Gaining muscle while losing fat, or body recomposition as it’s sometimes called, is the holy grail of getting fit.
Some people say it’s a fool’s errand. Others claim it’s only possible with “advanced” diet and training protocols. Other still think it requires steroids.
Well, they’re all wrong.
It’s doable. And it doesn’t require esoteric knowledge, fancy or newfangled methodologies, or drugs.
There are some catches though. Depending on your body composition and training experience, you may or may not be able to build muscle while losing fat. And in this article, I’m going to help you understand why.
To get there, we need to start with some basic physiology related to how muscles grow and how fat cells shrink. So let’s get started.
There’s a good reason why many people think building muscle and losing fat at the same time is a pipe dream. And it has to do with something called protein synthesis.
You see, every day, your muscles undergo “maintenance work” whereby damaged and degraded cells are eliminated and new cells are created to take their place. This process is known as protein biosynthesis or protein synthesis.
Under normal health and dietary circumstances, muscle tissue is fairly stable and the cycle of cellular degradation and regeneration remains balanced. That is, the average person doesn’t lose or gain muscle at an accelerated rate–his or her lean mass more or less remains level on a day-to-day basis.
(If we don’t take actions to stop it, we actually slowly lose lean mass as we age, but you get the point.)
When we train our muscles we damage the cells in the muscle fibers, and this signals the body to increase protein synthesis rates to repair the abnormally large amount of damaged cells.
Our bodies don’t want to just repair the muscle fibers to their previous states, however–they want to adapt to better deal with the stimulus that caused the damage. And to do this, they add cells to the muscle fibers, which makes them bigger and stronger.
Thus, what we think of as just “muscle growth” is actually the result of protein synthesis rates exceeding protein breakdown rates.
At the end of, let’s say, every 24-hour period, if your body synthesized more muscle proteins than it lost, you gained muscle. If it created fewer than you lost, you lost muscle. And if it created more or less the same amount as it lost, your total lean mass has stayed more or less the same.
Realize that if your goal is to gain muscle, everything you do in and out of the gym is to achieve one simple thing: more protein synthesis than degradation.
In order to lose fat, you need to give your body less energy (food) than it burns over time. This is known is creating a “calorie deficit,” and it’s the most important factor in weight loss.
There are some negative side effects that come with a calorie deficit though. And there are two in particular that I’d like to call your attention to:
That is, a calorie deficit causes changes in your hormone profile that make it more catabolic (a state wherein muscle breakdown is higher) and directly interferes with your body’s ability to create muscle proteins.
These are the two primary reasons why it’s generally true that you can’t build muscle while in a calorie deficit (losing fat).
Notice I said generally true, though, and not universally…
You now know what your body is up against when you’re in a calorie deficit and why building muscle in a deficit is an uphill–and sometimes unwinnable–battle.
The good news, however, is that if you’re reading this article anxiously, you probably can build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
I say that because the people that can’t are experienced weightlifters that have several years of training under their belts and that have achieved a large portion of their genetic potential in terms of muscle growth.
The main reason for this is as an advanced weightlifter, you have to fight tooth and nail for every pound of muscle you gain.
If you have 3 to 4+ years of proper weightlifting under your belt and have built your foundation of size and strength, the most muscle growth you can hope for (naturally) is about 5 pounds of muscle gain per year. And that’s men–women can expect about half of that.
People new to weightlifting, however, can benefit greatly from what we call “newbie gains.”
Simply put, when your body is relatively untrained, it’s going to be hyper-responsive to resistance training. So much so that the reduction in protein synthesis rates caused by a calorie deficit just isn’t enough to stop muscle growth. Thus, muscle can be built while fat is lost.
I’ve also seen these effects with people with some weightlifting experience but who that have made very minimal progress. In fact, I’ve experienced it myself with my own body.
So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to how to actually build muscle and lose fat at the same time.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
Just because your body can lose fat and build muscle simultaneously doesn’t mean it comes easily.
The first thing you should know is that even when you do it right, muscle growth while in a deficit is slower than muscle growth during a proper “bulk.” Protein synthesis rates are higher when you’re in a calorie surplus and this translates into more muscle gain over time.
I haven’t come across any studies worth citing for this, but I’ve worked with thousands of people and it would seem that potential muscle gain is halved by a calorie deficit.
