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Calories burned by muscle vs. fat: another myth bites the dust

Friday, August 28th, 2009

lani_muelrath_hs_t-tap_lighNot to rain on anyone’s muscle parade, but this myth has been perpetuated one too many times.

This is the problem with the proliferation of fitness information on the web.

Something is said somewhere – no matter how substantiated or not – and then picked up as “fact” by someone else, and the ball starts rolling.

But this one – the one about calories burned at rest by muscle vs. calories burned at rest by fat – has been a challenge of which to get to the bottom!

The gossip on muscle and metabolic rates

In a quick Google search on “calories burned by muscle”, no less than 124,000 hits pop up.  A quick glance down the list reinforces the prevalent myth:  that each pound of muscle “burns” an extra 50 calories a day.  This in contrast to fat tissue which apparently doesn’t burn energy.

But if you look deeper, and find the leads to the research, there isn’t a resource to be found supporting this claim.  At least not that I could find.

It’s more like 6 – 10 calories/day.

Don’t get me wrong – keep up your resistance training!

Does this mean we shouldn’t be building muscle?

Why bother with weight or other resistance training if we’re not going to get the metabolic bang for our buck?

Keep in mind, there are multiple reasons for challenging your musculature.

  1. First, resistance training protects the muscle you DO have – whether you are in weight maintenance or seeking weight or fat loss.
  2. Second, muscle is what gives shape to your physique – your appearance is largely a reflection of your muscle mass.
  3. Third, functionality of your body, strength, and protection of joints is largely a function of muscle strength.  To not use it means to lose it.  And if you lose it you don’t have it to use.
  4. Even though the high numbers of “50 calories a pound” are not accurate, as muscle IS more metabolically active than fat, you have the potential for a negative energy balance, which can result in weight loss - or fat loss – due to your metabolic rate by year’s end.  And that can add up.

As it turns out, the metabolic expenditure of our muscle mass is best accessed with their active use.  This means doing muscle-challenging exercise that puts said muscle into contraction action.

And that allows us to access the metabolism rate boosting EPOC, or excessive post- exercise oxygen consumption.

From the experts:  Dr. Cedric Bryant

Dr. Cedric Bryant, from the American Council on Exercise, gives a  great overview of the situation to reinforce the key points.

Q: One of the more common perceptions in some fitness circles is that strength training individuals lose weight because one pound of muscle can burn approximately 30-50 calories per day. Is this claim valid?

A: It is true that muscle in its resting state is similar to an idling engine and burns energy (fuel) in the form of calories. However, according to reputable scientific research conducted on the subject, the actual number of calories burned by a pound of resting muscle in a day is considerably less than 50.

In fact, the caloric expenditure that can be attributed to lean muscle mass is not very significant. For example, muscle tissue has been observed to burn roughly seven to 10 calories per pound per day, compared to two to three calories per pound per day for fat. Therefore, if you replace a pound of fat with a pound of muscle, you can expect to burn only approximately four to six more calories a day. Given the fact that the average person who strength trains typically gains approximately 3 to 5 pounds of muscle mass over a period of three to four months, the net caloric effect of such a training regimen is very modest-only 15 to 30 calories per day (the equivalent of a few potato chips).

Despite the limited calorie-burning potential of muscle, strength training should be an integral part of any exercise program aimed at weight management. Here are just a few of the weight management-related benefits of strength training:

  • Helps to prevent or minimize the loss in lean body mass that is typically a by-product of dieting.
  • Burns calories (i.e., a modest caloric expenditure of approximately 150 calories per average 30-minute training session.
  • Strength training favorably affects an individual’s overall body composition, resulting in a greater proportion of lean tissue relative to fat tissue. This training adaptation helps to enhance both functional performance capabilities and physical appearance.

The bottom line, however, is that the most effective way for you to capitalize on the calorie – burning potential of your muscles is to actively use them.

Source: Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, ACE’s Chief Science Officer; ACE FitnessMatters, Mar/Apr 2006.


