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Often times, people have a combination of goals they are hoping to achieve with their training. Maybe you’re looking to build muscle and strength or perhaps you really want to shed fat and build endurance. Goals like these seem reasonable.
On one hand, if you're building muscle, you'd also expect to see some strength gains along the way. On the other hand, if you're putting in the time and effort with your cardo and diet, you can definitely burn fat and build up your endurance all at the same time.
But what if you're looking to burn fat and build muscle at the same time?
On paper, these goals seem somewhat contradictory. When you lose weight, you're reducing your body mass. When you build muscle, you're increasing your body mass.
So can you really do both at the same time?
How To Work on Weight Loss and Muscle Gain Goals Simultaneously
The potential conflict between building muscle while burning fat largely stems from the dietary requirements for weight loss.
In order to lose weight, you need to be in a calorie deficit. This means taking in fewer calories than your body requires to function throughout the day.
The mistake that many people make when trying to build muscle and burn fat at the same time is restricting their calories too much.
- When the body is in a calorie restriction, it turns to itself to get the extra calories it needs. This means converting fat... and potentially muscle... into energy.
- While a severe calorie restriction is indeed associated with rapid weight loss, it usually results in comparable losses of fat and muscle mass.
How can you avoid losing muscle mass while losing fat weight?
Moderately restrict calories
Make sure you are only moderately restricting your calories during your weight loss program. Research suggests that between 10% and 35% calorie restriction is the sweet spot for gradually losing fat while avoiding muscle loss.
What do studies show?
One study recruited 30 overweight participants to compare the effects of 30% (moderate) and 60% (severe) calorie restriction. In addition to maintaining calorie-restricted diets, participants also practiced resistance training over the course of 6 months.
At the end of the study, researchers found that the group of participants who severely restricted (SR) their calories lost an average of 11 more pounds than the moderately restricted (MR) test group. However, the SR group also lost an average 2.2 more pounds of muscle mass than the MR group.
Building muscle while simultaneously losing weight is a marathon, not a sprint. You may only lose a pound or two a week. However, this assures you are shedding fat and not muscle mass.
How to Tell if You’re Losing Muscle vs. Fat
Pro athletes and bodybuilders use cutting-edge technology like a DEXA scan to regularly assess how their training and diet
For most people, getting a DEXA scan isn't going to be all that practical; however, that doesn't mean you still can't track your body composition. Here’s how to do it:
Track Changes in Strength
A reliable indicator of whether you are losing fat vs muscle over the course of your weight cut is your strength. If you want to build muscle, resistance training (weight lifting) is key.
If you continue to see improvements in the amount of weight and/or the number of reps you’re able to perform on a given exercise, this means that you are getting stronger. This may seem obvious, but tracking this progress is crucial to understanding your body’s trends.
Increases in strength are closely associated with increases in lean muscle mass. If you’re building strength across numerous exercises and continuing to lose weight during your diet, it’s a good sign that you are shedding fat and not muscle.
Take Progress Pictures
We’ve shared that in order to build muscle, your weight loss needs to be gradual instead of rapid. This may make it difficult to assess your progress just by looking in the mirror each day.
A great way to more accurately assess changes in your body composition is to take regular progress pictures. Taking a weekly photograph will allow you to compare your changes in body composition over time.
Let’s say in the last few months you’ve lost 10 pounds. If you’ve been looking in the mirror daily, you may not see much difference.
With progress pictures, you can compare how you look now to how you looked 3 months ago. This will allow you to pick up on subtle changes in your body composition. You may be surprised what you notice!
9 Tips For Losing Fat Weight While Gaining Muscle
Okay, so we've tackled some of the basics of weight loss. Now, we’re sharing 9 tips to help you maximize your muscle building potential over the course of your fat loss journey.
1. Increase Your Protein Consumption
A moderate calorie restriction is a good start if you want to mitigate muscle loss while shedding fat. But if you want to actually build muscle during a weight loss program, you have to do more than that. A high protein intake is absolutely essential for building muscle.
Research suggests that a protein intake of somewhere between 1.0 and 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight is the ideal daily intake for optimal muscle growth during a weight cut.
What do studies show?
A 2011 study compared the effects of 2 different daily protein intakes on lean body mass in 40 participants (20 per group). Both groups participated in a 4-week weight loss program that consisted of a calorie-restricted diet and weight lifting 6 days a week.
Group 1 (moderate protein) consumed a diet of 1.2 kilograms of protein per pound of body weight (0.55 g per lb) each day. Group 2 (high protein) consumed a diet of 2.4 kilograms of protein per pound of body weight (1.1 g per lb) each day.
The researchers found that the high protein group on average lost more fat in comparison to the moderate protein group (4.8 kgs vs 3.5 kgs respectively). Better yet, the high protein group also built more muscle: 1.2 kgs vs. only 0.1 kgs for the moderate protein group.
2. Monitor Your Fat and Carbohydrate Intake
Protein is not the only macronutrient we need to be concerned with when trying to build muscle and shed fat simultaneously. We also need to manage our daily carbohydrate and fat intakes. Because we are keeping our protein intake high, we need to cut calories by reducing our carbs and fats.
One way you can manage your carbs and fats is by allocating a specific amount of calories to each macronutrient. This is known as a macronutrient spit or ratio.
There are a number of effective macro ratios for building muscle and cutting fat, so you will have to do some experimenting to see what works best for you.
The image below shows a few different macronutrient recommendations based on the needs of a 35-year-old, 200-pound male looking the
Wondering what your recommendation looks like?
Head over to our TDEE / Macro Calculator for a personalized estimate of your daily caloric needs.
3. Consume Healthy Fats and Minimize Unhealthy Fats
While it often gets a bad rap, dietary fat actually performs a number
Dietary fat can be broken down into 2 basic categories: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ fats.