That is, if you could gain 10 pounds of muscle in your first 12 weeks of weightlifting if you were in a mild calorie surplus, you could expect to gain about 5 pounds if you’re in a deficit.
So be patient. Wild claims on the Internet about losing double-digit amounts of body fat and gaining the same in muscle are lies. What you’re usually looking at is a combination of muscle memory, drugs, and Photoshopping.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how to best go about the “body recomp.”
Building muscle is an energy-intensive process and the less energy that’s available, the less of a priority it will be for the body.
We can see this in the fact that the more you restrict your calories, the lower your protein synthesis rates will be.
Thus, it’s very important that you don’t try to rush your diet by putting yourself in a large daily calorie deficit.
How large of a deficit is too large, though? What’s optimal?
Well, we can thank researchers at the University of Jyväskylä for an answer.
How large should your calorie deficit be?
In a study they conducted, they split their subjects–20 to 35 year-old national and international level track and field jumpers and sprinters with low levels of body fat (at or under 10%)–into two groups: a daily calorie deficit of 300 calories (about 12% below their total daily energy expenditure) and a daily calorie deficit of 750, with both groups following a high-protein diet.
After 4 weeks, the results were surprising: the athletes utilizing a 300-calorie deficit lost very little fat and muscle while the group utilizing a 750-calorie deficit lost, on average, about 4 pounds of fat and very little muscle.
Remember, however, that the 750-calorie deficit group was not starving themselves by any means–they were eating over 2,000 calories per day. Nevertheless, they were utilizing a pretty aggressive deficit of about 24% and the results speak for themselves.
These findings completely jive with my experience both with my body and the thousands of people I’ve worked with:
Mild calorie deficits can work if you’re very overweight, but as you get leaner, larger deficits become necessary and don’t automatically cause muscle loss. And this is why my standard calorie deficit recommendations for weight loss are between 20 and 25%.
How do you determine your calorie intake?
I give a very simple formula for weight loss in my books that results in about a 20 to 25% calorie deficit if you’re exercising 4-6 hours per week:
Oh and in case you’re worried that eating that many carbs per day will prevent you from losing weight, rest easy–eating carbs does not inhibit weight loss.
In fact, keeping your carbs moderate/high is an important part of building muscle while losing fat, mainly because it helps preserve your strength in the gym and the insulin your body produces to process the carbs helps suppress protein breakdown.
So, once you have your daily numbers, the next step is to create a meal plan that you’re going to enjoy. Check out this article of mine to learn how.
Once you have your meal plan, stick to it every day, throw in a cheat meal once or twice per week, and you’re good to go.
You know you’ve got it right when you’re losing 0.5 to 2 pounds of fat per week (the heavier you are the more you can lose), you never feel starved or wracked by cravings, and you stay strong in your workouts.
The oft-repeated advice to focus on high-rep workouts to really “shred up” is idiotic.
Getting that coveted “shredded” look is only a matter of having sufficient muscle and getting your body fat low enough. One style of lifting will not make you look “more shredded” than another.
Thus, if you want to look as good as possible when you’re lean, you want to add muscle to your frame as quickly as possible. And when that’s the goal, I can’t overstate the importance of emphasizing heavy, compound weightlifting.
What are compound exercises?
Isolation exercises involve one muscle group and require significantly less whole-body strength and effort. Examples of isolation exercises are the biceps curl, cable flye, and side lateral raise.
The subject of compound versus isolation exercises deserves (and will get) its own article, but here’s the long story short:
If you want to build maximum muscle and strength, you want to focus on compound exercises in your workouts.
How heavy is “heavy”?
When you want to build muscle while losing fat, you want to train for muscle growth and diet for fat loss. That is, you want to do what works best for muscle growth in the gym and what works best for fat loss in the kitchen.
In terms of diet, that simply means a moderately aggressive calorie deficit. In terms of training, that means emphasizing heavy, compound weightlifting in your workouts.
Focus on heavy (4-6 or 5-8 rep range), compound movements like the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press, and train with a moderate workout volume (9-12 heavy sets per workout).
The long story short is this: you can certainly build muscle training in higher rep ranges but if you want to maximize muscle growth over the long term, you want to emphasize lower-rep, heavier weightlifting.
The big “secret” behind the super high-rep, high-volume workouts espoused by many fitness models and bodybuilders is…drugs. It’s really that simple.
