Today, I want to talk about a subject that still seems to cause a great deal of controversy and confusion:
How do I lose fat and gain muscle at the same time?
Most people are not interested in doing one or the other. They want to know how to do BOTH. And they want to do it as quickly as possible.
So let me clear this one up once and for all.
With very few exceptions, losing a lot of fat and gaining a lot of muscle at the same time is very hard to do.
That’s because of the opposing demands these goals impose on your body.
To build a lot of new muscle tissue, your body needs energy. In other words, you’ll need to overfeed — to consume more calories than your body needs to maintain its weight. To lose fat, you need to underfeed — to consume fewer calories than your body needs to maintain its weight.
What usually happpens is that people set their calories too high to allow for a decent rate of fat loss, but too low to support muscle growth. As a result, they make no significant progress in either direction.
There are numerous calorie cycling methods that claim to be able to get around this problem, but even then you’re not going to replace every pound of fat lost with one pound of muscle. The best you can hope for is to generate a small muscle gain while losing a much larger amount of fat.
It would be nice if the energy your body needs to build new muscle tissue came from stored fat. But when your body is in a predominantly catabolic state, gaining muscle is not a priority. When you’re in a calorie deficit, which you’ll need to be if you want to lose fat, muscle protein synthesis is substantially reduced.
There are exceptions, the most notable of which are beginners.
More specifically, I’m talking about overweight beginners. And by “beginners,” I mean people who are new to lifting weights.
Just to clarify, if you’re a beginner trying to gain weight and build muscle by overfeeding, your body is in an anabolic state. You won’t be able to lose fat while still consuming more calories than you burn.
However, overweight beginners on an exercise and nutrition program that’s geared towards fat loss can gain build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
In fact, researchers from the United States Sports Academy found that a group of overweight beginners lost over 16 pounds of fat and gained almost 10 pounds of muscle during a 14-week training program. I’ve covered this study in more detail here.
In other words, they gained a decent amount of muscle while also losing slightly more than one pound of fat per week.
Why do overweight beginners have such an easy time gaining muscle and losing fat?
People who are very overweight tend to be insulin resistant to some degree. And it appears that insulin resistance, rather than body fat per se, is responsible for the shift toward less glycogen and more fat use during exercise in obese individuals.
Insulin resistance tends to develop as you gain fat. It appears to represent an attempt by your body to stop you gaining more, or to help you lose fat once the excess calories are removed from your diet.
Insulin is primarily a storage hormone. It helps to drive nutrients, such as glucose, from your blood into the cells of your body. High levels of insulin also inhibit lipolysis (fat breakdown), making it less likely that your body will burn stored fat.
But when fat cells are insulin resistant, insulin doesn’t have the same effect. Which means that even in the presence of high insulin levels, fat can be mobilized for fuel. The uptake of glucose in insulin resistant muscle is also reduced. With less glucose to use for fuel, muscle cells will burn more fat.
When an overweight beginner starts exercising and dieting, nutrients are partitioned away from fat cells (which are still insulin resistant) and towards muscle, which has become more insulin sensitive as a result of the training.
But their ability to gain muscle while losing fat gradually fades once they start to lean out and their fat cells become more sensitive to insulin. Or to put it another way, the leaner and more muscular you get, the harder you’ll find it to build muscle and burn fat at the same time.
Your genetics will also have a big impact on the amount of fat you gain when you overeat, as well as the amount of muscle you gain (or lose) when you diet.
“Some hapless individuals will lose as much as one pound of muscle for every 2-3 pounds of fat that they lose when they diet,” explains Lyle McDonald in the Ultimate Diet 2.0.
“Typically, those same individuals will put on about the same amount of fat and muscle when they overfeed. More genetically advantaged individuals tend to put more calories into muscle (meaning less into fat) when they overeat and pull more calories out of fat cells (and less out of muscle) when they diet.”
“When talking about partitioning of calories, researchers refer to something called the P-ratio. Essentially, it represents the amount of protein that is either gained (or lost) during over (or under) feeding. The P-ratio is more or less the same for a given individual; they will gain about same amount of muscle when they overfeed as they lose when they diet.”
Anyone who’s been in shape before will find it easier to build muscle and lose fat simultaneously when returning after a layoff.
When a muscle is trained, detrained and retrained, there is a faster change in muscle size during retraining compared to the initial training period from an untrained state. This is a phenomenon that some refer to as muscle memory.
Of course, muscle tissue itself can’t actually “remember” anything. Rather, the number of nuclei (which play a crucial role in building new muscle) in muscle cells increases when you lift weights, even before the muscle cell itself starts to grow.
But those nuclei aren’t lost when you stop training and your muscles shrink. Instead, the extra nuclei form a type of muscle memory that allows the muscle to bounce back quickly when you start training again.
In many cases, the people in the before-and-after pictures you see in the magazines are fitness models who have spent a few months “slacking off” prior to getting their “before” pictures taken.
Because they’ve been in shape before, it’s a whole lot easier for them to regain their old figure than it is for someone who’s starting from scratch.
Then there’s the issue of drugs.
Recently, I received an e-mail from a reader who wanted my opinion on the training program followed by a guy who appeared on the cover of a popular fitness magazine.
The cover model in question claims to have gone from 216 pounds and 23.9% body fat to 202 pounds and 6.8% fat in just 15 weeks.
That means he lost 38 pounds of fat and gained 24 pounds of muscle in a little under four months.
But when I saw a few pictures of the guy in question, I’d say that he was almost certainly enjoying the benefits of a little “pharmaceutical assistance.”
Drug use is a lot more common in the fitness industry than you might think. It certainly isn’t limited to top athletes trying to get an edge over their competition.
In this short clip from the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, top fitness model Christian Boeving (you might have seen him in some of the old MuscleTech adverts) discusses his use of anabolic steroids.
Christian was later fired by MuscleTech because of a standard clause in all MuscleTech contracts that prohibits the discussion of anabolic steroids.
According to an article in the New York Times, Christian didn’t think his comments would cause that much trouble, mainly because he thought it was “pretty apparent that the top people in the industry use steroids to look like we do.”
I couldn’t care less if someone uses drugs. We all have one body and should be allowed to do what we want with it. There are already plenty of finger-pointing, hand-wringing, “do-gooders” out there telling you how to live your life, and I have no interest in becoming one of them
However, I do think it’s important to know what goes on “behind the scenes” so you can set goals for yourself that are both realistic and achievable. Otherwise you’re just going to end up frustrated at the large gap between your expectations and your results.
The bottom line is that you can burn fat and build muscle at the same time.
But unless you’re an overweight beginner, returning to exercise after a layoff, very genetically gifted or using drugs, you’re not going to be able to do both at anything approaching the same rate.
In other words, it’s far more realistic to lose 10 pounds of fat while gaining a pound or two of muscle. Losing 10 pounds of fat at the same time as replacing it with 10 pounds of muscle is just not a realistic goal for most people.