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, while others claim it’s only possible with “advanced” diet and training protocols.
Well, they’re both wrong.
While it can be tricky, it’s very doable. And while it does require that you do a number of things correctly, it doesn’t require anything fancy or newfangled.
In this article I’m going to help you understand the process of gaining muscle and losing fat so you can determine if you can pull it off, and how.
Let’s start first with the problems of pulling off a body recomposition.
There’s a good reason why many people believe wholeheartedly in the old bodybuilding adage that you can’t build muscle while cutting fat, and must deal with getting fat if you want to build any real muscle.
Building muscle while burning fat–achieving a “body recomp” as it’s called–doesn’t come with haphazard effort. It requires that you do a bunch of little things right, with both your diet and training.
Why is that, though? What is the physiological barrier that we’re running up against?
Well, I’ve answered this in other articles, but I’m going to give a summary here in case you missed them.
The problem we must overcome to build muscle while we burn fat has to do with something called protein synthesis. To quote my previous article on muscle recovery:
“Every day, our muscle cells go through a natural process whereby 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. (Well, we actually slowly lose lean mass as we age, but you get the point.)
“When we engage in resistance training, we damage the cells in our muscle fibers, and this signals the body to accelerate the normal rate of protein synthesis to repair the large amount of damaged cells.
“Our body is smart about it, too.
“It doesn’t want to just repair the muscle fiber to its previous state–it wants to adapt it to better deal with the type of stimulus that caused the damage. That is, it wants to 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 didn’t, you didn’t.”
Now, let’s apply that knowledge to the issue at hand.
In order to lose fat, you need to give your body less energy (food) than it burns every day. This is known is creating a “calorie deficit.”
No calorie deficit, no losing fat, period.
There are physiological changes other than fat loss that occur when you do this though. The two primary negative effects are:
That is, a calorie deficit reduces your body’s ability to properly repair the damage you cause to your muscles through exercise (to build its muscles bigger and stronger).
So, now that you have a better understanding of the problem, let’s talk about what it takes to overcome it.
I’m going to start this section with some bad news:
Not everyone will be able to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously.
There’s good news too, though: if you’re reading this article anxiously…you probably can.
Because those that probably can’t are advanced weightlifters that…
If you fit the above criteria, then you’re probably not surprised that a body recomp isn’t likely possible at this point, and that you’re better off following a traditional cut and maintain or cut and bulk routine.
If you’re new to weightlifting, however, or if you’re not but still have a lot of room for muscle growth, or if you once were much bigger or stronger than you currently are, then chances are you can build muscle while losing fat. And this remains true even if you aren’t particularly overweight.
It can be done, end of story.
So, with that out of the way, let’s move on to how to actually build muscle and burn fat.
Just because your body can lose fat while building muscle doesn’t mean it comes easily.
The first thing you should know is that even when you do it right, muscle growth during a body recomp is slower than muscle growth during a proper “bulk.” As covered earlier, you are fighting an uphill battle in terms of protein synthesis, no matter how you cut it.
So be patient when you strive to build muscle and burn fat. Wild claims on the Internet about losing double-digit amounts of body fat and gaining the same in muscle are either lies, or involved the use of various drugs.
Based on my experience, here are the key points for effectively gaining muscle and losing fat:
Follow a set meal plan that keeps you in a moderate calorie deficit.
The more you restrict your calories, the more protein synthesis is inhibited.
Thus, it’s very important that you don’t try to rush your diet by putting yourself in a large (greater than 20%) daily calorie deficit.
I give a very simple formula for weight loss in my books that results in about a 20% daily caloric 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 prevent protein breakdown.
So, once you have your daily numbers, the next step is to create a meal plan–an exact list of foods you can eat every day to hit those numbers.
The easiest way to do this is to open Excel and www.calorieking.com, and start piecing together meals using foods that you like.
Play with meal frequency and add and subtract foods as desired until you have a daily eating schedule that fits your schedule, lifestyle, and nutritional targets.
Then just follow that plan every day, throw in a cheat meal once per week where you eat more or less whatever you want, and you’re good to go.
With proper dieting, you’re looking to lose 1 – 2 lbs of fat per week, you should never feel starved, and you should stay strong in the gym.
Focus on heavy, compound weightlifting.
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 getting your body fat low enough. One style of lifting will not make you look “more shredded” than another.
As you may have already realized, to build muscle while losing fat, you simply want to do what works best for inducing muscle growth:
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).
Some people might scoff at this advice and talk about the important of the “hypertrophy” rep range of 10-12, and I address this in my definitive guide to muscle growth, and in my book Bigger Leaner Stronger.
The big “secret” behind the high-rep, high-volume workouts espoused by many fitness models and bodybuilders is…drugs. It’s really that simple.
Working in the 12 – 15 rep range for 2 – 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.
Do HIIT cardio.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is really all you should be doing if you want to maximize muscle growth while losing fat.
For two primary reasons:
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.
Because of the hindered protein synthesis rates, preserving muscle is particularly important when you’re trying to build muscle while losing fat.
One of the ways HIIT does this relates to growth hormone production. Research has shown that HIIT spikes GH levels higher than steady-state cardio does, and growth hormone is a powerful muscle preserver.
Furthermore, research has shown that the longer your cardio sessions are, the more they impair strength and hypertrophy. That is, the shorter your cardio sessions are, the more muscle you preserve.
Thus, I recommend no more than 20-30 minutes of HIIT per session, and no more than 3-4 sessions per week. This cardio schedule will provide you with a large boost in fat loss while minimizing muscle loss.
Get enough sleep.
Not getting enough sleep hurts both aspects of your efforts to build muscle and lose fat.
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.
Supplements to consider taking.
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: