feet more often during the day.  Add more intense workouts during the week where possible.  
  • ​Muscle/strength isn't a waste of time.  A stronger/leaner body will be able to function better and perform at higher intensities during workouts - thus improving the overall effect of your workouts.

References:

​McClave, S. and Snider, H. (2001) ‘Dissecting the energy needs of the body’, Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care., 4(2), pp. 143–7.

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