Working in the 12 to 15+ rep range for 2 to 3 hours per day is great if you’re chemically enhanced because your body can actually repair all that damage. It just can’t if you’re natural though.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is perfect for maximizing fat loss while preserving muscle and strength for two primary reasons:
HIIT burns more fat per minute than steady-state cardio.
A study conducted by The University of Western Ontario gives us insight into how much more effective it really is, as well.
Researchers had 10 men and 10 women train 3 times per week, with one group doing 4-6 30-second treadmill sprints (with 4-6 minutes of rest in between each), and the other group doing 30-60 minutes of steady-state cardio (running on the treadmill at the “magical fat loss zone” of 65% VO2 max).
The results: After 6 weeks of training, the subjects doing the intervals had lost more fat. Yes, 4-6 30-second sprints burns more fat than 60 minutes of incline treadmill walking.
HIIT preserves more muscle than steady-state cardio.
Reducing protein degradation rates is particularly important when you’re recomping because, as you know, your body isn’t able to synthesize proteins as effectively while in a calorie deficit.
Research has shown that HIIT spikes GH levels higher than steady-state cardio does and growth hormone is a powerful anti-catabolic hormone, which means it suppresses protein degradation.
Furthermore, research has shown that the longer your cardio sessions are, the more they impair strength and hypertrophy. Thus, the shorter your cardio sessions are, the less impact they have on your muscle cells, and that’s what HIIT cardio is all about–short, intense and effective workouts.
When I’m cutting, I personally do no more than 2 to 2.5 hours of HIIT cardio per week (and no more than 30 minutes per session).
Many people are shocked to learn that you can get down to 6 to 7% body fat (men) with only a couple hours of cardio per week, but there’s nothing special to it.
You maintain your calorie deficit and macronutrient balance to drive fat loss, you lift weights for 4 to 6 hours per week to burn energy and build/preserve muscle, and you use HIIT cardio to help keep the ball rolling…and you stay patient…and voila, you eventually reach your goal.
Sleep deprivation hurts both your body’s ability to burn fat and build muscle.
Sleep needs vary from individual to individual, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7–9 hours of sleep per night to avoid the negative effects of sleep deprivation.
I saved this for last because it’s the least important, but it is worth mentioning.
I’ll keep it short and simple. Here are the supplement you should consider taking:
Creatine is one of the best workout supplements you can take. Period.
It’s probably the most studied molecule in all of sports nutrition, and decades of research has conclusively proven it can help you build muscle and improve strength, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from exercise.
You may have heard that it’s bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, but in healthy subjects, creatine supplementation has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage.
Here’s the product I personally use:
How to Take Creatine
The most common method of creatine supplementation found in the literature is a “loading” period of 20 grams per day for 5 to 7 days, followed by a maintenance dosage of 5 grams per day.
You don’t have to load creatine if you’re just starting with supplementation (you can just start with 5 grams per day), but loading does cause the creatine to accumulate faster in the muscles and thus causes the benefits to “kick in” faster.
Now, the whole point of taking creatine is to increase the amount stored in the muscles, and we’ve known for quite some time that co-ingesting creatine with carbohydrates increases creatine accumulation in the muscles (mainly due to the elevation in insulin levels, which acts to drive more nutrients into the muscle cells).
As this effect is mainly a result of elevated insulin levels, the same effects can be achieved with less carbohydrates but protein as well. In fact, this study demonstrated that 50 grams of protein and carbohydrates was equally effective as 100 grams of carbohydrates in augmenting muscular creatine accumulation.
So, based on this research, you should take creatine with a good sized meal to maximize its effects.
Furthermore, there’s research that indicates that creatine taken after a workout is more effective than creatine taken before one, which is why I take my creatine with my post-workout meal consisting of about 50 grams of protein and 75 to 125 grams of carbs.
Fat Loss Supplements
And for the same reasons it’s also no surprise that fat burners are some of the most expensive supplements on the shelves and feature some of the loudest marketing claims, often making big promises of “scientifically proven” rapid fat loss.
The reality is most “fat burners” are junk but there are a handful of natural, safe substances that have been scientifically proven to accelerate fat loss. Learn what does and doesn’t work here.
Building muscle and losing fat doesn’t require anything special. If you’re in a position to pull off a recomp, all it takes is smart, consistent application of the fundamentals of proper dieting and exercise.
And your body will take care of the rest.