Stay away from saturated fats
Saturated fats are typically considered to be ‘bad’ fats. They should be kept to a minimum in your diet due to their association with numerous diseases.
Saturated fats are found in food like:
Prioritize consuming unsaturated fats
Conversely, unsaturated fats are referred to as 'good' fats. They should be the dominant type of fat that you consume.
Food sources that contain unsaturated fats include:
- Fish (salmon, tilapia, tuna, etc)
- Egg yolks
- Nuts (peanuts, walnuts, cashews)
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
4. Consume “Good” Carbs at Strategic Times
Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. Since you need to limit them during a weight cut, consume them at strategic times to maximize their effects.
To build muscle while shedding fat, you want to make improvements in your strength over the course of training. In order to do so, you need to have enough energy to performing your exercises. Consuming the right kind of carbs will help.
What kinds of carbohydrates should I consume?
Not all carbs are created equal. Simple sugars may give you quick spikes in energy but also lead to rapid energy crashes. Complex carbs on the other hand deliver energy over a longer period of time, helping to provide you with a longer lasting fuel supply, rather than quick spikes and crashes.
Good carbohydrate sources include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Brown rice
Fill in the rest of your daily carbohydrates with vegetables. In addition to being high in fiber and low in calories, vegetables will also help you to curb your appetite during a calorie restricted diet.
Consume carbs before and after your workout
Consuming complex carbs 3 - 4 hours before your workout will provide the energy you need to perform in the gym.
Additionally, replenishing your carbs after a workout will help refuel your body and aid in the recovery process. 30 mins to an hour after a workout seems to be the ideal time frame.
Now that we’ve gone over how your diet should look, let's talk about the different types of exercises you should be doing to build muscle and burn fat.
5. Don’t Overdo Cardio
Cardio can be an effects tool for burning fat. However, it can also get in the way of your ability to build muscle.
According to a 2006 study, when cardio and weightlifting are performed in short succession of one another, your body may not be able to adequately respond and adapt to resistance-based stimulation.
In order to prevent cardio from interfering with your ability to build muscle, perform your endurance exercises at different times than your resistance training. Be especially sure to do this when targeting the same muscle groups.
6. Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
When most people think of cardio, they think of steady-state cardio like running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. While steady-state is an effective means of burning calories, it can also encourage your body to consume its own muscle tissue when you're in a calorie deficit.
This is where high-intensity interval training (HIIT) comes into play. HIIT involves cardiovascular exercises like sprints performed at or near maximal intensity. The exercise is performed for a short duration, there is a brief resting period and then the process is repeated.
According to a 2007 study, HIIT is more effective at attenuating muscle loss during a fat loss oriented training regimen in comparison to steady-state cardio.
7. Focus on Hypertrophy Training
In order to build muscle, you need to do the right resistance exercises.
Compound movements are exercises that engage multiple joints and muscle groups and as such, are the most effective tools for packing on size and strength. Movements like the squat, bench press, deadlift, row, and overhead press should be the centerpieces of your routine.
Perform these kind of exercises at challenging weights in order to stimulate muscle growth. A rep range of between 6-10 reps (with some sets performed to failure) seems to be the optimal approach for muscle growth.
8. Increase Time Under Tension
According to Justin Roethlingshoefer, a strength and conditioning coach for the NHL's Anaheim Ducks, another way to effectively build muscle is to increase your muscles’ time under tension during exercise.
To show you how this actually works, let's use the bench press as an example.
- Identify a weight you can normally use for 15-20 reps.
- Instead of quickly lowering the bar down, increase the time it takes for the bar to reach your chest to 4 seconds.
- Then explode up with the bar as quickly as you can.
- When you increase the time it takes to perform the negative portion of the movement, your muscles need to work harder to stabilize the weight as you lower it.
- This turns a normally light weight into something that you might only be able to get for 6-8 reps.
9. Activate Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS)
Why should you perform resistance exercises to build muscle?
It has to do with a process called muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Your muscles grow when the number of muscle proteins that are synthesized within your body eclipses the number that is broken down. Resistance exercise helps to stimulate an increase in MPS for up to 48 hours following a workout, helping to promote muscle growth and recovery.
The right supplement stack can help increase performance
Supplementation can be an effective way to keep your body in an elevated state of MPS when combined with exercise.
A few supplements that have been proven effective in activating MPS and/or supporting muscle growth include:
- Creatine – Increases energy (ATP) in the muscle for firing – the more energy the more work produced, the better the result.
- Beta-Alanine (BA) - Buffers the lactic acid that builds up in the muscle from exercise allowing better performance. Better performance means more growth.
- HMB – Helps to prevent muscle protein breakdown, which is associated with muscle loss.
- HICA – Stimulates MPS by activating a unique set of signaling pathways in the body.
- Phosphatidic Acid (PA) – Also increases MPS but does so by different signaling pathways.
- BCAAs – Help to decrease muscle damage and improve recovery following intense exercise.
You may find greater benefits from stacking some or all of these supplements together.
For example, HMB and HICA both help activate MPS... but they do so through different means. Taking them together increases the number of MPS signaling pathways that are activated, increasing muscle growth. Add creatine and BA into the mix for better performance and maximized MPS.
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If your goal is to build muscle while simultaneously losing fat, patience is key! You may be tempted to lose weight rapidly, but this can lead to significant losses of lean muscle mass.
Instead, focus on maintaining a moderate calorie deficit to lose weight gradually. You may only lose a couple of pounds a week, but it’ll be worth it.
Use the training and diet tips we've shared to lose fat weight and gain muscle successfully. In order to build muscle while burning fat, you need to perform challenging resistance exercises regularly, take in plenty of protein, and keep your carbs and fats in check.