© Lani Muelrath 2009 All Rights Reserved

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References

  1. Heymsfield, Stephen B. 1 , Dympna Gallagher 1 , Zimian Wang Volume 904 Issue “Body Composition Modeling: Application to Exploration of the Resting Energy Expenditure Fat-free Mass Relationship”  In Vivo Body Composition Studies pgs. 290-297 Wiley Interscience, 2009  The New York Academy of Sciences
  2. Poehlman, E.T., Denino, W.F., Beckett, T., Kinaman, K.A., Dionne, I.J., Dvorak, R., & Ades, P.A. (2002). Effects of endurance and resistance training on total daily energy expenditure in young women: a controlled randomized trial. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 87, 1004-1009
  3. Pratley, R., Nicklas, B., Rubin, M., Miller, J., Smith, A., Smith, M., Hurley, B., & Goldberg, A. (1994). Strength training increases resting metabolic rate and norepinephrine levels in healthy 50- to 65-yr-old men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 76, 133-137
  4. Wang, Z., Heshka, S., Zhang, K., Boozer, C.N., & Heymsfield, S.B. (2001). Resting energy expenditure: systematic organization and critique of prediction methods. Obesity Research, 9, 331-336
  5. Heymsfield, Stephen B., Dympna Gallagher , Zimian Wang Volume 904 Issue “Body Composition Modeling: Application to Exploration of the Resting Energy Expenditure Fat-free Mass Relationship”  In Vivo Body Composition Studies pgs. 290-297   Wiley Interscience, 2009  The New York Academy of Sciences
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Responses

  • Vicki says:

    Really?

    It IS amazing how these things get perpetuated. And rather than be disappointed by this news, I’m relieved to find out what’s closer to the truth.

    Impressive article! Thanks Lani.

    Vicki

    • Lani says:

      @Vicki: Hi Vicki,

      Well, I’m an all-cards-on-the-table kinda girl and rather than labor in delusion, let me know what I’m working with here!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article and want to thank you for stopping in to post about it!

      Lani

    • Clayton says:

      Also remember, resistance training has been shown to increase REE by an average of 5-9% over 48 hours following the workout, which aerobic training cannot reproduce. Check out page 10 of:

      link to acsm.org

  • Bill Hicks says:

    It looks like both claims are misleading. The key point is that they are comparing resting rates as if our fat and muscle are resting all day long when you should be comparing actual calories burned per day by people who are similar except for the amount of fat or muscle they have. Studies that look at total daily calorie expenditure have results somewhere in between the 6 and 50 values.

  • Lani says:

    Exactly Bill, and that’s part of the point.

    More muscle mass DOES burn more calories (than less) when active. That’s when the bigger “burn” (for want of a better term) kicks in. A body with more muscle will use more energy when that muscle is challenged than one with less muscle to challenge.

    The thing is, it is found all over the web – advice to build muscle because it burns more when you are “just sitting there – or even while you sleep” – and the “50 calories” per pound of muscle is the most common finding.

    So you are right, and we are in complete agreement. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

    Lani

    • Jim says:

      Yeah, if muscle burned 50 calories a day for doing nothing, then I would be burning over 8000 calories a day and loosing over a pound a day for sitting on my butt.
      I am losing weight, but thats from doing nearly two hours of exercise a day and eating a low glycemic nutritional plan.

  • Lilly Adams says:

    This is a great article! While dieting and exercising I think it is very helpful to keep a log of all
    Calories Burned This will help keep you motivated. I use link to fitclick.com to find out what I burned during my workouts.

  • Miguel A. Flores says:

    I am not an expert, and therefor I won’t tell if the muscle burns 7, 10 30 or 60 calories per pound but what I can say is that when you have more muscle, you get thinner faster.

    Even if Dr. Cedric Bryant is an expert, what he states is not logical: if a person with more muscle burns just some extra few calories, (lets say 5 extra pounds of muscle times 7 calories = 35 calories) how can he explain that a person that lift weighs regularly can eat MUCH MORE without gaining weight than a sedentary person? I have seen thin and strong guys eating huge meals constantly. His conclusions doesn’t make sense to me.

  • Valerie Boes says:

    Hi! I would like to know if you ever have done some serious weight training versus cardio? and I am not talking about lifting ittibitti dumbbells. Iam talking about training hard with a trainer and going heavy where you are going to shock your muscle. If you never did, you should definetly give it a try and see how your body is responding and you’ll see if your muscle burn much more calories than fat. It’s pretty amazing!

  • James says:

    I think one interesting point people over look is the fact fat is always at rest, where as muscle can contribute to locomotion. So the article basically states that muscle burns 3 to 5 times as many calories at rest than fat, and then doesn’t point out that unless you are just laying in bed all day (which you won’t keep that muscle very long if you are) you are going to be using that muscle in everything you do, where the fat will just be hanging around. It’s like the difference between having Toyota four popper, and a one ton pickup, neither burns much when it’s just sitting there, but as soon as you have some where to go boy is that one ton going to start burning it up! Even if it is only a trip to the bathroom, or trying your shoes!

  • […] LaniMuelrath.com Q: One of the more common perceptions in some fitness circles is that strength training individuals […]

  • Ravi Mantha says:

    Hi Lani,
    I recently wrote a blog post on this issue…please have a look and comment if appropriate.
    thank you,
    Ravi
    link to ravionhealth.com

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